Priya

Priya is only seven but she’s the toughest hustler I know. She sells flower-candles on the bank of Ganges river in the 3,000-years-old city of Varanasi, and never takes no for an answer. “How many you buy? Two, three? Good price for you! ” While I take too long to decide, she is scanning the crowd with her huge brown eyes, scowling to prevent other flower kids from getting anywhere near me. “Listen”, she commands before I even agree, “You buy from me only!»

They say it’s not the size of the dog in a fight, but the size of the fight in a dog. Which may explain how does this tiny body contain such domineering personality. And she will push her candles onto you in English, German, Japanese, or Italian, whatever it takes to close the deal. It’s an ancient Hindu tradition to float the candle-lit flowers upon the holy Ganges to make a wish. I tell Priya I got nothing to wish for, as I already have everything I ever wanted. It takes her a split second to come up with the solution: “No problem. You make good wish for Priya!”

The only concession I achieve in this ruthless negotiation is that we limit business to one candle a day. She agrees to it only in exchange for the exclusive supplier contract. The deal is immediately announced to the dozen of other flower boys lurking nearby. They are visibly disappointed – a foreign woman is an optimal target in this cutthroat business – but keep respectful distance. Only once in her absence one of the boys sheepishly approaches me, the others stepping closer to watch, when out of nowhere Priya descends on them like Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Wrath and Retaliation, her whole body vibrating with anger. The boys retreat, tails between their legs, but my honor is intact: I haven’t betrayed her even for a second.

For the rest of my month-long stay I am buying her flower-candles every time she spots me at the river. She politely allows me to sit and watch it in peace for a few moments, fidgeting in my peripheral vision, before she grabs my hand and leads me to water to float the purchased candle together. She’s way better floater between the two of us: when I do it, the candle sometimes lingers nearby caught in the current; with her push, it always heads out right away as if propelled by an invisible engine.

After a candle launch, I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She says a teacher. Because everybody has to obey the teacher. Family, kids? Oh, no, no. No husband and kids till she’s 50, Priya says resolutely, she’s got stuff to do. Priya’s mom is a street fruit seller, dad – a boatman. There are four other siblings at home, living hand to mouth, her candle sales paying for their school supplies. She started working at the age of five, cruising the river bank every night, and it was her idea. “So, are you buying two candles tomorrow or what? I can’t sit here all night.”

As lost as I sometimes feel in life, I never suffer from lack of direction in Priya’s universe. Here, my role is clear and well-defined. So every night I buy a candle or two from her, watch them float away into the dark waters, and every night at this oldest wishing spot in the world I ask Mother Ganga the same one thing:
Please guard her from harm
Please let all her plans succeed
Take away from me anything you want, but please give her the destiny she deserves.

______
Assi Ghat, Varanasi, India, 2010

 

priya and me

Advertisements

The Thar

Inspired by an old man and his deep-sea marlin. Based on a true story.

**

Trophy hunting is all about scoring high: the more rare the species, the harder the hunt, the better-looking the trophy – everything counts.

Deep-pocket hunters love to go to New Zealand. First off, it’s God knows where, which makes for a great subject to bring up at dinner parties. And second, in addition to very impressive deer and irresistible kiddie-size wallabies, they got Himalayan mountain goat here, imported and thriving in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Himalayan mountain goat – stage name “Thar” – is a magnificent creature. For starters, it wears a thick cappuccino-colored coat that looks richer than a floor-length mink on a 90-year-old Manhattan socialite. Because of its mane, a Himalayan goat trophy is never butchered just for antlers, like deer, or cut at the shoulders, like antelope, but mounted whole, standing proud on a rock pedestal, a perfect conversation piece for its accomplished owner.

Himal-Thar2

The elusive species is also known for its love of solitude, living primarily on rock-bare mountain tops. Harvesting this son-of-a-bitch is an ultimate challenge: a Thar never runs straight, instead zig-zagging like crazy towards the razor-sharp edge of the mountain, leaping over it and plunging straight down, defying all laws of physics and leaving a hunter empty-handed, out of breath and schooled. Sometimes it takes several attempts even for an experienced hunter to get one, making it a very special trophy. Watching a Thar hunting scene from a helicopter above is an ultimate reality show.

I have respect for the Himalayan mountain goat. He’s a die-hard.

Roger was nothing like the other hunters. He stood out in this five-star exclusive lodge, teeming with Texan oil tycoons and their well-trained wives in diamonds and camouflage. He came alone. He wasn’t rich. He hadn’t been to Africa or Kazakhstan. It took him several years to save up for a very special dream: a Himalayan goat trophy. He came to this ultra-exclusive hunting lodge, famous for top American hunters harvesting numerous Himalayan goats, and he came wound tight, his best guns in tow.

Every night around the dinner table the others would boast about a prize buck they had just harvested, the fun they had slaying down the pest wallabies, and how many tries it took them to finally bring down a Himalayan goat. Roger’s face expressed nothing, aside from his jaw muscles slowly churning under the skin. His smile was nothing beyond polite, his body stiff, his gaze non-connecting. He wasn’t there to socialize. He wasn’t there to make friends. He was there for the Thar, and it was clearly his only chance for one.

On a Tuesday afternoon, the helicopter dropped Roger and a hunting guide on the mountain top. They spotted a Thar twice, but the goat was too fast for Roger’s aim. At dinner, Roger’s guide shared the news of the day in his most positive voice, and everyone at the table took turns cheering Roger up: a Himalayan Goat is not an easy trophy for anyone. Surely he was going to get one tomorrow. Roger responded with silence, his gaze fixed on his gourmet dinner plate.

On Wednesday, they came back empty-handed again – Roger had taken two shots and missed both times, the goat vanishing before he could take aim again. That night Roger finished dinner early, turned down desert and went straight to his room, skipping all the small talk. His hunting guide and the lodge owner exchanged glances and stepped outside, speaking in hushed voices for a minute before returning to the table.

On Thursday morning the weather turned finicky, with the unruly air currents and promises of rain later in a day. The helicopter pilot, a seasoned hunter himself, said he’d manage if they left immediately. The best hunting guide in the country, the owner took one look at Roger’s face and said he’d go out with Roger himself. Roger put down the unfinished cup of coffee and rushed to get ready. The owner’s face slowly turned from the usual warm friendliness to stern determination. The lodge was a second-generation family-run business. A guest was more than just a client. Nobody had ever left here unhappy. In just a few minutes, all three loaded up into the helicopter and took off into the grey sky.

Because of the weather change, it was a long and gloomy day back at the lodge. Lunch time came and went, the wives declined to go out to shop or visit a spa, staying in their luxury suites, lethargic. The dogs spent the day dozing off outside the butcher shed. A small rain came over the valley, sprinkling the grounds and moving on. In the distance, the clouds were hanging low over the mountain top, and everybody was thinking of Roger. As daylight began dissolving, the hunters came back one by one with the usual: some got just the trophy deer they needed to beat their local record, some had a good day scouting for tomorrow, all got wet and tired and couldn’t wait for a hot dinner and the usual scotch-and-storytelling around the fire place. Roger and the owner were still out.

At the sound of helicopter approaching at dusk everyone at the lodge poured outside, hoping Roger had scored. He had. When the chopper dropped down a lifeless cloud of fur and landed, Roger climbed out and walked over to the body slowly, like a sheriff who had finally got a prized fugitive.

The house dogs went insane, barking up the storm. The owners’ kids, age 6 and 8 – training to take over the family business – started kicking the body to assess its size. It was getting dark, and the owner turned on his flashlight to illuminate the trophy. The excited crowd drew a tighter circle.

That’s when everybody saw the goat was missing one horn. Roger’s smile weakened. The trophy wasn’t perfect. The owner quickly regained his composure. “Roger got him really high up. Great shot. It was almost 300 yards up away. Tumbled all the way down, the horn must have broken off on the way. No worries, Roger – we got plenty of spares to put on him, it’ll look better than his own!” Roger managed a stoic smile. As a Himalayan goat trophy is displayed whole, it was important. Luckily, the lodge had a butcher shed full of spare antlers, skulls and skins for every species harvested here. The helicopter pilot started telling everyone how incredible the hunt was from his view point – the goat was just about to make it over the edge of the cliff when Roger laid him down by the third shot. Roger turned to the silver-haired man to thank him for taking the flight in less than perfect weather.

“Whoa!” – shrieked one of the kids playing with the goat’s eyelids. The whole crowd was now staring at the ghostly blue cataract completely covering the goat’s right eye. The guides exchanged quick glances. The beast had clearly been half-blind. Roger blinked and said nothing, his face dropping ever so slightly. “Listen”, said the owner, carefully putting his hand around Roger’s shoulder. “You saw how he ran. Full speed, good as any. He was a trooper, but so are you. That was an excellent kill!” The news was met with silence. Sensing the change of mood, the dogs quietly dissolved into the dark air. Kids stopped fidgeting and wrapped themselves around their father’s legs. Roger stood there motionless.

That’s when one of the guides let out a surprised whistle. Before he could catch himself, all eyes were on another surprise: goat’s mouth was agape, with none but a single yellow crooked tooth sticking out at the edge of its lower jaw. The dams looked deserted and worn out. Clearly, the goat hadn’t eaten in a very long while. The guide rushed to close the invalid’s mouth, but it was too late.

It took two whole minutes of complete silence before the owner spoke up again. “Listen, Roger. These goats are crazy. When a male gets too old to breed, the young goats gang up and drive him off a cliff till he jumps to death. This one must have been escaping them for a while, but they would catch up with him soon. You gave him a chance to battle for his honor.” The words lingered. Everyone wanted to believe. The crowd solidified around the pale-faced, measured-breathing Roger and his one-horn, half-blind, toothless goat.

Unlike the usual, the dinner was a dignified, almost somber affair, all low-voiced and soft-spoken. No hunting stories, no trophy talk, no loud cheers, no crude jokes. The owner sent the kids to bed early, took the seat next to Roger and stayed for the whole dinner, talking weather, sports and politics. Roger kept silent until desserts came out. Standing up, glass in hand, he toasted everyone at the table one by one, thoroughly thanking the owner, the pilot, the hunting guides and the lodge staff for giving him an incredible opportunity to make his life-long dream come true, and wishing the rest of the hunters the best of luck. He had the time of his life, he said, and he would fondly remember everyone back here. Before anybody could respond, Roger excused himself to go packing for an early flight home and left the room.

Hours later the lodge finally went silent, but Roger was still lying on the bed, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling. In a cold shed less than 40 yards away laid a cold body of a veteran Himalayan mountain goat.

The sun was slowly rising over the Southern Alps.

Way beyond Rudolph

IMG_0996

You can’t help falling in love with the reindeer.

Among all the animals roaming Mongolian expanse, the reindeer stands out as the most sophisticated, the most touchable and definitely the tastiest one.   While a yak stares at you with all the emotion of a pommel, a reindeer casts a diva-like glance from under the long eyelashes.    A camel always wears the unsightly brown crust on its ass, but a reindeer’s classy butt is heart-shaped, while its antlers are gift-wrapped in velvety baby fur.  Camel milk tastes like the sour wind of the Gobi desert, but reindeer milk is clean, heavy and feels like hot silk in your mouth.   A horse has to constantly waive off the relentless taiga flies with its tail, but no flies swarm around a reindeer – the otherwise lethal taiga insects descend only  to create a beautiful shimmering halo around reindeer’s head for a brief moment of pure adoration, before moving onto the usual prey.  Standing in the middle of sheep or goat herd, you get DOLBY surround sound effect of the relentless group farting, but when the reindeer run past you like a beautiful stream of snow white and herring gray, all you hear is the delicate sound of ankle bones rustling – tsa! tsa! tsa!  – and that’s why “tsaa” is the taiga people’s name for the reindeer, and Tsaatan people call themselves just that.

Among Tsaatans, reindeer is very much a member of the clan.  Every family chooses a special reindeer to be sanctified by a shaman to carry inside the living spirits of the locale.  The designated reindeer wears a pretty scarf, usually of blue silk, it never gets eaten or even tied down, so it develops a habit of roaming around the village, sneaking inside empty yurts or following somebody around.

The spirit reindeer of my family happened to be angel-white and totally shameless.  The relentless beast viewed me as a personal entertainment channel with the 24/7 access.  My pet-owning friends often complain how awkward it is for them to act naturally in the bathroom in the family dog’s presence. Now imagine yourself on a mountain, in pristine taiga, ankle-deep in the early morning dew, preparing for the inevitable in the endless open space, with no doors or walls to create a comfort zone.  And now picture – three steps in front of you – a very patient white reindeer, staring.  You have to go urgently, and he’s got nowhere urgent to go.  Guess which one of the two has more fun playing this game and doesn’t ever get tired of it.

Sometimes reindeer are used as cargo transport for moving the tribe from an old pasture to a new one.  Loaded with pots, pans, solar batteries and other household stuff, a reindeer occasionally readjusts the cargo weight by shaking its skin, the pots and pans rumbling  as if the animal is performing a shaman ritual to procure good luck for its own upcoming journey.

But the very best moment in a reindeer herders’ place is when a herd pours back into the village at sunset, preceded by a delicate sound wave of ankle bones clicking, as if a flock of angels is descending upon you.   And you feel it’s the perfectly magical moment to make a wish, yet you can’t remember anything you ever wanted before, but it’s all right, it is actually quite all right with you.

IMG_1480

IMG_1273

IMG_0931