To break up our long travel days, and to learn about the Sikh people and their faith, we spent some time in the city of Amritsar. We arrived at The Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Skih faith, after a very short flight from Delhi. We hoped to stay stay in the rooms there, but unfortunately the temple does not make reservations in advance in the foreigners section, and we could not fit the entire team in there, so we quickly scrambled to find a nice guest house to stay in by the temple. Once settled, everyone took it pretty easy and relaxed. Some of us went back to the Golden Temple at night and it was beautiful! The lights of the temple cast a beautiful reflection onto the water below.
We ate dinner at the temple, in a large room where they serve thousands and thousands of people a day, for free! We sat on the floor among hundreds of people, all eating dinner together.
The next day we went to the Indian-Pakistan border ceremony. It was about a 40 minute tuk tuk ride to the border and once we got there we were swarmed by patriotic Indians trying to paint the Indian flag on our hands and cheeks. Once we were in the stadium, music, dance, and cheering broke out as the ceremony started. The ceremony consisted of the Indian and Pakistani guards basically dancing across the gate, flexing their muscles at each other. It was very entertaining and a new unusual experience for all of us.
After 2 relaxing days in Amritsar, and 3 bus rides later, we finally made it to McLeod Ganj, Dharmsala! Our first night we stayed in a guest house with a beautiful view of the mountains and the city below.
Everyone went to bed very early because the following morning we started our 3 day meditation retreat. It was led by Glen Svenson, a man who since 2005 has taught many meditation retreats in the U.S., India, Europe, and Australia. We spent those three days in almost complete silence while at Tushita Meditation Center, learning about meditation, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and about how to cultivate mindfulness and emotional balance in our daily lives. (Since completed, a couple group members have been going to meditation practice every morning. Others have spent mornings participating in yoga, or going to the gym.)
The second night in McLeod Ganj we met our home stay families. Unlike the last four, this home stay was by ourselves. We lived with Tibetan families in exile from the Chinese Government. The Tibetan families that live in McLeod Ganj fled from the Chinese government to seek refuge and to have better lives for their families.
We had the opportunity to really explore the city on our own and have some alone time. Once the retreat was over, we started volunteering at an organization dedicated to spreading knowledge and history about Tibet and teaching Monks and Tibetan people many different languages. Every day we would go speak to eager English learners and have little conversations about the topics given to us. During the days we also volunteered at a Tibetan Kindergarten and kept the little ones entertained, usually with songs or arts and crafts.
On Wednesday the 21st we had the opportunity to listen to Ama Adhe, a 90 year old woman who was put in jail by the Chinese for almost 30 years and later escaped to McLeod Ganj. Out of 300 Tibetans, only four survived, and she was one of them. Thursday, Thanksgiving, we got together and had a wonderful lunch with our Youth International family. It was nice to celebrate together in the middle of busy days.
Thursday night we had the opportunity to watch a cultural show and learn about Tibetan music, traditional dress, and a little about the history. Friday afternoon we listened to Ven Bagdro speak, a Tibetan Monk who was wanted by the Chinese government and put in danger many times just for being a Tibetan and a monk. The stories and history were very emotional but they helped us learn a lot more about the struggles many Tibetans have gone through in their pursuit of freedom.
Some of us then volunteered to accompany toddlers to the Dalai Lama’s temple. The most entertaining part of the walk was maneuvering the tiny children through crowded streets. We made it to the temple and watched the babies run around for a little bit until they got too tired to walk on their own. Many of the babies fell asleep in our arms on the way back.
Our first week in Dharamsala was the best possible introduction we could have had to the lives of the Tibetans in exile.
On the 24th, we’d planned to go on a hike up on the side of Kangra Valley, which Dharmsala is located in. Our group had planned to split into two hiking clusters: one more leisurely, starting their hike at 9:00 am, and one more intense (or sleepy; depends on perspective really), starting later at 10:30 am. I was with the latter group, so I woke up at 9:15 am, to make time to pack my flashlight, a change of clothes, and my sleeping bag. Karma, my host mom, was thoughtful enough to have bought me some snacks for the journey up. After eating breakfast, and taking my pills—there’s malaria in our area!—I left at 10:15 am.
I barely made it on time, panting for breath as I climbed the chilly slopes up to Tushita, our meeting spot. Fortunately, pretty much everyone else was late as well; Marco and Annie were the only ones waiting for me as I arrived. Charlotte and Jules arrived next, and then Mike, Mia, and Simon finished their meditation up at Tushita. Together we began the trek upwards.
It was very similar to our Annapurna trek in Nepal mechanically, and there was something cathartic about getting back into that rhythm. There was also something tiring and strenuous about doing this after a month of relative inactivity. We made it up to the halfway point around lunch and stopped for a break. Marco, in continuation of our trekking tradition from Nepal, read us a segment from a dated romance novel we’d picked up at a tea house months ago, all in an authentic Spanish accent.
After lunch, we continued upwards. The mountains around here were a lush green, filled with thriving plant life, and we could look down as the trail arched this way and that, sometimes getting a nice wide view of McLeod Ganj down below. Panting with exertion, after 280 floors of height (according to Brendan’s phone) we reached the top.
The view was worth it. Snow-capped mountaintops above, winding valleys below, and flat stretches of grass across was the sight that greeted us upon arrival. It was bright out, and people were taking advantage of that, soaking up the sun as they lay on the ground. As we took it in, the rest of the group gradually made their way up. We headed towards our camp site, where tents had been set up.
For the meantime, we stayed outside, gazing at the view, discussing the trek, or in my case, trying to fall asleep. I’d apparently succeeded, because the next thing I knew, Simon was calling me awake for a group photo. The sun was just touching the horizon now, casting an orange tint over everything. The sky had turned into a spectrum of rainbow colors, between the red sun and the purple clouds. It was breathtaking.
We took a few good photos before the sun had set, and, as darkness began to sweep over us, we began putting in our layers, I’d packed two pairs of pants and two jackets, so I was fine. Other groups began setting up campfires, gathering around to cheer and dance. We got dinner, a plate of rice and bean soup, which tasted incredible. After dinner, we gathered out back where the rocks were, farther away from the lights of revelry, and Hayden told her life bio. The stars were just beginning to poke out in the sky.
Later, me, Elliott, Brendan, Mia, and Simon crammed into a tent for our now-regular Mafia games. We were soon joined by Augie, Hayden, and Hayley, to form one high-energy, high-density tent. We played two and a half games before disbanding. I returned to my tent worn out.
At 8, I woke up for breakfast, with bed head as usual. The breakfast was an egg sandwich with ketchup, which I was unjustly accused of eating too slowly. After breakfast, we returned to the rocks apart from the other groups for Charlotte’s life bio. Afterwards, we packed up and began the journey down. The downhill, as with Annapurna, went by much faster, with less muscle exertion and more repeated shocks to the legs. This is going to be so bad for my knees when I get old. At least the reduced exertion of my lungs meant that air was flowing to my brain better, allowing me to listen to my songs as I hiked down.
When we got to the bottom, it was about 1:00 pm. I elected to go back to my home stay for lunch, my feet having been sufficiently blistered from speeding down the trail. Karma brought me cup noodle, which was an interesting similarity to what we have in the US. For dinner we had rice and mixed vegetables, a tangy meal.
On Monday, the 26th, after the trek, I slept in and got up at around 10. For lunch, I went downhill from where we were staying, following the winding road until I got to Cafe Illiterati. Besides having a variety of dishes, as well as a veritable library of books to read, the Illiterati seems to be the location of the only public keyboard in all our travels through India.
After some messing around on the keys, I walked back up the road to the Yongling school. At 2:30, we began helping teach the kids English through drawings. It’s a short commitment, only half an hour long, but it kept me more on track, grounded in what we wanted to accomplish here.
We then had our monk chat. Our conversation topic that day was ‘magic’, revolving around the existence of magical phenomena in the world. Each chat consisted of volunteers forming groups with monks, discussing their thoughts on the topic. In this way, we were able to get a better grasp on each others’ world views.
That night, at around 6, Hugh, Elliott, and Mia came over with their host families for a momo-making party. We got to play around with Hugh and Elliott’s little host brother, Kenji, while the host parents chatted. Mia’s host sister dropped by later, and together we had the delectable veg momos. It was some of the most fun I’d had on the trip.
The following days adhered to a similar schedule, with volunteering at the school and monk chats. (Other team members were also taking part in a variety of other activities that they chose.) On the 28th, in the morning, my host great-uncle brought me to see the Buddhist temple nearby, as well as the museum that my host mom worked at. In both places, there were signs of the struggles it had taken to get to where the Tibetans were now. The temple commemorated over a hundred and thirty Tibetans who had self-immolated in protest of the Chinese government’s control over Tibet, and the museum had dedicated a timeline of the evolution of Tibet and China’s relationship. However, what I found most admirable was a clear sense of looking forward. The temple is there for Buddhists to exercise their spirituality daily, like what my host great-uncle does, and the museum’s tour concludes on how life is like for Tibetans nowadays. In the afternoon, we went to watch a documentary about exiled Tibetans, Murder in the Snow, which Brendan found out about and organized. It was an insight into the kind of experience many Tibetans had to go through in their escape from Tibet, as well as the outside world’s reaction to these events.
On the 29th, our last full day in Dharmsala, my host great-uncle took me out for a morning walk again, this time to the Tibetan Children’s Village. High(er) up in the mountains, the TCV is a nonprofit school/community for Tibetan orphans. We walked past Dal Lake, through some large campuses, and through residential areas, all located in the midst of a forest. It was incredible to see a charitable organization this successful. Later in the afternoon, half of the group went with Augie’s host mom to the library and the government offices. We got to see relics Tibetans had risked their lives smuggling out, as well as get a talk from Deputy Speaker Acharya Ayeshi Phuntsok on the workings of the Dharmsala government.
We woke early in the morning on the 30th, at 5. My host family had woken up with me, a failsafe for my inconsistent wake ups. As I packed my final items and drank my final chai in relative silence, I hugged my host mom and promised to keep in touch. This two week stay had left McLeod Ganj as one of the places I’d been most attached to, the closest thing to a home away from home over these months, and there was a bit of heaviness as we parted. My host great-uncle walked with me out to the taxis we were loading up, and before I knew it, we were racing away from Dharmsala in the darkness of early morning.
We arrived at the local airport soon, and took off at 10:00 am. We landed at Delhi after an hour, took the metro to New Delhi, and walked with our heavy bags back to Smyle Inn. Back from the mountains into the bustling city. I roomed with Simon, Elliott, and Brendan for the third time at Smyle Inn (we’re like the program’s nuclear family at this point). For our India farewell dinner, we returned to the first restaurant we’d eaten at in India, Leo’s Restaurant, a shiny golden-walled place with a big screen TV, constantly showing music videos and playing the wrong songs alongside them. We got to spend big, trying out mocktails and fancy combo dinners. We then went around reminiscing on the challenges and hilarity of India as a whole. All in all, a great way to end our stay in India on a high note, and to energize us for ten days in Thailand!
Some more photos from this segment of our trip………………….