As I began to write this post, I got distracted for the fifth time in the last five minutes. And how can one not? There lay a beautiful panorama of the glorious, gigantic Himalayas right in front of my eyes, while I sipped the perfectly made lemon-ginger-honey tea sitting in the balcony of a quaint coffee cum book shop (with free WiFi) in McLeod Ganj.
I had quit my steady, well-paying journalism job a little more than a week ago and like many people of my age wanted to ‘find myself’. Actually no, let me correct that. Most people my age are married, having babies or getting engaged faster than Vishwanathan Anand’s chess moves, so let’s just stick to – I wanted to find myself, far away from this dangerous tribe. My last day at work was on Friday and I landed in Delhi on Sunday morning, determined to not waste any precious time. Now before you can think what’s the big deal in that, let me give you a little background of yours truly.
I’ve been brought up in a cocooned, pampered and safe environment in Calcutta and even after that, when I had left home for my college stint in Pune and eventually my work life in Mumbai, I’ve always somewhat been dependent on my loved ones and never really left that luxurious, comfort zone. I’ve never really traveled and stayed alone—unless you count big cities like Bangalore, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Pune, Calcutta etc. Those are not traveling per se, in my opinion. Also, I had never been to Delhi because being the quintessential Calcutta-Mumbai lovechild that I think I am, I’ve always seen it as the big bad city where every second man in the street is probably a goon and/or rapist.
Determined to get out of that comfort zone and find out who I really am, I decided to start it all off with nothing but Delhi—the city that used to give me nightmares even during the day. The first two days, I felt like a sheep left in the big city and only went around with my friends, swearing never to take a public transport alone. I pretty much saw every man around me as a potential threat and even carried a hoodie in this sultry Delhi heat to make sure no one looks at me. It took exactly those two days for me to shed my inhibitions though, because no one stared at me in a way I had imagined they would, in fact, there were complete strangers who actually were hospitable and helped me when I was in trouble. I was gaining confidence little by little as I traveled all the way from East of Kailash to Dwarka alone, and then from Dwarka to Noida, from Noida to RK Puram, from RK Puram to Rohini. Basically, I crisscrossed the city alone everyday, telling myself each time that if I can do this, I can do anything. It probably wasn’t even that big a deal for others, but for me, I knew it was.
I roamed around Greater Kailesh I market and shopped, I had chuski paan (ice inside a freaking paan, yeah don’t even ask!) at Connaught Place, I partied at Hauz Khas Village, I had bengali street food at CR Park and I walked in the Noida streets on my own (special mention to that plate full of roadside chicken spring rolls..yum max), realizing every minute that the world is not that scary a place as newspapers potentially make it out to be.
On the 6th day, I took an all night semi-sleeper AC bus and headed off to McLeod Ganj—without zero idea of where I am going to stay and what am I going to do when I reach there early next morning. A fat man with a big paunch and a broom like moustache was my co-passenger and I told myself that I can totes handle that, and nothing shall happen. And nothing actually did.
Next morning, along with my backpack and a laptop bag, I landed in a strange land all alone, clueless of what to do next. One of my friend from Bombay had recently shifted to McLeod Ganj and had rented a small house there–she was an inspiration that way. So I did the obvious. I called her. She suggested I stay at this small guest house called Ladies Venture–no it isn’t only for ladies, the name comes from the fact that it was started by two Tibetan women. It was a small, affordable and decent place that is filled with foreigners who are all budget travelers. But guess what? It was full (obviously, it was Sunday and the entire Delhi-Chandigarh crowd comes to spend weekends there), so I decided to put up at my friend Nidhi’s place for that day.
A kachcha road lead me to her cottage that was nestled somewhere downhill. The first look reminded me of that house Alia Bhatt claimed to be hers in the movie Highway. Far away from the madding crowd with no other house in the vicinity, in the lap of the mountain ranges, there it was.
After resting for a bit (even though I was so tired after that all-night bus journey, I didn’t doze off because of all the excitement), we hiked up from her house to this place called Cafe Illiterati–a quaint cafe cum book store that serves fantastic food. I kid you not, I spent my ENTIRE day there till it was late in the night (this is the place I mentioned at the beginning of the post btw, free WiFi ahem).
Cafe Illiterati overlooks the beautiful mountain range, has the best collection of books, a piano, great food and people from all over the world lazing under one roof. What more can one want?
It was raining outside and as I sat at the balcony sipping my perfectly made tea, eating and writing; I met the most amazing bunch of Tibetan people. They were a bunch of friends, of more or less my age group, and we instantly hit it off. Twenty-seven-year old Tenzin Phuntsok is a poet, a talented musician, a writer and a guitarist who belted out classics after classics in his guitar as we sang along, while it rained outside like there’s no tomorrow. He had been a monk in Tibet till he was 10-years-old, post which he left his family and came over to India, like thousand others. Apart from Eagles, Bob Dylan and even Californication by RHCP, Tenzin sang this soulful Tibetan song about two lovers who want to get married but cannot because of their family’s strong opposition. Jamyang Dolma, 21, (who has turned out to be a really close friend by the way), on the other hand has always been in India since birth. Raised in Karnataka, she had come to McLeod to visit her long distance boyfriend, 29-year-old Shiwapa Kunkyab Pasang who works as a translator here.
Tenzin showed me the first draft of the book that he is writing and I helped him with a few edits here and there. He had written about his struggles–why he left being a monk, how he hardly remembers his mother’s face anymore, his homeland Tibet and how he can rap in Tibetan! I also got my first Tibetan language lesson from my new found friends–Tashi Delek being the first thing (a Tibetan greeting). And that was quickly followed by Khe Rang Dhe Po Yin Pe (How are you?) and Nga Kha La Ga Ke Duk (I love you). Here I must make a honorary mention of Dolker Dolma–a complete opposite of Jamyang, Dolker was a motor + potty mouthed wild chick (basically, the Tibetan version of myself lol). And so, thanks to her I also learnt Lick Ba Gip (Suck your d***). Yeah, well. Tibetan boys out there, behave well with me or I’m all equipped verbally, thank you very much.
All of them thought I’m a Tibetan too (well look at the pictures, can you really blame them?) and so I kind of gelled in well with the group. In that entire day at Cafe Illiterati I paid a bill of around 1K, and trust me that’s a LOT because this isn’t Bombay, things are pretty affordable here. It only means that I gulped down mugs and mugs of masala tea, lemon-ginger-honey tea and ate like a pig. Out of all the things, the dinner deserves a special mention. Just LOOK at that picture below and I will leave it at that.
I cannot write and express what it feels like to watch the mountain rains as the world slowly goes by, so I am gonna take the easier route and plug in two pictures below. A picture speaks a thousand words blah blah.
Yeah, I will give you a minute to sink that all in.
That night, as I started to walk back towards Nidhi’s house all the way downhill, in pitch dark with just a torch in hand, I stopped and looked at the horizon. And then, I just switched off the torch and stood still–a hundred fireflies lit up all around me and I realized life is pretty darn awesome.
That was an eventful first day on the hills, I thought to myself as I literally drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face.
(Stay tuned. To be continued…!)