*To read Part I of this story, click here!
I’m in a taxi heading from Chandigarh to Manali, in northern India, with an Indian grad student on her way to a wedding. The journey is just 300 kilometres, but it takes about eight hours to get there because of the road conditions. Once in the mountains, the narrow switchbacks only allow for one vehicle to pass through on each side, and some parts of the road are too narrow for even that. On our left is a drop-off of several hundred metres, into either a river or piles of boulders. One mistake by a driver would lead to certain death.
I had booked a flight for this journey, but it was cancelled, so me and Srigda, my co-passenger, found ourselves in a taxi, trundling along these terrifying mountain roads, instead of on a comfortable plane.
It’s been about four hours since our last diner stop, and my bladder is about to explode. But there has been no shop or restaurant since. Only the rock cliff and the drop of death surround us.
“I have to pee,” I say feebly.
She stares at me. She’s been to the U.S. before, so I feel like she’s accustomed to crass North American English, and I can’t think of a more delicate way to put it.
She says something to the driver in Hindi. I’m hoping she found a softer, more elegant way to explain to him that I’m about to wet my pants.
About 20 minutes later, we finally hit a public restroom. Srigda goes in first, takes one look inside, and steps right back out, total disgust on her face.
I step in tentatively. It is literally just a hole in the ground, and it smells like half of humankind defecated on the walls, all on the same day.
We are a disgusting species…
I don’t even care, I’m about to explode. I hold my breath and go.
We leave that cesspool of human filth and get back on the road again.
We drop Srigda off first, a few hours later, since the wedding she’s attending this weekend is on the outskirts of Manali. She takes out her phone and calls her friend to direct us. Three men suddenly pop out of the nearby bushes and point the taxi down a narrow, steeply inclined dirt path.
We get to a rickety wooden bridge, held up by ropes and cables attached to trees. I’m pretty sure we’re going to drop Srigda off here, but her friends beckon the driver forward.
We make it onto the first part of the bridge when another car barrels forward from the opposite side.
Our driver curses in frustration and backs the vehicle off the bridge. The whole contraption shakes and groans with the weight of the two vehicles. Below is a raging river filled with giant rocks.
We’re gonna die…
Our driver glares at the other car as it passes, but we’re now clear to go. We make it across safely and with the bridge still fully intact.
We drop Srigda off at what looks like an empty vacation lodge. Little wooden houses circle an open area with a white tent in the centre. But all the lights are off, and other than the three friends guiding us, nobody appears to be around.
“Oh no… is the wedding already over?” I ask, feeling really bad for her.
“No, it hasn’t started yet.”
“But it’s 8 pm!”
“This is India,” she laughs. She gives me that same smile, the one she always flashes when she’s trying to hide the fact that she thinks I’m a slow idiot. “Weddings start late here…”
“Do you want to come?” she asks. “You’ve never been to an Indian wedding before, right?”
She’s right, I haven’t. And I am super tempted. But I haven’t been in India long enough to know whether the offer was made sincerely or out of politeness, and if I’m meant to just respectfully decline.
“Thank you so much! I’d love to, but I’m exhausted and I smell like airplane.” I’d been traveling since last night, coming from Phuket, Thailand, and this was the fourth leg in my four-flight, 30-hour journey.
She nods her head from side to side and disappears into the darkness with her friends.
The driver has Google-Mapped my guesthouse and shows it to me. It looks like it is only 12 kilometres away, but it’ll take another two hours to get there!
I’m not sure why he’s showing the Google Maps estimate to me. I have a feeling that he wants me to get off here as well, but there is NO way in hell I’m walking 12 kilometres in the dark with all of my crap.
I smile stupidly at him. It’s done the trick before. The driver sighs and starts the car up again.
We go back over that Neolithic-era bridge, turn right, and immediately hit a wall of traffic. It’s unbelievable. Cars are not moving in either direction, and again, there is only room for one lane of traffic on each side. Most of the vehicles have just given up all hope and turned off their engines.
“Accident?” I ask, hoping he knows a few English words.
He looks at me with disdain and then turns his attention back to the line of stalled cars ahead of us.
I stop trying to make awkward small talk with this man, since I’m the reason for his current misery.
We eventually start moving. We crawl about a kilometre, until the path opens up to three separate roads.
The driver steps on the gas, finally free of the obstacles in the road.
We hit Old Manali, the area of town where I’m staying, soon after. This is a weird place. There is one road, only big enough for one vehicle in some spots, and so steeply inclined that cars need to barrel up it to maintain enough power to get to the top. It also has endless switchbacks, so cars coming both ways need to honk incessantly to make their presence known.
Despite the dangerousness of this ridiculously steep one-vehicle road, pedestrians stream along it in packs. Both sides are filled with cafes, restaurants, and hookah bars, and people walk in and out of them without a care. Stray dogs also wander across the road occasionally, and cars swerve, sometimes into pedestrians, to avoid hitting them.
We accelerate up one particularly steep bit, only to meet a car coming down the opposite side. The driver inches to the left, and I hear a loud thunk. He curses and gets out of the vehicle. The left side of the car is in a ditch.
A group of men gather round to assess the damage. I get out as well.
The driver gestures for me to take my luggage out. I’m certain he’s going to leave me here, in the middle of the road, with all of my stuff.
He and two other men start to push the car out of the ditch, grunting and groaning with exertion. I go over to try and assist. I did Muay Thai for awhile and I climb – surely I’m strong enough to be of some help. But the men shoo me away like a pesky insect. I guess that the only thing more humiliating than driving your own car into a ditch is having a woman help you get it back out.
They eventually get the car onto the road again, and I put myself and all my bags back inside. Ten minutes later, we’ve finally arrived. Gautaum, my guesthouse owner, has waited up so that he can help me with my things and direct me to the place.
When I take everything out of the vehicle, he balks at how much there is.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t travel light…
He refuses to let me carry anything except my daypack and camera bag. He tries to balance one giant suitcase on his head while dragging the other one along the dirt road.
I turn around to thank the driver and say goodbye, but he is already gone.
I follow Gautaum down a narrow village alley, too small for even a motorcycle to pass through. He deftly navigates his way over cow patties and pipelines without missing a step, although the weight of my suitcases is clearly pulling him down and sideways.
About a hundred metres later, we arrive at his little Shanti homestay, where I will be living for the next few months. He helps me dump everything I own into my room and check in before leaving me for the night.
It’s 10 pm. I left for the Phuket airport at 6 pm the previous night. I’m filthy, and I should shower. I smell like airplane, sweat, cow poo, and car exhaust. I don’t even care…
I fall into bed and don’t move from that spot for 12 hours.
This is traveling.
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