Dharamsala to Leh
Sometimes a story is already written. It was waiting for someone to give voice to it, but it was always there.
In fact, I think most are. There is some texture to life, slightly below the surface that you can perceive if you try. It is the inevitability of things known. Things known now and always known, simply going unacknowledged until they manifest themselves so tangibly and fully they can no longer be denied. Thrust in your face as punishment for your stubborn refusal to see their quiet, humble truth. Fuck you, pay attention, the universe says.
And so it was with Monet. Hospitalized after nearly a decade of giving in to his corporate job in South Africa’s every urgent demand. His illness vague, idiopathic. His recovery reversed upon his return to work. His decision to quit his job obvious. He’s been working four months out of the year ever since, earning little to pay for his newly humble and very nomadic lifestyle.
I met Monet at 3 a.m. on a mountainside somewhere along the ten-hour road that separates Dharamsala from Manali. Our bus quiet, my fellow passengers smoking, eating and peeing, drunk locals stumbling about and my attention drawn upon hearing that he too was trying to get to Leh sometime in the next 48 hours. An opportunity to share the cost of a jeep for the 18 hour hell ride, a particular stretch of which translates literally into “pile of dead bodies” for obvious reasons if you’ve ever driven on it. The Indian government keeps the Manali – Leh Highway in perpetual disrepair to ensure that a Chinese army cannot easily invade overland, should it ever choose to.
The desert beauty of this drive is hard to reconcile with the fact that you’ve piled yourself into a tiny shared van at 2 a.m., have been sitting upright and unable to stretch out your legs for ten hours (realizing you have eight to go) and are in a vehicle in which the shock system long ago gave way to the fact that the “road” you’re on is more just a ten foot wide piece of earth that has been scratched out of mountain side and is nothing but rocks and rivets.
But I digress. Before we could make the trip from Manali to Leh, we had to survive the one in front of us. Monet has spent quite a bit of his 32 years traveling by bus throughout Africa, a fact he is at least somewhat proud of, given the extreme disrepair of the transportation system there. Apart from stories of sharing bench seats with chickens and goats, he doesn’t go into much detail, but does explain that the system he has encountered in India rivals it.
For some reason that still isn’t clear to me, all of the seats in our bus that night were somewhat damp. I can vouch for at least seven of them. I began the trip in one of the two seats at the very front near the driver, but within half an hour was so car sick that my puke bag and I ran for the back, hoping to god that those five seats that line the rear were unoccupied so I could lie down. As I passed, I noticed that a young traveler had started weeping. Presumably out of raw fear? The driver had to stop more than once just before driving off the edge of the mountain road to back up and make the required turn.
As I lied down hoping the nausea would subside, I learned several things:
1. Never, ever stick your hand between a bus seat and the wall of a bus in India. There is a moist, sticky goo that lives there and becoming intimate with it is not worth the recovery of any electronic device that might have slipped into that crevice. Buy a new one.
2. When you’re thrown out of your seat and slammed back down into it a few seconds later, the slamming is a good thing. It means the bus isn’t airborne.
3. Breathe through your mouth. It’s just better that way.
Monet wanted to be a surgeon when he was young. An inexplicable tremor in both hands, though it comes and goes, was the end of such aspirations but his interest in medicine remained intact. And so it came to pass that his knowledge of rural medical clinics throughout Africa – as well as the West’s influence on them – is extensive.
The African bush (Monet’s word for rural Africa – I like it) has been home to traditional healers for presumably as long as human beings have inhabited it, which, if you subscribe to the theory of evolution, has been as long as human beings have existed. So when you ask a native whose worldview is a product of generations upon generations of his family relying on those healers to then put his faith into a white doctor whose medicine is foreign and who arrived six months ago and his answer is “uh, no,’ this surprises you?
Monet tells stories of two lines. One of thousands of sick Africans waiting to see a traditional healer and one directly next to it that is comprised of literally one or two sick people waiting to see a western doctor. He tells stories of how western doctors have inhabited villages for a year only to abandon their clinics because the villagers refuse to be treated. He tells stories of doctors and surgeons who have worked with local healers to educate and integrate and earn their trust. He tells stories of how this approach helps the indigenous to trust them, as well. He tells stories of how rarely this actually happens. He told these stories as we were sitting on a wrap-around porch in Manali, having woken around noon after our 5am arrival from Dharamsala. We felt relieved to be off the bus alive, delirious from sleep deprivation and grateful that the Irish couple sitting on the porch next to us was more than happy to share the joint of local hash they had just rolled. We were also in awe of Manali’s beauty, especially coming from Dharamsala, which receives more rain than all but one other place on the planet and is shockingly filthy and chaotic, despite being the home of the Dalai Lama (who we had missed by two days and who was, ironically, in New York at the time).
We ended up here because there are only two ways north in India. One through Manali and on to Leh via the treacherous but stunning Manali-Leh Highway. The other through a region known as Kashmir that sits along the border of Pakistan and India, and has been a point of contention between these two countries for decades. The dispute about who owns this land has led to bloody conflict over the years. We were told of one incident in particular that involved the brutal beheading of several travelers who were hiking and camping in the region a few years back. This along with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 looming informed our decision to avoid Kashmir. A shame as it contains some of the lushest land in northern India.
Manali, however, is stunning in its own right. It sits in a valley surrounded by pine tree-covered mountains that are, in turn, surrounded by even taller snow capped mountains. The buildings, and our hotel in particular, have a lodge-like feel and I might have thought I was in Denver if it hadn’t been for the definitive signs that I was still in India: cows roaming the streets as freely as humans, half finished construction projects everywhere, rebar hanging off the sides of buildings, staircases that end abruptly and lead to nowhere and an abundance of chai and lemon, ginger honey tea offered everywhere.
Monet left for Leh that very night. Michael and I couldn’t bring ourselves to get on a bus again that night – nor did we want to leave laid back Manali just yet – so we followed 24 hours later. It took us 18 1/2 hours to get to Leh. The drive is a mixture of fatigue from sitting in the cramped seat for longer than you think you can; altitude sickness; amazement at land that looks otherworldly. I know I was not okay when we finally got here. Leh’s 3700 meter altitude and the dust we’d inhaled on the drive made it difficult to breathe. Food, though we hadn’t eaten for hours and hours was unappealing and my mind was numb. We slept for 11 hours.
As I’m typing this I’m sitting in a cafe in Leh and in the background I can hear monks chanting. We’ve been here for three days. Three days spent wandering; driving 40 km at 6am to join monks for their morning prayer at a nearby monastery; eating Chinese food with Monet and the Scottish traveler he met on his way here. Last night we said our goodbyes to Monet as he left for the South. Tomorrow we leave India for Kathmandu by plane.