Making our way to Dharamsala

Anna and I got to the airport ridiculously early on Friday. When we stepped toward the baggage check, we were waved away by the laughing attendant, who said they wouldn’t open for another hour. We got a cart for our trekking bags and carry-ons and sat down to chow down on roasted peas we found in the Bhatbhateni supermarket in Boudha. An older woman sat down next to us, and I offered her some peas. Smiling, she reached into the bag.

Her name is Pema, and she’s a Tibetan woman now living in New York. She had been visiting family in Lhasa (in Tibet) and told us of her terrible sadness at seeing how the city has changed. “It looks like Beijing,” she said, “and people will tell you that they’re happy. That they’re rich. But if you ask more, they will soon open up and tell you that they’re in a golden cage.” We listened to her story until the attendant called us to the baggage check.

We made it through security at to our gate in less than 15 minutes and found ourselves plopped unceremoniously on the airport floor, gazing longingly at the chairs absolutely full of humans. We tried to capture a seat once, only to find someone had left their backpack in it. So, we read, journaled and crunched our peas for almost an hour before craving for tea led me to the tea counter. I ordered two milk teas and returned cradling them both. Anna didn’t want hers so I offered it to a couple sitting next to us. The man eagerly accepted it, and offered me his half-drunk cappuccino in return, which I was fine without. We asked each other where we were from, etc ~ they’re from Belgium and trekked the Manaslu circuit. As we all chatted, I noticed the way they looked at each other, and spoke to each other. It was breathtaking. Love is visible.

Despite our absurd earliness our plane didn’t take off until it was nearly 2 hours past our take-off time because we had to wait for the visiting Indian president’s jet to depart. When we did take off, the plane lurched awkwardly into the sky. The man sitting beside us was praying silently, and an older woman in front of us was murmuring manis.

When we arrived in India it was already almost 8 pm, and our bus to Dharamsala was to leave around 9:30. Anna and I jogged through the airport and made it to baggage claim way before any of the other passengers, but our bags didn’t reach the belt until the others had caught up. As soon as we had lugged our bags off the belt onto our cart, we sprinted to the taxi line.

“How much to ISPT?”

“1,800 Rupees.”

“No way. 700 at most.”

He walked away.

Confused about what the price should be, I asked a man standing next to us how much it should be to ISPT. “Don’t buy from these people,” he told us, pointing to the pre-pay taxi stand. Anna jogged over as I chatted with him. “SJ!!” I heard a few minutes later, and scanned for Anna. I didn’t see her anywhere. I was getting nervous, standing on my tiptoes to try to spot her in the melee of the airport exit area when I found her, motioning for me to hurry, talking to a driver. I pushed the cart as fast as I could across the road, and we leapt into the taxi. “How long to ISPT?” “One hour.”

One hour later, we were stuck in traffic. “How long?” “30 minutes.”

30 minutes later, traffic. “How long?” 25 minutes.

FINALLY we saw a sign reading “ISBT.” So the whole time we had been saying it wrong. Goes to show how the night was going. At this point it was nearly 10 pm, and we were two obviously foreign women in Delhi, trying to catch an overnight bus and also meet up with Izac somewhere at the bus station.

Our driver let us out on the side of the road, where we could just make out the bus station beyond lines of buses. There were men everywhere, calling out cities and stations. We made our way, staring straight ahead, to the bus station where we asked, “tickets?” and were pointed up an escalator. Then commenced 5 minutes of going back and forth between ticket stands, until we gave up and followed one word we did understand: “downstairs.” We walked down and entered the hubbub of the buses yet again. “M’am, m’am” we heard as young men pointed to buses or to chai stands. “Dharamsala?” We asked repeatedly, until one man called back, “Dharamsala!” There was still a bus leaving, in 25 minutes!! We hadn’t found Izac anywhere, but trusted that he had somehow found his way onto a bus. We bought our tickets and were assigned seats. Nearby, two Injis (foreigners) were leaning against trekking bags and we walked up, grinning. “What are y’all here to do?” We all chatted for a while, introducing ourselves and our stories, until the man from whom we’d bought our tickets motioned for us to go to the bus. We put our trekking bags in the back, and stepped up into the bus. There were young men sitting in our seats, and Anna and I awkwardly made our way toward them. “What seats are you in?” we asked cautiously, and they jumped up, laughing, and moved to other seats. We settled in only to find we were sitting in Connor and Matt’s seats (our Inji friends) but by then, our actual seats were taken up and the bus was mostly full. The man checking tickets told us all to stay where we were, it was fine.

Thus began our bus ride to Dharamsala. As soon as the bus started moving, the young Indian men around me and Anna pushed their phones toward us, saying “Facebook?” I was hesitant but didn’t know what to do, and they had been kind earlier so I plugged in my name. For the next few minutes, Anna and I watched as they scrolled through my Facebook profile. It was definitely a little uncomfortable, but kind of hilarious.

We chatted for a bit with Connor and Matt and our other busmates, then Anna and I propped my thick Tibetan sweatshirt between our heads, a perfect double-pillow. I woke up a few hours later to Anna nudging me, her face tight from trying not to laugh. She pointed behind us to Connor, who was completely passed out, his head leaning into the shoulder of the Indian man sitting beside him. Matt was asleep in the center aisle of the bus. They both looked like they were having the best sleep of their lives.

When we woke up again, it was because we had stopped. Stretching, we all filed out toward the toilets. It had become pretty chilly, and we had no idea where we were, but we walked around a bit, doing yoga subtly behind the bus.

We all got back on the bus and quickly fell asleep; I woke up when Connor was passing me Anna’s sleeping pad, which had somehow fallen our (not really somehow because the bus was reeeaaaally bumpy at times). I looked up and saw Brail (my ukulele) hanging half out of the overhead compartment ~ I snatched it and put it in my lap. I fell asleep with my head propped on the top of Brail ~ the part where you tighten the strings. I feel much closer to my ukulele now.

When we made it to Lower Dharamsala, we were all exhausted and exhilarated. The men who had asked for Facebook info took selfies with our crew of Injis, and then we hopped on the next bus to McLeod Ganj, where we’re living. We showed Connor and Matt where their guest house is, then made our way down the enormous flight of stairs to our own apartment. Manoj, the manager, met us at the bottom and gave us a key ~ we walked into the most beautiful living space I’ve ever seen. We have a view of pine trees arcing over a small valley filled with small creatures, and in the distance you can see the lines of mountains blending into the sun and sky.

So, we made it. Last night Anna, Izac (we later found him at a friend’s apartment in Dharamsala) and I celebrated with homemade pale (Tibetan bread~ it didn’t turn out super well, but I was impressed that it tasted at least bread-like) and local apple wine as the sun melted into mist and the stars took dominion over the sky.


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