Expecting the Unexpected in India Day 243: Drunk Driving

At half past midnight after taking my short nap, I walked out into the nearly pitch black unlit street of Changspa to the bus station where upon I waited for my minibus to arrive. After my minibus pulled in and parked, I checked in with all the others showing my and then throwing up my luggage to the roof while the two staff and the union man prepared the minibus for departure. I had not been looking forward to this ride after my trip to Leh from Srinagar even with an excellent driver and then I had the pleasure of hearing the horror stories from Maciek about his time on the road to Manali. Maciek’s driver apparently believed he was a Formula1 driver and refused continuously to slow down despite the pleas. On the flip side the views on this route were purportedly supposed to be some of the best in India. Once half the passengers had filled the minibus with the rest including myself ready to join the caravan and begin the harrowing journey, I overheard a Taiwanese female passenger say that the one guy was drunk which altered the entire course of the day and likely allowed for me to even write this post alive and well. Everyone got out of the minibus upon hearing this and when I say everyone I mean all the foreign travelers and two Indians with some spare sense. The rest of the Indians stayed in the minibus content with their fate. When I asked them how they could be content with this, they responded almost incredulously saying what choice did they have. This was apparently the way of India. Some drivers drive drunk and are under other influences and that is just how it goes. How can they not value their lives? Making light of the situation, one commented that they have no reason to care whether they die on this ride since they will be reborn, reincarnated into a new life according to their Hindu beliefs. I can only comment on my own situation. I love living and certainly didn’t want today to be my last. From this point on, we relied on one of the two Indians with a shred of common sense who translated our hopeful requests of getting another driver. Not long after we found out that not only was one driver drunk but the other was baked out of his mind having likely just killed some joints of Mary Jane. But don’t worry Mr. Weed himself said, he will drive slowly 20 km/h. Bullshit I said. All he wants is for us to get into the minibus so that he would find himself in trouble with his bosses. Eventually, the bobbing blob of mass that was bordering on consciousness the intoxicated Indian would need to lend a hand and drive because the high guy wasn’t going to drive for 14 plus hours straight all on his own. We were in a state of limbo with the group of us foreigners agreeing not to ride with them hopeful that reinforcements would arrive and if that were not the case get our money back, which still did not look overly encouraging. We kept calling the union guy who was telling us it was too late in the night to find other drivers which I could accept but he never acknowledged our requests via phone that our tickets would be reimbursed. I was content to leave the next day if that meant my own survival. With a nap not long ago I said I was ready to stay here hooked to the minibus until something got resolved. In the meantime the high guy kept trying to preach trust to save his own ass but as I know now more than ever bullshit isn’t hard to find out here whether it be on the streets or spewed out from the people themselves. Trust is not a gift that should be given put freely. For the rare person I trust, I will ride with them to the ends of the earth which is to say I don’t take it lightly nor find it easily. Regardless of my nap, I was yawning but none too tired to let these two sick f$&@s get away with this. I held onto the driver seat opening it up and standing inside making good company with the driver that could barely look me straight in the eye. Using one strong rock laying absently on the road, I shoved it under the backside of the front wheel as another blockade for the driver to contend with along with our backpacks lacing the left side of the road in front of the vehicle. I joked that by the time anyone else shows up the drunk guy will likely be sober. Eventually a little after 3 a.m. we got whispers that new drivers would be coming in a half an hour which we didn’t put too much stock in. The emphasis from the union guy was to make sure the minibus didn’t leave otherwise we would be likely left more in the dark than we already were. Sure enough a new minibus with two new drivers as likely clear of mind as we could hope arrived as the clock neared four a.m. After some chit chat between all the drivers and the union guy, we finally left Leh once and for awhile. I slept as much as I could in my seat bobbing into and out of consciousness until the light of morning entered my path. Amongst my spurts of naps, I had a lot to look at outside my window. The terrain was as magical as expected and described but still I questioned whether it was all worth it as we tightroped the cliff’s edge. I felt fairly comfortable with the drivers we had but still I had no idea nor no control over my life at this point. As the saying goes, my life was now firmly in their hands, those hands that violently sashayed the steering wheel from side to side hitting each curve with a driven purpose. The same Ladakhi mountain range stood all around so blond, so bald cursed of an eternity of unfound vegetation but blessed beyond its simple flaws and shortcomings. The land twisted, turned, and fell composed of ridges cut so firmly with a surgeon’s precision.  Even though it may have lacked in vitality and color of say Kashmir, the tricks it played on the mind were spellbinding. Although Kashmir is beautiful, it is not the Himalayas as my concept and those postcards picture it. This is it. Only tent villages built for the tourist traffic of passing motorcycle gangs held its place as a local presence. Beyond that, the land is isolated, untouched, rustically profound. Amongst its many flat dusty desert valleys that you could film a moon-based mission, we found moments to catch our breath for the next zip line of death defying  curves on the next mountain’s steep side. These roads were not roads as you and I would envision back home. They were not made of solid cement or concrete but rather flattened cut bits torn from the mountain itself because why bother when another landslide may sweep through and crumble all the efforts to dust and wreckage. All I could hope was that the landslide would be saved for another day. I wish I had a window seat but I still found a way to crane my neck picking out and up to glance as much as the moment would allow to accept the views into my memory and hope they might last. My heart lies in the mountains. We are inseparable. My happiest moments rest in nature away from the crowds, the noise, the confusion, the bullshit. I didn’t want to leave this place but I hoped the gods of travel wouldn’t take that thought too literally and make this my permanent resting place. Besides the confusion, bewitched manipulation of those bewitched mountains, I could still see my snow capped peaks peeking if you will over the less, angelic ridges bald of the higher altitude scraping white. We continued to get closer and closer to Manali and my hopes of surviving, of living began to feel a bit more real. Sure we had way too many stops to get those checkpoint scribes to scratch down our personal passport information in another attempt at India’s control over the foreigner but we were making good time in a relatively safe made for Indian standards. However our luck turned with the passing weather on the other side of the next more green range of mountains as we moved further into the state of Himachal Pradesh. On the last winding path that never seemed to end we encountered a stout, uncontrollable thick fog. I can say that I nor the driver could see more than four meters in front of us and that estimate may be wishful thinking. The windshield kept getting fogged over and our front light beams didn’t seem to suit the driver’s desires so we had one passenger with a decent torch shine his light out of the opposite open window. The driver had to continuously look outside his window, his neck craned out. I legitimately thought that this was it, this is where the story of Anthony Rottinger. Sure I had lived a good life so far but I so much to see and experience. A life too young. I pulled my long woolen cap over my head and eyes and prayed to whatever gods lurking in the world that may offer a listen. I thanked for my time on this earth saying my last words to all the loved ones in my life but still I had some hope of survival since I couldn’t imagine it all ending like this. Something more must be around the corner. Why put me through a potential situation with drunk and high drivers then get one of the best drivers I could luck into and still meet my demise? Still the chance that the minibus would slip off the edge continued to haunt my thoughts. In the rare bold moment that I looked out of the confines of the vehicle I saw a sign listing Manali 25 km away and thought to myself that I could definitely jog there in 3 hours. Since I am writing this, I did survive and reached Manali alive against all odds. Since Maciek told me he was staying at Rishi House in Old Manali, I told the taxi driver this along with my request to stop for two much needed beers. The taxi dumped me off at a place indeed with the name of Rishi House but it stood far away in the shadowy darkness away from the rest of Old Manali. I questioned it but what other choice did I have. After finding out that Maciek, no Polish guy stayed there and it didn’t even have wifi to connect with him, I drifted back down to the center of Old Manali to get a place to sleep with wifi and connect Maciek. Apparently two Rishi houses exist in Manali and unluckily found the wrong one but no worries we were able to meet up once again at long last and sip the beers I desperately required in that moment. After catching up and joking over our shared yet different experiences on that minibus, I called it a night knowing I would be moving to the real Rishi House tomorrow morning.  

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