A Wonderful Gift After a Bloody Ride
Imagine an 18-hour bus ride. Yes, it's natural that you just shuddered. I wasn't too excited either when I scheduled my 2-leg bus trip from Manali to Rishikesh. I would only have to do one bus transfer, but the long journey would take a total of 18 hours.
I mentally prepared myself for sitting on an Indian bus for 18 hours. At least frequent chai (tea) stops are guaranteed on any bus ride in Asia, a good chance to stretch my legs and back, I thought. Things got complicated, though, and a mere 18-hour bus ride started looking uglier. A monsoon rain that lasted 5 days hit Manali, and I found myself and my backpack completely drenched (rainproof does not mean monsoon-proof) as I loaded onto the bus from Manali to Chandigarh. Well, the expected 10-hour bus trip wouldn't be too bad, I thought, as I planned to sleep the entire way. I didn't account for the winding mountain roads that left me with a headache or the fact that my soaked clothes never thoroughly dried on that bus. Oh, yeah, and my reclining seat refused to recline because the long-legged Indian seated behind me wouldn't budge his knees a single inch from my seatback.
At about 4 am, 6 hours into the bus ride, the driver's assistant started collecting a 50 rupee fee from each passenger. A clueless German and myself saw that everyone else was paying, so we did, too, and I assumed it was for holding luggage. But at 8 am, when I began to wonder why we weren't yet in Chandigarh, I found out from a fellow passenger that the mountain roads had been closed, and the risk for mudslides was too great. So the bus driver had been forced to take an alternate road to Chandigarh, which was the reason for the 50 rupee charge (for gas) and the reason why we arrived in Chandigarh 8 hours late. Yes, 8 hours late.
Once in Chandigarh, I removed my still-soaking backpack from the luggage holding and proceeded to gloomily march over to what looked like a bus to Rishikesh, my final destination. After 10 minutes of being directed to wrong buses, I finally found my correct bus and loaded on. The bus to Rishikesh took another 8 hours, and I calculated in my head that I had spent a total of 26 straight hours on buses, wet and angry at the incessant rain.
I was tired, still wet, hungry, and frustrated when I unloaded at Rishikesh. Finally! I thought as I grabbed my backpack from the top of the bus, trying to ignore the fact that it was still soaking. Shower and bed, shower and bed, I willed myself to believe that these 2 things would be waiting for me within an hour.
Luckily, I had emailed an Indian family living near Rishikesh weeks before, and they had invited me to stay in their home while I toured Rishikesh and its surroundings. Immediately, my wet backpack clinging to my sore back, I dialed Rajesh's number and almost screamed into the phone when I heard the hesitant "Hello?"
"Hi! RAJESH! It's Mindy! I am finally in Rishikesh!"
"Can I come over now?"
How could anyone say no? I immediately hopped into a rickshaw and hugged my backpack as we hopped over the badly paved highway towards his apartment. To say that Rajesh and his family provided me with a sanctuary after my horrible 26-hour-bus-ordeal would be an understatement. They welcomed me into their home like a daughter, and fed me like a queen. I was spoiled, and I unashamedly embraced every single ounce of hospitality that they showered upon me.
Because of the delay of the buses, I arrived at their apartment quite late. Rajesh's wife, Komal, was busy in the kitchen, making fresh chapattis and cooking up a wonderful subjee (vegetable curry) dinner. I only had the energy to lay out most of my clothes from my backpack, in a meager attempt to dry them, and then passed out on the mattress they set up for me.
The first morning I was there, Rajesh and his family gave me the privilege of the bathroom. I showered, then proceeded to wash every single article of clothing that I possessed, to save them from smelling of damp rain and accumulating mold. Rajesh and Komal never said anything like "You're using all the laundry detergent! You're taking up the whole building's laundry line! You're wasting water! You don't even know how to wash clothes!" They just let me have my time, let me hang up my underwear and fleeces all over the roof, and then fed me with parathas.
Yes, I still remember - vividly - the first breakfast that Komal made for me. Wonderful, oily, potato-stuffed parathas. The traditional northern Indian breakfast. I was in heaven.
I stayed in heaven. Who would want to leave this paradise? Every day, Komal made a mouth-watering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, somehow always served at the moment when my stomach would start to growl. She did henna on my hands (although then I was faced with Indians congratulating me on a recent marriage that I realized stemmed from the reasoning Henna = Newly-wed Bride). She gave me an Indian outfit (maybe out of pity of seeing me wear the same clothes day in, day out), and taught me food vocabulary in Hindi. Rajesh was a guru of knowledge about astrology and the power of meditation, and answered my incessant and annoying questions about Indian culture and spirituality. Khanak, their beautiful and giddy daughter, was a joy to twirl and sing songs to. She called me Auntie and dutifully learned the phrase "Ooh la la, Babeeee." I got rides to the market on the back of Kumar's (Rajesh's assistant) bike. I planned to stay a maximum of 3 days at this hospitable family's home, but ended up staying a week. And 2 weeks later, after trekking through the Himalayas near Joshimath and Uttarkashi, I was back.
Rajesh, Komal, Khanak, and Kumar invited me into their home and showered me with love. The only reason I stayed sane after that 26-hour bus ride is because I wasn't forced to check into a bed-bug-infested guest house and could comfortably sleep in their living room. I was fattened to the point that I glowed with ghee. For all your hospitality and generosity, thank you, to this Indian family, for letting me become an Indian daughter for a week.