John found out the morning of our flight to Dharamsala (also spelled Dharamshala) that our vacation rental consisted of 2 ROOMS, not 2 bedrooms. John didn’t mention this to me until we got to the rental, which was probably for the best. It was better that I was relaxed and hopeful when we got in the taxi to go up the hill from Dharamsala, through McLeod Ganj to the tiny village where we’d be staying: Naddi Village. To watch a video of our Naddi Village Nightmare, click here.
I’d studied the Lonely Planet book on this area of the world, nestled in the Himalayas, but no matter how hard I’d tried, I just couldn’t reconcile the GPS map of our vacation rental’s location with the actual layout of the cities that line up along the main road here. Where the heck was the Dalai Lama Temple anyway? There’s Dharamsala (where the airport is) and then there’s McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama is)…they’re relatively close together on a map but they’re about an hour apart via taxi. And Naddi Village is “close” to McLeod Ganj, but our vacation rental owner wasn’t especially clear about how close. She gave us information about kilometers, but it takes a while to go one kilometer on a hilly, winding road. A lot of my confusion came from the fact that Naddi Village is in the Himalayas and so it takes a LONG time to go a seemingly short distance. The village is so small as to not really be a village at all…just a collection of shacks and a few impoverished vendors selling things like razors, shampoo, and gum out of dirty plastic containers placed on rotting wood shelves.
It was raining heavily when we got in the taxi at the airport. The driver was sullen and quiet as we wound through the mountains. There was thick fog, like driving through a cloud. In areas, the fog was so thick that everything became very dark and gray and then it would lift and we’d see the fog spilling down the mountain and out of the sky into a forest of Himalayan cedar trees. The road twisted right and then left past dogs and cows, monkeys, and rickshaws that were coming and going, veering and careening (as the traffic does here) other taxis, trucks, buses, landslides, and pedestrians. It was the day before Independence Day in India, so the traffic was thick.
The trip uphill via taxi was decidedly stressful. We passed through areas that were populated but tarped due to the rain and then we passed through less populated areas where cows grazed on trash beside the road. The windshield kept steaming over, adding to the treacherous nature of the trip. The taxi driver wiped it off every few minutes with a dirty old rag.
These Himalayan mountains weren’t the snowcapped peaks that one often sees through a camera lens back in the United States. The air was hot and sticky. Everything became damp almost immediately. It was raining big glops of water that smacked at the top of the taxi with a splat, splat splat whenever the tree cover receded. A car-rickshaw accident ahead of us gummed up the traffic at an area where the road had recently caved in and slid down the mountain (a few big rocks had been stacked around it for “safety”. We waited while the two drivers yelled at each other briefly about whose fault it was and then, with little fanfare, the spat was over and the two vehicles drove off in opposite directions. What’s one more little dent in your car when you live in India?
The road veered right, then left, then right, then left, left, then right. This went on for over an hour until we finally reached Naddi Village and the taxi stopped abruptly next to an Indian man named Atul who was waiting for us at a seemingly random location along a bumpy, washed out road. He greeted us by putting his hand to his chest and bowing his head like people do in India. “Welcome.” He said dramatically. We unloaded our bags in the rain and then followed after Atul in the rain to a nearby cement structure painted white and blue.
There were two pipes across the walkway to the property that Atul moved (they kept the cows out, he said–as opposed to keeping them “in”) and then took us up two steps to open a metal gate. The gate opened up into a covered hallway between two rooms. OUR two rooms. John said, “I just found out about this this morning.”
“About what?” I said.
“That we have 2 ROOMS, not 2 bedrooms.”
“Oh.” I said, furrowing my eyebrows and considering this new problem, as Atul worked at the combination of a tiny luggage-sized padlock for the door.
“This is your HOME.” Atul told us as he flipped the numbers into position on the tiny padlock. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me to enunciate his words even more dramatically with his Indian accent. “This is not a hotel… It is not a guest house…This is like your home.” He said the words “your home” with heart-felt romance. I raised my eyebrows at him. His sales pitch made me doubtful. If the property lived up to the inflection of his words, it would be a miracle…an aberration. I was anxious to see inside.
I smiled kindly at Atul and nodded that I understood him. I already knew the drill on vacation rentals and yes, they were supposed to be like a home. Indeed, like OUR HOME while we were away. I was impatient for him to let me see this new, two- room space that was to be our home for 8 days. Finally, he pushed the door open.
I stepped toward the door to peer in.
He must have seen the look on my face as I laid my first glance across the space because Atul said it again, “This is your HOME…This is not a hotel, ma’am. It is not a guest house. It is like your HOME.”
I sighed and smiled at him again. The room was a scary kind of primitive, but not something I couldn’t work with as long as it was clean-ish or at least clean-able there was running water and electricity.
The bags were brought in and lined up against one wall in one of the tiny rooms. Atul opened up the second room. As he turned the numbers of that padlock into position, he told us not to write the combination on the door. Then he pointed to a sticker at eye-level where someone had obviously already written the combination for the lock on the door and then tried to smudge it out (you could still read it).
The second room had three twin beds. “Okay.” I said, “We can all sleep in here at least.” There was no way that I’d have Lydi sleep in a separate room from us behind nothing but a luggage-sized padlock. I immediately started mapping out our daily routine. We’d use the tiny kitchen in the other room and the space with the three beds would be our “sitting and sleeping area”. Both rooms had a bathroom attached. My deny-o-meter went into the red zone. My optimism was way out of proportion to my surroundings.
Atul took us downhill in the rain to the nearest “grocery store” in Naddi Village. It was actually two stores, one of them with a few sad vegetables with fruit flies circling around them and another with a hodge-podge of things like toilet paper, oil, and soap. John got the veggies with Atul while I went to the other store and studied the wares.
By the time John and Atul came to the store where Lydi and I were gathering up materials, I’d collected some cleaning supplies (handsoap), oil, and some napkins. John asked the vendor if he had rice and Atul translated the question to him. The man seemed to think he could find some. He scurried away and a few minutes later (maybe five minutes later) he returned with a homemade newspaper-bag filled with dried rice. Atul stuck his hand into the bag and brought some rice to his nose to smell it. I wrinkled my nose reflexively. I imagined where Atul’s hands had been that day. And then I imagined why he was smelling the rice (because it was stored in an open gunny sack, on the ground, and there was a distinct possibility that the bottom-most layers of the rice in the bag were moldy from being exposed to rain that washed down through the streets carrying things like cow dung and monkey poop with it). After he smelled it, he threw the grains back into the bag.
“Okay.” John said, winking at me discretely before giving Atul an insincere smile meant to cue him that we were ready to go. John and I exchanged a glance as the vendor started adding up our total. John and I nodded at each other, a tiny little gesture of understanding. This whole grocery shop was just a charade. We’d have to go out on our own in search of rice and other staples.
“You don’t need this ma’am.” Atul said as the vendor added a bottle of soap into our total. “There’s soap at the house.”
“Oh.” I said, dumbfounded that this man would tell me what I do or do not need. I was too tired to fight back and the stakes weren’t that high yet. I knew John and I would go out in search of what we needed as soon as we got rid of Atul. The vendor took the soap away.
Atul also had me put the napkins away. “You don’t need these ma’am.” He said.
I decided I didn’t like Atul.
Back at the vacation rental, we waited for Atul to leave before heading back out again in search of civilization. Before he left he said, “I am available to you at any time, day or night.” Then he put his hand on his chest, closed his eyes, and bowed at us again.
John and I remained optimistic, despite the obvious reasons not to. Lydi wasn’t optimistic at all. We waited for a few minutes for Atul to disappear and then started out again down the hill. The rain let up a little as we made our way down, down, down the hill to find a place with pre-packaged rice.It was a long walk, but we found a couple of vendors near the Sacred Dal Lake including an indoor grocery store that was (relatively speaking) quite civilized with things like honey and shampoo that came in bottles (as opposed to little one-serving-ketchup-sized packages) and a vegetable man who’d set up a selection of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes under a blue tarp. Things were looking up. We headed back up, up, up the hill to our rental with 3 backpacks full of food and cleaning supplies.
John and Lydi worked together on dinner as I unpacked, cleaned, and started arranging our toiletries and things from our bags. Lydi was upset. Her job was to get the fruits and veggies washed. John worked on getting the kitchen to working order using the stuff from our “kitchen bag” (we bring along things like a hot plate and cutting board on international trips–particularly a place like India where it’s exceptionally hard to avoid things like Typhoid fever without cooking our own food for ourselves). She and John yelled at each other. We were all tired and stressed and hungry. Still, I remained optimistic.
“I think we’ll be okay.” I kept saying. “The view is nice. And it seems clean enough.” Etc.
It took a long time for John and Lydi to put together dinner in the kitchen. I helped them wash all the dishes and pots and pans before they used them. After much effort, dinner was made. I’d set up some inflatable chairs in the room with 3 beds and we all sat down to eat our food.
Around the time that we were finishing our dinner, the lights flickered once and then went out. We all became silent. The pitter patter of rain was the only sound in the darkening room. Surely the place had a generator. Everyone in India has a generator. We waited for it to click on.
John took a deep breath, sighing, “This is nice,” as he stared down into his empty plate as the sun sunk behind the horizon.
I said, “I think we’ll be okay,” adding an objectifiable reason for my optimism, “We have blankets.”
None of us moved. We were so exhausted and traumatized.
The lights never came back on.
“Okay, let’s just go to bed.” I suggested. “We’re tired. Maybe the lights’ll be on by morning.”
There was a solar lamp in the rental and we all had a little bit of charge left on our phones to use as flashlights. By that time, it was dark outside and we were very isolated since it was our first night up on the side of the mountain. The house was located next to some neighbors, but we were in a place where there were no vendors, traffic, or businesses. John sent a text to Atul. I’d carried a bottle of Lysol from home and I hadn’t had to use it yet, but I pulled it out of our bags before I started checking the beds. I looked over Lydian’s bed first. The bedding looked clean, but when I picked up the pillow, I noticed that there was mold on it.
“We can’t use this.” I said handing it to her. “Put it somewhere away from us.”
“What?!?” Lydi said. “Not even with Lysol?”
I looked at the other pillows. All but two of them were moldy. It’s hard for me to even talk about it, it was so appalling what I found under the pillowcases. I got out our little “Cocoon” inflatable travel pillows (only comfortable in a pinch). Each of us got one. We all pulled our travel pillows out of their little carrying bags and started blowing them up but none of us moved out of the center of the room.
Then John said something that none of us wanted to think about, “Do you think the mattresses are moldy too?” I could only see his silhouette as he huffed another breath of air into the little pillow in the dark.
The rhetorical answer to the question was, of course, “Yes,” but rather than say that out loud, I skipped over it, since sleeping on the floor in India wasn’t really much better than sleeping on mold (the dirtiest, most disgusting floors in the world are in India).
“Okay…” I said, “We’re going to put on pajamas that cover our arms and our legs and we’re gonna wear high socks and…we’ll be okay. The human body is built to deal with a lot more than this.”
John had the briliant idea that we could sleep on top of our comforters to create more distance between us and the moldy bedding. We all accepted this as a suitable remedy to the problem at least for the night.
“There’s nothing we can do, so…it really doesn’t benefit us to think about it much.” I offered into the dark room, lit dimly by the solar lamp. “Let’s just sleep.” (Ha!)
We slept fitfully. Never at any time during the night did I forget about the pillow problem or the mold. All through the night, I had an internal dialogue about it wherein one set of voices revolted against the situation while another set optimistically argued that we were all physically healthy enough to sleep on a bed of mold for one night.
Around midnight or 1:00 AM (or maybe it was 3:00 AM or 10:00 PM–who knows?), there was a hard knock at our door. It was Atul. He told us that the electricity problem was a fluke. “It is the humidity.” He said to explain the outage. John, who’s worked a LOT with electricity and electrical things, wasn’t convinced. In fact, Atul’s statement made him much more concerned. John nonetheless told Atul, as an aside (an important aside), that our pillows were moldy. Atul talked over the top of him as northern Indians often do when we say things they don’t want to hear.
When John came back in, I pointed to a lightbulb on the ceiling that was glowing dimly, growing brighter at times, and then dimming again. “I know.” John said. “We still have electricity. Atul says a the humidity made the electricity go out.”
“What?!?” I said.
“I know.” He said.
I sighed again. “Did you tell him about the pillows?”
“Yep, but he didn’t hear me.”
“Well we’ll need new pillows.” I said emphatically.
“We can go get pillows ourselves tomorrow.” John said.
I laughed at him. “Where?…at Walmart, John? Where the hell are we gonna get pillows?”
Silence — the sound of total desperation and exhaustion.
“Well I don’t think the pillows are going to be our big problem anyway. If we don’t have electricity, we can’t stay here.”
Around 6:00 or 7:00 AM the next morning (it was hard to tell what with not having electricity), the electricity was still not on. John had gotten up before Lydi and I and done some investigation and troubleshooting and found that everyone else in the neighborhood had electricity except us. He looked at the circuit boxes and saw that none of the circuits had flipped. Atul could not be reached.
Lydi and I took icy cold showers and we packed up everything that we had unpacked the night before. We took our computers and left everything else and set off to find a new place to stay by walking along a road where we’d seen a Best Western advertised the night before.
It’s hard to describe our state of mind that following morning. It was uncomfortable. I felt weak from having slept poorly in a moderate to high state of anxiety throughout the night. We were ready to leave Naddi Village forever. In fact, we were ready to leave India forever. As we hiked downhill toward the Best Western (we actually ended up at the Asian Health Resorts and Spa), we discussed several different possible scenarios.
“Maybe we should try to fly out to Mumbai.” But then we considered Mumbai.
“I bet it’s a shit-hole like Delhi.”
“We could go south to Kerala.” And then we considered Kerala.
“What are the odds we’d find a good vacation rental there? And then we have to worry about Dengue and malaria too…”
It was sunny by then. A beautiful morning. The rain clouds hadn’t moved in yet for the day. On the road leading to the Best Western was a hotel called Asia Resorts and Spa. We decided to try this place first since the Best Western was another kilometer downhill and as John and I had joked, some of the worst hotels we’d ever stayed in were Best Westerns.
The Asia Resorts and Spa hotel was busy because of Independence Day. There were no other white people there, but lots and lots of Indian families. We asked to see a room (which is probably going to be our default protocol for the rest of our lives if we ever travel in India again — see the room first BEFORE booking it). A small Indian man who spoke no English escorted us to a triple room that had not been cleaned yet. As an American, normally, it would be off-putting to see a room that had not yet been cleaned, but under the circumstances, I was consoled by the relative cleanliness of the dirty room (relative to where we’d just spent the night). I checked the pillows (not moldy) and the bathroom (not great, but workable). There was a small couch in the room and a little shelf where we could cook vegetables if we wanted to. We decided not to push our luck and just book the room. It was $140 per night. That’s right folks, $140 U.S. DOLLARS per night.
John left Lydi and I at the hotel to do research on the Internet to try to decide on our next move while he went and got our bags from the vacation rental. It was noon-ish and we still hadn’t heard from Atul.
The Internet at Asia Health Resort and Spa was SLOW. Like dial-up slow. And often non-existent. And, on top of that, we had to pay 1000 Rupees every 2 days PER DEVICE to use it.
When John got back with our bags, we ordered some rice and hard boiled eggs (both steaming hot…which is really important in India to avoid getting food poisoning).
“I won’t make this decision about where we go next on the basis of fear.” I told John and Lydi. “We need to get some rest, chill out, and then decide what we want to do.” Our vacation rental in Delhi had been pretty dirty by our standards and we’d spent a week there. There had been crap all over the little nobs on the cooktop. The tables had had glass rings on them. There were stains on the couch, the sheets hadn’t quite covered the beds from one edge to the other, and the blankets were dirty. But those were problems that we could deal with (wash the blankets, clean the nobs, wipe off the tables, and voila, the place was “clean” though we never took off our flip flops because there wasn’t a broom or a mop in the whole place). The sticking point was that in India, we paid as much for these filthy 1 or 2 star vacation rentals and hotel rooms as we paid to stay in a 4 star hotel in the United States. It sucks to be scammed like that, but it’s seriously hard to find a clean place to stay in India at any price. Just because you pay a high dollar amount doesn’t mean that the place will be clean by American standards. But we can clean a vacation rental if it’s dirty. We can’t however, fix the electricity or make there be hot water when there isn’t any.
And incidentally, I don’t trust the so-called Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Systems in northern India. I don’t think they’re real. I can buy a cool-looking bag that says North Face on it for $10 in McLeod Ganj but it’ll probably fall apart in one use or less because that’s how they do things here in India. Indians don’t understand why we need clean water or bags that don’t fall apart. They bathe in the Ganges River, dunking their heads into a cesspool of ashes from dead bodies as well as the partially decomposed corpses of others that were not “clean” enough to burn (like people who got the pox or TB, for example). Water purity and cleanliness is just simply not a priority in northern India. We keep our lips shut even when we shower here and spit out any water that gets in our mouths by accident because the sewage pipes often run ABOVE the pipes (leaking occasionally) that deliver tap water to the faucet.
But I digress.
We decided to stay on for our full 8 days at the Asia Resort and Spa here in Naddi Village. We walked uphill each day for about 30 to 45 minutes to Dal Lake from the Asia Resort and Spa to catch a tuk tuk down the mountain to McLeod Ganj. There was a cheaper hotel in McLeod Ganj called the Shambhala Hotel, owned by a Tibetan family, but the rooms were very small and dark and Lydi and I would’ve had to have slept in a separate room from John and there was little room to do anything like work or cook, just barely enough room for 2 people to sleep. It cost 800 Rupees a night (about $12) for a double room with an ensuite bathroom.
Atul finally checked back in with us around 2:00 PM after we’d booked a new place and removed all our belongings form the other place. John sent a message to the owner, “Rachel” saying that our night at her rental had been “like spending the night in a cement tent”. She refunded our money.
Today is our second to last day and I don’t regret having stayed here in Naddi Village or this hotel. The staff has been friendly. Each time they come to our room, they say “hi” to me just to be nice. One of the housekeepers came by just to chat with John and be friendly this afternoon. It was annoying, but the man meant well and those kinds of things are slightly endearing. Despite the early bad experience, I’ve warmed up to the area. McLeod Ganj is a neat little village overall. It’s a tourist town with lots of shops and opportunities to be scammed, but…we’ve had some cool experiences there. I like the tuk tuk rides up and down the mountain when I can just watch the people and their little shops pass by. The tuk tuks park at Dal Lake and go back and forth between there and McLeod Ganj. The Church of St. John is on the way between here and there too. A bunch of people who died in the 1905 earthquake are buried in the cemetery there. At the lake is a place called the Tibetan Children’s Village where refugee children attend school. We toured the 42 acre facility one morning on our way back up the mountain to our hotel. There we met some Israelis on a giant dirt soccer field who commiserated with us about the dirtiness in India. They’d found a guesthouse in Bhagsu, a tiny village that’s also close to McLeod Ganj up in the hills a different direction from Naddi Village.
John and Lydi bought some drums from a drum-maker and busked for a while with him on the street in McLeod Ganj. I inquired about some singing bowls and ended up getting an informal “healing session” from a salesman who may or may not have known what he was doing (it was still an interesting experience). We toured the temple complex where the Dalai Lama lives. Today, I interviewed a doctor of Tibetan medicine about…Tibetan medicine. It’s an interesting place. There are a lot of layers to it with both Indian and Tibetan cultures inter-mixing mostly peaceably. I’m glad we came here. I’m also glad we didn’t flee even though it was tempting. India, particularly northern India, is not a place for the feint of heart. But more on that later…