(This piece was first published in the April 2018 issue of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English. It was commissioned by Matthew Douglas, my cool editor.)
“The hills will heal you. It will be a homecoming of another kind,” said my friend Harshad Marathe when I informed him of my plans to visit McLeodganj, a town in northern India that is known for its large population of Tibetan refugees.
Knowing that my first three trips to the place were not only memorable but life-changing, he was sure that I would have a noteworthy experience once again.
I flew from Mumbai to Delhi, and boarded an overnight bus to McLeodganj. The flight took less than two hours but the bus took twelve. The old lady who sat beside me on the bus wanted to know if I was a tourist. I nodded politely, without giving away my true identity — a curious mix of tourist, pilgrim, and urban dweller desperate for long stretches of forest cover.
Long bus rides in the hills can be nauseating, so I swallowed a pill to make sure that I would be fine for the remainder of the journey. I woke up just a little before we reached our destination. When I got off the bus, it was pure bliss — gigantic trees, steep slopes, and clean air all waiting to welcome me. The tour guides and hotel representatives pounced on me soon after, and the reverie was broken.
I ignored them, gathered my luggage, and walked towards the Tsuglagkhang Temple. It is a beautiful place of worship adjacent to the house of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who has also won the Nobel Peace Prize. Since I had reached early in the morning, there were hardly any visitors. I paid my respects to the deities, and sat quietly in a corner with my rosary. A monk I had met on my previous visit warmly waved out to me, and I returned the gesture with a smile.
I walked from the temple to the McLeodganj market square, and booked myself an auto-rickshaw. It brought me to the Himalayan Tea Shop in Dharamkot in less than ten minutes. My body was begging for food, so I ordered a delicious bowl of local Maggi noodles. The man at the counter cooked them with some seasonal vegetables, and made me a soup that would keep me going for the next few hours.
The Tushita Meditation Centre next door looked inviting, so I went in to check if they had any residential courses on offer. They had one coming up but not until a week later. I decided to call up the caretaker of a nearby village homestay over the phone, and check if any rooms were available. The place came highly recommended from two friends of mine, so I wanted to give it a shot.
When I learnt that one room was available at a reasonable price, I picked up strength and began to move uphill. It was a difficult route because the ground was uneven. I could not drag my suitcase which was clearly built for flat surfaces. I did not want to give up easily, so I slowed down my pace but kept walking.
The climb to Upper Dharamkot was worth it. I was led into a sparsely furnished room with a bed, table, curtained windows, and two thick blankets. The view was spectacular. There was no sound of vehicles coming and going. I could see an endless number of trees kissing the sky, hear cows mooing in the distance, and smell mountain air mixed with the aroma of potato curry.
As the day progressed, I enjoyed a hot shower, devoured a simple meal cooked with love, and was caught unawares by a hailstorm. I had been to that part of the world between May and August but never in April. Luckily, I had carried a jacket, shawl, gloves and socks. It was too cold, so I snuggled up under my blankets, and began to read.
There was no WiFi or television. I kept myself busy with the words on the page, and looked up intermittently to relish the the sights around. The occasional cup of tea kept me warm, and soon the night was filled with stars. I stepped out of my room for a more intimate audience. There were so many of them, winking mischievously, saying, “Welcome home!”