Dharamshala – Of peace and happiness

My therapist had asked me to stay away from solo trips, after the emotional wreck I had turned into, post my Czech republic & Slovakia trip in 2016. And so I did. 2017 was all about being with people. One holiday with my son and the other with a friend.

But now I felt ready. More than ready, I was craving for a solo trip. I wanted to leave everything behind. Things I loved and things I hated. I wanted to break away from everything and spend time with self and to try and clear my mind from the clutter that had accumulated.

I wanted it to be a budget trip. It couldn’t be my usual European trip. A friend suggested Bali, who by the way should be made the official tourism ambassador for Bali! She can’t stop talking about it!! 🙂 I did consider it for a bit but then decided against it, as I wanted the whole holiday to be within 20K, and the flights alone would cost that much. The idea of travelling within India didn’t even cross my mind. We may argue and back and forth on this topic, but right now I want to make a disclaimer. What I want to say about India and women has to do with my experiences and hence the perspective.

I didn’t fee safe travelling alone. Well, I have “traveled” alone a lot, from one point to another. But, never holidayed alone in India. I feel completely unsafe with the idea of staying alone in a hotel room or walking on the streets by myself in an unknown city. I was cribbing about the same at home when Abhinav suggested I go to Dharamshala. It was beautiful, calm and he claimed safe. Well, I have heard and read how the hills and north eastern part of India is a safe zone for women. I decided to take a leap of faith and go for it.

Direct flights to Dharamshala from Hyderabad were 18K!! In the interest of low budget holiday, I booked a return ticket to Delhi for 8k and booked overnight buses from there to Dharamshala and back for around 1200 each on Makemytrip. Thrilled to wrap up the travel bit in 10k, I started scouting for accommodations. Now, couldn’t stay in high end hotels (on a budget!!), couldn’t stay in regular hotels (didn’t feel safe) and definitely couldn’t couchsurf (Are you out of your frikkin mind?!!) So, I went on my favourite site ever, hostelworld.com .The first hostel which caught my eye was the Flugler hostel in Dharamkot. Oh ya, also, Abhinav asked me to stay in Dharamkot as it was the peaceful part, unlike the horde of tourists in Mcleodganj. I fell in love with the pictures and of course the price!! 3500 for 6 days was a steal! I booked it, made my “To do list” and now I wasn’t looking forward to the one month wait before I go on my holiday.

I wasn’t happy at work for a while now and just a few days before I went on leave, certain things happened which helped me nudge towards finally quitting. I decided to do that as soon as I got back from my holiday. So now, I was leaving with a bigger smile on my face. Not only looking forward to the holiday, but also to my return.

Day 1

Finally on the 18th of May, I was off to Delhi. I was scared, excited and jittery. I was going to be making some big decisions. I couldn’t relax or read at the airport. I knew my life was going to change once I was back. I was diving into the unknown.

After spending half a day with my brother in law and nephew, I took the metro to go to the ISBT bus station. On the way, my colleagues called me with a really shitty news which threw my mood off. Most of the initial bus journey, I kept getting calls from my colleagues and ex-colleagues with disbelief at what was going on and also most of them were trying to cheer me up and asking me to forget everything and enjoy my holiday. A friend reminded me that I had decided to quit, and the recent events at work were a proof of why it was the right decision.

I had a lady sitting next to me who was travelling with her extended family. She started talking and was finding it hard to wrap her head around the fact that I was holidaying alone.

Day 2

After a fitful night of sleep, I was in Dharamshala. Actually, Mcleodganj. I took a taxi upto Dharamkot for 100/-. Well, till the point where vehicles could go. I looked up the map for my hostel and started walking up. I got lost a million times. Nobody knew where it was. I called the number they had shared with me and they tried to guide me. After a few hits and misses, I finally made it. Well, not before dying a little. It was high up the slope and I had to climb up steep stairs and slope with my 9kg backpack to get there. But, the view was worth it!! Gorgeous mountains, dotted with colourful houses. Green green trees everywhere! Heaven!

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I reached my hostel before the check in time which was 10:00 a.m. I waited in the cafe where I had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs and met some other travellers. Most people were surprised by the fact that I was travelling alone. While talkig to everyone I realized how little I had travelled in my own country. All my stories and experiences were abroad. I wanted to explore more.

I asked the owner about things to do, I was recommended the Norbulinka monastery and the Dharamkot falls, both of which weren’t in my list. After discussing, I decided to go to the Norbulinka monastery first. I got ready as soon as I got my locker and bed. I was in a mixed dorm and I had the top bunker. The bathrooms were lovely. Not something I expected in an Indian hostel.

I walked down to Mcleodganj and then took a bus to Dharamshala. From Dharamshala took another bus and requested the conductor to let me know when we get there. There were a few monks in the bus too who got down at a stop a while later. The bus got moving again and I wondered if that was the stop for the monastery. My doubts were confirmed, but by then the bus had gone a few hundred meters ahead and I had to walk in the burning heat. I was starving and my head was spinning, so I stopped by a little store to buy a pack of biscuits and mainly sunglasses which I had forgotten to get from home. I didn’t get the glasses, but the biscuits helped for the time being.

I reached the stop where the monks had alighted the bus and asked a few people for the way to the monastery. A bunch of monks came my way and asked me to follow them as I was walking. After what seemed like a never ending road, we reached the monastery. As soon as you enter it, you are transported into a different world. The riot of colours we have come to associate with Buddhism, gentle gurgling streams and a feeling of calm. There is a doll house and workshops where you can see the residents of the institute working on carpentry and textiles. You walk through Japanese style garden to reach the main temple,Deden Tsuklagkhang. This is when I realized that it was in my “To do list” under the name of Tsuklagkhang complex.

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The temple is beautiful with 14ft gilded statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, the largest of its kind outside Tibet, crafted by Norbulingka artists from hand-hammered copper sheets. I sat down and tried to relax. Let go of everything I was thinking, of every negative emotion. I sat for a while there till I could feel a sense of peace come over me. If I have gaga’d over the frescoes in European castles, then I have no words to describe the gorgeous thangka frescoes depicting the deeds of the Buddha, the Fourteen Dalai Lamas, and other great Buddhist masters seen here. An applique thangka, over two stories high, hangs from the ceiling, displaying the Buddha and the 16 arhats.

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On my way out, I stopped at the hummingbird cafe, which is part of the institute and had the famous Tibetan butter tea. It was good, salty and light, served with a cookie.

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I walked back and took a bus to Dharamshala. The conductor was bloody gorgeous!! Instead of taking a bus to Mcleodganj, I took a share van, which was stuffing as many people as possible in it. By the time we reached Mcleodganj, it was pouring cats and dogs. I took refuge in Nick’s Tibetan restaurant and ordered a Mokthuk. Super delicious and hearty soup with dumplings. I made a mental note to try it once I get back home. Once it stopped raining, I decided to call it a day and trekked back to my hostel and curled up in my bed reading Obama’s “My father’s dreams”

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Day 3

Off to my first hike of this trip. I was super thrilled and woke up at 5, was up and ready and went on my way to the Naddi sunrise point. I knew I would miss the sunrise, but it was about the journey and not the destination. I had to walk all the way down to Mcleodganj and back up again on the trail towards Naddi. The weather was lovely and I couldn’t get enough of it. I added a few fun workouts on my hike too. The incline was 60% for the majority of the hike. My calf muscles were so sore. On the way, I got the chance to cross off  the Dal lake from my list. Honestly, completely miss-able if you are planning to get out to specifically see it.

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When I reached the point, it was a downer. Well, of course it was gorgeous. The valley, snow capped mountains…. but it was all done in the first minute you set your eyes on it.

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On my way back, I bought the local “fanta” and a few traditional caps and jackets for my son and nephew. I put on my ear phones and walked or rather danced along to the soundtrack of “Baby Driver” (One of my favourites!!) I stopped at the Common ground cafe, which is right at the start of the road from Mcleodganj to Dharamkot. This place was on my list and I ordered a french toast and scrambled egg. It is a quaint little place with a very friendly staff.

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Once at my hostel, I relaxed for a bit in my balcony before I got going again. It was perfect. It was almost like I was in a different time zone from my roommates. I left when people where in bed, I came back when they were heading out. I had the room and bathroom all for myself!

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Stop 1, the Stupa of complete victory or of blessings. Right on the road in Mcleodganj, this is made to commemorate Buddha’s victory over death. It has three levels with a temple on top.

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Stop 2, The Tibetan Museum. This. I had no idea what to expect when I went in. Just another of those museums, I thought. I was in for a rude shock. There was complete history of Tibet, the life of Dalai Lama and the atrocities of the Chinese. My heart broke. I was sobbing and I couldn’t hold myself back. Reading about people losing their human rights, about people immolating themselves fighting against this injustice. There were videos too and I couldn’t stop thinking how I knew nothing about these details. The censorship of China makes sure that barely any information reaches or is spread through the media.

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I left the museum with a heavy heart and followed the crowd into the adjacent building. There was strict security checks and the lady checking my bag smiled at all the junk in it. I didn’t understand where to go and I exited the complex by mistake. I had missed the Dalai Lama’s temple. I went around again and came back in. The lady was surprised to see me again and showed me the way when I told her what had happened.

If I had seen that temple any other time, with all those monks sitting there, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. But now, I knew what it meant. This signified the abuse China has put Tibet through and still is. All these people are displaced, forced to run out of their own country. Leaving their home, the life they knew behind. I was choking up again, looking at all those faces.

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The temple opens into an open compound with a building at the far edge, which I realized was the Dalai Lama’s residence. Imagine being there!! There was a public talk and Q&A session by the Dalai Lama the day before, which I obviously missed as I hadn’t registered myself for it. I sat in the garden for a long while, reading and letting the chants of the monks and the laughter of kids wash over me.

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I still had a lot of time before the day ended, and me being me, I decided to go see the Bhagsu waterfall. I had been told at the hostel that there was no water in the waterfall, but I wanted to go to the Shiva cafe, which was near it and quite popular. I had to walk quite a bit to reach Bhagsu, and when I did, I got to a dry mountainside with not a drop of water in sight. I struggled a lot searching for Shiva cafe, my map telling me to go towards the waterfall and I not believing it was showing the right way. Eventually, I realized that I had to climb up and go closer to the mouth of the waterfall to reach Shiva cafe.

The Bhagsunag temple is just before the waterfall and you pass through it’s compound to get there. I decided to bunk going in. Not something that interests me. But, I was assaulted with the sight of hundreds of men in their underwear taking a dip in the little pool of water in front of the temple. How the fuck is that ok; but there is a censorship on how women are dressed in general? Fucking hypocrites! Shaking off that disgust, I walked to wards the cafe.

Atrocious slopes and steps. Most of the way is at 60-70% incline. The burn my legs were feeling!! Those 1.5 kms felt like the last walk of my life. Specially after being on my feet trekking all day since 5:30 in the morning. I saw a lot of couple going up, women decked in their finest sarees, kurtis, jewellery and heels. Yes, heels!! WTF!! This woman in front of me, kept tripping and slipping. What a fool!

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I finally made it to the cafe. My shirt was soaked in sweat and I was tired. But, it looked like a nice place at the first look. But, once I sat down and looked around, I realized how creepy the whole place felt. I was sitting in the open, facing the restaurant. I could see a bunch of men on the terrace, playing some kind of game and for sure smoking up. The third table from me had a bunch of punjabi boys who were completely uncouth. I could see them looking at me, but I ignored. I had asked for the way from a guy during my climb up. That boy came to my table and sat for a bit, talking about himself. He was from Tibet, his family had escaped before his birth to India. He had put on a bit of weight recently and he climbed up to Shiva cafe thrice a week, as an exercise. He left, I ordered a Shakshuka for myself and waited. Those Punjabi boys moved to the table next to me and got more unruly. I got up and moved to another section, near a couple. Honestly, even the waiter looked creepy. My food was crappy and ate a bit for the sake of it. There was a bunch of girls behind me, I requested them to take a picture of me and then I returned the favour. By now the Punjabi boys had reached another level. Putting on their own speaker and music (Punjabi obviously) and dancing, yelling.

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All of us girls decided to walk down together.We were talking about our various experiences with travelling and having a good time. Those boys were right at our heels and extremely annoying. I was glad that I got company through it, otherwise would have been a very unnerving experience.

Once back down, we parted our ways and I quickly turned in to lose those boys. I put on my map to go to my hostel, got lost completely. Map couldn’t help me, barely any locals in sight, it was getting cold and dark. I was very worried and after a few wrong turns, I somehow reached a lane I knew. Phew!

I changed and decided to go to bed. My step counter app told me that I had walked 42940 steps that day!! 28kms!! Insane!! Surprisingly, I couldn’t sleep and top of that a horde of 28 people came to our hostel, for the night. These were acquaintances of one of the hostel partners and were on their way to Dharamshala the next day. It was a hilarious experience for the rest of us. The men in that group refused to even come into our rooms as it was a mixed dorm. They were uncomfortable to be in the same room as women. Unable to sleep and irritated, by 10 was hungry again. I joined some of the other people from my room in the cafe. Had a bowl of maggi and crashed.

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Day 4

Bir Billing!! While researching things to do in Dharamshala, I had come across paragliding at the world’s second highest spot, Bir Billing. My college friend Rashida had mentioned it to me a while ago, about her travel plans there. I was thrilled and quickly booked myself a place.

I had received details of how I should get to Bir from Dharamshala and I cross checked it with my hostel guys. Everyone said it would take two and a half hours. I ate a quick breakfast of aloo paratha and left my hostel at 8:30. And the nightmare began. I had to change 4 different buses to get there and each bus stop there was a long wait till the bus filled up. At one of the stops I came across a guy who was trying to get to Bir too but didn’t have a prior reservation for the paragliding. I asked him to tag along with me and try his luck. We reached at 1. Yes 1 p.m.!! Screw 2.5 hrs!

From there we were taken to Billing, which is at the top of a mountain by car, which honestly was the scariest ride of my life. I wasn’t apprehensive about the paragliding now, coz I was sure I would die tumbling down the mountainside with the psychotic driver. There was a family in the car with us with their 6 year old son who was going to paraglide too!! I was shitting bricks when we reached and Shekhar (the guy I met in the bus) and I took pictures of each other as good solo travelers. He went first, followed by me. I had no time to even realize what was happening, when I was in the air.

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What an experience!! So gorgeous and peaceful. Those lush green mountainsides and clouds all around you. We had jumped from a height of 8000ft! I was chit chatting with my pilot and taking a video on the go pro provided to us. But mostly I was chilling. I realized it was the best spot for meditation. So calm and quiet and away from all earthly bullshit. But 3k for 20 minutes of meditation was a little too much. This made even my therapist’s fees look bearable.

As we came closer to the ground I saw a few dots on the ground. I thought they were birds, but I was told they were sheep! It’s all about perspective you see. The landing sucked. I fell flat on my ass. So much for finesse.

After a long wait, we headed back to the original hotel, The Paul Manor, where we had deposited our bags and Shekhar and I had a meal together and headed back towards Dharamshala. We spoke about life, relationships etc. We parted ways at Palampur as he was heading back to Delhi from there. And now, about me. I was informed at the Palampur bus station that as it was already close to 6, the frequency of buses was low and the next bus to Dharamshala would be at 9. That wouldn’t work for me!! So, I was suggested to take the bus to another town close by and try from there. When I reached that town, I went to a few police officers standing there to ask about the bus. They told me that there would be no more buses to Dharamshala for the day. I was not yet panicking but was close to it. They were super sweet and even helped me get a cab which I shared with two more travellers stranded like me. One was a Tibetan woman who could barely speak Hindi, forget English. Another a little weird guy who funnily, had suggested taking a taxi together as soon as we had alighted from the bus. And me being the typical Indian girl, had brushed him off and tried to ignore him. Well, now three of us were on our way to Mcleodganj in a taxi, and I was shitting bricks. The lady got down at Mcleodganj and the guy (I think his name was Raj) and I went upto Dharamkot. He suggested we have dinner together, but I refused and ran. I stopped by at Moonlight cafe (must go!) and had a lovely plate of falafel and reached my hostel at 10:30 safe and sound. Hello bed!

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Day 5

It’s time for Triund yo! Triund trek, the most famous and at the end of it, in my opinion the most overrated attraction in Dharamshala. It’s a 6 km trek uphill from Dharamkot, taking 3 hours on an average People usually trek in the afternoon, spend the night and depending on their fitness level and interest, either trek up further to the snowline or come back down.  I wasn’t planning to that coz a) I didn’t have the time. b) I wasn’t comfortable spending the night alone in a tent surrounded by hundreds of strangers.

I had decided to trek in the morning and come back down the same day. The first milestone is the Gallu devi temple which is 20 minute trek from Dharamkot. Trust me, it is one of the most intense 20 minutes ever. Again, an incline of 70% throughout, this trek would test the strength of your legs and in turn give you some kickass calf muscles!

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Once I reached Gallu devi, I stopped at the little tea shop and had a bread and omelet. I was starving. I saw a group of dads and kids starting their trek. I overtook most of them in a while and kept going. I stopped to take the mandatory pictures of the view, the cutest mountain goats (kids) 25% of the diatance in, I came across a bunch of teens, sounded very very Punjabi, struggling to climb up and cursing the situation. I found it hilarious that kids of that age were struggling. I also came across a bunch of boys sitting on the side, going quiet and staring at me continuously. I felt very uneasy around them and quickly fastened my pace to overtake them and so they couldn’t catch up with me. Honestly, I was scared and literally ran.

I caught up with one of the dad and daughter from the group after a long time, and when I did that I saw that the daughter looked a little dejected. The dad explained to me then that he had been motivating her to keep moving by making her focus to stay ahead of me. I realized in a bit that it was her birthday and decided to try and let her reach the summit ahead of me. I was extremely thirsty and just the water wasn’t helping. At a corner supply shop (there are multiple of them, with snacks and basic supplies) I bought a cold drink and before my brain could take an action, I had drank half of it. I kicked myself mentally for the foolishness I had shown. And as I had feared, I saw the effect soon enough. My palms had swollen up. Hyponatremia. Over hydration, a rookie mistake and look at who made it! (rolls eyes on self and kicks again)

Anyway, I reached the summit in a time of 1 hour and 55 minutes. I spoke to the father daughter duo and was very happy to know that he had recently started focusing on fitness and he wanted to encourage his daughter to do the same. We went our own ways walking around. I saw a beautiful spot for photography, but it was packed with a bunch of people. I waited till they moved and went there. I saw a girl sitting at the edge and taking selfies of her self. Being a solo traveler myself and genuinely a nice person(I really am!!), I offered to take her picture. She rudely dismissed me. I was like, well, suit yourself. She went on for another 10 minutes, I was tired of waiting, so asked her politely if I could take a couple of pictures of myself and leave. She said “No! I have been waiting for a long time for my chance and I will not go!” I explained to her that I didn’t want her to go, I would just take exactly 1 minute and then she can continue. Weird millennial responds, “I am taking a video of myself, I will take more time. I am not going.” So, I wait. 20 more minutes. I set up my mini tripod and all this while she continues. WTF is she taking a picture of??!! The mountains are the same, her face is the same. And guess what, her position is the same!! Her butt transplanted on that rock and not moving an inch! WTF is she doing?

Finally she leaves. I click my timer on, 30 seconds, three pictures and I walk away.

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Bloody weird fucking kids nowadays. On my way back down, I come across the Punjabi teens again, at the 50% mark still struggling to go up. I was shocked and upset. What is wrong with our system. 16-17 yr olds can’t trek 6 kms? Can’t overtake a 35 year old woman, who btw isn’t an athlete. This talks about our education system too, which has made education all about classrooms, books and now Tabs. No focus on physical activities or sports.

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The only shitty part of this trek? All those dipshits walking with their speakers, blasting music through the trail. Put your fucking headphones on!! I don’t wanna listen to your music. Whether it’s your EDM, Bolly, Punjabi. You are up in the mountains. Enjoy the beauty, the peace, the clean air. Don’t pollute it with your fuckery!

Back at the hostel, I gobbled a whole Thali. Took a shower and chilled in the room. I met a new roommate Sandeep. We got talking about life, work, education system, parents, music, interests and depression. We had dinner together at Cool talk cafe( miss-able) He wanted to hang out in the open for a bit, I was ready to sleep in. We decided to go for the meditation session at Tushitha center next morning and bid our goodbyes.

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Day 6

Woke up late. Missed the window to get into Tushita’s meditation session. I had booked myself into a Tibetan cooking class the day before. I had found the details on a poster on the streets. I went to Morgan’s place (must do!) for breakfast. Highly recommended by everyone who had been to Dharamshala before. I had a chicken salad and God! Am I in Heaven?! I was trying to hire an auto to go to Bhagsu for my cooking class. They were asking for too much so I decided to walk. I asked a guy on a motorbike outside Tushita for the way and he offered to drop me there. He was Deepak, The CA at Tushita and he gave me the info to come in the next morning.

At the cooking class I learnt how to make momos (dumplings) from the guy who spends summers in Dharamshala and rest of the time runs his momo stall in Rajasthan. It wasn’t a great class. For the amount I was paying, I expected a lot more. Kicked myself again for not going to the recommended places I had seen online.

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Anyway, class done. I bought some Bhagsu cake as recommended by my friend Vishal and took a taxi back home. I was too stuffed and it was too hot for me to walk. I took the taxi guys number for my ride to Dharamshala the next day. There was no way I was walking with my backpack.

Once I got to the hostel, I sat down at the cafe. I met a bunch of Brits and an American and a super weird Indian boy. We spoke about life experiences, drinking, traveling, bitcoins and sadly how they were cheated in India. Ari, the american (I remember his name coz it’s similar to my son’s and has the same origin) was scammed in Delhi by multiple auto and taxi guys who forcibly took him to random hotels and then tried to extort money out of him. I was ashamed of my fellow countrymen who did this.

We all decided to have dinner together at a vegan place. Food wasn’t too great and the portions were too large. Conversation was about drugs or farts. Neither of them interest me. I have never done drugs in my life (except for a little weed ages ago) so I had nothing to contribute. And I hate fart stories and jokes.

Day 7

I woke up at 4:30 and left for Dharamkot falls.  People at hostel had told me it was an hour long trek, but my google map showed it to be 6. So, I asked a lot of locals and kept walking around. Following the route they asked me to take. Guess who I came across?! Raj, the guy I had shared a taxi on my way back from Bir billing. He guided me too and guess where I ended up at? Close to my fucking hostel! Aaarghhh!! There was no time to go searching again. It was either that or the meditation session. I gave up and walked back to my hostel. I met someone on the way, who was trying to get to the same hostel, and I obviously took them along.

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After a shower and breakfast, I went to Tushita. In the common area everyone was sitting quietly at their individual table reading. Not a word. Pin drop silence. The reception was still closed, so I sat down too and read my book. I saw Deepak in a bit, who looked scared to even smile, shushed me and walked away. When it was close to 9, they put up signs to indicate where the session would be. I could also see a big hall where the residents went in for their class on Buddhism.

It is first come, first serve basis. You go early and grab a seat, you get to be in the session. It was divided into two sections. First 30 minutes was regular medidation or Shamatha, where you focus on freeing yourself of every thought. The teacher told us that it takes a lot of practice to get there. I was successful in freeing my mind for 10 seconds in all of those 30 minutes.

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Next 30 minutes was on analytical meditation, where you work and process on a particular feeling. That day”s topic was “Equanimity” Being able to look at everyone in the same way. Hate no one. She asked to think about 3 people.

  1. A stranger you had met and felt nothing for
  2. Someone you love or care about
  3. Someone you hate or dislike

Then she guided us to look at the world and at ourselves through their eyes. To understand that everyone is trying to get by and be happy. I had tears rolling down my face processing all those feelings.

I regretted not coming there earlier. When she told that the next day’s session would be on “Anger”, I regretted even more. I went up to their book store and bought a few books by the Dalai Lama for myself. Now I had to kill time. I went down to the Common ground cafe again and whiled away 3 hours. I also ate some super yummy, traditional Tibetan pork curry called Sha Tag and two green teas.

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My companion on my walk

My taxi driver called me and suggested we leave early to beat the traffic. In the next hour I was on my way to Dharamshala. We didn’t come across any traffic which meant we were there too early. So, he took me to the tea gardens and shared his story and his future plans of going back to his hometown Chamba and getting into tourism.

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So many stories, so many experiences. This was the first trip where I didn’t want to go back home. I am a homebody, and despite how great the holiday goes, I am dying to get back home. But this time, the pull of this beautiful and serene place was stronger. I know I will come back here again some day. Till then… Au revoir!

 

 

 

 

 

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