My Life in McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj is a suburb of Dharamsala, a market town in northern India, situated in the beautiful Himalayan Mountains. It’s most well known for being the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the residence of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. Not only is it shrouded with natural beauty, but it is veiled with a spirituality and peacefulness I have experienced in very few places. I was fortunate to call this lovely little town home for one month while I was traveling in India. I could blog and blog and blog endlessly about my experiences there, in addition to the knowledge and insight I gained over such a short amount of time. Rather, I will mention those days that were particularly memorable. So, without further ado, the really cool things I did in McLeod Ganj:

1. Lived with a Tibetan family: First and foremost, I know my month in McLeod Ganj would not have been the same without the people who I came to know and love dearly. Perhaps it was luck, or maybe even fate, that I was placed with my Tibetan family through the volunteer organization I had registered with. Nevertheless, they took me in as one of their own and provided me with amazing hospitality, wonderful memories, and the best food I’ve had in a long time.

Owners of the Tibetan Quality Bakery on Jogibara Road, my family had an incredible talent for cooking. (If you are ever in McLeod Ganj, you MUST go to their bakery and try some of their goodies. You, too, can also participate in their homestay program for mere pennies!) I woke up in the mornings in my private room to monkeys staring at me through the window, a nice chill in the air (a wonderful change from the rest of India), and to the aroma of baked goods coming from the nearby kitchen. I was greeted daily by Amalah (“mother” in Tibetan) who had a hot cup of chai waiting for me while she whipped up some banana honey porridge and put together an assortment of donuts, muffins, and chocolate pastries. It was a really good thing that I had lost so much weight from my bout in the hospital a week previous to my stay there, as I no doubt gained it all back by the end of my stay. She would continue to do her prayers and Buddhist rituals or we would chat about happenings around town and share family stories.

My Tibetan family: Tenzin, Amalah, Pahla, Tenor, Cheoyang, two other guests staying with us, myself, and Nancy, the family dog.

I did have to shower using a bucket, but it was totally part of the experience of living in an Indian home. Some days, I had volunteering commitments, other days I went sightseeing or to Tibetan documentaries screened at local venues, but toward the end of the month, I found myself spending more time in the house, as I really enjoyed being with my family. I bonded with Choeyang, the family’s 11 year old daughter, over our love of “Boys Before Flowers,” a Korean drama popular amongst Tibetans. When she got home from school, she spent most of her time in my room, doing her homework or practicing her Tibetan homework. We also spent many evenings singing Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus songs on the rooftop, overlooking the town and the nearby mountains. There were a few days I took her out for pizza or ice cream and there was even a day she gave me a tour around her school, the Tibetan Children’s Village. She was, hands down, the coolest 11 year old I’ve ever met and I really enjoyed our friendship.

When Choeyang was at school, I was often invited into the kitchen where I learned how to make Tibetan food, such as momos, Tibetan dumplings, and tingmo, Tibetan steamed bread. I must admit, after a couple tries, I did pretty well at getting the food to look like it was supposed to. I also helped with the food brought down to the bakery. As I was taught how to properly twist dough or chop vegetables, I learned about my family’s history and how their families fled to India after the Chinese occupation. There were other afternoons when monks came to the house and told their stories, as well. I enjoyed these days so much. Even on a slow day, something memorable would occur, such as the day an elephant paraded down the street or one of our favorite teams won a World Cup game.

Momos, steamed dumplings, that Amalah taught me how to make.

We heard some commotion coming from the streets one day and looked out the window to see this elephant, making his way through the narrow streets of McLeod Ganj.

Yet another unforgettable night was that of Palau’s (father, in Tibetan) birthday. We had two other American girls about my age staying with us and we all gathered for a grand feast of curries, vegetables, and other Tibetan specialties. Afterwards, there was much beer to be had and lots of poker to be played. We partied well into the night and much fun was had by all.

I found myself tearing up the day I left, as I was saying my goodbyes to my new friends who felt like family. I felt especially honored as Amalah placed a khata around my neck and a bag of snacks for my journey, as I had not seen them do this for any other guests who had stayed while I was there. I know that one day, whether it be next year or ten years from now, I will see them again and reminisce about my July spent in the most peaceful and spiritual place on Earth.

2. Attended the Dalai Lama’s Birthday Party: I had known little about Tibet and the Dalai Lama before arriving in India, but was very aware of his importance in the world. So, I was surprised at my luck when Tenzin, brother of Amalah, walked me to the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex only an hour after my arrival in Mcleod Ganj to see the Dalai Lama speak publicly. He’s quite a busy man, what with his constant traveling around the world to deliver messages of peace, so I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Despite my lack of knowledge about this man, I felt a rush of emotion as he entered the public area and passed in front of me to take his place at the microphone. He spoke in Tibetan, so I understood nothing of what he said, yet I was moved to see a crowd of spectators from different countries, backgrounds, and religions all with smiles across their faces a peacefulness in their eyes.

Afterwards, I headed to the closest bookstore and picked up a few of his books to learn his teachings. I also made it a priority to see the Tibet Museum to understand His Holiness’ past a bit more. In just a few weeks, I felt like I had gained a lot of insight about him so I was overjoyed when I learned that he would be attending his birthday party on July 7, as it is quite rare he’s in town on his birthday.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera to the temple when the Dalai Lama was present. Here, monks debate various issues at his temple one weekday.

I woke up early to rain pounding and thunder roaring. It was freezing cold. Still, I got ready and had Amalah dress me up in my chupa, the traditional Tibetan clothing. We headed out to the temple and found ourselves in the back of the crowds, as we had waited too long to show up. I was amazed at how many people had showed up, yet, despite the crowds and the weather, everyone seemed sincerely happy. Strangers shared umbrellas and those that didn’t share a common language exchanged smiles. Hundreds waited wet and cold to see the Dalai Lama. He addressed the crowd, exuding a genuine happiness that few people ever learn, and soon performers of multiple nationalities danced and sang for His Holiness, displaying colorful costumes, traditional dances, and beautiful music. I decided to head back to the house to watch the remaining event on television so that I wouldn’t have to experience a hospital stay again, but it was still a grand sight to see so many come together in harmony to celebrate such an influential figure of today’s world.

3. Hiked up Triund: Tenor was a friend of Amalah’s son who was visiting Dharamsala on his college summer break. Seeing as he was about my age, we bonded quickly and became good friends and later traveling companions for the remainder of my stay in India. I found his life story to be quite interesting, as he was secretly brought across the Indian border from Tibet by a Nepalese agent paid by his parents so that he would have a better life. I learned a lot from him and will continue to cherish his friendship and kindness.

Soon after we met, Tenor insisted that I go with him to Triund, a frequented hiking trail in the Himalayas. We headed out early to make the 9km trek and as soon as we walked outside, I realized we weren’t early enough; the sun was shining bright in a cloudless sky. Out of shape, I feared I would be huffing and puffing all the way up, but it ended up not being so bad. We took frequent breaks to snap some photos of the stunning views, to move out of the way for the supply-hauling donkeys, or to have a cup-o-chai at one of the many tea stalls lining the path. It was really cool to meet and share a few words with other hikers or the chai wallahs, but I eventually had to act as if I didn’t know English, as the Indian tourists (a.k.a. the paparazzi itching to get a photo with the whitey) were out in full force. And man, I thought us Americans were loud!

Just as we reached the cloud bank, the temperature dropped significantly and from nowhere, it began to pour. There’s not much to Triund. It’s mostly an area to set up camp for a night while continuing on to further trails. Mind you, there’s no electricity, running water, or a single toilet in sight. But, I won’t get into those details. We were lucky to get a room in the concrete guesthouse and took a nap while the rain pounded against the tin roof. Shortly after, we went for a walk amongst the grazing donkeys, huge boulders, and endless cow patties… and other patties, too.

Our guesthouse on Triund, sitting amonst donkeys, boulders, and eerie fog as the rain cleared up.

Oddly enough, sitting at the tea stall, was Hunter, a guy I had met a few days previously by some strange chance of fate. He had been wearing a Treasure Chest Casino shirt and to my astonishment, I learned he was currently a student at Tulane University, just a hop and a skip from my home. It turned out an entire group from the university was staying at the same campsite as I.

As night fell, we bought overpriced hot beer and smoked beedies, the “poor man’s cigarette”, around a makeshift campfire trying to keep warm. We chatted about our experiences in India in addition to our favorite bars and restaurants in New Orleans. I also met their professor, Neil Guidry, a man active in the Free Tibet movement and founder of Lha, a volunteer organization aimed at helping the refugees in McLeod Ganj. Although I felt quite insignificant atop the huge mountain, below one of the biggest full moons I’ve yet to see, I also felt a connectedness to the world, the bigger picture. Here I was in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness, across the world from familiarity, yet I was talking to people who knew my friends, my home. It’s cliché, but the world really isn’t as big as we make it out to be.

I woke the next morning with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Since my discharge from the hospital, my digestive track hadn’t been working properly and I often found myself in bouts of pain, as if pregnant with an “alien baby,” a term coined by Melissa and I to describe the feeling. We began to make our way back and ran into Neil halfway down the trail. We agreed to split a taxi and while waiting for one, Neil offered to perform reiki, a sort of healing that involves the transfer of energy from one person to another, on me to help with my stomach issues. I was no doubt a sight, perched up against a tree with a bearded man hovering above me, practicing spiritual Eastern medicine and Tenor laughing off to the side. Perhaps it was the reiki, or the experience up on the peak, or maybe it was even some Pocahontas “Colors of the Wind” business, but I left Triund feeling stimulated and refreshed. And we are all connected, to each other, in a circle, in a hoop that never ends. And, yes, I just quoted Pocahontas lyrics.

4. Tong-Len Thanks Day: I was pretty ticked off to learn that I was screwed over royally by International Volunteer HQ, an organization that matches paying volunteers to NGOs and other charities around the world. I was way overcharged and unaware of the fact that very little of my money actually went to where they said it would. My homestay was paid significantly less than the amount allotted and my charity received none of it. To anyone looking to volunteer abroad: be wary of these sorts of companies. You can do a little research and find local companies, like Volunteer Tibet, which will not charge you to be placed with an organization and are really the best bet for cutting out the middlemen preying on unsuspecting volunteers.

Despite my dislike for the company, I was blessed to be matched with Tong-Len, a charity started by a Tibetan monk to help those living in the slums of Dharamsala and surrounding areas. I had hoped to be able to use my nursing skills, but it ended up being more observation than anything. Still, I really enjoyed spending time in the slums, playing with the kids, and doing whatever I could to help out. We were basically operating out of a small portable tent and a duffel bag of supplies, funded by individual donations. It’s not much of an operation but it makes a big difference for the people living in the slums.

Our nurse on staff giving a talk on family planning to mothers of a slum in Kangra.

Tong-Len also operates a hostel program in which children from the slums are selected to move into a dormitory and out of the slum environment. They are schooled and learn life skills, such as personal hygiene. They can only see their families once a week and they then teach their families these things. I was amazed to see pictures and videos of the children before they entered the program. They had made a huge turnaround and are now headed down a path which will no doubt lead to a better life than the one they had previously been fated to live.

Tong-Len held a Thanks Day for all those who had donated money or time to the charity. The hostel children danced and performed skits for all those who attended, including Indian dignitaries as well as their own families. I was more than happy to be able to help them get ready by applying makeup and assuring their bindis and hair pieces were in the right spots. I noticed how the older girls took on maternal roles and were anxious to show off their English skills learned during their schooling.

Me with some of the girls from the Tong-Len hostel program before their performance on Thanks Day.

I was asked to enter the venue formally and was greeted by “Namastes” and marigold petals being tossed in my direction. Mysterious Hindi songs played in the background. I was seated and I spent the next hour with my arms covered in goosebumps and my eyes brimmed with tears as I watched the loveliest children dance and sing with pure spirits. Hope was tangible in the air and it was then that I knew I had not ended up in this place by chance.

5. Witnessed Compassion: The Dalai Lama tells us that we will never truly experience happiness until we can possess and give compassion. During my time in McLeod Ganj, I can say that my top experience was observing an inspiring mix of resilience, spirituality, and genuine compassion. From the Tibetan refugees who continue to remain peaceful and loving despite their situation with China to those giving up their summer vacations to teach English to monks, people in the small mountain town are intent on making a positive difference. We live in a world that can often be a very sinister place. McLeod Ganj is a fleck of light in the sea of darkness and a reminder that humans, despite our flaws, are essentially good.