It was a day before Diwali a couple of years ago. I was feeling particularly saddened over not being able to visit family in festivities. I had a choice in staying back in Delhi or causing a change of scenery. I chose the latter and booked my Volvo tickets to a tried and tested safe destination – Manali.
So here’s a tip. When leaving Delhi a day before Diwali, keep at least 3 extra hours in hand just to reach the train/bus station. You will be surprised how covering a distance of mere 10 kilometers in Delhi pre-Diwali can be a Herculean task. As I took the metro from Gurgaon to the Bus Station, I did not know it will make me end up calling none other than the bus driver to plead him to wait 10 more minutes. God bless the driver, I eventually boarded the bus.
Before I go on further, I just want everyone to know that this was my first ever recreational solo trip.
With my brand new iPhone 6 plus in hand, I woke up to breath-taking scenery and a hope that this Diwali will compensate for the lost time with family. The bus ride of approximately 12 hours ended on a beautiful note when I took my first breath of fresh air next to the lovely Beas river. Another 30 minutes and I was checked in to the riverside Dragon Guest House in Old Manali.
Since I reached on the morning of Diwali, India’s biggest festival, I wasn’t surprised to see the streets empty with only a few tourists in sight. What scared me even more was the moment when I realized I’m being followed by a bunch of local boys. While innocently looking around for a plate of food, I stumbled upon these hooligans who did not waste time in figuring out I was alone.
One of them said – “Look, she’s going to the ATM. No worries. Let her come out. It’s gonna be a fun day, Bro..! One of them seemed to have a kind heart – “Chuck it dude, let her go. C’mon, let’s not bother her” To this, the other one replied- Why dude, is she your sister?
This numbingly fearful conversation was enough for me to just pack my bags and take the next bus back home. But then, I decided I shouldn’t jump the guns and in an attempt to be around other people. I walked into a nearby restaurant, spotted a lean, kind-eyed, bespectacled white man, and sat on his table, pretending he’s someone I know or am friends with. If Bollywood had ever taught me any drama, this was the time to use my skills, and so after quietly communicating the situation to this stranger, I finally found my safe zone in the “now foreign” city.
“My name is Matthias. And you?” he said, in a kind yet deep, husky voice. “I’m Suhani, I’m from Delhi. Thank you very much for playing along. I was really scared and didn’t know what to do.” I said with a sense of sheer relief. After meeting a series of jerks and experiencing all the douchebaggery, spotting the “good guy” wasn’t really a problem for me, you see. :)
“Don’t worry now. You’re safe here” he assured.
I thanked him for his assurance and then, it seemed, the ice was broken. I learnt that he was a French native, living and studying in New Delhi and was in Manali on a solo trip, since all his college mates had gone to their homes to celebrate Diwali.
Upon hearing an equally identical story from me, he realized he wasn’t the only one alone in the city. We exchanged numbers and decided to meet the same evening if the other did not have any plans. During my time in that restaurant, I realized how effortless the whole experience was and that I could count on him to be a good travel companion during the next 3-4 days.
A hearty meal riverside followed and I decided to take a nap after return to the hotel, hoping he will call. I maybe a confident woman but I didn’t want him to feel that his kindness is causing hindrance in his private time in the hills by himself. Thankfully, I was pleasantly woken up by his text in the evening and we decided to catch up. I’d be lying if I said that I did not see a possibility of travel romance in this meeting. However, he seemed so different from all the other men I had ever met or spoken to, natives or foreigners, that I remained careful in my conversations.