When an Israeli traveler, Ami-Chai Shtainmitz, was discovered missing in India, Chabad rabbinical students Levi Pekar and Yehuda Kirsh took an active role in organizing search parties. This is part three of Levi's Manali diary, exclusive to lubavitch.com. Click here for his earlier entries.
Wednesday 8 Av
I woke up after a sleepless night and immediately went out to start recruiting for my oncoming trip to help with the rescue. I walked around for close to four hours and was able to get about 15 people who agreed to be at the Chabad House at 1pm. I was hoping to make it to Khalga before the onset of the fast. By 3pm only four out of the 15 showed up, so we left.
The trip entailed going two and a half hours to Kasol, an hour drive tp Varshani and then a 45 minute walk to Khalga. We arrived at Kasol and after a rest and a little pre-fast meal, we continued on to Varshani.
Because of heavy traffic and cows along the way, we arrived 10 minutes after the fast started, and because of the receding light, it took us a hour and a quarter to reach Khalga. We arrived at the Bait Yehudi late for Eicha and too late to find housing for the night, so I slept on a small bed in the attic of the Bait Yehudi.
Thursday 9 Av
We woke up at 5am; the team was ready at 6:30 for a four-hour hike to Khirganga (Khare-Ghanga). We were 7 guys, 7 girls, 1 guide, 4 porters and 2 stray dogs. The route which goes through a large forest on a very steep edge, is perilous when you’re refreshed and well fed. But when you’ve only had a few hours of sleep and no food, it is outright treacherous.
We crossed over sweeping rivers and dangerous cliffs; we passed by a crag where an Israeli slipped and died 10 years ago. I stopped and said a chapter of Psalms for him. As we neared Khirganga, my fatigue was getting the better of me.
The town, or rather the hamlet of Khirganga is situated on a flat terrain 3200 meters (10,500 feet) above sea level. Its four guest houses are on a little cow dung ridden road leading up to a hot spring which is what brings tourist here. I hauled myself up to the “Ice and Fire” guest house which is a dinky little pavilion with mattresses strewn all over the floor for people, to eat and sleep.
The walk took about five hours to make, so after four hours of greeting the locals and volunteers, the main search party came back from their trek into the surrounding mountains. I met the search and rescue team, three men, Yochai, Lior and Eli who came from Israel.
I broke my fast on mangoes, hard boiled eggs and warm sprite, eating only the little that I was certain, was strictly kosher. The rest of the night the group spent playing guitar. I finally went to sleep in somebody’s room, but the “mattress” was too tough for me to sleep well.
Friday 10 Av
Reveille was at 6 am, and I while I was still groggy from sleep, I was on my way with 2 hard boiled eggs in my hand. Three stray black dogs joined us whom we named Chapati (Pita), Chai (Tea) and Chilum (Pipe).
We crossed the flat terrain in about 35 minutes and started heading through a large forest similar to the one we traveled the previous day. We were 40 people going single file up this windy and steep path. After three and a half hour we reached the upper plateau.
I would like to add that the trip that Ami-Chai took from Khirganga to Bunbuny (pronounced Boon- Boony) is a 7 hour trip crossing the flat terrain, climbing that woods, traversing the higher plateau, going down a hill, crossing a temperamental river which can be anything between a two-foot wide stream or a 30-foot raging river depending on the previous day’s weather, and then finally, up a steep hill without trees.
We split into two groups and scoured the area. Group 1 continued up the mountain and searched the surrounding cliffs, while group 2 with me included went to a cluster of mangrove trees (mangrove trees drop their seed right next to its source hence this little forest has thousands of trees). We lined up 20 feet apart, and after being given numbers we headed into the brush.
I headed into the brush with Chai at my side. Even though we were only twenty feet apart from each other, I could not see the people on either side of me because of the dense foliage. After three hours of intensive hiking, climbing and crawling, we made it to the end of the half mile forest.
After a short lunch consisting of a hardboiled egg and some wild strawberries, we spent the next couple of hours scouting out the surrounding dried up rivers and other sorts of brush. With no sign of Ami-Chai, we headed back down to get ready for Shabbos
I used the hot springs for a Mikvah and set up my minyan in the guest house from among the 50 Israelis staying in Khirganga. I expected about 10 to daven with us, but to my amazement we had about 30 people davening with us including people who consider themselves “chiloni" (secular). Some of them individuals told me later that they joined because of Ami-Chai, wanting to pray for his return.
Our Friday night meal was in the general guest house. Amidst all the guitars, pipes and conversation, there was a table set for Shabbos at which 10 people joined us to celebrate our holy day just as if they were in the Chabad House in Manali. Again, I ate mangoes and hard boiled eggs and the challahs that Yehudah kindly sent us.
Shabbos 11 Av
I made Kiddush at 6:30am, being that I wasn’t able to join the search on Shabbos. I went with the group across the flat terrain, and while they combed the forest I tried to give them as much moral support as I could, waiting for them on top of a rock at the bottom. I made a Shabbos meal out of candy and chips that I brought up with me from Manali, and then again mangoes, hardboiled eggs and some candy.
After havdalah, Yochai announced that on the next day the base of operations was moving back to Khalga to they could search the paths of Khalga – Bunbuny. I organized a group heading back for Manali to leave so that we would get there before nightfall.
Sunday 12 Av
A group of nine guys including myself left, heading towards Khalga. We somehow landed in a holy town where we were chased because we were wearing our shoes. In the forest we were completely lost, so we started climbing upward back towards the trail. We arrived in Khalga two hours later than expected.
Our trip to Kasol ended up taking us an extra hour and a half because taxis simply didn’t show up. We arrived in Manali at 7:30pm exhausted, hungry (after 4 days of only mangoes and hardboiled eggs) and really needing a shower.
Monday 13 Av
We spent the whole day planning Yehuda’s trip tomorrow to Khalga, recruiting searchers, and putting the Chabad House back together.