I am loving every second of my time in Manali. I take long walks in the surrounding valleys, which are utterly picturesque. I drink gallons of apple juice – Himachal is famed for its abundance of apple trees. I visit Vashishist, the other side of the river, home to sulphuric hot springs, and soak there for ages, whilst gazing at the Himalayas. Then I hire a mountain bike. The guy doesn’t even want my credit card or passport as security, simply tells me “bring it back by 5pm." I set off due north. I’m on the highway to Leh – “Little Tibet”) which is a two-day bus ride at the second highest altitude levels in the world. I’ve heard it’s a perilous journey, leaving the hardiest travellers desperate and I can believe it.
Even so, the road is now pretty empty with a few cars going past but not a bus in sight. The rocky cliffs above me are tall and steep and it seems hard to envisage people living up there. But I’m told they do, whole communities, happily cut off from the rest of the world, climbing down treacherous paths in monsoon rain and piles of snow, to shop for food, trade goods and the like. Daydreaming about this kind of “retreat from the world,” before I know it I’ve hit a pothole and come flying off the bike.
There I lie, flat on my back, staring up at the mountains, cliffs and marvelling at the sheer beauty of it all. But I have to head back – I promised I’d return the bike by late afternoon and, good Englishwoman that I am, my word is my bond.
The following day finds me just as inclined to spend time alone. I love the guys but I am a girl who needs her “space” and they understand. So I rise early and set off for Manali town on foot, with no specific plans. As I’m wandering along, I see a “forest” to my left with a small gate and a sign saying “Entry fee – 10 rupees” (although, in true Indian style, there’s no-one there to take my money). I decide to take the path less travelled and, like Little Red Riding Hood, venture into the wood.
The trees are tall and leafy, providing welcome shade. There’s no-one around, and all I can hear is the “snap” of twigs under my sandals.
I’m momentarily concerned for my safety and wonder if I should turn back now, but remind myself that India is one of the safest countries in the world in which to travel, even as a woman. I’m more likely to be killed on the roads in Tel Aviv (by a maniac bus driver, or lunatic in a private car) than to be hacked up here in a shady grove. I laugh to myself for being such a ‘cowardy custard’ (as the kids teased each other say in my primary school).
And then I hear a growl.
I jump a metre high. It’s a low growl, not an angry roar admittedly, but it’s scared me witless. This isn’t Alaska, where Grizzlies climb trees for for a tasty bite and it’s not Africa, where lionesses dine out on hapless safari tourists every year. I’m in apple country, for god’s sake, and only 2kms from a noisy city centre. But I know what I heard – I’d bet my last rupee on it. I look right, look left, I look in front and…my goodness, it’s an enormous brown bear, with huge soulful eyes, looking me straight in the eye. He’s holed up in an iron cage, with only the bare necessities (forgive the humour). His water bowl is almost empty, there’s a few banana skins on the floor and, as from what I can see, he has no playmate. He has to be the most forlorn-looking bear I’ve ever seen and my heart’s already gone out to him.
I hear voices and jump again. Coming towards me are two men, one in his late 30s, the other somewhat older. They’re carrying something in a bag and it strikes me that this isn’t their first time here in the woods…they’re just too damned casual. They spy me andspeed up. This is it , I tell myself. My number’s up, the show is over, this is how it all ends – hacked up by the locals and fed to a bear. There won’t even be remains to ship back to my parents. This is what happens when you take the path less travelled. The two guys are almost in front of from me, and about to open the bag, I steel myself. An axe? A claw hammer? A chain saw? How will I meet my maker?
Ah, I see, as they pull out the bear’s lunch. Death by bananas…