India did not let me sleep that whole 10 hour bus ride. I watched the night speed by as we climbed up into the mountains. The sun crawled into the hills casting red hues into the lush forests that bordered the road. We wound tighter and tighter north towards the Himalaya’s.
I pressed my face to the foggy window, remembering the road that we stopped at – like an apparition, floating in the mist, trees lined in perfectly straight rows, the road slicing directly through them. Coolest pee I ever took. Most of my first week would seem unreal, so foreign and vibrant I couldn’t believe it existed.
My body struggled to recover after each jolting blind corner we sped around, the road so twisty it could have been turning in circles. The sheer perpendicularity of the hills made me realize that without the ancient terraces, these hills would be cliffs covered in jungle. I had never seen mountains like these. We finally reached Ranikhet – a military town in the foothills of the Himalaya’s. After 48 hours of sleep deprivation, I stepped out of the bus to my new home base for the next three months.
The ground beneath me seemed to undulate. My incapacitated brain tried to take in the beauty of Vaniya Heritage Cottage, squat up against the mountain with its white brick, marble floors, and red wooden roof. The terraces dropped down holding more buildings, livestock, and blossoming trees.
The day filled with temples, markets and hikes to convert my exhausted body to a new time. Some part of me saw and felt how the chaos of colors and sounds swept me off into this new land, but most of me sunk into the task of keeping my exhausted body upright.
We piled into jeeps and rushed off to the market. Market is a deceiving word. Market purveys little lines of booths with smiling people and cool breezes wafting through your hair. Instead a windy street met me with shops tumultuously stacked beside each other. Barely large enough for a one way street, the market road was multi-purpose: a two-way road, a side walk, a bike land, space for fruit stands, and an animal corridor. Impossibly tiny alleys shot crookedly off into concrete mazes.
I panicked as every eye in the market seemed to turn towards my white skin and blue eyes. We walked down the road avoiding gutters, dogs, trash, cars, and mysterious splatters of the pungent smelling type. That small village market seemed like it was going to swallow me up and never spit me out that first day. Somehow we found the stairs back to our jeep and returned to the cottage.
As the evening cooled off we walked up to the temples. The road took us up into a quiet forest, the monkeys watched us in hoards. “Whatever you do don’t make eye contact with them,” we were told, “they’ll attack you.” I didn’t even want to imagine a monkey clawing at my eyes, so I became familiar with the potholes on road.
We stopped at Jhula Devi. A temple hung heavy with hundreds of bells. Each bell hung for a prayer, wrung for the gods to hear and answer. The first time I entered a temple, the peace struck me. For such a chaotic place, temples interrupt abruptly with utter peace. Walking barefoot on the marble floors, a serenity entered my being. I had felt like a wisp of dandelion whipping away minutes before in the new insanity, but suddenly I rang a bell, walked over a step, and entered a completely different India.
That evening atop another temple, I looked out into the setting sun over blue valleys. I gazed into that view letting it finally convince me that I stood in Asia.
I crashed into a cot that night to tired to even dream under those Indian stars.
The chaos was beautifully overwhelming. No past experience or place even remotely related to India. I had no way of understanding any facet of its wildness. I could only dive completely into it, submerge myself, and hope I learned how to swim.
Someone once told me that traveling and meeting new people was like dancing. You step on feet, but you can keep dancing or leave angrily. So I just kept dancing