Monday, May 17, 2010

Week 23: Rishikesh & Manali

This photograph was taken by daughter Mira while flying in a helicopter over the Himalayas! Unbelievable, yes? How she came to have that chance is part of the experience of this last week. So read on!

The week began with us escaping from the 110 degree temperatures of Delhi and Agra, by taking an overnight bus north to Rishikesh where cooler climates once attracted the Beatles to the banks of the upper Ganges river. Kristine, Mira, and her friend Naomi got almost no sleep since the bus was not air conditioned (as had been promised) and was so overcrowded that some of the children ended up lying on the floors! Although I did sleep, a bad travel experience became worse when the bus unloaded all passengers in Haridwar (even though our ticket stated we had paid to be taken the remaining 7 miles to Rishikesh)! Thankfully, three Indian lawyers I had conversed with on the bus intervened with the driver on our behalf, forcing him to pay for an auto rickshaw to transport us the rest of the way. The travel nightmare did not end in Rishikesh, as it took another hour (including another auto rickshaw, a bicycle rickshaw, a taxi, and a ride (for Kris) on the back of a motor scooter across a footbridge spanning the Ganges – for us to arrive, exhausted, at out hotel.

During our three full days in Rishikesh, the girls enjoyed shopping (without the verbal harassment and bargaining common to Delhi) and we all enjoyed the cooler night temperatures (though daytime still was in the 90`s). A highlight of one day was the four-hour drive thru Rajaji National Park in an open jeep. Our 40km ``safari`` included a beautiful arid jungle complete with dry riverbeds, narrow rocky roads up and down very substantial hills, and lots of wild elephant dung but no wild elephants! Wildlife we did see included eagles, vulchers, wild peacocks, kingfisher birds, lemur families, playful monkeys, wild boar, and scores of different varieties of deer – but no sightings of the reclusive tiger and leopards that feed on them. Mira and Naomi were also sad not to see any king cobras, though their dismay was not much shared by Kristine. I was happy just to smell the fresh air and hear the many sounds of life left free of unwanted human contact.

The automobile drive to Manali took two days, navigating about 300 miles of winding roads at an average speed of about 20 miles per hour! A combination of drugs and the kindness of the women (who insisted I sit in the front with the driver) saved me from any serious car sickness. The topography was frequently breathtaking, with the shoulders of the road to Shimla often without any safeguards to sheer drops below. A pleasant night in Shimla (cooler than Manali) helped us understand how the British would make this their summer capital of India during colonial times. The next day`s long drive revealed scenes of rivers, hills, and orchards (including peaces and apples) that reminded me of eastern Washington State near Wenatchee (where I had spent 12 summers in my youth picking fruit). On the evening of May 14th we arrived in Manali.

Manali is located in the foothills of the Himalayas (at about 6,000 feet) not far south of the border with Kashmir and west of the border with Tibet. Three Buddhist monasteries are located in and around this tourist town, as well as various other temples like one dedicated to Manu (the source of the Laws of Manu that governed north India in ancient times). Our hotel was located within an easy walk of the Mall area where tourists flock to shop from all over the world – enjoying massive hills and nearby snow covered mountains on three sides. During our 4 day stay, we enjoyed a wide variety of food ranging from sushi to noodle soup and spinach omelets to mexican burritos! It was while talking with the owner of the AMIGOS restaurant one morning that we learned of his helicopter service for wealthy tourists and VIPs (at $1,000/day). He took a liking to us and suggested that we join the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh (in one hour) who had contracted a one-way flight with an empty helicopter to return. So it is that Mira and Naomi were given the ride of a lifetime for a mere $120/each! Kristine opted out as she did not feel up to getting ready on such short notice. I am too cheap, do not like flying, and had another fun thing to do. The girls had a great time – as can be guessed from their photographs!

My fun thing to do that day was to spend nearly two hours with local police authorities explaining why the visa for Kristine and I had expired on February 25th and had not yet been formally renewed! Our hotel manager had been required by law to report the issue to police as part of the heightened security concerns regarding terrorism – and he walked with me about a mile to the police station. At first the officer was unconvinced by all of the paperwork I provided (partly because he was being interrupted every few minutes by a new case/crisis that did not allow him to concentrate. It was a seriously ADD environment with reports of stolen wallets, Indian tourist complaints about their tour operators, and frequently heated exchanges of words. I just decided to remain calm and go with the flow (and maybe spend some time in custody?)! Thankfully, a long telephone conversation with Fulbright staff people in Delhi (who I had kept up to date on my visa problems) satisfied the officer in charge that the reason my visa extension had not been issued (nearly 3 months after it was applied for) was due to an ineffective bureaucracy in Kerala. I complimented him and suggested that Gandhi would have been pleased with his taking time to get to the truth of the matter.

This week has had far too many experiences to adequately discuss in the time now available. There was the lengthy discussion I had with the head of the anti-terrorism unit of the Gujarat State Police (who was on vacation) which surprised me with his largely agreeing with a Gandhian view that only justice for the poor, and not military force can defeat terrorism in the long term. There was the puppy which Mira brought from the street (and into the restaurant) to share breakfast with us one morning – and how grateful the shivering creature was to lap up the warm milk she provided. There was the searching of the markets with Kristine to find a (nearly perfect?) sweater to help her ward off the chilly temperatures…

As we pack this cold morning (in the 50`s) and prepare to return to New Delhi tomorrow (by overnight bus today), we all wonder at the diversity of this amazing country. We also wonder how we will cope with returning to India`s capital only 300 miles to the south: crowds, pollution, and highs in the 110-115 degree range! Though we may be shivering in Manali, we will almost certainly remember our visit here with fondness.

10 days are now left to us before departing from India…..

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