Thursday, August 14, 2008

To The Peaks

Friday morning I wake up, shower and pack the rest of my toiletries. My suitcase is pretty full and pretty heavy. I’ve got two books, water colors that Scott sent me, clothes, my giant bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and every drug I could find in my room. No telling what you’ll need in the Himalayas.

I talk with Scott for the last time for a week. I don’t think I’ve gone a week without talking to Scott since the day I met him over a decade ago. The thought makes me crumble, and when he says goodbye, I lose it again.

Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I doing this to Scott? What am I trying to prove? Is it worth it?

I take a few deep breaths and pull myself together as I walk down the marble staircase to breakfast. I need to tell Pachu I’m leaving on a trip, but before I can begin, he smiles and says, “Madam, payment.” My office told me they wired payment last week Friday, over a week ago. I can check with them again, but when it’s daytime here, it’s nighttime there. If the payment hasn’t been received, then maybe there’s some problem. Anyway, I’m about to go on vacation for almost a week, so if Ms. Sonu has questions about the payment, she should speak directly with the people in the Iowa office.

I wonder what, if any, of this Pachu is taking in. “Madam, payment. Ms. Sonu,” he says again very pleasantly when I pause for air.

There’s another downpour on my way to work, and this makes me nervous. What is it doing to the roads north of here? I’ve heard it’s dangerous when it rains. Maybe I should cancel after all.

Near the office, I see a woman on a motorcycle who is striking for two reasons. Number one: she is driving the motorcycle. Most women on motorcycles sit demurely, side-saddle, holding onto their mates who, unlike them, wear helmets. The second reason the woman motorcyclist is striking is because she’s wearing this solid pink rain suit: pants and jacket. And across her back, in a loopy font, it reads: “Artificial!”

Now in the United States, this is nothing to brag about. We don’t want anything artificial in our people or our products. We pretend that we are always sincere and that everyone we know is also sincere. Even our politicians are sincere, right? We pretend that our food and our clothing isn’t made from plastic. We buy organic. Green is the new black. But this fad hasn’t hit India yet. Artificial is still cool—like in the 70s when America discovered polyester and the 80s when we discovered the synthesizer. Artificial!

But there’s something else about this boast that catches my eye. There is a certain sense of frankness in marketing here, as evidenced by the multiple stores I’ve seen whose signs simply read, “Cheap Store.” Then there’s the billboard I pass for a recruiting company that says, “Success is good fun,” and shows people drinking it up, partying. But the frankness isn’t necessarily honesty. Consider, for example, the ad for dandruff shampoo on the street in front of the Defence Colony market. It says Hanumn’s “increases brain power.” Wow. Strong shampoo.

At work, Debamitra wants to know why I’m so scared about this trip. I tell her about the rain and the roads. “This is nothing to be scared about,” she says. “What do you think a landslide will do? It will shut down the road for a while, at worst. Then they’ll have to clean it off.”

You mean the highway isn’t going to fall off the side of the mountain and take me with it?

“No! This is nothing to worry about.” Debamitra has a way of calming me down. She’s frank, just like the advertising.

Her advice about getting the purse and earrings for the history book launch worked so well, that I decide to trust her on this matter too. Now that we have that settled, she’s concerned that I don’t have a bottle of filtered water like everybody else in the office does. Why don’t I have one? I didn’t know I should. She calls the pantry and speaks to them in Hindi. They bring a bottle right down for me. Done deal.

The day passes quickly. At four o’clock, Jonaki is scrambling to get last minute work done before we depart. We find Balminder waiting outside for us at about four thirty. Traffic is pretty good, though, so we get to the bus station quickly. We still need to find out about our return tickets from the state tourism office.

They keep telling Jonaki that she can buy them here, at this office, and that we can catch the return bus in Aut. But when I tried to purchase the return tickets for us on Saturday, they told me I had to buy the tickets and catch the return bus in Manali, three hours north of the remote resort where we're staying. They want to make sure the white girl visits the tourist town and spends all her money in Himachal Pradesh before she leaves, it seems. There’s nothing to spend your money on in Aut, which is the small town on the main highway that Raju is meeting us on to take us to his cottage.

We’d both feel better having return tickets before we leave, so I tell Jonaki I’m giving her my money and hiding around the corner. I have a suspicion they’re playing some kind of mess-with-the-white-girl game with me.

Sure enough, Jonaki emerges from around the corner with two return tickets in hand. They tell her we can catch the return bus in Manali at 6, or Aut at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night. Either way is fine. She doesn’t understand why they gave me a different story. I try to tell her about the white girl tax. She’s never experienced it before. She’s never dragged a white girl around India with her before either.

We drag our luggage to the nearby Cottage Industries Emporium, the place where I shopped with Shabnum last Saturday. There’s a café on the top floor where we get some food before the long bus ride. We each order a sandwich, and ask to have a second sandwich packed to take with us. The bus ride seems like an eternity to me. I want to take food with me to eternity, just like the ancient Egyptians did.

We drag ourselves and our luggage back to the bus station and find a giant yellow tour bus waiting for us. The streets are muddy and full of dirty, smelly puddles, so I try to carry my suitcase aloft the whole time I’m waiting in a long line of people putting their luggage in the hold area under the bus. I scramble to pull all the pharmaceuticals I packed out of my suitcase and get them into my backpack, which is the only bag I’ll have access to on the bus. Along with Immodium and Tums and Ibuprofen, I have sleeping pills and pills for anxiety which I am feeling very good about not having needed the whole time on this trip. But if there is a time when I will need them, it is on this bus ride. I stand in line with handfuls of pill bottles as the man takes my suitcase and marks it with chalk: seat number 15, to Aut. The rest of the passengers, it seems, are going to Manali: a tourist destination that has whitewater rafting, trekking and the like. Jonaki spots me the ten rupees the man wants for taking my luggage. My hands are too full to dig out money without dropping things into puddles.

I climb onto the bus, sweaty, tired already. The seats are wide and they recline. There is plenty of leg room. Cool air circulates and dries my soggy hair. There’s a tv at the front of the bus and, even before we leave the Delhi city limits, there’s a Hindi movie playing: something about four college students chasing after the same girl. They dance together on the back of a motorcycle, they dance at the beach, they dance in a flashback sequence.

This part of the ride is flat and stress-free. We get caught in several traffic jambs and I wonder if we’ll ever get to our destination. I tell Jonaki I’m anxious to get out of the city and see what the surrounding countryside looks like. “What countryside?” she says. India is full of people. There is no countryside, except where we’re going. Even in Manali, in the hill stations, she says, it’s crowded. And, of course, Jonaki is right. The streets outside Delhi are lined with shops and shacks that light up at night like little ramshackle carnivals.

About three hours into our ride, we stop at one such carnival. There are red and yellow strings of lights draped over the front awning of an open air restaurant (that I’m glad I don’t have to eat at), and there are vendors selling candies, sodas and chips, calling out in Hindi about what they’d like you to buy from them. Jonaki and I decide that we should go to the bathroom while we’re here. There is no restroom on the bus, and this might be our last stop before Aut. A man says, “Ladies” and points off into the blackness behind the shack. We follow a path and see some lit up stalls. Tiny frogs jump across our shoes. Inside the stalls I can see there are no toilets. “It’s an Indian bathroom,” Jonaki says. It’s not just like a hole in the ground, though. There’s a porcelain bowl, there’s just no seat to sit on. It’s sunk flush with the earth around it.

Finally the camper’s toilet paper in my purse will be put to good use, I think. I’ll spare the details but tell you I feel pretty accomplished having successfully used the facilities. As I am putting myself back together, the lights go out. There is total darkness.

Finally the little pink mag flashlight inside my purse will be put to good use, I think, as I dig it out and light the path for Jonaki and me. I feel prepared. I feel assured. I feel fine.

I enjoy the lights and the sounds of the shopkeepers calling and the people milling around. There are a bunch of adventurous Brits and a few Americans on this trip with me. There are two families with small children. I take this as a good sign. Jonaki wants to check out a “factory outlet” stand. It’s a bunch of bottles shrink-wrapped, filled with tiny candies supposedly good for indigestion and other maladies. All the bottles have Hindi labels on them. A man offers a sample to me. It’s good. Sweet. Then he holds out a palm full of melting chocolate. No thank you, I say. But he insists. No thank you. Finally, Jonaki tells him no and he stops offering. I snap a few pictures of a makeshift Vishnu shrine and buy a bottle of coke, then it’s time to climb back onto the bus.

We get to Chandigarrh, the city that everyone says is so well-planned. “Look at the roads,” Jonaki tells me, in some wonderment. The roads do look almost like an American highway, without the crumbling piecemeal curbs, with green medians and well-maintained traffic signals. The bus stops and a Sikh man in a turban climbs aboard. We must show him every bag. “Every bag,” he repeats. When he gets to my backpack, he pulls out the power cord for my laptop and stares at it suspiciously and in silence for what seems like five minutes. I am so afraid it will be confiscated, just like my camera at the movies. I decide not to try an explain what it is for fear he'll want to take the whole laptop away. After close consideration, he decides it’s okay and hands it back to me. He missed the laptop completely. He searches the rest of the bus uneventfully, then we pull away. I eat my second sandwich, then curl up sideways in the seat. The bus driver turns off his flashing Sikh shrine/clock and the bus gets quiet.

When I wake up, it’s Saturday. It’s bright outside. And we are stopping in a village just about an hour outside of Aut, they tell us (though this hour was closer to two). I find a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on the floor of the bus, right after finding where my right shoe had creeped off to while I slumbered. Outside, I find the owner of the glasses: a long-haired British gentleman who is downright sporting when he discovers that they're partially smashed.

I buy a chai from the dirty vendor because it’s boiled. Though there are other food options, the tea's probably about the only safe thing to eat here, aside from the biscuits Jonaki gets. They’re packaged and brought in from somewhere else. A man tries to get me to buy some naan. He is spreading butter on it with his dirty fingers, shoving it my way. “NihaN,” I say. No. I notice some drops of water on my chai glass and think of Susie’s warning, “If your plate is wet, send it back or dry it off.” It’s too late, though; I’ve already drunk from the glass. I decide to risk it and finish the tea. It’s sickeningly sweet, but that’s how they serve tea up in the hills, according to Jonaki. It feels good because it's hot while there is a mountain chill in the air, and I drink it up.

All I really want to do is crawl back on the bus and close my eyes. I'm still drowsy. I am so glad I was able to sleep. Jonaki told me she almost woke me up half way through the night so she could get out of her window seat. The bus was twisting and turning through the mountains and she left her motion sickness medicine in the cargo hold underneath. She almost made the bus stop and the copilot dig out her medicine for her. She probably got the idea from the men who kept making the bus stop so they could pee outside. This happened more than once.

Ironically, I, with my mountains of pills at arm's reach, was oblivious to it all. I hope I am so fortunate on the trip home.