Life in the Himalayas

Will Chase

My mind was fried. My body felt like it had been beaten with a stick. I had naively made the assumption that I would be able to actually sleep on the overnight bus, and arrive refreshed in the morning, not having wasted a good travel day. But I forgot: this is India.

I don’t know which factor played a larger role in the process of my sleep deprivation … the oppressive heat (it was a non-air conditioned bus), the oppressively friendly local families incessantly trying to chat me up, the cocktail party that was going on in and around the driver’s seat in front of me, or the fact that we stopped for breaks a grand total of four times in twelve hours.

But I now have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the overnight bus between New Delhi and Manali is a mirror image of one of the inner circles of Hell.

I stumbled off the bus in Manali, exhausted, but nonetheless thankful to be out of the viciously debilitating New Delhi heat. No sooner had my foot touched the ground than the touts hit me, stuffing brochures in my face and grabbing my arm, trying to shove me into their auto-rickshaw to take me to their hotel. Shit. I’m too tired for this.

I pushed my way through, bee-lined it for the first auto-rickshaw I saw that wasn’t attached to a tout, and jumped in. I spotted the tall, blonde Dane I had met on one of the breaks, now looking lost in the melee. I called to him, “Hey, Martin! Wanna share a ride to Old Manali? Hop in!”

The driver took us to a few hotels, some of which we had heard about through the backpacker grapevine, one from the Lonely Planet, and finally, to one that the driver recommended. This one had large, beautiful rooms overlooking a raging river for $8 a night. Done deal.

We ordered food from the hotel’s manager, and went up to shower while our food was being prepared. As we sat down to eat our full English breakfasts (it was 8am after all) in the lobby, a fashionably dressed Indian girl strode in the front door. She smiled warmly at us, and came over to our table. “Can I sit down?” “Be our guest.” She and her friends had just arrived that morning by car after 30 hours of traveling from Bombay, and they — undoubtedly feeling like we did — were crashed out upstairs. Her name was Sushma. “Like ‘sushi’, with a ‘ma'”, she explained. “Oh … have you heard about the party tonight?”

This would prove to be a common refrain over the course of the day. Everybody we’d meet — every backpacker, drifter, recluse, stoner, raver, shopkeeper, restaurateur, you name it — they were all spreading the word. There was going to be an all-night rave over at the Rasta Cafe, “up on the hill … you can’t miss it.”

Old Manali is about the size of a small village, and can be traversed on foot in about 10 minutes. There’s one main street, which winds uphill past woolen clothing shops, hippy cafes, a couple restaurants, some guest houses, money exchangers, travel agents, and umpteen internet cafes (average throughput: 1kb per hour). The road dead-ends at a small cluster of huts where the locals live, their goats and yaks munching lazily on hay in their front yards. Manali is nestled high up in the Himalayas, and it’s where backpackers in the know go to hang out, relax, and smoke copious amounts of the highest quality hashish available anywhere. All the time.

Martin and I met up with Sushma’s friends for lunch at one of the local restaurants. Harsham was a Bombay movie actor. He had just finished a hit movie, and he was treating his best friends to a little vacation with the proceeds. Harsh was positively kinetic, his energy infectious … he didn’t give you much choice but to join him. Vishu was a restaurant manager in Bombay, and was the absolute embodiment of cool hipness. These were your sophisticated, cosmopolitan Indians — their English was as good as mine, if not better.

As the pungent hashish smoke billowed about our heads, we ate stuff from all over the menu paired up with homemade juice, and planned our evening, including when we’d head up to the Rasta Cafe. And we whiled away the afternoon pretty much like that. Welcome to Manali.

Around 2am, we headed up to the party. Fashionably late. We reached the top of the road, not having seen the Rasta Cafe. We started asking people. Nobody had heard of it. What?! We saw some stoned-looking kids that clearly looked like they were seeking out the party, and asked them if they knew where it was. They seemed to have only slightly more clue than we did, but that was a reasonable start, anyway. We followed them.

So, now we were a pack of eight, all more or less clueless, but walking along dark trails out away from town and into the mountains, looking for a party. Now, Manali sits on one wall of a gigantic valley, with massive mountains on either side. We found ourselves walking on what were more or less cow trails along the wall of this monumental valley, in the pitch dark. Well … yak trails, really.

A couple of people in the other group started to come on their acid right about then. They’d jumped the gun, thinking that they’d have been at the party by now, so they’d dosed earlier. “This is where things get interesting,” I thought.

After a while we reached a kind of house perched on the wall of the mountain. A bunch of people squatted and sat on the rocks in front of the building, and a few milled about aimlessly. “Is this the party?” “Um … we don’t know … we don’t think so. But we’re looking for it.” Since we were not dancing to music at that very moment, we figured this wasn’t it. It must be somewhere else further out on the trail. We were a little disconcerted by the fact that we couldn’t hear any music playing, and we’d been walking for about a half an hour. And so we became twenty.

We passed a couple locals chatting on the side of the trail, and asked them if they knew where a party was. “Oh yes yes, I know party, I know … I take you there … hard to find … 500 rupees.” It sounded to me like he was lying, but we debated it, and figuring that they must know at least more than we did, we finally agreed. They led our crew from there.

We hiked along some pretty rough, undulating trail, everybody stumbling on the roots and rocks in the dark, nervously awaiting a sprained ankle, or a pitch down an unseen cliff face. The farther we got into the middle of nowhere, the more the words “Rasta Cafe” rattled around in my head like a bad joke. Never listen to stoners.

I listened to the banter of our intrepid group, and heard a UN’s worth of accents — Brits, Danes, Germans, Swedes, Israelis. Mostly Israelis. (I was to find out that nearly 70% of the tourists in India were Israelis. They love it there … I guess they can take all the day-to-day crap that’s thrown at you in India; for them, it’s just like home, only cheaper.) It felt like an international search team, seeking adventure and determined to find it with an unwavering focus of purpose.

Just as soon as members of our group started making more fervent “where the hell ARE we?” rumblings, the trail opened up onto a broad meadow mysteriously carved into the mountainside. Its shape was betrayed to us by a series of small fires burning away throughout the meadow, with ragged-looking clusters of people huddled about them. In a corner of the meadow, a flock of flashlight beams fluttered across a huge DJ deck, with a myriad of people crawling over and around it like ants, peering intently into its parts, wriggling tools into its crevices, trying to give voice to the eight gigantic speakers set up around the meadow’s perimeter. Thinking back on the trail, all I could wonder was: how the hell did all that get here?

Suddenly, the music came on, pumping and thumping through the deep mountain air with a soul shocking boom-tick-boom-tick-boom-tick! A cheer went up from the denizens of the meadow, as heads turned from the fires towards the DJ’s decks with expressions of hope. After a few seconds, people stood and started dancing, pumping fists into the air. We looked at each other, smiled, and headed into the meadow.

As abruptly as it started, the music stopped, leaving a strange aural void in the vast darkness of the valley. A collective “awwwww” went up from the denizens of the meadow, as heads turned expectantly towards the DJ station, now rife with technicians hard at work poking and prodding it back to life. Rumors quickly went round the meadow that the problem was the generator, it was being overwhelmed, but another one was on the way.

Was this yet another stoned raver backpacker rumor? It was hard to tell, but it smelled like one. I mean, what dolt was going to hoof it all the way back down the mountain into town, find a generator (it was hard enough to find a working phone, let alone a spare generator), and haul it all the way out here in the dark?

We seriously considered cutting bait and bailing out. It was getting cold. We were dressed for the warm interior of the alleged “Rasta Cafe”, not for the exposure of a Himalayan mountainside. We joined in with some others, huddling around one of the fires in the silence. Well, somebody had somehow managed to lug all that heavy, awkward audio equipment up here, I couldn’t imagine that they’d just roll over and show their bellies to a bum generator. These people are clearly resourceful.

And upon that thought, the music pounded into the night air once again, firing like a rocket through my chest. This time it lasted ten minutes before crapping out, leaving a lot of seriously tripping people sorely disappointed. I started to envision lots of bad trips about to happen.

Just then, the latest news blew through the meadow: the new generator had arrived! After a few more minutes of feverish activity by the decks, the music flooded the vacuum of the night.

Goa Trance, as the local music is called, is a cranked-up kaleidoscope of thumping beats, driving rhythms, and pumping bass lines, with enough electronic sound effects and spoken words mixed in to create one absolute mindfuck of a psychedelic tapestry. I mean, this stuff is good. You lose yourself in it, and every time a fat new line of it fires off, it hits you in your very soul. You feel it there.

And right in the middle of all this, it suddenly dawned on me that I am in … the … fucking … Himalayas. My heart swelled to about the size of a cantaloupe, like it was going to burst out of my chest because it didn’t have enough room to dance. I had found it … I had to come damn far to find it, but I had found it. Half way around the world, into a forbidding bastard of a country, toughing out some of the hardest traveling in the world, into the middle of nowhere, following other blind seekers to find — this.

I was exhausted, I was fried out, I was exhilarated. I danced with abandon until my heart sped and my feet hurt. I was no longer dancing — the music danced me. My body went where it was told to go, how it was meant to go by virtue of the music. I was one with the music, one with the meadow, one with my friends around me, all of us bathing in the soft glow of the light of the approaching dawn, feeling its energy growing.

And as the sun finally rose over the mountain behind us, revealing the unfathomable depths of the gorge before us, it fired a sharp, primal light onto only the highest tips of the snow-capped peaks across the valley, promising us all the coming of the warmth, and the brilliance, and the wonder of a new day.

As I stood and stared, I raised my arms, fingers outstretched, palms facing nature’s brilliance. The tears streamed down my face, ran off my cheeks, and soaked soundlessly into the meadow beneath my feet.

I had found life.

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