Another week of volunteering was over.
The days were filled with English classes at the monastery, activities at the day car and morning writing sessions. We also had cozy dinners – either at Lhamo’s house or at a restaurant we discovered called Byron Bay Cafe (which serves organic and healthy food with produce supplied locally by farmers and bread and pastries by bakeries).
I was in paradise because having a raw salad in India is a luxury! But at this lovely cafe, the worries of getting sick disappeared when the owner assured us that the vegetables were washed with filtered water three times. I’m happy to report, we survived our first caprese salad.
The weekend was approaching and this time we decided to explore the Dalai Lama’s hometown: McLeod Ganj. It is a charming little town up in the mountains, 7 kilometers north of Dharamsala and a 2.5 hour drive from Bir.
We heard that the Dalai Lama was in town for a public teaching on Saturday morning. Some of the volunteers from the Delhi program were meeting us there for that and to come to Bir to paraglide on Sunday. It seemed like the perfect weekend and a good way to celebrate my birthday on November 5th.
On Thursday afternoon after we were done with our volunteer duties, Matt and I walked to the Cafe for some French press coffee and a slice of banana cake. We sat there with our books to enjoy the perfect mountain weather (as the restaurant has a rooftop) and to remind ourself we are in the freaking Himalayas!
A couple of British paragliders were sitting next to us. Matt overheard there was a ban on paragliding so we decided to engage in the conversation. It turned out all paragliding was going to be prohibited until after a November 9th regional election.
There went our plan of paragliding on Sunday.
Then, I went online to check details on the Dalai Lama teachings. The announcement read: November 3rd. Hold on a minute… Isn’t that tomorrow Friday?? It was…
So there went our plan to see the Dalai Lama on Saturday.
One of the valuable lessons we are learning on this trip is to let go of what we cannot control. This was a good exercise to put that theory to practice. I wanted the perfect birthday celebration but I quickly understood that is not about the plan, but the people you spend it with. Granted it would’ve been pretty great to see your Holiness and paraglide, but the schedule change and ban were outside of our control so whatever it was coming it was going to be the right way to welcome my 36th year.
As always, Lhamo was kind enough to book us a taxi and a hotel for the weekend.
On Friday at 9:00am we headed out to McLeod Ganj and 3 hours later we were checking in at the Green Hotel. Our room had hot water, toilet paper and a real soft mattress! I felt like the universe was winking at me and these items were my early birthday presents.
The things you get to cherish! If India teaches you something it is exactly that – to not take anything for granted. Not even a square of toilet paper.
After a shower, we walked towards a restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide called Indique. The review claimed this place had the best Indian and Tibetan food in town. On our way there, we saw Griffin and Aleque in the distance – two of the volunteers from Delhi. We were happy to see each other. Like family. Because that’s what’s your travel buddies become. They accepted to tag along and have some food with us.
It took us a minute to find the restaurant. It was a rooftop overlooking the Himalayas and also a group of trees in the foreground where a bunch of monkeys were jumping from branch to branch, landing on a rooftop and running to the other side to get on another tree.
There are so many monkeys in India! Between this, the cows and goats you have an entire zoo on every corner.
The food wasn’t great and we even found a bug. But it was good to catch up with the guys.
After that, we decided to split and meet again with everyone for dinner.
Matt and I walked around town, checking out the local shops and the Kalachakra Temple that’s in the middle of the main road. Not a big site but a nice find to make the stroll not all about window shopping.
We also found a Tibetan bookstore. After some digging, Matt spotted a book called “Freedom For Fear” – a collection of letters, speeches and other documents written by Burma’s Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi. Since that’s where we are heading next after India, it felt appropriate to buy and give it a read.
It was Friday and we read there was a Chabad House nearby that offers Shabbat services. We aren’t part of this specific community but observing Shabbat on Friday night is something we enjoy very much, so we decided to check it out.
Prior to Friday we tried calling and reading online for an address and description of the services. We didn’t find anything other than a poorly maintained website that said the house was located in Dharamkot Village – a 2 kilometer hike from the center of McLeod Ganj.
After a 40 minute hike up a mountain surrounded by monkey-filled trees, we arrived at Dharamkot – a town that could easily be mistaken by a little neighborhood alleyway in Jerusalem since half the signs are in Hebrew. This is because of all the Israelis that come to visit.
A rickshaw driver let us know where the Chabad House was located and after walking a little bit more, it was closed.
Matt and I pulled aside and pretended to light Shabbat candles with our hands and imagination. It felt good to stop for a moment and be grateful for the opportunities we are having.
When that was over, we decided to rush back to McLeod before nightfall.
Thirty minutes later, we were back in town and joined the rest of our group at a restaurant to say goodbye to Madeleine and Jasmin – two volunteers that were living the next morning.
The night at the hotel was noisy – as expected. You cannot really escape the noise in India, not even in the Himalayas! But we somehow managed to sleep after Matt had to tell a guy in a balcony to stop yelling at 2:00am.
We met everyone for breakfast at the hotel at 8:00am. The offering was great and Matt and I went for it ordering fruit with yogurt and honey and what they call a “Canadian Breakfast.” Who knows why. It included fried eggs, tofu, potatoes, tomatoes, bread, butter and apricot jam.
Once we were all done, we hiked to the Bhagsu waterfall that’s 20 minutes away from the hotel. Contrary to our expectation to find a quiet piece of India, overlooking a natural waterfall, we did find a nice waterfall but the site was noisey full of people taking selfies. Matt didn’t give up and climbed up to the top. I stayed with the selfie-takers where half of them asked me to join their photo. Apparently I was more exotic than Mother Nature.
We split again from the group. Some went to a cricket stadium that’s a drive away, others went shopping and Matt and I walked to Tsechokling Gompa – the Dalai Lama’s temple complex, where we saw his main temple, monastery and the Tibetan Museum.
I learned a lot about what the Tibetan’s are facing: not being able to live free in their own country for those who stayed and not being able to come back for those who were exiled. I came away hoping the international community along with the Dalai Lama’s efforts can return the land to its people. I also hope that all Human Rights violations around the globe come to an end. There’s no justification for people of any creed to be oppressed.
At 6:30pm we met with everyone for a pre-birthday dinner, at a place that was recommended called “The Clay Oven.” We ordered some Momos (Tibetan versions of dumplings) and soup.
Then, a waiter appeared behind me with a big piece of chocolate cake and a candle. Matt arranged it and they all sang Happy Birthday. It felt very special.
I thought: “How lucky am I? I’m in one of the most spiritual places on earth, sharing a hot delicious meal with new friends from different countries, my boyfriend who I love with all my heart holding my hand and whispering “Happy Sweet 16, Jalapeño” (that’s what he calls me) and a blank canvas to create the life we want not only as we travel but when we get to go home – wherever and whenever that might be.”
The next morning we met again with everyone at the hotel’s restaurant for a farewell breakfast before the taxi picked us up at 11:00am.
On our way back to Bir, Steph, Tom, Matt and I stopped at a place called Norbulingka Institute – dedicated to preserving Tibetan art. Inside, there’s a beautiful temple, some rooms for people who would like to have a little retreat, restaurants, classes and a nice shop with good quality items. We walked around the site before heading back to the car.
Three hours later we were in Bir.
Matt and I went out for another birthday dinner date.