21 July 2014

Amritsar to Dharamsala

I rise early and go downstairs to use the wifi in the lobby. The ferocious female manager asks if I want tea. Yes, thank you, I say, so she yells aggressive instructions to someone out the back. Soon after, a deferent young man arrives with a full-sized cup of tea. The Volga might lack reliable electricity, but the staff do look after their guests.

Later I ask if any a/c buses go to Dharamsala. She shakes her head, confers with a man sitting nearby, and they both say no, no a/c buses.
 'Only State buses?'
They both nod. I check out soon after and negotiate a 20 rupee ride to the bus station, where the platform for the Dharamsala bus proves simple to locate. A ticket seller at the adjacent platform says the bus leaves around midday -- over four hours to wait. Four hours in 40 degree heat? I'll never survive.
 'Bus to Pathankot?'
 'This bus,' he says, indicating this platform.
  'When does it leave?'
In half an hour, apparently. I buy a ticket and he explains I have to change buses at Pathankot to catch the bus on to Dharamsala. That's fine; I already knew the deal, and I'm happy to find a seat that suits me well -- right at the back in the corner, where my bags are safe and I can gaze out the open window while the slipstream cools me nicely, or at least adequately. For most of the three hours I sit there, contented, relaxed, letting my thoughts drift, and enjoying the feeling of being on the move, knowing that for the next few hours I won't have to do anything and will be responsible for nothing. The only downside is the inability to scribble anything legible; even on the newly-paved sections of road we encounter from time to time, the bus bounces and bumps so badly it seems the wheels have been beaten by incessant pounding into some irregular and definitely non-circular shape.

So, with nothing to do but think and enjoy the view, I relax into the journey. Thoughts go unrecorded and, as I write up these notes later, are mostly unremembered save for one or two -- for example, the realisation that being appalled or even offended by the filth and squalor of much of India is pointless or worse; it's just a fact, and not the most important one either, unless you think it so. Or, the way birds have a freedom denied to us, and how this is particularly evident in India where escape from everything except the shriek of the streets is no further away than the few wing beats needed to lift into the air above it all. Birds can look down on us in more ways than one.

Or, a related thought, when I wondered how or whether I'd survive if I knew I'd never leave India: I realised I wanted to be a bird for precisely that reason, for exactly that freedom.

I'm still lost in thoughts like these when I hear someone calling to me. The conductor beckons from the street, calling 'Dharamsala!' and urging me out through the back door. I drag my bags up from beneath the seat, past the men crammed beside me, and out of the bus. Later I realise I've forgotten to retrieve the small pad of blue closed-cell foam on which I've been sitting, but after a momentary pang of loss, I let it go, hoping it will serve whoever claims it as faithfully as it served me. Of course the loss is tempered by the knowledge I have a second pad in my daypack.

The conductor confirms I want to go to Dharamsala then indicates an attractive, immaculately dressed woman in her late twenties (I guess) standing nearby.
 'Go with her,' he says.
She smiles and says 'Please, follow me,' and leads me across the street to a rickshaw, which takes us to the bus station. As I reach for my pocket to pay for the two of us, she waves my hand away; 'No,' she says, shaking her head and swiftly peeling off two 50-rupee notes and handing them to the driver. She gets out of the rickshaw and leads me into the station. I ask where she's going and she says, 'Too my work,' adding something I might have misheard; she says, I think, that she works for the Punjab Police.

She finds the bus to Dharamsala, checks what time it leaves -- in half an hour -- then smiles beautifully and gently shakes my hand. I thank her sincerely and she walks off, very upright, head bowed slightly, graceful and self-assured. I can't quite believe I've been so lucky but mentally berate myself for not having thought quickly enough to have given her one of my cards or thought of some other token of appreciation. Still, if I can't repay her generosity, I'll pay it on; I'll do my best back in New Zealand to treat some visitor with similar grace and generosity.

Chai in a little bus station dhaba, under a mostly ineffective fan; a purchase of a bottle of cold pani (water) for the bus, where a Chinese woman with golden silk Ali Baba pants and a yellow T-shirt stands with a pile of bags. As I approach she smiles and holds out her hand and introduces herself.
 'I'm Suri,' she says and, soon after, her husband William arrives. We board the bus, where I score the prime window seat by the front door.

The bus begins the gradual ascent into the hills. The first Euphorbia slips past the window, then the first macaque; cattle become numerous. The traffic veers around a cow and a calf sitting relaxed, chewing the cud, in the middle of the lane and no one honks their horn. Much lantana, and the forest grows more jungle-like. The first pines appear as the bus continues to climb, and I'm astonised to realise I can smell their resiny scent even from inside the bus. I buy two bananas from a wallah and eat them immediately, finding their scungy skins belie their firm, clean, delicious interiors.

At a brief stop to wait for a roadworks queue to clear, dragonflies flit and hover around the roadside ditch. Of all animals, are we the only that have any comprehension of related lives beyond our immediate experience? These dragonflies know only their own lives, not those of other dragonflies on the far side of the mountains the bus climbs, and they certainly have no idea that other dragonflies live in the Pohangina Valley.

With apparently only 20 km to go, the driver takes a 20-minute break. However, as the bus pulls out of the small village where we stopped, another sign says 39 km to Dharamsala -- the previous sign, three quarters of an hour before we stopped, had said 42 km. Then, a kilometre or two later, another sign says we suddenly have just 25 km to go.

The first prickle of rain arrives during the final 8 km uphill crawl to Dharamsala, but the higher I get the better I feel. We arrive at 3.10 p.m. and, after a short wait, transfer to the bus to McLeod Ganj, where we arrive in a torrential downpour. After waiting for the rain to abate and finding it doesn't, I pull on my parka, unfurl my umbrella, and set off in search of a rickshaw. I return to tell William and Sarah I've found the rickshaws, but William says the Green Hotel's only a hundred metres up the road, and he leads us there through the rain. Apparently he's been here before. They get a double room with a view; I opt for the cheapest room I can get: a double with no view and a fusty smell, for 800 rupees. Free wifi, though.

We eat together in the evening, and during the conversation I get to see some of William's photographs. Not only is he a buddhist, as I discover when he refuses to kill the pestering mosquito, he's also an outstanding photographer. I like these new friends a great deal, and hope to see more of them from time to time over the next few days. Of all the joys of travelling, these meetings and encounters, with which I've been so fortunate today, are among the greatest.

1. Despite reassurances that the photographs look O.K., they don't on my tablet -- they're enlarged, so they look soft and pixelated. 

1. Samtin, one of the people I met after I reached Dharamsala.
2, 3. Scenes from Naddi village, on a visit there with Suri, William, Bombom, and Samtin. The motor cycle's a Royal Enfield, the classic Indian bike. This one was in particularly good condition.
4. A typical street scene -- this was photographed from the bus between Amritsar and Pathankot.
Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

What you pour out is drawing back toward you.

You have a bird-soul, which is why they welcome you to make photos of them.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Zhoen.

Relatively Retiring said...

Yes, Zhoen, exactly that.

pohanginapete said...

RR, thank you, also. :-)

vegetablej said...

Oh, look at the texture of that seated man's jacket, the soft bright head covering, the gleaming ring. You get so many colours and tactiles into this just through your technique. And I see there are two more posts to savour, so I'm off to read them now. Thank you again, Pete, for your gifts.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, thank you. All going well, you'll have another one to read today, too.