Home from a Country of Extreme Diversity

We left Manali, in pouring rain and a sea of mud, on the overnight semi deluxe bus for Delhi. It was far from deluxe but the journey was relatively comfortable. At 6 am the next morning, the conductor wakes us from sleep yelling in Hindi, “last stop, Delhi!” Two hours ahead of the scheduled arrival, the bus deposited us beside a metro stop, at the far end of the line from our destination, Gurgaon. The newly built-out metro is the jewel of modern Delhi – efficient, safe and clean – it is the solution to the city’s population and traffic overload. Ridiculously cheap, it’s affordable to everyone. We travel 42 km for a mere 27 rupees each!

Our five days in Delhi reunited us with our Indian family. Since, the inclusion within this family is very special to us because neither one of us are part of a large family of blood relations anymore. And we really do feel part of the family, not guests anymore. The conversation drifts in and out of English and Hindi without any special awareness that we don’t understand Hindi. We’re not special, we’re included. Maybe because they’ve all traveled abroad, it’s not so strange to develop a friendship with a foreigner.

Gerard comments that he is neither dreading nor excited to return to Boston. “In fact, I don’t even think about it,” he says. To a large degree I share his feelings, although in my usual mental overdrive, I’ve definitely begun to project – the little things I miss if I choose to go there – our soft bed, my yoga class, brown rice, weekly Satsang, the garden waiting to be replanted – but nothing that important that it can’t wait. I know I’ll be very happy to see friends again, but they are not part of my immediate life right now. And then, a few minutes later, I’m thinking about India next year, already planning our next visit. Gerard refuses to go there with me; he’s content to deal with the matter in hand – going home. “The only reality is the present,” he reminds me.

While flying back to the US, I’m hanging in a state of limbo between two realities – India and Boston. Our friend from Rewalsar, Frederic, who travels back as far as London with us, is so much part of our India experience, and keeps us rooted in that reality longer than might be the case otherwise. Frederic exchanges seats to be able sit with us on the flight. I reflect on the friendships we’ve made traveling. A spontaneous change of plans took us to Rewalsar where we met Frederic. Is the encounter random or destined? I believe it’s destined. And the fact we’re traveling back to London together is further proof.

A week later:

We’ve now been back for almost a week. India is such a large presence that it doesn’t fade from our consciousness quickly. Our street seems quiet, but it also lacks the vibrancy. It’s so convenient to drink water out of the tap and brush your teeth without filtered water – but there aren’t half dozen ‘pure veg’ restaurants on our block. It’s nice to have a closet full of clothes to pick from – yet our little case was all we needed. A friend asked me, “Why do you go to India? Is it to escape from winter?” Well yes, it’s a cheap escape. But it’s much more than that…the attraction to a country that is so large and so diverse physically, economically and spiritually is powerful. To quote, the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, “India’s diversity is created by extreme contrast – modernity and antiquity, luxury and poverty, gentleness and violence, a multiplicity of castes and languages, rivers and deserts, plains and mountains, cities and villages, rural and industrial life, centuries apart in time and neighbors in space. To those of us who are attracted, India can be addictive.

Spring Flowers, Snow Capped Mountains…World Cup Victory

Gerard asked a lot of people about the weather in Manali before we decided to travel north up the Kullu Valley to 6,500 feet surrounded by mountains reaching up another 10,000 feet. Our French friend from Rewalsar, Frederic, decided to accompany us in the shared taxi. The ride followed the Beas River, through deep canyons and wide valleys, slowly working our way north and increasingly higher. We passed through villages with old wooden two storey houses where the livestock is kept indoors on the first floor during the winter, helping to heat the living quarters above. The roofs were covered with gigantic pieces of slate. Wonderful indigenous architecture!

Five hours later, we arrived in Manali, a busy mountain town, its main street looking a little like the Wild West with its wooden buildings, verandahs and store fronts. The guidebook advised we stay in Vashsist, a small village just up the hill beyond Manali. The season is only just beginning, and our first choice of hotel had not yet opened. But next door, we got a large room with a spectacular view across the river valley rising up the hill side through pine forests to snow covered mountain peaks. The price of the room was very reasonable even after a one-bar electric fire was thrown in for an additional 100 rupees a day. I didn’t see the need, but Gerard insisted; later that evening after the sun went down, I was glad of it!

The next morning was decidedly brisk and the air so clear that the mountain ranges and bright blue sky looked more like a post card than the real thing. I have to pinch myself to believe we’re really here. Frederic was put off by the row of restaurants and funky tourist shops lining the steep main street, but this is an inescapable feature of any tourist destination. And once we ventured into town, the three of us were amazed at what we found. Many of the buildings are still wooden and look like the ones we passed further down the valley, large enclosed verandahs with carved details. Perhaps at one time they were painted, now sun bleached and weathered to a beautiful patina. Others sport a fresh coat of blue or green paint.

The locals seemed unperturbed by our presence even as we clicked away with our cameras. In fact, some of the women even struck a pose!

One afternoon we followed a foot path out of town up a steep incline through apple orchards. We’ve ahead of the blossom by a couple of weeks, but daffodils, jonquils, forsythia, irises, hyacinths, primroses, violets.-all the flowers familiar to us back home are coming into bloom.

Vashist is known for its hot spring which is in the center of the village. They’ve cleverly managed to make public bathing areas, for men and women respectively, right in the temple. The hot spring also feeds into a clothes washing area. The women are spring cleaning now the warmer weather is arriving (or so we thought until it clouded over and the temperature doesn’t rise much above freezing). They’re washing huge piles of blankets, pounding the dirt out with their feet, and then spreading them out to dry across the slate roofs of their buildings.

Among the restaurants that have opened for the season, we select a couple: one for breakfast with a roof top terrace and spectacular view in the early morning sunshine. The other is a funky old wooden building, painted robin egg blue. The ceilings are so low even I have to duck my head. But it’s cozy. Run by a two generation family, the father, mother and daughter sit around a table in the back of the room until they’re called into service when a customer arrives – the mother knitting, the daughter nursing her baby under voluminous layers of clothing and shawl.

Across the river in Old Manali there is a bookstore which provided a haven of warmth as the day deteriorated from clouds to drizzle to downright cold. While I browsed, Gerard engaged in a lively discussion with the owner about Indian politics and Gandhi. The store keeper was very forceful in his opinions, and after initially disagreeing, Gerard went quiet and let him continue to explain his views. When the discussion finished and a few minutes had passed, the storekeeper began to apologize to Gerard for any offence he might have made. “And furthermore” he said, “You’re older than me, I meant no disrespect” Once again age is treated with directness!

Frederic is an interesting character. We’ve been with him for almost two weeks. Like others we have met traveling, he discloses little at first, but gradually the layers peel away as we talk and we piece together more about him — but he’s still a mystery. The dynamics of three can often be difficult; with Frederic that’s not the case; he engages both of us. His moods are erratic – like me, he wears them on his sleeve. But when his mood is good he entertains us with his enthusiasm on subjects, ranging from spirituality to French movie stars. He reveals just enough of himself to make us feel we’ve become good friends. After three days he left to go back to Rewalsar. But by huge coincidence, we’re all flying back via England on the same flight! So we’ll see him again at Delhi airport.

Big selling items here are long underwear and hand knitted wool socks. We’re glad we’ve arrived before the crowds, but it would be nice if it was several degrees warmer. By the middle of the day, if the sun is out, it’s comfortable. But too often the day starts bright and clear, and then clouds roll in over the mountains – and by late morning the sun has gone.

But for the past couple of days, the weather has deteriorated into thick clouds and rain with the snow line descending down the mountainside. Our warm clothes are back in Delhi and layers of tea shirts no longer adequate. Glad of the excuse, I bought angora wool socks and leg warmers to wear with my capri knee-length jeans – a pretty odd looking outfit! But the village is full of odd looking outfits. In the most comfortable restaurant in town they try to get a stove burning and play movies for us in the evening. We’re holed up in this town waiting for the weather to break hopefully before we leave for Delhi. And in spite of the unexpected cold, it’s still very beautiful looking at the mountainside covered in fresh snow and the frost coating the pine trees.