A Dharamshala Odyssey – Following the Road

After a long day on the road from Mumbai to Dharamkot, I sleep soundly at the backpackers hostel. The outside temperature has dropped below freezing overnight, turning some of yesterday’s melted snow into black ice. Inside, I sleep like a baby, under a thick blanket and a heater beside the bed. Though a bit of a night owl, I tend to wake up early when traveling and feel refreshed even with minimal sleep. It’s the exhilaration of being on the road, perhaps, and in a new environment.

Last night, the hostel manager told me I could use the exclusive shower outside the dorm – it has instant hot water, he said. Well, he kinda lied. The water is hot but turns freezing cold in a few minutes. Exclusively for me! I burst out laughing at the comicality of his sincerity.

All showered, I head to the dining hall for breakfast. One of the hostel staff is seated by the door, furiously sending text messages, laughing at his screen. I inquire about breakfast. Without looking up, he calls out to the kitchen, Eh Prakash, koi aya khane ke liye. Eh, Prakash, someone is come for breakfast.

From the dining hall, there’s a view of the lower end of the Dhauladhar mountain range, part of the lower Himalayas.

From the dining hall – a view of the Dhauladhar mountain range 

In a couple of minutes, Prakash, the cook comes out, a big, well-fed, bearded man with a full head of hair. We have a bit of verbal tussle. He’s trying to push the preset Indian breakfast, pav bhaji, I want an omelette from the a la carte menu. Pav bhaji is buttered bread that you dip in a heavy, greasy gravy of overcooked vegetables, overcooked potatoes and boiled out of their mind green peas. Prakash has determined that I’m not quite fully Indian – from my AmerIndi accented English, perhaps (I’d like to take credit for inventing the word, but it was a friend of mine who did). He’s talking to me like a street vendor selling overpriced goods to tourists, and pushing that pav bhaji like it’s nirvana. You will love it, saar. Come, come. Delicious. I switch to my anglicized Hindi and ask for an omelette. Apparently thrown off by my ability to speak Hindi, accent notwithstanding, Prakash returns shortly with an excellent omelette. Breakfast done, I’m headed to Tushita Meditation Centre, a renowned Buddhist meditation center not far from here, and after that, maybe a hike.

By the front desk, two young women are waiting to check out, one apparently Chinese, the other apparently Caucasian. I overhear the manager asking why they’re checking out. You just checked in last night, going so soon? The women reply there’s no hot water. I commiserate with the women, Emma and Jess, who, to my ear, sound either English or New Zealanders, I can’t tell. They help me out – they’re half Swiss, half Chinese and live in England. Best friends, it appears. Just come from a three-weeks long Panchakarma in Lower Dharamsala. A Panchakarma, they explain, is an Ayurvedic detox of the body which also strengthens and rejuvenates the immune system. Ayurveda, which originated in India between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, is a system of natural healing that approaches health and illness holistically, addressing balance of the mind, body and spirit. The word Ayurveda translates from Sanskrit as “knowledge of life” or “science of life” (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge). I have just been edumacated.

Emma and Jess are headed down to McLeod Ganj to look for new accommodations before going to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara (Sikh temple). I accompany them as the Tushita Meditation Centre is on the way to McLeod Ganj. We navigate treacherous black ice down a gravel slope near the main gate and are lucky to escape without injury. I get the sense I won’t be staying here another night – it’s near where the hiking trails begin but too isolated from everything else.

On the way to Tushita, my new found friends tell me they are sisters – fraternal twins, one has inherited more of their Chinese father’s features, the other, their Swiss mother’s. I learn more about Panchakarma. Emma has been studying Ayurveda for quite a while, is a certified yoga teacher and works in the fashion industry, while Jess is in the performing arts and entertainment business. We discover much in common in spite of our different geographic and apparently different cultural backgrounds.

In a little bit, we’re at Tushita. A mini-motorcade with an apparently important Buddhist teacher is leaving the center. Everyone at the center is waving at him, and benevolently, he waves back. The Pope and his pope mobile come to mind. Someone hurries towards us and whispers we are to observe silence because meditation programs are currently in session. Then he hurries back to wave at the departing Buddhist teacher.

The daily meditation sittings at Tushita and chantings by Buddhist monks I hoped to attend have been canceled for a week because of full-time programs. The three musketeers then walk down to McLeod Ganj, along a concrete and slowly winding road. The center of McLeod Ganj is busy and buzzing with activity. It looks chaotic but cars, auto rickshaws, scooters and motorcycles all manage to squeeze past each other in a coordinated disorganized manner. It looks like it could give Mumbai a run for its money. The intersection has five to six of McLeod Ganj’s main arteries meeting at one point, with a single policeman monitoring all the traffic on this overcast morn.

The main intersection at McLeod Ganj

Each of the five to six streets has a different market place. Fruit and vegetables here, a butcher there, electronics on another street, alcohol and laundry on this corner, and restaurants, chemists (drugstores) and tourist shops on all streets.

Local, tropical and some imported fruit and vegetables

We walk down one of the main streets, taking in the sights while looking for a place to grab a bite.

None look inviting. The ladies suggest the Four Seasons Cafe. Didn’t know there was a Four Seasons in McLeod Ganj and it’s not quite my lifestyle but sure, I’m up for it. It’s just a few doors down. When we get there I look up and laugh out loud…it’s Lobsang’s Four Seasons Cafe, a Tibetan cafe. This is going to be fun. My first time in a Tibetan restaurant. It’s a pretty busy establishment but we manage to get seats. Lemon ginger and mint teas for my friends and Tibetan tea for me. The Tibetan tea is milky and buttery with light spices. Later I find out it might have been yak butter. That’s a first!

It’s nearly noon, we are hungry, but the options here don’t quite suit my new found friends, so we sit there chatting and nursing our teas while we wait for restaurant inspiration from the gods. After about fifteen minutes, an older gentleman, maybe in his seventies, stops at our table and asks us if we like Mexican food. I recognize him as the diner who was at the table across from ours. He has a Tibetan companion and an American accent. He tells us the owner of the Four Seasons cafe also owns a Mexican restaurant across the street, a few doors down. We say we might check it out later but Emma and Jess and I are looking for accommodations as our hostel stay wasn’t quite a match, hot water, etc. Introductions all round. Michael is from Portland, Oregon and has been living in Dharamkot, north of McLeod Ganj with his Tibetan wife, Tashi for the last year and a half. His landlord runs a homestay with rooms for 500 rupees a night (approximately $7) and they come with hot water. Exciting. A place to stay. And the promise of hot water. The little things, the little things. I ask for directions and though he’s American, Michael is giving me directions like an Indian. Up to Dharamkot, make a right at Tushita, next to the Himalayan tea shop, on the lane above Trek and Dine restaurant, then a left for two minutes, then a slight right for a minute, then a left near the stones and finally a right. And a left. Got it? Ummm, nope. Can I find it on Google maps? Oh yes, there’s Himalayan Spice and there’s Trek and Dine. I’m all good, I tell Michael, see you this evening.

Emma, Jess and I walk down to the Snow Lion Restaurant for lunch. Several of the diners there are foreign tourists, many of whom have probably come to Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj for Buddhist teachings, meditation and yoga. A couple in their sixties smiles peacefully at me. Another diner ask us to shut the door behind us. As we’re looking around for seats, a woman who’s been watching us moves her belongings and asks us to join her. She has a bus to catch and time to kill. Our lunch companion is Dutch, not to be confused with the Germans, she gently warns us, and has been living here for several years. She tells us how much she likes and feels connected to India, mostly through angrily declaiming how the West has decayed and is rotting. She also makes it clear she’s not too keen on Indians and their confounding ways. It appears that in addition to lunch, spiritual growth is on my menu. The lunch is long, but life is short so I refrain from adding fuel to her fire. Lunch over, we head back into the bustle of McLeod Ganj’s streets, looking for a hotel. I might join Emma and Jess if we find a good hotel but I feel I’m going to hold out for Michael’s palace in the sky with hot water.

We look at a couple of hotels but they’re overpriced and dumpy. And then, third time’s a charm. Emma and Jess are lodged in their new place and I take a 70 rupee ($1), ten minute rickshaw ride to Dharamkot to meet Malkeet, Michael’s landlord.

I tell the rickshaw driver I’m going to Himalayan Spice. Himalayan tea shop? No, Himalayan Spice, next to Trek and Dine restaurant. I show it to him on Google maps. Google maps is wrong, he says, so he’ll drop me off at the Himalayan tea shop. I suddenly remember that Michael told me to mention Malkeet’s name to my rickshaw driver and I’d be fine. Oh, I’m Malkeet’s cousin. No problem, I’ll take you there. Small world or have I just fallen for a tourist scam? Not sure. I’ll find out. He calls “Malkeet” to say we’re on the way. He hands me the phone and I speak to Malkeet. Apparently Michael had already told Malkeet about me, so it feels more legit. Let’s see. In ten minutes, I’ve met Malkeet. The room is good enough, hot water, blankets, a view of the hills. Michael also happens to be around and steps out to greet me, along with his wife Tashi. It’s all good. I’m relieved I have a reliable place for tonight. I retrieve my bags from the backpackers hostel, not far away, and return to my new room. I’m all set for the next few days.

That night, over dinner with Emma and Jess, we exchange more stories about life, about travel and different cultures. Between them, they’ve been across India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, China and the Philippines. I’d never thought of visiting any of these countries but now I’m intrigued. We continue talking till late. On the rickshaw ride back to Dharamkot, I reflect back on this eventful day, unplanned and full of surprises. Feels like the start of an unknown adventure. Pretty cool, pretty cool. I check in for the night at Malkeet’s. It’s quite cold and I take an extra blanket from the empty room next door. There’s no heater, so I keep on my sweater and thermals. My eyes are closed but sleep is just not happening. After an hour of tossing and turning, I realize I’m cold and I’m not going to get sleep. My weather app says the outside temperature will remain below freezing until morning. It’s going to be a long night. I almost second guess my decision to leave the hostel but something was just off there, so no regrets. I toss and turn all night, no sleep, no sleep. Pretty cool. Pretty cool.

Marlon de Souza Ⓒ 2019. All rights reserved.


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