“India calls you when you are ready to learn the lessons it has for you” – Some hippy chick I met.
I came to India following a dream I had one night and couldn’t put out of my head. Whilst most travellers gravitate towards India almost inevitably and instinctively, the country never held much pull for me and I was just not all that interested in it. The Taj Mahal looked OK but unremarkable to me and the food is cracking but I was already getting my fair share of it in Manchester; to be honest I just didn’t know what else the country had to going on and I was always looking to other places and even to other continents for my fix of adventure.
But I do believe in following your dreams even that sometimes means quite literally and within a fortnight I had packed up my temporary Manchester life and was on my way to see the Jewel in the Crown.
I booked a flight to Mumbai. Why? because it was cheap and it seemed to be a good starting point. I still didn’t know at that point that as a rule all Indian cities are terrible and that even objectively speaking Mumbai’s attractions are mediocre at best. Delhi was even worse and in just one night secured its place as my least favourite city on earth. Seriously, this was not love at first sight.
Throughout those first fraught days in India I repeatedly found myself questioning my decision and wondering just how quickly and cheaply I could U-turn and make a dash back to South America.
Though it had not been love at first sight things steadily changed and slowly but surely it all came together. Firstly, there was the psychedelic Tuk-Tuk drive from Delhi towards Manalli. Whilst it was hard going and the landscape, towns and cities we passed through were utterly forgettable, it did show me a kind & hospitable side of the Indian character as well as demonstrate to me the countries ample capacity & tolerance for sheer zaniness; I am not sure we could have pulled the escapade off anywhere else in the world.
Then there was the soaring in my heart as I caught my first glimpse of the mystical Himalayas and the warm glow in the pit of my stomach from my first Indian bam lassi (the less said about the burning sensation as I passed my first Indian hot daal the better though…).
As for the travellers I met, yes I did encounter plenty of the kind I had swerved to avoid; crunchy drop-outs who believe a set of dreadlocks qualifies for a personality and burned-out digital marketing exec’s from London re-training as Yoga Teachers. Yet for every one of these pseudo-anarchic-wankers and champagne mystics, I also met genuine travellers on a sincere journey whether that be personal, spiritual or just for kicks; this even inspired me to rekindle my own “spirituality” which had lain dormant for a number of years.
The Higher I Got The Deeper I Fell
With each dawn that passed and each metre I climbed higher into the mountains, my love for India grew and I finally understood just what it was that travellers over the years kept coming here for; it is the sheer diversity and sense of possibility, anything is acceptable and anything goes (at least for travellers).
India is often referred to a “sprawling sub-continent” by lazy hacks like me. What I think this actually means though is that the country is a highly conductive melting pot for different cultures and is home to a multitude of religions, languages, heritage’s and tribal groups all existing more or less harmoniously.
Take Dharamsala for example. The town of McLeod Ganj was built by the British as a hill station (summer retreat to escape the heat of the lowlands) and is named after the Scottish Governor who set up office there. It then welcomed His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama into exile with open arms in 1959 and has since become home to 1000’s of Tibetans fleeing the oppression and destruction of their homeland. The town of McLeod Ganj now feels like a little piece of Tibet with Buddhist temples, parades of monks and momo’s boiling on every corner.
The little satellite towns around (or above) McLeod such as Bhagsu (which became one my favourite places in the world) represent a perfect welding of the town’s traditional character and what successive generations of travellers have brought to it. Yes this is a place that travellers have actually helped to craft and shape over the years in a symbiotic relationship which enriches both sides and results in something utterly unique. Just as India absorbed Buddhism, the Mughals and the British, (allowing them to influence without ever fully subjugating it however hard they may have tried) , so it too absorbs the character of generations of travellers.
It may seem that I am saying that the further from “The Real” India I got the more I liked the place but the whole crux of the matter is that there is no single “real” India. There are actually as many visions of India as there are eyes to look upon it and that is why travellers keep coming here; because there is something for everyone.
When the time came to leave India (my visa was up) I was utterly sad to leave having finally discovered a spiritual home and feeling that I had so much unfinished business. The two day journey towards the Nepalese border was absolutely fucking awful and reminded me exactly what it was I had initially hated about India. It was not love at first sight and we parted on bitter terms but nevertheless, for a while back there, I found something to really love about India and I can’t wait to go and find it all over again.