We’ve decided, finally, to leave for the north. This decision is made after a great deal of umming and aaahing (an inevitable result of being three, as opposed to my regular ‘girl alone’ act). Yael wants to go to a valley due east – which sounds spectacular but is so inaccessible I see days of unpaved roads in front of us. I want to visit the capital, Shimla, because it’s going to give me a fix of Ye Olde England (Days of the Raj et cetera…). Nir doesn’t know.
Nearly all of the time, I prefer to travel alone – suiting myself, changing my plans at a moment, wandering as I please with no-one else to consider. Travelling with others doesn’t lend itself well to being a true free spirit. But, actually, I don’t mind because the threesome we’ve become is no burden, rather a laugh a minute.
We’re all getting on like a house on fire – hearty breakfasts at Little Buddha (porridge, curd, fruit, eggs and – in Nir’s case – the obligatory morning coca cola), long walks along the Ganga, conversations about how we came to be on the road (and, in particular, in India) and, best of all, the establishment of a 9pm card game, our nightly ritual which we’re all enjoying no end.
It’s not going to be an early departure though, since my travelling companions have pleaded with me for a few hours grace to experience white water rafting. Young and reckless, fifteen years ago, I tried this on the Zambezi river, and almost broke my neck when the dinghy hit a Level 4 Rapid and tipped us over into fast flowing water. Amazingly, I walked away in one piece. Now, older, wiser and still carrying the memory in the form of an occasional back twinge, I’ve decided to bow out gracefully, and leave the youngers to their amusement. I spend much of the day, therefore, sitting in the Little Buddha cafe, gulping down water (I’m up to 3-4 litres a day now) and staring quietly at the Ganga river.
It never fails to impress – different here, so different, from Benares, but no less beautiful (in this case green hills, a far cry from Benares’ rowing boats, burning ghats and vast emptiness the other side of the river).
We leave late (always a bad idea) but it can’t be helped I guess.. Trudging over the suspension bridge (I’m weighing in at an impressive 8 kilos, but Nir and Yael are carrying packs so heavy one could be forgiven for thinking they’re schlepping corpses) I take a last look over my shoulder at the Ganga. Well, not quite. The guys are starving and want a quick bite. We stop at the German Bakery. It’s almost 6pm, and I’m conscious that the sun’s going down. The river at dusk is at its most beautiful.
Still, someone’s gotta get this show on the road, and I figure it’s going to be me. Like a drill sergeant major, I begin organising my troops. (I think of my sisters, complaining at how bossy I was as a kid). But I get the job done. The bill is paid and off we go. Since we can’t find a rickshaw, we trudge up the steep hill, maybe 90 steps up, to the main road. Actually, I’m fitter than I think, reaching the top first, without so much as a huff or a puff, and flag down an obliging driver. After some haggling over the price, we all jump in. We’re off – to Rishikesh central, where hopefully we’ll catch a bus to Chadrighah (in the heart of the Punjab) and spend the night, before heading due north early the next day.
Only at the bus station, after seven conversations (each local insistent that their version of events is the correct one) it seems that the last bus may have gone.
“Next one possible – 5 am”
“Maybe bus later – you can wait another hour?”
“Ma’am, we can take you in taxi now to Dehradun, special price only 700 rupees…”
“Bus for sure in five minutes…”
And so on and so forth. Taking taxis to strange places at this time of the night, with no clear plan, and no idea of what buses await us at the next juncture, seems foolish. Yael looks tired. Nir’s gone AWOL, looking for coke and lychees. And darkness is upon us. I resist the temptation to scold my compadres because they had a good time and – well – it’s not as if any of us is in an enormous hurry.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a sign saying “hotel” and trudge over. They’ve one room left – so guess it’s good fortune we all like each other. It’s not cheap by Indian standards, and the guy can sense our desperation, so won’t go down on the price, but eventually he agrees to put a mattress in. Yael and I will share the bed…Nir will be the gentleman. And, guess what…there’s a tiny tv in the room! We schlepp our packs upstairs and collapse on the bed, as if we’re been on the move forever (rather than an hour). Nir switches on the telly – Planet Earth, Bollywood and – unbelievably – a replay of an old Chelsea -v- Liverpool match! YES! I figure it’s a salute to the Mighty Blues’ historic Double three days before and am thrilled. Nir and I spend the next 30 minutes cheering on Didier Drogba and Yossi Benayoun respectively.
We then realise that it’s almost Shavuot (the Jewish festival of weeks). Yael and I want to celebrate, so we decide to wander the streets and look for some dairy products, traditional for the festival (if we were in Terra Sancta we’d be chomping on cheesecake but somehow I don’t think that trend’s caught on here as yet). We walk around the side streets, not a tourist in sight, and finally find a hole in the wall. The owner is selling almond barfi, made out of sweet milk, and fresh curd (the locals are lining up with tin cans, because it’s just arrived in the shop that’s how fresh it is…). We purchase a stash and look at each other with glee.
Only as we walk away, there’s a sudden power cut and the street is plunged into darkness. Where’s my torch? (In my backpack) Where’s my backpack? (At the hotel) And where’s the curd? (Luckily Yael has it). She’s also had the forethought to bring her Magilite torch so with a bit of light on the subject, we get our bearings. En route back we stop at a local store, since I need a toothbrush, and I enter into a spirited conversation with the locals there about democracy in India. They don’t get much chance to practice their English (since this is hardly a tourist part of town) and they ask us endless questions. They’re particularly thrilled to hear I’m going to write up my stories, and write down my email hungrily.
I am reminded how good it is to spend time in small towns here, away from tourists, where the people in the street take you entirely at face value, show enormous interest in you and have no interest in making a quick buck Colgate toothbrush purchased (a bargain at 20 rupees – less than $50 cents) we return “home.” The three of us lounge on the bed, eating curd and dealing the cards. Outside, I hear the ominous sound of a thunderclap. Then the heavens open. I’m relieved we’re not on the road, but hoping the storm will pass reasonably soon because we’ve got an early start (5am). Tomorrow, we’re really hitting the long road north and, like a true sergeant major, I’m determined to do whatever I can to get my troops in shape.
Tomorrow though. For now, I want to savour the moment (as my grandmother always reminds me to do) – to rejoice the simple pleasures of some Indian sweets, a card game and the cooler weather that has suddenly greeted us. We turn off the lights and wish each other good night, Walton style.
And, before I know it, it’s morning…
(to be continued...)