Weekend in Mussoorie

Monday night. Things are a little more chilled after a lively weekend. Friday was Indian Independence Day so we used the three day weekend to travel to the northern region of Garhwal in the state of Uttarakhand, close to the Tibetan border. A group of seven of us (Taiwanese, Chinese, Singaporean, Thai & French) hired a driver and crowded into a minibus for the long drive. Our driver, Shiva, was a character.

We left U28 at 6:30 Friday morning in monsoon rain. The goal; Mussoorie, the closest hill station to Delhi 280km north of the city. We weren’t the only ones. The roads swelled with traffic, great big Tata trucks and cars carrying families and friends with the same idea as us. It got to the point where normal rules, if there are such things, were discarded entirely and an already disordered system descended into chaos. When the roads jammed, the traffic would break rank and drive over the centre of the highway into the opposing lanes. Blind take overs and risky maneuvers ensued, every inch of road utilised. In any case, we were in lively company. Shiva was firing out Hindi remarks, one sided conversations with no meaningful exchange save for a few common words and a smile and a laugh. Yasmine, my French housemate, practiced her Hindi. The radio busted out Indian tunes.

Afternoon passed and Mussoorie was still hours away. The light diminished and the monsoon persisted. Without warning, the windscreen wipers jammed. Visibility none. Some fearful moments as Shiva navigates the busy road. Then sense prevailed and we found a car park to pull over in. By now it is clear Mussoorie is beyond the day’s drive and it makes sense to bed down in the town of Haridwar, on the river where the Ganges emerges from the highland. Whilst the rain harrowed down we consult the guidebooks for the numbers of cheap hotels. A favored destination for pilgrims, everywhere is fully booked. When the rain finally subsided we continued down the road until stumbling upon a hotel with three small rooms available. Just the job.

Ditching the bags and with a brief glimpse at the guidebooks, we made our way into town to join with the festivities. Shiva finds us a motor rickshaw, no negotiation necessary. The town was bustling with pilgrims and tourists along the banks of the Ganga. People bathing in the holy water, lanterns floating down the river. I shake hands with an eager bunch of young Indians, take photos and talk about our countries. An elderly lady offers to decorate my forehead with customary paint. We discover a busy market and meander down the dimly lit streets absorbing the holiday atmosphere. There is a stench of scented candles and a buzz of happy pilgrims. It feels like the soul of India.

Enough of the bustle of the market and intrigued stares from onlookers, we find Shiva and make our way back to the hotel for dinner. Later in the evening, before heading to bed, I wonder down the road a while. Just around the corner from the hotel loud music and praying was emanating from a small temple. Intrigued, I stood outside for a few minutes to watch the proceedings. A man welcomes me in, shows me the customs and explains their significance. I was less keen to accept his offer of a tour of the hotel he recently built, but obliged. I found the others a shortly after and we sat in the temple for a while before heading to bed.

Saturday morning we were up and away and arrived in Mussoorie in good time. We found a cheap cab company that offered 8-hour tours of the hill station and bundled into another minibus with our new driver. The views were alluring as we ascended the highland, especially in the moments that the fog cleared to reveal the city of Dehradun in the valley below. As we twisted our way up and around the hills, stopping at a temple and various view points along the way, we passed tiny wayside settlements clinging to the hill.

On the way back into the town centre the roads were overwhelmed by the holiday traffic and we came to a standstill. We lingered on roadside admiring the views whilst the car inched forwards bit by bit. At one point the driver made a daring maneuver to jump the queue. A military officer in traditional attire promptly appeared and a heated exchange with the driver followed. The security is heightened here, due to the proximity of the Indo-Tibetan border. Then a more modern looking officer wonders over to see what the fuss is about, bearing a loaded rifle. I am sitting in the passenger seat, window wound down, and as the officer contributes to the debate his gun is carelessly perched on his shoulder with the barrel pointing directly though the window at me. Some unnerving minutes as the dispute continues, the officer clearly amused by our alarm.

When we are close enough to the town we make off on foot and Shiva meets us to take us to the hotel he has booked while we have been gone. We are lucky, everywhere else is fully booked and people are sleeping in their cars.

6AM Sunday morning. Shiva has been drinking all night. There is a bang at the door and I am stirred. I get up to see what the noise is. Shiva is there, muttering something about the water and wanting to use it. I tell him to go away and close the door, forgetting to lock it. A few minutes later I am back in bed and stirred once again, this time by the sight of Shiva walking towards the bathroom in the girls room wearing nothing but a towel with a toothbrush in hand. We have shown our driver far too much hospitality this weekend, this is a step too far. I show him the door.

Later in the morning Shiva buys a round of coffees to make up. His mood is temperamental, I think he is sobering up. We leave him to it and spend the morning and the best part of the afternoon on Gun Hill, a viewpoint above the town, and exploring the town itself. We happen upon a group of Punjabi’s away for the weekend. They invite us to lunch and we find a good place down the road. Very friendly people, they pay for our meal and we exchange emails and numbers. Aman offers to accommodate us on future visits to his home in Chandigarh.

The journey back to Delhi was epic. We were late leaving after lunch with the Punjabis’. The initial wind of the road through the countryside was agreeable, making the most of the green before the inevitable grey of Gurgaon. But soon enough we were in jams again as returning holidayers exhausted the highways. It was a good 10 hours before we were home. Yet jams were the least of our worries. Shiva, fatigued and hungover from whatever he was doing Saturday night, was falling asleep at the wheel. I was alerted to it when I noticed the car drifting onto the dividing section of the highway towards the oncoming traffic. He came about just in time to bring the car back on course. From then on, it took everything we had to keep him awake. I sat in the front to watch his eyes, giving him a shout or a nudge every time he seemed to be drifting off. I was also watching the road. The others in the back made valiant efforts to keep him engaged with unrelenting hours of car karaoke and attempts at Hindi songs and national anthems. It would’ve been easier if I had taken over driving. Needless to say we arrived home safe, around 4AM, for a meagre few hours sleep before the week recommenced. I just won’t be calling Shiva in hurry next time we need a driver.

Thus, you may by now have some idea of what it means to live in India. There are always problems to overcome, sticky situations, reasons to be alert and on top of things. Flexibility is key; knowing how to deal with situations as they arise and dealing with them. There is always a way. Welcome to India.

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