By Leona Thomas
India is a melting pot of cultures and in and around Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) Lord Shiva gives the Tibetan Gods a run for their money.
My massage friend announced one day that it was the perfect day to do a fire ceremony with Lord Shiva. We had to write on paper all the things that we needed to forgive. And the ceremony ended with us burning those papers. It was intense.
Heavy rain came lashing down but we were sheltered outside. Still, that night I had a problem.
I woke up with severe stomach pain and was groaning. A Spirit voice told me I had a chill. So I threw my hot water bottle out of bed and bravely turned the electric blanket on. I don't like electric blankets at all. I figured that only a madman would leave it switched on whilst sleeping in India! But I felt like I was dying anyway so I plugged it in and braced myself. Eventually all that toasty heat got rid of my pain and I slept like a baby.
The valley was beautiful but my mini flat had no heating. I could cook in the tiny kitchen and that was a blessing because there were days when there was ice on my flat roof. But no matter what I did I just couldn't get warm.
I discovered that boiling water really wasn't that hot. My glass of water would be steaming so I would leave it there to cool down. A few minutes later the steam was still wild but the water was just tepid.
I had the same problem in the bathroom. The shower would create loads of steam so I assumed it was very hot. But this wasn't so. I would brave the steam only to find cold water freezing my body
I don't know what the temperatures were inside my rooms but I was unable to warm my body up when walking down to the main town.
So I took matters into my own hands.
I decided to take my hot water bottle everywhere I went. I would stuff it inside my fleece jacket and then put more layers of clothes on over the top.
This plan worked perfectly but one day I got caught out.
The man at the Dharamkot Tea Shop invited me in to the kitchen to sit in front of the fire with him. I had to tell him that I couldn't fit through the gap between the wall and the counter because my hot water bottle made me too fat.
The man thought I was joking so he made me prove what I was saying. When I unwrapped my hot water bottle for inspection his face was incredulous! From that day on he would always ask if I had my baby with me.
Eventually the weather warmed and a villager taught me a new way to brush my teeth. He did it in the best possible way - he led by example! I watched as he walked through the fields brushing so vigorously and for so long that foam was spilling from his mouth!
In England we are not so adventurous. We must have a sink. And if that is not a bathroom sink don't let your Mother see you.
It felt liberating to stand on the flat roof brushing my teeth. I also wandered off down the country road and stood near the trees, bravely brushing. I kept my eyes firmly on the road so I wouldn't see any monkeys who might be above me.
Meanwhile, the warmer weather brought a new entertainment.
The local monkeys would come to our village 3 times a week and swoop down on our yellow mustard fields.
These were well coordinated raiding parties. And the village women were ready for them!
The ladies would wait nearby and pick up big stones, threatening to throw their missiles, whist making strange whooping noises. Most of the monkeys would scamper back to the cover of the trees.
And then storm off down the roadside to take their frustration out on the tourists who were beginning to trickle in for the beginning of low season.
It was time for me to leave. Nepal was calling. But I had yet to meet the star attraction of Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj). It was 2012 before the stars aligned and brought us together....
The Final Instalment
Dharamsala - The Dalai Lama at last
By Leona Thomas
After a week in town, a Spirit voice recommended I go stay at a particular hotel. When I asked the locals they directed me to a big colonial style hotel with an inflated price. I figured my Spirit friend knew what he was doing but later I discovered there was a hotel with the same name in nearby Bagsu at half the price.
After two expensive nights in the central hotel I ran out of money. I checked out and left my luggage in their storage room.
It was an amazing feeling of freedom to walk through Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) without any idea of what would happen next and just enough cash to get a bite to eat!
As I arrived at the main chowk (large area with many roads all converging there) I was shown by my Spirit guide to go straight and walk up the hill.
I had the coach station and main taxi stand down below on my left. My road climbed up through the forest. It was breathtakingly beautiful but there were a few hurdles to negotiate before I could arrive safely in the little village just 15 minutes up that hill....
Wild dogs were running loose and monkeys were lurking at every turn. Add to that the steepness of the climb, it made it an interesting adventure. With the tension caused by the presence of so much really wild wildlife I found it somewhat ironic that this tiny single-track lane took me right past a huge meditation centre!
Finally I turned a corner and found the teashop. I had arrived at Dharamkot.
The man in the teashop took me to see his rooms and we agreed a price. I had no idea how I would pay.
By the time I got back to the hotel to collect the luggage, night had arrived. And I realised had a problem.
There was no way I could take my suitcase up that tiny road. And, anyway, I didn't want to encounter any nocturnal nuisances along the way!
The tuktuk was 60rs so I had to get some cash from the green pirate. And then I was off up the hill via the much longer road that went round the other side of forest.
But when we arrived at the teashop it was closed. And now the village was dark. I had no idea where my room was! And I didn't have the man's phone number either.
The driver decided to drop me off in the next little lane, as there were a few streetlights there.
There was magic in the air that night.
As I walked down that lane I found a solitary man standing underneath one of the streetlights. He spoke English. And he knew where my room was.
He rang my host and then helped me with my luggage. We had to climb up steep terraced steps in the dark, startling cows out of their slumber. Finally we were there. He looked at my very small case and commented on how heavy it was.
I explained I was a sound healer and had Tibetan singing bowls in there and he admitted to being a meditator and then said,
"I'm teaching a massage class starting tomorrow and I need a body. If you're interested, come over for breakfast. My partner has some really good French coffee."
When I met his business partner the next morning she booked a sound session with me for the next day and paid 3000rs.
The tiny village of Dharamkot was like paradise on earth but I soon discovered that this verdant beauty came at a price. All those trees could mean only one thing... MONKEYS!
As soon as I left the central little town I was in the home of wild monkeys and they were everywhere!
We have all seen monkeys in a zoo but wild monkeys are no joke. They move in packs and can attack you. They especially hate it when people laugh. And I am inclined to agree that it can be annoying to be around happy people if you just want some grumpy peace and quiet! But monkeys don't know anything about being happy.
They are The Happiness Police!
They hate it if you laugh.
Because, in the monkey world, if you show your teeth it is an act of aggression.
Unfortunately the lush forest around Dharmasala (McLeod Ganj) is deeply relaxing and most tourists are very happy indeed. And so the monkeys operate on high alert. Luckily for me, it was winter and I was freezing so I wrapped up in a big scarf and laughed merrily behind it, safe in the knowledge that, whilst I may be annoying, I was definitely not a threat to my monkey friends.
I stayed in the picturesque village for 6 weeks and discovered that an Indian winter was nothing like life in the UK. The monkeys were the least of my problems...
Dharamsala Part Three
The mysteries of an Indian village winter are revealed...!
By Leona Thomas
The first time I went to Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) in India, I knew only that the Dalai Lama lived there. In my opinion there is no room for adventure if you know everything in advance. I like to be surprised. So I didn't bother to look anything up on the internet. Instead I asked my friend.
I was staying with Amar who lives in the old Tibetan Camp in Majnu Ka Tilla and does most of his business with Tibetans. He told me that buses travelled between Majnu Ka Tilla and Dharamsala every evening and he had some important advice for me.
He said, "Leona, just remember two things. Don't talk to any strangers. And don't listen to any stories the Tibetans tell you." I pointed out that I knew nobody there and would have to talk to strangers. I added that I had already heard all the stories in Nepal. Nobody was going to get anything past me. They turned out to be famous last words...
He recommended a hotel he stays in every everytime he goes to Dharamsala. When I asked if I should book my room before traveling he said not to bother because they always have plenty of space.
The bus ride through Delhi and out into the Indian countryside was quite magical. Exotic buildings were lit up in spectacular countryside. It had a lovely romantic quality. But I was travelling alone. In the early hours of the morning the road began to twist and turn but I didn't give it too much thought. We were deep in the countryside and unable to see anything.
Finally we arrived at the end of the road. A few lights showed a concrete bus station. I began walking. The whole town was in darkness. Two guys asked where I was going and took me there.
Then the fun began.
Amar's hotel was full!
They said to try the place next door but that was full too! I told the hotel staff that I would wait until it got light enough outside to see where I was going and then I would leave. They agreed and brought me some hot water to drink.
About an hour later the staff advised me that they did have a customer checking out at 12 noon if I would like to wait for the room. I agreed.
A hot cup of salty Tibetan tea arrived.
Once I had finished drinking that, they invited me to take rest in a tiny basic room that they were decorating... I settled down for a nap. It was not comfortable but I had not slept well on the bus so I fell into a deep sleep. The staff tried on 3 different occasions to wake me up by banging hard on that door. Finally I heard them.
My room was ready.
When I arrived in my new room the curtains were all closed but I noticed there was a door ahead. I stepped out onto a balcony and got the shock of my life!
In all the conversations I had ever had about Dharamsala, not one person had ever mentioned the landscape! I am used to seeing Tibetan prayer flags waving in the breeze and the buildings were a similar style to the ones in Kathmandu, Nepal. They were nestled in the midst of a lush verdant hillside. Everything was peaceful and definitely Tibetan.
And towering over everything was a majestic snow-capped mountain! The beauty of the scene held me transfixed.
I had been in Dharamsala about one week when I decided it was time to visit the Dalai Lama's temple. As I left my room I heard a Spirit voice tell me someone was waiting to meet me.
The road leading down to the Dalai Lama's temple would probably be interesting to most tourists as there were shops on one side and market stands on the other. Everywhere I looked people were selling Tibetan artefacts. They were trying to persuade me to buy but I knew I could get this stuff for a fraction of the price back in Kathmandu and I wouldn't have to carry it on a plane!
But one shop caught my attention. It had some nice fabrics in the window. I heard a voice from behind me and a few minutes later I was seated inside the shop, facing a young Indian man. We began to talk.
The first thing he told me was that apparently he had designed all the jewellry in the shop and at least half of the fabrics too. Everything was very beautiful and he was too! But I doubted that he was speaking the truth. I smiled sweetly and nodded a bit. I thought, 'I don't believe you.'
He carried on speaking. Apparently, I could act as an agent for the shop and sell things on their behalf. It would be a great business opportunity for me... I let the words wash over me. I had no interest in this either.
But then he said something that had me on the edge of my seat and wide-eyed in wonder!
He proudly announced, "I am like a pirate! I travel everywhere!"
My inner child not only sat up straight but almost jumped out of the chair with pure joy! I heard her voice inside my head, "WOW! A pirate! I never met a pirate before!" And if I had a mirror before me I swear I would have seen my eyes were huge like giant saucers! I could feel her joyful excitement and sparkling magic dancing inside of me. My inner child was definitely interested in this conversation! And she wanted more!
The young Indian spoke again, "Yes, I am like a pirate. A green pirate!"
Now my inner child was even more excited!
I heard her again inside my head, "WOW! A green pirate!" My eyes sparkled and I was on the edge of my chair! After a few minutes' silence, my inner child quietly asked me, "What's a green pirate?" 'That's a good question,' I thought.
"What's a green pirate?" I asked my young Indian friend.
The young man looked stunned and a bit confused. I could almost see his brain ticking over. Then a look of understanding spread over his face.
He replied, "No! Not a green pirate - a green PARROT!"
In 2011, in a small handicrafts shop at Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj), I discovered that I was not as immune to fantastical stories as I had imagined. Maybe if he had been a Tibetan I would have been wiser. But in the end it was a young Indian man from Kashmir who told me the most improbable story I have ever heard in my life.
And I fell for it hook, line and sinker!
Dharamsala! Part Two
The adventure continues...
By Leona Thomas
In 2004, I was a volunteer for Oxfam and I was not satisfied with a choice that was in front of me. So I made a decision that was to impact the lives of many people, most of whom I would never meet.
Oxfam had created a Christmas catalogue with a difference. You could buy things for your loved ones but all they would receive was a card telling them that something had been sent to poor people in another country, on their behalf. I thought it was a genius idea and was very excited.
There was just one problem.
I could only afford to buy 10 chickens.
Most of my money was being spent on receiving treatment for Chronic Fatigue at a private clinic in Market Harborough. I didn't want to buy just 10 chickens because they were the cheapest thing in the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue so I knew lots of people would choose to buy them.
I wanted to do more than that. So I chose again. And something spectacular was put into motion.
I told my husband that if I got together with some friends we could combine our money and buy something more than 10 chickens. He then suggested we create some kind of sponsored event. He told me that his employer, The Co-op, would match any sponsorship money we raised up to a maximum of £160. That was exciting news! We might be able to raise £320 and that would buy a lot more than 10 chickens.
He decided that we could drive for 12 hours to as many Co-op shops as we could manage and I should take a photo of him with each store manager. He planned our route and set the date for 4 January 2005. We created sponsorship forms and he told his company of our plan. They were very excited. They owned a company called Sterling Motors and decided to give us one of their cars for our 12 hour drive!
And then something changed.
On 26 December 2004 a huge tsunami hit Asia. All the big charities changed focus and opened up a Tsunami Appeal. Prior to that, Oxfam had been collecting for Darfur but little money was arriving. Now there was a Tsunami Appeal and donations were flooding in. The Oxfam Unwrapped online catalogue was changed to only provide for the Tsunami relief.
Some people asked if we would change our event to support the Tsunami Appeal but I decided against that. I knew that when it ended there would still be people in 72 countries needing help.
On 4 January 2005 our event went ahead as planned. The local press came to interview us and take photos and then we were on our way.
Eventually the Tsunami Appeal was closed as Oxfam had received all the money it needed and the full Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue was reinstated online. Finally we were able to spend the money we had raised. We bought boats and camels. We trained teachers and midwives in remote villages. We bought medicines and school equipment. I am proud to say that we didn't buy any chickens, although we did buy some goats!
On 4 January 2005 we gave 12 hours of our time and raised almost £2500 for people in need around the world. We would never know who they were and we would not get a thank you. But we did have the satisfaction of knowing that a huge group of people had sponsored us and helped us to truly make a difference in the world.
And it all started because I wanted to spend more than £10 in that Christmas catalogue...