My spirits rise as we weave into the mountains, stars above and lights below. I immediately feel safer in the well-known streets; everyone, Tibetan, Indian, foreign, seems much more relaxed, friendlier. The sun breaks over the peaks as I sit at breakfast at 6 a.m., fresh off the bus, waiting for a monastery’s guest house to open.
But the friend I’ve hoped to visit is away, and the surge of peace is temporary. It slips away with the afternoon, and succumbs under the final blow — a mistaken meal I knew I should not touch.
It’s the last time I’ll eat in McLeodganj. Once or twice I day, I haul myself out of bed to fetch crackers and ginger ale, then return to continue the complete withdrawal. I reject all stimuli and fall into distraction, total avoidance of any real stimuli. The wallpaper is too much; to look out the window would be exhausting.
Three days of shutdown. Then, slowly slowly, I realize that I can feel again. That I had not let myself feel fear, not since that moment, that night I took the wrong train — waiting for the general ticketing cars at one o’clock in the morning, I shut it off. A blank dark blind pit filling with fear deep in my chest, heavy hurting holding my heart until the theft, until waiting with the police in the darkening city when it broke, overflowing into my mind to be too much, until I felt and purged it. Until I rested and let it in.
Slowly slowly, I woke up into freedom. Liberated, I returned to Delhi, able to breathe, experience, and enjoy.
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 run the gauntlet in Delhi when I dive off of the main road into a web of alleys, remembering the route to my hostel by sight. Tiny rooms, no larger than a queen-sized bed, are cut into the walls, hosting a collection of shops that buzz at all hours – men having their beards shaved in a ramshackle barber shop, someone smashing away at metal on an anvil, children hawking soda bottles, pots of oil sizzling with who-knows-what, tiny budget hotels open up to the streets, someone sleeping on a cot. I always hesitate at the last moment which draws a call from someone, then dive around the final corner and charge into the miniature lobby.
You could call India itself a gauntlet, especially when you are foreign, and a woman, and a woman traveling alone. Walking anywhere draws attention from shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers, always “madam, madam”. I set off a cascade of calls as I walk down the street. The first Hindi words I knew were “ji nahi,” no thank you, and I use them often.
My clothes shape how I am treated. On the first day, I chose a salwar kameez after careful perusal of piles of them on the second floor of a tiny, creaky shop in Paharganj, my cheap, slightly seedy neighborhood in Delhi. When I wear traditional Indian clothing, I don’t quite fit into people’s categories – throwing them off gives me a bargaining advantage, and has seemed to earn respect. But when I (unthinkingly) washed all of my clothes in Shimla, the daily rain and coolness meant that they were still soaking wet when it was time for me to catch the bus to McLeodganj. Left with only my original clothes from the plane, I experienced completely different treatment. More offers and requests, less politeness, a clear assumption that I was brand new and had no idea what I was doing. Which is technically true, but I am much more savvy than they expect me to be. I felt like more of an outsider than ever, shunted aside.
In Paharganj, there was a smaller number of foreigners than up here in the mountains. Many Westerners have endured the bouncing buses and pitted roads to this small Tibetan mecca, creating a counter culture that seems to be laid upon the town rather than integrated. I will see how it goes, but I think that I am more judged here than I was in Delhi. I have finally freed myself from the cursed khaki capris, donning loose brown pants that mark me as a local foreigner. A part of the hippie culture, a little less likely to buy something, a little more likely to be going to yoga class.