I’ll admit, I’ve put this off for weeks. Tal and I have now been in India nearly a month, but after every weird, wild adventure, after every almost-calamity, I’ve consciously decided not to sit down at one of the many internet cafes and write it down. I’ve been voraciously keeping a journal, but, well, that’s just for me. I was waiting until I was brimming with stories to actually sit down and type one. That said, I’m currently sitting in a cafe in Dharamkot, a tiny village up the mountain from McLeod Ganj, which is up the mountain from Dharamsala, which is the home of the Dalai Lama.
The first leg of our trip has been spent in the Himalayan state of north India, Himachal Pradesh. We landed in Delhi and spent three grueling, sweaty and delicious days in the city. People always told me: in India, avoid the cities. I didn’t believe them. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Delhi, but I enjoyed it as ‘an experience,’ not as an actual fun, easy-going time. Delhi is so over-packed with beggars, hawkers, gawkers, orphans, swindlers and public-pee-ers that it’s hard to breathe it in and say, “Ah, Delhi! What a dream!” In fact, it’s hard to breathe at all.
Regardless, from Delhi we bused to the mountain resort town (and former British officer hangout) Shimla, from Shimla to the gorgeous, laid back Manali, from Manali to the absolutely-remote, Himalayan desert frontier Spiti Valley (within Spiti, we visited 1,000-year-old Buddhist monasteries and ate Tibetan food in the tiny towns of Kaza, Ki and Tabo – population a few hundred each) and from Spiti to Dharamkot. All done on public buses: overcrowded, dirty, will-they-make-it? public buses. I’d have it no other way.
But for the sake of this blog, let’s go back to Manali.
Manali, like many of the Himalayan mountain towns, is more a jump-off point than an actual destination. These spots take hours to get to (the busride to central town Kaza alone was 11 hours over 5,000 meter mountain passes and on roads that were little more than an ongoing clearing of rocks), but once you’re there, you immediately want to strike off further into nowheresville. So in Manali, known as a hot spot for mountain trekking, camping and adventure sports, we found a beautiful hostel in a village nearby (called Old Manali) perfectly located along a dirt path and in an apple orchard. I promised Rabet, the owner, I would big-up him online, so: You should go to Apple View Guest House! It is absolute heaven on earth. He will take care of you like family.
From Old Manali, which is basically just a quiet, Israeli-dominated strip of dhabas (Indian lunch spots), art shops and guesthouses, we spent each day hiking in a different direction into the mountains. The most prominent hike was across through a vast expanse of apple orchards, across the Beas River and up to the even-smaller village of Vashisht, then up the mountain to an apparently gorgeous waterfall. Following directions from a guy selling snacks, we followed the main road of Vashisht to a school and continued as the trail went from well-worn to not-so-much. The trail snaked up, up, up along a grassy expanse of mountain. The view was unbelievable: the snow-capped and craggy mountains just across the valley seemed, simply, unreal; the sound of trickling water, birds, mountain goats and cows filled the otherwise-silent air, which, it should be said, was perfectly, wonderfully crisp and clean.
We kept walking up as the trail became less and less worn. We were 30 minutes in when Tal first sounded a voice of reason: “This might not be the right trail.” But, stubborn as always (something I hope to change with daily meditating in India), I insisted we continue. Soon the trail was all but nonexistent. We were crossing rocky streams, cutting down rows of thorny, tangled plants and trudging along ever-so-slowly. I picked up a long stick to knock down the brush as we struggled to discern what was a footprint (good, the trail!) and what was just a mountain.
We hadn’t seen a soul in over an hour. Not a good sign – the waterfall hike was the one everybody did. But still, onward (idiot)! After a particularly challenging mess of rocks, mud, climbing, thorns and the like, we made it to a small precipice with a knockout view and a small, modest waterfall. This certainly couldn’t be the waterfall of such Manali lore: we could actually see that one from our balcony across the valley. It couldn’t be this puny, 6-foot trickler. No way. And yet, reason finally won out, plus Tal (quite reasonably) didn’t want us to die trekking up a non-trail. With that, we decided the mountain had won. We were drenched in sweat, covered in mud and pricked by far too many thorns to chalk it up as a victory. We turned around and slowly, carefully headed down the mountain.
And that’s when Tal nearly fell to her doom.
She was just in front of me on a muddy, ragged ‘trail’ when the soft earth below her completely gave way – it just crumbled down the mountain (probably because it was not a trail) and I watched, in slow-motion, as her still-upright body tilted to the right and began to sail off the ridge. With lightning reflexes, she grabbed the brush to her left and held on tight; her knees buckled under her and her butt swung back towards solid ground. Then she screamed – both out of relief and pain. You see, the vines she grabbed were of the thorniest variety, and now there was a sharp sucker deep in her finger. As she caught her breath (and repeatedly thanked whatever powers that be her tumble wasn’t any farther), we inspected the damage: a tiny dot where the thorn was lodged in her hand. Like a surgeon, she pulled that bastard out – and with every millimeter farther it revealed itself, the more badass I knew she was. The thing was nearly an inch long.
We continued to descend, unable to even figure out how we’d trekked up, and slowly the trail again widened just as it had disappeared. That’s when we met Jon. I found this dreadfully skinny, dreadlocked and bell-bottomed old white man crouching on a rock in the middle of a stream smoking a bong.
“Hi,” I began. “Is this the way to the waterfall?” I already knew the answer, of course.
He laughed heartily. “No! No, no, no, no. You’re way off. But I’ll take you that way, don’t worry,” he said, revealing a scraggly Scottish accent. Jon wore rainbow socks, a colorful vest and a whole bunch of necklaces. He was our magical, leprechaun savior. He told us he had been searching the mountain for a plant that could be reduced into the extremely psychedelic hallucinogenic drug DMT, which creates an out of body, waking-dream sensation. We walked down the trail a bit further when we ran into another white guy, sitting cross-legged on the grass, staring at the mountainous horizon.
“Hi Rob!” called Jon. “I’m taking these youngsters to the waterfall. Whatever are you doing?”
Rob slowly lowered his gaze. He wore no sunglasses and his nose was peeling in a most painful manner. “I’ve been sitting here since sunrise,” he said, a British accent peppering his speech. “I’ve seen the moon move over these mountaintops. This, right here, is one of only three places I’ve been able to feel the rotation of the earth. I am connected here.”
Rob and Jon shared some words about the earth, and Rob firmly said he would sit in his spot for awhile longer. Tal suggested he apply some sunscreen. He said he hadn’t thought of that. He may still be there today. He probably is, noseless.
Jon led us down, down, down until we found a row of stones crossing the widened stream. In faded chalk, ‘Waterfall,’ with an arrow. We’d simply taken the wrong fork and headed into oblivion. The actual waterfall path was quite easy, well-marked and full of hikers. When we arrived just a few minutes later, half the travelers from the Apple View greeted us, with a ‘Where were you?’ sentiment.
The water of said waterfall is pure, clear and unbelievably cold. Wading into the pool below the falls is the stuff of ‘I dare you!’ But we’d come so far; I had to feel the cold. The first step was harsh, but after a few more I couldn’t feel my legs. I began to shiver. My nipples turned to diamonds. I crept on. Just under the falls, like any waterfall, the depth increased dramatically. Indian tourists standing around me in Speedos dunked under the water, but I could tell they were ice-cubes as well. With one deep inhale, I immersed myself fully into the water; every cell in my body screamed and shook. The water pushed me outwards from the falls. The feeling was that of glowing; my body in total shock. I emerged and took a breath. It felt like a mini-meditation: my every thought and intention was in that moment.
Just as I was about to pat myself on the back, a group of local village kids showed up and quickly stripped to their underwear, climbing up the boulders dotting the pool. The oldest one, maybe 12, climbed the highest and, to the encouragement of his friends, did a front-flip into the waterfall pool. Like it was nothing.
“Wasn’t that cold?” I asked him, shivering violently.