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Indian Himalayas
 Photo: Chee Woon Peng
Indian Himalayas
 Photo: Stephen Williams

Indian Himalayas: On the Road to Dharamsala (cont.)

Crossing the bridge over the Beas in Manali one afternoon, I came upon an old Tibetan man who was selling momos, vegetable dumplings, and asked him how long he would be there. Rather than look at his watch, he lifted the lid of his pot, showing me the remaining momos. Not long, I understood.

I watch the sun scale the sky through my window as my mind fills with scenery; I grow bored of composing long letters in my head, wonder what the autumn weather is like back home, and look to see what’s coming around the next bend.  Now and then, I check my watch; and though I read the time, creeping along, it doesn’t immediately register. Instead, I think about Baba, the sadhu, or holy man, who gave the watch to me last week in Manikaran. We spent several afternoons drinking chai and chatting by the hot springs. He suggested we trade watches as a memento of the time we spent together. Mine was a cheap digital watch and his watch has a large face with second hands that glow in the dark. Sinking into my seat, I’m no longer anxious that our driver hogs the middle of the road, swerving away from oncoming traffic at the last second, no longer anxious about the time.

When we finally pull in for lunch, Mr. Gupta helps his brother down from the bus and says to me, “Now we will eat.”  Mr. Gupta is pleased I have come on this trip and is keen to be my host.  “You must join us,” he says, selecting a table and pulling out a chair for me, “but first we wash.  Cold water on the neck takes miles off the trip.”  He leads his brother to the bathroom at the back.  The roadside restaurant is plain: a long row of tables on a cement floor, but the view from the bathroom is out over another valley.

Mr. Gupta asks if I like Indian food and proceeds to order rice, dahl, curried vegetables, and chapatis.  He makes sure that I have enough of everything, asking that the waiter bring me more water and another chapati to mop up the remains. He refuses to let me pay.  “You are a guest in our country,” he says proudly.

After lunch we roll back into our seats, fed and content; and for awhile the green hills and valleys look new again.  But the long afternoon curves and curves, and the windows are full of road and hills. Mr. Gupta and I lean this way and that, passive and blasé, stuck watching a film we can’t get out of, while his brother nods off to sleep across the aisle.

Yesterday, as I wandered around Manali, I passed a squatter’s camp not far from the main thoroughfare.  The tents were dirty and ragged and looked like they have been there for a long time.  A young, bare-footed girl, wearing a red dress, stopped her chasing game for a moment to look at me as I passed. She had a crust of snot in her nose and black hair that was hopelessly tangled.  I wanted to give her a pair of shoes, a comb, a hug.  She smiled at me and continued her chase.

There are more delays. We have a flat tire near Jogindarnagar, and Mr. Gupta buys me a cup of chai in the shade of a tea stall at the side of the road as we take in the view and the driver jumps on the arm-length wrench to loosen the bolts.  I don’t know how much further we have to go: four hours? eight hours? It feels good to stand.  A hose bursts just past Palampur; I walk around on the quiet road, hands in my pockets and kick stones into the valley. The sun sinks lower.

At six o’clock we round a bend and plunge into the shadow of a valley.  We keep going down, fumbling our way around blind curves, burrowing into the dusk.  Though I can see the bus driver turning the steering wheel through great revolutions, it seems he is going through the motions; and we are being pulled through Time—and Time has simply arranged the space so that we don’t arrive at our destination too soon.  We pass tea plantations carved into the slopes of the foothills like steps to the Himalayas, then cross a river and labor up the other side of the valley with noisy determination.  I glimpse sunlight on distant hilltops; and we race towards the top of the ridge in urgent pursuit.  As we complete the turn around the corner, an enormous valley opens wide below us; and there is the sun. Waiting. Red-robed and blazing on the horizon.

“Oh,” Mr. Gupta says. “Oh my.”

It is as if our patience with the late departure, the traffic jam and the afternoon delays has been rewarded.  We roll down the ridge, and Mr. Gupta and I lean forward in our seats like wide-eyed children, trying to absorb the red glow before it slips below the horizon.  The bus driver grins in the rearview mirror, and for those glowing moments I forget about my growing headache and how much further we have to go before reaching Dharamsala.

Mr. Gupta tells me the name of the hotel they are staying in at Macleod Ganj, a short taxi ride up the hill from Dharamsala, and insists that I come to visit.  The engine has grown louder, becoming a terrible revved-up machine grinding gears, screaming around the slopes.  My headache thickens, and I can barely hear what he is saying to me.  I stop looking at my watch. We’ve been on the bus too long.

After I have a swaying, groggy nap, we pull into Dharamsala. The crescent moon is up, with Jupiter gleaming beside it, and a few pale streetlights shine in the bus station. Somehow, all I see is how dark it is—the sunset is already a fading memory.  I just want to find a bed.  Mr. Gupta repeats his invitation as he says goodbye. I collect my backpack, climb down from the bus, and watch them trudge together toward the main road to catch a taxi -- Mr. Gupta weighed down by suitcases, leading his brother into the night.


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