Sai’s pot of morning chai begins to bubble, and he nonchalantly flicks in more cardamom. He’s from the south of India, but his nature is Himachal --relaxed and easygoing. I crunch on an apple plucked moments before from the orchard outside my room. Lush mountain views in every direction make a stunning backdrop. Lanterns and prayer flags hang red, yellow, green, blue, limp and then fluttering. I’ll have pancakes or aloo parantha. Maybe boulder with Shivam in the cedar forest. Go up to the Rohtang pass. Watch it rain in another valley, then dip under waterfalls. Drum circle in alcoves. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve climbed up and down, taking the shortcut through the Hadimba Temple into town to sit and exchange pleasantries with whoever. The best looking dogs brush my ankles, and I move aside for the local people carrying stacks of apples on their strong backs. A different thali today (and tomorrow). Careful not to smush the giant slugs when returning in the dark. It’s easy to forget everything but the present. The rush of Indian cities have been overtaken by mountain life. One night here has become six.
I’m in Manali for Leh. But I find myself stuck, off season in this hill station. It’s all in the mind though; there’s many places I could go if not Leh. Spend three hours on the local bus to Parvati Valley for more hill stations, more waterfalls to chase, more trees to fill the air. There I could play in the fairy forest, sit in some natural hot springs at the top of Himalayan mountains, hazily feeling happy for myself. But I’ve been doing all that in Manali, so maybe not Parvati. I’ve seen enough hippies on the hashish trail a top rooftop cafes listening to the Beatles. I’ve heard enough about setting out on motorbike in the morning. It really is time to make a move. Funny how content fuels fear of missing out.
I could join the crowds in Rishikesh, yoga capital of the world, and stay at an ashram for weeks. Study Ashtanga or Hatha, and get a certificate to teach. Easy. But, the foreign yogis in Dharamshala were not my crowd. Though I would go back to try again to see His Holiness. I remember an itch in my throat and the teeniest bit of water in my eyes after seven hours on the cramped local bus. The emotions weren’t out of relief from the journey, but from catching the first glimpse of the Himalayas in the light, late afternoon rain. The Tibetan roofs were painted so bright and cheerful. The air was fresh. If I went back to Dharamshala, I would find Ten Phun at the gate of the Dalai Lama’s temple again. I would sit on the concrete with him longer and listen to the poetry of his people and their homesickness. He’d tell me stories of their escape, sometimes nearly barefoot, through the roof of the world to find refuge in the hills of India. Momos, little Tibetan dumplings, would sizzle in hot oil on a cart down the street, and young monks, heads shaved and dressed in red, would chase each other. Tibetan women took big belly laughs. Maybe I could get in on the jokes. There was light in those eyes. I could also make my way slowly down to Varanasi. After all, I came to India lured by the Ganga.
I’ll stop before I become like Chris from the hostel, dreaming of 18,000 feet yet stagnant to the point of lifelessness. The spirit of an adventurer caught by the pretty web of Himalayan foothills.