Walking through the streets of Dharamsala is like walking through a Benetton ad: you can see the broad Central Asian faces of Tibetan exiles, narrow, dark faces from southern India, pink skin and pale hair of sunburnt western European tourists and the placid Nepalese influence all jumbled into India’s mix.
The menus are equally pan-global: chow mein, mutton curry and fried eggs all on the one menu.Will I the only foriegner to gain weight in India??? My plans to lose the cruise ship’s generous bestowal of a second backside have been, to date, thwarted by India’s lush fried breads – parantha, roti, chapatti, poori, naan…
Last night, I ate at a little Tibetan restaurant, where butter tea was on the menu.
“We put tea, water, salt and yak butter in the tea,” explained the waiter happily. Then his face then fell. “But there are no yaks here in Dharamsala, so we use Indian butter. You have yaks in your country?” Not as far as I know, I confessed. I watched him mentally scratch Australia from his list of desired alternative residences.
Higher on the mountain, north of Dharamsala, is McLeodganj, the English-established hilltown that’s the home of the Dalai Lama’s monastery in exile. Three narrow streets link the main square with the temple, and are crammed with shops selling everything from Tibetan dresses to tailors whipping up clothes on the spot, pretty junky jewellery, prayer bowls, as well as espresso.
It is a mark of the town’s tearaway prosperity that it is absolutely jam-packed with espresso cafes, heavily patronised by groovy backpackers regaling each other with wild tales of hairy adventures and narrow escapes, and Buddhist monks texting each other over lattes.
Yoga retreats and meditation ashrams line every corner, cheap guesthouses offer sagging beds for $4 a night, while flashier options are springing up daily, but still charging no more than $15 with views of the towering Himalayan mountain range, Dhamladhar, along with breakfast: fried eggs…fried Indian breads… Despite the absolutely perfect high 20s temperatures, the town is not in peak season. That comes in the next month or two, when it really hots up.
Although I’m not bald and also sans dreadlocks, I stuck my nose in to the new meditation ashram presenting the teachings of controversial guru Osho, and listened to a long-winded lecture about how I must worship the Divine Mother, the world-famous Her Holiness Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, who also teaches meditation (but for a lot less money than Osho’s mob).
I enjoyed the calmness of HH’s ashram and the sensibility of meditation, but all calm was lost as her devotee refused to pause for breath while telling of miracles across the world, and did that annoying thing of pointing out a deity’s face as appearing in a natural formation: this time in a cloud formation over Australia’s Thredbo village, where she has visited and spoken. Hello, has ANYONE heard of PhotoShop in this town?