Backpack India – 42 Hours of Transportation Hell…
42 Hours of Transportation Hell…
Arambol, Goa, India.
Before Vova left yesterday, he found my snake-charmer friend. Vova wanted pictures of the snake-charmers and their cobras, but he did not have any money. So, he gave the snake-charmers the shirt he was wearing. Russians always seem to make due somehow. They backpack India on nothing and have a blast.
When I came back to my guesthouse after lunch, my next door neighbor had a king-cobra locked in the shower room. Then, with a stick, he pinned the angry, hissing cobra who was constantly trying to strike. Once he got the snake in a large sack he then transferred it to a huge jar. I was extremely impressed. My neighbor and I do not get along as he is mostly psychotic. But, I sure am glad that our confrontation did not get too out of hand. A man who will catch and bag an angry, hissing, king cobra could surely kick my ass. I have decided that it is for sure time to travel on. My enemy has a dangerous and extremely poisonous snake at his disposal which makes me think it is a good time to hit the road to backpack India some more. Plus, I am getting hammock rash on the backs of my arms from being here in Goa too long.
Marsha showed up in the evening so we hung out. Something happened in her bank account in Russia, and she has no money, and no plane ticket, and no access to funds. She can barely speak English and she just laughs at the craziness of her situation saying, “What to do?” with a shoulder shrug and a smile. She laughed, showed me her hitchhiking thumb and said, “Pakistan…,” showed me her thumb and said, “Uzbekistan…,” showed me her thumb and said, “Kazakhstan… What to do?…”
I made Marsha say ‘R’s and ‘E’s because they make me laugh when she tries making those sounds in her accent. We laughed until tears ran down our cheeks. I took her with me to bed and we fooled around a little again. But, I still cannot get her underwear off, which is a shame because I think she would have had a really great time if she would let me take those off. I know I certainly would enjoy the situation more. So I am not sure why she is cheating us out of an excellent experience of turning a six-scale night into a nine-scale night. With expectations lowered, we just spooned after it was clear that the underwear were staying in their same location as when she arrived.
I woke beside Marsha when the sun was shining through the bamboo into the hut. She still seemed to think that her underwear should still stay on, so we eventually got up to start the day and went out for breakfast. I paid for our morning nutrition because she has no money. She has an English/Russian dictionary that is in three different pieces with shards of loose paper detaching from the book’s spine. She lost the W-Z part of the English section so we just try to avoid words from that part of the English language.
Marsha and I came back to my Shree Sai guesthouse where I packed up. I am sad. Shree Sai Guesthouses at Arambol, Goa, India, is home. It has cost me 230 Rupees a night ($4.60US as 50 rupees = $1) and I have a lot of great memories here. I still have strangers asking me where my hair is. Crazy. My Danish friend Liza told me that people knew me as ‘The Guy with the Funny Hair.’ People enjoyed those long glued-in extensions…
Once I had my pack loaded up, I hitch-hiked my way towards the bus station. It felt empty inside of me to be leaving Arambol. Standing on the side of the road, a man from a shop close to my guesthouse picked me up. I told him I was going to backpack India up to Kashmir. He said that he has a guesthouse there where I can stay for free and all I have to do is pay for my food. Great!
On the bus to Mapusa I met an English girl named Rose who was charmed by my ways, and I wished we were both heading the same direction. From Mapusa I got a 600r ($8.90) sleeper bus for 13 hours to Mumbai and listened to very loud music for the first time in two months. I was pumping music through my earphones as loud as my ears could take it as I watched the Indian country side pass by my bus window. It was then that fell in love with music again and wondered how I had been away from it for so long.
My bus-bed was a barely wider than I am; a top berth that was completely horizontal that had a curtain separating me from the center aisle. It would have been fine except that the highway was so incredibly rough that the road would throw me around, and I would wake up with a start every time the bus jarred into a huge hole in the journey. Welcome to the trail on The Restless Sleeper Bus.
Morning came, and I was dropped off close to Mumbai Central with a slow moving Russian who had been on The Restless Sleeper Bus as well. We decided we were going to be buddies for the morning, but after five minutes I knew that his doddelling all day was going to kill mine. So, I wished him well and headed alone towards Churchgate Station to get a 635r ($9.45) train ticket for tomorrow to take me to Kashmir. I am leaving the gentle Goa sand and sun of The Beatles to head for the hard rock and Kashmir mountains of Led Zeppelin. It is my little Rock and Roll India Tour. Ah, to backpack India!
Once I got my hands on a train ticket, in a city where I had been told no train tickets existed because they were all sold out, I found two ugly but friendly Australian girls looking at a map in Churchgate Station. Ugly girls are better than no girls and the main objective of my day had just been handled in finding a train ticket, so I hung out with them for the morning. They were very nice girls. Pretty girls never have to be that nice. They took me to a massive laundry area where 6000-7000 people are working every day, washing Mumbai’s laundry by hand. We paid for a tour. People were working with irons heated with charcoal inside of them. That was interesting.
I was exhausted, so I left the girls after the tour and went for a nap on a bench in Churchgate Station, which I am sure was weird for the Indians getting off of the trains to see a white man look like a homeless man. I needed rest as I was falling asleep on my feet due to The Restless Sleeper Bus last night. Then at the recommendation of the unattractive nice girls, I went for a tour of one of Mumbai’s slums, Dharavi. The tour was the most fascinating thing I have done in months.
It cost 650r ($9.65) for a tour of the Dharavi slum. It could not have been more fascinating. We were not allowed to take pictures. The Mumbai slum of Dharavi, is 432 acres, and one million people live within it. It is the source of the recycle business in India, and a portion of the some of the entire world. $655 million US is the annual production coming out of the slums from workers making 100-150r ($1.50-2.25)/day. Dharavi slum has existed since 1840.
Recycling plastics and aluminum makes the slums work. Plastics are organized into huge piles inside the slum according to color: plastic chairs, TV’s, detergent containers, plastic pails, front clips of cars, plastic toys… It is all categorized. There were children sorting broken toys and taking hammers to break colors of plastic from other colors. Pop and water bottles are in massive piles. It is amazing. The organized plastic is then put through a slum-made chopping machine. Once chopped, the plastic is washed, dried on a slum roof, and then melted with dye to a specific color. The melted plastic is produced in the form of pellets the size of salt crystals, which huge companies like LG and Sony come into the slums to buy in 4 kilogram gunny sacks for 68r ($1.36) that they mold into their products. Pharmaceutical lids from a pill jar you have at home was most likely molded in a Mumbai slum.
Dharavi slum is its own city within the city where there are small groceries stores, hardware stores, fabrication shops, etc; whatever is deemed necessary within the slum-city in the city. There are welders making tools for slum work and for iron works. No one has gloves, goggles, or any kind of safety equipment as they work their $2/day jobs. Aluminum is processed in the slums, where engine blocks for motorcycle companies like Honda and Yamaha are produced. Aluminum blades for the blender in the kitchen of any western house likely came from the Mumbai slums.
There are children everywhere who are very dirty and want to shake hands. Children’s “Hello”s directed us all through the slums as we walked through their lives. The children are happy, but they are busy playing in garbage, with garbage. I watched two children play fighting on top of a large pile of trash and of the kids was hitting the other kid with a large piece of Styrofoam. The slum is filthy and it is poverty beyond my previous comprehension of such a state of living. Our tour group walked past an eight-year-old girl and four or five four-or-five-year-old’s. Everyone was sitting on top of a desk/table pushed up against a green building, and with chalk, the eight-year-old had written the letters A-F. She was asking the kids about ‘F’ and the kids were saying, “Fish” together in unison. She made each child say ‘Fish’ individually and then she wrote down a ‘G’. She asked what a ‘G’ makes. I stood behind the table and put up my hand. She said, “You,” pointing at me. I said, “Giraffe.” She said, “Correct!” and carried on with her lesson. It was super cute how she was happy to play the game with me.
The slums are; the home to 40% of Mumbai’s police officers, papademas made in the streets that are exported globally to Indian restaurants in the rest of the world and eaten in Indian restaurants globally, the biggest goats that I have ever seen in my life roaming around, a random shop with people building suitcases. Dharavi is one giant factory of slum. Workers come in from other places in India to make money here and they either live in the small working shop by sleeping around the machines at night, or else a family of 4-8 will live in a 10-square meter house. They have 24 hours of electricity, but only 3 hours of water/day. The situation is dire, and the children in the streets play a lot of marbles. But above and beyond the conditions, the children seem happy.
It took me a couple of hours to find a relatively cheap hotel last night and I made some Indians very mad in the process who really wanted to get their hands on some of my extra money. Paying $60 for a hotel was easy, but it was a fight to find one for $26 and I finally got to bed around midnight. I was exhausted and very dirty. It was a two-time deodorant-application type of day to combat my building smells.
When I woke up this morning at 6am I felt lucky that my internal alarm was good because neither of the guys at the front desk of the hotel remembered to wake-up call me. Last night I had asked each of the guys independently at separate times to please call my room this morning. They could not have cared less when I asked them about it was I was checking out of the room. I guess you get what you pay in life.
The local train, over-ground subway, in Mumbai at rush hour…well it is a really serious war. It is a lot of elbows stuck in your sides, pushing, shoving, and the people would trample you into the ground to get on the trains. It is rough. I got on the wrong train. I asked the lady closest to me, “Where am I?” when I arrived at a station that did not seem to make sense to my direction. She, an Indian woman, ewpliwd, “This is Sion,” and asked, “Where you want to go?” I said, “Bandra.” She exclaimed, “Bandra, oh shit!” Her reaction was worth the mistake.
I was the only non-Indian in my area of the city that I stayed in last night. I was the only non-Indian this morning on my walk to the train station. I was the only non-Indian in the station, and I was the only non-Indian on my way to my train as it walked through the station. The Indians already on the train I boarded gave me dumbfounded looks as I walked past them to find my train seat that turned out to be a vinyl bench. Once I settled in, a Ukrainian woman named Olga and an Egyptian man named Ali sat next to me according to their allocated seats. We were the only foreigners we could see, somehow designated internally in the Indian train ticket seating system to sit together. There must have been asterisks by our three names. We started on this train together to backpack India and we will ride it to its end in the Himalayas together.
A 30 Hour Train Ride
7:55am, 12-13 April, 2013
0:35 minutes in – There are a lot of people having morning shits on the railroad tracks as we head north through Mumbai. They are all males, sometimes fathers with their sons beside them, dots and dots of people squatting and shitting on the other railroad tracks.
0:45 minutes in – There are a lot of ladyboys who get on the trains, clap, and offer blessings for 10 rupees. A surprising number of people pay them.
3:15h in – There is a hawker that comes by every 30 seconds of every minute. I am not exaggerating in any way. Chai, samosas, chocolate, popcorn, peanuts, coffee, ice-cream, playing cards, locks, chains. “CHAI CHAI CHAI CHAI” is screamed at the top of vendor’s lungs… a lot…as they pass through the carriages.
6:00h in – My ass is very sore already from sitting. There is not eating car, no tables, and no place to go. One can only sit or stand up.
7:00h in – Fuck it is hot on a train in central India in April at 3pm. When I bought my train ticket the man who sold it could not believe that I was going to take a non air-conditioned car and that I would ride in the dusty circulation fan cooled warmed carriages with the windows open with the locals. It was 1/3 the price and certainly more interesting, so I thought at the time…
7:20h in – My back and chest are very sweaty and I am wearing soup underwear. Vinyl seats are working their magic…
8:15h in – There is a lot of dusty open prairie in India. There is so much countryside with spots of trees on it and shanty shacks. And there are a lot of goats and a lot of herdsmen moving their flock somewhere.
8:20h in – A massive dust storm just happened and filled our train with dirty air. People were hiding in their shirts, coughing and hacking.
8:40h in – My bottle of water feels close to boiling. I could make tea. The Egyptian man just gave me a hot banana. A hot banana is not at all typical banana refreshing.
9:00h in – A lot of Indian people are walking over the hills and the prairie as we pass by. A couple of people here. One there. They are everywhere and nowhere.
9:30h in – India has a lot of scarecrows in country gardens. I feel like the scarecrow is becoming a lost art. Maybe the birds at home have evolved and are smarter than to believe in the scarecrow anymore.
10:10h in – The train toilet, which has taken me 10 hours to have to use due to my body’s resistance to share liquid with my bladder for the necessity of sweating it out of my pores, is a nasty drafty room with a funneled hole that just drops onto the track below. The hole is about 15 centimeters wide and you can watch the ground moving below you.
10:30h in – The Ukrainian girl and her Egyptian husband are both studying Spanish was we travel through India. It just seems like there is a lot going on with all of that. Their situation is like a cultural kitchen blender.
11:00h in – I got off the train for the first time in a station in some city in India. Three little girls of about five-years-old attacked me with their hands out. I gave them gum instead of money. One was hanging onto my shirt asking for money. I was playing a game with her where I would dodge her, run a few feet and stand there and she would come after me again. People on the train and platforms were laughing at this white guy in a cowboy hat teasing children in a central Indian city.
11:20h in – The harvested fields and trees here and there resemble prairie Alberta at night, with the exception of the massive orange fire on the horizon.
11:30h in – If I touch my neck or my chest-hair, my fingers come back covered in dirt.
12:00h in – Twelve hours in. Eighteen left. I am ready to disembark at any minute already. What a massive fucking journey.
14:00h in – Everyone went to sleep on the bench/sleeper beds stacked above me. I have a lower berth. They are three high. I rocked out to Tom Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever’, Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’, and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘With Teeth.’
15:30h in – Everyone else is asleep, so I will do the same. The constant wind and dust has left me with dry eyes and a nose full of black boogers.
22:00h in – I woke up this morning at 6am to an Indian man who put his bare foot on my bed, about 2 centimeters from my face. Good morning…
23:00h in – I got up and had a backpack India ‘Hard Rock Cafe wet-wipe’ shower. There was a serious black layer of dirt on me. It looked like my wet-wipe may have been used to shoe polish a pair of cowboy boots.
24:00h in (07:55 the following day) – I got off the train in a station and ate the hottest breakfast ever. My stomach was questioning my minds sanity after bombarding it with crazy spice at 8am. I am also wondering why I did something so foolish with said toilet option offered on the train.
24:20h in – There are sheaves of wheat in the fields to harvest. It is like the 1920’s in North America here.
25:00h in – The wheat fields look like Saskatchewan. People are cutting the wheat by hand, mostly women, and there are combine harvesters from time to time. Those farmers with combines must be the rich ones and the envy of those around.
25:15h in – Making roads/highways looks to be criminal work: twenty or thirty men are swinging a pick and busting the earth and rocks. That is a tough job. Add a blast of scorching dry and heavy heat…
28:00h in – I slept for an hour on the bench bed but I woke up because someone pinched one of my toes when they walked by.
29:00h in – I look terrible. I just saw myself and my dirty and disgusting out-of-control hair. My shirt is somewhere between filthy and homeless as there are unexplainable black stains on it.
30:30h in – The train just made a 1/2 hour stop in the middle of nowhere at ‘Samba Station.’ Myself, Olga, and Ali are the only three non-Indian’s on this entire train that is about 1 kilometer in length.
31:20h in – We pulled into Jammu Tawi train station. Hallajeluja. Thirty-one hours on a train in India seems to be plenty enough. The end of the train line. The light at the end of the tunnel. The three of us shook hands and embraced.
32:00h in – So, we are still 292 kilometers, which is going to be an 8 or 9 hour drive, from Kashmir. It is going to take 8 or 9 hours for 292 kilometers! Perhaps I should have done a little research beforehand… Great… More travel. I have already travelled for 45 hours since Goa. Ali, Olga, and I found an SUV taxi. For 700r each ($10.40), plus four other riders, we will travel to Kashmir with some Indian friends we made. Here we go again. The backpack India experience is taking a toll on me…
33:00h in – There are an absurd amount of monkeys on the side of the road. I started a monkey count, but in about 5 minutes I was at 41 so I stopped. Monkeys love to sit on cement pillars on the side of the road.
35:00h in – Our driver pulled the SUV taxi over to cover the luggage on the roof because we have encountered my first rain in two months. In the restaurant where we stopped, the chef who cooked my noodles and ran the restaurant was a kid of about 12 years of age. I tried to make him my buddy, but he was too serious about being a kick ass chef.
36:00h in – The roads are crazy. Passing on hills and in blind zones seems to be mandatory. I am more afraid of other drivers than our own. Defensive driving is the key here. I have involuntarily yelled out “Fuck!” and “Jeezus!” at least six times.
36:10h in – We just drove past a smashed up car that was hanging off the side of the road, just about to fall off the cliff. Someone was lucky the impact was not harder.
36:30h in – The roads are enough. But to top that, our driver’s mobile rings and he is always on it while making this drive. That makes me very uncomfortable. I cuss aloud every time it rings.
36:35h in – I just noticed a sign that said we are still 184 kilometers from Srinagar, the city where we are heading in Kashmir. We have been at this for a horrible four hours and we are only 100 kilometers in. Fuck me.
36:45h in – My tailbone aches so that I can only sit up perfectly straight up. I am so fucking uncomfortable right now.
38:00h in – There is a lot of anger and frustration in me. My thoughts and energy are only negative.
38:30h in – We are the only non-supply/delivery truck on the road. It is a winding death defying curving carving mountain road that we are high-wire balancing on. It is dangerous with all of the trucks randomly stopped on the side of the road with their lights off, or the oil barrels on the edge of the highway, or the constant broken rails where some car went off the cliff falling 1/2 kilometer straight down, as we drive on washed out roads that are incredibly rough with an Indian paying most of his attention to the mobile phone in his hand.
40:10h in – We just stopped for some reason amongst many many trucks where we weaved though them in our SUV. Our driver just ran to a little shack and came back with a paper, possibly a permit.
42:00h in – Liberation. We arrived in Srinagar. Ali, the Egyptian, told me that he had a friend during his time in Goa who lives here. Once we arrived, his friend came to pick us up. Imagine my surprise when Ali’s friend he met in Goa was a 14 year old kid who had his father drive him to meet us at the station. At this point I could care less. We got into a car and went to his house. A bed. A sleep. A shower. Freedom. 42 hours of straight travel… Straight filthy travel. With the additional time I had from Goa to Mumbai makes for 55 hours of transportation. I now hate travelling. Actually, correct that. I hate everything.
We had breakfast with Sahill (the 14 year old) and his family. Then Sahill, his brother Omar, Ali, Olga and I got into a car and drove around. Omar, our 17-year-old driver, does not have a driving license. Riding around was nerve wracking because Omar drives like a 17-year-old with no license. I hated it the entire time we were in the car. Someday a child will find the bottom of his vehicle if he does not slow down and learn how to drive. It is very dangerous. He asked if I like music as soon as I got into the car. I said, “Only rock and roll.” He said, “Okay, we play rock and roll,” and he played some very shitty hip-hop artist called ‘Pitbull’ and played the same shitty song three times in a row and then once more 30 minutes later. I would like to choke this 17-year-old. “I would clap his face,” said Ali about another bad, fast, driver. I wanted to do that to Omar.
Today is the first time that I have had shoes or pants on in more than two months. It is a shame to have to layer my legs. But it is fucking cold here. The sun shines, and it is hot for five or six hours a day only. I will not last long in Kashmir.
When Omar the 17-year-old with no license had something else to do, we were later driven around the city by Sahill, the 14-year-old. He seemed to barely be able to see over the dash of the car. It was an edgy experience. Ali wanted to buy silk scarves, so we went to an 8th generation silk and Kashmir carpet family business. Carpets are very expensive. They are knotted by hand and take 10 months or so to make a proper Kashmir carpet. Wool is 250 knots/square inch, silk is 580, and Kashmir is 900 in most cases, although there can be as many as 1,800 knots/square inch. It is a dying art as no one wants to knot carpets by hand today. A carpet maker takes six months to make a 60cm by 90cm carpet when working about seven hours a day. Ali could not find a good price or supply and says there is no trust in business.
There are carts and horses on the road everywhere here. This entire country is full of flea-bitten, bald dogs who have over-scratched from Goa to Kashmir. I am surprised the fleas live in the Himalayas as well…
We woke up late and had breakfast. We are staying with a Muslim family and last night the mother asked me if I am Muslim. I told her I have no religion. I have felt her eyes on me today. Perhaps she now thinks that I am a bad person.
Ali, Olga, and I went to look at some paper machete products, some silk, and some more carpet. Eventually we decided to head deep into the Himalayans, so the family we are staying with arranged a car. I totally flipped out when 14 year old Sahill got behind the wheel. There was no way that a 14 year old with no license was going to be driving me on the most frightening winding roads I have ever been on in my life. I want to backpack India and see other places in India, but not on the trail leading to death. So, he went into the house and got his uncle to drive us a couple of hours to Gulmarg, a ski resort.
The police stopped us on the way and wanted money because of us three foreigners in the car, but Sahill’s uncle talked his way out of giving any to the corrupt cops. The police had no real reason to ask for money as we had all paperwork necessary. They had it figured that since we were foreigners in his car, that he was probably making money off of us on tourism and they wanted a piece of it. Sahill’s uncle had to convince them that we were business partners of his, out on a drive to see the countryside. There is a lot of police and military in this area because of the proximity to Pakistan.
At Gulmarg, we rode ponies up the mountain to the cable car and went 2/3 of the way to the top of the mountain where Ali experienced snow for the first time. He and Sahill tried skiing in a small area and then we had to head home.
Ali passes for a Kashmir man, and Olga covers up, but I really stand out. There are absolutely no other tourists anywhere here that we have seen. Somehow we have beaten all of them to get to Kashmir first. The locals say it will get busy in a month. But, I am confused as to where everyone is that was in the south. I was one of the last to leave Goa, and everyone was heading north, but I guess not this north this fast… I guess they did not do a 55 hour hell-trek.
Back in Srinagar we had dinner with Sahill’s family and I ate meat for the first time in over two months. I am eating sugar now and then too, so I must be gearing up to leave India. I had to try the chocolate cake in Mapusa, Goa, before I left as it was the best I had ever had in my life when I first arrived in the country. But, after going six weeks with no sugar it was not as amazing to my on-the-wagon taste-buds the second time around.
The family found a taxi service to take us from Srinagar to Jammu Tawi at midnight so that Ali and Olga can get to their train tomorrow. It cost us $100 for a 9 hour drive. That must barely cover the fuel. It was late so as we approached the SUV, I walked up to the driver and asked him if he was tired. He said that he was. I told him that I was very concerned about that, considering we would be driving back down the most dangerous road I have ever been down in my life in the middle of the night with a driver on no sleep. He pointed to another man standing close by and told me that we had an extra driver coming with us to share that midnight to 9am duty when the driver was tired. It did not make me feel better, but at least it did not make me feel worse.
As we went to get into the SUV to start the drive, the driver got into his seat and the second driver went to get into the front passenger seat. I said, “Nope, sorry man. You are getting in the back of this SUV and you are sleeping until the driver needs a break. Then you will drive.” He understood. I was harsh, and firm, but reasonable. I had no interest in putting us at a larger risk for death on this terrifying road in India because both of our drivers were tired. What is the point in having a second driver if they are both going to sit in the front seat and stay awake?…
The road is incredibly dangerous. Ali and I wanted to take shifts staying awake on the drive down to keep an eye on the terrible through-way to make sure the driver stayed awake. But a short time into the trip I looked behind me where Ali and Olga were asleep on each other and I could no longer keep my eyes open as we drove on the rough winding cliff-side road through the Himalayas. I was in and out of sleep for much of the duration of the ride down.
The trip out of the mountains was amost exclusively among semi-trucks and we seen four major accidents from careless tired driving. There must be 100’s of deaths a month. Of the accidents we seen, one was a semi-truck rollover on the highway with the smashed truck laying on the road, taking up most of the space so that we had to maneuver our SUV to get around it. The second was an SUV that veered off the road into a cliff-face which crunched the vehicle like a crushed soda can. The third was a jack-knifed semi/trailer and the trailer had come around the truck on the highway and the jack-knifing had nearly taken the cab right off of the truck. The fourth was the worst; it was a truck that had gone off the road. The truck was sideways across the highway and was sitting so that directly below the doors of the truck, the under-body frame was sitting on top of the edge of the road, and the front wheels were dangling over the vertical edge of a cliff while the back wheels were still clinging to the road. The truck was just hanging there in limbo. Had the driver been travelling any faster, the truck would have vanished with the driver over the cliff, certainly killing him. It made me wonder how many of those trucks disappear off those cliffs every night. We happened to see four accidents from drivers who were able to keep their accidents on the pavement. How many of them do not… Those nine hours to drive a total of 289 frightening kilometers… That is a scary, rough, ride. It is the most frightening experience I have ever had in a vehicle in my life.
Whilst I was in and out and in and out of sleep in the passenger seat, our drivers got us most of the way down the mountain road. On the drive when they wanted to stop for coffee, I paid for it every time. “No problem,” I would say. Our lives were in their tired hands. They wanted to stop for a rest at 7am when we were only an hour away from our destination, but I was not arguing. They had paid their dues.
Eventually our SUV pulled into Jammu Tawi. From there I had and I had no idea where to go next. I have no idea where I am on a map of India. I have no plans. I went to the train station and stood in line at the ticket window behind the locals also wanting to get somewhere. I had two town names in my mind that someone had once mentioned. One of them was ‘Shimla’ and the other was ‘Manali.’ Eventually I got to the counter and I said, “Shimla,” to the lady behind the window. She just looked at me. So I said, “Shimla,” again. She replied with her version of “What?” because she could not understand my accent so I said, “Manali?” to her. She recognized that one and said, “Manali,” back to indicate that she comprehended my word. ‘I guess I will be going to Manali.’ How to backpack India… I paid her 60 rupees ($0.90) for the half toilet paper-square sized train ticket she printed off without hesitation at understanding my destination quest.
My ticket said ‘Chakki Bank’ on it. I had no idea what that really meant so I guessed it was the name of a town. I jumped on the train leaving from Jammu Tawi with Ali and Olga who were headed on to Delhi. Two hours later we pulled into a station and I noticed a sign that said ‘Chakki Bank’, made my goodbyes and disembarked, somewhere… In the train station I asked around and found out that I had to get to a bus station where there would be such a vessel to take me to Manali.
Being Caucasian in India often means that vultures of Indians would love to help you in any way they can that will make them more money that their services would normally cost. As I walked out of the front doors of the station, several three-wheeled bicycle-taxi guys standing there were fighting for my attention. I have learned long ago to never take a taxi from a man standing directly in front of the station as his prices are based on your complete ignorance. I ignored the crowd of would-be taxi-suitors and walked down the steps further into a parking lot to look around. A bicycle-taxi man rode towards me, stopped beside me, and looked at me. I asked him his price to the bus station. With no comparison or vague idea of the distance for the station I naturally negotiated his price by a third and jumped into the back seat of the canopied bike.
On the drive, the bike-taxi man picked up a friend who sat beside him on the front seat and I started to get nervous about the two of them. I wondered about their shady looks and plans for the ‘lost puppy’ in the back seat. I could not know for sure if they were really taking me to the bus station. No one was talking to me. I wondered if I might end up in a situation where I needed to defend myself and my belongings, so while their backs were turned to me I rummaged through the bottom of my backpack to find my jackknife and opened the lock blade that I held by the handle and kept in my hand still concealed inside the backpack. Who knows… It is the first time that I have ever been in a situation where I felt insecure enough to conceal a weapon for my own safety. I decided that I should be friendly, just in case, and started a conversation. Those guys were suddenly all smiles and wanted to talk my ears off as we visited about England, Canada and India. I folded the jackknife back into itself and re-zipped the backpack. I really have no idea what had made me so uncomfortable before that moment of conversation to make me so distrusting. Horror movies?
When we arrived at the bus station, both of the men got off the bike and wanted pictures with me on their mobile phones. I was the first white guy they had ever met and I guess they were nervous at first and they probably felt my nervous energy. We shook hands and I headed for the station where a man was standing in the middle of the bus parking area yelling out town names. As I got closer to him I heard him say ‘Dharamsala.’ I had heard of that so I said, “Yeah,” and he directed me to bus just about to leave for that town. It cost me 105r ($1.55) for a three hour ride on a very old red bus from the 1970’s with miles that had mostly been hard. The windshield was spider-web cracked across the entire natural viewing area of the driver’s window from something someone had driven into. The cracks cleared somewhat towards the windshield center, so the driver had to lean his head for a better view during the entire drive.
When I had boarded the bus from its center door, I walked to the front and pointed at the empty passenger seat next to the driver while nodding my head in questioning approval. He nodded back to me so I tossed my backpack on the floor and took the seat. I was a total alien to all the people in the small villages that the bus would pull into on the duration of the trip. There would be a line of people, waiting for our bus or another to arrive. I would watch their eyes as we pulled in as they would look at the bus and study it until they seen my face, the white guy in the front seat, and all of their eyes would involuntarily remain in place on me as the bus kept on moving. Oooh, they sure looked at me sitting there in my seat. ‘A white guy? Here? What?’ So, I decided to play a game with them; I winked at every single person that I caught staring at me for an extended period of time in an incidental trance. That move would shock everyone and bring them back to consciousness. I got seven wink-returns! The women were terrified of my winks and would hide their eyes in shame when I got them with one. Most of the men smiled back. It was in interesting psychological assessment of the culture.
I realized that should have done my research. The bus took me back in the mountains. It is cold again. Shitty. And I have stomach cramps, so I consumed no food and no water for my whole travel time from Chakki Bank as there is no need to poke the bear when there are no toilet facilities. After I arrived in Dharamsala I walked around a little and found a cheap hotel and dinner, and then slept for the night.
Someone told me to go to some village called Dharm Court, so I ate breakfast and headed there in a rickshaw motorbike taxi. It is a cool little village and I am staying with a small family in a place for 120r/($1.87)/night. I have a second floor room with a nice a view of the mountains and two cows live in the room below mine. The place is not much, but it is adequate. Ah, the good life when you backpack India…