Dicing with Death on the Road to Dharamasala

When you travel like I do, you always know this day will come, but still you’re never prepared for it.  This time is no different.  Nir, Yael and I have been on the road almost two weeks but it actually feels like a lifetime.  We’ve gone through gallons of chai, told each other our life stories, and almost worn out the pack of cards.  We’re so comfortable around each other now – eating breakfast, reading on the balcony, wandering between the two rooms, playing Chase the Ace – that words are often unnecessary.

Take the previous night.  Nir is out playing pool with the locals, Yael is in an internet cafe, writing to her mum and I’m reading in bed.  With no warning, there’s a terrific clap of thunder, an enormous flash of lightening and then the hotel is plunged into darkness.  Caught off guard, I scrabble around for my magilite torch, stubbing my toe in the process.  It’s pitch black, I can’t see my hand in front of my face and I’m yelping out in pain.  Suddenly, the door opens.  It’s Yael…wearing her “miner’s hat” around her head, its lamp blazing brightly.

“Darling, are you ok?”   She lights a candle she’s brought with a match from a box she’s pulled out of her pocket.  “Do you want some chocolate?  (Yael’s always prepared in a crisis).  “The whole town’s lost power.”  We sit on the bed, chomping away, listening to the wind howl.  I am comforted by her presence, and for a moment, I really wish I weren’t leaving.  But I am – heading west to Dharamasala, home in exile to the Dalai Lama and the large Tibetan community he has built.  Yael and Nir have the whole summer in front of them, and plan on trekking around the famed Kulu and Spiti Valleys, but I’ve got to be back in Tel Aviv in two weeks.  As tempting as it is to stay put, and spend the next fortnight (or indeed the rest of my life?) staring at the Himalayas from the balcony, I know I have to get cracking.

5.45 pm the following day…I’m packed, shivering (it’s cold and rainy) and clutching a bus ticket (7 pm, 10 hours, overnight).  Off we trudge to the rickshaw stand, in silence.  We are all sad, more than we thought we would be, and as the moment of parting arrives, unbelievably I find myself close to tears.   I remind myself there are more adventures ahead of me, and more new friends to meet.  In any event, it’s hardly 'au revoir', rather 'bon voyage', as we’ll all be back in Israel by September.  One hug and a kiss for each of them and that’s it.  As the rickshaw revs up then pulls away, they wave at me vigorously.  I turn my head back and watch until their faces are no longer visible.  For a moment I think I’m going to weep…and then reality kicks in. Because the road into town is jammed.

And I mean jammed.  There are hundreds of rickshaws in front of me, all blasting their horns, passengers alighting and yelling angrily.  It’s the Tower of Babel: Indian style.   No-one, including my driver, has a clue what’s going on.  But the rain is teaming down now, and I can see the gridlock clearly.  Normally, this 3-4 km ride would take 15 minutes.  The way things look to me, it could take half the night.  And I’ve a bus to catch, however tempting as it is to get out and run back to the hotel.  I grab my pack, thrust a handful of notes into my driver’s hand and jump out.  I’m fit, I’m motivated, I’ll walk.  Fast.

And that I do, in the pouring rain, my fleece getting progressively wetter, my glasses steaming up and my trouser hems accumulating mud by the minute.  I power walk past honking rickshaws, jump over potholes, dodge muddy puddles, shove my way through crowds in the town centre and, with just a few minutes to spare find the station.  Up I gaze at my “Executive Tourist” vehicle.    With its broken door, rusted paintwork and balding tyres, it’s ready to be consigned to bus heaven.  But there ain’t no train, and there ain’t no plane and I want to get to Dharamasala.  I hurl my bag in the back, the engine starts, plumes of smoke rise up from under the hood, the springs in my chair give way and I fall back.  It’s chucking it down outside.  And – oh yes – there’s a hole in the roof directly above Seat 43.  That’s my seat, by the way.

Within minutes of leaving town, our driver’s putting his foot down, despite the heavy rain, poor visibility and windscreen wipers working intermittently.  He’s taking the bends like there’s no tomorrow.  Rain is dripping steadily through the roof onto my head and soaking fleece.  Out of the window, the road is unlit and all I can gather is that yellow headlights of other vehicles hurtling towards us.  Fast.  My fellow passengers, naturally, are munching on chapattis, not a care in the world.  I don’t know what’s worse – over the Himalayas by day in blazing heat, or round hairpin bends at night in the rain.  The driver negotiates another bend and I shut my eyes, and mouth a silent prayer.  A few seconds later I hear the sound of brakes slamming.  When, finally, I dare open my eyes, I see our bus has skidded off the road entirely.  We’re perched less than two metres from the edge of a large, fast-flowing river and it’s a long way down.   I feel the colour draining from my face.  Everyone else, of course, carries on munching.

I guess that’s another one of my nine lives used up…