The monkeys here can be ferocious. They live in packs, and the further you get from town, the bolder they become.
I began the long ascent from McLeod Ganj to Dharamkot. It takes you past the bustling Tibetan restaurant with the clean puppies and the butterscotch toffee cookies, to the steep, rutted dirt road that climbs and climbs until you are breathless and damp with sweat. Once you have shed all extra layers of clothing, and downed half of your water bottle, the road continues to wind its way up, past the Tushita Meditation Center, and on towards the colorful, Israeli-dominated town of Dharamkot. In between, there is nothing but dripping trees, slick red mud, and steep slopes that slide away into a dark, misty abyss.
As I made my way up the hill, I saw two colorfully-clad Indian women come into sight. One wore a bright yellow sari with a red scarf covering her breasts and shoulders, and the other was adorned in blue and gold. They giggled as they walked, plastic shopping bags swinging from their arms. I caught up with them quickly, and just as I was about to pass, I watched one of them bend down and pick up a stick. I looked up. A pack of monkeys was crossing the road.
The women strode forward boldly, unafraid, one of them swinging the stick aggressively at the monkeys. The monkeys quickly loped across the road, looking back over their shoulders at us human intruders. The woman continued to wave the stick, and the monkeys continued to watch, their bright eyes following our every movement, tiny babies hanging from their shaggy fur. When we had passed the monkeys unscathed, the woman threw the stick away.
Minutes later, I heard them gasp in front of me. I looked up again. An even bigger pack of monkeys was lounging in the low-hanging branches of a tree just ahead. I knew the stick was gone, but I had a weapon of my own. I bounced the umbrella up and down in my hand a couple of times, feeling its weight, and testing out its ass-kicking efficiency. It felt pretty good. The Indian women looked back, fear in their eyes, and asked without words if they could walk with me. Their weapon discarded somewhere down the road, they suddenly felt helpless. I smiled and joined them.
The monkeys watched as we approached. They were perched on a low, heavy branch, big monkeys, small monkeys, monkeys munching on nuts, monkeys focused intently on us. A few babies chattered and chirped, jumping onto their mother’s backs or tugging on their mangy brown fur. As we began to walk past, all of their heads turned in unison, marking our progress with an eerie similarity.
I began swinging the umbrella. I swung it in circles like a baton, round and round, watching the monkeys heads follow. Then I began jabbing it like a spear, reckless, a crazy woman. The monkeys continued to watch, fascinated. As we passed them, I turned around and began walking backwards, swinging the umbrella again, making big circles as though to draw a line of protection over our backs, an invisible barrier only a crazy monkey would dare to pass. I gave a few more good jabs in their direction before I turned around and began walking forward again, a bend in the road providing us with all of the protection we would now need.
When I turned back around, the Indian women were looking at me with an expression on their faces that seemed to say, “Damn girl, nice work! We didn’t think you had it in you!” I smiled back and gave another jab with the umbrella, pointing it at my innocent victim, the road. They laughed, and one of the women held her hand up for a high-five. I had no idea Indian women knew how to high-five.