Best laid plansPosted: September 30, 2011
After a year of planning and travelling halfway around the world to complete the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute’s month long basic mountaineering course it was cancelled only a week in. Apparently the road to base camp in Sikkim where our field training would take place was destroyed by the earthquake and besides the local government wasn’t letting non-essential people into the province.
We had sat through an agonisingly boring week of lectures – mostly in Hindi – on mountain manners and etiquette (don’t litter in the mountains), mountain medicine (avoid letting your extremities get too cold to avoid frostbite), tying knots (half of which were for if you were climbing without a harness) and other crap so basic for a couple of lads from New Zealand as to be a total waste of time.
We had also endured a week of living eight to a barracks with incredibly sexually repressed Indian men. For many of them, their first question after introducing themselves was to ask whether we were virgins.
“Me, I have sex with eight women.”
“In our country we have a saying, it goes ‘a gentleman never tells’.”
“Oh yes, I was just kidding. I only said eight woman to trick you into saying.”
“Whatever buddy, look can I go back to writing? I have some work to do.”
Miraculously, we were able to access an unsecured wifi network from the HMI office if we took our computers into the outdoor corridor outside the barracks.
“Yes of course.”
A thirty second pause.
“You show me videos? Naughty videos.”
“You want to watch pornographic videos with me? I’m sorry but I don’t have any.”
“Ok you show me photos. Of your girlfriend.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
No girlfriend? Now this was fascinating. They all had ‘girlfriends’. I cynically wondered how many of these girls knew they were supposedly in a relationship with these guys.
They weren’t all like this of course. There were 70 guys enrolled, four of us foreigners and the rest from different backgrounds all across India. Some were from the army, some were local guys and others were from wealthy families in Delhi and Mumbai.
A couple of Seikh guys took a particular shine to Sam and followed him around constantly. Douchebag and Fist-deep we called them, riffing off their real names. Their English was crappy and they made up for it by displaying their great affection for Sam physically. In particular they enjoyed stroking his nearly hairless legs.
“Like woman!” they would cry.
Ostensibly this was all a great joke but their latent homosexual advances were hardly subtle. They were pretty crappy Seikhs actually; on one of our afternoons off they caught a cab into town with us and they proudly showed off the bottle of rum they planned on drinking and the moves they planned on pulling on the poor prostitutes they had booked in for the afternoon. When Sam finally lost his cool with their touching they acted like beaten puppies until Sam felt guilty and apologised. Assurances of eternal brotherhood followed. And more hugging.
I don’t mean to sound unduly negative about these guys; most of them were really nice genuine guys. But man were they fascinated by us and their curiosity was intense and insatiable. The guys we got on best with tended to be the quiet laid back ones who understood enough about our culture to understand that we valued a little space at times; as a result though we spent a lot less time with them than the other guys who wanted to watch our every move. Sitting writing on my computer I would have a crowd watching me type, often with one of the more literate among them reading aloud what I had just written for the benefit of the others. Talking to my Mum on Skype I would have them come and sit next to me and ask me what I was doing.
We had some great times with the guys too. We shared music with them and had impromptu dance parties in our room to Bengali Hip-Hop. Most of them loved a joke too – funny or not – and seemed to find anything we said with a smile on our faces hilarious regardless of context. A lot of the jokes were at our expense too, which was ok with us. After two weeks of gastroenteritis I was feeling pretty weak at the start of the course and wanted to supplement the mess food with some extra protein. I coudn’t find whey protein in darjeeling so bought a jar of Complan. This was hilarious. Hadn’t I seen the ads? I’m a complan boy, it went. Complan was for little boys! No, I’m a complan man I would reply, doing my best to channel Jim Morrison. This joke was repeated at every meal time until the Complan was finished. Another one went like this: “Campbell, why don’t you like gambling?” Apparently it rhymed. I never really got that one.
After a week of living with these guys we were all getting on pretty well. We had figured out who we liked spending time with, and who we preferred to avoid. We were looking forward to getting onto the practical aspect of the course and everyone else was getting excited too.
Then there was the earthquake and the course was cancelled. For us it was a bit of a blow but for a lot of these guys it was a disaster. They had fought tooth and nail to get on that course and then their dreams had been dashed. Many had gone against their parents wishes to be allowed to go – a far bigger deal here than at home. They had struck agreements that they would finish degrees in engineering or law before being allowed to pursue their passion. Others had had to quit their jobs to go on the course, a month being far more leave than any of them could take. We were bummed but these guys were in tears. We felt terrible for them. At the same time our own plans for India had been messed up.
We needed a new plan and we needed to make it fast. We didn’t hesitate, we acted decisively.
We went straight into town and got rotten drunk.