Monday, October 29, 2012

Mcleodganj Diaries - Episode 1 : The first feel

One Sunday afternoon in September this year, I received a call from my friend and ex-roomie Tashi. Tashi is of Tibetan origin and resides in Mcleodganj, Dharamshala. I met him when he came to Mumbai to study film-making. We shared the same room in a 3-bhk flat which had 9 more residents. Of all my flatmates, I was closest to Tashi one of the major reasons being – he was the only one who made me breakfast on Sundays when I was home :D Times changed and we both moved to separate flats. About 3 months ago, Tashi left Mumbai for good and went back to Mcleodganj to look after his Cafe and begin making films on Tibet. He had called me to just catch up and ask how I was doing. It was then that I just casually asked him if I should come to Mcleodganj to spend my birthday which was in a month and he said he would love to host me. The next thing I know - I was on the makemytrip site looking for ways to get to Dharamshala from Mumbai!

So I figured I would take a train to Delhi from Mumbai which will take me 16 hours and then a bus from Delhi to Dharamshala which was another 12 hours. This was my best bet as I did not want to spend on air tickets. The train tickets were booked for my to and fro journey with a Waiting List status both ways. I thought I will sort the buses out when I get there as I didn’t think it would be a problem.

After a lot of excitement and anxiety, the day was finally here. I read some stuff about Dharamshala, printed out some maps, and did some other pre-trip stuff. I took a cab at around 9 pm to get to Mumbai Central and was there well-before time. I checked the list and saw that my ticket was confirmed (which I was sure would be the case). The train started at 11.20ish, I had the food that was served and started reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm till the lights went out. 16 hours later, I was at the place people had always warned me against – DELHI! It was 5.15 pm and my bus was to leave from a place called ‘Majnu ka tila’ at 6.30pm. I marched for 5 minutes to get to the Metro railway station and took a crowded metro to go to Vidhan Sabha. Almost 90% of the crowd got out at Kashmiri gate which is when I clicked a pic of my first metro ride.

I got off at Vidhan Sabha and took a rickshaw to get to Majnu ka tila costing me 30 bucks. I reached there at 6 and bought a ticket for a Volvo bus which was to leave at 6.30pm. The bus arrived at 7.30pm and I got into it when I came face to face with the first adventure of my trip – The Israeli girls!!

I was looking for my seat when I realized that some Russian girls (in my mind they were Russian till later when I discovered that they were actually from Israel.. don’t know what I was thinking!) were arguing with the bus conductor about their tickets. I saw that there was a bit of a language barrier so I stepped in to see if I could help. And this is when I first met Sapir, the girl who went on to become a friend for life. Anyway.. that’s for later. So here is the story – the girls were sold tickets to a non-AC bus to Dharamshala bya an agent at the price of the tickets for an AC bus. The conductor hadn’t checked this earlier and once they were settled in their seats, he realized that their tickets are for that of another bus. He then asked them to get off the bus but the girls put their foot down saying that they were sold tickets to an AC bus and they won’t move until another AC bus is made available to them. Unfortunately, the only other bus available then was a non-AC bus. The bus management got involved and offered to arrange for a cab but the girls refused. They said they were new to the country and could not trust some cab driver, they would rather travel with a lot of other people in a bus. Made complete sense!! During all this, I was playing the mediator speaking to the girls in English and the bus management in Hindi. This went on for almost 45 minutes. I personally found it ridiculous how the bus management was just not willing to understand their problem. Don't we follow 'Athithi Devo Bhava' anymore? Should we not go out of our way to help guests from another country (and in this case - 5 HOT girls for God's sake!! :P)?? I told them that the girls are new to the country and are our guests. We should try to talk to the local passengers whose seats the girls were occupying and see if they would understand and agree to take another bus. Finally, there was just one way out. Me, along with 4 other people, agreed to take another bus while the girls can stay put in this one and reach Dharamshala safely. We were to take the bus from another stop which was about an hour away. So, everyone liked the plan and the bus finally took off! That’s when Sapir introduced herself to me and thanked me for the help. I thought her name was Sapien and remembered it that way till I was corrected a few days later. I took my seat and next to me was my first friend I made on this trip – Jose Gurrero. He was from Mexico but was working in China for quite a while. We spoke about each other’s work, travel plans, purpose of visiting Dharamshala and before we could talk more, it was time for me to get off. I bid Jose and Sapir goodbye and left. I never thought I would be seeing them again... but I did! Because as it turned out - Mcleodganj is a small world!! :)

A 12-hour ride on-and-off sleep got me to Mcleodganj at 6.30 in the morning. As I was moving away from Delhi, I had started feeling cold. My jacket was out of my bag and by the time I reached Dharamshala, I was already happy with the cold weather - something I really needed after bearing the Mumbai summer! I texted Tashi 15 minutes before I was to reach Mcleodganj. I thought by the time he comes to get me, I could have some breakfast and wait for him at the stop. But when the bus stopped at my destination, I was surprised to see Tashi already standing there with arms wide open in true Bollywood style :D 

And there I was – at Mcleodganj... after 2 days of train and bus travel... with my long-lost brother waiting for me at 6.30 in the morning. I can’t really express how I felt at that moment... easiest way to say it is – I was very happy! :D

Till this point, I only knew that Tashi has a cafe in Mcleodganj. What I did not know was – he actually had 1 restaurant and 2 cafes! He was currently looking after  1 cafe while the other 2 were set-up and going well. I was to stay at a room near his restaurant called Hotel Green. He gave me some time to freshen up and once I was ready, he took me to his cafe – which to my benefit was the coolest, nicest, friendliest, and most magical cafe in the world - The Tibetan Mandala!

I had never seen a cafe like this one. It was amazing how Tashi spread his charm around here. He was this sweet, polite, cute Tibetan Cafe-owner asking people what they would like to have, making suggestions, giving compliments, sometimes even flirting with them but at the end of it – he always made a friend. Not just him, it was the kind-of place where everyone could see and hear everyone. So it was easy to just look at someone and smile, or participate in a conversation of your interest. Also, the fact that most people visiting the cafe were tourists and were open to making new friends helped! So, in just about 3 hours from the time I reached there, I had already spoken to almost 10 new people. I then took off with Tashi to visit the Monastery which was a 15-minute walk from his cafe. Here, Tashi showed me where His Holyness, The Dalai Lama lived and gave me an insight into Tibetan culture.

We sat on a bench in the temple and in that heavenly ambience, we spoke about life at Mcleodganj and how different and peaceful it is compared to Mumbai. Knowing my personal life and its problems, Tashi also started sharing some words of wisdom with me. We then just sat down quietly for a few minutes. And that’s when I felt thankful just for the fact that I was sitting at a place like that, feeling more relaxed than ever before. We clicked a few pics and then left.
Tashi went back to the cafe and I decided to go for a little trek to the Bhagsunag temple and water falls. It was noon but the beauty of Mcleodganj was that I did not feel the afternoon heat like I would in Mumbai. The 1-hour trek to the falls actually felt like a cakewalk! The cool breeze and the awesome weather made the trek extremely pleasant. On my way, I visited the Bhagsu temple and was pleasantly surprised to see a swimming pool INSIDE the temple!

I offered my prayers in the temple and moved on. I could see the waterfalls all through my way. It just made me go faster and get to the water as soon as possible. When I finally reached the top and saw people diving into the water, I felt bad that I had nobody to hand over my cell phone to. So, I could not get into the water. I just dipped my feet in it and boy, it was freezing!!

I clicked a few pics, took a few deep breaths to absorb the breeze and the atmosphere there, and started to walk back down. And that’s when to my surprise, I met Sapir and her friend Michal!

It was great to see Sapien after the bus incident and we chatted for a while about how she reached Dharamshala safely, how it was too cold at night in the AC bus, and how they were now staying at a guest house near Bhagsu. I told her that I was staying at Tashi’s hotel on the Bhagsu road and we exchanged numbers for any future plans. I then headed back to the cafe but not before having some wonderful Momos (I tried both steam and fried) on my way back. I reached Tashi’s cafe around 2.30pm and there he was chatting up with the one who was to become one of my closest friends on the trip (and thereafter) – Natalia Duke! :)

My first impression of Natalia was that she is a cute, well-dressed, soft-spoken, intelligent girl with an obvious American accent. We spoke for some time about what she does and what I do. I also narrated the bus incident to her. She was extremely friendly and very easy to open up to. She said she was teaching English to some monks at Dharamshala and that instantly made me think how great she was! She giggled at my jokes and that is the biggest pre-requisite for being my friend J She got cute dimples when she smiled and laughed (which she did a lot!) and that kept me glued to her face! And as we spoke, in about 10 minutes I knew that she had become my friend and I could easily connect with her. It was lunch time and Naati (which was what I decided I will fondly call her) recommended that we go to this place called The Peace Cafe. We left the Mandala cafe and visited the Tibetan museum which had a great collection of information related to Tibet, how Tibetans escape Tibet to get to India, people who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet, and other such valuables of Tibetan culture!

 After spending some time at the museum where Tashi explained to me a lot about Tibet and its people, we left for the Peace cafe for lunch and that is where I met my next friend – the most beautiful lady in the whole of Mcleodganj – Pnina Dekel!
Tashi and I ordered some momos and noodles and were waiting for our order when I noticed this lady sitting at the next table. You could not ignore her if you looked at her once. I immediately noticed that she was pretty, elegant and really hungry (judging by the amount of food she had on her table). There was something very graceful about her, about the way she sat, ate, looked around and smiled at the little kid playing in the restaurant. She called for someone and said “I want to invite”. I had no clue what she meant, nor did the waiter. She then said “May be you are wondering how someone can eat so much but I really want to invite.” This is when I understood that she meant that she wanted to order another dish! I now knew that the pretty girl also has an awesome sense of humour! I wanted to talk to her and invite her over to our table but I did not know how. I let it go. A few minutes later, our order was served and I was trying to click a picture of Tashi with all the food on the table. I was struggling to get the right angle and that’s when she said her first words to us – “Do you want me to take a picture?” I said yes and she clicked some pics for us. Once she was done, here was my chance to invite her over. I asked Tashi if we should and he said why not. Tashi would never let a chance to speak with a woman go by!! She had the bigger table so we went over to hers and that was the beginning of my longest lunch ever! 

We started chatting and eating and I realized that the quantity served was too much for me to finish. Tashi was having his fruit salad and was of no help in finishing up the rest of the food. Just when I thought I will stop eating, Pnina told me how in Jews, it is forbidden to waste food and how one should always finish what’s on their plate. Now, it was not often that I got a chance to impress a pretty lady. So, I decided that I will finish what’s on my plate no matter what! I got to work while my dear friend Tashi went on a flirting spree! He told Pnina about his hotel and cafes and joked around in his usual, charming way. Pnina looked impressed and I thought to myself “Great! I am the nice guy finishing the food here and still, the small-eyed Tibetan gets to be the HERO!” Anyway, I somehow finished all the food and we left the Peace cafe with my stomach in the size of two basketballs! We offered to walk Pnina to her hotel but she declined. She thanked us for lunch and we walked back to Tashi’s cafe where Natalia was with a student of hers. I told her about the peace cafe girl and how my stomach is about to explode and we all had a good laugh! 

Later that evening, Naati, Tashi and me decided to go to Carpe Diem for dinner. I was told this was a cool Pizza place at Jogiwara road and yes, it was! I really liked the ambience and the whole set-up there. And here was where I met my next friend – the super-intelligent teacher from South England – Peter Campion. He was sitting at the table next to ours and as we got talking, he participated in our jokes and shared his. Later, as the place got a bit crowded, he came over to our table to make space for another group. He clearly had a passion for religion and spirituality! Tashi, Naati and him discussed these things at large while I was just listening as it was not my cup of tea. However, what I noticed about Pete was that he was brilliant and knew his subject inside out! He also came across as a very kind-hearted man who was willing to serve humanity in the best way he could. He even discussed Game of thrones and Big bang theory with Naati which made me feel – “Okay, so he not just a nerd!” ;) I told Peter about my birthday which was later that week and that it would be great if he could join us at Tashi’s cafe and we can all have a little party. We then left to walk Naati to her hotel at Dharamkot. This walk was the spookiest walk one would ever walk. I had no clue why Naati had to take up a hotel room so far away from the happening main square. It was on a hill and there were no lights on the way. We had to use flashlights and there were rumours of bears and leopards inhabiting these hills. To make things worse, my friends in Mumbai had warned me that Dharamshala is known to be a haunted place! 

Anyway, we got through the walk fine and we bid Naati goodbye with the hope to see her the next morning for the Triundh trek. On our way back, Tashi and I spoke about anything and everything that would keep our minds off the bears, leopards, and ghosts. I wanted to pee very badly but I did not want to piss the forest people off so I controlled till I got back to my room. Once there, Tashi and I chatted for a while and I didn’t even realize when I fell fast asleep. And that was the end of my lovely first day at the beauty called Mcleodganj!

To be continued...


  1. This is written so well. I could actually imagine myself being there.

    And you have always had the knack for making friends. Eagerly waiting for the next part :)

  2. Nicely written...have potential to be a writer !