Listen to Strangers… and don’t lose your good travel habits
It’s absolutely incredible how many times a stranger’s kind recommendations benefit one’s travels, but it’s happened time and time again. There I was, relocating from Leh to Manali on a 14 hour overnight, overcramped van, eager to to arrive. I had heard many things about Manali so I had booked a guesthouse and transportation on a whim on my way south. That was a mistake that my old travel habits would never have let me make. But 3 months removed from proper travel and those habits were dissipating, and I broke the rules of “the less you plan, the more you do”, and it almost cost me.
I was crammed in the back row with 3 Indians, all aware and trying the make the most of the uncomfortable situation. With each sharp turn that shifted everyone in the car, we amicably, almost comically jostled for shoulder and leg space, laughing at the situation despite not being able to verbally communicate. We were all attempting to get as much shut eye as possible to be able to hit the ground running on arrival. In the front passenger seat, the iron throne of the van, stood a Frenchman, Joel, who was the only person I could comfortably communicate with through a motley of English and French, as benefit the situation.
Most of the locals must not have been well versed with these long, windy roadtrips, because they were breaking all the rules. They brought a big bottle of Mountain Dew which, despite the name, is not well fitting for mountain roads, and were watching movies on their small smartphone screens. Needless to say, most were vomiting the entire way, but the car didn’t stop much so often it was just out the window.
We left at 6pm, early enough to watch the last rays of sun dip under the Himalayas. Twelve hours later, we were still driving and the same rays poked back around the other side. It was then that we all realized that we had slept as much as we were going to, and Joel and I started chatting about our plans.
To my luck, he had been to the area many times. He told me where it’s nice to hang out, where the good views are, what to see and where to eat. Almost none of them were in Manali proper. He strongly recommended I stay in the nearby village of Vashisht, perched on a hill overlooking the main city. He said Manali is very much an Indian destination, so there will be less people I can communicate and chill with whereas Vashisht is a healthy mix of Indians and foreigners, the best of both worlds. He also said it’s less busy, quieter, and closer to the trails, waterfalls, and temples.
For a second, I had my doubts, but then I realized that we’re all in the same boat, and started remembering how many times fellow recommendations have helped me out. Also, I realized how silly it was to have booked accommodation before arriving. In my first round of travels, I never did that. Worst case, if I knew I was arriving late, I’d book a single night and book the rest that next day, after looking around.
Once the van finally arrived, and I set foot in Manali, I realized right away what he was talking about: the mountains surrounding the area were beautiful, but in the city, we landed in the middle of a traffic jam. Horns were honking, people were yelling, and fumes polluted the air. I resolved immediately to take his advice. I booked my motorbike and fortunately, after some mind games with the guesthouse I had my reservation with, they let me cancel without penalty.
I started up the road to Vashisht and it was totally different. It truly was a small village, away from it all. A single main road climbed up the mountain with little shops, cute guesthouses and homey restaurants lining each side. I found one that was cheaper than my guesthouse in Manali, with a spectacular view of the mountains and valley and operated by a charming old lady. The village had such a relaxed atmosphere that I even forgot I hardly slept the night before. I dropped my bags off and went instead to chill in the hotsprings that were literally in the temple at the end of the road. What contrast!
The rest of my week was spectacular, the exact good vibes that I had come to India to find! I wondered, had I really lost all my good travel habits that I almost let myself stay in a spot so close yet so different from this sanctuary? That I booked something before arriving and having a look around? But it just goes to show – every time you almost make a huge mistake, someone is there to help you out! And always go with the flow!