For some time I’ve been starting to worry that I’ll lose track of some of the things I’ve done over the past few years, and start to forget some of the more interesting places I’ve been and people I’ve met. That worry, the fact that I don’t know too many people in Richmond who can relate to long-winded travel stories, and the fact that I’m unemployed and have lots of time on my hands, have led me to start trying to remember some of them and put them to paper.
The result of this is a treat for those of you who love it when I sit down and write 3000 words and post it on the internet without reading over it again, and cause to hit the back button for the rest of you.
Without further ado, here’s the first of these experiences that I’ve managed to write down. I can’t promise it won’t be the last.
I arrived in Dhanaulti by accident. I was returning from the mountains at the start of the monsoon, after a somewhat disappointing trip to see my old Hindi teacher in his house north of Uttarkhashi. On the way back down I first took a jeep to Chamba, where I spent a night dancing and drinking whiskey at a wedding on the hotel roof, and the next morning took the local bus to Mussoorie, planning to head back down to Dehradun and then to Delhi. But I’d left Chamba early enough to stop along the way, and the bus seemed to be taking a break at Dhanaulti. So I decided to follow suit.
I knew nothing about Dhanaulti but its altitude, which was high. A week earlier I’d been walking aimlessly around Mussoorie, and somehow ended up looking at a map of Uttarakhand on a hotel wall. It was hot, and altitude was all that interested me. I’d noted down Chamba and Dhanaulti, at close to 3000m, as potential places of respite.
Not much was happening when I arrived in the late morning. The bus stopped outside a small hotel with a large porch, and I sat at one of its plastic tables and ordered chai. The porch offered me a good view of the street, and I took it in as I drunk my tea and scribbled notes in my notebook.
Not that there was too much to take in. There was a competing guesthouse across the road, a couple of small shops and restaurants along the street, and a barber’s shop. The thing I noticed most was the fresh air and the calmness of the place. A couple of kids watched me curiously from across the road, but little else moved. Cars were infrequent; one every couple of minutes at most.
I sat and sipped and wrote and relaxed. At 1pm another bus went by, and I ordered another tea. Peace and quiet, fresh air and a bit of space can be rare commodities in North India, and I was enjoying them. When eventually I finished writing, paid my bill and picked up my bags it occurred to one of the hotel staff to offer me a room. Sure, I said. This was a nice change.
They didn’t really have rooms at Hotel Himalaya, at least not that night. The best they could offer me was a storeroom behind the kitchen, which had a bed hidden under piles of clutter. I took it. We carried the clutter outside, to a small patch of grass where three donkeys were tied to a post. The road through Dhanaulti was new, and these donkeys were the slowest, if not weakest link in the chain that connected the surrounding villages to modern India and the globalised economy. Behind the donkeys was a steep drop, and at the start of the rainy season it was impossible to see down into the valley below.
I took in the misty view and went back to the porch, opened my book and ordered another tea. Travelling alone in India you get used to doing certain things over and over again. There are the standard annoyances everyone will tell you about, but you also have to be comfortable repeating the few activities you can enjoy until you really shouldn’t be enjoying them anymore. Reading, writing and sipping chai were mine.
In the front of Hotel Himalaya were two small shops. Where most hotels would have a large restaurant, a function hall or a garage the owner of Himalaya had decided to capitalise on the hotel’s location and its steady trickle of tourists by renting out two narrow spaces to two young men who ran a grocery store and a shop that sold knitted woolen garments. It was the owner of the second, Girdhari, who invited me to sit.
Girdhari immediately struck me as a warm and kind-hearted person. He was from Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, from a famous family of weavers. His father had moved to Uttarakhand to set up shop in Mussoorie, and Girdhari had asked for a small loan to open his own place in Dhanaulti. He wove for two weeks at a time, until the shop was brimming with stock, then packed his loom away at the back of the shop and sold what he had made. Running a one-man operation like this was a lot of responsibility for someone only a few years older than me, but he’d so far managed to avoid having to ask his dad for any more help.
Being an outsider in Dhanaulti was easier than in other places, he told me, as the town had only recently come to life along the rebuilt road. Most of the inhabitants were men from the surrounding villages who had come to Dhanaulti to take advantage of the business opportunities afforded by tourists on their way from Mussoorie to Tehri Dam or the pilgrimage sites further north. If Girdhari was more of an outsider than the others he made up for it with his friendly nature, and his willingness to live like a local despite his father’s relative wealth. He stayed in a tiny room around the side of the hotel, with a mat on the floor and one flickering, jugaad-powered lightbulb.
That first night we talked about Garwhal, about pollution, about Australia and about music. I had with me a guitar that I’d bought in Dehradun in the misguided hope of teaching myself to play it. The fact I was not a musician was quickly revealed, but Girdhari promised to introduce me to one of his friends, Andy, an Englishmen who lived in a nearby town and had several guitars as well as a large pizza oven. A few kids had gathered around when they heard the guitar and they implored me to play them some foreign music from my phone. Luckily I had some, and both phone and guitar quickly became public property.
For dinner I ordered a vegetable dish from the hotel menu, and was blown away by how good it was. It was cooked by middle-aged man whose name I never learned and who I have always known as Uncle-ji (the suffix –ji is an honorific). Uncle-ji’s most distinguishing features were his disfigured hands, the result of a gas leak and explosion above the stove on which he was making roti. As a result he no longer turned roti with his hands but instead used a pair of tongs, which marked him as different from most Indian cooks. In some places an accident like Uncle-ji’s would lead to a large compensation payment from his employer; in this case uncle-ji became bonded to Himalaya for life, as it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be able to find employment elsewhere. His loss was perhaps my gain, because nowhere else in India have I found food such consistently good, at such a fabulous price, as at Hotel Himalaya.
I stayed there the next few days. Girdhari and I drank lots of tea, listened to music and played cricket with the kids on the local field, a space a bit longer than a cricket pitch that was also home to two mobile phone towers, a couple of cows and a large and sometimes smoking pile of rubbish. When the ball was damaged beyond repair I bought a new one, but insisted that we play by my rules when we used it. “Six and out” received a lukewarm reception, but my attempts to ban chucking went in vain.
The way Girdhari interacted with the kids and other locals I could see that my first impressions of him were correct. All the old men in the village dropped by his shop at least once a day. Girdhari would greet them deferentially, enclosing their hands in a two-handed Himachali handshake, and ask them about their days. With some he would share tea, with others a joke or a smile. Often the butt of the joke was Negi-ji, an employee at Himalaya who read more slowly and lost hair more quickly than he liked to believe. Negi-ji never begrudged anyone a laugh.
Girdhari was also unusually comfortable negotiating the tricky terrain of friendship with a foreigner. He never asked or expected me to pay for anything, despite my relative wealth. If I ordered two teas Girdhari would return the favour by ordering ek ka do – one tea split into two glasses. If I bought rum he would buy coke; when we shared butter chicken we always shared it.
I came and went a couple of times, but in Dhanaulti I had found a place I was comfortable being, and in Girdhari a friend I was comfortable spending time with. From time to time he would leave me in charge of the shop while he went to run errands, and while I wasn’t a very successful salesman the responsibility helped both my Hindi and my profile in the village. I wasn’t seen as a tourist to make money from but as a friend of a respected resident.
There were times when I was grateful for the protection of Girdhari and the staff at Hotel Himalaya. One night four young Punjabi boys, clearly drunk, rode up on their motorbikes and ordered dinner. When they saw me they demanded to know where I was from, and when they heard I was Australian they started to get angry. It was around the time that some Indian students had been attacked in Australia, incidents that had been blown out of all proportion in the Indian press. Before long half of Dhanaulti had arrived to tell the visitors that no, I didn’t hate Indians; no, I wasn’t a racist; no, I didn’t want to kill them and yes, we would love it if they ate their dinner and went on their way.
On my third or fourth visit I stayed for several weeks, and Girdhari and I took to exploring the local area. One day we went to visit Andy the Englishman, who sadly had gone back to England for a couple of months. Another day we went with some British tourists to Surkanda Devi, a temple to a local goddess, and climbed hundreds of steps to the top of the hill. Every few days we walked for an hour or so to get mobile internet reception at a fortuitous bend in the road.
One day Girdhari suggested we go further afield, to a tiny town called Panthwari, which he’d heard was particularly nice. It was a strange destination, the kind that only features occasionally on maps, but I was up for an adventure and so the next morning he closed the shop and we set out.
It was the sort of trip that rarely happens in the developed world, where you generally have a pretty good idea how long it will take to get from one place to another. Panthwari wasn’t far from Dhanaulti, and our map showed roads all the way, which was a good start. But we had no idea what these roads were like, how much damage they’d suffered from the monsoon and how many, if any, vehicles travelled on them.
At the end of the first day we’d got as far as Nainbagh, a tiny town right on the edge of a large river. We stayed in a guesthouse there and ate dinner on the roof, overlooking the river which we could hear but barely see. Girdhari told me about a girl he was thinking of marrying, and I asked where she lived. Suddenly the reason for our trip to Panthwari became crystal clear.
The next morning we managed to get to Panthwari on the roof of a crowded jeep. By now I was very clearly standing out as someone who didn’t belong, but that was fine. When we got to Panthwari I sat and waited for what seemed like hours (and probably was) while Girdhari talked to some people he knew, met some new people, and also spent lots of time sitting and waiting. Before long it was nearly sunset and I still didn’t quite know what was going on, but eventually I was introduced to a couple of people Girdhari seemed to know and together we went for a walk down the road. This walk was the evening pastime of everyone in this village – as it is in many other Indian villages – and so I got to walk past a few hundred baffled and staring strangers. Then we took part in the village’s evening volleyball game.
Finally, after volleyball and well after dark we walked up the hill and were invited into the house of a middle-aged man Girdhari had been talking to earlier that day. I gathered that he was the father of the girl who had brought us here. The three of us sat on the floor in the corner of a small room with some interesting decorations: a large photo of Sydney Harbour and another of what looked suspiciously like an Indian Railways train, painted white and emblazoned with the words “Shinkansen: world’s fastest train.” The father was completely baffled when he asked where I was from and I pointed at the picture above his head.
At great length the father apologised about the food, which was brought out by his wife. Their adjective of choice was the English word backwards, a favourite in government propaganda and education: “We are backwards people”, “this is a backwards village”, “please forgive us for serving such backwards food”. In any case the food was fresh and delicious.
The mum served the first course, brought us our first bread and then came back to serve seconds. But eventually it was the daughter’s turn: she brought us some bread, silently placed it on the floor and left. She was in the room for no more than about five seconds, but that night I was asked to provide a detailed opinion. I gave my approval.
The father invited us to stay with them, an offer we were in no position to refuse. Girdhari and I shared a single bed while the father and the girl’s brother shared the other. It was hot and we barely slept. The next morning we got up and left, and we didn’t see the girl again.
Looking at our map, it seemed we could get home more directly if we walked over a mountain, Nagtibba, that was on the way back to Dhanaulti. I was keen to climb Nagtibba because at 3048m it was the highest point in the area, and Girdhari was similarly keen to visit its temple. We set out early in the morning armed with a small amount of water and a couple of rolled up roti. After an hour or so we met some farmers, said hello and walked on. We kept walking upwards and didn’t see anyone else until we reached the summit of Nagtibba in the early afternoon.
There was a man praying at the temple when we arrived, and we decided to walk around for a while. When we got back to the temple he’d vanished, and as we didn’t know which path to follow we sat for another hour in the hope that someone would arrive who could point us in the right direction. No one came, and eventually we chose a path and set off downhill. A couple of hours later we came across a herd of goats and then their owner, who invited us to have a shot of his homemade daru and sold us a bottle for the road. Another hour’s walk found us in the midst of a massive marijuana plantation, and another half an hour got us to a tiny village.
This village was skeptical about letting a foreigner stay, perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of the local enterprise. Some of the residents pointed us toward the school, but when the headmaster turned us down it was clear we had to get to the next village, Thathyur, another hour’s walk away. The village we were in had recently been reached by development: a large company had come and built a shiny mobile phone tower and a barely useable road. A resident offered to take us down this road for an exorbitant 800r, and the three of us squeezed onto the back of his motorbike and made it to Thatyur just before dark.
Our adventure was almost over, but not quite. I had to suffer an excrutiating night of bedbugs (Girdhari was somehow untouched) before we could finally get back to Dhanaulti the next morning. There was a small amount of gossiping among the hotel staff when we returned, some of them assuming that I’d been tricked into paying for a somewhat lavish three-day getaway. The reality was quite the opposite.
A few days later I left Girdhari, and wished him luck with the girl. Her father had been impressed, but he was waiting for his parents’ approval, and they needed to find time to leave Kullu and travel to Panthwari to meet her family. He was cautiously optimistic, but like most young Indian men had experience with seemingly-perfect relationships not quite working out, for one reason or another.
A few months later I was in Nepal when I received a message inviting me to Girdhari’s wedding. It was in Kullu, and the girl was from Kullu too: while Girdhari was waiting in Dhanaulti for his parents to arrive and sanction the wedding, they’d been hurriedly trying to find him a suitable Himachali bride. They won out, and he was packing up his weaving shop and heading home.
I arrived in Kullu in late November, the day before the wedding. But when I called Girdhari from the bus station his phone had been disconnected. I tried asking around but without knowing his father’s name I couldn’t get anywhere. Eventually I gave up and left Kullu, and haven’t heard from Girdhari since.
This year I did return to Dhanaulti, and once again stayed at Hotel Himalaya. It was nice to see that the hotel had been renovated, but less nice to see the source of the funds: a huge mobile phone tower now stands on the hotel’s roof, where we had sat and taken in the still mountain air. Uncle-ji told me that phone towers make people sick, that all the staff were scared of getting cancer but the owner only cared about the money. Uncle-ji had moved on from cooking and looked after the hotel while the owner was away, which he was the whole time I was there. He’d also managed to get to the hospital for a skin graft, which in time will make his hands look a bit less disfigured. In place of Girdhari’s shop was a fledgling CD business, pumping loud Bollywood tunes that really didn’t belong. I felt like the proverbial old man returning home only to find that nothing will ever be quite as it was.