Into the Himalayas

It is raining in Manali, a rain that began when I arrived and lets up from time to time, revealing snow-capped peaks in the distance, only to begin again. It is a heavy, steady downpour. The rain spouts off rooftops in waterfalls to be avoided on the streets, which are steep and flanked by gutters that gush with runoff. The Israelis who dominate this town wake me up with music – American country classics? I can’t be sure – at 1:44 am, and it becomes another night spent mostly awake, thinking, reading, writing, listening to the sounds outside my room. My room is spare, with a bare fluorescent light tube mounted onto the wall, which is white with black stains. There is a mirror, a bed, and an ancient TV. There is no toilet paper in the bathroom, nor shower, just a spigot that sometimes runs warm-ish. I ate dinner last night across from Shirley, a lovely Israeli who could have been 26 or 66 with her head of silver, smooth face, and proclivity to say “wow” (like mine). She’d just returned from where I am heading next: Leh, Ladakh, elevation 11,500 feet, a place she said she’d fallen in love with, where everything felt sacred. 

One symptom of altitude sickness is a sense of impending doom, and as if my body is preemptively responding to the high mountain passes I’ll soon be crossing, a gloom settled over me in Delhi on Monday. There was the fear of leaving my hostel in Delhi, which served chai every afternoon and had a room covered in wall-to-wall pillows just for resting and became somewhat of a refuge from the bustle of the Delhi streets. There was the fact that I saw a man being zipped into a crisp white bag on the sidewalk 20 meters from my hostel, first thing of the day on my first morning in Delhi, my brain unbelieving what it was seeing even as the awful zipper closed over his body. There was learning that a train I’d planned on taking derailed last week and killed two women. (Mom, I’m so sorry, but I swear I’m being safe). There was my long, failed attempt to find a drugstore to buy avomin (anti-nausea magic), during which a lone, unwell man on the street who lurched towards me, moaning and reaching out to grab my body. This was everything I'd been warned about, manifesting its ugly face. I finally did find the drugstore, nearly in tears with relief and anger, as it was not a block from my hostel after all. 

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I’ve been spending more time with men than I have in a long time. For one, there are just more male travellers, and more male solo travellers especially. (More on this later). It’s just easier to be a woman in India when accompanied by a man. I am mostly trying to understand this as an empowered kind of thing: men make my life easier so I will hang out with some men. So when an American boy named Jordan from my hostel was taking an overnight bus to Manali, where I was heading, too, I tagged along.

As the two of us left our hostel, packs on back, to the bus station, the clouds that had hung over Delhi all day broke cinematically into rain and thunder. I couldn’t stop laughing: it was one of those days when everything went wrong and then it really did rain on you to top things off. The boy I was travelling with was far less amused, but my bad mood broke with the clouds. It took us a quarter of an hour to find a tuktuk. I peeled off my socks and hitched up my pants so I could wade through the filthy run off into the streets (you can join me in not imagining what lurked in the runoff) and jammed myself & my big backpack into the little rickshaw, only to realize we could go practically nowhere: the streets of Delhi were flooded and gridlocked. Shop owners were using giant squeegees to push water out of their shops and on the street, a group of men lifted up a massive cement manhole, causing a the brown water to pour in at a frightening velocity (you can’t really see this in the video attached, but you can hear Jordan & I react at the end). Our tuktuk stalled in the standing water a few times – once, in the middle of a massive intersection – and at a few points we considered getting out at walking, although it was dark and we didn’t know where we were going. We made it to the bus station 5 minutes before our bus left and there was no better feeling – despite being wet and shaky with stress – to be sitting on a big coach bus and knowing when the sun rose, you’d be in the mountains.

When my poetry mentor emailed me a day ago and asked if I’d found kindred spirits on my travels, I felt a pang because I hadn’t. It was nice traveling with Jordan, but he’s kind of a bro (no offense to my actual brothers) and decidedly not my kindred spirit.

Then, yesterday, I ran into Shirli (the Israeli) in a cafe, and soon afterwards, my friend from Delhi, Eduardo, arrived in Manali and came to meet me. The three of us drank cappuccinos & waited out the worst of the rain & talked about Leh, where Shirli spent the past month, and we decided to walk together to the Hedimbe temple nearby. The real joy, though, was the couple of hours we spent meandering there, leisurely looking for raincoats. I could have spent the whole day doing this – I felt buoyant with the feeling of being with people I truly liked, and had that pleasant feeling of putting my feet in front of one another without wanting or needing to be anywhere other than where I was at that moment. After all of the comical mishaps of trying on raincoats (too small! bright pink! 5,000 rupees?!?!?) they said yes to the dress/raincoat and of course, the rain immediately stopped. After we hiked up to the temple, we spent the rest of the day hopping from chai shop to chai shop on the Beas river and had dinner at a restaurant where a singer-songwriter type played guitar and sang Punjabi songs.  

Today I woke up at 4, typed this out, and when the sun began to rise just after five, set off. And the mountains! In full blinding white glory, peeking behind the lush green mountains surrounding us, unveiled after two days of rain, like seeing earth for the very first time. I hiked up to the top of the village where I'm staying, past a temple, walking with men my age who had baskets strapped to their backs to fill with apples in the orchard. Then, I walked down to the Beas River, blue-green in the sunshine, and through a park of Redwood-like trees and moss covered boulders the size of cars. When I crossed the river and came into full view of the peaks beyond, I was bowled over with gratitude just at having limbs, a brain, just to be a witness to such beauty. I cried. I attached a photo, but it does no justice to the moment, so I almost want to say -- just imagine it. 

This morning, while typing this up over coffee, I heard the sound of drumming approaching. From up the street came a parade of people with huge instruments and drums, and then, men carrying a litter draped in gorgeous orange fabric. It was a funeral. Behind the musicians and the litter was a crowd of some hundred men. Each carried a log on his shoulder. This is how I came to understand that the body would be burned on a pyre. Although I was tempted to follow them, I knew it wasn't my place, and didn't. Later, while walking to the hot springs in Vishisht with Eduardo, I saw the plume of smoke from the pyre on the river.  

Tomorrow morning I start a 2 day journey to Leh, Ladakh, a place that has consumed my imagination and has become the focus point of my trip. I'm traveling with my new but adored pal Eduardo by jeep, and we'll stop to make camp at Sarchu (elevation 4,290 meters, or 14,070 feet) before finishing the journey to Leh the next day. There, I'll be staying in a homestay with a family that came recommended to me by Shirli, and acclimatizing for a few days before heading out on a trek in the Himalayas.