India: The Arc of the Himalayas–Dispatch 4

Long time no write, and many miles have we driven since then!  We have now arrived in Mussoorie, thus completing the Great Arc of the Himalayas, driving from the south to the north of India more or less along the 78th meridian the whole way.   Many of the places we camped or stayed at hotels in were too small to be easily findable about normal maps.  Since I last wrote, we’ve passed through the major centers of Mysore, Hyderabad, Bhopal, Bharatpur (just west of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is) and finally north of Delhi to the foothills of the Himalayas.  It’s been an extraordinary journey, though naturally not every day was eventful or beautiful.  

The Saga of Sexy Beast:  Alas, Sexy Beast proved unfit for the arduous driving of the Arc.  Well, to be honest, unfit for any driving, really.  

The leaking gas tank after our first day’s drive to Thekeddy, proved the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  After Thekeddy, we went for two days with the engine suddenly quitting on us.  This usually happened at toll booths, or gas stations, both of which were opportune spots to break down. At one toll both, the engine quit (and wouldn’t restart) just as we slowed down on approach to the toll taker.  We both leaped out of the car (thank goodness for no doors) and started pushing.  But the toll barrier was still down.  What to do?  Crash the gate?  Roll to a stop in front of it and make thousands of Indian truck drivers mad?  Oh noooo!!  Quick thinker that I am, I flung open the door, grabbed my purse and waved it over my head like a a flag of surrender to signal I intended to pay, while frantically pointing at the barrier with my other arm and flapping it up and down to signal “Open the *&$#! -ing barrier” to the toll man, all the while Sexy Beast slowing remorselessly down while Bernard tried to keep it going solo.

 At the last minute, the toll man realized the situation (What….did he think all Anglos don’t know how to use a car and push it instead of driving it?!), raised the bar, and Bernard pushed Beast to the side of the road beyond it while I paid the toll.  Then I climbed up on the step of a truck stopped to pay their toll, signaled over to our broke-down Beast and waved my hands some more to ask for help.  Of course, the driver (and several others obliged.  They got our car going again, using an old Indian Mahindra trick and we were on our way.  But after that incident, which showed the need for a new starter, Sexy Beast was in the clutches of the rally mechanics and we never drove him again.  We next saw Beast in Bhopal, needing a new head gasket, and then heard Beast had a cracked cylinder head.  The latest word is that the prop shaft, which does something essential between the clutch, the gears and the rear axle, also is defunct.  Since before Bhopal, we’ve been happily driving the luggage van, which is quiet, air conditioned, and a Toyota!!!!

Ladies:  En route from our lovely last camp near the hill hamlet of Pachmari, we had a flat tire. Flats are not a problem in India.  People swarm around as soon as you’re stopped, helping in any way they can. And even tiny villages with only 3 shops have a tire patching stall (the other two shops being a barber shop and a candy/sundries stall).  There we were, waiting around while our punctured tire was patched and reinflated, which takes a little time.  What to do?  Well, have some good roadside tea, of course.  The chai stalls in India make the best tea you can imagine,  hot, sweet, milky, spicy with cardamom.  The chai wallas keep a pot or kettle full of hot milk ready.  Often they’ll make the tea right there while you wait, adding large spoonfuls of tea powder (not tea leaves), mixing, stirring, swirling the milk, adding more powder till the liquid’s the desired pale cafe au lait color and the whole thing’s steaming hot. Then they pour you glass and your sip cautiously because it’s scalding.  So there I was with my glass of chai, watching the traffic on the road, when I spy 4 ladies in gay saris walk up the road and cross the street to my tea stall.  There was something about them that drew my attention, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.  Maybe it was the tilt of their heads as the chatted and laughed, or the unusual sway of their walk.  Perhaps that they weren’t carrying the usual bundles like other women.   In any case, I knew I was staring at them and I couldn’t help it!  They, of course, noticed my interest and walked up to me, all in a group.  “Hello sister,” the tallest one said, in a soft deep voice.  “Take our photo?”  Looking at all of them quickly, their carefully covered hair,  lipsticked lips, their height, the stubble on their cheeks…….I realized I was surrounded by a group of Indian transvestites!!!   These ladies were a happy group, on their way to the 10-day long tribe at Pachmari which we had just left.  Wow!!  Who would have thought………

Indian Pedicures:   In Bhopal I received, of my own volition, what I now call the Tough Love Pedicure.  I have to say that after 3 weeks in Birkenstocks, an open car that is a dust magnet and streets that are beyond dirty, my grimy feet needed a good scrubbing.  Arriving at a sumptuous hotel in Bhopal a day ahead of the rest of the group, I took the opportunity to get a pedicure in our lovely heritage hotel’s “spa.”  My pedicure took place in a somewhat dingy, white and green-tiled back room with a small window and a palm that looked fatigued from its efforts to get a bit of sunlight. Cell-like would not be an inappropriate term….. The pedicure started inauspiciously, with the lady filling the foot-soaking tub with scalding water, which she kept dipping my feet into and saying “OK?”  I would wrench my foot out of her hands and squeak ‘NO”, and she’d grab my foot again, dunk it in the steaming brew and say again “OK?”  We finally reached detente on a permissible water temperature and I commenced soaking my feet.  There was no People magazine to distract me, so I just closed my eyes for a bit. After a while, the lady sort of tugged on my toes.  When I looked at her she giggled and said “DIRTY.”  

I peered down at the water and was horrified to see a scum of brown foam around my legs.  But that wasn’t all.  As the lady scrubbed vigorously at my feet with the pedicure equivalent of a barbecue grill wire brush, she kept reinserting my feet (and her brush) in the dirty water!!! For 20 minutes she scrubbed my soles with every instrument of torture she could lay her hands on.  At the end, she dunked them all in the filthy water and put them back on her pedicure tray!  Ay yay yay.  I finally meekly suggested that we put some fresh water in, to which she laughingly agreed.  By that time, my feet were as pink and soft as the day I was born. Then she tried to cut my toenails, with what looked like a child’s plastic nail clipper.  As she mashed my nails between the ineffectual snippers, she looked up at me without raising her head, and I heard her mutter, “HARD!”  So then she resorted to filing my toenails with the pedicure equivalent of a saw, and used the instrument so savagely that she dug it into the flesh above my big toe.  Do you think she may have been angry at the big Western feet in front of her?   Finally it was time to pick a polish color.  I had a choice of 6 or 7 garish shades of purple, and a couple of bronzes and mauves.  I chose a rather dusty lavender, the best I could do and the one that the pedicurist thought was the prettiest.  When in India do as the Indians do!!   With two coats of rotten plum on my nails, I was left to meditate in my massage chair for 5 minutes or so.  The pedicure lady returned brandishing a hair dryer, which she turned on high and proceeded to use to bake my toes to a final level of doneness.  

We are heading East now, and will be driving through Nepal as far eastward as we can go.  There’s some uncertainty about the condition of roads, bridges and the border crossing in the far east of Nepal, as that is where the huge floods from last summer/fall broke loose, flooding Bihar.  If need be, we can exit Nepal early and do the rest of eastward driving to Darjeeling on Indian roads.    Thanks to everyone who’s emailed me. I love getting your emails and hearing a bit from home.  

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