The day after the trek was a lazy one. I slept for most part of the morning and then had a quiet lunch at the Tibet Kitchen restaurant without any company.
After relishing some delicious momos and chicken, I took off to go to Tashi’s Tibetan Mandala cafe around 4 pm in the evening. On my way there, my eyes lit up when I ran into Pnina, the lady we met at the Peace cafe a couple of days ago. She was standing at a cross road trying to figure out where to head. She recognized me instantly and I asked her to join me for a cup of coffee at the Tibetan Mandala cafe. She had not seen Tashi’s cafe (which he had bragged about in our first meeting) so we both reached there and met Tashi. And thus began an evening of fun, an evening of intellectual discussions about countries, cultures, politics and religions, an evening where I met 3 awesome people who rocked my birthday party the next day – Uday Raina, Palden and Juan Pa!
Pnina and me sat at the cafe while Tashi got back to managing it as it was a busy hour. We started talking about Indian movies when Pnina mentioned that she had seen a movie in a cinema Hall in India a week ago. She described to me what the movie was about and she was surprised that I could guess its name. It was Salman Khan’s Sanam Bewafa and I was shocked to learn that there was a cinema hall somewhere in the North which was still playing this movie which first released in the early 90s! I even Googled it and showed Pnina the images to confirm that it was indeed Sanam Bewafa that she watched! J This is when Uday joined our discussion. Sitting at the adjoining table with a friend of his, Uday was an Indian who had been living in New York for almost 12 years and was on a break from his corporate life. That’s what got him to Mcleodganj. He was clearly passionate about Hindi movies, which is why he was really excited about the discussion. He introduced us to Juan Pa, a South American who was also Tashi’s friend and was living in Mcleodganj since a while learning Tibetan culture. I was extremely pleased to meet both of them and we went on chatting about various things till someone asked Tashi about the story behind the name of the cafe and what the picture of Mandala on the wall of the cafe signified. Enter the great Palden!! Tashi asked Palden to do the honours. Palden brilliantly explained to everyone sitting in the cafe what it meant and what its significance was. For these few minutes, Palden was the centre of everyone’s attention. There was an aura around him which made it difficult for anyone to look anywhere else for even a second! Once Palden was done talking, there were smiles exchanged with everyone and after some chit-chat, Tashi said we can go to some other place to hang out. Palden had to leave but I invited him for my birthday get-together that was to happen the next day. The rest of us – Juan Pa, Pnina, Uday, Tashi, Renzin and me- took off to go to Mc Llo’s which was a restaurant right at the centre of Mcleod (called the main square).
We sat at Mc Lo’s for a few hours chatting about several things. We spoke about India, religions, Sikhs and a documentary about them, Gandhi, Israel, spirituality, languages, philosophy and so many others things. I was amazed by how well-read Uday was. He had a sense of enthusiasm about everything he said. He sometimes was too aggressive and passionate about stuff he was saying (but that could have been the alcohol talking :P). However, at all points, he kept the conversation interesting and engaging and made sure we all participated. Juan Pa, on the other hand, was the cool cucumber battling Uday’s arguments with ease and panache! I was impressed with his intelligence, knowledge, compassion and charm.
The only symbol of beauty at our table, Pnina, very sweetly and gracefully kept adding to the conversation. She spoke about her country and asked us about a word for a land under dispute between two countries. After several failed attempts to give her the word she was looking for, we just ignored the topic and moved on :D Tashi and Renzin were happy listening to us.
I got a call from Sapir checking where I was. She was at Bhagsu which was a 20-minute walk from the main square. She told me that she was too tired to join us but promised to see me for my birthday the next day. We sat chatting at Mc Lo’s for hours but I had no clue how time flew by. That is another great thing about Mcleodganj! You meet people and have great conversations with them without worrying about how long it has been. Nobody seems to be on a schedule. Everybody is just too happy about the time they are spending and the company they are spending it with. I, for one, did not want the evening to end but we did finally leave and while we were just outside Mc Lo’s, the clock struck 12. It was my birthday! The guys stood in a circle and sang for me. Juan Pa even did a little dance J And we left with the promise that we will all meet again at 5pm the next day for my birthday celebrations!
The next day began pretty late. I got a few calls from family and friends. Most of them could not reach my phone because of network issues or because of me being asleep or in conversations with other people. Fortunately, I did happen to speak with my Dad, my best friend and some close friends. I then headed to Norbulingka with Natalia in the afternoon where she bought me lunch as a birthday present!
We roamed around the beautiful place, clicked a picture of her posing as a doll (as promised to a friend of hers :D), did some shopping and then came back to Mcleod where the most happening evening of my life awaited me!
Nati went back to her hotel to get dressed for my party and I headed to my room to wash up. My grandmother had asked me to donate some money at a sacred place as a birthday ritual. So once I was ready, I headed straight to the monastery. On my way, I ran into Laura. I had met Laura a couple of days ago at the cafe and was inspired by her thoughts on Tibet and its freedom. She had told me how she has asked her family members to boycott any one Chinese item for life and that would be their Christmas present to her. This thought had moved me and my little conversation with her had given me a whole new perspective on the Tibetan freedom struggle and what we can do to be a part of it. I had invited Laura for my party in our previous meeting but I saw that she was with a group of people going towards Bhagsu. She wished me a happy birthday and said she won’t be able to make it for the party. I thanked her and started walking towards the monastery thinking that almost everyone is going to have plans like Laura did. Tashi’s cafe was on the way to the monastery so I told him I am going for a quick visit to the temple and will be back in a few minutes. Nobody I knew was at the cafe so I was not expecting anyone other than Tashi, Natalia and me to be at my birthday celebrations. This is when I got a call from Sapir asking where I was. I told her that I was headed to the monastery. When I did reach the monastery, Sapir was standing at the entrance waiting for me!
I was extremely happy to see her. We now had one more friend for my party! She hugged and wished me a happy birthday and told me that her friends could join us later. The two of us then went into the monastery where I did what my grandmother had asked me to. In about half an hour, were back at the cafe. And here, TO MY SURPRISE - a whole bunch of people were waiting for me to show up. They were all there – Tashi, Renzin, Pete, Uday, Juan Pa, Palden and of course Sapir! I knew Nati was on her way so the only person missing now was Pnina. I did not have her cell number so I quickly messaged her on Faceook to check where she was. Nati showed up in a bit and everyone began to get up to leave for the party venue. I had no clue where we were headed next. Palden and Tashi had taken charge and I was advised just to follow them. I wanted to wait for Pnina for some more time but then I thought may be she isn’t coming. So, we all got off the couch and right when we were to step outside the Tibetan Mandala Cafe – there she was! Standing at the door, Pnina was smiling at all of us J
We all started following Palden and while we were walking - I noticed a lovely thing. All these guys who had come for me, had started chatting with each other. They were all taking turns to walk with a person they do not know. They chatted about where they were from, where they were staying in Mcleod, for how long have they been there and things they have done. I could see several groups of 2s and 3s walking together and even from a distance, one could say that we were all together! As we reached the main square, out of nowhere, in true Batman style – Vaibhav joined us. Vaibhav was a young lad from Mumbai whom I had met at the cafe a day ago. He had been in Mcleodganj for ages and planned to continue living over there till he ran out of all his funds. In his free time (which was pretty much all the time), he taught Hindi to a Swedish lady over there. Of all the people who came, I had expected him the least. However, not only did he come, he came with a present (an Osho book). He was lucky to catch us just on time before we disappeared from the main square. This was the beauty of Mcleodganj. People hardly needed a cell phone to co-ordinate with each other. Everybody just ran into each other or met at a pre-decided time and place.
By the time we all reached the restaurant called Common Ground, we were like a group of people who know each other pretty well! On the way, Tashi took all my cash and said that he will look after the finances. I was more than happy for him to do this :D Once we all settled down at the restaurant, we ordered a whole lot of food and then, the chats began once again. Everyone was clicking pictures, exchanging anecdotes, laughing away at Tashi’s silly jokes, bonding with each other. There were two little kids who caught everyone’s attention at the restaurant. The ladies in the group caught hold of them and started playing kid games with them.
Once the girls let them go, Pete started teaching one of the kids something using some cards. He struck a terrific rapport with the little girl and I could see how cool a teacher this man must be!
We were all getting along like a house on fire by the time the food arrived. We had occupied a huge table and some ground space with cushions and mattresses next to the table. The food was served across this entire space and all of us, hungry from the walk and talk, pounced on it.
This is when Palden noticed a lovely girl sitting on a table next to ours. He spoke with her and introduced her to us. She was the beautiful and vibrant Sarah Roseman. I learned later that she was a musician and was studying at Mcleodganj. She had been there for a while and was to be there a few more months. She joined us for dinner and almost all the guys took turns to chat with her for a while :D
Soon, it was time for her to leave. So, Tashi quickly arranged for my birthday cake to be cut. This was the first time that the cake-cutting ritual didn’t feel clichéd to me. I was cutting my birthday cake with friends most of whom I had met in the last 3 days and most of whom were not even from my country! And yet, it felt like I was surrounded by people whom I have known all the 27 years of my life! I looked at everybody around me. It was one of those moments where you need to pinch yourself to believe that what’s happening around you is real. Everybody was smiling and laughing and waiting for me to blow off the candles. I did not know what to wish for. I guess I just blew them off with my heart saying “Thank you God”!
The cake was distributed to everyone including those sitting at other tables. They were all happy to share our happiness. Well, I think that day we were the coolest, happiest, and most happening bunch of people in the whole of Mcleodganj! So anyone would have loved to be a part of us :D Sarah left in a bit and we were about to wrap things up at the restaurant too. I was feeling sad thinking that the evening was coming to an end and just then – our saviour, the magnificent Juan Pa, invited us to come over to his place and continue the party there. It was just what everyone wanted to hear! The chirps and chats and laughters picked up again as everyone realized that there was more to the evening! Tashi settled the bill and we all took off from the restaurant bidding goodbye to all the others there, including the little kids. On our way to Juan Pa’s house, Tashi and Uday picked up booze and once again the little groups of 2s and 3s were formed as we headed to Casa-da-Juan Pa.
I was walking with Juan Pa and I saw a whole new side to him in the 20-minute chat we had as we walked. He spoke about his life at Mcleodganj, his girlfriend and how much he loves and respects her, and his future plans. I had spoken with him the previous evening but that was all about generic topics. This was the first time he let me into his personal life and I felt really great about this. I felt honoured that a man of such awesome nature and calibre found me worthy of being his friend and was sharing all this with me. And my fondness of him grew the moment I saw his house :D It was a cool 2-bedroom apartment with a wooden floor, a lovely little kitchen and enough beds and mattresses for everyone to crash if we wanted to! We stepped into the house and in about 10-minutes, the booze was flowing, the music was playing and there were 7 crazy people dancing away to glory! The remaining 2 – Uday and Pete - were busy making their drinks and repeating them one after the other. The little apartment in Mcleodganj had transformed to a hip-n-happening pub of Mumbai minus the urban fragrances of over-sprayed perfumes and annoying attitudes thrown by people on the floor!
This is where, after a gap of 8 years, I broke my no-alcohol resolution. All the guys wanted me to drink and I was too overwhelmed by their gestures to refuse. Uday made me a drink which was a mixture of every kind of liquor we had in the room that day. Once I was done with that, I followed it up with a couple of beers.
The dancing continued and this is when Tashi and Palden started forcing me to hit the dance floor with Pnina. They knew from our chats that I felt Pnina was the most beautiful lady in Mcleodganj and were using this to pull my leg the whole evening. I was too nervous and did not know what to do. Finally, Pnina herself was sweet enough to take the lead while I just followed her steps. I told her while dancing why Tashi was being such a jerk and she laughed about the whole thing! J Natalia, someone who loved dancing, went all-out with the Bollywood moves I taught her on our Triund trek. Sapir, the funniest girl of the lot, was having a blast and her dance moves could not be matched by anybody at all. Palden was being his cool self by just moving as much as he was comfortable with. Pete stepped on the dance floor occasionally to show us his cool, I-am-a-break-dancer moves. Tashi, as usual, was just throwing around his hands, legs, and butt in all directions. Juan Pa was the best of the lot dancing with all the ladies, holding and leading them with utmost grace and star-like charisma! Sapir tried to coordinate with the rest of her friends and get them to the awesome party we were having but that did not work out as one of them was unwell.
Nevertheless, we had a ball and once we were all tired, we sat down in a circle with our respective drinks. Tashi then suggested that I say a few words about everybody. Although I had not known these guys for a long time, I knew I had enough things to say for each one of them. In the little time that we spent with each other, I had indeed developed a personal bond with each person who was present in Juan Pa’s house that night. So I spoke about how Nati became my closest friend on the trip, how brilliant I thought Pete was and how I respected his views on religion and spirituality, how great Uday was at instantly making friends and also how assertive he is about certain things :D, how cute Sapir was and how I will never forget that bus incident with her, how beautiful I found Pnina to be and how meeting her was one of the best things that happened on my trip, how grateful I was to Palden for making sure my birthday party rocked, how awed I was by Juan Pa’s talents and knowledge and how happy I was that he treated me as a true friend, and last but not the least - how Tashi turned out to be the brother I never had and how much the trip to his hometown meant to me! None of the amazing events would have happened if it were not for Tashi. He was the one who invited me over and made sure, from the moment I stepped foot at Mcleod till the moment I left, that I was having fun, meeting people, and getting a break from the busy Mumbai lifestyle. He was always one of my best friends but on this trip, he taught me what friends are for and what friendship really means!
Soon after I was done talking, we decided to take off. Juan Pa offered for us to stay at his place for the night but everyone felt they should leave. So, we started walking and dropping each one off at their respective places. It was late at night (around 3 am I think) and the streets of Mcleod go quiet at around 9pm. And here we were, singing and laughing away to glory with the occasional “Shhuusshhh” from one of us. We were even stopped by cops and scolded for the noise we were making. We then realized that Mcleod would not be the place it is if we behave like this. So we calmed down and spoke softly. Pete and Pnina were the first to be dropped, followed by Palden, Sapir, Uday and Natalia. Tashi and me were the last ones to walk back home. We spoke for a bit about how unbelievable the day was and were so tired that before we could know it, we were fast asleep.
The next day was a tough one. In the worst contrast possible, fate had it that it was my last day at Mcleodganj. I had a bus to catch in the evening for Delhi from where I had to board a train back to Mumbai. I hated this day as much as I loved the previous one. The weather was as pleasant as all the other days and the people around looked as happy as always. However, it was not the same for me. The thought that it was time to leave Mcleod and go back to Mumbai was sinking in. I had just become part of an awesome group most of whom were to stay at Mcleod for longer while I was leaving to get back to my life in Mumbai as a struggling actor which, compared to my life in the past one week, was ridiculous to say the best. But I had to leave. I met Uday at the cafe with two new friends he had made – Katherine and Angel. The 4 of us left the cafe to go to the Gayki restaurant for lunch.
As had been the course of the trip, I was now hitting it off pretty well with people in little time. I had a great time with Uday, Angel and Katherine even if it was just about 60 minutes. Angel mixed up all the dishes we ordered and created something which was a treat for the tongue and the stomach. She was a fun-loving soul who made a joke every 30 seconds. She was also a hell of a photographer. She showed me pictures of her bleeding thumb that she broke when she met with an accident while rock-climbing. Katherine, the hot girl from England, was super-friendly and very witty. She told us about the dorm she was living in and we convinced her to move out of there immediately. There were affordable places all across Mcleod that were better than the dorm. Uday asked her to check out of the dorm and meet us at the Mandala cafe after which he would help her move to a better place. We all headed our separate ways after lunch. I went towards the market to pick up gifts for the 3 girls from my birthday party (didn’t have enough money to buy stuff for the boys :P) and some flags for a friend in Mumbai. I gave the presents to Tashi asking him to hand it over to the girls when he sees them. Little did I know that in the next couple of hours, they would all show up at the cafe to see me off. Well, maybe they just came to hang out but I would like to believe they came for me :D
By 4.30 in the evening, almost all my friends from the previous night were there at the Tibetan Mandala cafe. Sapir came with her group of girls all of whom I knew from the bus incident. Pnina and Nati came in a while and I gave them the presents I had bought for them. Katherine came with her big, heavy bag and was all ready to check into Uday’s hotel. We all sat together for a while chatting about the party and about the awesome week. Tashi served me my last cup of coffee with a message on it saying “Bye Dilip”.
Pete came in at the last moment just to say goodbye. I hugged all of them, looked at the cafe one last time, and took off. Pnina walked me to the bus stop and over there, we were joined by Tashi and Vaibhav, who as usual pulled off a batman by showing up from nowhere at the last minute and taking off without me knowing when he left. Tashi put a white cloth around me as a practise of wishing friends a safe journey. It was time for my bus to leave. I bid them goodbye, thanked them for everything and got into the bus. As the bus started moving, I leaned outside the window to look at Tashi and Pnina one last time. They were waving at me and as the bus took a turn, I lost sight of them. I sat down and in less than 10 seconds, there was a tear rolling down my cheek. I couldn’t help but think how much I was going to miss Mcleodganj, Tashi and everyone I met there. My cell beeped and when I checked it, I saw a message from Natalia which said – “Miss you already”. I replied to her and kept reflecting upon my unbelievable experience as I reached Delhi and boarded my train to Mumbai the next day. And that was the end of the most memorable trip of my life.
My dearest friends from Mcleodganj, if you guys are reading this, I just want to say – you have no idea what you have done for me. You are the most special people I know across the globe. You have given me an evening I will cherish forever and ever. The thought that such an evening with all of you guys might never come again in my life gives me great pain. However, it still doesn't take away the beautiful memories we have created that now rest safely in my heart. As different as each one of us are from one another, I saw a bit of myself in each one of you. And that says something about people and the world. That irrespective of boundaries, cultures, languages and a whole lot of things that differentiate people, we are all primarily HUMAN! And we are all capable of loving each other, finding an emotional connection with each other. Tashi, Natalia, Pnina, Juan Pa, Peter, Palden, Sapir, Uday – I love you guys. I miss you all. And you know that I mean it.