If India doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger
I stepped out of my hotel to explore the area and I could only manage thirty minutes. A combination of jet lag, ear-piercing noises, humidity and pungent smells of New Delhi forced me back inside. The next morning I flew from Delhi north to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh airport to join the NGO I would be doing my internship with. When I stepped off the plane, I saw the glorious Himalaya Mountains where I would be living for the next five months.
Nothing could have prepared me for the cold of northern India. For the next three weeks, I would be living with a local family. I slept in multiple layers of clothing, in my sleeping bag with two woollen duvets. I’d wake up, brush my teeth and go about my day in the same clothes I slept in. Before leaving England, I debated whether to bring a sleeping bag. I found one small enough to fit in my backpack but was going to return it the day before I left. Keeping it was the right decision.
Staying with a local family was my first taste of Indian hospitality and it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Breakfast and dinner were cooked on a basic, open wood burning fire. The fire also kept us warm in the cold weather.
I had applied for an internship in Micro Finance, but I was involved in all sorts of other projects ranging from alternative energy to ecological volunteerism to education. After a few weeks I soon realised my expectations wouldn’t match reality. There were many days when I was frustrated by lack of direction, and sometimes even boredom, but I have no regrets about leaving my job and going to India. I learned so much and I’m still friends with many of the other interns. I’m sure I’ll see them again soon.
I can’t remember whose idea it was to go to Manali for a week, but it was one of the highlights of the time I spent in India. Albert, Oscar and I hired a taxi for the journey which took ten hours with stops in between. Unbeknown to us, the driver was a raging alcoholic. We indicated that we liked a song he was playing and he started playing it on repeat. We lived like kings for a week on three-course meals and endless beers.
Let me explain something about India and South East Asia in general, for that matter: nothing ever happens that way you expect. When you think of a ski holiday, you might think of the Alps or The French Pyrenees. But this is skiing in India.
People joy riding yaks (I thought these things were extinct), tubing down the side of the mountain, snowmobiles zooming past. For anyone who hasn’t skied in a long time, I can confirm that it’s not like riding a bike. Based on my memory, I believe the last time I hit the slopes was in Austria 20 years ago. So getting down Solange Valley was painful and tiring. It snowed 4 or 5 feet the night before, which was not ideal for a beginner. And there were no tracks. Around two hours later, I made it off the slope soaking wet, freezing and surprised that I didn’t snap both my legs! With one dangerous activity completed, we moved onto the next. I forgot to mention that along with the above-mentioned chaos, there were paragliders landing in the crowd. We soon joined them.
For those who have never seen paragliding or don’t know what it is, you are strapped to the front of your pilot facing downhill with the parachute laid out on the ground behind you. It is very similar to a tandem jump out of an airplane. The idea is for the both of you to run as fast as you can, let the wind pick up the parachute and away you go. You’re in the air for about five minutes. This isn’t what happened to the poor souls that preceded me. The gentleman and his pilot didn’t run fast enough, so the wind didn’t pick up the parachute. The result? They both helplessly tumbled down the mountain. They were a ways down the hill, around a few hundred metres. All I could see were two figures entangled with a parachute.
My pilot and I looked at each other after watching the previous disaster, his words were ‘Good running!’. And this wasn’t a sarcastic statement, it translated to you better run quickly or that’s going to happen to us. I don’t recall seeing a hospital on the drive up. One, two, three, go! I churned my legs until I couldn’t feel the ground anymore. We were more or less eye-level with the mountains and circled round for a nice safe landing.
Time to go
Each time I’m asked what India is like, I give a different answer and they are all true. It’s a fascinating, mentally draining country, unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, and full of contradictions. The best way I can describe India is with this:
I was in Delhi with a friend and we were walking down one of the side streets of Paharganj. We started having a serious, in-depth conversation when, after a few minutes, I tapped my friend on the shoulder and told him to move out of the way. A cow was strolling past! The both of us looked at each other and burst out laughing.