Updated: Dec 7, 2021
After many hours, we are awakened from our naps by shouting, horn blowing, and the shuddering of the huge bus as it struggles to pass through the incredibly narrow main street of Dharamsala. It is dark already, we are nearly at our destination, but the way is blocked. Shouts everywhere, demands, negotiating with the shop keepers to move some of their wares, arguments with owners of the handful of cars and scooters to move their machines so the Westerners can get to their hotel. A small group of shaven-headed, maroon-robed monks smiles and nods, finding it all most amusing and offering advice to the driver.
Finally, at 8:30 PM we arrive at the Himalaya Queen Hotel and are greeted at the door by a man and woman in beautiful mountain garb. They paint our foreheads one by one with orange tilaks and garland us with necklaces of gold and silver tinsel and little squares of red cellophane. They sprinkle flower petals on our heads and lead us into the lobby, filled with dark Raj furniture of red velvet and mahogany, and marble floors covered with Kashmir rugs. Waiters bring in drinks—striped in layers of brown, orange and red in the tall glass. I sip carefully and the layers still do not mix. The top is an inch of Coca-Cola; the yellow-orange center is thick mango juice; the ruby liquid at the bottom a thick syrup flavored with rose water.
Doris and I are assigned room 204. We are led down marble stairs to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors, fitting into the mountain below the street. In our room, painted olive green, is a single fullsize bed, two broken stuffed chairs, 2 nightstands, and a TV. This bathroom has a hot water heater and shower! Such luxury, we think, until we discover that the toilet does not flush. They have, however, thoughtfully provided us with the requisite blue plastic bucket for emergencies just like this. Later we hear that our neighbor’s bathtub has a huge crack running down the middle, so we are quite pleased with our luxury suite.
Doris is cold. We wrap her in a blanket and I sit on her feet to warm them up. Then we go to explore the town and shop from makeshift tables set along the broken streets and in wooden shops lined up one after another along the main route while men follow us as we walk.
That evening the temple bells begin to ring, the Tibetan horns, long, low, primitive sounds, seemingly pulled out from deep in the earth’s center, drawing me in simply and surely. After five minutes, the small, high sounds of other horns join in, playing in a kind of mysterious melody, hypnotic, punctuated by the base sounds of the big horns and the brass calls of hand bells. Over all is the incessant hiss of the falling rain on the hills and streets, the leaves and shops and roads. The dogs bark, a workman hammers into wood in the back of the hotel, the birds hold noisy conference. The day folds its light in and slowly dusk, and then dark, makes its way across the mountain peaks.
Doris, my dear friend by now, is delighted with her afternoon shopping and lines up her purchases for me to inspect: statues of the Buddha and of the dancing elephant-headed God, Ganesh; silk purses, necklaces of silver and exotic beads; Tibetan finger cymbals, Kashmiri shawls, postcards from Lhasa, Tibet; books by the Dalai Lama. We check each piece again and again, admiring her cleverness and good taste, planning where everything shall go and to whom.
The sky is charcoal after the glorious sunset. Streaks of lightening blaze across the dark gray of the mountains. The procession of maroon-robed monks has wound down within the temple walls, and our patient hotel staff waits on the roof for our group. Earlier they had carried all the tables, the mahogany stuffed armchairs, the linens and serving tables up to the large cement roof for a special evening. Now they begin serving us a 7-course meal while bright robed dancers enter the space, arranging themselves amidst the jingle of their ankle bracelets and necklaces. The Karna musicians, on a pink square of carpet, begin to play and the sweet sounds of mountain flute and drums fills the air. Local folk dancers have come to entertain us. For the next 90 minutes they whirl and jump and intrigue with graceful movements of arms, hands, and bare feet on the cement floor, their exotic costumes a blur of red and pink, silver and white. They seem tireless—dark eyes flashing, beckoning to each other, hands caressing the air, torsos swaying like snakes, the music tempo faster and faster. When at last they end the program, we are humbled to find the entire troop walking around the roof, shaking our hands, bowing to us, thanking us for letting them dance for us!
Our table talks about folk dances of the world and the young men are chagrinned to realize that America, as a country, has none. We discuss the cultures that make us a country—the Poles, the Germans, the Russians, the Irish, the Scots, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Native American, the African, the Philippines, the Spanish, the Mexican, the Japanese—all have their folk music and dance. Yet none of them have become known as “American dance.”
“Perhaps ours is rock and roll?” I ask, and am stunned to hear Ian, the tall medical student reply: “Oh no, that all came from the Britain with the Beatles.” How could he possibly think that? I launch into an explanation of how Rock and Roll, Jazz, the Blues are all a direct lift from Black music, African rhythms evolved by American slaves, richly embroidered by Black musicians over the decades in Southern barns, roadside shacks in the Black sectors, copied by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. I’m a bit hurt that the arrogant young men will not take it in.
“I don’t believe that at all,” one says. “I just can’t believe that.”
“No, the Beatles discovered Rock & Roll!” the first young man repeats angrily.
I ask them to just check it out, read some history of music before deciding upon their belief system. But the ugly head of white male prejudice and privilege has been raised and I’m shocked by its presence here, of all places, and by the vehemence with which it is tossed out on the table like a gauntlet for me to pick up.
“I don’t know where you’re coming from, Lady, but American music is definitely not from the Blacks.”
If such ignorance and prejudice is the case with music and culture, then what of the case with spirituality? Why have these men come on this trip? They probably think they know all about spirituality too.
I force my return of attention to the beauty of the final dance. It begins slowly and ends with a great flourish of jumps and catches and deep bows. The last of the dancers follows the troop down the stairs but first he bows his head over folded hands and softly says “Namaste, I recognize and bow to God in you.”
What God does he mean, and what God would these young, scientific men think he means? Is the God within us Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian? Is divinity brown or black or yellow or white? The question had always seemed utterly ridiculous and superfluous until this evening.
The hundreds of years of British occupation, domination, rape of the land, theft of its treasures, destruction of the self-esteem of millions, the brutal slaughter of thousands came strongly to my mind and heart. The forcing of Western ways and language, the insistence that the Christian God was the real one as they laughed at the natives brought anger to me again. How could the Indians be so sweet and generous to us?
That night in my room I read a passage from Pearl S. Buck in Come, My Beloved and note that it still applies: “He was touched, as he so often was, by the warmth and humanity of an Indian. There was no distance to overcome, the least kindness overwhelmed these people, the most habitual gentleness was enough to win their adoration. They were ready to love. Yet they were not childish. It was simply that they had lived so long and in such misery that their hearts were worn bare and the nerves quivered.”
Dalai Lama’s Residence
This morning our group treks down the hill, turns left, and climbs up again to the home of Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet. He lives in exile on the beautiful piece of mountain property given him by the Indian government. There is a large temple, bookstore, library, kitchens, monks housing, and the residence and offices of the Dalai Lama behind imposing gates and armed guards.
At the temple the monks sway right and left chanting the words in a low rumble, like the sound track of grumbling peasants in an old film. One monk leads the prayer, his voice clear over a microphone, his hand defining the count with short, swift chops.
The huge, empty throne for the Dalai Lama is covered with yellow gold cloth, behind it richly carved tables holding offerings, the huge golden face of the Buddha statue, cased in glass, smiles down at the hundreds of worshippers.
A few of us go to the temple bookstore and find a treasure of volumes. I find a book titled Meeting with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America and note that it is similar to the two I put together myself using women of all traditions, not one. Roshi Gesshin Prabhasa Dharma writes: “To engage in religious practice means to go home, to return to original nature. Wisdom is innate, not distant from ourselves. It’s what we are. That is the dharma, the process. Identifying with the process, you see there is no birth or death.”
The next day a few of us walk down the hill to the Hindu part of town and then out to the countryside. Nearby is a Christian church called St. John’s in the Wilderness. It is quiet sweet, dark, soft, moss trying to cover the stone walls and roof and wrapped around with tall trees. A beautiful spot. Inside is still and empty and after a short meditation, I read all the wall plaques to the British soldiers who built the church and are buried in the graveyard next door. As I sat in the quiet, I thought about churches and temples and mosques, and synagogues. The idea sprang to mind that we Westerns like our places of worship to be quiet and serene, in great contrast to the Eastern temples, full of life, adventure, loud praying, canned music, colored lights, and food. After awhile a new thought came up: ours are empty.
That evening Doris rescues me from the largest spider of my life walking two inches from my hand. Is someone always rescuing me from what is thoroughly unpleasant: from the unknown?
On Thursday we decided to walk up to the Hindu temple in the village of Bhagsu Nag. The morning was overcast but our steps were light as we joked our way up the mountain side, dodging sheep and goats. I stopped to mentally sort them out: “sheep on my right side, goats on my left,” and am delighted when they more and appear to follow my mental command perfectly. We snap pictures and go on. It starts to drizzle; we walk faster. It began to pour; we ran to a stone, 3-sided hut with a wooden roof up the road. Inside we huddled together, working out a plan. Half the group decided to go back to the hotel, the rest of us waited for a lull and then continued up the hill. I broke out my apple purloined from the supper table last night and cut it into sections with my Swiss army knife. A middle-aged Indian couple with no English was pleased to share half of it; a few of us munched on the rest. As we passed the temple, a great surge of water was flowing down the steep sets of steps to its main floor, not allowing us to enter.
The Falls Encounter
A few of us decide to leave the temple for later, wishing to see the surrounding mountains first. We walk straight ahead to the Bhagsu Cafe, already filling with our friends, but see another sign that reads "To the Falls" followed by a large red arrow. One of the young men who left earlier in the day is just returning from that direction. "Did you go to the falls?" we ask him.
"Well, not quite. But I walked almost there. It's not far, only about 100 feet."
That sounded good and so we decided to give it a go before the rain began again. Doris and I were joined by Michael and Horst, an older German man from Chicago. We followed the sign behind a stone house and over some steps, to watch it twist away into the distance. It did not seem like 100 feet to me, nor to Doris, but we continued on, lured by the beauty of the mountains looming up all around us. The path we walked on was covered small with pieces of slate, some flat, some broken into gravel by pilgrim's feet. The waterfall was full of awe—it fell down white and fast and straight from the center of two peaks, falling deep into the valley below us and joining the river that ran along the valley to our right. We passed a few natives going in to their homes, some driving sheep before them. We stepped aside to let the animals pass on the narrow path and I noticed the herders looked curiously at us and then up at the sky, saying nothing. "Should we turn around?” I ask. "Nah! it probably looks farther than it is, and what's a little rain anyway?"
So we follow along: first Doris, walking with a sure, even step, then me, then Michael and Horst coming up the rear. When the climb became steep, we just breathed harder; when the slate slid on the path, causing our steps to falter we yelled "be careful" to each other and continued on. We climbed up a rather difficult section in giant steps, pushing the one before us and pulling up the last.
Now we were on a narrow rim of path seemingly carved into the mountainside. Across the river drop in front of us, three men chopped slate on the other mountain. We could just make them out in their red wool caps and green boots. Suddenly, above the falls we saw a flash of lightning and the ground beneath us, the mountain next to us, seemed to rumble with a terrible shake as the air split apart with a mighty crash of thunder. We fell against the rock wall, grasping at anything protruding. The sound was so loud I could not hear Doris who turned to say something to me, her eyes big in horror and surprise. She continued on up the path to a little section under a rock overhang. Holding out her hand to me, she beckoned me to follow. I called to Michael and Horst and we inched forward, as the sky opened and buckets of rain fell down on us.
We huddled together under the narrow overhang deciding what to do next. "Should we go on?"
"Well we're only a short distance away."
"We can't go back now. We'll never make it back on that slippery road."
We looked across the chasm for the workers, but they were no longer on the mountain side. We were alone in the storm. Another mighty crash of thunder seemed to envelope us. I had never heard such a crash of sound, nor felt its reverberations in the rock and earth and sky as this. It was other-worldly. It was terribly frightening. My old fear of thunderstorms rose up like bile in my throat. My hands began to shake and I could not think. We were trapped out on a ledge of slate in a thunderstorm in the Himalayas!
Doris looked at me with big eyes, "Are you afraid?” she asked.
"Yes. I hate storms. I don't know what to do." I could feel the panic in my own voice. My face was so wet with rain that I did not fear that she would see the tears falling down my cheeks. I turned to Michael. He squatted down, looking like a ghost, talking about his fear of heights. He would not move, neither to come closer nor to go back the other way. He was paralyzed. I looked past him to Horst, pulling his jacket around his neck, hands a bit unsure. "Horst," I shouted, "are you scared?"
"Ya." came back the reply.
Michael said, "Let's stay here until it is over. It's the safest place." But after he said that, a crash of lightning hit the side of the mountain across the way causing an avalanche of slate to slide down the mountainside and crash noisily into the chasm below.
"Oh my God!" said Doris. "We have to get out of here. We are sitting under slate. We could be killed if the lightning hits this side."
We knew she was right, but we were all paralyzed with fear. OK, I thought. We have to do something. Get moving, Theresa. If you are meant to die on this mountain, you will die. If you have work to do in this life, you will live. Get going. So I stood up carefully, saying “Doris is right. Let’s go now.”
Doris passed carefully in front of me. "I'll lead the way down," she said. Slowly, carefully, she squeezed past Michael and Horst. I followed her, pulling Michael by the hand. Horst did not want to move, but seeing us leave, he began to follow. The rain fell incessantly, we shivered with the coolness and with fear. Step by step we managed to wind down the narrow path, sliding on the slate as it moved beneath our feet, grabbing at the rock wall to steady ourselves. Ahead was the drop that required assistance on the way up. I noticed right away that Doris took a different way down than up. She carefully made her way down the mud outcropping, jumping the last few feet over the drop to the path below. I tried to follow in her steps but my legs were not quite long enough. I could not reach the rock where she stepped and stood balancing on a projecting sheet of slate over the open drop. If I fell here, I could fall down the drop, sliding down the slate wall far into the rocks below.
Before me on the left was a small branch growing sideways out of the muddy ground. My first instinct was to grab it, but I remembered being told never to grab at branches while rock climbing because often they will pull right out. My hands felt along the wet rocks, trying to find a steady handle to hold on to, but they all seemed to pull out in my hands. As if he were standing next to me, I heard my teacher's voice say, "Grab the branch." I looked around, confused. Where was he? No, I should not grab a branch while climbing. Again the voice commanded, louder, clearer, "Grab the branch now!" I reached out, grabbed the branch with my left hand just as the slate plate under my feet shifted in the mud and crashed unto the sharp rocks below. I threw my body forward, landing on the footing Doris had made. I was shaking as I took the next steps, looking back to see both men step over the chasm, helping each other to the rock below.
The way was easier now, flatter and a little wider. As we made our way around the next mountain, a black cow with wild, frightened eyes came toward us. In my gut I understood her fear. Halfway between us was a small shelter underneath the rock overhang. We all made for that spot. Doris was there, the cow and I entered at the same time. Standing on tiny rock protrusions on the wall were three little kids, black and white, hiding from the storm. We spoke to the animals, trying to calm the cow while the men came round the curve to join us. So relieved was I that we were on safer ground, I pulled out my camera, telling the animals I would take their picture, and recording the moment on film. Then I patted the cow and made my way carefully around her rump to join Doris on the way down the hill.
We slipped and slid the rest of the way to the little village, arriving in the pouring rain at the door of the cafe. We four threw our arms around each other, stunned that we were safely off the mountain, happy to be together, admitting now how very frightened we had been.
The cafe was filled with much of our group, some Indians, and the proprietors who began to question, "Where did you come from? The Falls? Oh my God! You could have been killed! You could have been killed! That was the monsoon. Never have we had the monsoon this late. It is very, very dangerous on the mountain. You could have been killed!"
We became instant celebrities. Someone bought us hot tea. The proprietor gave us slices of his best bakery bread with raisins. The Indian men came to ask in broken English what it was like on the mountain. "Did anyone fall? Did lightning strike?" I began to shake so badly I had to sit down on a wooden bench. The fact that I was directly beneath the pouring leak in the roof did not phase me, drenched to the bone as I was. We four stood together for innumerable photos and bragged of our exploits until we all ran, four by four through the downpour, across the temple courtyard, across the little bridge, now crossing a torrent of water, past the little shops in muddy water ankle deep to the little chugging taxis sent by our guide from the hotel to rescue us and bring us home.
Back in our room after a warm shower and dry clothes, Doris and I lay on our bed. We could talk of nothing other than our experience at the falls. I thanked my teacher for guiding me through the treacherous jump and old Doris we would have died without her bravery. "No kidding!" said Doris. "That was something!" I looked out the window to the balcony. The rain was just starting to stop and a little black spider crawled along the terrace rail.
Saturday found Doris and me sitting in the Bhagsu Cafe, at the table by the window, drinking a foamy cup of Indian cappuccino. It tastes like chocolate and sugar. Doris and I made the trek up the hill again, partially to set old demons to rest, partially to find a quiet place away from the group. We went to the temple we missed on Thursday, surprising the priest out of his afternoon nap. He showed us the statue of a snake in the inner temple and gave us rose petals and candy as prasad. God, in India, always gives gifts. The temple was floored in white marble, statues of the deities in cases around the courtyard. I am drawn to the inner courtyard. Doris wants to wait outside with her book. I find the empty dirt-floored room in the back with 3 shiva lingams and worship in the silence there. Strange, strong power. Quiet, other-worldly.
The young Indian woman who owns the cafe with her husband brought her children to meet us (“Bow to Auntie, now”) and they do, hands folded together, eyes beaming up at me in eagerness, whispering “Namaste” and giggling like children everywhere. We encourage the two-year-old to explore our pockets and she pulls out a small coin, delighted with the find.
I walk out of the café and all around me the water is gurgling down the mountain side, filling a large reservoir and continuing on its way down to the plains. Off to my right is the huge waterfall I visited on Thursday; up the hill towards the town is the ‘rock water’ once again a laughing little brook. All is peace and beauty and gentleness. The temple rings its bell as the sun inches its way down behind the mountains.
We wave goodbye to our hosts in the cafe and wind our way down, and then up, to our hotel. We walked through the muddy road. At the peak we turned to see the falls. The gray clouds parted and a bright light shown over a single mountain peak above the valley, forming a perfect upward pointed triangle.
Today is a shopping day with Doris at the Hunky Dory Shop in Dharamsala. She must buy a gift for Vick, her friend in Miami. She has been planning this trip and talking about it for a long time. First of all, we must decide what she will buy. This is a long process indeed. We start a little ritual of questions:
“How about a Tibetan statue, Doris?” I ask.
“No way!” she answers. “Are you kidding? He would hate it.”
“OK. What about one of these shirts?”
“No. He would never wear a shirt from here.”
“Well, here are some nice handmade wallets . . .”
“No. He won’t use it.”
“He doesn’t read.”
“An embroidered backpack?”
“Are you kidding?”
“How about a shawl?”
“Absolutely not! No way.”
“Folk pants? These are nice.”
“Nope. He won’t wear them.”
“Ok, so what else is there?”
“Well,” Doris said thoughtfully, “let me think about it.”
Three days later we go through the ritual again. Afterwards Doris informs me that Vick wants absolutely nothing. He told me if I buy him anything, he’ll give it back. He wants nothing. So I put Vick’s gift out of my mind. That was a mistake.
The next day we have an extra hour and go shopping again. As we walk through the streets, delighting in what we see, Doris asks, “Do you think I should get something for Vick?”
“Well, I thought you said he wanted nothing.”
“Do you think I am so cheap? I thought you would help me, no?”
“I want to be helpful, but I’m at a loss. I still think he would be pleased to know you thought of him on your trip and brought him a gift, no matter what it is.”
“I think so, too. I think I’ll get him something; after all he is taking care of my house and dogs.”
So Vick comes back to the top of our agenda and the ritual of suggestions and rejections is repeated amidst exclamations of “No way!” and “Are you kidding?” every few steps. We look at men’s clothes in every shop. Nothing is good enough for Vick. Back at the hotel Doris says,
“I think I should get him a flannel shirt. One of those plaid ones. What do you think?”
Of course I’ve never met Vick and know nothing about him (except that he is taking care of her dogs), but I want to be helpful so I answer that it sounds like the best idea so far.
“What about color?” I ask. That was another mistake. The color debate goes on for the next 24 hours, Doris finally insisting that black and red plaid is the one she wants for Vick.
On our last day in Dharamsala, we go shopping for the shirt. We head straight for the clothes shops and in each one ask for men’s black and red plaid shirts. After half an hour we finally find a shop that has a black and red plaid flannel shirt, even in the right size! I can’t believe we finally found it. But Doris wasn’t finished yet.
“Do you have this in other colors?” she asks.
I stand back astounded but watch while boxes are pulled out from under counters and back rooms. Plastic bags are scattered, paper is ripped open, and a green and blue plaid shirt is finally found and offered up. Doris looks it over carefully. “Well, it’s not labeled XL,” she says. “Vick needs XL for sure.”
“Measure it against the other,” I suggest.
So tape measures are searched out, arm lengths are computed, shirt yokes laid side by side. This done, we find both shirts to be exactly the same size, just as the shop proprietor told us 20 minutes earlier. “Well, which color do you think I should get?” she demands.
“I like the black and red,” I timidly offer.
“Well, I think the black and red is heavier. It doesn’t get cold in Miami!”
“OK, then get the green one.”
“I don’t like Vick in green. He’ll never wear it.”
“Well then, buy the black and red and he’ll wear it in the winter.”
“Hmm, green is really his color.”
“Right. Let’s get the green.”
“Let me think about it. I really don’t like Vick in green.”
Doris carries the green shirt out into the light. she turns it front to back, lays it against her chest, one hand on her hip. She sets it down on the counter and carries the black shirt outside. The proprietor and I speak of Tibet and New York, waiting for the final revelation. I’m nervous as anything. I don’t think I can spend my entire last afternoon shopping for Vick. I watch Doris carefully. “I think I like Vick in green more than black. I’ll take this one,” and she hands over the green shirt.
The money is counted out and we leave the shop, Doris literally skipping up the road, so pleased with the purchase. “This is great. Now we’re all set. I have everything done now. This is a terrific shirt, no? Vick will love it. He really looks good in green. I had to buy him something, right? Oh yes, this is perfect, just perfect. Now we’re all set.”
Back in our room, we collapse on the chairs and decide on a cup of tea before lunch. But first, Doris takes out the shirt again and holds it up to the light on the terrace.
“This is a great shirt for Vick,” she says. “Are you kidding? He will wear this!”
I close my eyes and drift away to safety.