Day 12 & 13:
I have learned more than a few lessons on this trip. There are too many entirely list here, but here are a few important ones:
- You will be fed an absurd amount of food.
- You will have to turn down food several times before it actually stops coming. And even that stoppage might be temporary.
- Traffic will always be worse than you expect.
- Yes, it will be loud. Whatever the activity. No matter what time. Day or night.
- Time commitments, much like traffic rules, are more of a rough guideline than anything.
- Everyone will welcome you with open arms.
- Jagrata is long. Longer than I thought anyone could possibly have energy for. It is also loud (See above).
The Jagrata celebration that happened in our current neighborhood didn’t end until 6:30 or 7:00am. Also, much like everything else I’ve experienced here, it was loud and energetic. Music and human energy spilled will into the morning hours. Regardless, I hold no different opinion than I previously expressed about the tremendous time I had celebrating this festival. As the crowd began to dwindle around sunrise, I realized I hadn’t slept much the prior night. We were supposed to leave at 9:00 to visit family outside the city. I readied myself early for the trip, forgetting that time isn’t firm. Around 10:15 is when we actually loaded into the car to start our trek.
A short drive — perhaps 45 minutes — was all that was needed to arrive at the family farm. Even in those 45 minutes, it was easy to tell that everyone was feeling the effects of the Jagrata last night. Noticeably less talkative than we had been on our journey yesterday, tired eyes seemed to be the prevailing mood from the moment we awoke. Upon arrival at the farm, energy levels rose immediately. Various crops, including lemons, tomatoes, eggplant, and spinach were easily identified as they basked under the noonday sun. A sizable greenhouse sat directly across the dirt road from the main establish on the grounds. Ducks wandered aimlessly in a small pack. Large wells fed evenly spaced irrigation ditches. I reveled in yet another place I could find peace on this journey.
I wandered for some time, taking in the fresh air and the subdued audible buzz — a far cry from the usual noise of the city. It felt good here. Like a piece of land the country had forgotten to develop. I’m well aware that farmland is needed everywhere, however, I had yet to see some in India. Eshpreet’s uncle, who runs the farm, explained to me how he supplies the local vendors with his fruit and vegetables, allowing them to, in turn, sell the goods to the public. I am told that just outside the farmed ground, which is surrounded by an electric fence, various wildlife roam the forests. Apparently, jaguars are a common site around here.
A cup of tea was shared by all on the ground level of the main complex, which sat directly across from the large greenhouse. It was during this break that Sheetal finally got to pet a duck. She has been half-heartedly chasing them for a while, unable to get close enough to touch one. One of the farm workers, upon request, managed to wrangle one of them and bring it over to where we were sitting. After some delicate petting, the responsibility of holding to duck was passed over to Sheetal. Eshpreet was curious, but extremely hesitant to pet the duck. After some not-so-subtle coaxing, I do believe she eventually worked up the courage to do so. Once the duck was let down to wander, it was given a few biscuits as a reward for letting the various people hold it for a time. It didn’t leave our sight the rest of the time — meandering close to us, honking wildly, as if asking for another biscuit.
It was time to go. Eshpreet needed to go back for a school reunion. Sheetal needed to spend some time with an uncle. I was ready to sit down and do a little work while they were busy at their various activities. The return trip seemed to take longer than the arrival, likely due to the limited rest the night before.
We arrived home from the farm around 4pm. Dinner was to be at 8:00. The girls were to be home around 7:00. If you’ve been reading at all, it should be no surprise that it was nearly 7:50 before the girls arrived, still needing some time to prepare for dinner. We left for dinner around 9pm. It was explained to me that this practice is traditional Indian culture. I really wasn’t bothered by any of it.
Haveli isn’t so much a Punjab restaurant — although it is that as well — as a cultural experience. Traditional Punjabi history is on display here. Living exhibits illustrate life throughout the history of the people, allowing visitors to see how life was lived in the near-past. Everything from children games to housing to cultural dances are on display here. Witnessing traditional meal preparations, transportation means, and appropriate cultural dress, we wandered for an hour or more, taking in everything it had to offer. Eshpreet was sure to capture every bit on Snapchat — which I forgot to previously mention she might be emotionally addicted to. Eshpreet, if you’re reading this, I’m half-kidding about that last part. I was fascinated with everything.
Although I would have been interested in the exhibits regardless, the real joy for me came as I saw the passion and enthusiasm Espreet and her mother had for the culture. They explained everything I saw in great detail, often likening stories to personal experiences. Each syllable they spoke was intertwined with a tremendous pride in their people. As they walked me though each each of the displays, it was easy to tell — from the way their words fell and the sparkle in their eyes — that this was special to them. In sharing their culture, I was honored and humbled. I left the night with a new appreciation for Punjabi history as well as a firmly cemented debt to Eshpreet and her mother.
Everyone was exhausted as we returned home. The previous night did not provide much rest, and it would be an early morning for me tomorrow. Departing on a long car ride to Sainj, in Himachal Pradesh, was to commence at 9:00am. This would actually be on time. If the training wheels came off in Delhi, the bicycle was about to be hurled from a moving plane. The next 10 days would be without any sort of accompaniment whatsoever. I am still apprehensive about this. Hopefully my fears are misplaced.
Morning came early. My drivers would be arriving at 9:00am to embark on the eight hour journey that would end, for me, in Sainj. The driver was going to make the return trip immediately after I had been dropped. Roti and coffee were waiting for me as I emerged from my temporary bedroom. A heaviness began to fill my chest — not due to nervousness for the next leg of the journey, but because I wanted to spend more time in Punjab with Sheetal and Eshpreet. The two, short days weren’t enough for me. Goodbyes were said and I was loaded into the car. There would be no turning back now.
As I sat in the back seat of a car heading generally north and east, it dawned on my that I was traveling with two men I’d never met before. Neither of them spoke English, and I don’t speak any Hindi. Network reception on my cell phone had been spotty-at-best for the last week. I can’t help now to wonder if there’s an age limit on the old adage “don’t get into a car with strangers.” If, in fact, there is not a statute of limitations, I’ll have to apologize to my parents for violating that particular teaching.
All in all, the ride went well. The drivers did a tremendous job of making sure I was comfortable. Not more than an hour into the trip, I saw my first monkey of the visit. They seem to be common in the foothills leading into the mountains. The first monkey was quickly followed by the next hundred or so. More prevalent than either cars or humans, they joined cows, goats, squirrels, birds, dogs, and all other breed of wildlife on the roadway. The driver had to execute some impressive maneuvering in order to avoid hitting them with his car. It was clear these animals were used to humans in the area. For the next hour or so of our trip, these animals would be present in impressive numbers. As we climbed higher, though, the sight became less common and the population began to dwindle.
I must take a moment here to express some gratitude to my drivers. As much as I have commented on the traffic in the cities, it paled in comparison to the skill required to maneuver these mountain roads. Calling many of the “one-lane” would be considered extremely generous in America. Sheer bluff walls were no more than two feet away from the edge of our vehicle. Road conditions ranged form “decent” to “non-existent” to “are we sure that isn’t a river?” Passing vehicles was an exercise in self-calming. At one point, I was asked to take a video of the driving. I replied — sometime later — that I would have done exactly that if not for the fact that I had to use both hands to hold on to the overhead handles. Switchbacks came and went quickly. A few towns dotted the landscape, but the population was clearly becoming more sparse. On we went and higher we climbed into the Himalayas.
As mush as the drive was frantic, it was beautiful. Was it ever beautiful. Mountains rose and lush, green valleys fell. The sunbeams gained perfect definition, filtering through light clouds, which were not far above us. Pure blue streams cut a wandering path through valleys hundreds of feet below our vehicle. Water trickled down the sides of the bluffs from somewhere high above. This same water had also eroded the paved road in many spots. I assume these will get fixed at some time, but it seemed urgent to no one.
It was around hour four or five that I came to the realization that I didn’t miss any of my things back home. The people I surely missed — I still miss Anya terribly — but not the possessions. A way of life is a way of life. It seems to me that a single choice of how to live is no better or worse than any other. I had seen several distinctly different cities and states during this trip and enjoyed my time in all of them equally. The defining factor has not been the location in any of the previous stops; rather, it was the people. I truly believe that if one surrounds their life with good, loving people, happiness will follow. Amongst the many self-realizations I have come to throughout this trip, it seems this is an important one.
Nearing the end of the ride, which was taking a bit longer than expected, Sheetal had asked me if I was displeased with the choice to book a driver rather than take a bus. Let me publicly state, for all to read, that I don’t know if I would have survived that journey on a bus with a working heart. As intense as the drive was in a car, which is small and nimble and able to pass at will — not to mention allow others pass comfortably — I cannot come to see how it would be possible to traverse the same roads in a vehicle four or five times as large. As to definitively answer your question, Sheetal — no, this was likely the best options available; both in terms of time and comfort.
With Sainj in sight, I pulled up the directions to the spot I was to call my final destination. A short 15 minutes away — the ride was finally over.
Then it all went terribly wrong.
I stepped out of the car and called Shashank as he had requested I do upon arrival. The network trouble I mentioned earlier persisted. The call continually dropped. Furthermore, I didn’t know exactly where I was supposed to go. Locals had started to gather around, asking questions in Hindi, of which I know almost none. Several phone calls were being made in an attempt to figure exactly what was happening. My heart rate elevated slightly, as I attempted to calm myself and remain optimistic. A local gentleman motioned for me to follow him. I took just my backpack, leaving my other luggage in the car for the time being.
A short walk down a crowded street led us to red staircase. More confusion. By now, 15 to 20 people were standing around watching me, as I struggled to communicate with anyone. It took a herculean effort not to panic in this moment. Motions were being made to follow a few men up the red stairs, where a younger man was sawing a lock off a residence with a hack saw. Ok. I have to admit that was panicking now. I needed to call Sheetal and see if she could help make sense of the situation. I successfully rang her and handed the phone to someone nearby so she could talk to him. At this point, someone else’s phone was handed to me. Shashank was on the other end, explaining that this was his family house. His mother had left for a few days and I could stay the night here, as the guest house I was supposed to stay in on this trip was booked for the night.
That helped settle me down a little bit. My driver appeared through the crowd with the rest of my bags and turned away toward the car. I guess this was it — the drivers had left now. Making my way inside, the first thing that stuck me was the cold. It was very cold. Maybe 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I could see my breath. This was certainly a change from 80 degree weather I had experienced so far.
There was a heater in one of the small rooms, but I couldn’t figure out how to plug it in. It required a different outlet than most electronics I had seen. Then the power went out. It was dark outside now, which meant it was pitch black inside the house. Remember that settling of my nerves that I previously mentioned? That feeling vacated my body again. I had serious doubts if I had made the right decision to travel alone. A few different people entered the home to try to talk to me. Some of them spoke broken English, but didn’t seem to understand me. One, from my best understanding, was a shopkeeper from across the street. One was a cousin of the family, Neeraj, who asked me to come down to his shop to wait for the electricity to be reconnected. What other choice did I have? Sit in a near-freezing house without electricity?
I began to calm while sitting in Neeraj’s shop. He offered a tea, which I graciously accepted. We sat around a small metal plate that had embers smoldering in it. This helped with the cold a bit. I was able to communicate with him well enough. I think my nerves got the better of me before. After some time had passed, the electricity was restored to the house. One problem solved. I spoke with Shashank again, as he helped me navigate the situation. I would be having dinner with Neeraj and family tonight. I was tired, but would gladly accept dinner before bed.
Dinner with Neeraj and family was pleasant and delicious. Sidu, a local dish that I can only describe as a baked pastry stuffed with spices and nuts, was incredible. Credit Neeraj’s wife for meal. His son sat near me, intently listening to my English-speaking tongue. I thanked them for dinner and went home, which was just across the staircase. I scoured the house for more bedding. I knew it would be cold on this night. Properly bundled, I laid down to watch a movie and fall asleep. It was maybe 10:30pm at this point — by far the earliest I had turned in yet this trip. Sleep was never more welcome.
I still have anxiety about my next few days here, but I’m trying hard to quell those feelings. I plan on connecting with the mountains and nature over the next few days. It will be a solitary journey. Wish me luck.