Where’s Manali? Click here.
If you followed the bus tutorial as we did, you’ll be pretty happy to finally be on your bus, but our excitement didn’t last long. Our driver was a madman. He made our driver from the Delhi airport look like a Sunday morning church-bound
grandmother, and this guy was driving a bus rather than a tiny little hatchback. At first I thought that was a good thing; if we wrecked we’d likely fare better than the other car, which would surely be smaller. But I soon realized that much of the opposing traffic consisted of huge semi trucks carrying huge loads, and the idea of a size advantage became less comforting. For some unknown reason, our driver liked to drive in the dead center of the road. Now this might be fine in places that see little traffic, but the roads were full and this guy would keep our bus in the center of the road, giving opposing traffic nowhere to go, until the last millisecond before we would have a head on collision and he violently swerved back into our lane. All the passengers heads would whip back and forth, and we’d be back in the center of the road, despite the presence of two perfectly good lanes and an oncoming semi truck only a couple hundred feet away. We did this over and over and over again, for the whole trip. It was like a constant game of chicken, and we literally had hundreds of near head-on collisions.
I couldn’t help thinking back on how much we’d worried about the 18 hours of flying we’d had to go through to get from
Los Angeles to India. It had been on a huge and less than half full 747, and we’d each taken our own row of seats and stretched out to sleep, read and watch the in flight movies. Any time we’d wanted to we could get up to stretch or use the bathroom, and the stewardess’s almost forced us to accept free beer and wine, two at a time. Now, only two days later, we were crammed on a bus for almost the same amount of time as our dreaded flight, only now our knees were jammed into the seats ahead of us and our bladders unrelieved until the next stop an hour or three from now. The roads were so bad that for one six-hour stretch the bus bounced and jarred us far more than the worst turbulence I’ve ever felt on an airplane, and sleep was all but impossible. I still tried to keep my eyes closed, though, so I couldn’t see the trucks we were about to collide with, but I couldn’t keep from hearing their horns as they flew past, only a few inches away. One thing I quickly noticed about vehicles in India is that they have no outside mirrors, or only token ones that stick out a couple inches. Auto rickshaws have mirrors that actually protrude inside the vehicle, and western cars invariably drive with their mirrors folded aside. There is simply no room for anything sticking out from a vehicle with the way that Indians drive, and if a car is in another vehicle’s blind spot he’ll just honk continuously to let the other driver know. There is a lot of honking here. Two lanes of traffic will frequently contain three, four or even more (if some are motorcycles) side by side vehicles all trying to get ahead of the others, even if traffic ahead is at a standstill. I’ve read some terrifying statistics on Indian highway fatalities, and I couldn’t get them out of my head as we drove along. But, I also couldn’t help admiring the way our driver maneuvered the bus through out the numerous crowded towns and villages we passed through. He unhesitatingly drove us at absurdly high speeds through gaps in vehicles or crowds of schoolchildren that I never thought we’d squeak through, and we always made it through without so much as a dented bumper or cracked pedestrian skull. And eventually we made it safe and sound to our destination.
Manali was tiny compared to Delhi. It’s in the foothills of the massive Himalaya range and was cool and comfortable, a very welcome respite from the heat of the plains. Manali is hill station, one of many higher altitude towns in India that were used by the British as a place to escape the summer heat of the lowlands. Now most of the hill stations are popular tourist destinations. Manali draws a lot of Indian tourists, many of them honeymooners, who come for the scenery and maybe to see some snow in the nearby passes. Lots of foreigners come here too, many of them drawn by the extremely abundant charas (marijuana) that grows and thrives wild almost everywhere you look. It really is a
weed here, and it is a little bit surreal to look at the side of the road and see a 10 foot tall mini-forest of pot growing there. We saw a few locals (in full view of traffic and potential police notice) rolling the leaves of the plants between their hands, leaving an oily black residue behind that we’re pretty sure they use to make hashish. This isn’t quite the hippy dreamland you might be envisioning, though; use or possession of even a tiny amount of marijuana (even if you pick it wild) in India carries a mandatory ten year sentence (apparently there’s a fair number of foreigners rotting away in the local slammer), and we’ve read that many dealers collaborate with cops to entrap foreigners and then demand huge bribes, which of course would be worth paying considering the alternative. We were happy to stick to inhaling the clean mountain air.
The abundant marijuana was just one of many things that made Manali remind us a lot of Oregon; the climate and vegetation were quite similar. There were big cedar and other evergreen trees everywhere, and there was a lot of greenery in general. The town itself is honestly nothing all that special and exists mostly to house tourists and meet their demands with lots of hotels, restaraunts and shops. Denae bought a nice shawl here. We were a little bit besieged by men and boys roaming the streets selling saffron and offering shoe shines, but compared to Delhi the place was pure relaxation. We strolled around the town looking at what the shops had to offer, ate out a lot at the various restaurants, and simply wound down after all the stress of the wedding and packing and traveling. It was nice and pretty uneventful, with the notable exception of our getting kicked off the relay team.
It was a very American moment (that’s an Olympics reference that will make more sense in a minute); We were sitting on our balcony and I’d been playing with our very sweet, very new Canon camera that we’d bought for this trip. Thanks to painstaking research it had everything we wanted: the right size, batteries, and that wonderful 10x optical zoom that
I’d just used to take a great shot. I coudn’t help laughing aloud, and told Denae this is so much fun, try it. She took the camera, but the wrist strap hung up on my hand just a little too much and down to the concrete floor it fell, landing on the extended lens. That’s right, we blew the handoff. Tragedy. We took it to a local repair guy, who ended up taking it to Delhi where he thought he could fix it for half the original price of the camera, but in the end he couldn’t get the parts and we’re still carrying a dead camera we’re not quite sure what to do with. Luckily we brought our old camera along also so we are still taking pictures.
While we were waiting on the news from the camera we went to the nearby traveler’s town called Vashisht, which was more relaxed and nicer than Manali. We still didn’t do a whole lot and contiued the theme of relaxation and recovery. It was great. Much of our days were spent at the various tasty restaurants, where Denae continued her quest to find the perfect Momo (Tibetan stuffed dumpling) and we justified carrying our heavy cribbage board with game after game. We watched the locals harvest hay and spread it out on the rooftops during the day to dry, and then gather it up and store it away for the winter to feed the animals. Tiny people staggering beneath huge loads of hay became a regular sight. It was a very pretty place, and we liked to sit on our guest house’s rooftop and look down to the valley floor at the river, and up to the impressive mountains that were soon going to be a lot closer.