Eight thousand kilometres and two continents away from London the dreams and nightmares that had woken me at three or four in the morning every day for months on end abate and then disappear entirely, the sunrise beach walks and days soaking in the sun & the sea feed my soul, just being able to say those words is a change as once had someone spun me that line I’d have taken them for some kind of whacko-hippy new age nut, now I actually believed it for myself.
Having started out feeling like an unwanted cast off I had met enough attractive and available women to think that it was perfectly possible that I might not be single forever. Some women even seemed to find me attractive, this was little short of a revelation.
But the thing was that the idea of a really effective and fulfilling relationship, that felt like something else all together, like the result of an unfathomably complicated mathematical formula decipherable only by a rocket scientist, or else some kind of mystical alchemy for which rare ingredients mixed in perfect proportions were necessary. As I had always been crap at maths and didn’t believe in magic I wasn’t sure that this was ever going to be on the cards for me.
I had also come to the conclusion that I didn’t want a relationship just for the sake of it, what was the point of that?
I could also see that despite being in my fifties and with more than twenty years of marriage behind me that when it came to women I was actually a bit of a novice. I had had one serious relationship with a woman in my entire life, and this led me to ask myself if I really knew what it meant to love and be in love, or even what a woman or for that matter I myself wanted from a relationship. And beyond all these conundrums I knew also that it wasn’t just about a relationship, that alone wasn’t the answer, it wasn’t the fix that was going to make me happy, there was more to it than that.
I decided to set aside my doubts and questions, to the back burner as you might say and instead for the present just get on with life, and to see where it took me, maybe to do some of those bucket list things that I’d promised myself one day, now was that one day.
The days and the weeks in Goa slipped by like honey from a spoon, I began to leave off my wrist watch, I no longer cared what time it said, I now measured the passage of time by sunrise and sunset not clock hands. As summer approached the daytime temperatures rose relentlessly, most of the tourists were gone by April, the beach bars closed up for high summer and soon even the locals, year round residents began to complain about the heat.
When an Indian tells you it’s too darned hot you know it really is.
Where do I go next? I had started with a six month visa for India, I had six weeks left on it, no way was I ready to head back to the UK & Goa was getting just too bloody hot.
Then up comes the idea heading towards the Himalayas where it would be much cooler.
I settle on Dharmshala, 1900 kms north, I remember from my history books that the Brits whilst occupying India had made a summer retreat of Dharmashala, tired and worn out colonial types would spend the summer months away from the heat of the plains up in the mountains, and these days I knew that Dharmshla was the home in exile for the Dali Lama.
This man had always interested me and as I still had this lingering feeling that Buddhism had something in it for me there were good reasons to go and check it all out.
Dharamshala is not such an interesting city, but wind your way uphill for a few miles and you arrive at McLeod Ganj. This little town is the home of the Dalai Lama, his place, or rather palace is the former residence of the Viceroy of India, (us Brits never liked to slum it), the palace lies at one end of the town next to a large Buddhist temple complex. The town itself is at around 6000 feet and is built on the hillside, a promenade of old lampposts and a retaining wall stretch-out along the like parts of a rampart protecting the town from precipitous heights and the panorama that stretches out below as far as the eye can see across the plains of Himachal Pradesh.
Today it is a hotchpotch of cafes and shops and guesthouses, and a single road that is always full of traffic, a century ago at either end of the road once stood two signs, No Dogs, No Indians. Thankfully the days of the Raj are long gone & now the streets are filled with travellers from the four corners of the Earth and quite a few dogs, this is definitely progress.
I rented myself a scooter and after a days exploring swapped my town guesthouse for a little homestay further up the mountainside at a little spot between two villages one named Bhagsu and another called Dharamkhot.
Bhagsu has lent its name to a type of sugary cake that can be found across India and far beyond, I’ve included the recipe as for any lover of sugar it’s a must. This village and Dharmkhot another little enclave a couple of km’s along the hillside are both full of travellers and back packers as well as a few old hippies. Peppered with Israelis, bloody noisy young people it has to be said, who seem to spend most of their time smoking spliffs and listening to rather crappy music, there were several yoga schools, a bunch of bars and cafes, a little roundabout where the tarmac road ended and a place called the Himalayan Tea shop, where at any time of day from dawn til dusk you could grab a tea or a soft drink or a plate of food and talk with other folks from all over. Beyond the villages sparse homesteads and forest and mountain trails, and crowning them all Triund, by Himalayan standards just a slip of a thing at 10,600 feet, but to an Englishman a snow capped beauty of a mountain triple the height of anything back home in England.
I quickly settle into Dharamkhot life, I have a room with a shower in a little homestay which costs me the princely sum of £4 a day. ( I think I am over-paying but decide not to quibble ) I work out my favourite restaurants and bars in which to eat and drink, the main one I settle on a place by the name of Trek & Dine, run by an Indian guy & his German partner. This is the perfect spot as it overlooks the main high street ( or rather track ) through the village and is the perfect spot to people watch.
On the way home one day I notice an ad on a house wall just down the track from my place, it’s for daily yoga classes at 8 a.m which the sign announces are taught in English. This I decide is a good idea, I need Yoga, also I’d much prefer a small class than one at the big Yoga Schools in the valley.
Next morning ten minutes early I arrive at the front door where the Yoga is supposed to be happening, there’s nobody about, I hang around a little nervously, not wanting to knock on the door I decide to wait for someone else to arrive, I hear voices approaching from down the track and the tops of yoga mats bobbing up and down in a line behind the hedge, the voices are female, the language not Hindi or English. Into view comes a bevy of Japanese women decked out in lycra, at that same moment the front door opens and there stands Mitsue, my new teacher.
I head inside and sit on a mat right at the back of the room in which we are going to do Yoga, being on the periphery seems the right place for me, whilst by now I’ve done a reasonable amount of Yoga the reality is that I am still a beginner, cack-handed, stiff and just a bit useless.
I am the only male in a room full of Japanese girls, I say girls not pejoratively, but more to emphasise the difference in age between me and the young ladies in lycra.
Mitsue I find has quite an effect on me as a teacher, If she had been an aged Indian Swami-Ji type worshipped by his students I would have been far less committed pupil. A beautiful Japanese woman teaching me Yoga makes me try harder, bend further and yoga more.
Now I know that doing a yoga class because you fancy the teacher is really not the point, but what the hell if it works for me what does it matter? Imperceptible though it was to me at the time each class and each hour on a mat being told what to do by Mitsue meant I was getting healthier.
In the rare moments I wasn’t trying to impress Mitsue with my old-man Yoga moves I would find myself checking out the fellow students. This lead to nothing short of a a eureka moment as since puberty I had been utterly convinced that I had a type, the kind of woman I was attracted to had big brown eyes and a mediterranean or middle eastern look. Now surrounded by Japanese women I realised how myopic my taste had been.
There was Mino, tall and elegant who was a Reiki Masseuse , there was Chuya, a little pocket rocket who taught belly dancing, (I had a front row seat to watch her dance a couple of times at events, that girl could work it). There was Keomi who only painted angels, (I didn’t realise this was a profession but then what do I know ) and Hoshi who did things with drums. After classes and sometimes in the evening I’d hang out with the girls, all spoke English well and likewise all had at one time or another had western boyfriends, so communication was easy and the otherwise more telling cultural differences between disparate nationalities didn’t apply. I began to hang out with one lady in particular, Keiko who was a little closer to my age and therefore I felt what this was a little bit less creepy, I hated the idea of being taken for one of those old blokes that chased younger women……………
Our stay coincided with the Dali-Lamas 80th birthday and there were days of celebrations, a film festival, processions and parties. One day the girls tell me his holiness the Big D is giving an audience from early morning at the Temple, there is much excitement, everyone wants to go, regardless of queues or even if there is just the tiniest possibility of getting to see him.
I can’t be bothered, it seems like a futile exercise, even though I’d really like to see him.
Later that day I’m in McLeod Ganj sitting outside a cafe drinking coffee when a cavalcade of cars approaches from down the road, a traffic jam swiftly occurs from nowhere and ten feet from my table an enormous limo approaches then slows and finally comes to a halt in the traffic. Tibetan flags flutter on the front wings and a bunch of guys in navy blue suits and sunglasses walk alongside the car. Monks in the street drop to their knees, pedestrians clasp hands together and genuflect, through the back of the open window in the limo I see a face I recognise, Its him, its only the Dali-Lama, Fuck me I say out loud. I take off the cap I am wearing and bow, when I look back up he is smiling, and then he nods at me.
Years later I may still tell this same story, of the day I met the Dali-Lama, and how he blessed me, whilst I was having a cup of coffee, but my memory may not be quite what it was by then and the story may have grown just a little grander.
I find some volunteer work at a Tibetan centre helping people with conversational English, this is great fun, of a lunchtime I have a group of Monks and Tibetan women who want to improve their English, we have philosophical discussions on who they most admire, one monk insists rather obviously the Dalai Lama, another his Mother, my favourite is the Monk who says the person he most admires in the world is the Footballer Mesi.
The days roll by and the time floats away on the mountain air.
Keiko suggests a walk, sure I say, lets go to Triund. ( 10,600 feet ) Why not.
The appointed morning I begin to regret my suggestion, three or four hours uphill? What was I thinking………….. Anyway, conscious that I am in need of the exercise and unable to go back on my own suggestion we head up, and up and up. The pathway seems never ending, I am wearing a pair of trainers and a T shirt, and sweating like a proverbial mammal of the porcine variety.
Keiko is in Lycra leggings and walking boots. I have her ass cheeks bobbing in front of my eyes for the next few hours as she flies upwards like a bloody sprite, I on the other hand can’t help but think of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and those poor bloody elephants who died on the way. Bulky beasts don’t make good mountain climbers. But on I go.
Every few minutes we are overtaken. First it’s a young lad who looks about six, he’s in a pair of worn out old flip flops that are far to big for him, he races past me singing a tune and not even breathing heavily. Later an old lady, with a walking stick and a bent back also whizzes past me, what the hell is going on? How come I’m being outpaced by old ladies and kiddies? When a bloke with legs like matchsticks runs past carrying a 50kg sack of rice I figure somebody somewhere is having a laugh.
Hours later we finally reach a plateau close to the top. It begins to rain and what’s more it is icy cold. Despite it being June we are at the snow line, the T shirt and shorts I started out with don’t seem like a good idea now Thank goodness we find a hut which turns out to be a Tea stall, made of tarpaulin and bamboo, inside it is packed with people, all of them monks in saffron robes or trekkers. All are drinking chai and hiding from the rain. That Tea was the best I’ve ever tasted.
Back down at 6000 feet Keiko and I continue to spend time together, she sneaks me into her rooms after dark one night, explaining that she doesn’t want her landlady to see me. I don’t quite know if this meant she specifically didn’t want to be seen sneaking me in, or just any man in general, nevertheless tip-toeing along a gravel path, through squeaky iron gates and past a guard dog unnoticed was a feat I felt proud of.
During ensuing love making Keiko screams out, unused to such rapturous response I am thrown off my rhythm as one might say, too big she exclaims, I have no idea what she means, I don’t understand I say. Too Big she repeats too big.
I still don’t get it until finally it dawns on me that Japanese and western bodies are a bit different. For the first time in my life I am being told that my penis is too large.
Luckily my increasing flexibility due to yoga classes comes into play and we are able to surmount the physical barriers keeping us apart by the adapt use of some tantric practice and that go to Indian reference guide, The Kama Sutra ( see Dolphin, Tominagi & The Ship ).
On our last evening together Keiko stays over at mine, the following day she is heading home and I’m taking a plane bound for Cairo. East goes East and West goes West.
I wake up early the next morning, there’s a gap between the bedroom curtains through which I can see the rain cascading down the window pane. Keiko’s back is bare, the bedcover has fallen off, I trace the tip of my finger gently down her back to the base of her spine, then cover her in a blanket and cuddle up close. All I can hear is the sound of the rain and her breathing. I drift off to sleep once more, knowing that I will probably not see her again after today, that I am fine with this, content to have spent just a little time with her on a hillside in India.