I woke up to another beautiful sunrise in MacLeodGanj. After breakfast and buying my bus ticket for the next day, I met up with the Mountain Cleaners. Also, check out this video to see a little more about what they do.
I found the crew in the Bhagsu taxi stand/parking lot. Tashi, the Project Manager in Dharamsala, was there to introduce everyone and give us a rundown, although she wouldn’t actually be going on this trip with us. We would be hiking to Triund, picking up trash along the trail, then segregating all of the trash in Triund and packing it for the mules to carry down. We would stay the night in Triund then hike further up in the morning to gather and segregate once more.
The cast of characters was as follows:
Abhi is essentially a permanent volunteer for Mountain Cleaners, leading most of the trekking projects every week, a born and raised Indian mountain man. He’s been trekking his entire life, many of his family have been trekkers, and he simply spends his life at high elevation. Abhi is the man.
Raj is a student who does work for MC in some capacity but not full-time. He was working on a promotional video/photo project, carrying photography equipment and pausing often to capture the many moments. Raj is a genuine, easy-going, laid-back kind of guy.
Rounding out the MC staff for our journey was Sagar, the lowly intern (hey, you have to start somewhere). As I got to know Sagar I was very impressed. He’s a university student with a couple years left, extremely intelligent and with high aspirations of someday becoming the Indian foreign ambassador to the United States. On the night before I left Dharamsala I pledged him my support in his ambitions.
Along with everyone at MC, Sagar and I became good friends.
In addition to the three official MC crew, there were three volunteers, including myself.
English John was born in England but has actually lived in Scotland most of his life. To avoid any confusion I asked if he considered himself a Scot or an Englishman. In fairness it was a tough question, but after some consideration he replied Englishman. “But I root for Scotland in football.” Great, we’ve got that cleared up.
English John is staying in MCG with his gf, relaxing during the last few weeks of his journey around the world of the last four years. Nearing the end of his travels, I asked him a lot about how it felt and what he was thinking about entering back into…“real life.”
I’ve talked to, read about, or heard of a lot of people who have been traveling for two, four, or 10 years and even longer.
And finally Itamal of Israel. Itamal finished his three years of compulsory military service and then promptly left for India, where he’s now been for several months. From strict, structured and regimented, to casual, laid back and unconcerned, Itamal’s lifestyle changed instantly and dramatically. I got the sense he’s preferred the latter.
Both English John and Itamal had beards far overgrown than mine, which concerned me slightly.
After a mission brief and a good game from Tashi we started out, following first the street through upper Bhagsu, then a concrete path with stairs. After about 20 fairly intense minutes and a full sweat breaking we’re still on this path and still passing houses, meaning a serious trip to the grocer.
We came to Mauj, a restaurant/chai shop, just about the last structure before actually getting onto the trail. It’s drizzling slightly and Abhi announces that we’re stopping for chai. He was a little crabby early on.
Oh by the way Dharamsala in general is absolutely full of hippies and weirdos and meditation and yoga and hypnosis and who knows what else. For that matter you can also take classes on all sorts of things, from meditation, yoga and massage to Tibetan and Hindi language.
So when we ordered a round of chai, this bro was full-out tye-dye, head….garment, dreads, flowing gowns and the full number. I liked him.
Waiting for our beverages, I’m sitting there thinking that we really didn’t get too far before stopping. We’d better get going or this is going to be a long hike. Then I stopped myself. Who cares??
There have been such times on this journey around the world when I’ve stopped myself cold and thought, “I’m on no one’s time. I’m on my own time. I can do whatever the fuck I want, at whatever time I want. Or change my mind and decide to do something else entirely. Stop stressing out about needing to hurry up.” It’s good to think that sometimes.
Triund is about a three hour hike from Bhagsu at a good pace, so we took about five including the suspiciously frequent stops for chai (there are 3-4 chai shops on the trail up on the mountain, which I found strange and interesting). After the second stop though I really got a calm feeling, that we are just taking our time and we’ll get there when we get there. It was nice, and you can easily have 10 chais in a day.
Look chai is just a freakin big deal here ok? Seriously though, if I haven’t mentioned it before, chai is a major piece of Indian culture. You tend to have chai everywhere and for all occasions. If you go into someone’s house and they don’t offer you chai, you can legally shoot them. It’s major.
Departed from the first chai stop and a ways further up at a trail junction, at long last we’re issued burlap sacks and huge bulky rubber gloves, which were promptly stuffed in my back pocket. From this point forward we would actually be picking up trash. On duty.
As we started walking from there I was toward the front of the group. During the first few minutes I saw a few very small, scarcely noticeable slivers of candy and gum wrappers and other such minuscule pieces of trash. I passed them, as did the others, while excuses almost imperceptibly began to rise from my inner consciousness.
“Eh, that’s too small. Someone else will get it. We’re really here just for the big stuff. You can barely see it. It’s not worth bending over. I’ll get the next one.” And so on.
All of these are coming to me involuntarily, until I actually notice, and stop them. Wait.
We are the Mountain Cleaners.
We clean the mountains. These mountains, in fact. That’s what we do. If I don’t pick up that tiny little piece of trash, who will? And how long will it stay there? Will it be the next Mountain Cleaner that comes by? He’d have to be more motivated than me, which is very motivated.
Ok. Stop right there. That’s enough of that. First of all, there aren’t going to be any other mountain cleaners more FIRED UP for duty than Chris Healy. Second, if I don’t pick this up then no one else is going to. Maybe ever.
From that point forward, there was a shift in the mind. My thinking was clear, as was my mission: Seek and Destroy. All comers. There is no wrapper too small. No shred of paper too insignificant. No scrap ignored. There is no off-time. There are no judgement calls.
Taking the lead at this point and fully preoccupied, it wasn’t until a few minutes later I realized that anyone behind me was getting zero trash whatsoever. Stealing a glance back, they looked pretty bored.
“Hey guys,” I yelled over my shoulder, “not whole lotta action back there huh?” I chuckled to myself. Forbid they did pick up a piece of trash as that would have dishonored both duty and self.
After a little while Abhi started telling us about how these assholes will throw their bottles far off the trail onto the steep and often precipitous mountainside, making it nearly impossible to pick up.
Just after mentioning this we see the first of such bottles, off the edge about 20 yards, very steep, with some trees, lose dirt and rocks. To make it more tempting, there are actually two bottles fairly close to each other. “See?” Abhi says. We stand there looking at the bottles in silence.
Well, I just really wouldn’t be Chris Healy if I didn’t do this right now. I leap off the trail over the edge and charge downhill, sliding and scuffling down the mountain, crashing through underbrush and initiating small landslides, making my way to the bottles.
The guys watched with some surprise as I made my way back uphill with two bottles and a bonus wrapper in hand.
“Dude, that was pretty aggressive back there,” remarked English John as we continued back on the trail.
“Damn right. We’re the Mountain Cleaners. Seek and destroy. There are no judgement calls.”
Suffice to say, the Commando move quite immediately set the tone for the rest of the day. To a man, each of us from that point forward was on savage patrol, breaking from the trail early and often to retrieve even the most challenging bottles and cans. We had esprit de corps.
There simply was no trash that was safe. Until….finally we saw a bottle far off the trail, so perilously close to the cliff’s edge it would have meant risking death to retrieve.
Sagar, “I think you should leave that one.”
Damnit. I reluctantly moved on.
Now things are different. There are, in fact, judgment calls. Disappointing, but we were still spirited. It’s funny though that once there are judgement calls, the slope becomes slippery indeed. Excuses crept back into the mind “Well, I left that one back there, I can leave this one too.”
This applies to many things in life, beyond picking up trash. Like Honor, for example. “I’ll neither lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” But wait; is that ALL the time? Would I lie to get out of a speeding ticket? I have before. Would I ride the train for free if no one checks for tickets? Once the absolute is compromised, the line becomes faint.
Where is your line? Does it move occasionally? Or is it firm?
As we continued, I started thinking to myself that this is done every week. Hmmm. Wait a second. If this is done every week, that means there are people coming here every week and still throwing their trash. This is a problem. From that point on, I made sure to politely yet firmly tell all passers-by not to litter.
This is a bigger topic than I’m going to write about in depth. As Caro from France described to me (you’ll meet her later), there simply does not exist within the general fabric of Indian culture the sense that littering is not ok. As she described it to me, everything comes from the earth and goes back to the earth. Fifty years ago, these people didn’t have plastic and disposable containers and styrofoam and candy wrappers and bottles and endless heaps of trash. There was no trash.
Furthermore, we from a Western culture hold some responsibility for introducing consumerism to the eastern world, and along with it the trash that covers all of India.
I’m still considering these ideas, but at the end of the day I still cannot bring my mind to understand how anyone can think there is nothing wrong with firing bagfuls of trash over the edge of a mountain. But there’s a billion people who seem to think that’s ok, which was abundantly clear to me throughout my travels in India.
Obviously education is an important part of the Mountain Cleaners’ work, and fortunately it’s something they do focus on.
Almost to Triund, we pass people coming down the mountain who thank us.
“It’s no problem ma’am, we’re the Mountain Cleaners. This whole sector is completely cleared, you won’t be seeing any trash from here on down. Be sure to pack your disposables off the mountain, and thanks for your cooperation.”
* * *
We reach Triund, a, beautiful, green, rolling plateau, spotted with stones and outcroppings and a few chai chops and guest houses. The now crisply visible peaks of the Dhauladhar range tower above us, while cows and goats roam and graze. Most people just bring their tent and camp out, but being volunteers we were able to stay in one of the guest houses FOC.
The dog packs in Triund (and D-Sala up to MCG for that matter) are serious. You better not be running up on their turf without the appropriate creds and documentation or you’re gonna be hearing about it real quick and run outta there. They’re great to watch; observing all happenings, defending their territory, living by instinct.
In Triund we collect the weeks bags of trash from each of the chai shops and guest houses, add them to our bags, and start dumping them all out into heaps. Glad to have the gloves finally, we spend a couple of hours sorting through and segregating everything. This was the worst part of the job, but it was still fun with everyone working.
With the work done we relax for the evening, watching the last rays of sun creep up the mountains until only the peaks are crowned with a fading golden light, and even those being quickly overtaken by the shadows rising from below.
I began thinking to myself that I might decide to stay in India a bit longer. Having been sick for three days and traveling for at least three more days, I really only had about five or six real days here.
Yes, it’s often uncomfortable. The trash, the Horns of Hell, the touts and the pushy people wear you down. England, Wales and the comforts of western culture are less than a week away. I saw the Taj Mahal and a few other things. I made a trip out of Delhi. Why not just stick with my plan?
But here I am in the Himalayas, trekking, volunteering, enjoying the beauty and the culture and having met some good friends. India is massive, and I haven’t seen but a fraction of it. And have I really gotten out of my comfort zone yet? How far? Am I just ticking the box? And not least of factors, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to live in India than Europe. Why not stay for two more weeks and get a real dose?
It gets a little chilly up in Triund at night!
* * *
The next morning we left Triund about 0830, hiking about 30 minutes to the highest and final chai shop to segregate their trash. With that being the last business, we were free to continue up the mountain to the snowline and the caves beyond, about another 1.5 hours hike.
I’m proud to say that I was with Sagar on the first occasion he saw snow in his life. Knowing this in advance, I was sure to prepare him for the pure, white, clean, fresh, light, powdery drifts in which he could frolic and make snow angels. Unfortunately, the dirty, grimy, melted and refrozen black slush and ice didn’t quite meet the expectations, nor lend itself to snow angels, but Sagar was still enthused.
We hiked beyond the snowline to the caves above. From here we took a break looked up to the peaks. I asked Abhi if he’d ever been up there. Yes. How many times? About 25. It’s another six hours hike from here at my speed.
I gazed up, compelled.
We made the journey back to Triund, and then all the way back to Bhagsu by early evening. There I changed guest houses to where the bros were staying, which was also about half the price of the Pink House. Not as classy, but you know, nice.
That night I met up with a few other Mountain Cleaners for dinner, including Caro from France, Winn, a 19-year-old dude from California, and Tashi.
Talking over dinner, Caro asked me how long I was staying in India. I told her two weeks.
“[French accent] Two weeks? What?? It’s not possible? How can you? You can’t just escape so easily!” She was incredulous.
Could I just escape so easily? Having been considering it during Triund, and after talking with Caro, for the first time this year my mind was truly split.
I thought about it for another day or so, but it was a done deal. I was staying in India for two more weeks.
* * *
So you want to be a Mountain Cleaner?