Friday, August 19, 2011

Immortality on the vine

In James Hilton’s The Lost Horizon, a motley crew gets stranded high in the mountains of central Asia when their small plane crashes. Slowly they learn the secret of the strange, isolated society they stumble on: its residents live forever. I’d always assumed the story to be based on Tibet, but apparently it was actually modeled on Hunza, a series of idyllic villages high up in the Karakorum Mountains of northern Pakistan. Traditionally, it was common for people here to live to well over 100 with minimal signs of aging, strolling up and down the mountainsides with baskets of hay on their backs as spry as antelope well past the age when most “modern” people have become semi-immobile or succumbed to cancer or some other affliction. Many scientists have led investigations into the secret of Hunza longevity; no specific answers have been found, because the formula is impossibly simple: clean air, lots of exercise, a simple lifestyle, and a very pure diet.

If nothing else, Hunza validates the idea of eating local: there’s little distinction between yard, pasture, and crop land—apricot and walnut trees drop fruit almost straight into kitchens, goats roam like pet dogs, and pumpkins hang over stone walls like lost balloons. Chemists tend to scoff at “terroir,” the notion that wine, or anything edible, could taste different depending on where it’s grown; that the flavor of a fruit could specifically reflect the flavor of a place. But Hunza seems to put the lie to the skeptics. Hunza apricots may

not convey immortality, but they do taste different from any other apricots I’ve ever had. And drying them in baskets on the roof under the high-altitude sun definitely makes them distinct from the sulfur- and heat-lamp-processed ones available elsewhere. I adore apricots, so I’ve been looking forward to Hunza the whole trip; if all you need to do to live forever is eat apricots, I figured, I’m ready. Trouble is, according to Hinton’s story, the price of eternal life is remaining in the lost world. Since we only had two days in Hunza, I probably didn’t manage immortality, even though I devoured every apricot I could find.
Hunza is world-famous for its apricots, but it didn’t become that way because they offer some magic flavor or health kick. They’re common in Hunza because that’s what grows best. Hunza is all about balance: water-channels are carved exactly where they’re needed; fields are contoured perfectly into the hillsides; paths are steep but made manageable with carefully placed stone steps.
The people are balanced too. Men and women dress and act as equals: some women wear head-scarves and some don’t; either way, they’re out and about, working alongside the men, rather than hiding in the house. (You rarely so much as see a woman on the street in much of rural Pakistan.) Some men wear the traditional salwar kameez and some wear Western clothes. Ramadan is honored as much in the breach as in the observance, and beer is readily available; many still make their own wine and brandy. As Ismaili people who look to the Aga Khan for spiritual leadership, they value health care and education, viewing the hajj as a luxury, not a mandate.

If eternal life ever did exist in Hunza, it’s probably gone now. Locals grumble that the old lifestyle has been ruined as people today drive up and down the hills from home to field rather than walking, and the influx of Chinese imports has ruined both the diet and the lifestyle, while tractors and minibuses have fouled the once-pure air. Nonetheless, an outsider could be forgiven for assuming it’s Shangri-la. The surrounding mountains are breathtakingly scenic, but even more arresting is the ineffable sense of peace in the villages. So many human settlements feel like intrusions on the landscape, but in Hunza it really seems as if this valley was made for just this combination of fruit trees, stone walls, shaggy pastures, and modest houses tucked in as neatly and lovingly as babes in a crib.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

News from the undisclosed location

Despite recent news to the contrary, Pakistan is not fatal to tourists--though my eight group-mates and I just about have the country to ourselves. We've been the only guests at nearly every hotel, and most locals have obviously not seen a foreigner in a long time, if ever. The plus-side to all the fear-mongering is that Pakistanis are without a doubt the friendliest, most innocently curious people I've ever encountered. Almost everyone is thrilled to have his picture taken; some even ask. Many want to take pictures of me--or, better yet, one of the women in the group. They smile and exercise their English as we drive or walk by, and many want to shake hands (in that especially warm, double-handed way common in the Muslim world) and extend a personal welcome.

When I was asked back home why I wanted to come to Pakistan, I struggled to come up with a better answer than, "It's not as hot as India." Now that I'm here, two obvious reasons have coalesced: mountains and people. Though our guide scoffs that anything less than 6000 meters is just a "hill," and we haven't gotten very close to the named 8000-meter monsters, or anything snow-capped, we've been surrounded by monolith after monolith, cut through by raging rivers and draped in a luxuriant quilt of fruit trees, evergreens, and terraced crops--more than enough to melt the heart of a Michigan boy starved for contours. When I was told in Lahore that Pakistan's major source of energy is hydroelectric projects, it rang funny, because this was the same fertile flatland of India. But as we climbed north on the most rugged roads I've ever seen, it became evident that Pakistan is as much a country of water as rock. Much of the Himalayan glacier base drains here, one way or another; the crush of snow melt is so strong in places that the rivers run grey with all the granite they've exfoliated from the mountainsides. And in those few places where no natural river runs, an irrigation canal has been cut, so that walking along the rural hills is like strolling through the Alhambra: everywhere the intoxicating gurgle of water, and its fresh cool smell.
In this picture the local people portage across a stream that had temporarily swollen with rain and washed out the road. In surprisingly short order, they re-positioned enough rocks by hand to resume minibus, truck, and car traffic. Even our Jeeps were temporarily halted by this avalanche, and we too had to clamber across on foot, but the drivers took care of our luggage, and none of us had a baby to carry, as does one man here.

“Do you notice any difference in Pakistan?” the guide asked. Crossing from India to Pakistan is not as dramatic as going from Texas to Mexico, but it’s close. There’s much more space, and less filth, but it also seems noticeably poorer, more controlled. Pakistan is India with the lid on. The dazzling diversity of people is all but gone, despite the guide's claims to the contrary. Suddenly all the men wear shalwar kameez and fez, nearly all have beards, and the women still wear bright colors, but gone are the makeup, bindi, hair plait, and bangles, and the dresses are much more closely cut, not the flowing, extravagant saris of India. Even the machinery is more uniform: though the trucks are spectacularly decorated beyond anything in India, and there are tuk-tuks and cars, the whole world seems to be riding the same small motorcycle—I took a picture of a rank of at least a hundred in one small street.

People are if anything more friendly, certainly more curious, to look at and greet me, though there’s a certain meekness I didn’t feel in India. Many people seem to be waiting for me to make the first move—a smile, a nod, a tip of the hat—at which point they smile back and sometimes shake my hand enthusiastically. These friendly young fellows were the first of many to ask me to take their picture.

But in other ways Pakistan very much has the lid off. The natural beauty is astounding, and the people are boundless in their enthusiasm. While India undergoes visible growing pains of socioeconomics and technology, Pakistan keeps on keeping on with its simple, traditional life. The roads are far better, everything is vastly cleaner, and space is no longer at any kind of premium. In fact the two countries are so different as to render any comparison silly, yet they insist on considering each other rivals, and forcing the question; a young guy in Lahore asked me what I thought of India vs. Pakistan. You might as well ask how a watermelon measures up to a pumpkin.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's all golden

Tonight I visited Sikhism's holiest site, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This is the place made famous recently for all the wrong reasons when the Obamas came to town and the presidential handlers gnashed their teeth over how he could fulfill the covered-head requirement without looking like a "Muslim." Oh for goodness' sake, people, grow up! The Sikhs themselves, we should be embarrassed to learn, are far more open-minded: people of all faiths (or none) are welcome, and pilgrims and families alike greeted me with warmth and tolerance even when I stuck my camera in their faces and inner shrines. Enormously gallant guards in indigo tunics, flowing beards, saffron sashes, and gilded spears made clear the level of devotion that's possible, yet my tying my dirty bandanna over my head was not considered impious.

The "golden" part of the temple is an artificial peninsula in the middle of a vast pool inside a white outer square. It glitters aplenty, and impressive numbers abound re the weight of actual gold used in its construction. But the real magic of the shrine is on the outer edges of the pool, where visitors of every stripe mingle and meditate. Whether it's the humility engendered by covered heads, or the sense of equality stoked by bare feet, or the tranquility of the calm waters and sparkling clean temple, the place is ineffably calm, peaceful, invigorating. Most holy sites I've visited convey at least some element of hostility: Thou Shalt Be Impressed, Peon! The Golden Temple, somehow, at least at night, is much more welcoming.

The neighborhood around the temple is frenzied even by Indian standards. It's a bit of a shock to exit the shrine, where tranquility has washed over you, and return to the world of noisy commerce and grimy traffic. And you wonder how it is that a country of such chaos and filth can engender such variety and intensity of faith, groom such otherworldly shrines. And then you realize that you've answered your own question: in a world of crowds and dirt and sweat, a glimpse of all that's pure and protected is just what's needed.

If this were an American site, the pool would be chlorinated until it smelled like overdone laundry. Instead it's left alive; there must be some expression in Sikhism along the lines of "Suffer the little fishes to come unto me..."

Monday, August 1, 2011

Details, details

India is democracy at its best and worst. You assume you love your fellow man until you’re pressed in among the throngs in the heat and stench. Actually, the smell hasn’t been bad at all, nor really has the heat, though it’s so muggy my camera fogs up every time I step out of an air-conditioned car or building.
The whole country, it seems, is one giant gringo trap. On the streets of Old Delhi, every footfall must be carefully placed to avoid some foul spill, missing piece of sidewalk, fellow human’s foot, or collapsed body. Yet it’s so crowded that at times there’s little more than one foot’s width of ground to step on.

New Delhi seems to give the lie to all the stereotypes of India: leafy boulevards wind around in a semblance of order and quiet, traffic and crowds are under control, buildings are well-spaced and in decent shape. Then you get to Old Delhi, and it’s as chaotic and intense as anything imaginable. New York, Hong Kong, the Moscow subway have nothing on the sheer crush of human life that crowds Chandni Chowk and the other narrow old streets.

The Taj Mahal is where rolls of film and memory cards go to die. Many have called it the most beautiful building in the world; I won’t argue. The poet Tagore likened it to “a teardrop on the face of eternity.” If anything made of stone can justify such flowery prose, the Taj can: it’s one of those rare places that exceeds all the hype. I didn’t really see the supposed luminosity of white marble, but there are so many other little details to revel in, it hardly matters. From the tiniest filigreed flower in bas-relief to the massive meringue kiss of the central dome, it massages the eye on every level. Yet for me one of the greatest satisfactions was tactile: in order to reduce abrasion, you must wear crepe shoe-covers in the central mausoleum—or you can go barefoot. There’s a special magic to feeling an architectural gem as well as seeing it. Marble is a delightful surface to walk on, but every other time I’ve had the pleasure it’s been cold; thanks to the sweltering Indian summer, it’s almost the exact temperature of human skin, so that walking on it becomes an intimate affair.

The vast majority of visitors to the Taj are now Indians; as recently as ten years ago, they were nearly all foreigners. This bears witness to the burgeoning Indian middle class, which was on almost vulgar display at the restaurant where I supped, a sleek, starkly lit place serving classic Indian cuisine in a kind of nouveau chic style. Though it billed itself as a “family restaurant,” it swelled with immaculate young couples not yet fully comfortable spending money freely but trying ever so hard to appear so as they ordered mojitos and bloody Marys. I had to settle for a gin and 7-Up because they were too cool to stock tonic water. The food, like everything I’ve had in India so far, was excellent: spicy Peshawar lamb, steamed rice with every grain perfectly separate, and a lush vegetable raitha swirled with cumin and other spices. Those inclined to think “decadent yogurt” is an oxymoron need to visit India.

The tour company has booked me into some uncharacteristically swank lodgings. The first night I was upgraded to a “club” room, one of the nicest habitations I’ve ever slept in. Even the complimentary white chocolate was delectable; the fruit was more ornamental than edible, but a fine ornament it was. Of course you get what you pay for, but a certain attention to detail transcends money. The woman sweeping the floor at the roadside restaurant where I lunched today, in her fuchsia sari with matching lipstick and hair-plait, looked more put-together than an American teenager on prom night. Every plate of food, meanwhile, is as much a painting as a meal.

It’s obvious why Indians have become customer service reps to the world. The eagerness of hotel staff, tour guides, and drivers to ensure that every aspect of my trip be satisfactory could almost be called “aggressive” if it weren’t so graceful. Little formalities like clasping one’s hands together as if in prayer with every greeting transform mundane interactions into almost spiritual encounters.