Within two hours of arriving in Dharamsala I had booked into what seemed to be the only available room in town – a depressing pigsty, to be honest – and was sitting in a café on the outskirts of town listening to an astoundingly posh English accent spout the following:
'You know John Doe1? Well I definitely could have slept with him, you know. I was working in York at the Opera House, doing the Merchant of Venice, OK, and we just developed a kind of a connection, like. You know, he's not like an old man; he's really young at heart. Like once, yeah, he took me out in his convertible Mercedes, pulled out a spliff and I thought OK! That's cool! He said to me: "I would like to have sex with you", but there was no pressure, like, and it was fine with him that I didn't want to. He phoned me all the time... yeah, completely... but he wanted to go this way and I wanted to go that, I just wasn't interested, you know. But he's a very attractive man, a very charming man, yeah.
'Anyway are we going to get more spliff, or should we detox?'
The conversation went on to cover the actress' career, her incredible vanity and her disparaging comments about all other actresses of stage and television. To witness such a display of self-love in a place devoted to the destruction of the ego and the proliferation of universal compassion was not just depressing, it confirmed what I'd been told to expect.
I had been warned by Paul, a clued-up and wonderfully cynical Aussie I'd met in Amritsar, that Dharamsala was a traveller hell, but I didn't realise it extended to include John Doe's harem. Everywhere I went were Americans following in the footsteps of Richard Gere and looking for enlightenment2, and hippies wandering around with bare torsos (an offensive thing to do in India, let alone Tibetan India), vomit-coloured baggy trousers and idiot accessories. Conversations were dotted with the yuppie mantra of 'Oh God, really' and continued with discussions of the wonderful properties of Buddhism and the peacefulness of meditation. Nobody seemed to be caught up in the samsara of suffering here, but everyone was looking for salvation.
Talk about Tibet Inc.: Dharamsala is a total sell-out. I suppose it's not Dharamsala's fault, it's an obvious consequence of the trendy tourist invasion. One thing was certain: Dharamsala was about as far from India as I could imagine, with its combination of hill station climate, beautiful green mountains, Tibetan locals and tourist-pandering restaurants, hotels and shops. Where was the madness of India, the craziness that challenges your values, the insanity that makes the whole Indian travel experience a joy? They went the same way as Nepalese culture and Thai pride, down the tubes, and all the time young globetrotters were landing in Dharamsala, convinced that they were experiencing something genuine.
Take Contact, the local community newsletter. In its issue (Issue 5, Volume 1) was the following piece (I have left in all spelling mistakes and grammatical niceties):
Take a piece of Dharamshala with you
Now that you have visited this hilly region, so called 'Little Lhasa', capital of Tibetan diaspora, you have felt the mountains and the trees, cold rivulets of Bhagsunath, the chantings of the monks, the temples, the silent images of Buddhas, chupas and apron clad people – a society on the verge transformation.
Your experience – your heart ensconsed in a bud, has loosened to a flower. You have deciphered the serene notes of the mountains and the clouds. Let not the memory fade away once back at your material world. Take along with you the audio and visual of the world you have just experienced. In your daily strife, do remember us, play the cassettes and feel the difference. You are not all alone...
[List of tapes and videos deleted]
Nice, eh: the genuine Tibetan experience in your living room, complete with stereo sound and Dolby noise reduction. Then again, this was from the same newsletter that had an article on 'elf immolation', and contained the following new-age bullshit in an article entitled 'Healing in Dharamsala' by the delightfully named Fleur Wood: 'Looking for a spot of Spontaneous Healing, Reiki, Aura Cleansing or Past Life Therapy? Well, you've come to the right town.' My stomach began to sink.
Escape to Bhagsu
Despite this image, I had decided to tackle Dharamsala for two reasons. First, I'd had enough of hot weather, the last cool winds I remembered being those of Darjeeling; and second, I thought it would be interesting to see just how idiotic westerners could be: being about to immerse myself back into the West, I figured it would be instructive and helpful to see if I could acclimatise myself back into western values. Besides, being a sarcastic bastard at heart, I rather thought I would enjoy hearing Yanks and Poms harp on about finding The Truth™.
What a shame that I couldn't take it. Instead of being able to sit back and just laugh at all the pretension, it drove me mad. These people were incredible. It was as if all the ashram arseholes had decided to descend on Dharamsala, but even the weirdest casualties I'd met in the rest of India weren't as pathetic as these Buddhist 'dudes', if only because someone who sticks themselves into a meditation programme for weeks in the middle of nowhere is sincere. I suspected the Dharamsala crowd were confusing sincerity with celebrity.
Luckily I managed to get out of Dharamsala and find a room in a local family's house in the nearby village of Bhagsu, and with its rustic simplicities, candle-lit bedrooms and genuine peace and quiet I felt relatively removed from the serious business of posing going on in town. I wanted to spend time here, but even one night in Dharamsala3 itself was too much.
On the other hand, the further out you go, the further out the people become, and this can be even more disturbing: plastic ideals and trendy causes are one thing, but the real long-termers are possibly the most disturbing aspect of the whole sham. It worried me, especially, when I found a mirror: there I was, a long-haired beardy-weirdy, and I realised that if I met myself on the street, I'd assume I was a far-out space cadet hippy. But how can I emphasise the difference between me and some other long-termers I met in Dharamsala?
People stay in Dharamsala for weeks and often months. This is not only a result of the large number of monasteries around, but also of the easy availability of marijuana, and as a result there are quite a few people around who have lost their sense of reality. Now I'm the first to support the theory that reality is a fairly subjective concept, based more on our personal and societal value systems than a concrete specific, but on the other hand it's not hard to tell when someone has lost a part of their mind to drug abuse. In Bhagsu there were plenty of casualties.
Very, Very Scary
The scariest was an English woman of 32 who was staying opposite me in my first village home: she was the main reason for my scooting further up the hill to find another farm cottage to hang out in. Normally sociable and interesting (if a little full of her own self-importance), Keeleigh proudly told me that she had been stoned every single day for eight years, and couldn't remember a day she hadn't spent smoking. As she puffed on her mixed opium-hashish joint, she changed from docile socialiser to agent provocateur. Nothing I did or said was acceptable: the fact that she had an incredible hatred of journalists and computers only managed to fuel her tangential rants against the modern world4. At one stage she was trying to explain how evil computers were and how disgusting it was that people used them to communicate with each other, but I was adamant that not only are computers simply a communication medium, but they have created a new arena of language and semantics with their lack of face-to-face contact, lack of sarcasm and tonal operators, and an almost forced use of semantics over implied contextual meaning. She wasn't having any of it.
'Look,' I said, 'you're reading this magazine and it's just another communication medium. The writer is communicating things to you by printing them on paper: it's just dead wood.'
She looked at me with the sort of look one might reserve for convicted rapists or child abusers caught in the act: sheer hatred. 'There is no such thing as just dead wood,' she snarled. 'When I see wood, it is never dead, even if it is chopped down. Wood has an energy, an aura that can never die.'
This tangent was getting somewhat off the subject, but that was a characteristic of talking to Keeleigh: she had no concept of conventional argument, hardly surprising when you consider that drugs destroy the whole concept of convention. I failed to mention that she'd managed to burn quite a bit of 'aura' in the fire that she'd used to make her chai, but instead tried to pull the thread back to the original argument.
'Fair enough,' I lied, 'but don't you see a computer is just a means of communicating? If you had been alive at the time of Caxton's printing press, would you have been declaring it was heresy? Or would you approve of the ability to spread a message to the whole world?'
The look returned. 'I cannot put my mind into that situation,' she claimed. 'How can I answer that?' And turning back to her copy of Cosmopolitan she started to read the picture captions. I settled back into blissful apathy until a scream shattered the serenity.
'Unbelievable! Just not now!' yelled Keeleigh, turning to her friend Shayna and throwing her Cosmo onto the ground. She stomped off holding her head as if the evil nature of the whole world had been revealed to her. I glanced at the magazine: in an article on men dating women, drugging them, taking them home and raping them while they're under the influence, was a caption talking about a man convicted for aiding and abetting such a rapist by procuring the drugs for him. He had learned how to create a suitable drug cocktail on the Internet, hence Keeleigh's outburst.
When I saw Keeleigh again she had come down: at least, she was back to a relative normalcy. But it was too much: a symptom of Dharamsala and the long and winding road, Keeleigh represented everything I loathe about the hippy movement. I support the liberal idealism; I enjoy the personal freedom preached by the dropouts; I think it's good to explore religions, philosophies and your own place in your own universe; but taking too many drugs is just dumb, because you lose everything you wanted to preserve. And if there's a magnet for the fuckwits of the long-term trail, it's places like Dharamsala.
It's all a bit depressing. The majority of tourists in Dharamsala are either short-termers looking for the conveniently packaged spiritual-solution-cum-world-saving formula5, or they're long-termers who have stayed put for too long and have begun to lose the point. I met people who had only been to Goa, Manali and Dharamsala, even after months in India. I marvelled at their staying power, before realising that a joint for breakfast makes such a life almost inevitable. How hollow.
Rain Stops Play
The monsoon finally caught up with me in Dharamsala. Wandering through the lush fields and down the Tibetan streets of McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu, the heavens would open with no warning and throw down water at a rate only unsurprising to those who go through such torrents every year. Clouds rolled in on my farmhouse, and every afternoon and evening I would retire to a safe haven to read, write and dream of going home.
I had originally planned to explore the hills round the luscious valleys, but India's varied cornucopia of intestinal inhabitants struck one last time: giardia gas suddenly appeared, I chugged down some Tinizadole, and settled in for my body to recover, a difficult proposition when the weather's cold and wet, the shower is freezing and the bed constantly damp. I slipped into the apathetic mode of the truly relaxed and did precious little except eat, sleep and socialise with friends from various places on the trail whom I bumped into unexpectedly: this was my main reason for hitting the hills in the first place, after all.
It doesn't make for a very interesting read, though, and soon enough I was heading downhill to Delhi.
1 I've changed the name to avoid libelling the man in question. The person being referred to was a successful pop singer from the late 1950s/early 1960s, and that's all I'm going to say...
2 Be honest: if you can't find enlightenment in the USA you're not going to find it in the cafés of Dharamsala, are you?
3 The suburb where everyone stays is called McLeod Ganj, and is separate from Dharamsala itself. It's well named: if there's one thing McLeod Ganj is full of it's clouds of ganja.
4 One might assume that for one such as me who avidly worships the God of Sarcasm this was a perfect opportunity for me to jump in there and mercilessly take the piss out of Keeleigh's addled mind. Unfortunately there was nobody around to laugh along with me: that's when it gets scary, being stuck with a stoner who doesn't realise she's totally lost the plot.
5 Perhaps the seekers should heed the following section from Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha:
'When someone is seeking,' said Siddhartha, 'it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.'