There are some trips that make me run to my laptop and write long blog posts. Actually, most of my trips. And there are some trips, you find it really difficult to put in words. Actually, you do know what to write. But, you hold it inside wondering whether it is the right thing to say. You hold it till it actually really seems like such a long time ago that you can laugh about it. And that’s what I did. I held it for a year.
In all these years of traveling, I had never experienced this. I had always traveled alone or with Roy. At max, with my mom or my best friends. It had never been an unexpected ride. So, how come I’m bringing this up now? Well, its taken me a year. Its taken me so long to actually sit down and write what I feel about the crazy trip to Leh last year. I really cannot label the holiday as backpacking or adventure or bonding with friends or Buddhist trail or anything of that sort. It was a bit of everything.
So, Id successfully returned from my 7 month sojourn in South America and was a little stubborn about not unpacking completely. I hadn’t made up my mind about living out of a backpack vs a normal life a.k.a corporate job + cupboard life.
I jumped at the chance to show an American friend around India. Danny (Firefighter + my Disney tour guide from Florida) wanted to travel to India and I started planning this trip for him. And the list grew. In all ways. What started with a few cities grew into this trip – Mumbai – Agra – Delhi – Amritsar – Pathankot – Dharamshala – Manali – Leh (and more in the Ladakh region) – Delhi – Varanasi – Mumbai. What was first Danny, Roy and me grew into a much bigger list.
Then came Dnyanada. My ex-colleague from the hair oil company. She had moved from a hair oil company to another large company which had shampoo, washing machine powders, fairness creams et all and was sick of it. She had taken up Buddhism. She loved to travel. She was on a break. Perfect opportunity again. So, D joined the bandwagon. With all the time in her hands, she decided to join us from the Amritsar to Delhi leg.
Who came next? An old friend from school days, who had pushed off to UK to study and who I finally met in Couchsurfing after all these years – Rahul. Having returned from the UK and with visa issues (not being able to get back to the UK), he was homesick (for UK) and desperately needed a holiday. He was unemployed (like most of us) and loved to travel. He was on a budget and wanted to climb any rock he crossed. With time in the hands, Delhi to Delhi leg it was for him.
So, Rahul was in couchsurfing and he found this other couchsurfer who wanted to travel. American student, on a project in India, she was more Indian than Rahul was. Enters Kassia. Armed with a beautiful Canon camera (that she loved to manhandle), Kassia missed the train to Amritsar and landed up joining us from the Manali to Delhi leg.
Lesson 1 – If you manage to find 8 different personalities, ensure you are not the travel guide.
So, it all went wrong from the word Go.
I booked the train from Mumbai to Agra for Danny and me. May as well give the American an experience of Indian Railways. And I chose the Holiday special train thinking it would be touristy and go on time. Just the reverse. It was 18 hours late and we slept on VT station platforms in the bloody June heat. Reaching Agra, Danny was already looking like a lobster and I guess not in a mood for Mughal history.
So, the Taj Mahal, which I was visiting for the third time was still splendid for me. However, our brilliant tourism department found a reason to piss me off. They give Danny little sock type things to cover his feet so that he doesnt have to walk in the heat and guess what I’m left with – burning flooring and blisters in my feet. I sprinted around the Taj in the heat and chatted up our tour guide, who ironically owned a shoe factory on the side. So much for enjoying a Wonder of the World.
Reaching Delhi, I remember giving a Video Conference interview from a Reliance Web World in the middle of old Delhi (I landed that job with Red Bull incidentally. I even remember hiding behind the table as I was wearing cargo shorts and did not want my interviewer to think I was too casually dressed. Little did I know about Red Bull then). We then went to Jamma Masjid, which wouldn’t let us in for a bunch of reasons – I was carrying a camera. Danny was wearing shorts. Anyway, we went to the Red Fort and then hung out at a Pub in CP which had waiters dressed like Cowboys.
Amritsar was a delight. Roy and Dnyanada flew in and the group became 5. We were being hosted by Narenderjitji, who was a wonderful couchsurfer, who owned a farmhouse. An old ancestral property converted into a farm, it was luxury. That was the best part.
So, we did everything tourists do in Amritsar. Went to the Golden Temple. Ate Parathas at Brothers Dhaba. Drank Lassi. Visited the Jallianwallahbagh place. And let me not forget the evening mela at the Wagah border. Packed it all into one day and tired ourselves out. We debated endlessly about how to get to Dharamshala – whether we should take a direct bus or change trains at Pathankot. It was already difficult to take a unanimous decision. But, in the end, we managed.
We took the local train to Pathankot and then hopped into a State bus to Dharamsala. Reaching Mcleodganj, we walked around for an hour before finding a hostel to sleep. With no proper planning, we landed up with two rooms and poor Dnyanada got a room the size of a cupboard. So, we decided to share rooms. Everyone was way too tired to argue. We decided to reserve that for the next day.
We took one of those overnight buses to Manali. Tourist buses. We were the only Indians. It was filled with Firangs and shady bus conductors who asked us whether we wanted a joint. With Old Monk and Coke mixed in Coke 500 ml bottles, we braved the bus journey. There was this time in the wee hours of the morning when the bus had to cross over a part of the road, which was completely under water.
Anyway, reaching Manali, we headed to Drifters Inn – As the name suggests, it is for drifters. Started by a friend, an ex colleague from the same hair oil company (yeah! we all hated hair oil so much). Drifters Inn was the perfect backpacker setup with great food, free internet and comfy beds. We just about got settled into the rooms and Kassia arrived. We had 3 days in Manali and no plans. Just a pit stop to acclimatise. Shal and Meera arrived the next morning and we were finally 8 of us.
I don’t remember what we did on which particular day, but the Manali stop was tiring. In all ways, it was. A full day trek with Danny. Roy dropped out half way and lucky for him, he did. It wasn’t so beautiful out there anyway. That’s what I hate about treks. All that climbing to see what’s going on down hill. Why go up there?
There was a walk to Vashisht, which was on the other side of the river. Rahul disappeared for 2 days doing some rock climbing. We all went to Solang Valley where we saw some people get stuck in Zorbing balls, that lost control due to the wind. At every opportunity, we ate Maggi and drank tea. Shal, Meera and Dnyanada went shopping whenever they had time. I don’t know why I did not. I wish I had.
I remember trying to be a part of everything and not being able to do it. Phew ! There were endless arguments Specifically about the mode of transport between Manali and Leh. Private jeep vs shared bus was mini van et all. Budgets. Stopover preferences. To take in more people or not. Phew !
Over the few days, there were lot more issues. I cried. I screamed. I fought. I can’t believe that I went through all that during a holiday. It seems so trivial to even remember them. But, when they did happen, it seemed really big.
Lesson 2 – If you are travel guide for 8 different people, don’t take it personally when they don’t get along.
What a road trip! If there is one road trip you get to do in your life, let this be the one. From rivers to mountains. Snow to Deserts. Little sheep rearing nomads to mountain Maggi makers. And let me not forget the incredible road signs put up by BRO – Border Road Organisation. If there is one book you must buy about Road trips, let it be “Peep Peep Don’t Sleep” by Ajay Jain. I would kill the experience for you if I started telling you about those road signs. You need to discover it on your own.
So, we reached Leh. Beautiful beautiful Leh. I had written to a French friend of mine Lydia, who was working in Leh. Married to an Indian guy Vaibhav, who loved to climb, we got wonderful recommendations from them in terms of places to stay, visit and eat at. Leh was an easy ride relative to what we had gone through the past couple of days.
So, we had learnt some group dynamics by then. We split up when we wanted to. We hung out together when we had to. The guys went climbing. Some of us went to the monastery. Then, the girls went shopping. We tried to go watch Dhoom 2 in a old movie hall. All this over and above the classic Ladakh stuff – Visiting the Leh Palace, Thiksey Monastery, Shanti Stupa et all in Leh. A day trip to Pangong, which was super super tiring and another 2 day trip to the Nubra Valley. Camel rides and nonexistent hot water springs, I guess we had it covered.
So, its a year now. Shal just sent an email last week reminding us that its been a year. Our lives have all changed so much. Shal got married (big change). Dnyanada is a Media honcho (like always). Americans went back to America. British at heart Indians settled in India (and found a marketing consulting job – giving lot of Gyaan). Meera has been writing a book about the Churches of the World. I accepted Bombay as home and finally unpacked my bag. Roy travels where the Ninja does. All that and more…. But, one thing in common, none of us have fallen out of love with travel.