Dalai Lama and Donald Duck

My work is dealing with the remote—-worldly destinations, unique activities and cultural adventures.  Although you may visit the same country as another person, even the same city, an experience will never be the same as someone elses.  A watermark of the familiar is met with ambivalence when we are half way around the world.  But shouldn’t we welcome the familiar as this is where we come from, part of how we got here?  Do we shy away, acting as if we either do not see the familiar or understand it as not to rain on our exploration? 

The bus ride from Shimla to Dharamsala was long.  Fourteen hours to be exact including chai stops and two flat tires.  The darkness and the heat prevented me of bouncing back enough to properly search for a guesthouse for the night.  The first tout had me at “close, clean and cheap”.

He led the way with a flashlight which he shined on the bright cyan blue painted two story building which had a big white om on the door.  Inside, surprisingly, was a party like atmosphere at what I then learned to be only 8:00PM!  The common room area, which also sufficed as the dining area, was lively with six other foreign travellers, one of which was American wearing a sandalwood mala around his wrist.

“Tashi Delek!”  Ron had been in India almost a year now and in Dharamsala a good solid six months studying Tibetan language and Kalachakra practice.  There were still signs of his Portland image—spiked hair now a deep henna burgundy, piercings in the most out of the way places and a super hero series of tattoos on both arms and legs.  Studying Buddhism had to have mellowed him out for he was very polite and most helpful and not at all like his tough boy grunge look would lead you to belief.  “Chai?  Kingfisher?” Pause.  “I’ll join you!  A large Kingfisher, please, and 2 glasses.”  That was that. 

I usually do not hang out with fellow westerners because I believe that the locals have more reason to stereotype two foreigners who appear in cahoots together.  A single American woman travelling in India alone is so unfathomable by the Indians that I am sure to have a pure experience.   But tonight I welcomed a beer and conversation with someone familiar.  Ron had disappeared.  The Europeans had moved up to someone’s room to smoke ganga.  “I got you a room with a comfortable twin bed before someone else put dibs on it and you get stuck with the cot.  I’ve been here my entire stay so I have an in — rooms are clean and cheap—plus Tsering has adopted me, like family!”

“Asi es la vida!”  A toast to life.  “Ready to turn in?”, I ask, myself with my backpack and Ron with his books.  “Bus leaves for the top at 9:00AM.   I’ll show you around before my Tibetan class at the library.”  Sounds good to me.  The top was McLeod Ganj, the Tibetan community which I had come to visit.  “To breakfast at the top!”  A last toast and bottoms up.

I awake to the sounds of a ringing bell and mantra from Ron’s  puja.  He’s quite fluent in Sanskrit and Tibetan.   His studies are serving him well.    The bathroom is common so I force myself up, grab my toothbrush and towel and saunter down the hall to the washroom. The water’s icy cold.  I head to the café for tea to warm up but it’s like the Twilight Zone—you would never guess that there was so much activity the night before because it appeared that the only two people remaining in the hotel were Ron and me.

 “There you are, just in time, we have 10 minutes to spare and the bus does not wait.  This is the only bus uphill that you can depend on its time all day.  It gets slower each trip and nonexistent by afternoon.  Walking down is not a problem and even welcomed.  Hard to get any exercise in these parts with the terrain.”  Honk, honkity, honk.  “I take this every day, the bus driver knows me.”  “Good morning, my man, to the top!”

The bus begins its “I think I can” trip round and round ascending with each full circle.  Walking cannot be that bad, I think, as between the twists and turns of the road is my stomach doing a dance of its own.   Maybe that is the reason that breakfast is not a big deal, not even tea!  Only fifteen minutes and we are topside, myself, I’m sure white as a ghost.   Once out of the bus, I struck by how much this resembles Tibet. They don’t call this Little Lhasa for nothing!  After all, this is the closest place to free Tibet with the Tibetans political and spiritual leader, Dalai Lama.  

I follow Ron into “Mom’s”, the most crowded café on the street.  Mom’s is small, smells of sang and fresh Tibetan bread.   When I say crowded, I do not mean a traveller’s haunt, Mom’s is a real local tea shop.  Everything and everyone in Mom’s is Tibetan.  I wonder why it is not called “Amala’s”!   Chai is salt butter or sweet tea, bread is flatbread and lunch is tukpa or momos.  You eat what you are brought. 

I eye the shrine overhead across the room.   On the left side is a picture of Dalai Lama.  On the right side, is Donald Duck.  Wait a minute—Donald Duck?!   I ask Ron what’s up with the Dalai Lama/Donald Duck deal.  “The Tibetans have a great sense of humor.   They know nothing about America’s leadership here, they are busy trying to be free.   They only know that Donald Duck is a big deal in America, like the Dalai Lama is here.”    

Dalai Lama?  Donald Duck?  For that one moment I welcome the familiar, I welcome misconception and I get the joke!  I spend so much time travelling trying to explore what’s different that I forget serendipity.  Life is precious and the rest is what it is.