Okay, here’s the disclaimer up front: there will be a lot of baby animal pics in this post. I can’t help myself!!! And I admit, seeing their sweet faces motivates me to walk every day, and sometimes twice a day! Who can resist this face?
Many of us walk the village paths in the morning as the sun rises over the Tamil Nadu mountains that surround the towns of Coonoor, Bedford, and Wellington. My favorite early morning walk takes us up the hill behind the retreat through Pemberly Estates, a long row of vacant second homes, all painted white with brick tiled roofs and beautiful gardens full of lilies, red passion flowers, lantana, roses, vinca and ivy, and radiant hot pink bougainvillea that the owners rarely enjoy. There are banana trees, coconut palms, and orange birds of paradise. After a month of our daily walks, I finally stop taking pictures of the poinsettias trees that line the roadway.
The road dead ends at the top of a hill where there a pair cell towers rises uncharacteristically out of the surrounding tea plantation. A tiny red dirt path leads from the end of the paved road through the bright green tea bushes to the beginning of a wide concrete stairway that flanks the village of Bharatnagar on the left.
On the right to the West is a field of tea dotted with eucalyptus trees that spans as far as you can see, engulfing an occasional estate, but mostly it is just lush green all the way down to the valley where the villages of Wellington town sit bundled around a military base. Here’s a photo at sunset:
In the early morning, though, the first sunlight comes up over Bharatnagar in the east and shines across the valley touching the mountaintops that rise up behind Wellington and the far away villages folded into the eucalyptus forests, fire trees, and purple jacarandas. Every morning I am excited to see the sun spread its pink light over the hills and painted villages below. At 6,500 feet above sea level, we are higher up than Mt. Washington, and the peaks are covered in scrub and dust. At home the mountains are still under a blanket of snow, but no one here has ever seen it before, so even when Annie and I try to explain, they don’t understand when we tell them our town just got two feet.
The steps alongside the village are steep, slanted downslope, and many are cracked and require strong quads whether you are descending or huffing it uphill. It is a long walk all the way down to the main road where the lorries, tuk tuks, and cars wind around the switchback roads, but up here at the top, all you can hear are the morning sounds of roosters crowing, people washing last night’s dishes by sunrise light, and children waking up for school.
One little girl is out every day with a pail of water, standing at the edge of the steps where a deep channel carries her toothpaste away with the gray water; everything from trash to sewage to last night’s dinner flows downhill here. Brendan and I have seen her so many times now, that he admits disappointment when one morning on his walk she is absent from her perch beside the steps where she usually stands to wash each morning. Birds pick at rice, and goats scavenge foliage and trash equally. It hasn’t rained in months, so there is a lot of litter stuck in the gullies.
One of the reasons I love walking this way so often is the laundry. What is menial labor for the natives becomes art for me. It is no less beautiful than a landscape painting, and there is plenty of material here to make pictures. The second reason is the villagers. Each day we see the same people beginning their day, and it is an intimate time that we feel privileged to witness, even if it would not be their choice for us to see: people brush their teeth, wash their feet, and mothers comb hair into braids. They wave to us, smile as they say “good morning,” and some, I am sure, wonder why we walk around and around their village so many mornings and afternoons. The scene is never the same twice, and there is always something new to captivate our attention, like this little family with their puppy AND their amazing laundry!
Clearly the third very important reason, and what has become a focus for me, is the animals. This year, unlike last February, the village abounds with kittens and puppies, not to mention baby goats, tired old dogs, and sprightly chickens. There are wild bison allowed to roam the tea, and even though a young woman was gored to death while trying to take a selfie with her husband earlier this year, the villagers continue to let them wander free along with the cows which walk the streets as much as the fields here. A woman in the village even keeps an aviary full of canaries and parakeets where a tiny calico and fluffy white puppy sit nearby watching wings flutter.
The very first morning I walk with Annie, a ginger cat sits at the top of the steps, and as we come around the bend from the tea he pauses long enough to study me; I take a single snap, then he trots away to his house. I think of my lost kitty, Mr. Paws.
A few days later, I am walking with Mary Jo when I see another orange tiger sitting up on a wide stump; he lets me pet him, and when I scratch his chin, I can feel his happy purr. He has big paws, rich orange stripes, and eyes like Pawsie’s.
Another afternoon while walking with our group, I spot a white and gray-striped kitty. She is facing away from me, uphill. While everyone else stops to talk with the locals, I call to her, and as I bend down to pet this sweet baby, she turns her slender face upwards, revealing the most gorgeous cat eyes I have ever seen. They are pure turquoise, the color of Caribbean waters, and I admit, she completely takes my breath away as she looks at me. We hold each other’s gaze for a few long moments; then she blinks at me, and when the children come begging for a selfie, she steps her tiny feet off the path into the littered brush. For the rest of the day, I can’t think of anything else but this little cat.
The next day I come back to find her, and when I lift her soft fur into my arms, and a man named Moses tells me I should take her home with me. Hold on a second. Home? Anyone who knows me will understand that this invitation leads to three nights of research into what it would take to bring this kitty all the way home to NH in just one week’s time. After losing two of my beloved kitties barely four months ago, I had no plans to take in a new pet, and Puddy Tat needs all the love he can get now, having lost his buddies… but this cat… I ask the people who owns her. What is her name? Another man says what sounds like my name. Seriously? The cat and I have the same name: Catie, I later learn, is the spelling.
The villagers who have now gathered around are laughing that this little blue eyed kitty and I have the same name. “You take home. You take her? Take back with you.” My heart races. I have a retreat to lead! I tell them I will come back again soon, and run to catch up with my group before I can scoop her up and take her with me on the spot!
I go out again with John a couple afternoons later to visit a family he has become friends with over the years. In the interim I have prayed that this kitty has a parent–a family that loves her. Otherwise I am seriously considering taking her to get the required veterinary papers, a pet passport, to alert the airlines I will have a cabin pet, and then to break the news to Declan that we have a new feline to add to the family. I half hope there is no one, and that I can rescue her; or maybe she will rescue me from my months of grief?
There are goats and pups on the way, as there always are, and John and I stop to watch one baby goat run around in circles and kick up his little legs with joy! Children watch us watching the goat (like why would we think this is interesting?), but I film this funny baby getting in his kicks, and then the kids laugh because we are laughing. He stops long enough for me to get a still picture:
On some walks the dogs stand guard and howl when we pass; other times they just watch us with quiet curiosity.
One morning Brendan is attacked by a rooster, and even though a couple village men cone to his aid, it is an older woman who rescues him from the angry pecking bird whose tail is all afluster. I wish I had a picture of that one; I giggle every time I try to picture the scene!
Oh, and I have to include this pup who I meet at a market stall. I stop to get my camera out, and he cocks his head, big eyes looking up, one ear folded. When I say “Hey Puppy!” his jaw opens, and he literally smiles, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth. He is so adorable!
So many sweet animals, some with families, some homeless street creatures. I wonder where all the strays sleep every night. All along I have been thinking of Catie, and when we get to the place where I have seen her on other days, I ask for her. No one knows what I am asking, and Catie is not to be found. I talk with my hands. I sound out the words for cat, kitty, kitten, Catie. Finally, the women bring out a pretty lady and I ask her: “Do you know where the kitty is? Catie, the little kitten who sits here sometimes?” She acknowledges my question and motions with her hand for me to wait. She returns with the kitten, whose turquoise eyes close when the sunlight hits them. She hands her to me happily, and we all smile. I know the answer before I ask the question. “Is this your kitty?” I ask as I press Catie into my neck. She purrs loudly, a strong rumble for such a little body. She nods her head yes. “She is yours? You feed her?” Another nod and smile. “Does she sleep in your house with you at night? She has a bed in your house? Inside… at night?” I am happy, relieved, and sad all at the same time. She reassures me with her beautiful smile that she loves this kitty. Tears fill my eyes, and they use my phone to take pictures of me with Catie’s mama before I hand her back tenderly and say goodbye. I hope she is here when I come back, maybe next year. It hurts to pull myself away, and they don’t understand my tears. I am still crying for my own lost kitties.
All the way home I meet orange kittens. I am a cat magnet. It’s as if Pawsie and Sweetie are walking by my side, reassuring me that all is well, and my heart will be just fine. Here are just a few of my feline babies, every one an orange tiger or calico like my two angel cats.
Finally, just before walking back into the tea toward the retreat, I encounter this little man, and we play through a piece of burlap sack strung up as a wind barrier. He is frisky and light on his toes. I am laughing out loud as he pulls his body along the turquoise cloth with his claws and peeks his snout under at me, whiskers rubbing on the concrete slab. He has no cares as he skeedaddles up a row of stone steps, springs off his silly feet when he sees a stealthy dog hiding out, but then pretends he doesn’t care as he prances back down, baby fur peaked along his spine, a little grumbling meow as he walks by me once again toward another white pooch who tries to ruffle his catness. He has no patience for his dog brothers and whisks back to the burlap, engages my fingers in a risky game that only he can win. My thumb is nicked in a flash, just like so many times before in games with Mr. Paws (he earned his namesake over and over despite our injuries); this Mr. Mini Claws only takes a moment to relax when his mama holds him on her shoulder. Long enough for a kiss, then he is gone.
Like everything in this life, we only get to hold things for awhile, then it is time to let go. This surrender is the hardest part, and we make it infinitely difficult when we hold on; practice helps. We do our best to let go of our children when they drive out with their license that very first time, and we peel our fingertips off their shoulders when we leave them at college and take first that long walk back to the car and try not to cry, at least not til we are out of their sight. We say goodbye at funerals, like I did with my 94 year-old Nana on January 7th at her snowy service down the street from the house where she raised her family for seventy years; what will it be like without her in the kitchen the next time I visit? We weep when our beloved pets die, leaving us too soon for some other realm. I swear each time I won’t have another pet; saying goodbye hurts too much. We surrender the wish that our bodies won’t change as we age and begin to accept the wrinkles as a sign of wisdom, the gray hairs as highlights, and instead find new ways to support our life’s journey rather than getting stuck in old stories of who we were. We begin to see the shifting of friendships as okay instead of clinging to judgement, and we start to clean out the clothes in our closets we haven’t worn in a decade, along with the opinions in our minds we are finally willing to sacrifice because they lock us into the past. All of these cats here in India, especially Catie, teach me that in order to find peace, I need to let them go. Not them physically, but the idea of them… that I can rescue them, or that I need to fill my empty spaces, or that I need something I don’t have. They teach me to let everything go, really.
For the first time in a long while, I can’t find any fear or sadness or anger in my heart. And I feel so grateful for Puddy who waits for me at home, ready for my full attention for the first time in his life as a solo pet. Walking into the tea I feel weightless. Pawsie walks beside me, along with all my other kitties. Letting go has allowed each one of them to come home to rest in my happy heart.