Thursday, June 28, 2007

... and onward

If I haven't been searched for drugs yet in a particular country, it means I haven't been there long enough. Apparently, I've been in India long enough.

After leaving Khir Ganga, I went back to Kasol for the night to collect my bearings before heading off to Manali. There are a few ways to get to Manali from Kasol, but the cheapest and near easiest way, other than by motorbike, is by local bus to Bhuntar and from there to Manali.

A couple of friends who I'd shared a jeep with from Dharamsala to Kasol were also planning to head off to Manali by local, and since the ride is only about 4 hours, I wasn't in a rush to leave before noon or 1. Which is good, because as I may have mentioned, there's no benefit to rushing in Parvati. So we ate our breakfast, and I collected some pants from the tailor, a game of chess or two and one of backgammon were had, and by noon we found ourselves in town, waiting for the green bus to Bhuntar.

A friend of mine told me earlier that week that a few Israelis were searched for charas in Kalga, and forced by the cop to pay $100 in bakshish. I later met one of the infamous trio in Kasol and he confirmed every word. The cops here are more interested in dollars than in incarceration and in this part of the mountains, searching foreigners is normal.

So when the three cops boarded our local bus about halfway to Bhuntar, I wasn't surprised. The ticket seller was also a cop, which is unusual and made me think he probably called his cop friends to come take a joyride. The three officers crowded around the three of us and another foreigner, and asked to see our passports, after which they peered into our wallets, pouches, side bags, and every other visible compartment. When they found nothing on me or my friend Yael, they seemed dissatisfied, but their triumphance returned when they saw my friend Ben's keychain - one of those nifty little leather mixing bowls. Off the bus they dragged Ben, his luggages trailing behind. And then: pffft. Officer #1 blows the whitle and off sails the driver.

"Wait!" I call, and Yael chimes in. "Our friend!" Rrrrrreeeer. Officer #1 looks at us. "You may get off with him," he said. Yael considered for half a second and said, "I'm going."

And me? In that split second at 3 P.M. on a Friday, four hours away from my destination, facing further police conflict and humiliating searches and an unclear bus schedule, what did I decide to do? For a split second I said, "I'll come too," and then, one split second later I said, "actually, I'll see you there." Off went Yael, and off we went.

For the first time, I realized what it means to travel alone. It means not getting off the bus. It means doing what's right for me in such a situation. Ben wasn't alone - he was with Yael and she was with him. I don't think I would have helped the situation by getting of with them in that random town with those bribe-hungry cops. I saw some other mutual friends in Manali the next day, who told me that Yael and Ben had returned to Kasol after Ben paid the cops 1,000 rupees (he managed to talk them down from 2k.)

Believe me, I felt sorry for going off, but felt absolutely sure I had made the right decision. We arrived in Bhuntar just as the bus to Manali was leaving. Four Sikh brothers herded me there and then sat around with me the whole way, leaving an empty seat beside me and not letting anyone sit down and sharing their bananas with me.

Manali was totally different than I expected. I think I expected some sort of mafia town, but it is actually green and charming. I stepped off the bus right into the summer festival, which was wild. A few nights later I got to check out the culmination of the festival, a local beauty pageant whose winner will compete nationally for the Miss India title. It was boring as hell, but the crowd was hilarious.

I've been staying at a great guest house with a bunch of English people, some Austrians (including one traveling with her new Indian husband) and an Italian girl. We got along great and had such a nice time in our little commune, which is a nice house with a huge courtyard, long dinner-party table, and a hammock. A rafting instructor named Lara also joins us at night. He is very depressed, speaks alternately of wanting to kill himself and wanting to take us on a free rafting trip. We've declined his invitation each time. He doesn't seem dangerous, but I think it's best to have happy conversation around him.

While in Manali, I've taken tons of walks through the forest, went to Vashist to see the waterfalls and the hot springs, and to Nagar to see the Nicholas Roerich exhibit.

My plan was to go from here to the lesser-traveled Kinnaur region on Wednesday, but, well, I changed my mind. I'd made the plans with my friend Tiferet, who I met in Dharamsala, and two of her friends. We decided to meet at 7:30 to solidify the plans. The two friends and I met, hardly had anything to talk about, and then Tiferet showed up with another girl, Amelie, and said she was going to walk to Leh instead.

Walking to Leh takes 21 days and is very difficult. It is an ascent of about 3500 meters, and it is up and down mountains onto desert plateau. I thought about it for a few minutes, let it fester in my mind. I don't have 21 days to hike, since I want to be in Delhi by July 14. But these women, Amelie and Tiferet, are amazing. They are strong and they are smart and if they can do it, why can't I?

So, I am leaving Manali tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. for a town called Keylong in the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh. On Sunday, we're going to start walking north. I'm planning to walk 10-12 days with them, and then either catch a bus to Leh or return south, depending on the date. There are two trails to Leh: one that requires a guide and a porter and is entirely in nature for three weeks, and one that veers through nature as well as villages, which we're taking. We'll pass through a village or permanent tent accomodations every night. I got myself a sleeping bag and a huge rainponcho and am stocked up for warmth. I'm leaving most of my things in Manali, taking only what's necessary for a 10-12 day walk through the Himalayas. And then...

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