India 1998: Ladakh. The Donkey and the Dzo-

To undergo a trek in a remote region with a group of strangers can be an interesting and sometimes challenging experience. In our group of a dozen or so, most people were amenable, adaptable types-as you would expect for anyone choosing to take a hike in some of the most inhospitable landscapes the world has to offer. Added to this, our two guides, Adrian and Sonam were both amiable and fun.

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But a small group holiday is ideal for singletons and while most of us were in couples there were also some singles; a rather unfit guy, a youngish woman, a teenage boy [with parents] and two older women. One of these older women, Anna, a widow, was pleasant, open and friendly and made for a good, conversational walking companion, as I often found when falling into step with her [the two of us frequently bringing up the rear]. The other woman, let’s call her Margaret, was a bit frosty and possessed of little sense of humour, also perhaps somewhat unworldly in certain areas.

We were walking down a slope into a valley one afternoon, the bare, rocky terrain giving way to vegetation as the path flattened, when we came across some donkeys grazing. The animals were friendly, happy to be stroked as we stopped to greet them. Margaret became unusually animated by the encounter, though not as animated as the donkey, whose excitement on gazing at Margaret was expressed in an immediate erection. This reaction went unnoticed or unrealised by Margaret, who exclaimed ‘The donkey likes me!’ but was nevertheless witnessed and enjoyed by all of the rest of the group, so that most of us found it necessary to impose self control over the general hilarity that ensued.

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On another occasion we reached the top of a climb to meet a family dressed in their Sunday best, on their way to a festival in the Gonpa [monastery] at the next village-the next village being many miles away across a mountain pass. They were carrying all the essentials for a picnic-including a well-used teapot!

On our descent into Ang village we were to see the wondrous beast of burden that is a ‘Dzo’, an odd mixture of yak and cow. But sometimes our very presence at a village was as of much interest to the locals as they were to us!

At Thimmisgamm village we made our last camp, where we had to bid farewell to our lovely crew and goodbye to this beautiful place. The next day we walked back to Leh and our delightful hotel where we had one more day to get a last explore before we were to travel back towards Delhi-by coach this time-to ride over the second highest road pass in the world, among other notable experiences!

[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.