A holiday with my brothers on the other side of the world as part of a sibling bonding experience was always destined to be similar to an entertaining episode of The Amazing Race. It instead managed to take a dive into tragic family sitcom territory.
The initial 40 hours of the adventure had seen us bouncing between airports, but getting no closer to our destination. The youngest member of our motley crew was being deported from India, while the eldest sibling and ringleader of the expedition had bunkered down in Dubai.
The intended travel destination: Gulmarg – the northernmost part of India. We had planned a snowboarding holiday we were sure would be unforgettable, as not only does Gulmarg have the highest accessible ski run in the world, but it is also highly prone to avalanches, borders the highly volatile city of Islamabad in Pakistan, and shares its terrain with the High Altitude Military training centre. This much I knew. I did not, however, know I needed a visa to enter the country: a slight oversight from the entire travelling party.
The three of us were all travelling on separate routes. Once in India, the plan was to assemble in Srinagar within hours of each other. But that was not what the travel gods had in store for us.
This is how things began to unfold.
Brother #1 was being evacuated from his airport due to a bomb scare. I was experiencing absurdly high excess-baggage charges that I had failed to cater for in my budget flight costs. This resulted in me wearing nearly all my winter attire en route to a tropical, humid country for a six-hour layover. Meanwhile, brother #2 was experiencing what was to be the first taste of an ongoing issue. He had no visa to enter India; nor, for that matter, did any of us.
Having missed all connecting flights due to the terrorist scare, brother #1 had decided to wait it out in Dubai for his application to be processed. Brother #2, who refused to admit defeat due to a lack of correct documentation, managed to talk his way onto his flight to India. Flailing some paper around, he convinced the check-in staff he was entitled to be on his flight. I was not so cunning, and instead made phone calls to Indian Immigration attempting to persuade them to reduce the 72-hour processing time down to 15 minutes. These calls were not received well. The reality that I would not be making my flight hit me like a bucket of water. Defeated, I began to remove the contents of my backpack and build a fort inside Singapore airport for the night.
Acutely aware of the amount of ski time I was wasting with each missed flight connection, I made the brash decision to rebook flights without having yet confirmed my visa. In what was to be a roller coaster of emotions, it managed to come through 10 minutes prior to check-in closing. The staff at Singapore airport couldn’t be happier to see the back of me.
Touching down on another layover, I was to finally get word from my siblings. Brother #1 was still yet to hear whether his visa had been approved. Brother #2, meanwhile, was being deported from India. Upon arrival, he had discovered that Indian immigration officials were not impressed by his ability to have talked his way onto the arrival flight, and he was sent packing before he could even unpack.
In quite the turn of events, I was now a solo traveller in India. I hollered a rickshaw, pretending that I had the faintest idea of where I was going or what I was doing, and was instantly overwhelmed by the throng of crowds, loud noises and absurd sights. No one seemed phased by the ox in the middle of the intersection, but I had found love at first sight. Among all the chaos, everything managed to work.
Despite having been warned about rickshaw drivers working for commission, I allowed my mine to lead me straight to a travel agent. Here, I was offered tea that was more sugar than water, and invited to sit. I had no idea what I was here for, as all I really needed was some accommodation, but with nowhere to go, I ambivalently accepted, striking up a conversation about a picture on the wall of the Kashmiri mountains I was attempting to get to. It just so happened that the owner of the agency had grown up in Kashmir, and his family resided at the base of the Himalayas. Having explained how my own family had been scattered across the globe due to our poor planning, this stranger insisted that his family was my family, and that I go stay in Srinagar with them while I waited for my brothers to arrive. So that’s what I did, and booked the next flight out of Delhi.
Before departing I managed to get a scrambled message to my brothers that I would meet them at the mountain. I thought it best to leave out some of the particulars of the situation that I was entering into, for fear that it might cause some warranted concern.
I was greeted at Srinagar airport by my new Indian family. They had no trouble spotting the only six-foot white girl at the airport. In the space of an afternoon, I gained another two brothers, a grandfather and grandmother, a doting father, a crazy aunt, two uncles, a nephew and a brand-new baby niece. The family all lived together in one house. They had no heating, but instead sat around burning pots affectionately nicknamed “winter wives”. As they put it, they lived simply, preparing huge meals which they all sat around and ate on the living room floor. I had never felt more welcome, despite not understanding a word that was being said.
I stayed there that night, sleeping on a bed made from piles of blankets and keeping warm in the zero-degree temperatures with a bundle of hot-water bottles. Come morning, I became somewhat aware that despite how great this family was, I was still very much still missing my own. Upon expressing my concern to the father of the household, he assured me he would get me to Gulmarg that day so I could be reunited with my brothers. But first he was adamant that we must eat.
As promised, a driver was arranged to take me the hour drive to Gulmarg. When we arrived, I raced into our budget ski lodge, expecting my brothers to be thrilled at the sight of me. To my disappointment, they had not even arrived yet. The last word I had received from them was that they had both acquired visas and were on their way, and considering how much quality time I’d been spending with my Indian family, my real family should have already been there. I could only assume they too had found themselves a new Indian family. Not being able to acquire an internet connection, I was left with no alternative but to sit and wait.
It was not until late afternoon the following day that my brothers finally arrived. I was sitting in bed shivering, as the room’s gas heater was incapable of doing its job, and from the other side of the door, I heard the thick accent of the hotel manager. I refused to let myself get excited, as I had been jumping at every sound for the last 24 hours, expecting it to be my brothers. But this time, along with the manager’s voice, I heard two Australians cackling and making obscene jokes. There in the doorway stood my two grinning brothers. Never before had I been so excited to see my family. Only some four days after we intended, we were reunited.
My feelings of fondness towards my family did not cease even after a week of the three of us sharing a bed. They didn’t even waiver when, we were forced to sleep on top of each other on a 12-hour train ride, reenacting a human game of tetris on the single sleeper chair we’d managed to acquire to roars of laughter from everyone else in the carriage.
When the time came to farewell my siblings, I found myself welling up a little on the inside. Although I would never admit it to them, I couldn’t have had better travel companions, and don’t know many others who would have let me sleep atop a three-person pile up.
Despite every effort on my behalf to avoid any kind of Eat, Pray, Love holiday, I seem to have found some spiritual enlightenment in India, a country with a people who are very much fans of family values. My brothers and I had always appreciated each other from afar, but there in India, we became a unified force of resilience. There was nothing India could do to us to bring the team down: avalanches, overcrowded trains, bumpy bus rides and the inevitable Delhi Belly were all just laughable experiences with the three of us together.