Travelling on my own is very liberating. I have decided to do this more often. I get to do what I want to do, when I want to do it and how I want to do it. Most of my travelling so far has been with a large group of friends or as a twosome. For sure, it is fun. But in many ways, it is like a democracy- majority decisions win. It leaves very little space for individual exploration.
Also, when you travel with friends, you stick to each other, ignore travellers outside your circle, eat the same food, listen to the same music...only the location changes. I feel like I have stepped into the Golden Zone of stories, places and adventures.
I did have a couple stray moments of longing for familiar places and food. Like when I was watching the yonder hills clouded in mist with gentle rain pattering all around. I guess the experience would have been closer to perfection if I was also tucked away against Sachin's shoulders. Or like the time I drank Miso Soup at a Japanese restaurant and I wincingly longed for my Indo-Chinese version of Hot and Sour Soup and Chicken Manjoori:-) But these moments are few and fleeting...
My Favourite Places
a. McleodGunj Market: Imagine quaint little hilly roads lined with shops/stalls selling gorgeous beads, pendants, crystals, Tibetan artefacts, woolly socks, yoga pants, second-hand books; cafes steaming with momos and teeming with travellers from distant lands; Spanish, Indian and Israeli music filtering through to the streets against the backdrop of the majestic hills; samosas sizzling; boys whistling; time slowing down: NOW- slam-bam this image with mounting mounds of garbage; huge SUVs barrelling down into pedestrians, honking,honking unremittingly; the local shop-keepers leching,ogling,cat-calling and eve-teasing the foreigners; Punjabi tourists hollering, blocking, stumbling; over-ripe smells of food, people and memories suffocating the mountain air....It's maddening, it's enchanting!
b. Dharamkot: Two days of staying at the very unaptly named "Freedom Palace"` bang centre of McLeodGunj and I knew my "soul" trip was getting skewered before it started. Also, the yoga class I wanted to enrol for was in the smaller nook village of Dharamkot. So, off I shifted bags 3 kms upwards of Mcleod. It is a 20-minute, 90degree, butt-crunching, thigh-sculpting walk to Dharamkot. I have fallen into the habit of walking that route once or twice a day just to feel the burn.
Dharamkot is my home. I feel calm and serene here.It has restaurants/cafes very similar to the ones in Goa (Palolem, Arambol) where you are encouraged to linger over your coffee and book. Meals stretch over a few hours, friends drop by, conversations meander, lives intertwine. There is a very relaxed energy about this place.
It has a few yoga centers, reiki and acupressure centres, internet parlours and a hotel-a-meter. If you stay here beyond a couple of days, the locals get a lot more cheerful and warm. A hundred meter walk is then broken down into small chats with the vegetable vendor, yelling out hellos to the cafe owners, stopping to drool at the fresh chocolate and raisin cookies, and grinning at the cherubic schoolkids.
I have always lived in the big cities. This kind of familiarity and intimacy warms the old, cynical heart.
c. The Himalayan Tea Shop: Just when the Mcleod-Dharamkot uphill grind becomes a groan, you stumble into a garage-shop called the Himalayan Tea Shop. It overlooks the hills as does everything else around here. They sell plain croissants, chocolate croissants, apple strudels, Amul coffee, Manali Mineral water, Apricot Body Oil and Cobra lubricated condoms. It also serves as an information centre and mid-travel relaxation point. You are bound to bump into someone you know or want to know here. If I know I will pass by this shop, I factor in an extra 20 minutes of conversation time into my schedule.
d. The Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre: run by the Yoga Guru Sharath Arora, it is a circular design architecture with sprawling lawns, a yoga centre (resembling a medieval torture chamber) and living quarters for the Master and all those who have enrolled for the longer teachers training course. It is a 2-minute rocky walk from my hotel.
Here, I relearnt the basics of Yoga, the importance of alignment. Yoga was compulsory for us at school. But it never really amounted to much more than gymnastics. The beginners course has a 3-hour session of standing positions; back bends, forward bends, shoulder stands, Halasana, and Virasana. By the end of the session, the blood rushes to the brain and the rest of the day goes by in a burst of energy.
e. Trek and Dine: Amongst the slew of cafes that dot McLeod, Dharamkot and Bhagsu, a few of us have gravitated to this little cafe called the Trek and Dine. The decor is apalling- acid-induced Trance paintings; wilting, stained diwans and the obligatory multicoloured hanging lamps. The music is eclectic- Turkish music, Bob Marley and Hindi film songs jar and soothe alternately. The Indian food has the usual suspects marching on to the plates: Veg Kofta, Dal Fry, Veg Korma, Navaratan Korma, Palak Paneer et al. They are single-portioned and averagely satisfying. The pastas are well-flavoured and the salads are a meal in themselves. They also advertise pizzas and sizzlers. I have not ventured there so far.
The food remains a mere backdrop. I go to the Trek and Dine for the "cosmopolitan company" (Ref: Zhev, my Israeli Ussain Bolt) it provides. Somedays, it feels like I am on the sets of Mind Your Language- one representative from each country contributing to the hilarity. The conversations-Oh! the conversations-I could chew on some of these thoughts for life. Comparative religion, childhood memories, travelogues, romances and love affairs, television serials, penis jokes- nothing has escaped our warblings.
The Trek and Dine could be replaced with the Moonlight Cafe, the Friendly Planet, the Radhakrishna Cafe, the Milky Way Cafe- all are equally hospitable with semi-efficient service and middling food. Jut so happened that this restaurant was closest on our return trip from the Yoga centre and became the centrestage of my travel memories.
Other recommended cafes:
Norling restaurant, McLeodGunj: Has a thumbs up from Rocky and Mayur of Highway On My Plate. Has my hands up for the excellent momos and Thupkas.
LungTa Restaurant, McLeodGunj: Japanese restaurant at the farthest end of Jogiwara road. We tried the Special Set meal for Rs.130. The day's set meal was: 4 large veg croquettes, an egg and cabbage salad, miso soup, a bowl of sticky rice, vegetables cooked in soy sauce and a salad. Though ravenous after the Yoga, I could just about manage to go through half the meal. My Hungarian dining partners assured me that the Tea cake and Lemon cake are a must-eat as well.
f. The Circumambulatory route at the Tibetan Monastery, McLeod: Is a 3 km walk around the Tibetan Monastery. Has prayer flags, Tibetan inscription on stones, prayer bells and devout monks along the route. I went one evening and enjoyed the serenity of the surroundings. I returned the next day armed with a pack of steaming momos and a book, perched myself on a rock along the path, away from the temple and devoured the two most beautiful hours of my life.
I intend to visit the Tibetan Childrens Village today and there is a trek to Triund this weekend with Malvika and Neeraj. More on that in Part 2.