I didn’t know what to do when I got off the jeep at the lower market area in Almora. I had left Dhaulachina with my head in a cloud without a plan and I had been so engrossed in the stories that the inebriated thug on the jeep from Dhaulachina had been telling me that I never thought about what to do on the way either. I was mulling about going back to my friend AJ’s house but my phone was dead and I couldn’t figure out how to reach his place. I asked around at the teashop where I was cooling my heels with sugary chai if they knew any good hotels in the town and a few hands pointed helpfully to a long staircase going up the opposing hillside.
It was when I huffed up that steep, seemingly neverending staircase that I realised what a terrible idea it was to have carried so many of the books I had bought in Mr. Arora’s shop in Dehradun along with me, books I hadn’t even had the time to open so far. Finally, after much toil, I reached the upper bazaar with its bustling markets and ornate wooden galleries. Here, I went into a cybercafe and hit indiamike.com, the travel portal with a message board that had been so helpful in getting me out of a spot before, hoping it would give me ideas on a place to stay.
“You’re on Indiamike?”, said a voice with a distinct European accent from behind me.
I turned around and saw a white dude with long hair, a red colored shirt with the mantra “Om” pasted all over and matching dark orange pyjamas. I said, “Yes, looking for a place to stay.”
“Oh”, he said, tentatively, then looked at my big rucksack and said, “Come with me.”
He took me up an alley next to the cyber café and into Bansal Hotel, a place that didn’t look a lot like a hotel from the outside but opened up to a reception and a spacious terrace upstairs with a cluster of rooms spread around its narrow corridors. I got a decent room with a bathroom for 250 Rs. and then dumped my rucksack inside, pulled up a chair on the terrace which delivered a fantastic view of the mountains beyond and began chatting with the dude who got me there over a plate of samosas and many cups of chai.
P was from the town of Brittany in France and had been traveling the world for 5 years. He had done his graduation in economics and left for a solo gap year round the world trip but so infatuated was hewith the world outside his home that he never went back home to look for a job or make a steady living. He rattled off the names of countries like they were friends he knew, Bolivia, Chile, Congo, Nigeria, Botswana, Vietnam, Mongolia, Taiwan etc. After his gap year money ran out, he began working in hostels, volunteering in farms and schools, jobbing as a dish-washer in restaurants etc. to fund his travels.
This was his second trip to India and it was one of the handful of countries that he looked forward to settle in. When I asked why, he said, “Because India is good. People like you more, they take you to their homes and help you when you’re in trouble. In other countries, it’s more about the money but India is all about the soul. I don’t have to work here because it’s so cheap and it’s cheap because people are more shanti and help each other. They don’t make things stupidly expensive.”
P felt the world was going down a deep, dark hole of materialism and apathy. “I only make the money I need”, he said, “I have no house, no investment, nothing. To survive in this world and be a little free, you need money. But I only work for what I need. Otherwise, we’re just being stupid. We destroy the world, you know. In France, government gives me little bit of money if I don’t have a job. But that only makes people lazy. I ask you, why do you need a job? Because we have created an atmosphere where without a job, they tell you that you cannot survive. Which is why I love India where people work their land and live within what they have. They’re poor but they’re content, even the poorest. It’s there for everyone to see. In the developed world, they hide it. You know how old the idea of money is? 300 years. Before that they had no money. They only worked for food. Which is why those old paintings look more beautiful. We live in an ugly world because without money it cannot exist and every day it’s getting uglier. The only way this world can become more beautiful is for the whole world to say, ‘Hey, I don’t need your money. So get lost.’ But that’s never going to happen.”
All this anarchic banter was making me hungry for something more filling than samosas. So we went to a non-descript hole-in-the-wall place which P professed to have the best food in all of Almora. “Just don’t eat the pizza and you will be ok”, he said laconically. P appeared to be on first name terms with everyone who worked there. The staff were immensely happy to see him and knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it, which was a cheese naan with dal fry made very spicy. “They always make it less spicy when they see my face but it will be stupid if I come to India and not have spicy, no?”, he said.
All this familiarity was making me wonder how long he had spent in Almora because it appeared to have been a lifetime. “Only two days,” he said with a laugh, “I know these guys because yesterday I went into the kitchen and made some dal myself. They liked it very much! Tomorrow I go to the Sun Temple and maybe find another place to stay which is more shanti. You want to go to Sun Temple with me?”
So we went to the Sun Temple the next day.