Manali had a dark side. It wasn't necessarily a bad dark side, but it was a dark side, and I liked it enough to stay for eight days. Looking around outside you were surrounded by lush green mountains -- one of the greenest parts of the Himalayas. (And I climbed one of those mountains - more on that in a bit).
I spent afternoons at outdoor cafes. I particularly loved Sunshine Cafe and spent hours talking to Suny and his older brother, the co-owners of the place. They are from Nepal, they run the show, and most importantly they run the music, tag-teaming as they DJ the tracks all afternoon into nighttime. I also met lots of other travelers there. But my time in Manali was spent primarily with locals. The Sunshine boys. And Sajid, who owns and works at a silver shop in Old Manali. These local guys are responsible for some of the most fulfilling moments I had in Manali. But if you talked to enough people (spoiler alert: I did), you found the crazies. Locals and travelers-cum-local alike. It was very dark at night and had an eerie-ness that Dharamsala and Rishikesh didn't. But there was some mystery about it and day after day I just couldn't leave.
Things that happened in Manali:
1. A man named Sanny in a jewelry shop (not to be confused with Suny at Sunshine Cafe) gave me lulus in my hair -- those long string things with beads. I walked into this shop and there was gold-and-macrame jewelry covering every inch of the place. Bracelets, anklets, necklaces, stones, chains, string, beads. Sanny made each and every thing right there in that shop. I chose my lulus from piles and piles of different colors and bead combinations. Because of my long hair it took almost an hour to install these bad boys but it was good fun. I had been walking around sweating all day but Sanny made me feel beautiful and I walked out of his shop feeling like a million rupees. ($15,873 USD.)
2. I saw my natural nails for the first time since 2009. I removed the black nail polish I had been wearing for three weeks (Molly it was looking chipped and horrendous as you advised it would) and gave myself a manicure using tools from the general store. You may or may not know that I have manicured and polished nails always. I am getting used to my natural nails. So backpacker.
3. An Israeli guy played lots of John Mayer and Jack Johnson songs on his guitar at Rendez Vous cafe one night, and he forgot the words to one of the verses, and I knew them, so I started singing for him so he wouldn't be left hanging out to dry. Jogged his memory immediately and we sang a bunch more songs together.
4. We summited and descended a mountain in one day. Patalsu mountain peak in the Solang range (part of the Himalayas) which is one of the ranges that encloses Manali. The peak is 4700m, of which you climb 2500m from Manali. I was dying to do a long trek but it was hard to get a crew together. Diwan, the guide who I'd been talking to about organizing the trek, invited me to join another group doing this one-day summit.
The climb was challenging. We didn't pass any other trekkers on the mountain. Narrow ridges. Geography like I have never seen before. It was pretty incredible on the way up to see shepherds living in the hills, herding horses and cows and buffalo, hundreds of meters above the village of Manali. Later, looking back at the mountain range from the town of Manali, it was fun to mentally point to a spot on the mountain and know that there are shepherds living there.
There were four of us hiking, plus our guide Diwan who was a total beast and master of the mountain. The other trekkers were a British student and her two guy friends. The British girl decided to attack this day in TOMS shoes. Co: peeps: though no fault of the TOMS Shoes company, due to the following events my image of our beloved StoryDoer will sadly never be the same. These events were Go-Pro worthy though and I do have videos to post for you as soon as connection is strong enough!
So after 7 hours uphill we get to the very top which is essentially just slabs of rock and this girl is slipping and sliding everywhere. She is miserable. When we reach the summit, we sit to take a break. We are on a cliff in the clouds and cannot see more than 15 feet in front of us. Girl goes to get something out of her backpack and -- all of a sudden -- the backpack starts rolling. No no no. No no no. No no no. Tumbling down the hill and... right off the cliff.
Girl starts crying immediately. I feel horrible for about 30 seconds... and then I just can't stop laughing, not at all in a malicious way, but can we acknowledge that your backpack just fell off a mountain!?!? But of course this is not funny for her nor would it be for me in her position and Diwan can tell this is baaad news (L8R cash, L8R passport) so he looks at us and without really saying anything, descends off the cliff into the clouds.
We wait. Five minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. And then Diwan emerges from the clouds like the mountain man that he is, wearing the backpack on his front side. DIWAN!!! DIWANNNN WTF and FTW!!! We are bugging out. Heroic!!!
From our rest at the summit, we can see snow on the caps and in the ridges of many of the surrounding peaks. It is so frozen that it almost doesn't look like snow and I tell Diwan I think it's actually lightly colored rock. To which he says, teasingly, "no it is not rock! It is snow! We are in the Himalayas! Maybe you have altitude sickness." He throws a slab of rock at a nearby patch to prove me wrong. Sure enough upon impact there is a poof of white flurries. I smile, happily defeated.
We sat at the summit for a few more minutes in complete silence. I found myself replaying the little snow poof over and over in my head. It was a happy little blast, but it led to a sudden pang of sadness within me. Because just as soon as I thought about how vast, how untouched, how healthy and how infinite the earth around me seemed... so massive, so alive with opportunity... I realized it was exactly the opposite. Finite. Endangered. How much we take for granted the resources on this Spaceship Earth that is our shared home. How incredibly sad and tragic it would be for this living, breathing earth to be anything other than exactly that... and yet how glaringly realistic that outcome is. We need the #truth campaign of environmentalism. We need it to be so fucking uncool to be wasteful, so fucking uncool to use harmful materials/ingredients/whathaveyou, that it is socially unacceptable to participate in earth-damaging activities of any kind. We need the best and brightest people and companies in the world to be solving this problem like it's their number one priority. I personally have been insanely inspired by this challenge. There is saying, 'if you don't have your health, you don't have anything.' This is especially true for our Mama Earth.
Anyway thanks for joining me on that preachy detour, let's now get back to the part where we are loving the scenery and enjoying our chill sesh at the summit and very proud of ourselves for summiting this baby in one day. Okay are we back there now? Great. So obviously this is where shit gets ugly. We begin our descent around 4PM and TOMSGirl88 (her AIM screen name that I just made up for her -- right DaniGirl14 ahem I mean SummerChick724?) is mizzz because she is slipping and sliding everywhere. We have to keep stopping to wait for her. I don't really mind waiting, like it's no sweat for me that she's sliding... until I realize that every time we stop, we are wasting sunlight. And it starts getting dark. And by 5:30PM it's pitch black. And then it starts raining. And we can't see an inch in front of us and we have a 2000m descent ahead of us.
For the next two hours, we are descending this mountain using the flashlights on our phones which do absolutely nothing (but they were totes better than nothing) and we are sopping wet (recurring theme in India) and we keep having to stop and wait for this girl. An hour or so later we hit a point where the path downward is unclear. Diwan directs us toward a sketchy looking route -- pretty technical -- and we can't really see. This would not be happening in daylight. I am freezing, wet and irritated and it's dark. I want to be off this mountain. Another hour. I feel like we are no closer to the bottom. It's around 9PM. We are on a pretty steep ridge when TOMSGirl88 slips, and this time, she slips right off the ridge. I see this girl vanish over the edge and fall what must have been 20 or 30 feet. Her friend grabs me and looks at me like he thinks TOMS just died. We all scream for her, she screams back that she is okay, and Diwan goes to rescue her. When Diwan and TOMSGirl88 return, Diwan seems to think this is kind of funny, like what an adventure! And my New Yorker starts to show like in a major way. I'm like Diwan, you have one fucking job right now, and it's to get us off this mountain as soon as humanly possible. And he's like Allie, I love such fun adventures like this! And I'm like cool well TOMSGirl88 almost just died, so, I'll laugh at the bottom but right now I'm gonna be a mayjah bee-yotch. And then I had to explain bee-yotch to Diwan so we end up laughing anyway. And then we abandon trails and just go in the direction "downhill" any and every way possible. Walking through rivers up to our shins, wading through fields of wet plants up to our shoulders.
We got to base at 10:45PM and home at 11:30PM. We did laugh at the bottom. I suffered minor hypothermia for a couple of hours (read as: an exaggeration, more like just strong feelings of coldness and a sour mood) before deciding to go out in Manali (read as: go to Sunshine for a late dinner and tell them how insane that day was). My left knee was hurting for two full days...
5. I became friends with Sajid in the silver shop. He is from Kashmir. We'd hang out in the silver shop all day and just play music and talk to whoever came in. Sajid had some friends living in Manali, also Kashmiri, and they invited me to cook dinner one night. It was eight of us. We cooked at Sajid's friend Weer's apartment. Weer did almost all of the cooking. Rice. Vegetables. Paneer. Pressure cooker. Lamb on the bone. (Not my thing, but I was so into this experience it didn't matter.)
The apartment was a square. One wall was the gas/electric/stove unit, one wall nothing, the other two walls taken up by the two sides of Weer's square, floor-level bed which also doubled as a couch and which all of the food was served on and which all eight of us sat on as we ate dinner. There were a few pairs of utensils (I got a pair) but almost everyone ate with their hands. Now, I've actually been mastering the Indian-food-with-hands thing. Multiple Indians have told me I'm killin it! (Ranjitha you would be proud - Vallika even said on Day 3 I was doing great). But that's when we're using some kind of bread as our scooper. For some reason I felt uncomfortable as I watched one of the boys use his hands to make mounds of rice and then shovel them into his mouth, hands covered in rice and dal. It seemed dirty, for his hands to be covered in food like that. I felt sad, like he shouldn't have to eat that way. And if I'm being brutally honest, I felt a little bit disgusted. I was surprised by my own reaction and when I looked around at everyone else, none of their expressions hinted at pity or disgust. In fact it was exactly the opposite. All of their faces were lit up with the delight of a very successful dinner-with-friends. So, I just went with it, and avoided watching that particular boy eat, and lost myself in the moment ironically as one of the other boys skipped tracks from some religious Indian song to "LOSE YOURSELF" by Eminem.
The next night I was invited to Weer's again and we did exactly the same thing -- eight of us, dinner, music, Weer doing most of the cooking -- except this time, I stared at how perfect the boy's hand-made rice mounds were and thought, hell yeah.
6. I laughed about the fact that my Indian friends have unlimited data wherever they go. We'll get to a cafe and I'll ask for the WiFi password. The connection will be shitty and I'll give up, easily over it. But they'll be texting and internet-ing up a storm. Proper toilets? No. But 3G everywhere? Yes.
7. I observed a flower garden for a full ten minutes, watching all the different bees and bugs pollenate the perfectly designed flowers. Cue 'Circle of Life' from The Lion King....
8. The reality that a everything I own but don't actually need to survive is living in a bedroom in New York made me feel weird.
9. Suny did a house/trance night at Sunshine cafe and he was soOoOo good, I was like, holy shit, Suny needs to come to New York and DJ at Output! So I talked to him about it. I was like Suny, you could come to Brooklyn and rock this one club -- this is exactly the kind of music everyone there loves! You would be amazing and you'd make so much money in just one night! Suny's response was the best: "I don't want to leave Manali. I don't want New York. I don't want to be DJ! This is my hobby." Touché.
10. Two dogs got in a fight with a cow. The cow was screaming. The cow ran away.
11. I boiled myself in hot springs four times.
12. I got a haircut at a beauty shop. The girl next to me was getting her full head of dreads untangled.
While I was in Manali, I FaceTimed with my parents to tell them I was very scared of the journey from Manali to Leh. Leh is in the state of Ladakh, which belongs to Jammu and Kashmir. It is very far north and it's only open 3-4 months of the year, because the only two roads in to Leh (read as: mountain passes) are too dangerous to drive otherwise. You can take a one day 18 hour bus or a two day bus with an overnight camp in the middle. Literally up and down the sides of mountains. I must say as much as I love India -- which is a whole lot -- the roads make me deeply nervous. It is very hard for me to spend 18 hours on a bus thinking our bus is going to fall off a cliff the entire time. So I was hoping my parents would say, "honey that sounds really unsafe, you should definitely NOT go to Leh" and then I could be like, my parents really didn't want me to go... but instead they said, "well maybe the two day trip is better so at least you know the driver slept overnight." So, I took the two day bus. I got brutal altitude sickness at the overnight campsite which was actually at a higher altitude than Leh (4700m at campsite versus 3500m or so in Leh). Ten times I had to crawl out of my tent, look up at a sky full of stars, and then puke my brains out uncontrollably. Great times.
But, as all of the travelers before me promised, Leh is beautiful and unique. It's high-altitude 'city' in the Indian Himalayan mountains. The sun is boiling hot but the breeze is cool. We are surrounded by layers and layers of mountains on all sides. Many of them look like desert mountains. One layer is snowcapped. It has an odd complexion, though, Leh does. It is at once one of the most natural places in the world and one of the most manufactured places in the world. The geography is natural but the city itself is almost imported... the trees are brought in from other places. There is a ton of construction (concrete and bamboo) and I predict that in just a couple of years this place will be the new Switzerland or something.
Things that happened in Leh:
1. Sajid's friends who work at a guest house in Leh met me as soon as I arrived, and became my local friends instantly. Blue, Bilal and Asif. These three kids!!! Ugh. Love them. They're also Kashmiri but are living and working in Leh for the summer. They gave me a Kashmiri name: ZOONI. Rhymes with looney. It means moon. Guys, you really can't imagine how much I love being Zooni. All day they are calling me Zooni. Zooni Dietzek! And with their accents it is just the BEST. At night when the moon is full, we look up and yell "ZOOOOONI!!!!!!!" Because that is obviously what you do when your name is Zooni and there is a full moon in the sky.
2. I truly felt -- after three weeks and 5 places including Leh -- like a Himalayan mountain girl (to the extent possible given I am a New York City girl). I have been living on the bare minimum. Washing my hair once or twice a week at best and not even feeling dirty about it. Actually feeling great about it. Understanding the geography of the Himalayas and the region of the world I'm in. Genuinely not knowing what day of the week it is (humble brag, forgive me, it's a BFD for me). Carrying just one very small bag -- the stuff I need on my person at all times (passport, cash, notebook, sunglasses, chapstick, toilet paper) -- rather than a purse full of loads and loads of stuff I may or may not need on any given day. Walking up and down hills to get anywhere and everywhere. Giving up on WiFi. Drinking tap water. Eating fruits and vegetables of all kinds. Climbing everything. Wearing the same clothes two days in a row. Doing yoga overlooking the mountains. Saying hi to everyone whose path I cross -- we are all making our way through the Himalayas. Learning how to tie my scarf on my head in about seventeen new ways and the way I choose each day is pretty much my outfit differentiator.
3. I met up with Clark, my friend from Rishikesh, who happened to also now be in Leh. Clark is from St. Louis and is insanely brilliant. It's crazy how he and I spent five days together in Rishikesh, but how seeing him here he felt like an old friend. Clark left Leh yesterday morning to climb nearby Stowk Kangri mountain. It is the highest peak you can see in Leh. It is covered in snow. I will be gone from Leh by the time he returns. Clark doesn't like when I get cheesy when we say goodbye. But I guess some things about me will never change. I gave him a huge hug and wished him luck and told him how much I would miss him... he was like yea yea let's not do this :) Couldn't help it. I guess that's one paradox I do face on an almost daily basis: I love traveling alone, but it means I'm always making and then leaving friends. I don't think I'll ever be someone who doesn't develop real attachments in my relationships and it hurts me every time to say goodbye.
4. We threw a Sunday day party at some campground location somewhere outside Leh. It was literally a desert patch in the middle of nowhere. We had a tent, food, a DJ, bongos, a digireedoo, a crystal clear river with rapids, and a view of both desert and snowcapped mountains. Just got back.
5. Bilal, Asif, Blue and I went to Shanti Stupa (a shrine high up on a hill) and a man was retouching the facade of the shrine. I asked him if I could paint some and he said sure. We painted together. We were so high up and I was perched on a ledge, I felt like I couldn't even hold my paintbrush straight, but it was one of the coolest things I've ever done. After, we just sat on a pile of ruins about 500m above the city of Leh, and I don't even know if it even makes sense but I wrote this in my little notebook:
"I have sat in many places in India now and just soaked in the moment, as I am doing right now from the top of Shanti Stupa looking over Leh. When I sit in one place in India, I feel all of India inside me. It's a weird and maybe naive thing to say because I haven't been to all of India yet. But I feel India's power, all of it, contributing to my experience of the moment. It feels as if I am in a snowglobe. I am anchored to one place in the North -- and the South is both distant and still unknown -- but I am hugged warmly by the full body and breath of life India."