On how India always manages to redeem herself…

Sometimes we feel pretty discouraged by how unnecessarily complicated India seems, but India always redeems itself and turns everything around for the better.

One rainy Friday in Rishikesh, we decided to rent a scooter– we had rented one a few days before, but we thought we’d try a different place with better reviews. For about 100 rupees more, it seemed like we were getting more bang for our rupe. I don’t recall why we thought this, but maybe the offer of two helmets was enticing. Or we wanted a more powerful scooter. Nevertheless, our goal was to revisit Narender Nagar, a village we had ridden to before, two years before, and remembered fondly, even with romantic notions to take a place there for a month and spend time weaving ourselves into village life. We had found the village on a scooter, had a chai, took some photos and watched a beautiful mountain sunset. I fondly remembered sipping chai while taking a photo of a cat hiding in a minty green building while a tailor sewed garments on the lower level. We vowed we’d visit again while next in Rishikesh. The village itself was only about 20 kilometers away, which translates to about 2 hours of scooter time. But we knew the town and how to get there, so it seemed appropriate for a longer day trip. 

As it was the height of monsoon season, late July, in fact, it was already raining when we set out and we decided that we’d have much more fun if we bought plastic ponchos before we went anywhere to keep us from getting too soaked. The pursuit of the ponchos took awhile; as is typical, everyone seemed to have one, but when you want to buy one none are to be found. After a long search, we secured two plastic green ponchos and set off for the day, looking like true weathered adventurers.

Photo of road sign, as captured from back of scooter.

Up we went, higher and higher and higher into the hills, the road winding around hill after hill, shaded by opulent vegetation, nourished by the yearly monsoon. Dime-sized rain drops pelted  down, then it would let up, then it would erupt again; the weather was, at least, consistent in how bad it was. But we had helmets with visors and our green plastic ponchos, so we happily rode on. The roads, I noted at the time, began as some of the best that I had seen in India– freshly paved, lined, with barriers painted with catchy sayings like “LICENCE TO DRIVE, NOT FLY”, “AFTER WHISKY DRIVING RISKY,” “HORN IS TO HONK, DO IT ON MY CURVES!” and lastly, “ENJOY BEAUTY OF NATURE.” I’d argue the sayings were more distracting, but. It wasn’t to last, though, as a few meters ahead, as soon as I had inwardly complemented Indian Highways, the road was completely dug up and in shambles, some poorly marked caution tape lazily urging drivers to one side or another. At one point, we weren’t even sure that we were on the right road, but were too wet to pull out a map to check. 

Said sunset, as captured the first trip to Narender Nagar.

Eventually we saw road signs, proving we were indeed headed in the right direction and carried on, unbothered by our slight misgivings.

Narender Nagar was just as quaint as we remembered. We each had two chais and two samosas under a covered storefront and sat long enough for the rain to really start coming down and flood the main road. Two more chais later it came time to reassess– press forward to the next village, to see if it was as charming as Narender Nagar, risking washed out roads, or turn around and go back to Rishikesh. We took the latter option, not willing to spend all day soaked with an uncertain ending, vowing maybe some year we’d come back to India outside of the Monsoon.

As I had driven up, we decided that Giovanni would drive down, the road sloping down, a steep grade coming out of the hills. But as the rain continued to fall, so the risk for mudslides escalated and around one turn we came to huge boulders in the middle of the road, with no clear path. We powered though, barreling over rocks and unstable roads, our small scooter handling each turn like a champ, unwilling to succumb to failing tire pressure.

“Did we pick up a rock?” Giovanni said, as a flopping, rattling sound emerged from the back tire.

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied, hoping by saying there was no rock that the rock would dislodge itself as we kept going or would fail to exist so we wouldn’t have to fix any problems in the rain. 

A sudden boom erupted and quickly rocks and mud started to dislodge from the hills and crash down the road, as the rain continued to pelt down.

We continued to drive, but as we went, the sound got worse and worse, and we were forced to pull over and troubleshoot. To our dismay, there was no rock; instead, the back tire was as flat as a pancake.

In general, India is a noisy place, trucks displaying hand-painted signs with “honk please” blasting around every corner, cars racing to get ahead of said trucks or scooters belting by, weaving in and out of traffic. But here, all we could hear was the rain pattering against the road and the occasional mudslide. Not even a cow was around. We looked at each other, soaked and in despair, no cell reception, no way back to town and resigned to wait for the next passerby.

Five or 10 minutes went by: in retrospect, not a long time, but stuck on the side of the road in a monsoon, it seemed like forever. With the help of my bright blue umbrella (which I’m not sure why I wasn’t using to keep somewhat dry other than the fact that I was already soaked), I was able to flag down a scooter with two guys on it. Once they pulled up, they were quickly followed by their two friends on another scooter. The four boys began chatting animatedly in Hindi about what to do and how to help.

Eventually, one turned to me and said, “Ma’am, we’ve decided you two will ride on my scooter and I will ride yours solo down the hill to get help.”

At this, the four boys high fived, and said, “very smart English,” laughing amongst themselves at their command of the language. 

So we climbed on the back of his scooter, with his friend driving, and carried on, amazed at our luck, and again, marveling at the beauty of India.

Ten or so minutes later, we hit a traffic jam. With some weaving in and out of traffic, we soon learned that it was a massive mudslide, with the road ahead completely washed out, two bulldozers stopping traffic and trying to move all of the mud out of the road. As we waited, more bits of the hill toppled down the slope, the familiar yelling and honking had returned, each vehicle trying to get out of the way. 

Our side was eventually given the ok to proceed, Giovanni and I walking, making it easier for the scooter to get across the sinking, muddy road. We climbed back on, and safely rode down the hill, the driver of our scooter ahead of us, gliding easily down the hill, skillfully navigating the bumpy road with a flat tire.

Further banter was exchanged between the boys, and with no more trouble, we eventually made it to a filling station outside of Rishikesh. After much bickering, it was decided that there was no puncture in the tire after all. We figured we must have knocked something out of place in order to lose air, but the filling station attendant “massaged” it back into place, filled it with air, and we were good to go again. The boys refused any thanks, laughing that it was their pleasure, and took off, with more high fiving.

Years later, I’m still amazed at the kindness and generosity of those boys. And even at its more difficult, rain-drenched, I’ll-never-be dry-again moments, India finds a way to redeem itself. 

It was still raining after we got back to the hotel, Mama’s Place, and after showers, clothes washing and a nap, we decided we didn’t want to go back out for dinner. It was too late to have Mama’s Best Thali, the house special, so we went to Cafe Nirvana, a foreigner-catering restaurant up the hill from our hotel. We were initially the only ones there, the staff seeming like they “smoke something,” and the especially giggly waiter, saying, “you like the rain? It’s crazy! Last year 20 people died in a mudslide, ha ha ha!” We found it strange, but I devoured my veg burger and Giovanni his momos.  Several of the tables were marked “reserved,” and soon our French hotel neighbor came in with his latest tourist group and the place was filled with rowdy French kids, keeping us entertained for the evening.

I bought water on the way back from the hotel and the owner had two packages of Parle G biscuits ready for me– we didn’t need, but I couldn’t resist, feeling like I had made myself known. 

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