It’s been so many weeks since we last wrote, and much has happened.
Getting from Delhi to Dharamsala.
India is a challenging place. Thankfully, Scott was well-prepared, and he knew exactly where we needed to go and how to get there.
We were a bit rattled by not being able to get money from the bank machine. But after turning our US $100 bill into Indian Rupees, Scott made a sensible suggestion before we had to face the taxi challenge. We went to get a much-needed coffee from the only coffee shop in the arrival terminal, Café Coffee Day. Karen read off the menu: an Americano cost 30 Rs. Two Americanos would cost us about $1 USD. Perfect. Karen asked the young man behind the counter for two Americanos. He immediately asked is she wanted those strong or medium? Neither of those options was in the menu, but Karen thought, “Yeah, strong coffee is what we need.” She ordered them strong. He smiled at her and began making the coffees.
He finished the drinks and placed them on the counter in front of us. Then he said, “191 Rs, please.” One hundred and ninety-one? According to the menu, the bill should have been 60 Rs. Karen – shocked – asked him how the price went from 60 Rs to “191 Rs.” We had to laugh at the 191. When you have spent more time here in India, you realize how unlikely it is to ever find a 1 Rupee note. We still have no idea what math he used to come up with the figure. We assume he just randomly decided it sounded right to him. He said the difference was we asked for strong coffees. Whatever that meant. Karen was pretty angry, but just handed him 200 Rs. He didn’t return the right change, so Karen called him on it. He just smiled and gave her back the rest he owed. “Welcome to India,” he said smiling without a trace of irony.
We sat down to sip away on our coffees. We wanted our very tired and foggy brains to sharpen up before facing what lay outside.
For those brief few moments we were protected from the hundreds of millions of people milling outside. They were the taxi drivers. And they were waiting for us. Because our plane had been so late, we were practically alone. Normally there would be a horde of exhausted and confused tourists pouring off planes from all over the world. International flights were timed to arrive in India in the middle of the night. It’s a horrifying fact of life. As it was, we had landed at 8am. It was now closer to 9:30 am. We had been up now for about 29 hours.
We finished our coffees (which were delicious) and literally took deep breaths, then went outside. It was like diving into a deep pool of hot chaos. Despite having never set foot in India before, Scott confidently pushed through the huge crush of taxi drivers and other touts who, with no other tourists to distract them, fixated totally on us, and walked straight for the Delhi Traffic Police Pre-Paid Taxi Stand. He told the two officers there exactly where we wanted to go – Majnu Ka Tila and waited for him to fill out a scrip of paper and hand it to us after we forked over 300 Rs. There was suddenly a lot of discussion in Hindi, with drivers pressing up against the counter shouting at the officer. Scott somehow figured out there was confusion about where we wanted to go. He interrupted them and explained the location to the officer again, saying it a few times. This seemed to somehow signal that we knew where we were and we looked in control.
The crowd was suddenly quite quieter and they were giving us a lot more room. One driver hesitantly came over to Scott and said, “You know Hindi?” Scott just waggled his head and said, “Not very much” as he walked over to the curb to find the number of the taxi we had been assigned to. He asked the driver to open the trunk and then threw our bags in and shut it. As soon as we had jumped in to the back seat of the old Ambassador taxi, a stranger jumped into the front passenger seat and slammed the door. Scott asked the driver who this was? He smiled reassuringly and said, “my friend!”
Scott tapped his friend on the shoulder and said, “no friends.” The driver then pleaded with us and said, “No please, he is my friend!” So Scott opened his door and started to get out. The driver asked him what he was doing. Scott said he was going to ask the police officer to give him a different car, and told the driver to open the trunk. This did the trick. The driver reluctantly told his friend to get out. We got back in, slammed the door and then the driver dejectedly put it in gear and started off after Scott showed the slip of paper to him. The paper was proof of fare, so for the driver it was the equivalent of money. Scott held onto it and told the driver he could have it when we arrived at our destination.
We were so exhausted at this. Along the way, Scott chatted amiably with the driver – offering him gum, noting the different parts of Delhi we were crossing so as to make it clear to the cab driver we knew where were. Finally we made it to Majnu Ka Tila. We tipped the guy 50 rupees for not ripping us off, he was happy, and we were happy.
We managed to find the Tibetan-run hotel we had booked for the afternoon so we could rest before getting on our bus. After some dinner and a shower, we packed up our stuff and headed to our bus.
Driving through Delhi we got a clearer sense of the place. No words could describe it, and since we were in a moving bus, pictures were impossible. We had never seen anything like this place before. People living in garbage dumps bisected by highways, garbage burning everywhere because of the heat, traffic jams at 3 am, construction at every turn, people selling stuff at every stop putting their hands in the bus windows. Monks, and wealthy people, and poverty, and disease all mixed together. Wandering cows everywhere you look. It’s amazing. And overwhelming.
The bus ride was tough but spectacularly beautiful. Hard seats and a bumpy ride made it impossible to sleep. But as we looked out the window at the sliver of the moon setting over the Himalayas just before sunrise, we were really overcome with gratitude for the chance to be here in this moment. We were the luckiest people alive.
It took about 13 hours, but we finally pulled into the main square of McLeod Ganj at 7am. We’d now gone about 48 hours with no sleep. Remarkably, we met a woman we had traveled with on our journey from Saigon to Phnom Penh. She took us to her favourite restaurant and we had coffee and breakfast. We were still reeling from the jarring transition from modernity to a country so ancient and chaotic.
We solved our money problem by withdrawing from our credit card. Then we headed up to the Vipassana Centre, known as Dhamma Sikhara. We’ve been here about 12 days. And we have made the decision to stay a while longer.
When life hands you a unique opportunity, you should take it.
How many times in your life will you be given the chance to live in a meditation centre overlooking the foothills of the Himalayas? We’re going to guess, not many times.
Two of the resident teachers here at the Centre asked us if we would consider staying and being the managers for a few months. They agreed to arrange accommodation for us and, in return, we would help run the facility – processing applications, supporting the volunteers, running the office, insuring maintenance gets done, etc. Scott was pretty reluctant, to be honest. We had just finished volunteering on a 10-day course. Scott ended up being the male course manager when the original one had left after getting into a fight with a student. India was a crazy place, and the 10 days Scott had spent working on the course were among the toughest personal challenges he had faced. Conditions are very (very) basic. The hours had been incredibly long (4 am – 10 pm every day) and it was busy. By ‘busy’ he meant ‘crazy.’ Scott’s perfectionism was seriously challenged by this country. He wanted to relax away from the discipline of the Centre and head off to Ladakh to do sight-seeing instead.
However, after taking a few days to rest and think about things, we finally decided that this chance was an incredible gift, and we would be stupid to turn it down. It’s one of those times when you are presented with a unique opportunity to develop spiritually and learn more about who you are.
Our home for the next couple of months will be a small cabin just inside the Centre’s property but off the actual course boundaries. It is so beautiful here. The residence of the Dalai Lama is about 20 minutes down the mountain on foot in McCleod Ganj. We are living in a small mountain village called Dharmkot. Our cabin looks out on the foothills of the Himalayas, known as the Dhauladhar range. The weather is incredibly mild, about 29°C in the middle of summer, which is pretty cool given it is 50°C in Delhi now.
This won’t be easy. Not by a long shot. The living conditions are pretty basic, the food is simple. It’s scorpion season and they come out at night in the hundreds. Karen lived with many in her room and even found some in her bed. The Macaque monkeys will turn everything you once believed about how cute and playful monkeys are upside down. They are the incarnation of evil. They bite, carry rabies and are highly aggressive, especially toward women – mostly because it is the young men who carry large sticks and shoot them with sling shots. Add in the giant spiders, the infected water, and the fact that home feels very, very far away.
Still, how often will we ever get the chance to do something like this again?