A Dharamshala Odyssey – On the road again

And so the journey resumes. From Mumbai on the west coast of India to Chandigarh, the shared capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. And from Chandigarh on to Kangra in the adjoining state of Himachal Pradesh, and then on to Dharamshala, which is about 5,000 feet above sea level. Dharamshala is a little less than an hour after Kangra. My final destination is just after McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala and about 7,000 feet above sea level. McLeod Ganj is the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the official residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

I’d originally planned a four to five-day getaway from Mumbai, to go on a couple of hikes in the mountains. That morphed into a longer trip to let the road decide where I went.

It’s around 2:30 pm. I’m in a fairly beat up Himachal Pradesh State Transport bus that began at Chandigarh. The journey is estimated to take around 5-6 hours. The bus zigs and zags and honks and blasts its way ahead. And it’s not even a zig zag road. I need to adjust my balance in my seat frequently. Just like everything they teach you in driving school, the bus driver speeds up on gentle corners to make sure everyone enjoys the joy of sharp turns. Yay! On a couple of such turns, I half fall off my seat. Fortunately the aisle is very narrow so I have the seat across to hold on to. Legs and butt aren’t quite stabilized for this job, despite the very recent, deep commitment to a daily yoga practice. Still, I’m excited. On the road again. Out there in a traffic circle, a dog lazily licks itself, oblivious of the vehicles around. Up ahead on the left, an abundance of bright oranges on street carts. The air is cleaner than Mumbai which I left early this morning. Much cleaner.

I was booked on a 2 pm bus, a relatively luxurious Volvo that would take me from Chandigarh to Kangra without stopping to pick up additional passengers. The Advance Reservations counter at the Chandigarh bus station told me I’d find my bus at counter 22, bus 1511. Counter 22 said There’s no Volvo here. It’s at 3:40 pm. But my reservation is for 2 pm. Back to the Advance Reservations counter. We don’t store the buses here, he barked, Go to the man at counter 22. Back to counter 22. Oh yes, I see you have a reservation. What’s your seat number? Yes, it’s here, but we don’t know what happened to your bus. You can go in this local bus if you want. Sure, I decided, at least I’ll be on the road.

Earlier this morning, on the flight from Mumbai, I met a man from Kerala who works in the Middle East and was on his way to Chandigarh to spend a few days with his family – his wife who’s in medical school there, and his two kids. He had an Indian military-style handlebars mustache. And smiled politely and got up so I could get into my middle seat next to him. He must be an army guy, I thought, close-cropped hair, military mustache and good manners. After takeoff, over breakfast, we exchanged life stories. The flow was easy. The flow has always been easy on the road for me. Connection is effortless. I’ve made more friends on the road than I have in the lifetime I’ve spent between New York and Mumbai. Sham, my in-flight companion has been an engineer for the last 15 years, and now married, he expects to continue to have to be “responsible” for a while – his children are 1 1/2 years old and 5 years old. He was enthralled by and envious of the vagabondish nature of my apparently disparate life experiences. I never thought of it that way…I’ve always felt I’ve been a bit of a rolling stone. Maybe moss is not my natural friend…hmmm…

My reflection on Sham’s life and mine is suddenly shaken by the loud blaring of the bus horn. Oh yes, he loves that toy, this driver. Or maybe he has a schedule to keep. An elbow poke in the head from a standing room passenger, a bag whacks my right shoulder as another standing room passenger turns around. It’s a bus operated by the state government’s transport department, with plenty of standing room for whoever wants it. But I notice I’m not brittle like I am in Mumbai, or in New York. I look outside, cows in lush green fields on the side of the road. Open skies. Another elbow poke. Good thing the skull has bones. I can feel the clean air fill my lungs. The young man to my left, in the window seat, is fast asleep. He’s carrying a mid-size backpack. Is he going beyond Kangra to Dharamshala, or maybe to McLeod Ganj, a little further up? So many people in this bus. So many of them standing and balancing in the moving bus. Most are villagers and residents of the smaller towns along the way. Not like the luxurious Volvo that didn’t show up. Thankfully. I can feel the thrum of the wheels on the soles of my feet, through my insulated hiking boots. This bus doesn’t have great shock absorbers. More oranges by the side of the road. And the smell of a wood fire burning somewhere.

I fall asleep. When I wake up, we’ve gained altitude and my seat mate has manspread so that I now have one butt cheek on the seat and another in the air. Truth be told, the seats are really narrow and not really meant for two people. The bus is navigating very frequent sharp hairpin turns as it climbs up the hills. Surprisingly, the driver is proceeding more mindfully now. A bus approaching from the opposite direction is coming at us at great speed. Is this it? I wonder as the scene before me seems to unfold in slow motion. No, our driver lightly steps on the brakes for just the right amount of time and our bus slows down without a sudden jerk. The oppositional bus moves by without incident. The driver has my respect.

The sky is darker. The sun is a deep red as it starts to dip below the horizon. More nausea inducing turns. And then a straightish road. Small villages with narrow roads banked by houses on either side. I can see more firewood burning at the side of the road. Reminds me of the countryside in Morocco and in Bulgaria.

It’s around 7 pm now, time for me to take my altitude sickness tablet – the last time I tried hiking in the hills of north India, at the base of the Indian Himalayas, I turned back after three days – bewilderingly, I was completely fatigued, even though I was in good physical shape at the time. I didn’t realize until much later that I’d had altitude sickness. Not planning to let that happen this time.

The bus finally arrives at Kangra. At the bus depot, dogs are howling in the street, welcoming each new bus. One particular dog decides to shit in the middle of the road. Fortunately, there’s no bus approaching.

I need to catch the next bus to Dharamshala and then a bus or a cab to McLeod Ganj. The toll collector at the bus depot exit tells me I just missed a bus, but wait a few minutes, there’ll be another bus coming. Sure enough, in just a bit, a local bus to Dharamshala arrives. This next journey begins with a bit of late-evening drama. There’s a drunken sadhu (a Hindu ascetic) on the bus, in full saffron gear, matted hair and face paint. He tells the conductor he wants to go to Varanasi. Varanasi is the Hindu holy place on the banks of the Ganga River and it’s only, oh, just over 800 miles away (1,300 kilometers).

The conductor impatiently tells him, This bus is going to Dharamshala. You’re drunk. You should get off this bus and go to sleep.

The sadhu says I have drunk the nectar of the gods. I’m going to Varanasi.

The bus bursts out laughing. The sadhu smiles a wry smile. At the next stop, the conductor asks him to get off and waits until he does.

God of the bottle, the conductor says.

Taking our money to drink, a passenger mutters. I’ll never donate alms again to these people.

Soon we reach Dharamshala. I negotiate a rate with a local cabbie and I’m on my way to a backpackers hostel in Dharamkot, just beyond McLeod Ganj. The cabbie gets lost and we call the hostel for directions. We get there in a little bit. After I settle down into my comfortable bunk bed, the manager of the hostel comes by to welcome me and give me the lay of the land. He’s an earnest young man in his early 20s who’s also staying in the same dorm. There’s a heater next to my bed. I’m grateful – it’s going to be near freezing tonight. Hot water will flow about twenty minutes after turning on the water heater. But just for you, you can use the exclusive shower outside this dorm which has instant hot water. Lucky me, I think. A little while later, as I’m about to go to bed, the manager tells me a bit of his life, his aspirations, and some of the unreasonable complaints of guests around lack of hot water. I find it weird that he’s telling me this last bit, but I’m tired and soon I’ll be fast asleep. Fast asleep after a long day back on the road.

Marlon de Souza Ⓒ 2019. All rights reserved.

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