Thanks to Meera (and Shonali, who put me in touch with Meera and who checked in on me every day when I was sick!) I was finally back on my feet and it was time to get out of Delhi. After kicking around a few ideas, including calling Imran again, I decided to go to Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama. Well, kind of.
In March 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India after the failed uprising in 1959 in Tibet against the Communist Party of China. The Indian Government offered him refuge in Dharamshala, where he set up the Government of Tibet in exile in 1960, while McLeodGanj (a suburb of Dharamsala) became his official residence and also home to several Buddhist monasteries and thousands of Tibetan refugees Over the years, McLeodGanj evolved into an important tourist and pilgrimage destination, and has since grown much in population.
In reality, the Lama is not actually in McLeodGanj all that often. But he did happen to be there just as I arrived and I managed to set up a Lama-Healy twosome. Turns out he’s a long hitter.
Being the home of the Tibetan government, there are many Tibetans in the population and a great deal of Tibetan activity – support Tibet groups, Tibetan bookstores, restaurants, etc. This made for a really interesting dynamic and I learned a lot. I even got to witness a couple of candle-lit vigil in support of the Tibetan cause.
In addition to the suburb of McLeodGanj, there is also Bhagsu (and a few others), where I ended up spending most of my time.
So Dharamsala it was.
Booking travel in India is generally a disaster but not nearly as bad as the actual traveling. I managed to procure a ticket for an overnight bus, and Jitender and his homeboy drove me to the “station” (really just a big parking lot with dozens of buses, any of which could potentially be yours) and made sure I got on the right bus. Those guys are awesome.
We rolled off about 45 minutes behind schedule so a bunch of people could argue and shuffle about the door for a while.
I failed to really describe this from the trip to Agra (probably because I was at the back of the bus and didn’t quite realize what was happening), but this is what it’s like riding on a bus in India:
You’re driving down the left side of the road in moderate traffic on a two-lane highway with more craters than Cu Chi. You approach a line of slower-moving vehicles in front of you. The driver engages the turn indicator, firmly depresses the bus horn (which plays a dreadful little tune), and continuously flashes his high beams while accelerating into the right lane and oncoming traffic. Fast-moving vehicles approach from the other direction. You pass the first car safely. The driver remains in passing formation to now overtake a bus. The oncoming cars flash their high beams. The driver gently nuzzles into the center of the highway, straddling the center line, and continues flashing and honking. Oncoming vehicles continue flashing and honking. The bus being overtaken is cruising dead straight. Ongoing traffic then flies by as our bus shoots the gap, three vehicles across a two-lane highway. Then this happens about 1,000 times.
And this really doesn’t even do it justice. In an Indian bus you are perpetually bumping, jolting, passing, banking, honking, flashing, speeding and braking, and occasionally screeching to an urgent halt to avoid an unconcerned, chewing cow.
Late in the evening of the overnight journey our bus stopped at a rest station with restaurants, convenience store, etc. As I was contemplating which biscuits would be the closest thing to a meal a fellow from my bus starts trying to chat me up.
By this time I’ve had a third of the north Indian male population ask me what is my country of origin and I’m just not having it with this dude. For the first time I really just blew one of these guys off.
Nonetheless he kept going as we stood waiting for the bus. After a bit I finally warmed up to him and he was a good guy. His name was Raj, heading up to Dharamsala for a little R&R with some friends.
If the bus ride was sketchy on a straight highway in the early afternoon, wait until you’re into the hills on heavily curved roads at 03:00 AM, with the bus driver taking each corner at the absolute maximum speed before rolling the bus, and passing other buses around blind corners, while trying to sleep. I try to bear it out as my head is violently shaken to the other side on each corner but eventually it’s just useless.
We finally arrive in McLeod Ganj at about 0600, where I got off the bus with a few notes sketched on where to find the Pink House. The bus “station” is situated on a hillside just before you get into the main square. I noticed two things looking over the edge of the hillside: first the handful of monkeys dashing around in the trees, and then the boat loads of trash that people just apparently throw over the edge.
Just before walking away I see Raj again. We chat for a minute longer and invites me to a get together at their guest house that evening. I liked him by this time and got his phone number to join later.
Being in the mountains it was considerably cooler in D-Sala than Delhi, going from 110+ degrees to the 70s-80s, down to the 60s at night. It was welcome.
I found the Pink House after a short walk through town. It was a nice place with a beautiful patio overlooking the rising valley and the snow-capped peaks beyond. Since I couldn’t check in until noon I had some breakfast on the patio as the sun rose over the mountain range, and it was peaceful.
After breakfast it was still only 0730. I was really exhausted from the overnight bus journey with little sleep to speak of, but I had to occupy myself for a few hours or I’d fall asleep on the table in front of me.
I decided to take a stroll around town to get a feel for the place, maybe check out the Lama’s crib. Well, I went the wrong way for that and was quickly passing through MCG and on the road to Bhagsu a bit further on. I knew I was going the wrong direction, but for some reason I kept going. I guess I wanted to see the view of the mountains unfolding as I rounded the corners.
I soon passed a little chai shop, and also walked by a young slender Indian guy with a Superman t-shirt. We traded head-nods.
After a little while I turned back, and as I walked again by the chai shop Superman was still standing there. This time we both said hi, and that’s when I met Sunny.
Sunny is from Bombay and was staying in Bhagsu for some holiday time. We hit it off and became friends. After chatting for a while he invited me back to his guest house for a chai, and since I still had, oh, about four hours to kill I thought what the hell.
Bhagsu is a solid 15 or 20-minute uphill walk from MCG, and striking back and forth in the area becomes a journey.
We went back to Sunny’s guest house, high up on the hillside, which had a patio overlooking Bhagsu and an indoor lounge/common room. There I met Baba, an elderly Indian man. It seemed like I recognized him, but two and two weren’t coming together.
They told me that their friends arrived this morning also, and that they were taking a rest, which I wished I was. At any rate I’m sitting in a room with a glass of chai with Sunny and Baba and had an incredible conversation.
It started with me describing my travels in India, some of my hesitancies in coming, and some of the experiences I’d had so far. As we talked, I become more and more interested in the things Baba spoke of. He told me stories that taught lessons, practical things, philosophical things. Just sitting right there talking, from the story of Buddha and lessons of humility to the nature of people. I could tell he was a wise man and that I was with good people.
I later learned that Baba is not a specific name, but a title meaning wise man or spiritual guru. Throughout my time in the Sala I would meet often with Baba and just learn things from him, many that will stick with me.
Before I left to get back to the Pink House Sunny invited me to come back a bit later. They were having a get together.
Dang, well I would love to come but I already told Raj that I was going to come to his thing later. Maybe I could do both.
It was then I finally realized that Raj and his homeboys from the bus were the same friends of Sunny that were now sleeping it off. Baba had in fact been on the bus with me also, and finally it all came together. They were all friends, and over the week there were between 10-14 guys coming in and out from all over the place.
It was really interesting how it all went down. It was one of many examples this year of when it’s seemed like there are people you’re just supposed to cross paths with.
I finally went back to MCG and checked into the Pink House, by this time a little spacey from lack of sleep, and crashed hard.
* * *
While I had been on the bus I’d briefly read up on Dharamsala, and toward the bottom of the Wiki page was a ‘Volunteering’ section. Interesting. There I read about the Mountain Cleaners, a group of staff and volunteers committed to cleaning up India, little by little. As it turned out they had an overnight volunteer project leaving the next day, trekking into the mountains picking up trash. It sounded great and perfect timing so I was in.
After a long nap, that night I joined the bros back in Bhagsu. I learned something very interesting about Indian culture. In a given night partying with the wolfpack, it’s typical to start drinking and drink for as long as you’re going to drink, and then have dinner at the end and that’s it. Whereas in the western culture we typically will have dinner, maybe with a few drinks, then go out for drinks after dinner. Then Rob’s at 4:00.
Well on this night we didn’t end up eating until midnight. The difference for me was particularly acute, considering I’d worked out before coming over and needed food badly. I thought dinner would be 8:30 at the latest, and seriously thought I might not make it.
Anyhow, I had a great time getting to know these guys. They all spoke English to me and around me, but being a big group of them they would often speak Hindi amongst themselves. At times I’d be just sitting in the corner, listening and watching eight or 10 guys joking and laughing and telling stories. The culture is so different….but we’re all the same.
The arrival in D-Sala had gone well. The bus didn’t crash, I’d met some good friends and was feeling good. I made it back to the Pink House ready to strike it out the next morning with the Mountain Cleaners.