Saturday, October 12th, 2019
After my morning routine of having a sunny, crisp outdoor breakfast at Nature Twins Cafe in Upper Bhagsu (Dharamshala), India, I was off to another post office for the 4th time in 3 days to hopefully send a package back before I head off to Rishikesh on a night bus. I walked 20 minutes to get there and waited in line for another 20 minutes, only to be told I need to fill out some forms, have my package wrapped, and give them a copy of my passport. So I went next-door and up the stairs, photocopied my passport, and then down the stairs into the wrapping room where I had to fill out another form. Unlike my last few P.O. attempts, this time I was finally making progress.
I sat and waited for the old Tibetan-looking man to finish hand-sewing a perfectly fitting fabric around his current parcel before he moved onto the next 5 customers ahead of me. I didn’t mind at all. It gave me time to admire his seamless flow; he was so precise, effortless, and efficient in measuring out the fabric, folding it, stitching it with his foot-powered sewing machine, fitting it over the package, and finally sealing it with wax dripped from a candle. 20 minutes later he handed the exquisitely sealed package to me, which I finally brought back upstairs to ship it roughly 7,000 miles away for around 25 dollars. At last my souvenirs were no longer weighing me down.
Near the stairs leading to my room I passed a man who was kindly offering for the eighth time to trade some more rocks for my watch or smartphone. I politely denied; all of my stuff could still only barely fit in my 45-liter backpack. As I was cramming everything in, Anmol knocked on my door. Anmol is a local from Kangra who I met a few days prior at a waterfall cleanup event. We bonded immediately and had been volunteering and hanging out together every day since then. I finished packing up and we were off to interview some local cafes about the No-Plastic-Staw-Initiative in order to generate social media content for Waste Warriors (WW). I had technically been volunteering for WW for the past week while staying in a room that they provided for me through Workaway.info, which helps connect travelers like me with hosts all over the world.
The manager at the first cafe on our list was very rude and refused to interview with us, but we kept high spirits and moved on to the next one. It lied a decent hike up the hill in Dharamkot, close to the Israeli concert we went to see two nights before. We wandered about until finding the cafe owner in the kitchen. We started chatting, but I could tell he wasn’t exactly happy to see us. At first he showed us how he sometimes used paper straws and sometimes plastic for the different size glasses where paper doesn’t work as well. However he was quick to change the subject to bigger issues with the NGO. He was bothered by WW’s apparent excessive time & effort spent interviewing when he wasn’t seeing much improvement in the cleanliness of footpaths and “roads” in his community. Since no cars can make it up to his land, WW employs folks to physically haul his waste down the mountain by foot, and he commented on how those folks are being paid too little compared to the office employees. I couldn’t verify if what he said was accurate, it’s above my paygrade (*volunteer*). Since WW is a small/mid-sized NGO, I don’t think anybody is making bank, but I also don’t doubt that some folks get paid more than others. Anmol and I thanked him for his time, apologized for bothering him, and promised that his complains would make their way back to the director of WW’s Dharamshala branch.
After somewhat of a rough start I had a gut feeling that we in for a break soon, and I was right. We kept our heads held high and just when it was starting to pour we stumbled across our next cafe: Lucky Star. With stomachs grumbling as audibly as the thunder, we greeted the friendly cafe owner and took refuge. I ordered the best lime & mint shake I’ve ever had, plus it was through a metal straw, which we photographed in front of the Lucky Star Cafe sign. We then continued to play chess while overlooking the storm passing through the Himalayas. Eventually I devoured a most scrumptious meal of creamy paneer vegetable curry soup with garlic cheese naan bread. Afterwards, with a full belly and clear headspace, I interviewed the owner.
He stopped using plastic straws about 5 years ago when an Australian tourist gave him a small pack of metal straws after eating at his cafe. He really liked them, ordered a larger bundle of them on Amazon, and has been using them ever since. We chatted for maybe 15 minutes about other eco-friendly projects his cafe is engaged in such as growing cucumbers and peppers right outside, as well as feeding the leftover food scraps to cows who also provide milk for the cafe. I covered most of questions that WW prompted me to ask, took another picture with him, thanked him, and started to head back.
Once back at my place I had to decide whether I had enough time to accept Anmol’s invitation come to Kangra with him. I was on the fence since I really didn’t want to miss my bus, and the ticket only said Dharamshala on it, not Kangra. However, he was certain that the bus would go through Kangra, so after some deep consideration I put my trust in him again and we went on one final adventure together. I said goodbye to the room that was now filled with memories of giant spiders and ecstatic hippie dance music, and left the key in its hiding spot outside where I had found it over a week ago.
Now for the last time I was to embark with Anmol and all of my stuff on the very familiar journey down the stairs, past the yoga & dance studio right beneath my room, through a tiny concrete tunnel surrounded by buildings, past the guy on the street selling rocks who really wants my $8 watch, and finally down the crazy steep and disheveled road full of vegan cafes and touristy shops selling dreamcatchers, jewelry, leather backpacks, and yoga courses.
This was my walk to go basically anywhere else. And it was on this street that I saw the highest percentage of tourists in relation to locals compared to anywhere else I’d visited on my month-long Indian journey through Kolkata, Goa, and Delhi.
It rightfully is a spectacular tourist destination – as the heart of Tibetan Buddhism on a Himalayan mountainside overlooking the Kangra Valley, with relatively mild weather and inexpensive organic vegan/vegetarian food (compared to the states)… it is hard to find a better hippie paradise. And as Anmol and I continued our walk to the bus station near the Dalai Lama’s temple, I was reminded that devout Buddhists from afar must also weave through the flocks of hippies and herds of cows to fight for the chance to personally meet their spiritual leader.
For when I went a few days prior to inquire about seeing the Dalai Lama, there were some 10 other people asking in a much more rude and persistent fashion about seeing him too. “He needs his rest,” His Holiness’ personal secretary said repeatedly, and so I didn’t push it when I asked him, knowing I was about to receive a negative response. It must really be exhausting to be such a popular spiritual figure. The millions who love and idolize you traverse long distances with the hope and expectation that you can give them some advice. And especially as the wise and warm-hearted leader of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s just too many people who want your attention. So as curious as I was to see him face to face, I let him rest, and marveled at the fact that we’ve walked many a same path, just at different times.
My path down this Himalayan mountainside was now slowly taking me closer to Nepal. We boarded the back of the bus, since it feels most rollercoaster-like, and connected over similarities while comparing cultural differences. We talked about dating, swearing, music, family life – everything that societal norms have a big impact on. He asked me what the weirdest thing was about Indian culture that I’ve seen so far, and I answered, “the fact that I see more grown men holding hands with other grown men than with their partner.” For it’s true, only the younger couples begin to show some PDA (Public Display of Affection), and even as much as holding hands with the opposite sex in public can be very taboo. However, dudes are allowed to hold another dude’s hand (even with interlacing fingers) as a sign of “brotherliness” without any strange looks. It’s bizarre. I asked him the same question but regarding American culture and his response was that in America one is typically expected to move out of their parents’ home once they turn 18. As I mentioned in my 7th blog, families almost always stick together for life in India. With a 1% divorce rate, and most younger generations living with their parents at least until they get married, strong family values (and socio-economic pressure to stay with your family) are far more prevalent in India than in the states. Living with your parents forever brings along no shame or sense of failure like it does in the states. There, sticking with family is valued and even respected. I think we could learn a thing or two from India.
The bus ride to Kangra took quite a while, and we arrived there with only about 45 minutes to spare before my bus leaves. So we hurriedly made our way to his family’s home, and I finally met the superb humans who raised such a well-tempered young man. They told me that next time I come back I must stay and have dinner with them. I truly look forward to the idea of doing so some day. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to speak with them, since Anmol was eager to show me around before I took off for Rishikesh.
We hopped on his motorbike, and squeezed our through the skinny alleys he grew up on. Our first stop was a stand selling a classic Kangran refreshment of soda water & lime. We ordered, drank, and returned the bottles all while remaining on the bike. Next stop was to try some tiny sweets – crispy, fruity, and delicious. After that was the main temple. We walked in, paid our respects, Anmol gave me a Bindi-like marking on my forehead, and some excited little Indian girl asked for a picture with me, which I gladly accepted. Except now, I had only a few minutes to make it back to the bus station. We hurried out of the temple, back to his house where I left my bag, and over to the Kangra bus station. We made it there right on time, but for some reason, the bus wasn’t there. Was it running late? Or did it leave already?
Anmol asked the ticket officer who assured us that it was on its way, and after an anxious 15 minutes it finally rolled in. It turns out the bus was late because they were looking for me in Dharamshala! Whoops. I tried calling and notifying them, but they must not have understood me well enough. Oh well. I wished Anmol goodbye, hoping in all seriousness to see him again somewhere down the line. Still, I needed to keep moving if I was to meet up with a friend in Thailand by mid-November, especially since Dharamshala was already a detour from my former plans.
I was originally only going to stay in India for 2-3 weeks until embarking for Nepal. By now I had been in India for over a month. The folks I lived with for two weeks in Goa all spoke so fondly of Dharamshala that I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. And if you can’t tell by this blog, it was worth every second of the super squished 14-hour bus ride to get there. By chance I had now made it onto a more comfortable bus, and with a full moon shiningly valiantly upon the surrounding hills, I reclined my chair, pulled up some music, and reflected on my time in Dharamshala as I rode in my first overnight bus towards Rishikesh, my final stop before Nepal.
Upon reflection, one thing was certain: the hand of tourism has had an incredible impact on the look, feel, and flow of Dharamshala in the past 50 years. Aside from some scattered agriculture, including folks who live way up in the mountains herding goats, the traditional ways of life (at least in the area where I was staying) have mostly dissipated. The locals who run the stores live nearby, but most of them can’t afford to shop anywhere other than the small, relatively beat-up corner shops that are made only for Dharamshalans. I’d be willing to bet that at least 90% of all the residents in Upper Bhagsu make practically all of their money off of tourism (Indian and international), for better or for worse. Though some aspects of their culture have been lost to booming tourism, I’d argue that any “original” culture in the area has been shape-shifted a thousand times to be what it is today, which is neither good nor bad. It just is.
For the main tourist magnet today is the home of the 14th Dalai Lama, who migrated to McLeoud Ganj (upper Dharamshala) in 1959 after being exiled from Tibet. But before that, it was occupied by the British, as well as Gurkha (Nepali) troops who fought in World War I and World War II. And before that, it was ruled by the Katoch dynasty for some two millennia and home to many Gaddis (mainly Hindu) who lived a more nomadic lifestyle. Who is to say that any distinct period in time was better or more culturally significant than another?
The streets and even some natural areas tend to reflect a capitalistic utilization of the predominant Buddhist presence and other attractions. It’s quite inspirational to see plenty of real Tibetan Monks walking around the streets with so few possessions, following the way of Buddha. But their lifestyle is the exception, not the norm. The streets their feet hover through are filled to the brim with superfluous Buddhist-themed objects which no monk would ever buy. McLeoud Ganj has become a tourist town with pockets of authentic Buddhist culture, but mostly an exploitation of the public’s interest in Buddhism. This seems to contradict Buddhist teachings and detract from the town’s authenticity. Nonetheless, I don’t mind. The drive to make money off of a religion is entirely rational and relatable.
For say I place myself in the shoes of a local Hindu who all of the sudden can actually afford to feed his family enough calories to stay healthy by setting up a small stand on the side of the road selling mini Buddha figures instead of growing rice. I see no shame in taking that opportunity. In fact, it doesn’t matter why tourists are there, or how many shops are already selling the same exact thing; if one can better support their family by giving up their traditional way of life to selling knick-knacks, then so much for cultural preservation. If we want to preserve culture, then we (including me) need to change our consumption habits. Just like the rest of us, the locals deserve to seek the best lives for themselves, and that’s what makes Dharamshala what it is today. For better or worse? You can decide (and share your thoughts at the bottom of this post if you feel so inclined).