India: On Pushing Limits and Being Blessed by the Dalai Lama

In the summer of 2012 I went on a 5-week trip to India; my second trip out of Europe and the first trip I arranged all by myself. I have long wanted to write about my travels to India, but have struggled to condense everything that I experienced into one article. Travelling to India had a huge impact on my life and it was a very personal and introspective experience.

As part of my trip, I had arranged to join a three-week volunteering project in the Himalayas near Dharamsala. After a lot of research, I decided that a construction project for an under-funded school in the mountains sounded like a good fit. Given that I was still quite new to the whole backpacking thing, I figured that volunteering would be a good way to get to know people, experience some of the local culture and give me a ‘plan’ to follow. Still, I wanted to avoid the classic ‘voluntourism’ trip and was quite aware of the potentially adverse effects of many volunteering projects. Luckily, I came across FSL India, an organisation with great projects that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.

Visiting India was one of the best decisions I ever made. Not only did it sow seeds for my obsession with travel, but it challenged me and tested me in every way imaginable. Before I went to India I was told to brace myself for extreme poverty, social chaos, culture clash, food poisoning and trying nature. So many people told me that going to India was going to drastically change my perspective on many things. To be honest, India did have a huge effect on me, but not necessarily in the way that I expected. The thing with India is that it is a country of extremes. Travelling there, you are simultaneously faced with some of the most surreal, amazing and disturbing things you will ever see. For me, what had the biggest impact was the fact that India challenges you on every level.

I arrived at the airport in New Delhi and started my trip by being pulled aside at immigration to be interrogated for a good 15 minutes. I still don’t know why they chose me of all people, all I know is that they were very keen on making sure that I haven’t ever had any ties whatsoever to Pakistan. Luckily, my good friend Tosh met me at the airport and offered me a much warmer welcome. It is hard to describe the excitement I felt as I stepped out of the airport. Soon I would get to experience the city I had heard so much about.

It is almost impossible to describe New Delhi in a way that does the city justice. To put it simply: New Delhi is hot, it’s crowded, it’s chaotic, it’s polluted, it’s dirty, it’s riddled with poverty…. and at the same time it is absolutely brilliant. The food is amazing, the culture is fascinating, the people are kind and nothing is ordinary.

The first thing that struck me was the chaos. I have been to many chaotic countries since, but nothing even comes close to the traffic, crowds, noises, sights and smells that hit me when I first arrived in the Indian capital. The sheer amount of people is unfathomable, let alone their ‘make your own rules’ approach to traffic and queuing. The crazy thing is that there seems to be some sort of inexplicable order beneath all the chaos. The extreme poverty in the city did shock me, but more than by the poverty itself, I was shocked by how humble the people were. Coming from Europe I am used to the idea of class struggle, rivalry and bitterness. This was different in India, where people seemed to appreciate, or at least be at peace with, what little they had. The heat was by far the most difficult challenge in the city. I went to India exactly between the hot season and the monsoon season. This is a time when the least people travel to India as it is not only incredibly hot, but also incredibly humid. At times temperatures reached 50 C in the shad, which was truly unbearable. The second we stepped outside, we were drenched in sweat.

Luckily I managed to escape the extreme heat when I travelled to the Himalayas, but Delhi didn’t let me go without a fight when it left me waiting in the middle of nowhere for a 4 hour delayed bus that would take me on an 8 hour serpentine road up the mountains without air conditioning. In a quintessentially Indian moment, after 3 hours of wait, I called the bus company to ask whether my bus was coming. They gave me the driver’s number and told me to call him. To my disbelief, when I called the driver, a man standing 2 meters away from me picked up the phone. It turned out the driver was standing right beside me and was also waiting for the bus, with no clue as to when it might arrive and who was currently driving it. As if the delay wasn’t bad enough, the bus was crowded and hot. The worst moment in the journey was when the driver took a tight corner on the mountain road and the bus’ back wheel literally came off the road and went beyond the cliff where there was a several hundred meter drop. I did my best to contain my panic as most of the locals on the bus acted as if nothing gad happened.

Whilst allowing me to escape the heat and chaos of the capital, the Himalayas came with their own sets of challenges. The volunteering was a fantastic experience, as was meeting and interacting with Tibetan refugees in the town of McLeod Ganj. As a stoner’s paradise and a center for Tibetan Buddhism, McLeod Ganj was the perfect place to get away and introspect. Our three weeks of volunteering were followed by a 5-day trek through the Himalayas, where we climbed up to the ‘Snow Line’ at over 5,000 meters height. The trek was 50 km long, including intense climbs and up to 8 hours of trekking a day. Some nights we slept in the wide open and could see every star in the night’s sky.

The immensity of the Himalayas was humbling but also frightening and lonely at times. Our guide carried a gun due to the threat of bears and certain other wild animals. The trek itself was tough to say the least, but it was made a lot tougher by the fact that I had contracted a bacterial food poisoning the previous week. After 3 weeks, I had foolishly thought that I had managed to escape the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’. Unfortunately I was mistaken and had to go to hospital with the worst food poisoning I had ever had and was prescribed 6 different kinds of antibiotics. Together, the big trek and the food poisoning made me lose 18 kg in just 4 weeks, which again shows that India is a place of extremes.

The highlight of my trip was definitely attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in the great Tibetan temple of McLeod Ganj. My dad had told me that the town was the Dalai Lama’s adopted hometown and that every once in a while he does 3 days of meditation and teachings. As luck would have it, the teachings fell on the exact days that I was near McLeod Ganj doing volunteer work. I managed to convince the team leader to let me go and he suggested we all go for two days. The teachings are free but subject to intense security measures. In order to attend, you must get a ‘security pass’ from the local town council. The queue for the pass stretched multiple kilometers with people having travelled from around the world to attend the teachings. In an almost karmic turn of events, it turned out that our team leader had gone to school with the guy who handles the security passes, allowing us to avoid a whole day of queuing in the heat. Thank goodness!

The security for entering the temple during His Holiness’ teachings is insane. Not only were we not allowed to bring in our phones, but we had to open our mouths to prove we weren’t hiding blades and drink from our water to show that it wasn’t poisoned. Our phones were left with a couple of Indian men holding a cardboard box for less than 5 cents. Needless to say I was a bit concerned, but it all turned out fine in the end.

Attending the teachings was quite the experience. Security was high and the temple was filled with Buddhists and travellers from all corners of the world. We sat for hours on the temple floor, listening to live translations via little portable radios. After a few hours, a friend and I decided to explore the temple a little. After walking around once, we came upon a small passage under the staircase. Unknowingly, we followed it all the way to what seemed to be somewhat of a ‘backstage area’. We clearly weren’t supposed to be there, but we decided to join a small crowd of Tibetans who had crowded around the exit from the stage. My friend and I looked at each other and immediately realized that this was our best chance of getting close to His Holiness. The high security made it impossible for people to get closer than 10 meters from the stage, yet there we stood by the exit, now waiting for the chance to be up close and personal with the Dalai Lama himself.

Once again, my timing was ridiculously lucky, as only 10 minutes after we joined the small group of Tibetan pilgrims, the Dalai Lama exited the stage. The feeling was surreal…There I was, standing no more than one and a half meters from one of the greatest spiritual leaders in the world. He slowly turned towards us and gave each of us a ‘blessing’ of sorts. Blessings used to be done by a ritualistic exchanging of scarves, placing them around one another’s neck, however, Chinese assassination attempts had put an end to the tradition meaning that we had to settle for a humble wave. Still, the entire experience was out of this world. The next day we attended the teachings again, followed our little secret passage and once again received a blessing from His Holiness. Two blessings in one day and I still feel the positive karma to this day.

India is a crazy country to visit. It pushes your limits and often tests your patience, but it is a place where anything can happen. You never know what this mysterious country might have in store for you and that is what makes it one of the most exciting places to travel to in the world. The only thing I can recommend is to go there and find out for yourself. Like with all travels, the best things are usually unexpected and happen when you go with the flow.