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Cultural Relativism in the Garhwal Himalaya

I was first introduced to cultural relativism in 6th grade geography class. Probably fed up with our vacant, drooling faces, Mr. Fortin switched, as he sometimes did, to shock tactics; “Basically, you can sum all this stuff with bathroom habits” He said abruptly. Our ears perked up… potty humor? “Here in the U.S. we wipe our butts with Toilet paper, in France they wash their butts with special squirting toilets, and in India… well lets just say you don’t reach for food with your left hand. Ever.” His remark had the desired effect of giggling, fake retching and awe- no toilet paper!? How bizarre!

I spy a monkey

Cultural relativism, the awareness and acceptance of people’s different ways of doing things, was to be beaten into my  brain from that day on, and by the time I got my degree I considered myself an expert on the topic. Yet no liberal education could prepare me for the moment ten years later, when I would experience our 6th grade version of cultural relativism firsthand. Literally.

India. The place needs no introduction, and yet I had no idea what to expect. On paper I was there to become a Wilderness First Responder, but you can do that close to home for a much friendlier price. Call it curiosity, call it a pilgrimage, call it a mad desire to shock myself into a new paradigm- from the moment I got there on, my reasons no longer mattered. India has a way of demanding all of your attention, all the time.

It began with a two-day drive North into the mountains- essentially a 48-hour sensory assault. I learned quickly that on the roads of India you’ve usually got about four lanes worth of vehicles crammed into one lane of paved space, most of which is already occupied by animals and people. At home such situations result in a relatively polite gridlock, but in India folks just drive faster and use the horn more; within ten minutes I was certain our driver was a Jedi.

My jetlagged eyeballs struggled to take it all in, fragmenting my memory of the trip; starving dog, rickshaw full of chickens, man peeing… doze… gorgeous silk sari rippling in the breeze, mango stand, bedazzled donkey… doze… burning pile of garbage, vibrant billboard in approximate english, funeral procession… doze. I saw buildings that appeared to be growing organically with tree limb scaffolding, rickshaws and trucks packed tightly with men and women of all ages, monkeys running along medians… Honestly, nearly everything I saw was something I’d never seen before.

The point where Delhi ends and something else begins is indistinguishable, and at times it felt like the space between me and the horizon contained the full spectrum of humanity, infinitely multiplied and multiplied again. Our stop for the night, the city of Dehradun, smelled of burning plastic and suffered from periodic power outages.

Nothing I’d ever tasted was sweeter than that night’s juicebox mangoes- small versions of the original that you roll between your hands until mushy and suck clean like a vegetarian vampire. Sweet, simple goodness- you literally can’t eat one without grinning.

The second day was equally overwhelming, with the precipitous drops of the Garhwal’s mountain passes accentuating the general roadside chaos. As we climbed higher the air began to thin and cool, and despite my jetlag I started to feel the familiar butterflies that mean mountains.

Life in the agricultural hamlet of Keflan was alternately maddening and sublime. On the one hand it was hot, buggy, and isolated. Exercise was a challenge bordering on impossible, and occupying the times between classes became the bane of my existence. On the other hand, my classmates were Indian cops and mountain guides with some great stories to tell. Along with the basics of triage and patient assessment, I learned enough Hindi to be mildly endearing, and I loved to mangle my way through basic phrases while the boys spoke effortless English in response.

As the days ticked by I discovered the art of the bucket shower and the comfort of morning chai. It was awesome to learn some new medical skills, and with my journal, the odd tent core workout and an occasional barefoot bouldering session on the classroom walls, the empty times began to fill themselves as well. Why am I here? To bond with some Cops over our mutually crappy climbing skills and learn that if someone offers you “tandi chai” (cold tea) they really mean alcohol.

“India time” was a phrase I heard a lot, and I think it refers to the gelatinous pace at which most things seem to happen over there. As a fairly structured person who comes from a fairly structured place, it was hard to accept that almost nothing was going to happen at the time it was supposed to happen. India time or no, the day finally came to head for the hills.

After so much downtime it felt heavenly to swing back into motion. At one point I found myself relishing the weight of my pack- it wasn’t huge, true, but what kind of weirdo actually admits to enjoying their pack? We put a fair bit of elevation below us in the first day, and I would have loved every second if I hadn’t been in the throes of some pretty nasty GI distress. 

Unable to stomach any more spicy dhal, I ended up subsisting almost entirely on crackers and bhat for the next few days of practice scenarios and trekking. I’d decided already that I was not and never would get sick, but I kept waiting for hanger to strike. Somehow it never did- surely my gas light was on, but the closer I got to empty the better I seemed to feel. The only explanation I can think of is that I was finally, finally back where I belong. I’ve never been a city mouse.

As we approached 13,000 feet (the baby foothills of the Himalaya) I began to get excited for my first peek at truly big mountains. It was a perfectly climactic approach, with just the blue sky ahead until the very last step to the top. I craned my neck to get the best view, took that step and saw… a range similar to the Beartooths. They were pretty, of course, but I wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped to be. I craned a little more as I walked, and sure enough, some whiter peaks appeared behind the first. Ok, I had to concede- these were some big mountains.

It was only after a juicebox and some crackers (my appetite had returned wearing the blue tutu of my kindergarten years) that I realized the clouds hanging over us weren’t clouds at all. Big was not the word for these hills- they were impossibly huge, like phantoms, sometimes merging with the sky, sometimes allowing us a glimpse of a serrac or knife ridge. I felt the warm earth under my palm and understood completely why these peaks are so often named for goddesses.

In awe, I asked the name of the one dominating our view, and learned she was called Bandarpunch. Monkey tail. Just a squirt at 20,000 feet.

Which is how I learned that mountain people are mountain people wherever they go. Give them a big, pretty peak and they’ll probably name it after a monkey’s butt.

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