India: Reunion at the Dalai Lama’s Place

After 7 weeks, Dave and I were reunited in Dharamsala. I woke up in the big double bed I’d shared with Ricky in our horrid bottle and ash strewn apartment, showered and left to find my buddy. I got a tuk tuk up the mountain to Dharamkot, and asked a few local people for directions to a cafe we’d agreed to meet at. I walked down the mountain path all lined with pines, crisp air filling my lungs and snow-capped peaks peering at me from beyond the green valley.

I entered a cafe full of white people with face piercings and jaunty haircuts drinking coffee and talking about chakras. I spotted Dave before he spotted me: sitting cross legged at the far end of the cafe reading Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ and wearing a blue corduroy shirt to match the baggy red one I was wearing. I tried to think of some witticism to utter to herald my arrival, some ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’-esque exercise in British understatement. So much had happened since we last met. So many miles covered, so many adventures, so many faces, so many brushes with disaster.

‘Hello you,’ I said, looming over him with a smile. Dave put his book down, looked me over and said ‘Nice shirt’. Dammit. His line was cooler.

We hugged and I sat beside him and he gave me a small wooden box containing a Yin & Yang necklace – of which he had a matching one – and a gorgeous blue bracelet that Lini had made for me. I felt bad that I didn’t have a gift for him, but figured if I could make him laugh with a few mad stories from the past couple of months, that would be a fair exchange.

‘This place is full of fucking hipsters,’ said Dave, who in my phone is saved as ‘fucking hipster’. Dave has a special habit of winding up in places that he both hates and loves. The same thing that draws him to them is the same thing that repulses him. He seeks out a quaint mountainside cafe or gloomy local bar or run down hostel in order to escape from hipsters, but of course all the hipsters think the same thing and flock to the same spots, and Dave just sits in the middle of it all, Schrödinger’s hipster, simultaneously loving and hating everything.

It’s the eternal plight of the young person seeking authentic (read: not created solely for profit) experiences in the age of hypercapitalism: by being present to witness an authentic cultural event, you taint its authenticity. Where there are tourists, there is money to be made. In my heart, I know that the best way to observe burning funerals and sacred temples is through the pages of a book, leaving them pristine and original and holy forever, blissfully free from the degrading snap of phone cameras. But of course we are all just human. It’d take a person far nobler than I to sacrifice seeing the countries of their dreams in order to preserve them as they were.

It was funny talking to Dave; we are vastly different people and yet see utterly eye to eye on certain issues. We shared the same views on Rishikesh and its droves of wisdom seeking kids and the annoying faux spiritualism. Dave always tells me I think too much, but I know he is just as bad as me, and we always have new theories on life that we are all too giddy to share whenever we meet up.

After eating at the café and catching up on all the crazy things we’d seen and done, we wound our way back to McCleod Ganj and got high as hell on the way down the mountain. Dave can handle it better of course, but one or two joints and I’m a silly blob. Halfway down the mountain road, we passed four men taking down a large iron beam. They paused, tired, to rest it in the middle of the road and a couple of cars were stopped, waiting. I stood waiting too, until Dave simply stepped over the bar and I realised that I am A) not a car and B) dumb as shit.

At McCleod Ganj we bumped into Ricky and everyone in a café, and they waited for us while we explored the Dalai Lama’s temple. It’s nothing like I imagined. The structure is spacious and open plan, little in the way of furnishing or decoration, just a large, orange brown structure of stone and steel with peaceful gardens all around, where monks in orange robes drift to and fro. We explored a couple of shrines inside, and found old oak floors and thin pillows and low tables. It looked more like a village hall than the home of a man who is thought to be a reincarnation of Buddha. But then, that’s the appeal of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. He’s just a humble, happy dude who would rather chat about how your day has been than the great mysteries of the universe. That’s my spiritualism, right there.

I’d been hoping to meet the Dalai Lama, because duh, but we were told he was away from his home at the time. We did see an old man in an orange robe sitting quietly on a small wall in the gardens, away from everybody else, who looked suspiciously like the Dalai Lama, right down to the iconic smile and glasses, but I felt it might be inappropriate for a stoned British kid to wonder over and ask if he was in fact one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders. So we left him to it and headed back to the café.

I introduced Dave to everybody, and predictably he and Ricky didn’t get along so well because they are both large, impulsive personalities who tend to drag everyone around them into reluctant adventure. The five of us bought some rum and went to relax at a nearby waterfall, which was more of a stream due to the time of year, and we sat on the rocks playing music. In a bizarre turn, I spotted an old friend sunbathing on a large boulder by himself: Sammy, the Colombian guy who was an extra with me in the Bollywood film in Jodhpur. He joined us for a while and we caught up.

Later that night, we ate cheap food and chilled in the room while the heat of the afternoon ebbed away. Tali gave Ricky a massage while the Dave, John and I sat playing the various intruments Dave had acquired on his travels: two enormous drums, an egg shaker, a gong and a flute. Many joints were passed around, and our bizarre little band struggled to keep in time with one another, but it was a lot of fun and made me realise how much I’d missed my daft mate.

We headed to a little bar in a hut outside town later in the evening, and found it full of hippy types passing around instruments for a jam session. I was a little squiffy at this point, and contented myself with slumping against the back wall on a comfy pillow, sipping a beer. I kept trying to rap along to the jam session, giggling at how shit I am. We made a few new friends, but the vibe was killed a little by a twenty something girl who was blatantly on mushrooms or acid and couldn’t stop loudly cackling every 5 seconds. We left the bar for another place further up the mountain, and found someone playing the didgeridoo, because of course there was a didgeridoo.

Ricky, John and I took our leave at midnight because the guys were tired and I was up at 5am for a bus to Amritsar, the last stop on my long journey. I hugged Dave goodbye once again, promised to meet up with him in Nepal in a week or so, and the last I saw of him, he was sitting cross legged playing his bongos, staring intently into the eyes of a man enthusiastically clacking two castanets together. Walking back down the mountain in the dark, with the floating around above us and music seeping out of lamplight doorways, I thought to myself that the Dalai Lama sure knows how to pick a cool place to live.

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