For all who visit India, their reasons couldn’t be more different. Some go to escape. Some go to find meaning. Some go to luxuriate. I wanted to go because, it’s India! Plus two of my favorite people in the world are from there. Shout out to the Punyani/Amin crew.
I heard the stories about India. From “it’s the most amazing place in the world” to “you’ll have experiences that will scare you and break you”. I wanted India, but I didn’t want all of it. Not right now. I had been on the road for 2 years and I was tired. I needed a break. I wanted to be somewhere I could relax and turn off my spidey sense. I needed ease. I wanted to be swallowed by nature.
Review of the Mcleodganj region of India
My friend suggested Dharamsala, a mountain town in Himachal Pradesh. It’s home to the Dali Lama and famous for its large Tibetan community. I had never heard of it. Naturally, I took the leap.
This is what I saw on my first day.
The next morning I was pulled from bed to investigate a clacking noise coming from outside. It was a group of horses carrying supplies up the mountain. It happened the next morning, and I jumped out of bed to watch them pass. Super giddy.
My room was okay but not a place I’d want to stay for a long period. But they did have a big mirror which was useful for taking selfies with my useless iphone4. (First world problems.) Traveling essentials pictured: toilet paper, head lamp, wallet no one would want to steal, my trusty bandana.
While staying at the first guesthouse, I used my free time to search for better lodging. I found this pink guesthouse, called “Pink Guesthouse” (ha!). It was situated on a narrow path between Dharmkot and Bhagsu. The available room came with its own porch and plastic chair. I had to have it.
My humble abode was bright and spacious. It had a private bathroom and a “kitchen”. Kitchen means: a hot plate and a pan. The concrete floor was perfect for my workouts as I’ve been places that couldn’t handle squat jumps. Oops.
The price of my room was $15 a night, which is considered expensive to other backpackers in India. That concerned me for about a day. The next morning, I made ginger tea and scrambled eggs. I took my breakfast outside, sat on my porch, and enjoyed my view. Worth every cent.
The clearing next to my guesthouse was a popular meeting place for ball players, hula girls, and animals. When the horses came through, they would throw themselves into the dirt and roll around. I had never seen horses behave this way. It was wonderful to watch.
I was living in a beautiful town that wasn’t all beauty. There was trash everywhere. What? How Sway?!? I don’t know if it was the locals or the tourists but the amount of trash thrown carelessly in the woods was sad. Thankfully, there were organizations trying to mitigate the damages.
This was my favorite little store. The genius of this cafe was its placement on a winding road between McLeod and Dharamkot. It sat, quite literally, on the edge of the mountain right before a sharp left turn. Its location made no sense. Or did it?
I was living in a town of contrasts. I could see why many flocked here and stayed for months. I could also understand why others turned away, turned off by the soulless tourist industry. Dharamsala was a placed you loved, or didn’t.
The town drew a specific type of traveler. It was the hippie, yoga, weed smoking, vegan, spiritual kind. All travelers weren’t all of those things but each traveler was at least one. And, the market responded. Instead of shouting, “best price”, “cheap drinks”, they murmured, “hand made”, “good yoga”, “fresh juice”.
From established tattoo parlors to freelancing travelers selling mandala drawings, everyone was offering something. You could make jewelry, go out to eat, watch a movie, meditate, hike, learn massage, collect crystals, and volunteer. The options were endless.
As touristy as it was, the authenticity remained. The locals didn’t try to impress anyone. They didn’t dim themselves. They didn’t change to make you comfortable. As a black woman in America, I always had to adjust based on my audience. I admired their insouciance.
So, why do people say Dharamsala isn’t the real India? Because it doesn’t have the poverty and overpopulation of places like Dheli, it doesn’t have the opulence of cities like Mumbai, and it’s not Goa. There were no slums. There was no Bollywood. Therefore, “it wasn’t India”.
Here are the facts: All the taxi drivers were Indian. All the businesses were operated by Indians. I paid $90 for an India visa. And, my passport book stamp says “India”. I was definitely in India.
Dharamshala was the perfect introduction. I can’t wait to explore more. Who wants to come with me????
Places to Eat. Everywhere. Indian food is incredible. Lentils, curry, naan, oh my! My favorite restaurants were chosen based on vibe, not food. In my experience, the quality didn’t vary much from place to place. If you’re someone who needs recommendations, I wouldn’t let online reviews dictate your choices. Things change quickly, re: management and locations. It’s best to walk around, see where the locals are eating, and ask other travelers.
Whatever restaurant you choose, try all the dishes, not just the ones you know. Go h.a.m. (Kanye reference.) Oh!, you must try the Bhagsu cake. It’s not healthy but that’s not the point. Go h.a.m.
Things to do. Volunteer with Waste Warriors. Hike to Triund. Make jewelry. Teach English to Tibetan monks. Attend a live concert. Visit Dalai Lama’s temple. Meditate. Practice haggling. Hike again. Take a yoga class. [Note: Everyone is selling what the next person is selling. Use your spidey sense. All that glitters ain’t gold.]
Where to stay. The McLeod Ganj region is made of Dharamkot, Bhagsu, Dharmshala, and McLeod. Stay anywhere except McLeod, it’s loud and lacks charm. Lodging options range from hostels to guesthouses to fancy hotels to dorms in the monastery. Most places don’t take reservations and I wouldn’t advise it if they did. You’ll want to see the place in person. Trust me.
If you’re planning a longer stay, take a room for 1-2 nights. Use your free time to talk to other travelers. You’ll often hear, “my friend is leaving her place tomorrow”. This is how you get the good stuff. If don’t get a recommendation, walk around to find a room but don’t look on the main road. The best stuff isn’t there. Go where there’s no path.
Dharamsala was the perfect first date. I look forward to seeing how this relationship evolves. India, until we meet again…