We returned to Old Manali from Vashist in the late afternoon. It was Friday, and Shabbat was about to arrive. I couldn’t wait to see what it’s all about. After all, my new religious friends were anxiously preparing themselves for it from the moment I met them.
As a secular Jew, Shabbat for me was no different than any other day of the week, so I was quite intrigued to see what kind of “artistic program” was in store for us, especially in a place like India.
The main ‘event’ of the evening was the Shabbat dinner in the Chabad house, which I thought would also be the perfect place to find people to join me in my next destination: Spiti and Kinnaur valleys.
Spiti and Kinnaur are two breathtaking valleys in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, completing each other like yin and yang. Spiti is a beautiful, virginal desert mountain valley while Kinnaur is journey through a never ending lively green landscape. The valleys continue each other and the transition from one to another is so incredible it’s like traveling between different dimensions. I had heard so much about these valleys from my friend Tom back home, that they were probably the only places I knew for a fact that I was going to see no matter what.
In my conversations with my new group of friends they told me that in a few days they’ll be heading to Ladakh, a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, located north of Himachal Pradesh. I could have joined them but I knew I would be missing Spiti and Kinnaur, since the travel season there was almost over. So I had no choice but to start looking for other travel companions to come with me.
The Shabbat dinner in the Chabad house was also like being in a different dimension. It started with a prayer service in a big crowd. Reading, singing, weird body shakes back and forth and from side to side. I felt like a fish out of the water but I tried to be respectful and go along. Orlin guided me to the right verse in the bible with her finger and Tammy took me to wash my hands with the rest of the girls, which is apparently a ritual ceremony and not a matter of hygiene before dinner time.
Some people might see this as religious coercion, but I thought that the way they tried to help me blend in and feel welcomed in an environment which was so foreign to me was really sweet and thoughtful. After all, I know who I am and I have no plans to become religious all of a sudden, so I saw this evening at Chabad house and my time with this group in general as a lovely learning experience and a chance to meet people with a different lifestyle than mine. There's nothing like traveling for doing that.
After the prayers everybody went upstairs to feast together at a long table with a festive shiny white tablecloth. At the table I met another religious guy and his chatty friend. They were nice and said that they also wanted to go to Spiti - Kinnaur and offered for me to join them. I was excited about the offer but had a strange feeling about the two that I had to confirm first.
I couldn’t go with just anyone to Spiti – Kinnaur; it was not your usual type of trip. The long route that passes through the valleys takes you from one distant village to the next. The only way to get there is by an organized jeep with a few other people or by taking local buses. Either way, you need to make sure that you get along with the people you choose to go with since you're going to be stuck with them in a rural, out-of-civilization-zone for at least five days. I was planning at least two weeks in the valleys, so finding the right people was extra important.
The two new guys I met asked if we wanted to come with them to a party they organized in their guesthouse that night. We kindly refused as we were so tired from the long day we’d had. Instead, me and the girls suggested they join us the next day for a short hike through the woods. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get a sense of what it would be like to travel with these guys. And also, make sure that they are not some freaky psychopaths. I can only handle the regular psychopaths, not the freaky ones.
The next day was Saturday, Shabbat if you will, and so far it was kind of disappointing. There was no fireworks show, no angels falling from the sky, and I didn’t get to see God or anything. Just a crowd of wobbling, restless, singing, hand washing prayers from the night before. Oh well, you can’t have it all.
Orlin, Tammy and I met with the two guys and went to the entrance of the forest that connects between Old Manali and New Manali. We’ve been told that that there are monkeys in there and we really wanted to see monkeys in the wild. As we arrived it turns out that you have to pay a small fee to pass through the gate. I was happy to pay the fee but then I remembered, I’m hanging out with religious Jewish people on a Saturday - a Shabbat. Religious Jews do not carry money on Shabbat, or use it, obviously.
‘Would you like us to pay the fee for you?’ offered a nice couple that passed by and saw us in our dilemma. The problem was that it turns out they were Jewish as well and even though they were secular like me and had no problem paying on Shabbat, I already knew that my religious friends won’t allow it because a Fellow Jew cannot be a ‘Shabbat goy'. I’ll spare you the religious mumbo jumbo and send you to Wikipedia.
So we turned and went to another forest. A free one. Without monkeys. If there is one thing you can say about India, is that the locals really know how to squeeze that lemon called tourism to its very last drop. You could be taking a walk on a random trail in the middle of nowhere and run into a person sitting on a chair asking from you to buy a ticket to pass there. He would give you a real ticket and everything. No refunds though.
We went up a steep footpath in the forest until we got tired and sat on a big flat rock. The two new religious guys wouldn’t stop talking and I didn’t feel like I had anything to add to that hollow conversation. These guys were no psychopathic killers, but I was afraid that I might turn into one if I had to go with them to Spiti - Kinnaur.
‘Is everything alright?’ Orlin asked after seeing me sitting way two long with a blank facial expression.
‘Yeah, it’s fine, I’m just bored.’ I replied with an attempt to smile. I didn’t want her to see that I was worried about them leaving to Ladakh and that my only option for companionship at Spiti - Kinnaur at the moment were these two irritating guys.
After continuous nagging by the guys, we went to their guesthouse to play some cards. They accidently opened a bag of some kind of Indian cheese snacks. I say accidentally because they just had meat and as religious Jews, they couldn’t eat dairy products right away after eating meat. They have to wait a few hours. Luckily, I don’t have that problem. So...more cheese snacks for me!
But seriously, thinking about it, beside the fact that those guys were incredibly annoying, they were religious as well. I could handle all the religious rules and restrictions with the group I was hanging with so far because they were super nice and considerate, but having to put up with people that were giving me a constant headache and had all those religious shenanigans was a bit too much. It was clear to me then that not only would I have to look for other people to join me for Spiti - Kinnaur, I would have to look for secular people like me, no matter what religion.