I flew to the other side of the world and built a simple, normal life in a mountain town.
Routines in Chicago swept significance aside, making me groan about the speed at which my life flowed, driving me away from the familiar and up into the Himalayan Mountains. Where I proceeded to reconstruct my life back in the States.
It’s not simply that I lingered for a month, with regular (although volunteer) employment and friends. I organized a solo female traveler’s women’s group, complete with meetings, a contact list, and casual events. Once I started helping one of my charity’s co-founders with networking, community development, and social media, it became quite clear that I had to leave McLeodganj if I was going to do any of this solo work.
But routine can be a gift once you see it form unexpectedly. I could see how significance was built, as I grew to know more and more people after starting with nothing, and saw my friendships deepened. For a brief time, I could feel as if I lived in McLeodganj.
When we follow the routes that have been laid before us without examination or thought, it is harder to see their complexity and importance. To live in Chicago and never go to the top of the Sears tower is normal; and almost every tourist attempts it. I tried to get to the top of the tower before I left, but I was too busy saying goodbye to friends. How beautiful is that?
Once I realized I was nearly halfway through my time in India, I knew I had to go or I would not finish in time. I closed down my life, passed on my responsibilities, and packed. Again.
One particular good-bye was difficult. My friend/co-worker/boss and I had become close friends; I had come to respect how her insight and humor helped me process the challenging side of India. My visions of self-improvement, of yoga and Hindi classes, fell aside as I focused on the café, on her dreams and story.
We hugged goodbye and I promised to return; when I said I would miss her as well, she responded with her classic “Truly??”
Leaving me with the café, off to finish work at the office, she shouted “sange jeyo!” through the open window. In Tibetan, the words for “goodbye” actually mean “see you tomorrow,” making it feel as if I would greet her the next morning like always, and begin to mop the floors while she sets out the baked goods, and we tell each other our stories and ideas for the future.
I will miss her, and my life there. Truly.
I hope you never have to hear a dog scream.
Our regulars were sipping their morning coffee and chatting about H. H. the Dalai Lama’s arrival. I was washing dishes and wiping down the counter, thinking about how great it was to not be violently ill. I had come to work despite being awake for most of the night due to a questionable pastry. If I was in the States, I would have stayed home and slept. But here, it felt unfair to stay in bed when I know my boss works two jobs; and the nausea had eased.
A horrendous high-pitched squealing erupted outside the door of the cafe. Jarring noise is typical, so it took a second to register that something was terribly wrong. I stood, dish towel in hand, and stared blankly in confusion in the general direction of the stairs that lead down the alley next door.
One of the frequent customers ran out and stood at the door, her hands to her mouth, staring. We had to ask her several times before she told us that a dog had broken its leg — that it was wrenched, strangely bent.
The first number I called was incorrect, the second was disconnected, the third had no vets working that day. The dog curled up into a ball at the base of the stairs, and I bounced between serving drinks and calling every number I could find. The next shelter gave me the number for a different one, saying his team was already out on a rescue, far away, and could not come for a while. No one picked up.
I called him back, and begged them to come for the stray after the other rescue was finished. I had no one else to call. The shopkeeper next door started shooing the injured dog farther down the staircase; still on the phone with the shelter, I shouted, not bothering to attempt Hindi, and whacked him on the shoulder a few times, half-crazed with the stress, fear, and exhaustion. The shelter promised to come, the dog settled in at the bottom of the stairs, and the dentist who shares our building gave him a pain-killer.
Hours after the accident, a pet ambulance arrived in the midst of the lunch hour rush while my boss was on her break, having left me alone with the cafe for the first time. I abandoned the coffee and sprinted out the door, pointing, explaining, my hands folded in the deepest form of respect out of relief. Without waiting to watch them load the dog into the car, I rushed back inside and finished the orders, apologizing to the full cafe as I went. An older American woman who has lived in Dharamsala for seven years told me that the dog’s leg was not broken, because he was walking on it. Everything about her demeanor suggested that I was overreacting. When I pointed out the dogs in town that walk on crooked stumps, she waved it away as if that was completely acceptable. I served her cappuccino and turned back to my work.
The vets called to me through our open window, saying that it was definitely broken and thank you very much for calling. I brought my folded hands to my forehead and leaned towards them — partly because the window blocked my sight, but also due to my gratitude for their existence, their help.
Going to six broken ATMs is annoying. Having to call six times to find someone who can/will help an injured dog is heartbreaking.
This is an old story. Between random illness and frequent exhaustion, I struggle to write. But it is more than that: I feel as if the strength has been pulled from words, for me, and I must force them into a decent, barely acceptable shape that labors to cover a tiny piece of the impressions and experiences that this intense place provides. Sadly, the negative sift to the top, because they linger longer.