I was on a dark, hot, dusty bus on a bumpy road, shaking me up. Braying horns and headlights.
It was an overnight bus for Dharamsala, which left about 45 minutes behind schedule so a bunch of Indians could argue and shuffle about the door for a while. Dharamsala is situated in Northern India, in the foothills of the Himalaya, far from the big cities of Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and Jaipur, but still considered a tourist city in its own right. It is most famous as the home of the Dhali Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, drawing Tibetans and their supporters, Nepalese, Buddhist monks, spiritual followers, practitioners of meditation, yogis and bus loads of white tourists.
After some four or five hours the bus stopped. It was warm and dark outside. It was a rest station with a couple of restaurants and a convenience store, but everyone seemed to know what they were doing except me.
In perpetual fear of my bus leaving without me, and considering what happened at my last bus-stop-diner, I didn’t sit down for a full meal.
Over at the convenience store, contemplating which biscuits would be the closest thing to a meal a husky Indian fellow, close to my age, from my bus starts trying to chat me up.
I’m a pretty friendly traveler and there aren’t many people I won’t talk to. In fact this can really “enrich your experience” in India, where most everyone is eager to make a new friend.
But especially in Delhi, and especially for white or otherwise obviously-not-Indian foreigners, and especially for first-timers; being approached is so common as to become tiresome after only a short time in the country.
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 weary of it. For the first time I kind of just blew the guy off, as if to say, “this isn’t my first time here buddy.”
He backed off some, but after a half-hour at the stop he kept edging in there and I finally warmed up to him. His name was Raj, a nice enough fellow, heading up to Dharamsala for a little R&R with some friends. By the time I was waiting to get back on the bus I was standing with Raj and two of his friends, one of whom was an elderly man.
If the bus ride was sketchy on a straight highway in the early afternoon, wait until you’re climbing into the mountains on curved roads and switchbacks at 03:00 AM, with the bus driver taking each corner pinned 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 useless. It was like trying to sleep in a washing machine.
We finally arrived in McLeod Ganj at about 0600, where I got off the bus with a few notes sketched on where to find my hostel. The air was cool on my skin, a welcome sensation coming from Delhi at over 110 degrees.
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: the of monkeys dashing around in the trees raucously, and the loads of trash that people throw over the edge.
Just before walking away I saw Raj again. After chatting for a minute longer he invited me to a get-together with friends at their guest house that evening. I liked him by this time and got his phone number to join later.
I struck out through McLeod Ganj, which I affectionately refer to as the MCG.
The main square is no more than 20 yards across in either direction, with roads leading in five directions. There are shops, restaurants, a taxi stand, a public well, internet cafes, travel agencies and schools of meditation, all deceptively quiet and empty in the early morning.
Walking through the streets so early it was quiet, with few people around, which I would realize later is a far cry from the normal bustling center of town.
After a short jaunt through town I came to the Pink House at 0630, a six-story hotel and guest house situated on the side of a steep slope. There is a rooftop patio overlooking the valley spreading out below, the smaller town of Bahgsu across the way, small clusters of shacks and shanties and trails of smoke rising from burning piles of trash. The faint smell of burning plastic drifted to me as the darkness slowly lifted, making way for a hazy dawn.
Checking-in I learned that my room wouldn’t be ready until noon, and the innkeeper politely asked me to wait while he offered his morning prayer to Allah as the sun crested the Dhadular mountain range in the distance across the valley. Since I couldn’t check-in until later I had some breakfast on the patio as the sun rose higher, the mist receding down the valley, and it was peaceful.
After breakfast it was still only 0730. I was 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 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.
He asked about me and where I was from, what I was doing in India, about my travels. He invited me back to his guest house in Bhagsu, which took 20 minutes to reach walking uphill. It’s rooftop patio overlooked Bhagsu down below, and MCG across the valley.
There, sitting on the floor in a living room of sorts, with Sunny making chai in the kitchen, I met Baba, an elderly Indian man. It seemed like I recognized him. They told me that their friends arrived this morning also, and that they were taking a rest, which I wished I was. But there I sat with a glass of chai with Sunny and Baba and suddenly 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 what Baba spoke of. He told me stories that taught lessons, practical things, philosophical things, from the story of Buddha and lessons of humility to the nature of people.
I sat for hours that first day with Baba and Sunny, just sitting there on the floor, mostly quiet, drinking chai, smoking Indian beadie cigarettes and listening. There were lessons in everything he talked about. There are people in every place that will take advantage of you; but there are good people also. Baba was a wise man and I trusted him, believing I was with good people.
I learned much later 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 learn from him. He talked about health and how at over 70 years old he was still flexible and strong, because he uses his limbs. He talked about his home in Jaipur, where the living room opened up entirely, and even though he has air conditioning running, he leaves the windows open so the air stays fresh and cool. How whenever he serves vegetables he slices them immediately before serving and not a moment sooner.
Little things about living fresh, clean and natural. His voice was captivating, it brought me in and convinced me. He also taught me how to meditate. To focus on your breathing and to observe your thoughts as they come.
Back in Baghsu on that first morning, I finally was ready to check into the Pink House. Before leaving though, Sunny invited me back later. Some other friends were arriving and they were having a party that night.
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 10 or 14 guys coming in and out from all over the place. It seemed like an amazing coincidence, one of many examples this year of when it’s seemed like there are people you’re just supposed to cross paths with.
I didn’t really think much of it, nor find it peculiar, that these fellows were just hangin out. While Dharamsala didn’t seem like much of a vacation spot for Indians, who am I to say where they like to spend their free time?
Fairly shocked by the whole experience, I felt inspired that I’d met some friends already my first day in a new place. 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.
Over the next couple of days I spend time with these guys, and even moved from the Pink House into their guest house in Baghsu – mostly because it was far cheaper, but also to hang out with the guys. It was during this time that I extended my stay in India, told in another story. I spent time with Baba almost every day, and with Sunny, and met a bunch of other guys coming and going, staying for a few days, seemingly all just for a little vacation time.
On one of these days Raj, the first guy I’d met on the bus to Dharamsala, told me he wanted to speak with me about a “business opportunity.” I agreed, and we went up to one of the rooms, sat down and he started talking earnestly. He told me about his jewelry business, how they make lots of money and deliver top quality jewelry around the world at great prices. Then he started telling me how they have lots of friends who help them with their business.
What happens is Raj or one of his people gives me a box of jewelry. If it were me helping, I would go to the shipping company and ship this box to myself back in the US, with a note that reads something like, “I’ve purchased these jewels in India as gifts for friends and family. This is how much I paid for them (some amount in rupees equivalent to perhaps $30,000). I’m sending them from India to my home in the United States.”
Later I would get the package in the US, where I meet someone from Raj’s team who I give the jewels to. Then I’d go back to the shipping company and write another note that reads something like this: “I bought these jewels in India as gifts for friends and family. I’ve decided that I don’t want them after all and I am sending them back.” I’d send this note with a package to India, but obviously without the jewels.
I’m not sure if they would have given me fake jewels to send back with the note or just an empty box, but in any case you can see how it works. Regardless, at that point they have jewels in the US, that they could maybe sell in India for $5,000 or $10,000, that will go for $40,000 or $50,000 in the United States. On top of that it’s access to a market that’s more able and willing to buy.
As Raj explained to me how it works, he produced a binder, opened it and began flipping the pages. He showed it to me, each page containing a foreigner’s profile and photocopy of their passport, along with handwritten letters and documentation. He pointed to each, telling me how they’d been good, trustworthy partners and much money they each had made.
To do it all legit they would probably have to pay huge export taxes to India and then import taxes on the other end, other duties, fees and tariffs. So they came up with this system to get the jewels in without those burdens. Americans and other foreigners have the privilege of sending or bringing home purchased goods, but exploited for commercial purposes these privileges are extremely valuable.
Raj offered me $20,000 to partner with them.
Their operation is pretty simple. They get a bunch of personable young guys together to hang out, meet foreigners and make friends with them. They know how much foreigners are already getting attention from locals, so they have to slow-play it. Like Raj when we first approached me at the rest stop, they can’t just go in straight for the kill. It’s a slower process of getting the foreigners to feel comfortable and build trust. These guys aren’t messing around with the petty crap, getting you to take their taxi or go to their brother’s tourist agency. They’re going for home runs.
I knew right away I wasn’t going to do it. But they had my attention, and I thought about it. At the time I was halfway around the world and had already spent perhaps three fourths of my money. I didn’t have much left, I didn’t have a job or any way to earn money, nor any certainty for earning once I got back, and I had a lot of expensive miles in front of me.
With $20,000 I’d be able to travel for the rest of the year without any worries; I’d be able to stay in nicer hostels or even hotels, I wouldn’t have to take lowest economy travel option every time, I’d be able to see and do so much more, get around easily and not have to always go for the cheapest meal options. I wouldn’t have to worry about money at every purchase, every meal, every day.
It was very tempting. I mean, what’s wrong with that? Find a way to make some money traveling, make my trip that much easier.
I told Raj I’d have to think about it. He was very calm about it, but he was very serious and made it clear that he really wanted me.
Other guys talked to me about it later. One of the fellas, his name was Kumar. A big guy with a very thick accent, powerful looking. He was really in my face. Very up-front about it all. He pressed me about the money. He talked about, “well, you have enough money to travel around the world, but you really don’t have much money.” It became intense, and I was a little intimidated.
It got me thinking though. He was right. I didn’t have much money. I had enough to travel for a year (I thought), but once I got back I didn’t have any guarantee of earning money or how I was going to do it or anything like that.
Even so, it was foolish. They had approached me with this “business opportunity,” but it was empty. They didn’t need my skills or talents or ambition. They just needed my passport. A piece of paper. They didn’t really need me as a partner, just a resource, a means to avoid a legal obstacle.
I wasn’t about to risk it. I’ll make ends meet, I thought. I’ll travel local. I’ll find other ways.
I declined the offer, but even so they asked me several more times. I was pressed firmly, but kept my stance. I thanked them for offering, and for their trust in me, and for graciously bringing me in and for treating me with respect. I told Raj that while I was appreciative, they didn’t need me for me. They just needed my passport and my pulse, and to me it wasn’t worth it. Besides, I had the world to travel, I couldn’t just go back to the US, even for 20 G’s.
I’d thought it was this amazing coincidence that I’d met Raj on the bus, then Sunny just strolling past the chai shop. And then the experiences I had with Baba…I thought it was incredible, another example of how certain people are meant to cross paths.
In the end, I’m afraid, it wasn’t a coincidence at all. That’s what they’re there to do. They choose a place where a lot of tourists visit, get out there and befriend Americans or Europeans, build trust with them and then use them for their business purposes. It was all right there in front of me, as Raj flipped through pages and pages of white western passports.
Do I think they’re bad people?
I don’t. They were still my friends. I mean, Sunny and I had some great talks and very genuine discussions. We even did a workout together. And some of the other guys, too, I really connected with. And what about Baba? He told me stories, taught me meditation, shared life lessons and wisdom. He was a spiritual mentor to me, if for a short time.
So I don’t think they’re bad people. They’re just living. In India, if you’re not born into it you don’t have much of a chance to make it big. This is their way. Think more natural law. What you can do and what you can’t do. If there is a way to work the system then it’s open game.
I can’t say for sure, but I imagined things were different after that. The guys were still cordial and all, but their attention was turned elsewhere. I was even, for a moment, slightly concerned for my own safety. I knew by then about their activities, and with the kind of money they’re dealing with, they’re not likely to take many risks. But it was all good. They didn’t feel threatened by me, and I was happy to leave and disappear to them.
The day I left I said goodbye to all the guys in the guest house living room. Just as I was leaving, a very young-looking white foreigner was walking in the door, with his backpack on, chatting with his newfound friends.
To this day I think about Baba, and Sunny, and the Indian boys in the MCG.