Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An artful review from Palate Press

                      A Beach Book for Wine Enthusiasts
                                                 By David White

      Rarely do wine enthusiasts have a summertime page-turner. There was Sideways, of course, the Pinot-drenched novel by Rex Pickett that became a blockbuster movie, but that hit bookstores nearly ten years ago.
       Over the past decade, many writers have tried to replicate the success of Sideways with wine-inspired fiction. But the strongest narratives have been nonfiction — books like Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which exposes the seedy underbelly of wine auctions, and Evan Dawson’s Summer in a Glass, which chronicles the history of the Finger Lakes wine region. Fortunately, oenophiles once again have a work of fiction that’s perfect for the beach: James Conaway’s Nose, released this spring by Thomas Dunne Books.
        If Conaway’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s been writing for more than 40 years. An essayist for National Geographic Traveler, Conaway is best known in wine circles for Napa:The Story of an American Eden, released in 1990, and his 2002 follow-up, The Far Side of Eden. Both works — juicy, social histories of America’s top winegrowing locale — garnered much acclaim.
       At the center of Conaway’s foray into fiction is Clyde Craven-Jones, a transplanted Briton who has become the world’s most powerful wine critic. From his adopted home in northern California, Craven-Jones — known as “CJ” — can move markets with the scores he publishes in his eponymous newsletter. So producers everywhere try to imitate “the Craven-Jones style” by producing big, boozy wines.
       Early in the novel, CJ sits for a routine tasting of nine different bottles of local Cabernet Sauvignon. Included in the blind tasting is a shiner — an unlabeled bottle that mysteriously ended up on CJ’s doorstep. That shiner isn’t just the best in the lineup — it’s the best California wine CJ has ever tasted. So he gives it a perfect score, an award he’s never bestowed upon a California wine. An investigation promptly begins, spearheaded by CJ’s wife, Claire.
In Claire’s quest to identify the wine, readers meet a collection of misfits, villains, and unlikely heroes.
       Helping Claire is Les Breeden, an unemployed journalist who decides to advertise himself as a private investigator after losing his job at the local newspaper. He spends virtually all his free time at the local dive bar, a wine geeks’ paradise called Glass Act.
       As the investigation unfolds, readers become well acquainted with two others: Jerome Hutt, a developer-turned-winery-owner whose wines are as opulent as his lifestyle; and Cotton Harrell, an ecologist-turned-winemaker who is dedicated to biodynamic farming.
Like the cheerleader and the band geek in a classic high school drama, these men serve as foils to one another. Hutt is the symbol of all that’s wrong with California’s “cult” wines and Harrell represents all that’s pure about viniculture.
       The book hints at some serious issues, from the madness of wine ratings and the changing media landscape to the alcoholism and class divisions that quietly exist in every winemaking region. But at its heart, Nose is a straightforward mystery novel. Predictable, to be sure, but with enough twists and turns it’s nearly impossible to put down.
       David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Baja bye-bye?

Several years ago I went to Baja, after a life-long desire to see the Sea of Cortez and a unique, mythic place. I found all that, and plenty of the usual                                                                                                
      Imagine a Galápagos-like finger of land nearly 800 miles long—and right next door to the United States. Or picture Florida in the 1940s, before all the coastal development—but without the fresh water. These are two descriptions I'm hearing of Baja California, the arid peninsula stretching from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, on one side the roiled Pacific Ocean and on the other the glassy Gulf of California. There flourish a dozen species of migratory whales, herds of mobula rays—the manta's occasionally airborne cousin—leatherback and other sea turtles, a healthy billfish population despite relentless overangling, hundreds of species of birds including the elusive blue-footed booby, and numerous other indigenous, even unique, aquatic and desert life-forms.
     Into this Edenic world has stepped the full force of coastal development. The tread was heaviest at Baja's tip, known collectively as "Cabo." More conscientious but problematic is tourist and residential building outside the lovely former colonial outpost of Loreto, up the east coast. And farther up yet lies a beautiful, undiscovered gem of astonishing biological fecundity, Bahía de Los Angeles, where development was still mostly rumor. What's to become of Baja is an increasingly loud debate in both Mexico and the United States, and underlying the argument is the worrisome question: Will it end up being trashed because of its unique appeal?
     "Cabo" meant very different things to different people: spring-breakers sucking down tequila Jell-O shots in El Squid Roe and the Gigglin Marlin. Wet T-shirt contests without the T-shirts. McDonald's, Häagen-Dazs, Costco. Hotels walling off the beach while sewage trickles into a crowded harbor. Golfers seriously paying to play in parched air, on unnaturally green signature courses. Gated communities with shotgun-slung guards and personal infinity pools. George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow in secluded über-resorts. Forests of rebar and embryonic condos swarming with laborers trucked in from poorest mainland Mexico—people who sleep in remote canyons without running water or services. Sun, fun, beauty, fame, oblivion, squalor.
     On one side of the 20-mile development corridor is Cabo San Lucas, and at the other San José del Cabo and the so-called cape region, all of it ringing with the sounds of hammers and snorting diesels. A parallel American vacation dream is rapidly being created down here that's transforming one of the world's most remarkable maritime landscapes and raising questions about environmental damage.
     "What environmental damage?" asked Johnny Vaughn, a partner in Grupo Questro, one of Cabo's big, multinational developers. We were tooling around Cabo San Lucas in his SUV to get some perspective on the real estate boom. "If somebody can show me how we're hurting the environment, I wish they would."  Plump and affable, Vaughn smoked a cigarette as he toted up the usual superlatives: fastest-growing resort community in Mexico; most expensive annual boat race; biggest charity events. He pointed to a lot facing the harbor, where a museum commemorating Mexico's culture and 1910 revolution was to be built. "This is the last open space on the waterfront. The museum's going to be a huge, beautiful monster."
       "Huge" is the adjective of choice here. "Look at those houses," he says, pointing to the stone palaces balanced on the ridge between the Sea of Cortés and the Pacific Ocean, in a literally over-the-top development called Pedregal. "They're huge." The biggest belongs—naturally—to the developer who put together this particular collection of conspicuous views. "They all belong to Californians, Arizonans, and Texans."
     No one is on the cobbled streets other than maids waiting for the Pedregal bus. Vaughn grew up in Sonora, far to the north, and I ask him why all the projects here are built by outsiders. "The locals aren't very good at managing things," Vaughn says. "A lot of them are descended from pirates, you know." And ranchers along the coast never paid much attention to the sea, "until we discovered it."
     "We" is Cabo's tight, seemingly autonomous, catalytic real estate community. The population of Cabo San Lucas grew exponentially when the Mexican government fingered it as the next big opportunity for tourist development. It then hovered between 60,000 and 100,000 residents, depending on who you ask.
       Vaughn marched me through a partially completed mansion to view the surging Pacific far below. Concrete was being poured 24/7 down there, facilitated by a tunnel dug through the mountain to speed up logistics. The retaining wall of one new hotel looks like a mere line drawn in the sand. "They might have a problem with a hurricane down there," he says, without condemnation, for most anything can be attempted in Cabo.
        I ask how southern Baja's going to provide water for all the multiplying thousands. "De-sal." He draws the word out. "It's a piece of cake."
     And what about the briny by-product of desalination, and all the various runoffs? Vaughn just smiles. "Look at that ocean out there. I don't think we have a problem."

        "I'm just one woman, and the developers have great power. If they want to squash you, they can."
     Her name was Norma Sánchez, and she founded Angels of the Estuary, a grassroots organization that opposed the digging of a marina near San José del Cabo by Vaughn's Grupo Questro. It was dug anyway, part of the $1-billion Puerto Los Cabos development now in full swing. A bridge being built just upstream of the San José Estuary was to bring the expected tourists and residents to four planned communities and what resembles a giant, boat-filled keyhole punched into the desert's green verge, where crops were formerly grown. The marina has berths for 400-plus boats, including, according to the website, "luxury mega yachts," and will have the usual suspects: golf courses, hotels, spas, beach clubs, condos.
     Many of the town's former residents sold out and moved to the outskirts, or away, as Sánchez had. Her soft brown eyes, under the brim of the straw hat, belied determination but also a touch of fatigue. She'd been sobered by the loss of her particular development battle to a well-oiled legal machine and what she considered the government's inability, and unwillingness, to monitor the rising tide of concrete.
"There are better ways to build than by disrupting whole towns, using up a lot of scarce water, and creating huge waste issues. Why can't developers understand that they can still make money if they do the right thing environmentally?"
     We walked across a blindingly white beach on the west side of the estuary, through what amounted to a living mirage: fresh water, dense marsh grass, gallinules and other aquatic birds, and a distant row of palms that seemed to sway in the rising thermals. "This is a very important place," she said. "It has fresh water where that's rare, and provides habitat for waterfowl and many other species," including people.
     The effect of saltwater let in by the nearby marina was still an open question. Baja's small but tenacious Mexican Center for Environmental Law up in La Paz assisted Sánchez in opposing it, and several international organizations weighed in, among them Greenpeace, whose activists chained themselves to heavy earthmoving equipment in 2006 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the marina dig.
     The marina, and Puerto Los Cabos, had the early backing of the Mexican government's Fonatur (National Fund for the Development of Tourism), the powerful agency that identifies potential tourist spots and provides infrastructure, all at public expense. These projects were then handed over to the private sector, part of a strategy that had produced some economic benefits for the country but also led to social and environmental problems like those in woefully overbuilt Cancún and other well-worn tourist venues. "Fonatur," said Sánchez, "is a partner in all these developments."
      Another spot in Baja was identified years ago by Fonatur as a prime tourist destination, Loreto, 318 miles north on the gulf and the oldest permanent Spanish settlement in the Californias. Mission Nuestra Señora de Loreto was established there in 1697, and Franciscans under the well-known Padre Junípero Serra launched the chain of missions in 1769 that would extend far up into mainland California.
     Loreto avoided much notice in Mexico City for about two centuries until, in the 1980s, Fonatur drilled wells into the one aquifer originating in the dry Giganta range, built roads on an undeveloped stretch of land 12 miles south of the town, and put in streetlights. The bay it faced was full of fish, could boast of six species of whales in season and beautiful islands just offshore in a sea alternately bottle green and cobalt blue.
     It took years for a group of investors to come up with a workable plan for a new community, Loreto Bay, and to take over where Fonatur left off. This unusual development plan called for a resort hotel, golf courses, 6,000 houses and condominiums of neocolonial design built largely of organic materials, walkable streets, shops, canals, and native flora: a "sustainable" vision on a grand scale. When complete, the community was expected to grow from 15,000 people to 120,000. Sufficient water for all this, the developers said, would come from desalination plants, power to run them from windmills to be built on Baja's west coast, everything funded by investors from the United States and Canada.
      This enormous, new-constructed "old" Mexican village was meant to function as an upscale, new urbanist retreat in the unblemished air of southern Baja.
     "Okay," says Peter Clark, squeezing lime juice into his can of Tecate, "here's the sustainability story."
     He was the director of sustainability for the Loreto Bay development and obviously loved his job. "The gnarliest problem," he confided, "is the social one."
     The Loreto Bay Company imported thousands of men from the impoverished mainland to do the manual labor. But they clashed with townspeople and contributed to already chronic housing, trash, sewage, and water problems. To address them all, Clark said, "we had to be flexible."
     For instance, the development was making its own adobe bricks that unfortunately absorbed moisture, held in the heat of 110-degree summers, and required 2,000 additional workers to create and install. "So we came up with walls made of panels of recycled Styrofoam that cut the price, shortened production time, and reduced by half the number of strange workers swimming in their underwear and chasing local girls."
       One contribution the Loreto Bay Company made to the sustainability debate was to seriously put forward the idea that it could be done on such a massive scale. But Loreto Bay had yet to fully emerge. Distant cranes stand against droughty mountains, and in the foreground partially completed streets and man-made "lagoons" snake among new foundations in the Agua Viva neighborhood, lending it, according to a salesperson, "a Venice feel." The completed houses were close together even by new urbanist standards. Local plants—mesquite, palo blanco, cordon cactus, and other species—provide the community with what Clark refers to as "a native palette." Some brackish water from the estuary was being used on the golf course.
     I wanted to believe that sustainability could do all this, but every claim gives rise to questions similar to those in Cabo: Can desalination really provide the vast amounts of freshwater required to augment the aquifer? What will be the effect of various sorts of runoff on Loreto's fragile bay and the whales that swim there? Taking tourists out to watch the whales has become one of few new economic opportunities for Loreto's fishermen.
     The development uses, and pays for, treated waste water from the town of Loreto, Clark said. Although a sewage treatment plant is nearly complete, there was still no desalination plant. Ditto the landfill. The Loreto Bay Company currently recycled cans, but it trucked garbage as far as Tijuana for disposal, at great expense. These questions had occurred to others. So far only 788 homes had been sold, and of those only 294 sales had actually closed.
     This evening, the Inn at Loreto Bay had lots of happy American guests drinking margaritas out of frosty fishbowls, paddling in kayaks near the beach, and loudly playing ping-pong under the palms. The view out to sea was hard to beat. "We have to make this work," Clark says. "In the end it's all about caring. It's about love."
      Later, the Loreto Bay Company ran into financial difficulties because early investment in the new houses lagged, so Citigroup Property stepped in and assumed controlling interest. Now the question was whether a major multinational will continue to back the original, expensive vision in hard economic times. As a member of Loreto Bay's management team told me, "Loreto's going to be the next big thing. It's going to be the next Cabo."
      Next: Loreto's whales and the end of a dream

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Friday, May 24, 2013

In search of Mata Ji, Part Two

Who are you?...                                                                                  

      The next morning my porter, a grinning young man named Ragu, hair neatly parted, clothes immaculate, shouldered my pack. In it were a sleeping bag, mat, sweater, rain gear, water bottle, flashlight, Sierra cup, Buck knife, medicine, power bars, wool trousers and assorted other advantages of the technological trekker; in addition to all this I wore the latest in light-weight foot gear, and carried a walking staff. Sharma wore only his robe and plastic lounge boots without laces, and in a cloth bag over his shoulder carried a toothbrush and extra undershirt.
     We took the trail east from Gangotri, past the mule drovers' bivouac and the naked baba's. Already women bathing in the river had spread their saris on the stones - bright swaths in glorious, angled sunlight - and ahead of us the mountains revealed massive granite corridors above the line of deodars and birches, a uniquely Himalayan landscape. Some pilgrims teetered on mule-back, bound for the glacier at Gaumukh, about 20 kilometers distant and 2,500 feet higher.
     Two half-naked sadhus with their metal tridents sat with a plump sannyasi in an orange robe, on a level spot below the trail. They waved us down. "Chilam babas," said Ram Sharma, a reference to the pipes - chilams - used by the Shaivites. These wore beads and pendants; their hair was wrapped in soiled white cloth and their eyes glassy. They had mixed ganja - pot - with tobacco and wrapped a wet cloth around the mouthpiece, as a filter. One lay on his side, the chilam pointed toward the sky, and took great lungs-full of smoke. He passed the pipe along to the other one, who chuffed and offered it to us.
     We declined did not seem to bother them. Small amounts of drugs were seen as an aid to meditation, although none of that was going on at the moment. Leaves of the same plant were mixed with milk in a drink called bong, used in some religious ceremonies. One chilam baba asked to see my binoculars and then held them inches from his face; I don't think he saw what I had seen.
     Sharma estimated that there were 250 sadhus in and around Gangotri. Almost all of them took free food from the ashrams, begged, and sold a few items when possible. India's religious institutions, with cooperation of the government, supported a vast contingent of such holy and less-than-holy, in what admirers cited as proof of the country's spirituality and what critics considered an unprecedented drain on resources and productivity.
     Later, we stopped for parathas and ginger tea at a canteen - canvas and sticks - set up beside the trail, in a place called Chirbasa, "place of pines." I asked Sharma about the authorities' tolerance of drugs in the land of the pilgrim, where even the boy squatting over the wood fire, next to stacks of biscuits and containers of mango juice - Frooti - had a twist of hand-rolled hashish in his shirt pocket. "In India," said Sharma, "there are no laws, and no accidents." By accidents he meant violent crimes. "In America, there are many laws, and so many accidents."
     That afternoon the valley broadened, and the sky, alternately blue and gun-metal gray, spat rain. We hiked under the Kedarnath range and Shivling, a striking, claw-like up-thrust reminiscent of the Matterhorn, with a crest of snow smoothly sculpted by light and distance. Like most everything else, the mountain was sacred, intimately bound up with the god of destruction and rebirth, graphic in both religious and carnal associations. Shivling was symbolic of Shiva's penis, and maybe more than symbolic, the lingham revered all over India.
     From our slope we looked down at Bhujbasa ("place of birches"), a government-run way station and a neighboring ashram, backed by bare, tilled earth. Stones held down the corrugated metal roof, and white mattresses aired in the thin light of early evening. An old man in glasses with thick, scarred lenses sat on a stone wall reading the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, an episode in the ancient legend, the Mahabharata.
     We drank sweet tea from metal glasses and then passed under the low eaves of the kitchen where huge brass pots hung over a cooking fire. A dozen sannyasin in turbans sat against the wall, their ringed fingers dipping into mounds of steaming rice, the whites of their eyes illuminated by the flames. We walked on to the government dormitory, where we chose beds from a dozen lining the wall, under wooden shutters that opened onto a courtyard full of mules and their owners. Pilgrims and porters sat in a room at the end of the dark hall, the lanterns barely penetrating the depths of a kitchen where men in filthy clothes labored over the wood stove.
     Sharma, Ragu and I ate dal and curried vegetables, the eternal combination of Garhwal, grateful for the warmth and the ballast. It was a medieval scene:  bundled pilgrims at communal tables, in the gloom of candlelight, none relishing the night ahead, tough old crones resting their chins on their metal-tipped walking staffs, determined men resisting fatigue and the cold, a pretty young Indian woman covering her mouth with a corner of shawl and wiping away tears with another.
     Back in the dormitory, I burrowed under a coverlet redolent of someone else's feet. Sharma, the Brahmin, talked softly with two engineers from balmy, southern Mysore, members of the Kshatriyas caste, one level below his own. Until this trip these men had never even put on sweaters; now they were wrapped in everything they had, including garbage bags, speaking English because they knew no Hindi and Sharma knew no Kannada. "We practiced walking on a hill behind our house," said one, daunted by real mountains.
     I awoke before dawn to see Sharma sitting up in bed, cacooned in his coverlet, meditating. I got up while the mules were being harnessed in the courtyard and went for tea; when I returned, Sharma was standing on his head, in his underwear.
     We took the trail to Gaumukh and the Ganges glacier, a mass of ice and up-heaved earth indistinguishable from the mountain itself, under a bright sun. At almost 13,000 feet a few entrepreneurs still sold Frooti; pilgrims bathed in just-thawed water that contained the first blush of what would become the awesome sedimental load of the Ganges. Then they headed back toward Gangotri.                                   
      We kept climbing. The ground looked solid but was in fact ice and dirt, scored by crevasses. The retreating glacier had left a towering moraine, and we paused often in the long, near-vertical ascent, blowing in the rarified air and gazing back at broad, dun-colored valleys and scree slopes like mile-long tendrils of broken rock; the people below dwindled to invisibility.
     Near the top, Ram Sharma said, "I am about to go to heaven."
     Tapovan means "valley of meditation" but was in fact a high, grassy plateau at the edge of which stood a stone house built into over-hanging rock, with paneless windows and a low doorway. Empty rice and lentil sacks were spread on the dirt porch like welcome mats, and on them sat four blanketed sadhus, not Shaivites but followers of Vishnu. A dark figure emerged from the house, woolen cap pulled down over a mass of hair: it was Mata Ji, the woman I had come thousands of miles to see, carrying a blackened pot in one hand and a rag in the other, wearing a blanket coat with holes at the knees, red wool socks and floppy, high-topped sneakers.
     She hugged Sharma, who presented her with mangoes and cucumbers purchased in Gangotri. She pressed her hands together in the traditional Hindu greeting when we had been introduced, her eyes quickly taking in my western clothes and, I suspected, all my limitations. Then she went back inside, urging us in Hindi to relax and take some chi - tea - before lunch.
     It arrived on metal plates: rice, dal, clarified butter, more rice, more dal, more chi, all dispensed by Mata Ji, with the help of two resident sadhus. Her name meant, roughly translated, "respected mother," and the maternal aspects of hermitry became increasingly apparent. Another group of sadhus came and dumped their bundles unceremoniously, expecting chow; Mata Ji fed them and then swept the porch, fetched water, washed clothes and spread them on rocks to dry. This was, for all practical purposes, a high Himalayan hostel for which Mata Ji charged nothing, but she did accept donations. "You just come here for sleeping," she told Sharma, who was gazing up at lenticular clouds whipping past the beacon of Shivling. Her gap-toothed laugh resonated like the swami's.
     She eyed my notebook with skepticism. Her natural reticence auguring against the traditional interview, but gradually some facts emerged: she was 65, an orphan who had grown up in an ashram in the south of India devoted to Krishna, one of the nine incarnations of Vishnu. Krishna had been raised by peasants and had special appeal for the working classes of India. Mata Ji had come to the Himalayas - as had the naked baba, and Ram Sharma - because a guru advised it, sufficient motivation in India, a journey made 13 years before. She had spent the last six winters alone in Tapovan with her Gita and kerosene stove.
     What I had imagined as a remote, empty place supported a steady stream of traffic: more sadhus carrying bundles with head straps from Bhujbasa to temporary encampments up-valley, where white flags flew; a Nepalese climbing party bristling with equipment; two western women in beads and blowzy skirts, sun-burned, walking barefoot over the plateau with shoes in hand. "Hey," said one, recognizing Sharma, "can you change a traveler's check?"
     She was American, her friend British, both formerly of the ashram at Pura, still in search of the proper guru. They were for the moment chilam baba hopping, taking advantage of India's cheapness, its broad acceptance of the unconventional, its respect for the religious quest, and the ready availability of chemical substances.
     I asked, when they had strolled on, what Mata Ji thought of the increasing number of western swami wanna-bes seeking pleasure and high-priced holy men in India. She said, "It is bad for the country," a bit of conservative logic from a celibate, abstemious Vishnuite living in the massive shadow of Shiva's reproductive organ. But she was a Vishnuite, and Vishnu was the preserver, an aspect of Hinduism that inspired Mata Ji's devotion to the people around her, whatever their proclivities, proven by the arrival of a party of young professionals from Delhi.
     They crowded into Mata Ji's little house and sat with their resplendent gear bunched around them, like children, not sadhus or even casual seekers after the truth but the Indian equivalent of yuppies - an advertising executive, a computer salesperson, a bank clerk suffering from altitude sickness, and three others, plus porters - and they clearly expected to be provided for.
     The sun was setting. The air felt charged with the bleak promise of the Himalayan night. One of Mata Ji's assistants prayed in the adjoining cave, his gaunt frame silhouetted against the candlelight. By my count there were 19 people in space equivalent to the inside of a Airstream trailer, with smoke emanating from incense sticks and the cooking nook. I rued the absence of a tent.
     The respected mother barked out a single order in Hindi that drove her guests backs against the walls. A sadhu rolled black plastic sheeting down the middle of the floor: our table cloth. Soon it was crowded with tin plates full of streaming rice and vegetables, and cups of chi, all whipped up on the single-burner kerosene stove and a smoldering pile of charcoal. Then Mata Ji dispensed blankets. The bank clerk disappeared beneath his ration, and the rest of us stretched out, shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, all shyness mitigated by the frigid air that soon filled with coughs, snores, and the mutterings of troubled dreamers.
     At 2 a.m., worried about the oxygen supply, I crawled outside and lay on the stone porch, piled with everything I owned. Overhead was a southern, star-pierced sky I didn't know, scored with meteors seemingly falling out of Tibet. Shivling, back-lit by the moon, trailed cloud across broad, luminous snowfields. At dawn the tip lit up like a light bulb, the knife's edge of the descending warmth etching vertical lines between ice and rock.
     The bank clerk miraculously recovered and he and his party left, full of chi and goodwill. I and Ram Sharma were unexpectedly invited into Mata Ji's cave, which served as her temple, and Sharma confided, "I told her your daughter studied the Hindu religion."
     The little altar supported a framed painting of Krishna, a conch shell - symbol of Vishnu - a kerosene lantern and a basket of scarves, Mata Ji's only sartorial variant. She rarely had heat even in winter, when the rarified air made fires, and breathing, incompatible. Then the temperature could descend far below zero; sheets of ice often covered the front of the house. Hallucinations tended to precede spring thaw.
     A malla hung on the wall, the wooden beads turned dark by the touch of her fingers. Prayer, and chanting, helped her endure what was to me unimaginable. "If the soul is satisfied," she said matter-of-factly, "the body doesn't matter."
     She lit two incense sticks and prepared an offering: scented paraffin in a metal cup, set atop the lantern to melt. She twisted a wick from cotton strands and lit that, too, and opened a notebook so battered it barely hung together. With a ballpoint pen from a carefully husbanded stash she recorded the date, a daily ritual that allowed her to keep track of religious holidays. Then she took a mirror from an ancient wooden case, dipped a fingertip into a tin of sandlewood paste and, studying her dark reflection surmounted by the ragged wool cap, made two bright orange streaks from eyebrows to hairline - the color of chrysanthemums floating on the Ganges.
     I asked if there was anything Mata Ji desired. She thought for a moment. "To have no desires, and nothing to break the rhythm of life."
     I could think of only one really appropriate question, sophomoric perhaps in the world at large but quite natural, asked in a smoke-scumbled cave at 14,000 feet, in one of the most beautiful valleys on earth. "Life," she answered, putting away her mirror, "is for discovering who you are."

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