Apologies for blog slackness over the last few days. Been hanging out in Manali – the weather cleared up, so we did plenty of walking in the truly lovely Kullu Valley. By far the most beautiful and peaceful place we’ve been in India thus far – the fact that it’s winter meant that we had the place pretty much to ourselves. The few westerners about – a couple of guys from London, and an endearingly loopy Australian couple – were good company, and we spent the rest of the time wandering down the river and befriending passing dogs and monkeys.
Sadly all good things must come to an end, and so two days ago we embarked upon another god-awful bus journey to our current place of residence, McLeod Ganj (home to none other than the Dalai Lama, along with the Tibetan government in exile). As it’s low season, no “deluxe” buses were available, so we braved the local bus. Only in India, I thought as we clattered and bounced up and down mountains, could a bus average 20 km/h and still feel like it’s travelling dangerously quickly.
No, seriously – yesterday it took us 6 hours to travel all of 110km. The fact that our bus was a local bus meant that it stopped at every little cow town on the way, along with pretty much anywhere else anybody felt like getting on and off, and anywhere where the driver felt like having a cigarette. These constant stops meant that the driver was constantly trying to make up for lost time, which meant that whenever the bus wasn’t stopped, it was careering at breakneck velocity around mountain roads that are best approximated by imagining the Great Ocean Road, replacing the sea with fog-shrouded valleys, and replacing the nice smooth bitumen with a mish-mash of potholes, roadworks, landslides and the occasional goat-herder.
As seems to be the trend of late, though, (and long may it continue) the destination made the journey worthwhile. McLeod Ganj is a very pleasant little enclave, perched on a ridge some 500m above the kinda main town of Dharamsala below (and wasn’t that last little leg slogging up the hill an absolute delight). The fact that it’s essentially Tibet-in-India means it’s somewhat reminiscent of a Tibetan theme park, but it’s not nearly as commercialised, overwhelming or full of sandal- and kaftan-clad Westerners as I thought it might be – again, the fact that it’s off-season might explain this. We’ve not explored much yet, but we’ve happily discovered a French bakery, complete with croissants, real coffee, and Asterix books – a good way to start the day.
The fact that we’ve been here over a month has got me reminiscing about what we’ve seen and done so far – the time seems to have flown, and I’m doing my best not to think about what’ll happen when it’s time to leave, mainly because I have no idea. In the meantime, without further ado, here are the Best of India Thus Far Awards 2006 (cue drum roll):
MOST ASTUTE OBSERVATION
The chap on the bus who told me that “driving in India is easy, because there is only one rule – you must not hit anyone else’s car”. At the time, I laughed along chummily, thinking it an amusing one-liner, but the more I’ve watched, the more I’ve become convinced he was dead serious. In a way, this encapsulates everything that I like about India – most of the time, there are no signs and tedious rules telling you what to do, but if you fuck up, it’s your problem, and if you hurt anyone else in the process of fucking up, then you’re in all sorts of trouble (I constantly think of the scene in Shantaram where a taxi driver gets beaten black and blue by a crowd for causing an accident). It’s certainly not ideal, and it’s a harsh old environment, but it does a nice change from the litigation-obsessed and everyone’s-fault-but-mine West.
MOST AMUSING INCIDENT
There’s a temple to Hanuman (a Hindu god with the face of a monkey) on top of a hill right outside Shimla. It’s a nice spot – in the middle of a forest, with pretty spectacular views over the mountains – but it’s renowned for being inhabited by monkeys who can turn nasty if you don’t feed them. On our way up the hill, we ran into two permanently bewildered Americans – a mother and son travelling together – who we’d first encountered on the train a couple of days before. The lady sported a rather nasty couple of scratches on her cheek. When we asked what she’d done to herself, she explained that she’d been ambushed by a monkey, which had stolen her glasses and shot up a tree with them, refusing to give them back until she bribed it with food.
We did our best to stifle our giggles and our visions of a monkey happily waving a pair of glasses around its head, I stashed *my* glasses in my pocket, and we continued on our way, thinking that with another couple of hundred years of evolution, the monkeys will be demanding rupees for their ransom, rather than just sweets.
BEST EXAMPLE OF INDIAN BUSINESS INGENUITY
The guy at the top of the aforementioned hill in Shimla, who’d perched himself outside the temple and was hiring monkey-hitting sticks at 5 rupees a go. Hiring out sticks. In the middle of a forest. And doing a roaring trade. Excellent.
“Sabzi” (mixed vegetables) and “wallah” (seller). They just roll off the tongue. I try to drop them into as many conversations as possible, whether they’re relevant or not.
Manali. The Himalayas in general.
On the bus. Any of them.
Happy New Year to all.