The day after our trip to Dharamsala, we decided to put to the test our new found knowledge of Indian transportation and attempt the trip to Rajol.
The interns based there had come to visit the previous night and stayed over in McLeod with some of the Naddi team. I had spent the night back in my homestay, but a friend and I decided we’d simply meet up with everyone in the morning and travel to Rajol together to spend the weekend.
Did I say “simply”? That may have been a misleading word to use. We got what we thought was a fairly late start on the day and decided to go to Dharamsala and then get in touch with everyone else. We arrived only to discover that my new SIM card wasn’t working and we were going to have to get by without a phone. So naturally our first reaction was to go find food and deal with communication issues later. After a fantastic lunch, we borrowed a phone but couldn’t get through to anyone. So we thought we might as well just get to Rajol ourselves and figure it out from there.
Arriving at the bus station we looked confusedly at everything until someone came up to us asking where we wanted to go. Conveniently – perhaps too conveniently? – the right bus, he said, was the one right in front of us. Most Indian people tend to just agree with you or tell you what you want to hear so it was difficult to feel confident. And even more difficult when we asked again and we were told, “yes, Razool, Razool.” Is that how Rajol is pronounced around here or were we heading to another city with a frustratingly similar name nearby? We tried questioning the bus driver but he had no idea what we were asking. An Indian couple joined us on the bus at this point so we wrote out the name of our destination and showed it to them, asking if the bus would stop there. Hindi words may not have uniform spelling in English but it was a better bet than counting on our pronunciation skills. When they said yes we finally felt assured enough to stay where we were and our bus journey started.
It was amazing how quickly the landscape began to change. There are certain universal similarities when it comes to mountain scenery but as the trees got smaller and smaller and the land grew greener and opened up, it was a sort of reminder that I was very far away from anywhere I’d ever been. Realising that even just around the corner everything is new is a thrilling incentive to go out and explore nearby areas during my time in India.
Eventually the bus pulled over to the side of a road and we were nodded to as a sign that this was our stop. Rajol was one long street in a beautiful green valley and it was immediately clear that the reactions we get as non-Indian visitors in Naddi are unusually subtle. They’re quite used to white tourists there, but in Rajol we were a spectacle. Children would lean out of school buses to stare and cheer, cars would slow down to take pictures and the looks we got on the streets were prolonged and open.
Well, we figured, if we’re causing a scene here, a group of Europeans living in this town must be quite noticeable. So we started telling shop keepers that we were looking for “our friends”, and it worked – everyone we asked pointed down the street in the same direction. Eventually at one shop we asked to borrow a phone and the man recognised who we were looking for – “those people who walk around with shovels all the time! I think they’re trying to learn Hindi…”.The group based in Rajol does do a lot of organic gardening for the migrant camps, so the description was close enough to be promising. When we decided to stop at a Dhaba for some chai we asked the man running it the usual question and he said that they lived just a few houses down and that he had one of their phone numbers if we’d like him to call for us? We got through this time and apparently everyone was just getting up and having breakfast! So we had a few hours to wait… we were told where the keys were to the house and to make ourselves comfortable until they got there. After one of two false attempts at finding the place and making several new friends, we found a beautiful old house with a lovely marble porch looking out over fields.
As it felt like a good place for a picnic, we walked back into town and got a selection of foods from various street stalls to bring back to the house and spent a lovely afternoon soaking up the sun.
Eventually everyone else joined and after a nice night together we woke up the next morning eager to go to the nearby hot springs. It took us an hour to get there in a shared jeep and while the surrounding area was beautiful, the female-section of the springs was horrifying. The men’s area didn’t look particularly appealing either, to be fair, but at least they had running water; the women’s side was a stagnant shallow pool which smelled about as pleasing as it looked. So while a few of the guys went for a swim, the rest of us went walking down to the river and enjoying sunshine – something we hadn’t yet experienced in Naddi. It felt unbelievable and the area was a summery delight.