• Heather O’Neal


Monday, October 20, 03

I packed and had breakfast at 10AM. Yum. Soon I was airborne, flying from Kathmandu to India. I landed in Delhi at 2:20 PM. Good Indian food on the flight. Yum. I was traveling with Susan, who was about to do the Everest trek, Linda from the Annapurna trek and Manju, a Nepalese friend and former University of Michigan student. The four of us were going to Dharmsala, a northwestern Indian town, near the Pakistani border, where the Dalai Lama now lives. This is also where the Tibetan government has established its headquarters while in exile. We met our driver, Rajendra, at the Delhi airport. It was a 13 hour car ride from Delhi to Dharmsala. Many of those hours were in BAD traffic and in BAD pollution. Yikes. My respiratory system has not been the same since. To make things worse, Rajendra said the locals were burning fields for new crops. It was soon dark as we sped along the Indian highway. The thick smoke in the air made two solid beams of our headlights look like horns. The truck drivers continually flashed their brights, not to see better but to let everyone know they were coming. As each truck passed, the oncoming drivers were temporarily blinded.

The open air truck stop, after several hours on the road, was quite not so lovely. It did feel good to get out and stretch, since three of us were crammed into the small and not-so-comfortable back seat. Indian truckers — bearded, thin, tall, short, businesslike and criminal-like — drove huge industrial rigs, clankity Indian Tata trucks. They drank tea and rested while others of them ate full meals of rice and vegetables and yogurt before heading back to the exhaust and the monotony of the highway.

At this truck stop, behind two sliding glass doors opposite the cash register, a very unusual mermaid phone caught my attention. I was afraid. It was talking too me. I tiptoed closer. The shelf where it sat was dusty even behind the glass. She (the telephone hand piece in the shape of a mermaid) was perched on her ocean pedestal (the phone part), under a blanket of truck stop dirt. I could barely make out the price which must have been applied many years ago. Was it 750 Indian Rupees? Could it be? Fifteen US dollars? A bargain!

“Susan, check this out,” I said to my travel mate who wandered car-ward with her tea. “Oh, it has been waiting for you for ages and ages,” she said.

Every trucker in the area was soon interested. Maybe they had noticed the mermaid phone before. Maybe they saw it in the same place year after year. Might someone buy it? Before agreeing to purchase, I eyed the old oily and sticky tar or axle grease-laden box on the counter next to the cash register with instructions in Chinese and bubble wrap inside. It might just possibly withstand the journey to Michigan. The attendant took the phone out of the cluttered display case, exposing her to the florescent light over the counter. I bargained down fifty rupees. “I’ll take it!” Now with a plastic mermaid telephone in my possession, it was hard to speak intelligently about the Buddhist concept of attachment and materialism. But such discussions kept coming up. We were, after all, going to the Dalai Lama’s hometown. The basics of Buddhist beliefs were on our minds, and I had already proven my attachment to things with hardly any bargaining!

Tuesday, October 21, 03 At midnight we found ourselves like sardines in the little car with Rajendra. He was driving his heart out. We drove all night, partly because we became immersed in a game that Linda suggested: You say the name of a place, a country, city, state or province, and the next person has to say the name of a place that begins with the last letter of the place you said. It went like this: Argentina, Africa, Atlanta, Adelaide, Egypt. Whenever it was Rajendra’s turn he would say, Anakapalle or Aligarh or Ahmadabad. We would say, Ecuador, Russia, Arizona, and he would say, Ahmadnagar. Then we would say, Romania, Alaska, Amsterdam, and he would say, Muzaffarpur… Amlekhganj… Pondicherry… Howrah… Bhubaneswar… Beawartonk. In a slaphappy stupor, we were roaring with laughter at every sound that came from his mouth. Luckily he was laughing too!

We arrived in a smaller town, McLoud Ganj, above Dharmsala at 6AM. Finding a Hostel was next then breakfast. We visited the Dalai Lama’s temple. Maybe I am too attached to the elaborate and colorful paintings over every inch of wall space in the Buddhist temples and monasteries in Nepal. Maybe I am too attached to the curtains, the colorful embroidered wall hangings and colorful door ruffles and patterned carvings, wood trim and large and elaborate gold Buddha statues. This temple here, the Dalai Lama’s own, was pure and lifeless concrete with little color and hardly any paint. I struggled to understand and what I understood, I did not like. Tibet was displaced, out of its element, in another country. The elaborate and elegant Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s true home in Lasa, Tibet, was no longer his. In the next five hours that afternoon, I saw everything I had circled in the guide book while my touring friends slept. The car ride kept us up all night. After the interesting (though sad) Tibetan Museum, I hiked down and around the cliff into the bigger city of Dharmsala, went to the market area and took the local bus back. The Dalai Lama would return from the USA in only two days, but I was ready to leave the next.

On Wednesday, October 22, 03 After breakfast, a short hike and tea with some wonderful people, Manju, Susan and I decided to head 12 hours back, south to Delhi and then 3-4 hours further to the Taj Mahal. Linda was visiting friends and planned to stay and trek in the mountains on her own. By 11PM, after eight hours of driving, we stopped in Chandigarh (home to many of America’s outsourced customer service operators). The hotel was not so nice, but it was not so expensive either. I slept on a foam cushion on the floor hoping zero small animals would wake me.

Thursday, October 23, 03 The shower at this hotel was the best. Hot, lots of water, I realized, I was attached to many things. We were back in the car. Driving and driving. The winding carsick hills had ended. Now it was flat, pot-holed roads. The villages and the truck stops were interesting. And the vehicles on the highway were interesting too. One could write an entire book about all the traffic! Camel carts next to Tata trucks next to donkey carts next to horse carts next to hefty black British-style cabs rolling by and regular four-doors next to truck loads of grass with passengers on top, the whole thing waiting to spill. Endless amounts of cargo balanced on camel carts, bikes, motorcycles, in and on cars and to the hilt on trucks. The fields around Delhi were still burning, and it was also festival time. Susan read an English paper that said the fire crackers during the festival would raise the carbon monoxide level to four times the dangerous limit. Also Dengue Fever mosquitoes would die. Right on! Yikes. Breathing was hard, but I really felt bad for the many thousands of people who live with car and factory pollution, exhaust and smog and field-burning smoke all day — day after day after day.

Rajendra had parked the car on the side of the highway between two trucks ten times its size. He said he had to pay some tax or toll or something. When he returned he said, “One man says the Taj Mahal is closed tomorrow. It’s Friday, a Muslim holiday.” Our conversation in the car was silent. Rajendra went to get a second opinion. “Yeah, It is closed tomorrow,” he said when he returned. We cut a right hand turn across the highway (they drive on the left side of the street), and decided to call it a night. A super-huge neon sign flashed ” Rooms” in red nearby.

Upstairs, the room was sooo pink. Pink tiles on the floor, pink walls, pink ceiling, pink frilly skirted bed spreads. Everything pink. The only thing not pink was the large BLACK 25-inch LIZARD (including tail) who must have been so startled when the lights came on. He fled for cover into a large hole in the wall that appeared to have once contained an electrical socket. Even though there were an infinite number of bugs swarming around the light outside our door on the balcony, we decided to stay. The amphibian would protect us. No wonder he was so healthy and fat. The place was a lizard’s dream!

I was glad there was a TV, but soon learned it didn’t work. As I reached to adjust the plug’s connection, I saw large eyes first and then a very large cricket body second. He sat so perfectly on that plug. It was the right size for him and the exact same color. He was almost invisible. But his eyes caught the light, and I just about went through the ceiling. I gave up on the TV p roject; checking the plug meant moving the cricket.

Friday, October 24, 03 I slept relatively well until the early morning hours when I had a very vivid dream that the world was at war. I was happy to realized that the low flying bomber planes I was hearing were actually large industrial Tata trucks roaring down the Indian highway. We drove slowly, progressing back to Delhi and deeper into the epicenter of India. We lucked out this time with the hotel. It was a great find, nice, clean, somewhat fancy and right downtown. The room was LESS than what we paid at the lizard hotel.

In the afternoon we went to the Red Fort and a large department store. At dinnertime we wandered from our hotel through the thick of the thickest part of the city. We had another great Indian dinner, this time at the United Indian Coffee House near Pizza Hut (which was packed) and Benaton’s (closed for the night).

Saturday, October 25, 03 I left some change in the hotel room since I borrowed the “Do Not Disturb” sign to use at the Eighth Street Trekkers’ Lodge B&B. After another good meal on Indian Air, I was back in Kathmandu and ready to trek to Mt. Everest.

Enjoy the Happy New Year. Be Happy. Be Safe. Be Proud. Have NO fear!

Heather O’Neal Of Global Interest LLC Adventure Travel Ann Arbor, Michigan (734) 369-3107

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