This wacky travel story starts with an open face palm pointed to the ground. Then a gentle waving motion up and down, sometimes with only two fingers extended, other times all fingers extended. From the side of the road comes a simple hand gesture which signals to drivers, “Hey, I need a ride”.
Hitchhiking is prevalent across India, especially in rural areas where bus service is sporadic and access to friends or family with vehicles can be challenging. Whether traveling by small or large car the hitchhiker is always grateful for a seat no matter how cramped it may be.
“No problem, no problem,” is commonly uttered with the customary Indian head wobble as John Doe, rearranges bags, furniture, fellow passengers and even farm animals all in the effort of having a seat.
Over the years I’ve become accustomed to my friends’ generosity when traveling together. Cute girls are always guaranteed a ride while families are generally put to a vote. The vote being based on how many bags we have shoved in the car already, how much further do we have to go and the most importantly, are we hungry? You see, cute girls are along for short rides. They wish to avoid waiting for the bus or walking a few miles from town to village. Families, however, are typically on long distance journeys and thus have packed accordingly. Nibbles and liquids are gladly exchanged for a comfortable transport between destinations.
Once while traveling along the lonely stretch of highway between Tabo and Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, my friend and I spotted two elderly ladies standing on the side of the road. Both were dressed in heavy pre-winter clothing, heads wrapped loosely in shawls to keep out the brisk morning chill. Each nimbly carried a large bag which strained from its contents. At the sight of our nearly empty SUV, their hands came out a wavin’. There was no vote. It was instantly unanimous. The grandmas were coming with us.
I was impressed with the agile movement both ladies showed while stepping into the vehicle. Years of working the fields as traditional villagers had kept their bodies in excellent physical form. As the car doors shut and the wheels below us rolled North, the once quiet cabin erupted in a loud ruckus of Tibetan laced Hindi. Fortunately my friend, a native Himachali, had no trouble keeping up with their dialect. Words flowed like the Ganges in rapid succession making it difficult for me to follow along. What little Hindi I thought understood the night before was now being tested.
Minutes later my friend and I knew the basics about our new companions. The two best friends were making their way from a small village near Kye, to the hospital in Kaza. One of the lady’s daughters had just made her a grandmother once again. They had no plans for how long they would stay in Kaza or how they would get back to their village. It was of no matter to them at this point as they each rifled through the bulging bags previously carried on their backs and now shoved between their legs behind us. Conversation began to fade much like our surroundings along the desolate yet majestic rocky terrain of Spiti Valley.
Crack. Pop. Snap. Crack. Uhh!!
Pop. Snap. Uhh!! Crack. Pop. Uhh!!
I looked at my friend to find him slyly looking back at me out of the corner of his eye. He was holding back an explosive laugh as best he could.
His eyes were asking, “What is this sound?”
One of our guests apparently had a tick. You know, the kind that makes you grunt. Loudly. And often. Repeatedly. Uhh!!
Just then a hand appeared between the front seats holding a heaping portion of grain. Wtf?
“Barley,” explained my friend. “Traditional Himachali crop.”
Pop. Snap. UHH!!
Out of respect (not need) we each took small portions of the grain . Mine went into a napkin for safe keeping while my friend’s sample was, well, gone before I looked back at him. Pop. Crack. Snap. Yes, three of the four passengers in this car prefer eating barley over enjoying silence. Uhh!! UHH!!
OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM…
I had to look back now. One of the ladies was spinning her hand-held Buddhist prayer wheel while reciting a traditional mantra. Only in India as they say?
Snacking, grunting, staring out the window, chanting…both ladies were content. I noticed each of their bags was brimming with the earth tone snack grain. Nestled alongside were locally grown apples, water, and a few sundries. They had simply yet smartly prepared for whatever life would hand them in the next few days.
OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM…Snap. Crack. Uhh!! Pop. UHH!!
Not long after Kaza appeared in the distance as did the hospital building. It was agreed the ladies would walk from the edge of town rather than obligate us to drop them. They began to gather the heavy bags as our vehicle came to a roadside stop.
“Photo, photo!” I asked.
“Yes of course”, exclaimed my friend.
With that, the two ladies smiled, dug in their bags and each pulled out the most vibrant, colorful looking Himachali apples. Another dig inside brought out two handfuls of barley for which we were to take along with the apples as payment for the ride.
“So full, so full!” we exclaimed. I’d take their apples but not their hard earned grain. Barley was currency in this part of India, and I wasn’t about to take their money. They’d already reminded me of how valuable life’s travels can be.
“Good bye,” they said.
Until we meet again…
Related Posts You Might Like:
Recent posts in Culture