Unplanned trip upends expectations

How much money would you ask for to wake up at 5 a.m. on a summer vacation morning?  I wouldn’t even consider the deal. Especially when I know I’ve woken up super-early only to go on a short-planned trip, with driving — from the hill station of Mussoorie to another named Manali — hogging the first two days on the itinerary.  

To be realistic, waking up early wouldn’t really have been part of the plan if there were better roads and everybody just followed traffic rules here in India.

Two days before, my uncle suggested that the whole family make this trip.  And so here we were bouncing along these roads battling this traffic.

For the first day, when my family and I were making our way down into the plains, only to climb back the other side of the mountain range, the heat and dust made matters and the hands on the clock sticky.

After about nine hours of dealing with corrupt vehicle-pollution-control clerks, lazy mechanics unwilling to fix our tire, and of course the roads, which felt more like rocky river-beds, we reached the small dusty town of Bilaspur.  The best part of the day was the face-off between France and Denmark in Russia (FIFA World Cup) live on TV. Football really does make everybody’s day, doesn’t it?

The final nine-hour stretch didn’t start as early but the rain cooled the temperature similar to Mussoorie’s, reminding me about why I was making this trip in the first place. Thankfully, as the river-cut valley carried us deeper into the mountains, the view turned stunning. The mountains caved in on the seemingly dwarfish long line of cars; in fact, the mountains were so tall, or we were so deep in the valley, that many tourists could be seen poking their heads out of their windows just to get a view, more like risking getting incapacitated by the oncoming traffic on the narrow roads.  

After everyone got used to the mountains, staring at the yellow river uncoiling curve after curve was all we could do. For a long while, cars continuously cruised on the surprisingly well-paved road; unfortunately, the narrow roads and loosened-by-monsoon mountain slopes and occasional groups of drunkards partying on the roadsides were reminders for people to keep going without taking a moment to enjoy the jaw-dropping view, except for in the case of a traffic jam or a construction blockade.   

Later, as we got closer to civilization, I couldn’t help but wonder how people had crossed the river and scattered on the steep slopes of the mountains. With a closer look, I realized that the houses were all built of beautifully hand carved wood and the locals still wore traditional colorful dresses in this remote part of the world. From watching these people, I could see that teamwork and patience can help humans to coexist with nature, with minimum harm to wildlife.

Looking out from my car window, I could see locals using donkeys, who occasionally slowed down the tourists, to carry some of their weight. Many others of that area were walking around. In fact, there weren’t many local cars on the roads.

River cutting mountains.jpg

The river cutting a way through the towering mountains.

The next morning in Manali I was hoping for a break from the driving but it was another day of climbing up to the top to reach a famous tourist attraction: Rohtang Pass.  I was looking forward to some more views of the valleys and mountains beyond, but all I got after 4 hours of driving on unimaginably narrow and dangerous roads was thick fog and tourist traffic.

Road to Rhotang Pass

Getting closer and closer to clouds – the road to Rohtang Pass.

When we made it to the Mall Road (bazaar/market) in Manali the very next day, I realized that there are only two things to do in the tiny city of Manali: exploring the Mall Road and of course Rohtang Pass.  This would be fine if there were a little more to see, but it only takes about 5 minutes to walk the length of the Manali Mall Road, and it was packed with only the usual fast-food shops, hotels, and tourists that you can also see in Mussoorie.

Manali Mall Road.jpg

The small but busy mall road of Manali. 

However, one man and his pungi (a wind instrument) caught everybody’s eyes. His music was similar to the tune that snake charmers appear to hypnotize cobras with in certain parts of India, except here the man was hypnotizing people who stopped in their tracks, amid all the chaos and crowds, just to witness this bewitching music before some of them added a couple of coins to his collection.

Snake Charmer (2).jpg

Where’s the Cobra?

Surprisingly, that was all I got from that long and hard journey. We drove out of the valley the very next day. I would’ve been happy going back home to complete my holiday homework, but instead we crossed a bridge and drove back up on the other side of the river.  

This impulsive turn of the steering wheel took us to Shimla, another big hill station that was only more packed with tourists. In fact, it took us half an hour to find a parking lot before we climbed a full hill, excluding the eight stories we sweated over in order to reach our room after one full hour. I was actually somewhat glad we were walking and burning some calories because we had been in the car the whole day for the past six days. After watching a bit of France vs. Argentina, we walked out to the Mall Road for dinner before hanging out around the church at the top.

Shimla, Church.jpg

The church at Shimla Mall Road.

I remember going to Shimla with my family approximately ten years ago. One would think it would be different after all this time, but it was all the same. However, I was much changed as a person.  

All those years ago I was the hyper kid riding his roller-skates around the church, but this time around I was the teenager standing and staring into space as the pressure of college applications, SAT’s and general academics played their part on my mind. With not much time left before my senior year kicked off, all I was looking forward to was the last journey back home.

Coming back wasn’t only long but dangerous, as the rain and fog decreased visibility in the hills of Mussoorie at night. Reflecting on the fast-paced events I had just been a part of, I resolved to take one lesson from this experience: never impulsively take off on unplanned trips.      

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