There are very few situations where I feel trapped. Trapped in my own skin. No way to break out. But this was one of them. A situation so hopeless that the thought of getting out of there was merely a fleeting figment of the imagination.
We had been traveling for hours now. Never had I felt so gut-wrenchingly nauseous as I did at this moment. The jeep rocked in every direction, seemingly simultaneously. I tried every position imaginable to make the ride just that little bit more bearable: sitting, crouching, doubled over, lying down. But no matter how I contorted my body, nothing made even the slightest iota of difference.
The four Israelis sharing the jeep passed momentary looks of concern in my direction, but no offer to change seats. “You paid less for the back,” they said, trying to hold back any signs of empathy, even though I could see the rising guilt in their eyes. I knew at this moment that they were essentially good people. One can’t feel bad about their actions without a conscience. While they knew deep down that they should perhaps offer to let me climb into the front, nobody wanted to trade places with me, to be that person so pale and weak that not even I could recognize myself in the jeep’s rear-view mirror. I couldn’t blame them.
Suddenly, the jeep came to a grinding halt. Some arguing in Hindi ensued until finally the driver reluctantly pulled up to the side of the road. We all turned to him. It was now 1am. “The road has been closed. The passport checking station is unattended. Apparently it’s too dangerous to pass. We have to wait until daybreak.”
“Bullshit,” retorted the Israeli in the passenger seat. “How much money do they want?!” He turned to us in the back. “It’s all a scam. Just like everything else in this country. Let’s just put together a bribe and get the hell out of here!”
In most situations, I would probably agree that any such random stoppage was a classic sign of some corrupt dealings, especially as there was a small chai stall set up in a tent some 20 meters away. The owner of the stall is probably in on it – getting a stack of travelers to frequent his makeshift business. The driver is most likely in on it, too – gets some commission for leading those wanting to make the winding trip from Leh to Manali into this same trap every journey.
However, this time, for once, I was not so sure. Other jeeps had pulled up too, and not only those with foreigners, mostly locals. Locals, adept at how this type of negotiation plays out, would usually have made their deal long ago and continued along their perilous journey. The driver, too, had alarmingly glazed over eyes from lack of sleep over the past few days. Working himself into the ground, he had apparently just dropped off another group in Leh before turning around with us to make the same treacherous twenty-four hour journey back on the second highest road in the world (some 5000 meters above sea level) just a couple of hours later. His only rest seemed to be at the wheel itself in which he would be sharply awoken from a momentary doze with every gut-jerking bump we flew over.
“Maybe it is a scam,“ I said. “But he needs to sleep. It’s pitch dark and there are no lights to guide us. There is no use trying to drive through the night. It’s too dangerous. You’ve seen those cars over the cliff faces.” We argued for a few minutes while he tried to gain support from his fellow travelers. At last, they saw reason. The driver was already oblivious to the quarrel, passed out in the front seat.
Stiff and crippled from being crammed into the boot area of the jeep, we made a mad dash in the icy chill sweeping down from the Himalayas and into that little tent. We rocked back and forth, clutching hot cups of chai until even boiling water was of little use against the frigid mid-morning air. We decided to make a run for it back to the jeep to try to get just the smallest amount of rest before it would once again be throwing us around like a pinball. The temperature inside the jeep was not much better. The seats were so piercing and uncomfortable; perhaps sleeping on the rocky mountainside would have been a better choice.
At 5am, as the early morning sun just started to rise and throw a glimmer of light onto the surroundings where we had spent the past four elongated hours, there was rustling among the makeshift camp. We gathered up our passports and travel documents and presented them for checking one by one. The usual ridiculousness ensued, questioning this, needing to stamp that, where is this unnecessary document that we need to see even though it is not required.
In the meantime, we were able to get some naan with jam into the driver, hoping that this would revive him for the journey ahead. Soon after, we were able to make our way through the pass. With the initial chaos of even just a few cars driving along this same section of mountainous road (many hill station roads are only one lane but are meant to cater for traffic traveling in both directions, making overtaking the most heart-stopping of tasks), the various busted-up jeeps soon found their natural distance from one another and we tried to settle in for yet another long day that as yet hadn’t given me hope that it would be any better than the last.
I closed my eyes and tried to envisage a better place. Some time later, I forced my eyes back to reality and peered out the dusty window. My view was obscured but could make out that we were not right by the mountain side anymore. It was more like a barren desert. Brown and life-less as far as the eye could see. The driver looked in the rear-view mirror back at me with a look of genuine concern that had only really been afforded to me by my boyfriend, sitting in the same hopeless position, until this point. He said that there was a stall a few kilometers along the track. He would stop there for a while. Maybe eating something will make me feel better, he said. I summoned up the best smile I could to show my appreciation for his generosity. His act was unusual considering the lack of empathy from many drivers for travel and altitude sickness who are mostly concerned about getting to the destination in quick time so they can cram in as many trips as possible to supplement their meager pay packets.
When we stopped, I wandered away from the group. I sat crouched over in my rocky surrounds, embracing the silence and willing myself to empty the contents of my stomach, but to no avail. The driver wandered over and helped my boyfriend carry me over to the tent. The stall was surprisingly beautiful. As we pushed through the draped curtains, I saw that the inside was covered in colorful cushions and various traditional wares. It was like walking into an Aladdin’s cave full of lost treasures. A mirage, I thought? Only others had seen it too.
The driver ordered me some plain naan and chai. I tried my very hardest to stomach the offerings in front of me which made me feel even worse with each tiny indentation I made in it. I feigned my enjoyment of the food, saying his idea of eating was definitely starting to make me feel better. “See, I told you,” he smirked proudly. “I have seen this many times before. I know what to do. You listen to me, you get better.” I nodded.
As we made our way back to the jeep, the driver pushed the young Israeli who had been occupying the front seat of the jeep the whole journey. “She sits in the front now,” he said. “But I paid for this seat,” he snapped back. “It’s not my problem.” “This is my jeep and I can make this your problem. Now get in the back.” I quietly bowed my head in apology to the Israeli guy. “Just for a while,” he said in my direction. “We’ll pay you for the seat,” my boyfriend said to appease him.
There was silence for some time after, apart from the constant rattling caused by the potholes and rocks we were flying over every few moments. I opened the passenger side window and let the passing winds blow cool air onto my face. The passenger seat also had one other blessing: a seat belt. I strapped myself in as tightly as my stomach would allow without vomiting. A least now my head didn’t hit the roof of the car a million times a minute like in the back. I could hear the young Israeli getting a taste of my experience over the past day and it didn’t sound like he was appreciating it. At the next stop, he pushed me out of the front. “Time’s up,” he said.
What little progress I had made in the front seat quickly disappeared as I was once again bracing myself at every turn, trying to halt the growing number of bruises and cuts on my head, arms and legs. However, as we started to slowly descend down a windy, mountain road, I knew our destination was drawing closer with every pain-staking bend. The Israelis started smoking pot. “You don’t mind, do you?” Before we could respond, they lit up anyway. When they offered some to the driver, we quickly interjected. His focus and judgment was all that was keeping us from the fate of many others before us.
From that point, I don’t know how long it took until we finally pulled up to that dusty string of eateries on the outskirts of Manali. The Israelis were happy, I remember that. Their singing woke me from my self-induced coma at various chord changes only to hear my boyfriend whisper, “Not yet. Just hold on. It will over soon. I promise.” I rested my head back on his lap.
When the jeep finally did stop, I didn’t move. My body didn’t believe that we had reached our destination. It was probably just a momentary pause as we try to maneuver around another vehicle, move a large branch from the road. But then the driver opened the rear of the car. “We’re here,” he said.
At a small eatery, we shouted him daal with potato on rice, the best on offer. Plus some sweets for his return trip. I learned a lot about him at that brief meal. Most importantly, that his family lived in Manali but barely got to see them. Just on his brief adjourns between trips. I shook his hand and thanked him, pressing all the rupees we had on us into his palm. “Maybe you can wait a day or two before your next trip. Spend it with your wife and kids, get some rest.” He nodded and smiled, quietly acknowledging my discretion.
Him pulling away in his jeep in a cloud of dust as he made his way further into town was the last we saw of him. But he and I had somehow developed an unspoken understanding somewhere along that perilous crusade. An empathy that crossed the cultural and linguistic divide that the fate of our birthplaces had created, a touch of humanity in a place that seemingly had been stripped bare of it. And that is why I remember his name to this day…Arjit.