By Indian standards, it’s an uneventful journey. Nir sits next to a PhD student, attending a conference in Shimla, who was telephoned in the middle of the night because his wife’s baby arrived three weeks early! He’s a first-time dad and in a state of heightened anticipation. Yael engrosses herself in a novel. I spend the ten hours both admiring the view from the window, and looking watching the tv at the front of the bus. There’s a Sikh guy playing what looks like a mandolin (but it can’t be, can it?), dressed in vivid orange, with an enormous turban, and wailing away in a local dialect. It’s actually ok the first time around but my heart sinks when it ends…then promptly begins again. Yeah, it’s the only tape the driver has. I sit through the entire performance six times. By 1pm, I already feel l know all the lyrics off by heart.
Around 3pm, we arrive. The town centre is noisy and chaotic. But we’re escaping the melee and heading a couple of kms out of town, to Old Manali, over the river. The rickshaw bumps us over the narrow bridge, water gushing alongside, and drops us off on the main road, from where there’s no choice but to go by foot. After asking directions, we set off up a small but steep path, at the top of which are some narrow side streets.
Then, to my astonishment, I spy what looks like a brand-new, just-built, two-level, small but pretty hotel. And a garden too! It’s crying out for us, I know it! We dash in and, to our amazement, someone’s just checked out. They’ve got two rooms left…which will do us nicely. We can rotate between them, depending on our moods and who feels like being sociable or left alone. They take us upstairs, I admire the tiled bathrooms, the comfy beds, with extra blankets and the cream walls. Then I step outside, onto the balcony, and look across.
I am rooted to the spot. I shut my eyes, open them again and look once more. It is not my imagination – in front of me are the Himalayas. And all of the words I’ve always thought might do them justice – awe-inspiring, imposing, majestic, overwhelming, superb – fail me. I am utterly overwhelmed. They stretch as far as the eye can see, these craggy, untamed, structures, their peaks covered in pure white snow. I cannot help but gasp. I have seen a few sights in my time…but this? Truly a room with a view, and all for the princely sum of $9.
Yael and I pull up chairs and sit there for some time, in silence, gazing out, breathing in the pure air and occasionally blinking, as if it’s really a mirage. The sun begins to fade, slowly, and we reach for our fleeces. The sky is suddenly a blaze of colours – reds, oranges, yellows – and the mountains’ silhouettes stand out in sharp relief. I feel truly privileged to be witness to this sight. It is everything I imagined it might be – and one thousand times greater.
I spend the next three days almost glued to the balcony in a state of unadulterated bliss. Every morning I awake, open my curtains and gaze at the Himalayas. Then I sigh with delight, With my coffee at breakfast, juice at lunch, and chai at 5pm, all brought to me by the owner’s son, a small shy boy with dark eyes, there is nothing more I want to than to admire the view. It transfixes me. It compares to nothing I have ever seen before. It’s like drinking good champagne and feeling “high” as it goes to your head.
In the evening however, once the sun has gone down, I am persuaded by Nir and Yael to venture outside. The three of us eat at local restaurants, play cards and continue with the respective stories of our lives. We walk back through the narrow, dark streets, our tiny Magilite torches our trusty guides. And by 10pm each night, I am sleeping deeply. The mountain air, soft mattress, locally-woven woolen blankets and complete silence outside (you could hear the proverbial pin drop) have left me more rested and “at peace” with myself in months.
As Marcus Aurelius once commented, “When you awake each morning, remind yourself what a privilege it is to be alive.” And, yes, at this moment, I feel truly privileged.