A 7-Month Sabbatical: Cosmically-Charged in McLeod Ganj (3/5)
Cosmically Charged in McLeod Ganj
Friday March 25, 2004
Hotel in Delhi
The journey from Bodh Gaya to Amritsar lasted 28 hours and involved two train rides and a 3 hour taxi. Amritsar is the religious center of the Sikhs, and it is where the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh site is located. The temple complex is walled off from the rest of the city, and the Golden Temple itself, covered in kilograms of actual gold, is built in the middle of an artificial pond.
In one part of the complex is the huge free dining area. Twenty-three hours out of every day of the year, anyone can come here to share in a free meal consisting of “dahl” and bread, side by side with everyone else. The whole operation is funded by contributions and manned by volunteers.
I was chatting to some of those volunteers who became very excited when they found out I was from Lebanon. This for me was a significant event: not only had most locals I had met to date never met a Lebanese before, the vast majority had not even heard of Lebanon! I had to come up with excuses for this sorry state of affairs; things like, “well, yeah, Lebanese usually prefer to vacation in Europe, that’s why you don’t see many of them in these parts……”
The reason for my Sikh buddies’ excitement, it turns out, was that the Sikh community in Lebanon had donated a few years ago a major “automatic bakery” to the temple- a series of machines that automated the whole process of bread-making, so the result were hot loaves of bread coming out of the oven round the clock. This is of course a big deal to a place that offers food to hundreds of people around the clock, day and night.
As a result of this, I was treated to the “royal tour” of the kitchens, to observe the whole process. I saw people buried in mounds of chopped onions, and others washing gigantic cooking pots. The entire thing reminded me of the operations class back in business school.
A couple of days later, I finally arrived in Dharamsala, just in time to catch the last couple of days of the Dalai Lama talks. Specifically, I arrived in Upper Dharmasala a.k.a. McLeod Ganj, the part of town where all the “action” is.
McLG could pass for a Swiss resort town in summer, were it not for the Tibetan details. The town consists of 2 or 3 floor buildings around main, narrow streets all branching out from the main square. The whole thing is set on the side of soaring mountains, overlooking the valley on one side and overlooked by snowy peaks from the other.
The crowd is an interesting mixture of hordes of Buddhist monks, most of them visiting the town to hear the talks, and an equally large number of Western tourists of all ages and levels of both “hippy-ness” and “hipness”…The combined result is, surprisingly, of a rather “cool” place to be in- a place where East meets West, and where despite all the tourist trappings, the effect is still genuine, non-kitschy, and laid-back spiritual. The complex that houses the main Stupa and the residence of the Dalai Lama is a five minutes walk down from the main square, down one of the streets.
I had barely been in town for two hours when I met Marianne, a Scottish girl, and Frances, her Australian travel companion. That was the beginning of my surreal evening in McLG. Both women and I were having dinner soon after in a place that could have been at home in the West Village in NYC, if it hadn’t been basically a tent set up on a rug-covered concrete platform in the middle of a dark, monkey-filled pine forest outside of town. The lighting was warm-tones of dim lighting; dyed fabrics were hanging from the ceiling and catching the breeze; the seating was a bunch of colored mattresses around low wooden tables; there was the smell of incense in the air, and some Buddha-Bar type fusion music playing in the background. Amongst other things, “The Soul-full Place” serves brick-oven pizzas with exotic ingredients.
After an extended 3 hour dinner, we discovered that there was going to be a jamming session that evening that was going to last all night. All the tourist musicians in town were taking their various instruments and taking turns to play or playing together and everyone else was welcome to go watch.
Someone gave us the directions to the short-cut that would take us there. The shortcut turned out to be a barely-traceable path through the pitch-black forest with only the light of my digital camera screen to guide us. At any moment, we thought a bear or something was going to show up. What we mistook for the hissing of snakes turned out to be a punctured water pipe. Finally, just as we were starting to be convinced this was a bad idea, we hit a path that finally led us to the small hamlet where everyone was congregating.
A random house sat in the middle of nowhere; on one end of a 3m wide, 20 m long terrace a small makeshift stage was set up with the various musicians doing their thing one after the other, and the rest of the space filled up with shoulder-to shoulder people all sitting on the floor, swaying to the music. Anything from Hotel California to Bob Marley was fair game. The Indian band that took the stage at some point to blurt out Hindi pop tunes completed the repertoire, while the “fog” in the air completed the scene. We left at 1:30 AM but were told the next day that it went on until 4:30 AM.
I came to McLG expecting a lot of things, but a live jam session in the woods on the first night was not one of them. Not sure that was “my scene” either, but it made for a good people-watching experience…
Everyone in McLG is engaged in some sort of mind-bending activity. It may be any of the various forms of meditation or yoga available, or any other form of meta-physical activity, and if all else fails, then some sort of drug or another….I chose to take a course in Reiki, mainly because it was only a two-day course, and I was promised a certificate at the end.
Reiki is the practice of natural healing using cosmic energy. You don’t have to do much: the Reiki-master basically initiates (unclogs) you so you may become a clear channel for cosmic energy to flow through, and you can then heal either yourself or others….We also learned about the various energy centers in the body, what each of them is associated with, and how to stimulate them if the associated bodily, emotional, or intellectual functions are not working properly.
I had to walk down about 200 steps to the valley below McLeod Ganj to reach the place where Yugesh the Reiki-master lives and teaches. My fellow students for this intro session were Gabriel, an Argentine guy who lives in LA, and some French girl who didn’t leave much impression on me so I forgot her name.
Yugesh kept describing how “beautiful” his place was and how happy he was there, how perfect the energy of the place was, and how he had absolutely everything he needed, including the ultra-essential view. It was true that from his place the view of the mountains was excellent. The place itself though was a far cry from what any of you on this mailing list would ever think of describing as “beautiful” or “everything that I needed and more”. It was a single room in a painted concrete building, with worn burgundy carpeting, a wooden bed and bedside table, a thin floor mattress, a small open kitchen and attached bathroom. Yugesh also kept referring to the room next door as “the temple”. The room next door is bare except for the rugs that fill up the floor. The walls are all painted white and are bare, except for one which has a letter-size picture of a goddess taped- taped– in the center of it. And that made the room a temple. Everything in McLeod Ganj is a state of mind…
As if to further drive the point in, when we arrived for classes on the second day, Yugesh announced that he decided to move (and has already done so) to a room just a few meters away from his old one. Apparently he was concerned he was getting too attached to the comforts his open kitchen and attached bathroom were offering. He said he felt he needed to practice what he preached about not getting attached to things…
According to wiry, 28-year old Yugesh, life is essentially about uncertainty, and security equals death. And that applies to everything from what one is doing in the next hour to relationships. Of course it is a philosophy directly connected with the notion of awareness of the present moment, central to the practice of any form of meditation. When he began talking about how people in love should live in separate apartments, I began feeling a little uneasy. This man was stealing my show! I am the one who usually throws out these controversial remarks! But he was taking it all the way. At least I say separate rooms, not separate apartments. But in this context the distinction was blurred anyway…My conclusion was that I must be a latent yogi too.
A little later, we got into the almost cliché topic of the “materialistic West” and “spiritual East”. I thought that Gabriel and the French girl were too readily agreeing with the sweeping statements Yugesh was making about the relentless pursuit of material wealth in the West and the inability of people to form meaningful bonds. I argued that, sure, people do often make the mistake of thinking happiness comes from accumulating, from always looking for bigger and more rather than searching for inner peace, but that I wasn’t sure this was exclusively a “Western” a.k.a. American problem anymore. Yugesh was intrigued when I told him that in fact, some of the most meaningful and fulfilling relationships I had ever experienced were with people from and in the U.S. In addition, I wasn’t sure that spirituality and enlightenment came more easily to the masses living in mind-boggling poverty on the streets of Bombay, and that anyway, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of my Gucci sunglasses just yet. In the end, we agreed that while it was perfectly fine to enjoy the finer things in life, it was important to remain detached from them and to realize they will never be a substitute for true peace, which in fact is one manifestation of the Buddha’s doctrine of “Middle Way”. Having thus come to agreement, we all moved out to the balcony to silently observe the mountains and suck in some more cosmic energy………
About an hour later, I was sitting with Denise on the terrace of one of the hotels, watching the sun set over the mountains and sipping some chai. Denise is a Canadian woman from Quebec. We started chit-chatting to a Buddhist monk who was sitting at a table next to us. He asked Denise if she had any children. No. Was she married? No. Were her parents still alive. No! So he says to her, “Wow, you must be a tough woman!” I don’t think she quite knew how to take that remark, and neither did I.
Later that evening we went to the local movie theatre to watch “The Passion”. Bootlegged DVD copy, of course. The theatre is essentially an underground home-theatre type thing, with a surprisingly good sound system. The DVD kept zooming in and out in ways Mel Gibson definitely did not intend, until whoever it is that was filming it got the right angle and zoom level. Half way into the movie, a man in the original movie theatre, now a part of our film, stands up and walks across the screen, probably to the bathroom. A couple of minutes later he returns. He didn’t miss much, as Jesus was still being tortured.
Earlier in the day, Gabriel, the Argentine guy in my Reike class asked if he could come over later to my hotel room to watch the football game between Real Madrid and Monaco, since I had cable TV in my room. He said the game was going to be at 1 AM, and without thinking he was really serious, I said, “Sure, why not..” Sure enough, at 12:45 AM, there’s a knock on my door and Gabriel shows up. I’m not very happy about it. I should learn to say no next time.
Gabriel is big guy, physically. Even though he lived in LA, he is completely in love with a woman in Buenos Aires. It apparently took him an entire day recently to climb more than 6000 steps and reach the temple at the top of some sacred mountain in China, simply to ask the monks up there to pray so that his Buenos Aires woman would stop getting the recurring headaches she has. His next destination is Bangkok, where he plans to tattoo her name on his arm in the languages of all the countries he has visited. I told him it didn’t work for Billy Bob and Angelina but he wasn’t convinced. He said he had told her that he has done it already and that she loved the idea, so he can’t turn out to be a liar. Gabriel has decided that he wants to live in Paris. He has calculated that by the time he is done with his travels and he reaches France, he will have something like $60 left. He doesn’t know yet what he’ll be doing in Paris.
I tried to go to bed at a decent hour that night, but wasn’t very successful with a football match going on in my room. He eventually left at 3:30 AM, and I found out the next day that he couldn’t get into his hotel so he spent the rest of the night on the street.
Forty hours later, and I am in a hotel room in Delhi. Tonight at 1 AM my friend Emily from Boston who is flying into Delhi and I’m going to pick her up at the airport. She’s doing her own world tour, and is flying in from Budapest. Over the next 8 days, we will be going to Agra and Rajasthan. On the menu is the Taj Mahal, Maharaja cities, elephant rides, exotic desert bazaars, and everything else that the essential stereotypical Indian trip is made of. We are even doing with our own private driver, in the comfort of our rental air-conditioned Ambassador car. Just like when the Brits were here. J
As for the immediate future, I’m going to find some food. Even though Yugesh my Reiki instructor has asked me to avoid meat and all stimulants for the next 21 days so that my energy channels really open up after initiation, I am right now craving a Big Mac (or rather a Chicken Maharaja Mac), and so I’m going in search of one.