To get a train in India, it's necessary to book ahead. You either get a confirmed seat straight away or you are 'waitlisted'. If you're waitlisted up to 5, 6, 7 or more it's usual to get on. I had a waitlisted first class a/c berth from Delhi to Chakki Bank, reasonably close to Dalhousie in the Himalayas. Waitlisted number 2. No problem. Ha! Trains from Delhi at this time of year are packed, booked weeks ahead and seats are rarely cancelled. It's 45 degrees after all. I don't get on my train. My romantic journey for one to the hills is over. A flight? All booked. Buses? Booked. It's a taxi. The only other option. 750 kms. 10 hours with stops. A price is suggested. I cringe. I haggle. A price is agreed. They are much better poker players than me.
The car looks ok in the dark. The driver smiles and shakes my hand. Vijay. We set off. I've been to Delhi a few times. I know which direction is north. Vijay doesn't. A stop at his house to pick up clothes, another to pick up a spare tyre. Several phone calls and an hour and a half later we are still circling Delhi. The sign to India Gate appears for the fifth time. The car stops. Vijay gets out and has an urgent conversation with another man. They point and look at the rear wheel. I know now why we have a spare tyre. The new man gets in to the drivers seat. 'My name is Amrik. I will drive. My family lives near Dalhousie. The other man doesn't know Delhi. He's from Jaipur.' I'm back watching Fawlty Towers. 'The wheel is not good. We will change on the way'.
The wheel indeed is not good. A hole. No problem. The man at the side of the road gets out a big needle and threads it with something closely resembling thick red rubberised string. He pushes the threaded needle into the hole, pulls it out, the string is in the hole, the hole is fixed, we are away. I assume the tyre has an inner tube. No says Amrik. Tubeless.
There are traffic rules in India. It's just that traffic rules. Lane discipline? None. Rear lights? Not often Surely that's not a truck coming in the 'wrong' direction? It is. Overtaking? No problem. To the left, the right, weaving in and out. See a space? Grab it. I understand why a sense of fatalism pervades everywhere. I ask Amrik the secret of driving in India. 'An open mind, an open heart and good luck.' What to do. Go with it or go crazy. I close my eyes and try to sleep.
Out of Delhi the traffic and the constant sound of horns reduces. Amrik is a good driver. I can trust him. I lie down to try and sleep on the back seat. I sleep. Bang! The car swerves. It's ok says Amrik. Big accident on the opposite dual carriageway. We carry on. I don't sleep.
Eight fitful, sleepless hours later Amrik says we'll break the journey. We'll stay at his brother-in-law's house and freshen up. It's 5am and getting light. Good idea. We arrive. A sleepy man opens the front door and I stumble in. I'm taken to a huge bedroom and made welcome. We plan to leave again at 8am. His brother-in-law wants a lift to Dalhousie. Be my guest.
8am. No sign of Amrik. He will come. Relax. Have a beer. I prefer the mango juice. 9am. I want to go, to get to the end of this journey. Amrik arrives refreshed with a smart change of clothes. I look a total wreck. Three hours we'll be there he says. Relax.
We cross the state border from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh. Amrik is looking nervous. A police check. He gets out with his papers and disappears for 10 minutes. 'I gave him money' he says. Several phone calls later. Amrik says 'I've got you another taxi. I don't have a licence for Himachal.'
We wait. A small white car speeds by and comes to a screeching halt. 'He's here. You'll be ok. Have a safe journey.' I like Amrik. The new driver doesn't speak English. He hardly speaks at all. But we are in the mountains, climbing, negotiating hairpin bends. The views are breathtaking and so is the precipice. The heat is lessening. It's 1.30pm.
I've arrived at a cottage of such beauty, calm and simplicity that I cry.