It wasn’t quite how I imagined the start of my Himalayan adventure.
This is the second part of the blog series ‘Taking Buses Up the Himalayas’. If you missed it, Here’s the first post.
15th March 2001 | Rishikesh | North India
I walked along the Ganges close to the ghats, where the river bed was dry and stony. This was before the glacial melt of the monsoon when the swollen Ganges would consume all this rubble.
A group of soldiers were lifting timber and for a moment I thought they were building funeral pyres; they were actually dismantling a line of illegal shacks built on the banks of the river.
The government trekking agency, called Garwhal Mandas Vikas Nigam, was fortunately abbreviated to GMVN and there I sat with a tour agent who explained a lot of the hiking routes in the Garwhal Himalayas were still snowed up; March was a little too early.
I liked the way he pronounced Himalayas. In fact I liked the way all Indians pronounce it.
There is a satisfying syllable right in the middle of it. That icy stretch of mountains, the world’s roof, the sharp drops, the avalanche risks, the inhospitable temperatures and lack of oxygen of the death zone suddenly sound quite comforting and inviting when an Indian says it. Try it and ask your Indian friends.
The agent told me there was an excellent guide called KS Negi who hailed a long line of Himalayan guides who could take me up through idyllic fields and villages, past rivers filled of Himalayan trout, to a very holy emerald lake, birthplace of Ganesha, the elephant headed god, and then up to the snowline at 4,200 metres for a spectacular view of some of the peaks.
That would do. I was sold. He wrote down an invoice on a three part pad that had line items for very specific costs:
1 guide (Sri Kushal Singh Negi)
1 paraffin stove – hire
Some tawars (huge Indian woks) – hire
1 bottle of paraffin
3 tents – hire
5 kilos of rice
5 kilos of lentils
3 bags of flour
a packet of turmeric
a bag of onions
Some loose leaf tea
Some powder milk
The agent said he needed payment in rupee notes as he didn’t accept cards. That was, as we say in England, a bit of a bummer.
In those days, there weren’t many banks in India, only a few big ones and they didn’t really believe in customer service because there was so little competition so why try any harder? They were slow places, ATMs were rare, work was generally paper-based with lots of forms to fill in; they had paper-weights on desks with ink pads, rubber stamps and carbon paper (for Millennials who read this blog, think of carbon paper as a way to get two copies of something from a typewriter. Think of a typewriter as MS Word but with white paint called Tippex or Snopake instead of a delete key. This all sounds very odd, but it’s true. Ask mum or dad.) As for digital banking, forget that. This was 2001, the era of the pebble-like Nokias. Forget mobile banking apps, you got ‘squirm’ and you’d be lucky to get 3 bars of signal (called WAP) and your daily horoscope on an SMS.
Backpackers normally took travellers cheques in those days when they went abroad; these were pre-printed fixed amount cheques. They couldn’t bounce because they were pre-paid and fairly secure because they could only be cashed by the person whose name was on them and they needed to show their passport. If cash was king, travellers cheques were like a high maintenance prince, like Harry.
I needed to cash mine.
In the bank was a crowd of 30 to 40 people. This in India is a type of queue (USA, line) just a bit less linear and more freestyle.
Ahead of us all was a metal grill (perhaps in the case of a robbery) and a small hole in it where sat a small guy with heavy glasses and a combover. You could feel the power he was wielding. All these people coming to see him.
Slowly the crowd shifted forwards at a glacial pace and occasionally the person who had just got served would file their way out past the burley security guard who wielded a heavy stick (a lathi ) just in case there was an armed robber. That, some might say, was rather optimistic.
The group sentiment in the bank was not of frustration or annoyance; it was one of resigned patience. It was as if this happened all the time; sure you’ll get served, but not just now, in a while, maybe in an hour, or two. India is full of this sentiment. Why get frustrated by things you can’t change? Do what you want, the outcome is the same. Besides in India things generally work out but rarely in a way westerners are used to.
After an hour the lights suddenly went out and there was enough light from the windows to see but not to do any error-free banking.
The combover face in the small hole became boarded up with a wooden sign that said:
It was the only counter and we felt cheated. There were some cries of frustration. In India these cries manifest as ‘oh ho’ for ‘oh dear’ or aré for ‘what’s up?’. (There are ruder cries but these generally involve maternal relations and questions on parental marriage and don’t form a narrative in heyloons.com non-friction writing).
The combover guy came out of a side door which he locked and sidled past the crowd who asked him where he was going. He showed them the red jerry can he was carrying.
We all stood there in the half-light for half an hour after which he returned. We heard a generator at the back cranking up and suddenly there was light again. It was a relief. Great. We could start ‘queuing’ again.
By mid-afternoon I found myself next in line. As I was just about to speak, a hand behind me reached over my shoulder to poke some sort of document in the hole in the grill. That meant it was his turn.
Sure enough it was my turn after that and lo and behold my cheques were cashed in to rupees so I could pay for the trek back at the GMVN. The trek would start early next morning and I was so excited.
It was a strange start to my Himalayan adventure spending half a day at the bank.
‘Spending Half a Day at the Bank’ was the second part of ‘Taking Buses Up the Himalayas’ first published on heyloons.com