Indian Himalayas: On the Road to Dharamsala
By Daniel Hudon
After an hour’s delay at the bus station, we lurch down the road for ten minutes and then stop dead in a traffic jam on the outskirts of Manali. “Eight hours,” one of the bus station employees had told me when I asked about the duration of the trip to Dharamsala. “Twelve hours,” another replied, nodding his head in a springy side-to-side fashion. I’ve received answers like this before on my trip, yet I keep asking, expecting an “official” time.
It’s another spectacular morning: clear, deep blue sky, the sun reaching into the valley, and all around the 15,000 foot snow-capped peaks are rising to be first to catch the light. I should have stayed another day.
Though I’m looking forward to the reputed peacefulness of Dharamsala – home of the Dalai Lama, I feel like I’m floating away from Vashisht, the pleasant mountain village on the slope overlooking Manali and the Beas River, where I spent the last several days. I had read recently about the sacredness of everyday activities, like washing, and it seems to have seeped into me. In the crisp, Himalayan mornings, I went to the taps outside the sulfurous hot pools and washed my clothes. Around me, the village women pounded their laundry, while young girls filled water bottles and men brushed their teeth. In the afternoons I went to the temple, where the main pools were, and soaked in the hot water with a dozen other men. The tank had walls but no roof, so I watched the shadow of the sun creep over the pool and the clouds laze overhead. Afterwards, I walked around feeling clean and calm.
My seatmate is Mr. Gupta, a retired engineer from the Public Works department. He is of medium height, clean-shaven, and has an air of accomplishment about him. He asks me the usual questions about country and job. Yesterday, “Canada” was simply a name to give to the operator as I tried to call home, but today, as Mr. Gupta nods approvingly, it is a vast and distant land. He is traveling with his older brother, seated across the aisle, who is taller and partially blind. Their interactions are simple.
“Do you want me to put your bag up over the seat?” Mr. Gupta asks.
“Do you want a pillow?”
“No, I’m alright.”
An old army truck has stalled in the middle of the road on a small hill. I’m surprised that with all those soldiers in the back, none of them know how to fix it. After twenty minutes traffic begins to clear. Then, another old army truck, exactly like the first, stalls at the same place on the hill and we’re stuck again. This could repeat all day.
Last night, I had dropped into the Zodiac Cafe where I met Joel, a hyper ex-Montrealer with rooster tail hair and a scruffy goatee. Dressed in a striped T-shirt and plaid pants, with three earrings in each ear, he looked ready to party. He said he’d been in India for four years and that there was a bar in Montreal with a donation jar to help him stay longer. He talked about Canada as an exotic country he got mail from sometimes. “The postcards I receive are wilder than the ones I send,” he said as he went over to join the group of people chatting in the wicker chairs -- they all seemed to know one another. After a while, Joel said, “We’ll go ‘n get some instruments, then we’ll jam.”
They brought back a guitar, tabla, a didgeridoo, a jaw harp, a flute, chimes and a sitar. Joel was on guitar and immediately set off to strumming, and a short guy with long, frizzed hair who could only be named Arlo was on the tablas, padding along right next to him. Damon was on didgeridoo -- cheeks bulging -- bellowing like a tree. The sitar player, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, finally got tuned up, and he whittled jangly notes that curled like ribbons out of his giraffe-necked instrument. Someone found another drum and thumped it while the chimes rang in and the jaw harp player became a pogo stick bouncing around the room. It was all makeshift and crazy but it worked, an old jalopy wobbling down the hill to Manali. Eyes flicked from one to another, trying to figure out what was coming next. Nobody was watching the road. After half an hour the wheels fell off and the whole thing crashed into dust and smoke.
“Alriiiiiiight,” they said to each other as they emerged from the wreckage, dusting themselves off.
Once we get moving, it’s a pleasant trip. We follow the roaring Beas down the gorge to Mandi and then head west up the Kangra Valley, with its many apple orchards and rounded hills, towards Dharamsala. The sun stands strong and tall above us. Mr. Gupta only speaks occasionally and my mind roams free.
Dharamsala means “pilgrim accommodation,” and periodically I wonder if I’m a pilgrim on my way somewhere special. Over the last several days it is the Tibetan faces that I remember: the smiling man selling postcards near the temple at Manikaran in the Parvati Valley, who would say, “How are you, friend?” when I walked by; the friendly doctor who ran a clinic and a used bookstore in the same building; mothers with their babies in baskets at the side of the road, breaking rocks for 25 rupees (one dollar) a day.
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