Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Almost two weeks ago, on a Thursday afternoon, a small group of us piled into to minivan and hit the road for a weekend of hiking, fresh air and friends. The first half of the journey was fantastic and smooth, while the last six hours were filled with winds, rain, hail and lightening storms, exactly the kind of weather that gives one comfort when climbing steep winding roads with sheer drop offs. We hit the bad weather just before midnight and drove through until almost six in the morning when we got stuck in mud just as entering the village where we would be staying. I stepped out of the car into cold rain, mud and wind. It was an extreme change from the ever climbing temperatures in Delhi.

We were staying in a village called Naddi, which is at the dead end of a winding, steep and poorly paved mountain road. The village itself had no other foreigners and just a few dozen or so buildings around which ran scores of children and goats. As soon as the clouds cleared and the sun hit the ground, the air filled with tens of thousands of white butterflies. I have never seen anything like it. It looked like a snow flurry, white specks flying and floating in every direction. It was hypnotic.

Naddi is a little village in an area known as Dharamshala, which also includes the village of McLeodganj, the official home of the Dalai Lama since 1959 when he escaped Tibet. While Naddi is empty, sleepy and filled with nothing to do other than take long walks along the mountain paths or sit on a ridge and just be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all, McLeodganj is filled with temples and people and cars and shops. It is a sleepy place when compared to almost anywhere except perhaps where we were staying. In contrast, McLeodganj seemed like a wild party place. In reality, while there are a few places to get beer and smoking hash is not unheard of, it is also filled with places for meditation, prayer, reiki, massage and all things spiritual. Prayer flags hang off anything and everything. Dreadlocks are everywhere and there is even a salon or two where one can get dreadlock hair extensions. At one point I had to hold myself back. I was tempted, but managed to maintain a small level of self control.

One of the main attractions, of course, is Tsuglag Khang, the temple and residence of the Dalai Lama and I found myself there a few days later on a Sunday morning. I had visited there a few days earlier, walking through the various little temples, spinning the prayer wheels and just being, well, spiritual… But Sunday morning something unusual happened as I was at the temple, the main gates opened up, Monks were lined up and very quickly news spread that His Holiness himself was on the way. It was nothing confirmed, but suddenly people started joining in the crowd in that “I don’t want to be left out” way people often join crowds or lines when they have no idea why they are crowding or lining up. So I too, decided to herd. If the Dalai Lama was coming by, I wanted a front row standing spot and that is when the German lady walked up to me.

“What is going on here?” she asked, using her best interrogation voice that suggested I might be waterboarded if I didn’t supply an acceptable answer.
“I think the Dalai Lama is on his way.”
“That’s not possible. He can’t just come here!”
I wasn’t really sure what to say and didn’t feel the residence of His Holiness was the best place to get into a heated argument.
“But he can’t just come here! He’s the Dalai Lama. It is not possible. How can he just come here?” she not so much asked, as accused.
“He does live here” I said, stretching out the word “live” for impact and effect.
“But it just isn’t possible! Where is the security? And what about all these people? And where is the security?” she demanded to know.
“There are two security guys over there.”
“This is ridiculous. Only in India is this possible. He can’t just come here!” And with that she walked off quite indignant.

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