Travelling in India is intoxicating in many ways and totally addictive. The food and the people will keep me coming back again, but this account of an event which took place towards the end of my first extended trip abroad on my own, was one of the most heart-in-mouth experiences I’ve ever had.
It took place in the foothills of the Himalaya, near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We had taken the slow train from Delhi after blowing most of the cash we had left from a year on the road visiting the Taj Mahal. We had not actually been able to afford to get in, instead we contemplated the sacrifice which took place during the building of this stunning mausoleum from across the river. We did so for free as we had pedalled from our awful hostel in the town and were pleased with ourselves for likely being able to extend our stay in this pulsating country.
The train atop its narrow gauge railway crawled up the mountains as monkeys half-heartedly fled from the route ahead, only to hassle travellers at every opportunity. This place and this journey was unique, and the fact that there were not many other tourists around gave us a sense that we were really somewhere special. Arriving in the town we found a hostel and got a good nights sleep in the thin air, ready for a hike the next day.
The weather was perfect, the alpine air of the morning wafted fresh across our faces. It was lush, a pristine environment, quite unexpected after the suffocating smog of New Delhi and the harsh dry land of Rajasthan. I remember being very excited to stretch our legs as we clambered out of the white Bedford Rascal Minivan (Chevrolet Damas for my Uzbek friends) that had taken us up to the trailhead. We trotted off into the pine-cone covered floor of the forest, with joyful abandon. Total abandon we later found out, wallets and I.D too (well my travel partners anyway). It was nice that we had an hour or two to explore before the sinking feeling of empty pockets sunk in. We had planned to see much more of India, and other countries before heading home, but this was a large spanner-in-the-works.
We hitched back towards the town, quite quickly as every vehicle that passed us (white Bedford Rascal vans) were eager to pick us up. We were pleased to be able to explain to our driver what had happened in these, the days before smartphones (probably good as we would have lost those too). He was calm and re-assuring, but I sneakily caught him shaking his head in the mirror, although I have learned that head-shaking in India is not necessarily a negative. We did feel like a couple of twits though when we described the vehicle that we had left our valuables in, as we might as well be describing his. It definitely wasn't the same guy or vehicle though, as we had somehow remembered a Tottenham Football Club logo on the interior trim and this guy had a properly impressive moustache.
Arriving back at the taxi depot, we were flabbergasted to be totally surrounded by white Bedford Rascal Vans, darting around us with some serious Bhangra beats competitions taking off. Our driver was a saint, he patiently wandered the depot with us, probably enjoying having his increasingly pale new friends in tow. He spent a good while chatting to his mates without too much chuckling, trying to find the clean-shaven Spurs fan we had described. Before long, we had adopted an 'A-Team' of about a dozen drivers, who shot off in different directions in their vans to enquire in their home towns. Again, phone calls were not an option at this time.
We became increasingly worried, hungry and thirsty. I was relieved to be the type of paranoid traveller that I am, and had remembered that my Mastercard was in my wash-bag, in my rucksack back at the hostel. So, totally skint we started the funeral march back to our only source of sustenance, a piece of plastic that I had only ever used once in an emergency in Nepal (see Nepal chapter). This was before the days of E-Pos machines and ATM's on every corner, but we somehow managed to get a pizza, of all things. The most expensive meal we’d had for months.
It was late and we were mentally and physically exhausted from the trauma of the day, so we tried to rest. In a sleepy haze, we became conscious of a tapping on the window. We stumbled to peer out to see the 'A-Team' below, beaming with pride. There he was, the Spurs fan, with our valuables lofted above his head. The excitement and relief was epic and it remains one of the best feelings I’ve had. Even better that it was shared with my mate, even better still that it was mainly his stuff not mine. Almost needless to say; we had a great day. We bought a couple of bottles of terrible Whisky, but it didn't matter, we spent the day being chauffuered to lookouts where we partied with the group, all of us overjoyed. We danced and sang and laid plans for our now longer stay in the region. But it wouldn't be India without a steamy ending, and sadly we spent the next few days squatting with Pizza poisoning.