This can be a very dangerous place says Austrian Bettina. Her sentence ends abruptly without explanation. I am left to fill in the gaps for myself as I sit in the sun on the verandah of ‘Trek and Dine’ Restaurant and drink my coffee and watch Bettina disappear inside the Restaurant. What does she mean, do tourists periodically come to Dharamkot, this little Himalayan hillside village perched above Dharmshala and simply disappear, never to be heard of again? Do mountain sprites or ghouls lurk in the forests and carry off the occasional tourist, or is there some dark industry, the work of human hands, preying on unsuspecting tourist traffic, stealthily and secretly. Bettina returns a few minutes later, she continues, sometimes people come here and they lose themselves completely, they never leave. I have been here four years she tells me.
I can understand on some level what she means, this place is of India, but it is not India, it is a bubble, a few square miles of homesteads and guest-houses, slate roofed, tin roofed, in the shade of mountains and forests. Whilst the sun blisters burns and bleaches the land and all those millions below in the plains, here at 2000m the air is cool and comfortable and in the forest shade people from many different countries come to stay or to lose themselves or to follow their passions or to find them.
For me now I am beginning my fourth week staying above Dharamshala, I am not losing myself here, that I managed to do very well a while back. Nope, I am on a different trip, looking for something, what I can’t say, just something. Walking along a track one day above the village I come to a brick building, with a sign above it, a Yoga studio. Yoga, again, how much that has figured in my life for the last decade and more, but only peripherally, me and Yoga have not got on well together, at times I have avoided it like the plague and decided its just not for me, I have even hated it with a real venom, at others I’ve tried to practice it to make other people happy, I have even tried to do it to make myself feel happy, I’ve even done it in the hope of hooking up with a woman, all bombed rather miserably, but still it is there, in the background. Yoga, I note down the number on the board, later I call, I like the sound of the voice that answers. I start a course, for the first time I want to go to Yoga, not because I should, or I think its a good idea, or it will make someone happy (perhaps even myself), I go because I simply want to and I carry on going. This may not last, I don’t trust myself enough to say it will, but for now I want to do it and I begin to slip into some sort of rhythm in this place, Yoga, some walking, exploring, I volunteer at a Tibetan adult education centre, helping with conversational English, this is great fun, helping Tibetan monks with conversational English is a delight. I have even begun to go to Kirtan, a kind of Chanting or singing, in Sanskrit, with candles and hippiesin equal measure, once the mere idea filled me with horror. Now I find even this is a choice, an enjoyable one, maybe this is just another passing fad, a fickle madness just a different one to those I followed before, but I enjoy it, just a little and until that point in time, that day when some thunderbolt, the metaphorical one that I’ve wanted for a long time hits me and suddenly I realise what I want to do then this is fine.
And then one late afternoon as I am walking in the sunshine between my village and Bhagsu, happily or so I imagine, droplets of rain begin to fall and quicken, the sky goes dark and the heavens open. Down ahead is a cafe, The Om cafe. I dive in for shelter, the rain cascades down, buckets of it. I decide to sit and eat and wait out the rain. The Cafe is full of Israelis, youngsters, there are clouds of smoke from spliffs. Nobody is speaking English, everyone is less than half my age. I order from the menu, I go for Honey Chicken Steak, and fries, I am tired of curried food. It arrives a few minutes later. The chicken is floating in syrup. It tastes bloody awful. At that moment an Israeli girl begins to sing and play the guitar. She is murdering Redemption song, by Bob Marley. I never heard such an awful rendition. I want to beg her to stop.The rain continues, it gets heavier, then it begins to thunder. I am stuck here, what the fuck am I doing here? Not just in this cafe hiding from the rain, but what am I doing full stop?
The Israeli girls repertoire is extensive, she knows every Marley song and murders them each one by one, slowly. At last she hands the guitar to the boy sitting next to her. I think of the Buddhist tennant of impermanence, how beautiful, that all things change, how wonderful. The singing has stopped. But then I realise this is just a gap, she opens her bag, pulls out a pair of castanets and begins to sing ( I use the term in its theoretical sense rather than to describe what she was doing) her friend plays guitar, atrociously and we are subjected to The Beatles, Israeli style.
My afternoon takes a turn for the utterly surreal when I notice a small white rabbit hop across the restaurant floor, accompanied to I am the Walrus, it climbs onto a table and proceeds to tuck into a bowl of soup. Am I really seeing this? Have I passively become stoned sitting here? I take a photo for visual evidence. I ask myself again, what the fuck are you doing here? Is this really what you should be doing? Why am I not doing something sensible, working in an office somewhere, earning some money, keeping a home? Being normal? But then the answer to that comes back quickly, that did not work out.
Nope, even here in the rain, with the terrible singing, with white rabbits and dope and unintelligible Hebrew surrounding me, with no idea what I am doing or where I am heading, I am fine. I am ok. I think often of Proust, some words from La Prissonniere, The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.
I understood what he meant, but somehow I couldn’t let go of my own eyes. So I decided to travel, to use my own eyes, the world is at once a huge place, and a small one. At times I have felt very alone, in a world of 7 billion souls the idea of feeling this way seems like the greatest madness. But then my path crosses with other travellers, we talk, we describe, we verbalise our vision of the world we find ourselves in, we talk about what we hope to find, then any idea of loneliness in me disappears, I am one of countless travellers, regardless of who we are or where we are from or how we choose to describe ourselves we are all on this path, with a beginning and an end. For now mine has white rabbits and bad music, but all things change.