Hanging in the Himalayas

January 18, 2015

New Delhi is unlike any city in the world. Although I have yet to visit Mumbai, I’ve met many people who have travelled to both and they agree that Delhi is truly the most chaotic and craziest city they have ever been too. There is no such thing as silence and the traffic is nonstop; there are literally people EVERYWHERE, not to mention the cows, goats, dogs and monkeys. 

I took a cab from the airport to Arakashan Road, one of the main hotel strips near the New Delhi train station. I ended up at Zostel, a cute little hostel with hilarious artwork on the walls, including Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta’s iconic pose from Pulp Fiction, but they are holding bananas instead of guns. I took a private room so I could finally have a moment to organize my stuff, shower and get a good sleep. Well, two of three things happened; sleeping is nearly impossible when you’ve chosen a hostel next to a busy train station in downtown Delhi. Instead I used the time to blog and brush the accumulated dreadlocks out of my hair. I took a walk to see if I could buy a bus ticket from a travel agent but they were all trying to charge me well over 1600-rupees to reach Dharamsala, which is way too much. On my unsuccessful walk back to Zostel, I stopped in at Blooms Rooms, a hotel right at the corner of Arakashan Road and Qutab Road. The hotel has a small, casual Italian restaurant on the main floor. I sat in the warmth of the restaurant, as it was a chilly night of 5 degrees Celsius, and sipped an Americano and a minestrone soup. What a hilarious first meal in India, I thought.

The next morning after checking out and locking up my luggage, I grabbed a tuk tuk to take me to the Old Delhi railway station to see if I could find a travel agent to buy a bus ticket off of. I ended up booking one for around 1400-rupees, which I think is still probably too much as online they are about 1000-rupees but none the less, I booked it and there was one less thing to worry about. I walked along Chandni Chowk, the very famous bazaar of downtown Delhi and grabbed a lunch of dal makhani and roti, which was finished off with a Belgian chocolate I still had left in my purse from Brussels. With red fort just down the street, I strolled over for a glance and grabbed a tuk-tuk towards Swaminarayan Akshardham temple, a beautiful temple with an outside completely surrounded by the most detailed and incredible carvings of Asian wildlife, as well as of the Hindu gods. Unfortunately you are unable to take photos but they would never do it justice anyways. They are very serious about security at the temple too, more so then any other temple I’ve been to in India, so even if you tried to sneak a photo, you'd fail. You have to check all bags and electronics, pass through a metal detector and be frisked. I walked through the metal detector and set it off. A middle aged woman helping with security instantly grabbed the pockets of my jacket. “Mame, your mobile”, I had forgotten I put my phone in my pocket! Thankfully she didn’t make me pay the 100-rupee fine that was posted as warning on every wall, instead I was just sent back to the baggage check-in to dispose of it in my bag (which was just as annoying since it was a good 3-minute walk back).

With a few hours to spare and a lot of traffic ahead, I sat around at the Bloom Italian restaurant again drinking coffee and eating pizza until it was time to head out. I grabbed my luggage from Zostel and a gentleman outside helped me hail a tuk-tuk for a reasonable price. “I’m Indian, they can’t even try to charge me 300-rupees”. It’s always a good idea to make friends with locals who can hail you tuk-tuks, rickshaws and cabs. Having light skin and looking like a tourist automatically doubles or triples the price. 

I sat in the travel agents office for about 20 minutes until it was time to head to majnu ka tila to catch the bus. The agent offered me a samosa and tried to chat with me in English but he was really hard to understand and had very limited vocabulary. I was thrown off-guard when we were “trying” to discuss the amount of spice used in Indian cooking when all the sudden he said “I am good in bed.” I’m not sure if he meant to say that or not. He could be like George in the Seinfeld episode about sex and food, I mean, some people are into that. I nervously giggled and turned away, pretending to be interested in the commercial playing on the television scene hanging in the top corner of the office.

A middle-aged man escorted me via tuk-tuk to the main bus station of majnu ka tila, where I sat in another travel agents office for a good 45 minutes. I spoke to a young man named Raju who worked there with his father. He was in school for political science and asked me many questions about Canada and why I was in India. “The bus is here,” he said finally, grabbing my suitcase and motioning for me to follow. A group of men were all outside the bus shouting at each other in Hindi, apparently there was some confusion regarding whether the bus was going to Jammu or Dharamsala. Finally one shouted, “single girl, single girl, come! You sit front seat.” I hesitated to walk towards the door of the bus. “So…yes Dharamasala?” “Yes, yes”.  I helped put my nearly bursting at the seams suitcase under the bus and climbed aboard. I took a seat and stared out the window at the arguing men, praying that the bus was actually going to Dharamsala. A middle aged Indian lady came on board and sat next to me. “Namaste” she said with a smile. “Namaste, aap kaise hai?” I replied. “Main tkeeh hoon. Where are you going?” “Dharamsala,” “me too”. She introduced herself as Sunita. She is a city counselor that lives and works in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi in which I stayed in last time I was here. We chatted quite a bit until I fell asleep. Her English wasn’t great but we were able to have a decent conversation. I awoke when we stopped for a 30-minute break somewhere outside of Chandigarh at a plaza with a gas station, Baskin Robbins and hotel and restaurant. Sunita accompanied me inside and sat down at a table waiting for me to return from the bathroom. We ordered paneer dishes, chapatti, and chai while chatting about our families and home life. Her daughter, Mona, lives in Dharamsala with her husband who is in the military. They have a three-month-old baby and he is adorable from what the photos have shown. Sunita invited me to come and have dinner and chai with them while I am staying in Dharamsala, I even spoke to Mona on the phone and she seemed very excited to welcome me to her home. I will definitely have to find a chance to visit as I am only in Dharamsala for a week before I head to Gajner, Rajasthan. She was very motherly, like most middle-aged women in India. They always want to take care of you. She even tried to make me eat her leftovers and then paid for my meal. “It’s okay. I am your mama-ji now”. 

The rest of the ride there was spent learning some Hindi from Sunita and sleeping. I was awoken by the feeling of the bus taking some serious sharp turns. We were ascending one of the mountains of the lower Himalayas and it seemed we were ascending for hours. I was so curious to how high up we really were going but I couldn’t see very much. I did have a mini heart attack every time we hit another turn though. It boggled my mind that such a big bus could fit on such thin and narrow roads. Every once and a while I would look out the window to try and see down the mountain but would only see a bus that didn’t quite make the turn. Gah!

Twelve hours later we had finally arrived. Sunita got off before I did; my stop was the last stop, McLeod Ganj, the Dalai Lama city. It was dark and I needed to find a taxi to get to Renata’s house in Dal Lake. Renata is one of the intern coordinators for EduCare, the organization I am working for. I was to meet at her house first, as it was about 6am. The taxi ride was even further up the mountain. I used the drivers cell phone to call Renata when we finally arrived. A thin Brazilian girl with an adorable face and messy hair, wearing pajamas and holding a flashlight soon approached. I paid the driver and grabbed my luggage. Renata and I walked towards her house. The roof of the house was at the same level as the road. We took to the concrete stairs heading down two stories until we reached a balcony with four doors. I could see all the lights of the city below, I couldn't wait to see the view in sunlight. I walked through the doors of her apartment into the main room, which has a table and a couch with a little kitchen off to the side and the next room over is used as the bedroom which has three beds. Jess, Renata’s roommate, came out to greet me; a tall Australian with blond curly hair. Two more interns would be arriving shortly but until then I think it was a mutual decision that we all lay down to rest, so I took to the couch with my poncho and two blankets in the cold and dark, early Himalayan morning.

I was awakened by a calm voice. Renata was standing over me asking if I wanted to head to breakfast. The sun was up and the view from the balcony was as incredible as I thought it would be. Row and rows of mountains rippled in front of me decorated with pink, blue and green homes. We walked up the street to a small shop that served a breakfast of omelettes and toast. We waited for our food sitting on wooden benches, trying to soak up as much sun as possible in the 10-degree air.  I was introduced to four other interns at breakfast: Emma and Marine from France, and Jeremy and Jeremy, one also from France and one from Canada. Jeremy from Canada actually grew up in Richmond Hill and attended McGill University in Montreal. I guessed he was Canadian when he showed up in a bright red sweatshirt with the school logo written across his chest in big white block letters.


The morning was spent relaxing and getting to know each other. We were introduced to our homestays in the early afternoon. All our homestays are in the communities of Naddi, even further up the mountain. Naddi actually sits at just over 2000 meters above sea level. It’s also t a 2-kilometre walk from Dal Lake, where the EduCare office and Renata and Jess’s apartment is. It’s all up hill and the first part of the walk is an extreme butt-shaping workout, where you climb huge steps made of rocks that basically go straight up on a 90-degree angle. Naddi is one long street with little shops and hotels lining it. The main square of Naddi is comprised of a little temple painted a warm pink, a bunch of shops that all serve and sell the exact same thing, a few hotels, “sunset point” where we watch the sunset in the evening as it slowly descends behind the mountains, and more steps that lead towards the community where we are staying this week. I am staying with Rina’s family, a 23-year old Indian girl who lives with her mother, father and brother. She has two sisters as well but they are married and now live in McLeod Ganj. Rina takes care of the house and cooks most of the meals. By the time I had introduced myself to the family, Esther, another intern from Spain, had arrived who is also staying with me at Rina's. She is a tiny 27-year old with long brown hair, short bangs, hipster glasses and a bull's nose piercing. Her English is really good and we have some pretty interesting and intense conversations about the economy in Europe, North America and India, as well as our views on travel and career topics. Our first dinner with Rina was a delicious plate of dal and rice. It was a really cold night, way below zero, and since the homes in India are absolutely not made for cold weather, our bones shook even though we wrapped ourselves in multiple pairs of leggings, pants, sweaters and blankets. We hovered over the fire before stuffing ourselves in our sleeping bags and knocking out. 


We all went into McLeod Ganj the next day, the Dalai Lama city. I wanted to check out the Dalai Lama temple, as well as buy a cell phone. I got a white little Samsung phone with an old school keyboard, i.e. I have to press the number 2 three times to type ‘c’. I’m probably going to give up on texting all together by the end of the month. The phone cost me 1200-rupees…that’s about $40 for a brand new phone. If I wanted one of the new Samsung smart phones, it was about 3000-rupees. It’s insanity to think people back home pay almost $1000 CDN for such a silly piece of metal and plastic. (Also to give you some perspective, I can buy a full meal and chai for 100-rupees or less). We all got together and ate lunch at one of the local restaurants in the city called 'Carpe Diem'. We sat on thin cushions on the floor around a long table. The restaurant served just about every type of cuisine but because I have only just arrived, I ordered Indian. I am not tired of it (yet).


We all enrolled in a Hindi class for the week while staying in Dharamsala. Our teacher, Kailash, is an older gentleman with four missing teeth and the nicest smile. He teaches at the local school in Dal Lake in the mornings and then comes to teach us in the afternoon at the office. I spotted the shower in the upstairs bathroom of the office. Hot water, yes! Because there is no hot water where I am staying, I convinced myself that I would go a week without showering. Disgusting, yes, but there is no way I’m standing naked in a cold room, in cold weather with a cold bucket of water. I rather smell like the cow and goat poop I have to step in every time I walk down the steps towards Rina’s house. 
Having been 3 days since my last shower, I ran back to Rina’s after Hindi (gladly splashing through the cow and goat poop) to grab my towel and soap. The shower head at the office wasn’t working so I knelt under the tap and let the hot water run over me. The sun had set and I had forgotten my flashlight so I endured a very dark 2 km walk back to Rina's where I tripped over almost everything.

We’ve all spent the weekend getting to know Naddi and learning how to communicate with communities regarding starting and continuing micro finance and waste management projects, as well as programs for women and children. Saturday morning a bunch of us trekked to a lake near Naddi. (Although I think lake may be a broad term; it was actually more of a pretty stream flowing through various sized boulders). We sat around in the sunshine until heading back to the main square for some lunch. Sunday afternoon we held “fun club” for the kids of Chanti and upper Naddi, the two communities where we have been staying. My smile stayed painted across my cheeks for the full two hours of playing games of red rover and tag. The children are all so silly and love to run around. There is a young boy in Chanti, where I am staying, named Aboo who doesn’t say much but he loves to take pictures and listen to me play guitar. You’ll find him sitting next to me in the mornings after breakfast humming along as I strum a bunch of different tunes while we both look out into the snow covered Himalayan mountains. 

Although I absolutely love it here in Naddi, I am really looking forward to travelling to Gajner, Rajasthan on Wednesday. Gajner is where I have been placed to live and work as a project manager for EduCare. It’s a small village outside of Bikaner, which is about 5 hours west of Jaipur. The journey will involve two buses, a 14-hour train and a 45-minute taxi ride. Although it will be a painfully long adventure, I am looking forward to the heat, roaming camels, washing my clothing and taking a shower. It’s funny how your wish list changes when you realize all you really need are the necessities. 

P.S. I have yet to get a hold of Sunita but I will definitely keep trying. I called the other day and someone unknown answered her phone and had absolutely no idea what I was saying. I'm really going to have to work harder on my Hindi if I want to get by working in the villages.





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