Once I’ve established I’m not being held up by a banana gang, we shake hands. Abdul and Rohit have driven up from Delhi, on a reconnaissance mission. Rohit wants to build a small hotel/retreat, and has his eye on a plot of land in a picturesque village, half an hour’s drive into the mountains. Abdul, a doctor, and Indian-style “Feng Shui” consultant, is along for the ride. Like me, they chanced upon the bear and have been kicking up a storm with city officials, asking why this poor creature has been left to pace a small, dirty cage, with only scraps to eat. We agree we need to hatch a Cunning Plan to free him, over chai of course. Predcitably, this turns into lunch, which turns into more chai, dinner, chai…and this, I realise, is what makes travel so addictive for me.
I end up spending the next 48 hours with them, touring Himachal’s glorious countryside. We drive far outside Manali, to tiny villages complete with stone walls, apple orchards, and babbling streams, the spring water crystal clear. I fill my water bottle and gulp it greedily – it’s better than champagne. The air is so pure, there are few cars, and locals eye me with interest – you can count tourists on one hand in these parts.
We lunch with a man Rohit is working with – that night he takes us to his home, where I meet his daughter and wife, both dark-eyed and shy. I want to talk to them, even though they barely speak a word of English, and gesture that I’d like to help in the kitchen. Of course, I’m hustled straight back into the salon – it’s unthinkable that a guest would lift a finger in an Indian home. We eat excellent sag paneer and chapattis, pickled vegetables and fluffy rice, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking out into the valley. His wife, of course, does not join us – she will eat only after she has cleared our plates and made our chai.
Sitting with these three men, enjoying every bite of the delicious dishes put before me, it strikes me yet again how fortunate I am to have the benefit of an education, skills that enable me to make a living and my own bank account.
That night, I fall asleep on a mattress in their daughter’s room, feeling content and blessed.
The following day we drive further up into the mountains, since Abdul wants to show me some Hindu temples. They are hundreds of years old, with ornate carvings and visited daily by the locals, bringing plentiful offerings. In one of them is a tv crew, from Mumbai. They’re making a documentary on life in Himachal and ask if they can interview me, to get the “tourist” perspective. I am thrilled at the idea of getting my face on the Big Screen and tell them to get the cameras rolling. Soon, I’m in my element, babbling on about my love affair with the country. Abdul translates the difficult bits and we leave there smiling and shaking hands firmly, the producer promising to send me a copy of the finished product.
Over lunch, prepared by locals at the side of a road, we return to the subject of the bear. Since the wheels of animal justice roll slowly in this neck of the woods, we need a plan. Rohit wonders if we could “bear-nap” it late that night in a daring break-out. We put our collective minds to work. Abdul could inject it with a heavy sedative, from his doctor’s bag, I could get hold of some bolt cutters, Rohit could hire a pick-up truck…but then there’s lifting him, where to release him (he may be too domesticated for the mountains) and what if he wakes angrily in the midst of the melee?
There is much sighing over the chai. We’ll have to settle on a campaign to have him moved to the zoo at Shimla (where at least he’ll be better fed and maintained). We can get the ball rolling when I see them again in Delhi (my flight back to Tel Aviv is from there, and I’ve already sworn faithfully to stay with them, rather than in a hotel).
We drive back slowly to Manali. The sun is setting behind us…the view around me and the intense stillness overwhelm me. I feel completely privileged to be here. I shut my eyes and breathe deeply – these are the moments that make life worth living, I tell myself. The peace, the tranquility, the emptiness around me…only when I open my eyes, suddenly I can see nothing but four legged friends mobbing our car. Yeah, that’s right, it’s Goat Rush Hour in the valley, with the shepherd boys bringing their herds home after a long day grazing. There’s only one road back home, and we’re stuck on it. Still, I tell myself, as I settle back in my seat, listening to goats pushing and shoving and bleating all around me, there are worst traffic jams in which to be stuck.
Back in Manali, after a quick bite to eat, my friends drop me at the bridge leading over to Old Town. It is time to say our goodbyes. They have a long drive back to Delhi this evening, and my next stop is the hill station of Dharamsala. I hug them both, wave them off then race to the hotel, since the patter of raindrops is turning into a torrential downpour. The monsoon is on its way. Up in my room, I throw on a fleece (it’s turning chilly) and some socks and boots then make my way down to the restaurant, where I find Yael and Nir playing cards. They look up, greet me cheerfully and budge up.
“Are we dealing you in?”
There’s a crash of thunder, a crack of lightning (which lights up the mountains spectacularly) wind and then, predictably, we lose all electricity. But who cares? There are always candles. And there we sit, around the table, until very late, playing rummy by flickering light, eating dhosas and drinking apple juice whilst the storm rages around us.