Young, Stupid and Free in the Indian Himalayas
I was just a week and a half into my open-ended backpacking trip in India. After a couple of chaotic days in Delhi that overwhelmed the senses – the tangy aromas of the street food juxtaposed with the nauseating smell of urine from the outside urinals, the frightening touch of a stranger’s tap on my arm as he begged for a few rupees, the sweet taste of the hot chai, the pleadings of five rickshaw drivers at once (“Alo, rickshaw?” “Alo, rickshaw?”) – my friend Joy and I moved on to Manali, a northern village with the beautiful snowcapped Himalayan mountains in the distance. It offered fresh air, cute cabin-like guest houses, a peaceful vibe, and was a welcome contrast to the intensity of Delhi.
The previous night, Joy and I had decided to go our separate ways the next morning. She wanted to stick to the itinerary she had meticulously planned down to every last detail, while I wanted to go with the flow in true shanti India-style. That was our excuse, at least, but we also couldn’t much stand the sight of each other after spending 24 hours a day together since our arrival to India. I was in a foreign place, in what seemed like a different world in a distant time, but my 24-year-old self was ready to take it on, on my own, in my own way. I had the security of knowing that I wouldn’t really be alone wherever I went, because there would always be an Israeli nearby to help me out or to travel with if I wanted. Not to say I wasn’t afraid, but that fear exhilarated and reassured me.
I would continue on my journey with Meital instead. We had met at a Shabbat dinner a few days earlier at the Chabad house, and this way I would have someone to travel with to Kasol, the next destination I spontaneously decided on. We arranged to meet early the next morning at the bus station, to take a direct tourist bus (meaning a bus with decent conditions, more expensive than the rugged “local buses”).
I was in a foreign place, in what seemed like a different world in a distant time, but my 24-year-old self was ready to take it on, on my own, in my own way.
When the next morning came, however, Meital was not at our meeting spot. Since I was traveling without a cell phone for a much needed disconnect from the real world, we had no way of contacting each other. Rather than allowing Meital’s flakiness to deter me, I picked up my backpack and hopped onto the bus alone. I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery outside my window as a tingly sensation rushed down my spine. My real trip was starting now.
We arrived at the final stop… but this wasn’t Kasol. What was going on, why were we at a place called Khullu – where was I? When all of the passengers and I got off the bus, among the blur of dark faces a blond head stuck out above the crowd. Phew. It was another tourist. At least I wasn’t alone. He saw me too and we walked toward each other. This tall, Polish man, although from a different country, background, religion and culture than myself, was not foreign to me at this moment. Surrounded by locals from this strange planet, we were the same. He looked just as confused as I was. We ended up discovering, by piecing together bits of broken English from a few different locals, that we had one more bus to take to get to Kasol. Our only choice was a local bus.
We waited together for about a half hour until the bus arrived. I took one look at it and understood what was meant by a ‘local’ bus. It was run-down and packed. All I could see was hundreds of sweaty arms tangled up together. There was no way we would fit.
And then we were inching up a mountain. A mountain! I clung to the tire as we curved and swerved up the mountain edge. We were really high up now.
The ticket collector shot us an impatient, inquisitive glare, and my fellow Westerner and I glanced at each other. There was no point attempting to squeeze into the mess inside, but we didn’t want to wait for the next bus, since we had no idea when that would be. A few young men and teenage boys were climbing up a ladder onto the roof of the bus. We realized we had a split second to decide what to do. Yalla, I thought. How many chances would I have to do this kind of thing? Before I knew it, we were climbing up the ladder too.
In addition to Peter and myself (by now my new travel companion and I had exchanged names), there were about 15 other men sitting on the roof, plus some large wooden crates that took up a lot of space, causing us all to huddle uncomfortably close to one another. I copied one of the men and sat on a tire that lay flat on the hot metal roof floor, tied with some rope to the short rooftop side. At least I would have something to hold on to.
The bus jolted forward, forcing us rooftop travelers to nearly topple on top of each other… and we were off.
The only woman among all of these men, the men’s eyes seemed to be glued to me, and I felt vulnerable, but decided to embrace the situation. This isn’t so bad, I thought. I mean, if my parents knew what I was doing right now they’d have heart attacks, but it doesn’t seem so dangerous.
And then we were inching up a mountain. A mountain! I clung to the tire as we curved and swerved up the mountain edge. We were really high up now. The road was an incredibly narrow, rocky, squiggly path. My hair was wildly blowing in the wind, sticking out with nothing below it but what looked like a couple thousand feet of nothingness, the ground a faraway concept. Above our heads were trees. I had to duck my head every time a branch threatened to chop it off. The bus felt as though it was driving on a diagonal, this close to falling off the cliff and bringing us to our deaths. I screamed every so often as my stomach flipped during an extra steep curve. But throughout the ninety-minute journey, my mouth was spread wide in a grin. Peter and I would exchange a look from time to time and burst into laughter. Although just one false move and I may not have lived to tell the tale, this rooftop bus ride was the most alive I have ever felt.
We made it to Kasol, safe and sound. I breathed a sigh of relief, said bye to Peter and headed to whatever my next adventure would be.
Would I do this again? No. Would I recommend this to someone else? Not if I like that person. But I’m so thankful that I did it, that I was young, stupid and free, that I let myself have this once-in-a-lifetime experience. My trip had truly only just begun.