2011 was a year where a lot changed in the world. It was certainly significant for me. As well as starting university in the last calendar year, I also jetted off to some of the places I could previously only dream about. On the last leg of my ‘gap-yah’ adventure, I volunteered in India, which turned out to be a particularly memorable trip.
The village where I volunteered, in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, is just two hours’ drive from the popular backpacker’s town, Dharamshala. Aside from being a great location for trekking in the Indian Himalaya, Dharamshala is on a well-trodden path for another very important reason: in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled here after Tibet was invaded and has presided here ever since. Dharamshala now has a prominent Tibetan refugee community.
Since I was young, the Dalai Lama has been constantly popping up in the news, always sounding like a mythical super-human that world leaders visit to find solace. I’ll admit I first became interested in him when I heard that John Lennon imagined being the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountain top when he sang ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. As I found out more about the Dalai Lama, his philosophies and generally the way he approached life appealed to me even more.
Perhaps surprisingly, my interest in the Dalai Lama came to its peak whilst I was travelling through China. In South-West China, Buddhism is prevalent and there are many Tibetan communities, so travellers often talk about the Dalai Lama and the locals haven’t forgotten him. In Eastern China, the Han majority dominates and it’s more difficult to talk about the Dalai Lama.
By the time I signed up to volunteer near Dharamshala, meeting the Dalai Lama was high on my list of things to do. However, when I got there I was disappointed to discover that he no longer met his public audiences and you could only meet him in a private audience. This meant having a good enough reason to see him. If being able to write the world’s coolest Facebook status wasn’t a good enough reason to meet a spiritual leader, I’m not sure what was.
When the group of volunteers I was with left Dharamshala for an overnight trek, I separated and decided to stay in McLeod Ganj, the village where the Tibetan refugee / hippie traveller’s community was located. It was a long time since I had been anywhere where there were so many people travelling from the west. Most of them were vegetarian, most had dreadlocks and most were there to meet the Dalai Lama (I only ticked one of these boxes). The backpackers I had met in China were more like me: trying to be part of something exciting before it became too touristy.
McLeod Ganj was different to how I expected and I imagine it’s far removed from anywhere in Tibet itself. Given that the Dalai Lama lives here and that it has a famous Buddhist temple and a large community of monks, one would expect it to be a visably spiritual place. However, the spiritual atmosphere is tarnished by the car horns, the shops and the inevitable busyness that develops as a place becomes a tourist attraction. Sellers come to McLeod Ganj from as far away as Thailand and it turned out to be a good opportunity to buy my souvenirs.
Asides from the noise and the commercialism, McLeod Ganj also held other surprises. I didn’t anticipate how political it would be, with ‘Free Tibet’ slogans on the sides of shops, restaurants and on everyone’s T-shirts. I was even more surprised by how many anti-Chinese slogans there were. Even though I knew about the tensions between the two regions, I was expecting Tibet to be less hostile given its peaceful nature and its religion. Here I got a taste of how intense the relations really are.
Despite these political problems, after a while the spiritual atmosphere of McLeod Ganj does take over. Buddhists from all over the world come here to become monks under the guidance of the Dalai Lama. Even though they may be wearing Nike trainers, their shaved heads and red robes define them as non-materialistic; and as McLeod Ganj is on the side of a mountain, one is constantly overlooking Dharamshala as if it’s heaven and earth. Maybe this is where John Lennon was talking about after all.
So, I was inspired, in the midst of monks and temples, to carry out some good deeds of my own. Early on I gave a homeless man the packed lunch my volunteer group leader gave me. Later, I bought some Tibetan dumplings at a street stall for a blind beggar who I had passed a few times on the road to the temple.
Dharamshala was a lot different to what I expected but I didn’t regret going there. On the contrary, it was an escape from the India I had gotten used to and its individuality made it feel like another country. Here, I got a history lesson that I could never get in Delhi, Beijing or London, and being there gave me the illusion that somehow I was politically or spiritually involved. During my time in McLeod Ganj, I was treated to a view which I can compare to nothing. Looking down on Dharamshala from McLeod Ganj with monks robed in red and the rain pounding on my umbrella, I can safely say it was my favourite place in India.