Letter from India: When the Cat’s Away


First Person

The Pin Valley is near the Tibetan border. In fact it was a part of Tibet. It was given to India in the fifties, to protect it. In winter it is snowbound. In summer, at three miles elevation—above the tree line—it is a stone bowl of dust.

Two years ago, I was following a seventeen-year-old around the world, trying to get permission to write about him. I followed him from Kathmandu to India, and that was when I heard of the Pin Valley for the first time. Westerners living in India were going up for the last ten days of a month-long program for the monks in Pin Valley. There were no guest houses there. People who wanted to attend the program would stay in Kaza, the nearest town. They would ride in and out by car daily, an hour and a half each way.

This year, 2012, was different. An enterprising Westerner had partnered with a Tibetan tour operator—a trekker by trade—to build a camp a kilometer and a half from the monastery, on a piece of unused farmland with a well.

Clancy and I made it five days, maybe six. The program started at five A.M. on the last two days, and so we had to wake up at three forty-five. It went until five P.M. On day six, heading back toward the encampment on the treacherous dusty mountain path, I said, “Stop,” and lay on my back in the gravel and sand. Above me the sky receded infinitely, going nowhere, by which I mean I was delirious with a fever.

We skipped the program the next day, planning to go in the afternoon only, the day after. But I didn’t get better. Although nauseated, I wasn’t vomiting, and so my symptoms—severe sore throat, fever, fatigue, congestion—sounded a whole lot like a cold. We were in camp with a lot of hardcore Buddhists, many of them wanderers, real travelers, people who continued for a month to attend a program that took me out in six days—and so I received a wealth of herbal remedies. One woman, an Australian acupuncturist—“all her patients get better,” I was informed—took my pulse, asked if I had had my period, and gave me cinnamon. Another—a girl who clearly and stridently felt she was owed sex with my companion—gave me some oregano oil. (After she pointedly asked me my age, we nicknamed her Kitty.) I got a fistful of Tibetan herbs and a bottle of Chinese herbs. On day three of my illness, the Tibetan tour operator, Bishan, told Clancy about a secret place. A room. It had television, a fireplace, and a clean bed.

There had been a little tension between Clancy and me, because he said I had a way of being bossy. I had a feeling he wanted to go to the room. Having more experience of Indian rooms than he does, my expectations were moderated—but of course you never know. And determined to be less didactic, I left the decision to him.

The room … was scary. It was a cinder-block bunker on the hillside just over camp, invisible till Bishan let us in and suggested I have a seat on the bed, which was made of wood covered with thin padding. It smelled like kerosene. Bishan lit a fire. He poured some kerosene from the lamp over it. “Do the lights work?” Clancy asked. Bishan said they would at night. Then he asked me if I wanted a massage.

I said all right. It felt rude to refuse. He took a little bottle of scented oil from his pocket and—to use Clancy’s phrase—made his move on us. Half an hour later, when it was over—I told Clancy, “I think I felt his erection!” and he gave me a look and said, “The man had scented massage oil in his pocket, Amie. He didn’t come up here to cure your fever” —we had a second visitor, one of the program attendees. Our only friend.

Clancy started to tell Bishan about the program, relating an anecdote from the life story of the author of the text (a famous Buddhist teacher) we were studying. Our second visitor interrupted Clancy: “I don’t think it is appropriate he hear this; he hasn’t received the initiation. We can discuss it when he leaves.”

Bishan was understandably insulted. A Buddhist himself, and a Tibetan, he clearly resented the comment, but he merely gave our friend walking instructions back to camp and left. In the dark, Clancy, our friend, and I talked—or really the two men talked and I listened in a fog—until he left and it was just us two. The light never came on. Around two A.M. I woke up. Clancy was shining the flashlight.

“Have you slept?” I asked.

“I haven’t.”

He was shining the flashlight around nervously. Then I heard them: hundreds of wild mice, all scurrying and playing. One had a piece of tin foil. I fell asleep again. When I woke up an hour later Clancy was awake beside me in the dark.

“The mice are having a party,” he said.

I fell asleep again.

We went back to the tent that morning, and Kitty came to get back her oil. By this time my cheeks and neck were covered in an uncharacteristic acne. She by contrast was glittering with astonishing health. I thought, “This must be how it feels to be old.” I was in my coat, in the tent, Clancy rolled on its floor in five blankets.

“I came for my oils,” Kitty said. I could see she was delighted by my appearance.

“We’re not using them.”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m a little better,” I said, “but now he is very ill.”

“Bummer!” she said it brightly.

“Yes,” I agreed, “it is a bummer.”

A few days later, we surrendered. We went down to Kaza, to the hospital, and spent two nights unsupervised—under the care of two adolescent boys—at Bishan’s otherwise empty, eight-room hotel. The boys robbed us here and there in small ways, to our growing outrage. It was only when one asked us for 750 rupees, for laundry done at the camp, that Clancy lost his patience. He and Bishan had a word. On our last day at the Parasol, before an expressionless Bishan, the boys were made to empty their wallets—to return nearly every rupee (one rupee is about a penny and a half). We are still not well, Clancy and I. We have, it has been determined, an Indian virus. I am slightly better. Clancy has lost all hearing in his right ear. We spend our days in bed. He writes, I read. Then we watch a movie.