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Life in the cloud

Dharamsala, Home of the Dalai lama

overcast 16 °C

A couple of days after the graduation ceremony from Yoga Teacher Training, a few friends from the course and I hauled our backpacks through the crowds in Rishikesh to the train station. The streets were 10x busier than usual: that weekend happened to be the annual Shiva festival. Millions of people flock to Rishikesh and Haridwar dressed in orange. I'm not exactly sure what the festival entails. All I know is that there were a lot of young men running round in packs chanting the name of the festival and carrying bottles filled with Ganga water. Nina, Jessica and I took the opportunity to joke around with these devout religious pilgrims. Every time they would chant "Bam, bambalayyyyyy", we'd respond, "WHHOOOOOOOOO!" and throw our hands up in the air as if we were cheering them on. They responded with more "Bam, bambalayyyyyyy!". This continued for the majority of our walk through town. The pack of orange-wearing Hindus chanting behind us excitedly increased little by little, and by the time we got to the Ram Jhulla bridge we had a legit following.

Anyway, this time we didn't have the luxury to hang out with festival junkies. We were in a mild rush to the train station in downtown Rishikesh having left about an hour behind schedule. Missing the train to Dharamsala would be an ominous way to start our journey. Luckily we had sharp enough elbows to wedge our way through the crowds down the road to the rickshaw stand. Normally you can hire a driver right by the bridge, but during the festival motor vehicles aren't allowed past a certain point so you have to walk out to the highway for a ride. Not the most fun of experiences when you're carrying 15+ kilos on your back and the temperatures are pushing 90 with 90 percent humidity, but a train is a precious thing. Especially when you are riding sleeper class!

We ended up getting to the station with enough time to start an impromptu concert on the platform. The perks of travelling with a semi-professional guitarist. Gemma's voice lured in about half the people waiting to board the train, as well as all the workers loading a freight train with what looked like flour on the other side of the platform. It's truly miraculous how universal good music is. We were suddenly surrounded by a group of small children carrying giant plastic sheets (to sell as shelter from the monsoon), several old men who had been sleeping on the benches, and women carrying babies, while the barefoot station workers stood in the background covered in dust. Us yogis just laid back on our packs listening to Gemma's familiar, soothing voice as the spectators accumulated. Feeling the vibe, I borrowed a friend's tin cup to add a little rhythm. Tapping the tin cup on the concrete made for a nicely pitched, yet scrappy percussion instrument. About ten minutes before departure, the concert came to a close and we picked up our stuff to board the train. Sleeper class is minimal, but totally doable. The train looks like it hasn't been renovated since 1920. The seats are worn down bluish brown leather. The scent of the bathroom lingers throughout all of the cabins. There are 3 dusty fans on the ceiling, and they only work when the train is moving. Same goes for the florescent hospital lights. I luckily was allotted a top berth, meaning my 'bed' is always available for me to claim. If you're on a middle or lower berth, during the day the combination of the two beds creates a chair, so you can't sleep unless the people in both berths decide they want to convert the seats.

Exhausted although it was only 5pm, I climbed onto my top bunk, laid out my yoga mat to sleep on, and pretty much passed out immediately. I was awoken some hours later (I don't have a watch) by my bunk mate informing me that I had to switch seats so that a family could sit together. I swear there were 20 people in that family, occupying the better half of the compartment. Indian families are HUGE. Annoyed that I had been woken up, but realizing that upsetting the locals would be a bad idea just on account of my crankiness, I rolled up my mat, slung my sandals back on, and complied. I even tried to smile and say it was okay! I'm becoming a yogi slowly but surely.

The new bed was the same as the old one, just a few meters over. Good thing I can literally sleep anywhere and at anytime now. The compartment was packed, people played their radios, yelled at each other, children cried... it was borderline mayhem. But I could have cared less, I was out within 10 minutes. I think I've learned to consider all these sounds as white noise, and let it lull me back to sleep. I woke up to my friend shaking my foot from the aisle below. "We'll be there in half an hour," he said to me louder than you could ever get away with in the US without getting yelled at by some irritable passenger. I took that as my cue to go back to sleep for 25 minutes. I might have slept walked my way off that train. Nevertheless I made it to the platform with all my stuff before the train continued on north.

After the short 3-hour ride into the Himalayas, I dumped my bag next to my bed and fell fast asleep for the rest of the morning. When I woke up and walked out to the balcony, I was awestruck. Lower Dharamsala was tucked in the valley sprawling before my eyes. We were nestled in the surrounding mountains. The rectangular buildings stacked up the hill were painted multi-colored, creating beautiful patch-worked village clusters draped in Tibetan peace flags. Thick fog hangs over the city, either due to the altitude (2200 meters) or the threatening monsoon. I haven't quite figured that one out yet. All I know is that it felt like I was floating in the clouds.

A few days into my stay, we were due to head up to Srinegar, the capital of Kashmir, to go trekking. My initial enchantment with Dharamsala hadn't worn off yet by the time we were scheduled to leave, so I made an executive decision to linger behind with some other friends to further experience this magical place. A friend of mine from Wesleyan, Jonathan, had come up from Kerala (all the way at the southern tip of India) to hang out and agreed that some downtime here would be nice. Considering he had spent 4 days on trains to get to me, including a 19 hour delay outside of Bombay and an overnight in Delhi, the decision seemed logical. The next day the two of us moved up to Dharamkot, a little village isolated above Dharamsala for some Himalayan immersion.

Simply put, Dharamkot is the shit. There's one main street with a few cafes and guesthouses, but the gem of the village is the pair of meditation centers five minutes from where we’re staying. There's the Vipassana center, which hosts 10-day silent Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreats. Right next door is Tushita, a lovely community with donation-based filtered water, chai, and daily guided meditations. Also down the road is the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center, my new yoga spot for the week. B.K.S. Iyengar is one of the most respected authorities on Hatha yoga. He was born in Mysore, India to a very poor family with a life-threatening condition. He basically turned himself into a yoga protégé as an escape from his impossibly difficult life. Then in his young adulthood, he had a terrible car accident that rendered him essentially incapable of doing any of the poses he had worked so hard to master. He proceeded to use props to help his body achieve the poses he could do before the tragedy, and ended up nursing himself to full recovery. He founded a school of yoga all prop-based in order to have perfect alignment, no matter what your body's abilities are. Anyway, I signed up for a week-long course in Iyengar. The course was totally different from anything I had ever done before. We'd do 7 or 8 poses a class. The class was 3 hours long.

Days in Dharamkot were perfect that week. I'd get up at 7:30, head to class around 8, practice until 11 or 12, then walk back up the hill to my room for a hot shower (HOT SHOWER!!!). Then we'd go to our favorite cafe, the Milkyway, for Indian breakfast. Indian breakfast is the best thing on the Milkyway's menu. It consists of a chai, a veggie omelet, some potato and onion stuffed flatbread, and homemade yogurt. Did I mention it's all made from scratch? Most days around 2 we'd get the itch to walk the couple kilometers downhill to town to spice things up, but with the raging monsoon that week we were pretty much confined to the village of Dharamkot. We didn't see sunlight the ENTIRE time. It was constantly either drizzling, or pouring. I don't think I showered all week, considering walking to and from Iyengar was like swimming in the Ganga. Except you didn't smell like a garbage bin afterward.

Minus our village confinement, rain was wonderful at first. It was always cool (about 16 degrees), the air smelled fresh, and we had an excuse to sit on the porch and relax. All. Day. Long. The novelty wore off quickly, though. Iyengar ended on a Monday, and by Wednesday I was feeling serious antsy. Just as I was about to crack and make moves out of Dharamkot to a less rainy location, the monsoon let up. While Jonathan and I were playing chess on the porch of a café, we suddenly realized that we could see the peaks of the mountains surrounding us, and kilometers down into the valley ahead. We were in awe: for the duration of our stay to date, we could never see more than 10 feet in front of us, even at sunrise (or what would have been sunrise could we see the sun).

We resolved to keep our rooms and kick it for another few days to enjoy the weather. Craving yoga, we found a new studio in McLeod Ganj, the larger village in Dharamsala. Our teacher, V.J., was a tiny but ripped Indian yogi who moves like a 12-year-old but was probably pushing 65. He wore the shortest shorts to class. His legs were chiseled, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say those shorts were a little much. V.J. teaches 3 classes a day (Hatha and Astanga for those of you who care) and simultaneously runs a teacher training course. In each of his 2-hour classes, he had a team of 3 to 6 helpers that go around the room correcting every student on every pose. V.J. is a boss. He can push up from plank position to a handstand, and slowly lower his feet back down to the ground, and then weave his legs between his hands without touching the ground once. He’s a Cirque-de-Soleil-comparable acrobat, as well as a human pretzel.

The daily routine changed slightly due to V.J. and the manageable weather. Wake up at 7am, do a personal practice on the balcony for a couple of hours, go to meditation at 9, have a chai, eat at the Milkyway for lunch, then relax for a bit and enjoy the pirated internet from the next door café before heading down to McLeod for afternoon power yoga. Then the greatest discovery of all: STREET MOMOS! Momos, if you haven’t ever had them, are basically Tibetan dumplings. You can get 4 steamed veggie momos with chili sauce for 10 rupees about 100 meters from V.J.’s studio. Clutch after getting your ass kicked in yoga, and having to walk 2 km uphill right afterward to get back up to Dharamkot.

When we get back home (yes, we call it ‘home’ now), our neighbor is usually out on the porch with his Arabic guitar. Arabic guitars have 11 strings, and the neck is bent backwards 90 degrees. It’s a really cool looking instrument, and super difficult to play. Daniel, the Israeli neighbor, is an incredible musician. He’s also incredibly attractive. Jonathan and I took to relaxing on the porch with our freshly rolled charas enjoying a free improv concert. I sometimes go down there with my maraca (I bought one a few weeks ago so I can participate in jam sessions despite my lack of musical talent) to join Daniel, the 2 didgeridoo players, and couple of drummers all huddled together on the porch. If the hoard of partiers next door doesn’t play terrible trance music too loudly, I can usually get to bed around 10. Otherwise, I lay awake pretending the obnoxious bass is an exotic lullaby.

Overall, Dharamkot has been very, very good to me. I’ve had the time to do my personal yoga practice every day, to meditate under the supervision of a Tibetan Buddhist monk, explore other types of yoga, read, write, paint, and listen to music whenever I feel like it, and above all, reflect on my experience in Rishikesh.

Tonight I’m going back to Delhi on a night bus. The pace of my journey is about to change drastically yet again. Bring on the mayhem.

Posted by pack_it_in 23:30 Archived in India

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