A break in the haze


You'd have thought the gnarled, snaggle-toothed old man in his tiny wood-and-tin shack was several days' trek from the nearest village, such was the aura of isolation about the place. And he might as well have been. Business was a steady trickle, like the rainwater that ran down this forested path in the heart of Himachal Pradesh.

As it happened, though, this relic of old India, peddling a small selection of soft drinks and flavoured teas to very occasional passers-by, was a mere half-hour stroll out of the Indian Marijuana Capital, Manali. It's just your average Manali stoner doesn't make it that far.

I was a lonely, lackluster Manali stoner, merely passing through en route to Ladakh, further North. Stuck because the persistent early-season Monsoon rains were causing landslides across the mountain roads. I decided to take a walk. I wanted to escape the crush of the bazaar, the salesmen offering shoeshine-smoke-hash-saffron-smoke-hash-shoeshine every two minutes.

The puddled dirt-track reached the outer limits of the ghetto of backpacker hostels that is Old Manali, and gave way to a narrow concrete track that passed increasingly spaced-apart shabby, tin-shack houses. Monkeys chattered and swung between the treetops. The rain continued to bounce of the concrete. A solitary kid splashed in a puddle and ran away as this lanky *gora *approached. Emerging from the trees, it stood powerfully before me. Right there, shrouded in mist and millenia of mystique, an impenetrable wall of unforgiving gloom. The Himalaya! A deep wooded valley rising up towards snow-capped peaks, a crashing waterfall, surging down from...a glacier, was it? The cloud blocked out the details but hardly detracted from the magnificent whole.

I rounded a corner and there he was, grinning that toothy grin, and offering me a taste of the sweet stew he was mixing up in a grimy ashen-black pot.

“You from, Sir?”

“Scotland”

“Ah, Britain!”

That enthusiastic response was, it turned out, because his ancient transistor radio was always tuned to BBC World Service, which had, apparently, recently informed him that black and white men probably came from “one mother”. I knew what he was getting at.

“In Africa, yes...”, I confirmed.

“And then... er.... spread out?”

“That's the idea”

“So we are brothers”

“Yeah, in a way”. I was angling after a free cup of ginger lemon and honey tea here.

“So why we are fighting each other? Is because of colour of the skin?”

I realised he reminded me of Rafiki, the wisened but eccentric old monkey in the Lion King.

“I don't know, really”, I said after quite a pause. “More about oil and politics than race these days”. In some twisted way I hoped that was right. Squabbles over increasingly dwindling natural resources? At least it wasn't mindless xenophobia. It all paled in the shadow of the great icy giants towering above us anyway.

He also talked about Nostradamus and his apocalyptic predictions. And Salman Rushdie. I bought a lemon tea.

“Lot of bad thing happen in the world. An earthquake, where was it... Java! Where is Java?”

For that moment the centre of the known Universe was this tiny shack in this Himalayan valley.

Rafiki blamed the current bad weather on all these goings-on. “Nature is angry”, I think he said, with that inane grin now giving his face a menacing appearance. To the scientists it was global warming. To him, nature was punishing us. I supposed they meant the same thing.

He told me to give him whatever I wanted for the tea, so I handed over 30 rupees.

“Enough for one bottle! Haha!”

“Of what?!”

“Whiskey!”

“*Scottish *whiskey?!”

He showed me the tin casement from his last bottle. I wasn't sure how to react to this. Should I just laugh, or look in disapproval at this invasion of my home country's vices on this otherwise clean-living, fresh air-dweller. I laughed. Fine in moderation, I guess. With whiskey as with globalisation.

Perhaps the guidebooks recommend old Rafiki in his hut up the valley “for discussions on international defence strategies and the global energy crisis”. I didn't look, but i'd be willing to bet that they don't. It felt like that “authentic experience” the Western traveller craves. A brief one, albeit. A simple thing. But a meaningful thing amid the herbal fuzz of modern Manali. A meeting of minds across generations, continents and cultures that could only increase understanding and respect. I bade him farewell, and turned back along the rain-soaked path.

A Ruck

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