You too, wild flower,
you who are resting on a fence in an unknown field
like a stray dog rests its head, tentatively at first,
on my leg,
knowing it will be loved
and not harmed –
you, too, are beautiful,
Even though I won’t know your name
or see you again,
it is enough that we have met today.
I have seen you, and you, me.
The women in the picture are neighbors. They are Gaddi, a tribal community native to the hills around Dharamshala. Naddi village is 7,000 feet above sea level, a short hike from McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala. I spoke briefly with the Gaddi woman on the left. She’s in her sixties.
Today, it took five hours to collect these leaves. If I find dry leaves and branches, my job is over quickly. Some days it is longer, some days shorter. It snowed here, no? So today it took longer. No, these are not to sell. They are for my cow. If I collect enough, I won’t have to return more than two or three times a week. Just one cow. I work like the bullock for my cow’s food. But it provides for me in return. It would be good if I had more than one cow, but one is all I can afford.
After a long day on the road from Mumbai to Dharamkot, I slept soundly at the backpackers hostel. The outside temperature dropped below freezing overnight, turning some of yesterday’s melted snow into black ice. Inside, I slept like a baby, under a thick blanket with 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 it all.
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 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, which is part of the lower Himalayas.
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 good 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 AmerIndi 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. 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.
I want to attend drop-in daily meditation sittings at Tushita and chantings by Buddhist monks but they’ve 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 and 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.
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.
We walk down one of the main streets, taking in the sights and 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. Well, 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 run 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. We’re looking around for seats and 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. While we figure out what to eat, we learn 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 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. I do so.
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, but 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 in McLeod Ganj 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.
And so the journey resumes. From Mumbai on the west coast of India to Chandigarh, the shared capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. And from Chandigarh on to Kangra in the adjoining state of Himachal Pradesh, and then on to Dharamshala, which is about 5,000 feet above sea level. Dharamshala is a little less than an hour after Kangra. My final destination is just after McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala and about 7,000 feet above sea level. McLeod Ganj is the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the official residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
I’d originally planned a four to five-day getaway from Mumbai, to go on a couple of hikes in the mountains. That morphed into a longer trip to let the road decide where I went.
It’s around 2:30 pm. I’m in a fairly beat up Himachal Pradesh State Transport bus that began at Chandigarh. The journey is estimated to take around 5-6 hours. The bus zigs and zags and honks and blasts its way ahead. And it’s not even a zig zag road. I need to adjust my balance in my seat frequently. Just like everything they teach you in driving school, the bus driver speeds up on gentle corners to make sure everyone enjoys the joy of sharp turns. Yay! On a couple of such turns, I half fall off my seat. Fortunately the aisle is very narrow so I have the seat across to hold on to. Legs and butt aren’t quite stabilized for this job, despite the very recent, deep commitment to a daily yoga practice. Still, I’m excited. On the road again. Out there in a traffic circle, a dog lazily licks itself, oblivious of the vehicles around. Up ahead on the left, an abundance of bright oranges on street carts. The air is cleaner than Mumbai which I left early this morning. Much cleaner.
I was booked on a 2 pm bus, a relatively luxurious Volvo that would take me from Chandigarh to Kangra without stopping to pick up additional passengers. The Advance Reservations counter at the Chandigarh bus station told me I’d find my bus at counter 22, bus 1511. Counter 22 said There’s no Volvo here. It’s at 3:40 pm. But my reservation is for 2 pm. Back to the Advance Reservations counter. We don’t store the buses here, he barked, Go to the man at counter 22. Back to counter 22. Oh yes, I see you have a reservation. What’s your seat number? Yes, it’s here, but we don’t know what happened to your bus. You can go in this local bus if you want. Sure, I decided, at least I’ll be on the road.
Earlier this morning, on the flight from Mumbai, I met a man from Kerala who works in the Middle East and was on his way to Chandigarh to spend a few days with his family – his wife who’s in medical school there, and his two kids. He had an Indian military-style handlebars mustache. And smiled politely and got up so I could get into my middle seat next to him. He must be an army guy, I thought, close-cropped hair, military mustache and good manners. After takeoff, over breakfast, we exchanged life stories. The flow was easy. The flow has always been easy on the road for me. Connection is effortless. I’ve made more friends on the road than I have in the lifetime I’ve spent between New York and Mumbai. Sham, my in-flight companion has been an engineer for the last 15 years, and now married, he expects to continue to have to be “responsible” for a while – his children are 1 1/2 years old and 5 years old. He was enthralled by and envious of the vagabondish nature of my apparently disparate life experiences. I never thought of it that way…I’ve always felt I’ve been a bit of a rolling stone. Maybe moss is not my natural friend…hmmm…
My reflection on Sham’s life and mine is suddenly shaken by the loud blaring of the bus horn. Oh yes, he loves that toy, this driver. Or maybe he has a schedule to keep. An elbow poke in the head from a standing room passenger, a bag whacks my right shoulder as another standing room passenger turns around. It’s a bus operated by the state government’s transport department, with plenty of standing room for whoever wants it. But I notice I’m not brittle like I am in Mumbai, or in New York. I look outside, cows in lush green fields on the side of the road. Open skies. Another elbow poke. Good thing the skull has bones. I can feel the clean air fill my lungs. The young man to my left, in the window seat, is fast asleep. He’s carrying a mid-size backpack. Is he going to beyond Kangra to Dharamshala, or maybe to McLeod Ganj, a little further up? So many people in this bus. So many of them standing and balancing in the moving bus. Most are villagers and residents of the smaller towns along the way. Not like the luxurious Volvo that didn’t show up. Thankfully. I can feel the thrum of the wheels on the soles of my feet, through my insulated hiking boots. This bus doesn’t have great shock absorbers. More oranges by the side of the road. And the smell of a wood fire burning somewhere.
I fall asleep. When I wake up, we’ve gained altitude and my seat mate has manspread so that I now have one butt cheek on the seat and another in the air. Truth be told, the seats are really narrow and not really meant for two people. The bus is navigating very frequent sharp hairpin turns as it climbs up the hills. Surprisingly, the driver is proceeding more mindfully now. A bus approaching from the opposite direction is coming at us at great speed. Is this it? I wonder as the scene before me seems to unfold in slow motion. No, our driver lightly steps on the brakes for just the right amount of time and our bus slows down without a sudden jerk. The oppositional bus moves by without incident. The driver has my respect.
The sky is darker. The sun is a deep red as it starts to dip below the horizon. More nausea inducing turns. And then a straightish road. Small villages with narrow roads banked by houses on either side. I can see more firewood burning at the side of the road. Reminds me of the countryside in Morocco and in Bulgaria.
It’s around 7 pm now, time for me to take my altitude sickness tablet – the last time I tried hiking in the hills of north India, at the base of the Indian Himalayas, I turned back after three days – bewilderingly, I was completely fatigued, even though I was in good physical shape at the time. I didn’t realize until much later that I’d had altitude sickness. Not planning to let that happen this time.
The bus finally arrives at Kangra. At the bus depot, dogs are howling in the street, welcoming each new bus. One particular dog decides to shit in the middle of the road. Fortunately, there’s no bus approaching.
I need to catch the next bus to Dharamshala and then a bus or a cab to McLeod Ganj. The toll collector at the bus depot exit tells me I just missed a bus, but wait a few minutes, there’ll be another bus coming. Sure enough, in just a bit, a local bus to Dharamshala arrives. This next journey begins with a bit of late-evening drama. There’s a drunken sadhu (a Hindu ascetic) on the bus, in full saffron gear, matted hair and face paint. He tells the conductor he wants to go to Varanasi. Varanasi is the Hindu holy place on the banks of the Ganga River and it’s only, oh, just over 800 miles away (1,300 kilometers).
The conductor impatiently tells him, This bus is going to Dharamshala. You’re drunk. You should get off this bus and go to sleep.
The sadhu says I have drunk the nectar of the gods. I’m going to Varanasi.
The bus bursts out laughing. The sadhu smiles a wry smile. At the next stop, the conductor asks him to get off and waits until he does.
God of the bottle, the conductor says.
Taking our money to drink, a passenger mutters. I’ll never donate alms again to these people.
Soon we reach Dharamshala. I negotiate a rate with a local cabbie and I’m on my way to a backpackers hostel in Dharamkot, just beyond McLeod Ganj. The cabbie gets lost and we call the hostel for directions. We get there in a little bit. After I settle down into my comfortable bunk bed, the manager of the hostel comes by to welcome me and give me the lay of the land. He’s an earnest young man in his early 20s who’s also staying in the same dorm. There’s a heater next to my bed. I’m grateful – it’s going to be near freezing tonight. Hot water will flow about twenty minutes after turning on the water heater. But just for you, you can use the exclusive shower outside this dorm which has instant hot water. Lucky me, I think. A little while later, as I’m about to go to bed, the manager tells me a bit of his life, his aspirations, and some of the unreasonable complaints of guests around lack of hot water. I find it weird that he’s telling me this last bit, but I’m tired and soon I’ll be fast asleep. Fast asleep after a long day back on the road.