Wrapping Up India

Heads up: LONGEST POST EVER.  You try cramming two plus weeks into one concisce blog post. I dare you. If you hang in there, you’ll read about WEED and ANGORA RABBITS and BEING IN THE CAR A LONG TIME. Anyway, TL;DR we went north to Himachal Pradesh and it was beautiful. 

I leave India heavier – both figuratively and literally. The combination of inhaling Indian delicacies and hardcore lounging definitely resulted in some kilo gainage, but my short trip to the country also made me realize that there is so much more of the place to see. I’m left with this nagging urge to go back and find out more about what makes India tick.

For now, all I know is that Himachal Pradesh turned out to be a stunning place of rushing rivers cutting through massive verdant mountains, baby cows walking through misty forests, apple orchards covering dewy hillsides. It’s a place you can go on an incredible hike, hold a baby goat, and eat a perfect pear right from the tree all in one afternoon.

The Ol’ Taj, Shilon & Shimla

We started the Indian adventure with a day trip to Agra where we saw, of course, the Taj Mahal in all of its glory. The place was enchanting, and being a low season for tourism we went in without spending any time in line. After a tour of the grounds (filled with cheesy photo ops), we went to the Oberoi for a luxurious lunch before heading back to Delhi.

After another day in the Capital, we set off for Himachal Pradesh and spent an ungodly number of hours in a van with our driver Kashiram. Being on the road in India feels like being in a video game. Thanks to my history of getting carsick, I stayed in the front seat most of the trip and had a premium view of the roadway madness.

In India, lane lines seem to be suggestions; people weave in and out of them wildly to constantly pass lagging cars. Red lights are jokes. Honking is incessant. One minute you’ll find yourself on a spacious highway in farmland, then in a bustling town, then on a single lane dirt road, then back on a  paved highway.

I passed the time anxiously, cringing every time Kashiram dodged cows that wandered into the traffic.

After a number of hours of flat landscape, we made it to the hills and started ascending toward the Himalayas. The roads became bumpier and less predictable, but the scenery became more mesmerizing. Mountain towns nestled in greenery appeared out of the fog. Silver monkeys gave zero f***s running across the roads.

Hours and hours and hours later, we finally got to Shilon, a minuscule little settlement outside of Shimla, where we stayed in a great Airbnb place for a few days. The house was on an largely undeveloped mountainside and the views were unbelievable. Surprise bonus: the place came with a cook and we were fed delicious homemade Indian feasts morning, noon and night.

Being monsoon season, it rained a lot. On one dry afternoon, our caretaker took us on a walk through the verdant area around our home. We stopped by an elementary school and were allowed (why, idk) to hang out with the kids for a while.

From Shilon, we took a short drive to Shimla and stayed at the most incredible bed and breakfast, Sunnymead. To say the chalet-like retreat was dreamy would be a criminal understatement. From the rooms to the gardens to the hospitality, everything was perfect.

Madhavi Bhatia is the woman behind Sunnymead, and arguably the most wonderful caretaker on the planet. When we arrived, she baked us a chocolate cake. Even though it wasn’t part of the deal, she whipped us up a “simple dinner” that turned out to be three courses of heaven. It was actually painful to check out of her place, especially after the glorious breakfast that left us in a food coma.

Sunnymead was just a short walk to Shimla’s Mall Road, a historic part of town that blends hundred year old cafes and shops with commercial newcomers like Sony and Baskin Robbins. While exploring town, we even ran into a Dominos pizza guy walking up endless stairs to make a hillside delivery.

Gushaini & Naggar

With broken hearts yearning for more nights at Sunnymead, we headed six hours north to Gushaini. We stayed just one night at the Himalayan Trout House. Surprise! We ate trout there.

Surprise number two! There is a ton of marijuana growing in Northern India. It grows – fittingly – like weeds. When we went on a morning hike in Gushaini, we kept doing double takes at the foliage along the road. We asked our guide if our eyes were deceiving us, but no, it really was wild-growing pot.

Before anyone gets too excited – we learned from experts at the Trout House that this stuff isn’t much to write home about (as I literally write home about it). Smoking any of the plants that grow below 6,000 ft. altitude would be like drinking kombucha to get drunk; it’s apparently not potent enough to do much unless you smoke like five joints. Extracting enough resin from the plants to actually make a joint would take forever. Like my homie Samual Taylor Coleridge said, water water everywher; nor any drop to drink. The locals don’t smoke it much and prefer to drink it in bang lassi.

With or without the weed sightings, the hiking in Gushaini was excellent. Our guide took us through hilltop farms and mossy paths until we reached an epic waterfall. I’m also 80% sure I saw a honey badger.

After Gushaini, it was off to the hills of Naggar where we stayed in a beautiful hassle of a place, Sonaugi Homestead. The staff and accommodations were fantastic, but we had to go through hell to get to and from the property. We needed to get out of the car and walk so the van could make it through the muddy unpaved roads. Even if the road had been dry, we still had to walk the last leg down a steep hill to the guesthouse. It was hard to complain about the ordeal when a 70-year-old man from the guesthouse was doing the same exact walk with us.

Once we got there, we were delighted by the cabin-esque setting, extravagant Indian buffets, and puppies running around the property. On the morning we were set to leave, it had been raining for hours – a problem for those dirt roads and our soccer mom van. Predictably, the van got stuck just 5 minutes after we left Sonaugi and we spent two hours depending on the kindness of locals to rip the car from the mud. Fortunately, there were fresh pears to be eaten – albeit eaten in the pouring rain on the side of the road.

Manali

Once we were free from the shackles of the mud, we drove a few more hours to Manali. Our first morning in the Himalayan resort town, we were stoked to see snow capped mountains and bright blue sky instead of rain.

We went to explore Old Manali and learned that it’s a tiny stoner version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Hippies from around the world congregate here to frequent eateries with names like “Moon Dance Cafe.” Men with dreadlocks and girls with hula hoops lazed around the cafes playing guitars and eating edibles. We had fun drinking locally made cider and listening to live music at Lazy Dog and eating leisurely breakfasts at Sunshine Cafe.

We had a bit of an issue with our Airbnb rental, so we decided to splurge on rooms at The Himalayan for our last nights in Himachal Pradesh. The “Medieval style Castle & Cottages” was excellent with views of the valley and the garden-surrounded pool. It was hard to pry ourselves out of the comfortable antique four-poster bed in the morning, but we managed.

In New Manali, we walked around Tibetan monasteries, ate Indian sweets, and perused the various shops for gifts. I had my first taste of celebrity status when groups of dudes would ask to take their photos with me (Because I’m a white lady? Because I was sweaty AF?). It would start with “Miss, one photo, one photo?” and I said yes because why not?

But then one photo turned into twelve, with other dudes swapping in, changing poses, handing me props like an Angora rabbit (really), asking to put their hands on my shoulder, and so on. It got weird, so I started saying no to future photo-op requests.

Back to Delhi and leaving India

It took us more than 16 hours to get back to Delhi on Thursday. We listened to music, This American Life podcasts, and tried not to think about the incredibly long journey. We didn’t make it home until midnight, but my friend’s grand-aunt was awake and ready with some crustless sandwiches for us weary travelers.

Just before leaving Delhi, Abhi took me back to bowels of Chandni Chowk so I could work on a story for Munchies. It was painfully hot, but we got through the afternoon and even stopped at Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib.

After a shower at home, I ordered an Uber and got the hell out of Delhi. The main takeaway from this trip is that three weeks is not nearly enough time to wrap your head around this country, although it is enough time to become an expert on parathas if you put your mind to it.

Landing in Bali almost felt like a joke. It’s too easy; there are no obstacles to overcome, nothing to fear. The only downsides here are the mosquitos and the tourists (says one such tourist).

Bali is this idyllic paradise that exists beyond reality. Everyone greets each other on the street. If you listen long enough, you’ll hear someone laughing. There are always flowers in bloom. I swear that even the air smells sweet on this island. When I saw the ocean again, my heart actually fluttered. Not a bad place to spend the next three weeks.

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