Saturday, August 16, 2008

Adventurers Past and Present

Wednesday I awaken with a healed belly. It must be Raju’s wife’s food, I think. It’s magical.

Phoebe and Tommy join us for breakfast and, as usual, I share my paranta with them. They politely wait under the table for me to dispense their treat.

I grab the leftover liter of Manali mineral water and stow it in my backpack. We’ll need it for the bus ride.

Jonaki goes looking for the bottle a few minutes later, unaware that I’ve packed it, and witnesses a scene in the kitchen. The kittens have flipped over the leftover plate of toast and each one has a slice. Tommy bullies them all away and gobbles up the bread. Raju’s wife sees this whole thing go down and has a fit. She emerges from the kitchen with a branch full of leaves she is using to swat at the kittens. Tommy is kicked out. She tells Jonaki that Tommy isn’t even their dog. They haven’t been feeding him but the guests keep giving him biscuits so he won’t leave. She raises an eyebrow at Jonaki, who remains silent on the subject.

Poor unwanted Tommy. He is such an affectionate boy. He just wants a home.

Back at our porch, Raju wanders over. I’ve been wondering when he was going to ask for payment. Now is the moment, and it’s good, because the cab is ready and waiting to drive us to Manali where we’ll catch the bus.

We decided on this plan after all when we saw what Aut was like: just a tiny town crammed with a jumble of shops. No bus station. No bus stop. If we wanted to catch the bus there, we’d have to stand in the dark at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night and hope it stopped for us. The safe route is to go to Manali and get the bus from the station. It’s about three hours north, so we have to leave right after breakfast.

Raju makes some calculation in his head and tells us we owe him 8,000 rupees. I quickly count out the four thousand that is my half of this payment. Jonaki does the same, but when Raju walks away, she wonders how he came to that tally. It was supposed to be 1,250 a night. It should have cost 5,000 rupees. I knew she’d quoted me the price, but didn’t even realize the inflation until it was too late and I’d already paid.

“Oh well, white tax,” I tell Jonaki.

“White tax, city tax, woman tax,” she adds. These could all be factors. Still, it seems dishonest to quote us one price, then almost double it when our stay is over. Even though my stay and all the food ended up costing under a hundred U.S. dollars, I still feel robbed. I’m glad, though, that Raju didn’t come up with a higher number, one that we didn’t have enough money to pay him. We could have become hostages for all I know.

Still, it was a beautiful place and peaceful, and worth the money. I kiss my new girlfriends goodbye and they bow their heads. Goodbye Bulbul, goodbye Phoebe. Tommy is nowhere to be found, but I give Yeti a pat on the head.

Raju helps us into the cable car and shoots us across the river, following closely behind with my large, heavy suitcase, now a bit heavier for having a few rocks added to its weight. At the far side of the Tirthan, we meet our driver who helps us get our luggage into his trunk.

I say goodbye to Raju. He folds his hands and bows his head; I extend my hand for an American handshake before I can think to return his gesture.

We climb into the backseat of the little silver car and go bumping off down the rocky road. A few hundred yards from the cottage, I see a man in camouflage, walking with a giant rifle. He looks scary to me. He doesn’t look like he’s planning on scaring any crows with his gun. I am glad we didn’t run into him on our walks; glad we didn’t venture off too far from Raju’s property.

The car passes several areas that appear to have had landslides. Men with shovels crouch on the sides of the street. Men with stretchers full of rocks lug them out of the roadway.

“You’re holding on for dear life,” Jonaki tells me when she sees me gripping the handle on the car’s ceiling. I look at my hand. I’ve made fingernail indentations in it. I loosen my grip a little and find my fingers almost locked.

We rattle by tiny towns set into the hills and I think again about the emergency medical evacuation warning in my guidebook. What do these people do when they have an emergency? They probably do nothing. They probably accept their fate. The same thing will probably happen to Raju’s dogs. There is no emergency vet clinic out here. No vet clinic at all, probably.

We come upon a town with a guest house in it. Right after the town, a bulldozer is scooping mud and rock from the roadway. Our driver downshifts and, for a minute, I think we’re going to get stuck. But the little car powers through. I am surprised to see a bulldozer at all. I wonder where it came from, but I am glad it’s here.

After about an hour, we make it back to the main road. I can tell because I recognize the dam and the long tunnel we went through just before reaching Aut. This time I count the length of time it takes to get through the tunnel. Over three minutes.

We have the windows open and the air is stale, full of exhaust, lit only by amber lights. About three-quarters of the way through, we come upon a truck with the front smashed in. There must have been an accident.

The main road is better. I see no signs of landslides, no mud or rocks anywhere. I relax a little, but still hold on. There are no seat belts in the backseat of this little car and the ride is still a bit jarring.

We follow the Kullu River through it’s valley, coming upon a sprawling town by the same name. Would we like to see a shawl factory? The driver wants to know.

I decline. I’m a little anxious about getting to Manali in time, plus this may be another of those special arrangements wherein the driver gets kickback money for bringing in customers. I don’t feel like getting pressured into buying a shawl. I’m not really a shawl-wearing type of girl. Jonaki says the same.

Through town we pass about four shawl factories. Everything’s a shawl factory here; a shawl factory or an “English wine shop.” Why couldn’t the driver have offered to stop at one of those?

About two hours into our ride, we leave the main road and climb a series of narrow cutbacks up the top of one of the hills. This is the Roerich museum; a stop that Raju recommended we make on our way. Jonaki has heard of Nicolas Roerich before. She saw one of his paintings in a museum in Chennai and says it was beautiful. She wanted to come to this museum two years ago when the development group was in Manali for the National Sales Meeting, but it was too far out of the way. She’s excited to see it now.

The driver pulls over and points us up a walking path that goes straight up to the top of the mountain. We get out of the car and climb a stony staircase. I feel like I can’t breathe, like there’s no air, like I’m going to pass out and Jonaki will have to drag me by my hair back to the cab. We pause half way up, panting worse than the 17-year-old Phoebe in the thin mountain air.

At the top of the hill there are two smallish buildings. A barefoot man listening to a tiny radio takes fifteen rupees each from us. The building we enter has Tibetan folk art and traditional dress on the ground floor and a few paintings on the second floor (which in India is called the first floor). Most all of the Roerich pieces are reproductions, the “real” ones are in the big cities’ museums.

We exit this building and Jonaki sees the other one. She walks in. I follow. This second building is full of artifacts and displays from the life of Nicolas Roerich and his family. They, apparently, were Victorian explorers of the first rank and founded this institute to further their study of the civilization and flora and fauna of India. They conducted all kinds of grandiose research and expeditions in the Himalayas, cataloguing coins, rocks, feathers, whatever they could pick up and label. One of the rooms of this building still has a sign on the door from their occupancy. It reads, “Cancer Research.” George Roerich was convinced he could do it all. A modern psychiatrist might diagnose this as bipolar mania as evidenced by grandiose delusions. To the Victorians, it was strapping heroism.

We walk down the steep climb. Thankfully, this is easier than our ascent. At the bottom on the hill, there are more things to see: another gallery, the home of the Roerich’s, a memorial to them. I am about Roeriched out when Jonaki spends a seeming eternity considering which postcard or print to purchase. We walk out into the rain and toward the winding path that leads to the memorial. A honeymooning couple walks ahead of us. Jonaki is irritated by them. “Did you see her wearing sunglasses in the rain?” she asks.

I tell Jonaki I’d rather not walk down the slippery rocks to the memorial in the rain. It looks like it’s quite a ways away, and I saw a sign when we entered that said not to run because the path is crumbling and could fall. Instead, we walk upstairs where we can peep inside the Roerich’s home. Here, there is a sign that says only 20 people are allowed at a time. The house could fall down. It seems there is peril at every turn when you’re visiting the Roerichs.

Some young men have followed us up from the memorial pathway. They stare at me, kind of giggling, and take pictures with me in the distant background.

Finally, we have exhausted the perusing possibilities at the International Roerich Memorial Trust. We pop up our umbrellas and walk back towards the cab. Jonaki is hungry. There are restaurants here, but I thought she wanted to try to find the pizza place in Manali. Can she wait until we get there? Yes.

The driver wants to know if we want to see a castle. If we had more time and if I knew where this castle was, I might say yes. But as it is, it’s getting late in the afternoon and I want to get to Manali. I don’t want to miss that bus and end up god knows where looking at a castle. It is an intriguing and appealing offer, though. I do wonder what an Indian castle in the middle of the Himalayan foothills looks like, and why it’s there.

We get stopped on our way out of the Trust’s grounds because the road is only wide enough for one vehicle. Our driver has to back up several hundred yards to let the oncoming cars past.

We drive back down the narrow, winding road and take a route to Manali that is decidedly not the main highway. It is bumpy and narrow. On the way, we stop at a little roadside shack. Jonaki wants water. She buys biscuits too. They’re good; banana flavored. About an hour later, we arrive in Manali. Rows of buildings form tiers up the side of the valley. The driver asks for the name of the pizza place. Jonaki doesn’t know, but she’ll know it when she sees it. It’s on the way to the Hadimba temple where she went with the people from the office when they were here two years ago. Her office mates weren’t interested in pizza when they came; they all wanted to get to the temple before dark.

Jonaki sees a sign that says “Il Forno Italian Restaurant.” This is it! We pull off the steep road and find a little wooden cottage nestled into the side of the mountain. Inside, I spy a large espresso machine. I am elated. I know I shouldn’t have a coffee drink before I embark on a long bus ride on which I’m hoping to sleep soundly, but I can’t resist. I order an espresso. We sit outside under the awning at a table with a red checked tablecloth. A little black dog comes and sits beside me. It’s good because I’m already missing the trail guides from Raju’s Cottage. They each had such endearing personalities. It was too easy to fall in love with them, ticks and all.

We order our pizzas, mine vegetarian and Jonaki’s with chicken. We’ll have the leftovers packed for us so we have a snack later on the bus. The pizzas arrive quickly and look for all purposes like real pizzas. I dig in. Jonaki asks how it is. It’s okay, I tell her. There’s very little cheese, which is okay, but there’s also very little, very thin red sauce. It’s better if I don’t think of what I’m eating as pizza. The waiter brings a metal container with a spoon sticking out of it. I think it might be parmesan cheese and get excited for a second, only to open it and find it full of oil and hot pepper. The oil is spicy and gives the pizza more flavor at least—the flavor that is usually supplied by the red sauce. Once I put the oil on the pizza, it ceases even resembling anything I know, but it also tastes good in its own way. Kind of like the rocks at Raju’s. Once I stopped comparing them to the Rockies, they were beautiful in their own way. And so it is with my pizza.

Jonaki drops a piece of chicken from the top of her pizza and our new friend gobbles it up. 60s rock music drifts from inside the cottage. “Is this Eric Clapton?” Jonaki asks. I think it’s more like The Guess Who, but can’t be sure. A young British couple sits inside. The woman looks completely dressed in scarf after scarf. She raves about the salad they bring to their table. “This isn’t just any salad,” she tells her date. “This is graced with dollops of the finest Himalayan mayonnaise…”

For dessert, we each order tiramisu. Jonaki says she found a recipe for it once and was very confused when it called for “ladyfingers.” In India, they call okra ladyfingers. She remembers thinking, “Maybe there was some okra way down in there.” I laugh at the thought of the green furry vegetable concealed in my Italian dessert. Thankfully, this tiramisu uses European ladyfingers and is pretty good.

Jonaki says the temple is just five minutes up the road. I’m getting a little concerned about the time. She says it’s four thirty. We should have just enough time to check out the temple and get back to the bus.

At the entrance to the temple grounds women hold huge angora rabbits with one hand and umbrellas with the other. Ten rupees. Ten rupees. They want me to pay them ten rupees to take a picture of them and their rabbits. I take a pass.

The plaque near the temple says it was constructed in 1553. I don’t know whether to believe it or not. It is a four-tiered structure with ornate carvings lining the outer wall and bells at the front entrance. At either corner, animal skulls with big curling horns are hung. Sacrifices to this goddess, Jonaki explains. She won’t go inside, she tells me, but I can.

The inside is cave-like, lit by fire, with an uneven stone ground. Men sit in a circle. It appears that they’re playing a card game. On another level underneath them is a statue enshrined with wreaths of flowers, a large iron skillet with incense burning in it, and a smattering of rupees thrown into the same general area. I wish I could take a picture, but there is no photography inside the temple. I nod to the men who welcomed me in, and duck back out the way I came.

“You’re already done?” Jonaki asks. I wonder if I was supposed to do something when I got inside. Was I supposed to pray or meditate or play cards, I wonder?

“Yes,” I say, then I ask why she didn’t want to go inside. She’s tired of people in temples extorting money, she says. She had some experiences when she was younger and she just doesn’t like to go now. It’s always about money.

We pop open our umbrellas once again and walk back down the path, dodging the women with their huge rabbits who call out to us. At the gate there is a huge yak with a Tibetan blanket and saddle on its back. This yak I will pay money to photograph. They women want 25 rupees. It’s too much. I give them ten and snap away at the poor yak who looks a little stunned by the flashes of light. The woman still wants me to take a picture of her and her rabbit. “Five rupees,” she offers this time, but I don’t want to dig for more change in the rain. I thank her and climb into the cab where Jonaki is on the phone with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Office, asking them where we’re supposed to find the bus. They put her on hold and never come back. Then the call drops. Then we finally get through and they describe the location to our driver, who finds the bus promptly and helps us load our luggage. He takes off before we can even thank him. He is worried about getting back home. Landslides, he tells Jonaki, and disappears.

The rain is continual and just keeps coming down harder and harder. It’s just past five o’clock and already the bus is almost full. The tourism office told Jonaki that the bus didn’t leave until six, but now that we’re here, we find it will actually depart at five thirty. It’s a good thing we didn’t look at the castle or the shawl shop, or linger in town to do some souvenir shopping.

We are both wet. I get the window seat this time and Jonaki takes the aisle. I feel a little claustrophobic trapped between Jonaki and the window with no access to the aisle, but it’s only fair. Jonaki was trapped like this on the way up.

The window fogs up from the inside and I don’t get a good view of the street. No matter. The bus is parked outside of main Manali, away from the interesting stores. The only thing across the street is some sort of medical campus.

The bus is rolling by five thirty. I am happy to be on it; happy to be on my way back to Delhi; and slightly annoyed by the young couple in the seats in front of us. They are sucking each other’s faces so loudly I can hear it. At one point it sounds like they choke on each other’s tongues. I can’t look out the window because it’s all fogged up, so I’m glad when they finally pop in the Bollywood movie. It’s about four guys hatching a plan to marry a rich girl. They dance on motorcyles; they dance on a beach; they dance in a flashback sequence. I’m sensing a pattern.

The bus follows the path of the Kullu River in the middle of the valley, so there are no twisting roads and no precipitous drop offs to worry about for the time being. Just the necking kids in the seat in front of me and the wet window to my right to avoid. These are hazards I can deal with.

We get to Aut and fly through the town without stopping. I am so glad we didn’t try to catch the bus there. We would have been in the dark, in the pouring rain, and who knows if the bus would have even stopped. Perhaps the people at the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Office were just trying to save the white girl from herself when they told me I’d have to go to Manali to catch the return bus.

Somewhere we stop at a fruit stand. The men call out. Jonaki says they’re being gross, but I can’t tell. They just sound like they’re hocking fruit to me. There is an Indian toilet here. The stall smells like the pachyderm house at the zoo. Jonaki goes first and asks if I’ll hold her bag. I wait outside while she goes.

There is another stall vacant next to the one Jonaki’s in, but instead of using that one, a woman comes up and tries to open the door of Jonaki’s bathroom. “My friend’s in there,” I say. I guess the woman was hoping that what was behind door number two would be a gleaming, clean throne. No such luck. It’s just another filthy, smelly hole in the ground.

After this experience, I try to eat my pizza but have a hard time choking any of it down. The necking couple, whom we decide are Israeli, get a big plate of food from the outside shop. I can’t believe they’re eating this stuff. The front of the bus is full of Japanese tourists. They pass out sushi rolls wrapped in foil to each other. I wonder how they’ve managed to get sushi in Manali.

As we’re boarding the bus, Jonaki hears the driver’s assistant talking to the driver. The roads are bad. There have been some landslides. She talks to the assistant. He tells her it’s okay. There’s another route we can take.

Back on the bus, the assistant passes out blankets and I try to sleep. I can’t get comfortable. When I lay this way, the armrest digs into my back. When I lay the other way, my neck hurts. Somehow, in between my rustling, I get a little rest.

I awaken when the bus stops. There are men in brown uniforms with guns outside. I think, “Please don’t take away my laptop.” But they are not here to search the bus. Jonaki hears the guy next to us say something about the roads again. The roads are closed. There’ve been landslides. It seems we’re stuck, but then the bus proceeds past the uniformed men.

I try to sleep some more and awaken three more times to find the bus stopped and shut completely down. No air. No lights. We are just parked on the side of the road.

Jonaki’s awake. I ask her what’s going on. She doesn’t know. The necking couple’s iPod earpieces has fallen out of their ears and is blasting music. The song ends and they awaken and shut it off.

There’s nothing to do but try to sleep. I was hoping we’d be out of the mountains by now so I wouldn’t have to worry about the bus falling off the side of a narrow road, but we are still ensconced in the hills.

I try to sleep, but keep jerking awake.

Finally, just as I’m growing convinced that I’m going to suffocate in the warm, stuffy air, the driver starts the bus back up. The air comes back on, and we are underway.

Finally, as I notice the sky becoming a few degrees lighter, I fall asleep.

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