Dharamsala Dreamin’

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Far north of the disastrous flooding in Mumbai, we are, nevetheless, soaking up our share of the monsoon deluge that has caused so much destruction further downstream. It has rained every day since our arrival last Monday in Dharamsala.

Sometimes, it rains at night, while we watch it from under a tent at some rooftop vegetarian restaurant; sometimes, the clouds run up the valley early in the morning, waking us with subtle sounds of water; sometimes, the rain comes in the afternoon, trapping us inside yet another Tibetan crafts shop or Buddhist bookstore.

I could think of worse things. I welcome the rain for the cool air it brings, its peaceful purrs and patters, and for that wonderful stuck-inside-with-a-pile-of-good-books feeling.

In short, readers, our first week in India has been muy, muy tranquilo.

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Upper Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India, also known as McLeod Ganj Hill Station (after the British commander who settled here 150 years ago) is more than just a cool getaway though. The city is the epicenter of the Tibetan exile community, home to some 20,000 refugees, including their administrative government and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama himself.

This alone would be enough to attract additional thousands of curious, soul-seeking, and virtuous tourists (both Indian and foreign) — they come looking to lend a hand, buy a Buddha statue, enroll in a meditation retreat, or, if their timing is right, get a glimpse of His Holiness during one of his public teachings.

But they (we) are also attracted by pure Himalayan splendor — to hear prayer flags snapping from the branches of the surrounding pine forest, to go on treks across nearby high passes, or simply to sit on one’s hotel balcony and watch yet another thick cloud roll in with its rain.

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Yes, McLeod Ganj fairly teems with tourists, who wander the narrow streets with so many crimson-robed monks, various livestock, and the occasional marauding band of wild monkeys. The mossy brick walls are plastered with posters for Reiki, Yoga, Massage, Tabla, Sitar, and cooking classes; the streets are cluttered with laundry, Internet, money changers, and bus ticketing agents. The menus carefully cater to both the culinarily adventurous and the comfort food-seeking westerner.

Yes, friends, we have entered the Banana Pancake Trail!

I’m not bagging it, believe you me. After the isolated feeling of Pakistan, where we were often the only foreigners (or at least the only Americans), blazing DSL, real brewed coffee, and the company of fellow vagabonds is fine by me.

We’re also allowing ourselves to live large in anticipation of the simplicity of life we’ll be assuming in a few short weeks when our first volunteer assignment begins. Let’s just say that our village doesn’t appear on our guidebook’s map of West Bengal, let alone garner a listing of Internet and coffee shops. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

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Back in McLeod Ganj, we rarely stray from our hotel. Our $7 double (private bath, hot water, a writing table, and lots of light) is quite comfortable. As is the homey, dish-clanking cafe upstairs, clouds rushing past closed windows while carefully unkempt Spaniards and Israelis scribble away in the low light of the corner tables.

We’ve done some yoga (100 rupees, or about $2.50 for a 2 1/2 hour Ashtanga class), some shopping, some writing, and some reading. We walked to one waterfall, and we laid in bed with our guidebook, lazily plotting out the next few weeks.

Our next stop?

Woodstock. You heard me. This afternoon, we board an overnight bus to Dehra Dun, then early in the morning, a taxi to Mussoorie, the mountain village where Tay’s Grandmother spent nearly her entire childhood at a small boarding school with an out-of-place name.

See you there.

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