Just a few years ago we gave up our jobs, seized the kids out of school, and exited left around the world for a year.
Manali– Dharamsala– McCleod Ganj
I have thought long and hard about what I will write next, because it still troubles me, even now. We decided to take the night bus through the mountains from Manali to Dharamsala, en route to hopefully visit the Dalai Lama in McCleod Ganj: seven hours. Knowing The Girl suffers terribly from travel sickness we pre-booked our seats on the night-coach in the middle, as far away from the wheels as possible. After waiting around all day to move onwards, the taxi was late and the bus had moved its departure time forward 30 minutes. The bus was already full of Israelis, I could not swear all the passengers were Israelis, but all the ones I listened to spoke Hebrew. There were only four seats available, not in the middle. So we located our seats and informed the four travellers, all in their late twenties/early thirties they were in our pre-booked seats and why we wanted to sit there. The male I directed my request to looked up at me and said quite bluntly, “We are not moving.” So I explained calmly again to be interrupted towards the very end by The Wife’s more direct request and a thrust of tickets with the allotted seats on, when it was becoming obvious they would not accommodate us. The people in the adjacent ‘our’ seats just ignored us, did not even reply when we asked them to move. At this point as The Wife is getting stroppy and I’m explaining we have two children, by now, the both of them are getting agitated by the mother’s directness – the only children on the bus that night. I looked around for moral support from those around that might know them, nothing, complete silence and bystander apathy. Now The Wife is raising her voice and the young Indian attendant; that smelt of alcohol (not cheap aftershave); wanders over and informs us, “There are no set seats.” I tell him this is not true and he knows it, but he is trying to avoid a scene. The bus has been overbooked, but it’s only a mere seven hour journey! A group of four other young Israelis get on and are about to sit in the only two sets of seats now available. To be fair the attendant says they are for us, heaven knows where the new four arrivees are going to be located?
It now becomes apparent why the people sat in our seats don’t want to relocate, one of the sets of double seats is completely saturated with rain that has dripped through a crack in the roof. We have waterproofs and plastic bags with us, and spread them out on the wet seat and I sit nearest the window, the worst affected area, initially with the yet becalmed Wife next to me. The seat directly behind is damp, but not as badly effected as mine (women and children first). The four new arrivals seem to have disappeared. Once the bus sets off I go and have chat with the alcohol breathing attendant and he offers me a place in the cabin, he walks me over to a door and opens it, I peer in to find eight people and the driver squashed like that scene from Monty Python’s ‘every sperm is sacred’ Meaning of Life. There is no room to stand up, never mind sit down I discover as I peer into the dim to see many sets of eyes peering back at me, as if they would like me to adopt them.
I go back to the ‘wet seat’ resigned not to get any sleep as four separate discordant drips fall on my anorak in the form of Chinese water torture. The three of them move around taking it in turns to sit next to me and I stay in the marshy area. The Wife and I discuss the State of Israel. She has travelled with Israeli women on two separate occasions, both trying to avoid being ‘women soldiers’ in a feminist army. We are both still a little perplexed that someone, especially the people that are sat in our seats would not give up, at least for the children, if not us. We find the concept of not forgoing some hardship for the sake of children hard to fathom, but a lot of the passengers are young and maybe have no concept of childcare yet? Eventually my son is keen to have a squeeze into the black cab of The Himalayan bus and disappears into the front behind a closing door. We decide we are definitely not going to get any sleep and put The Girl on my knee, next to The Wife, in the one relatively dry set of seats. We are tired now, it is three in the morning, but now we have resigned ourselves to no sleep; it cannot get any worse. Just then The Boy returns after about an hour of watching the ‘Wacky races’ and perilous meandering vanishing voids, that are always best to evert your gaze from. We are debating what musical chairs arrangement to adopt. It just cannot get any worse – then my daughter throws up all over her lap and my thighs, and her mother’s legs!
The passengers watched us struggle throughout the night, but not one person offered any assistance. This journey still, as I say, troubles me, even now. This would not have happened in England, Europe, America, Japan, Australia, etc, people help others in need, less fortunate. What also troubled me was this was my son’s first contact with Israelis, and something that has not been helpful in his views of The Middle-East.
I know I am wandering into the area of what could be considered anti-Semitism, and none of the people on the bus were orthodox Jews; they were dressed in jeans, T-shirts, etc. I concede that it may only be my perception – this was by far the worst journey of our entire gap year by a long, long way, but the selfishness and insularity was obvious. Can you image being on a bus and watching a family struggle with children, and for no one to offer help? – I can’t. I also concede it maybe cultural, but all the Jewish people I know in England would never behave like this. I worry if it is part of a psyche of the siege mental state of Israel? Living in a country where you cannot go on holiday to any of the neighbouring countries, or even the ones beyond those, that has to affect your perception of your world –the gift the world, or at least, the victorious developed part of the world gave. Any community or country that separates itself from those around leads to mistrust and misconceptions; which then leads onto resentment and prejudice. I don’t want to suggest that the people on the coach that night are fully representative of Israel as a whole, I certainly hope not, because it is a drift towards Anti-Semitism, and there is enough of that as Police have to guard Jewish children going to school in France (and Islamaphobia) about. In one school I worked in I organised a ‘Holocaust Day’ several years in a row, mainly because the pupils were predominantly Muslim. On two occasions we arranged for ‘survivors’ to come and talk to the pupils, while we, the teachers stood at the back and all tried hard not to cry. Not easy when Benny Goodman is putting his wife and daughter on a truck bound for Auschwitz under Nazi orders, while he was naively herded onto another one bound for Birkenau. When he took strength, steadied himself, and managed to push the words out, ‘I never saw them again.’ He can never ever forget; we certainly won’t. All I can tell you is, the ‘survivors’ through the pain found love and hope, focused on the good in humanity–these are some of the Jewish people I had met and taken inspiration from, taken strength from–How dare you equate the Holocaust to a bus journey in North India… well… All I can tell you with any certainty is no one was helpful, and I always take great joy in meeting people from other cultures. It was the worst journey of the eleven months we were away. Maybe it’s I, maybe I, we, missed something, and at least we didn’t go over the edge!
I was starting to agree with Paul Theroux: “travel is only glorious in retrospect.”
Then there was one ray of hope in this meandering drip, sorry trip, at one point we got caught up in a traffic jam, not other vehicles, water buffalo. My mind shot off back to what I would have been doing if the time zones aligned, getting up for work having spent half the weekend preparing for it. The Water Buffalos made my smile, even if it was only inwardly.
We eventually arrived in McLeod Ganj at seven in the morning; Orange and red clad Tibetan monks awaking from their slumber. Us, having to trail around in a taxi for nearly two hours; unable to find any accommodation until midday. Content monks everywhere, quietly on the road to enlightenment, us about to try hitchhike along, not enlightened, but a little more resilient, but not until we had all had a power-sleep.
Next week: McLeod Ganj: The Lama’s home, naughty monks and the end of the rain brings puberty.
Ian M Pindar writes books, and about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a huge team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late. It will take you four hours to read, or half the distance between Manali and McLoed Ganj by bus. http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar