Just making it to Manali was enough of an accomplishment that I wasn’t interested in more exploring. I wanted a hotel with hot water and internet and decent restaurants, with more than Chana Masala and Mo-mos.
Manali met all these requirements, but just barely. The Vashisht area, near Anu’s shop is like a high altitude version of the Venice boardwalk. Fun to visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay there.
After hanging with Anu, spending the night at a $15 hotel, and doing my best to dry out the boots I was ready for one last day of riding. The road from Manali to Mandi to Dharamsala is really spectacular. Not like the severe snow covered peaks that we had been riding, but like lush river valleys spotted with small Indian villages. There were plenty of Yaks and goats in the road, and buses and trucks competing to drive the most erratically, and weird choke points where a road they consider a highway gets diverted through the downtown area of a small town. But all in all it was a nice and mellow 6 hour ride.
Arriving in Dharamsala in the afternoon was a little difficult. I was unaware that the month of June is peak tourist season for the town, and that there was a Buddhism conference involving the 4 main groups of Indian Buddhism. Also it was the Dalai Lamas birthday. I was hoping for a nice quiet town, with nothing much happening and nothing going on after 7 pm. But it didn’t work out that way. It was basically Spring Break for Buddhists. They were everywhere. Luckily I had booked a room in advance at the Pema Thang hotel, in the center of town, and I was on a motorcycle, and by now was thoroughly accustomed to riding in India. The last 10 miles of road were bumper to bumper traffic, each car creeping along when the car in front would scoot up. Around each turn I was expecting to see an accident or road construction, but it just kept going and I just kept passing them all, up the center of the road.
Dharamsala is actually an area of several different towns, but the main one, where the DL lives, is called Mcleod Ganj. It’s a tiny little town built on the peak of a mountain, the only room to expand is vertically, if youre ok with building on the side of a cliff. There is one road in and all those cars were going there. Every one of them was heading for a strip of town about the size of a large car dealership. But without parking.
Once I had parked the bike around the back of the hotel it stayed there for the rest of my time in India. I could have taken it out to explore some amazing temples and villages, but the chaos in town was too overwhelming. I would generally head out early, before the crowds built up, and then get back to the hotel and hide for the rest of the day. Then I would venture out again at night to find dinner, but that rarely worked out well. The food was amazing, but all the restaurants were so overwhelmed that they were lucky just to keep up. It is pretty cool to join random folk at a table, because that is the only chair available, and have the other chairs rotate with monks, Sikhs, Indian tourists, European tourists and even a couple of Americans occasionally.
The two highlights of Dharamsala were the Dalai Lamas 80th birthday and a lecture from a monk who’s name I couldn’t pronounce, in a language I didn’t understand. The DL’s birthday was like a Van Halen show in a church built by Escher. There was the inner temple, a small temple in an upper courtyard, where the DL was hanging out listening to old monks, wearing silly hats, scream stuff in Tibetan while an endless line of monks, diplomats and Bollywood stars waited to give him the gift and a high five for being so awesome. The prime seating was on the ground in the upper courtyard, and it was filled with monks that had clearly camped out overnight to get such a sweet spot. The outer, or lower courtyard was filled with the slacker monks and expats that were somehow involved with this Buddhism thing. There were thousands. All the other weird little extensions and inexplicable areas were also filled to the brim. There was basically a conga line of people that were all looking for a place to sit. We would make it past the metal detectors and the pat down, and then follow the line of folks making their way up the stairs to the courtyard. It was so crowded that you couldn’t see more than about 20 feet and had no idea where you were actually headed, but the line would keep on creeping along. I noticed another line of monks that seemed to be making more progress than the line of the lost, which I was in, so I jumped over there. I wasn’t wearing red robes, but I was rocking a similar hair style, and I don’t think anyone really cared anyway. That fast moving line bypassed all the confused masses and deposited me between the velvet ropes that were being used to create a little distance between the crowds and the DL in his inner temple. I suppose I looked like I knew what I was doing, so the military guards didn’t stop and arrest me. I managed to get all the way up to the entrance of the inner temple, and see the Dalai Lama sitting there in red and yellow, smiling like he hadn’t been doing this for 5 hours already. I could have tried jumping into the line of folks who were getting to see him up close, but that would really have been a dick move. Those folks were all there for a reason, and they had probably earned the right to be there, and they had gifts. I had none of that, and my dream of giving the DL a high five didn’t really justify me forcing my way in there. I suppose I had found a line I wouldn’t cross.
Cameras and phones were not allowed in the Temple, so I downloaded photos from the interwebs so you could see part of the slacker section.
The next day I was invited to a lecture. A friend of a friend has been living in Dharamsala for the last 10 years and studying Buddhism. I looked him up and he suggested I come check it out. It was by a monk who’s name I cant remember, and couldn’t pronounce. But it began with a soft G….. The topic was the Two Truths, and it was interpreted by the first official female monk, a woman named Kelsang. Her native language wasn’t English, but she did an amazing job of explaining to us what this guy was talking about. For two and a half hours he muttered in Tibetan in a manner that was similar to reciting scripture. He would mutter for a couple of minutes, then she would confirm that she understood what he was saying in Tibetan, and then she would break it down for us.
He was reciting the writings that described the different ancient Buddhist schools and their different interpretations of the Two Truths, if I got it right it basically goes like this.
Theres the Ultimate Truth, but that can only be found in Emptiness, which is the idea that nothing exists, except in relation to something, or anything else. Then there’s Relative Truth, which is what we think we see and experience. Within Relative Truth there are real and unreal truths. A table is an unreal Relative Truth, because when you deconstruct it, it ceases to be a table, it’s just smashed wood. Water is a real Relative Truth, because when you break it down its still water.
But then Kelsang mentioned that this isn’t in fact true, if you break water down it is hydrogen and oxygen. So he changed his position and declared that water is now an unreal Relative Truth. Ive heard that the Dalia Lama is big on accepting that many ancient teachings don’t hold up against modern science and has been actively making adjustments or consolations to reduce conflicts. I think I just saw one of those happen.
Then things started getting deep and I got totally lost. Within the realm of Relative Truth the mind can be aware of mistakes or misperceptions, and these are unreal Relative Truths, but the minds awareness of this situation is, and always will be, an Ultimate Truth.
Two and a half hours of this and all I can confidently tell you is that the Ultimate Truth is to be aware that anything we perceive is just our perception of that thing, and the Relative Truth is what we think that thing actually is. And we’re probably wrong about that. Just as Im probably wrong about this.
The lecture was held in a section of the temple that was used for schools and administrative offices and cut-throat ping pong games. The sounds of the game and the cheering of the spectators created a nice contrast to the seriousness of the lecture.
I met some fun people, and I had some interesting experiences, and I didn’t ride the Bullet even one time. Then the morning came and I took a taxi to the small regional airport that serves Dharamsala and got on another propeller powered plane to Delhi. This time I went directly to my room in the Ibis Hotel, at the DEL airport and I stayed in there from 4 PM when I arrived, until 10 AM the next morning, when it was time to head for a flight to London.
I had one night layover in London. Usually I go for East End, for the lesser class, more colorful neighborhoods. But the flight landed at 4 PM and the departure was midday the next day, so I booked a cheap hotel near Paddington station, (exactly ten times the price of my hotel room in Dharamsala), and jumped on the express Heathrow train which would take me directly there. I figured I could drop my carry-on bag, jump on the tube and go wherever I wanted.
It looked good on paper, but halfway to Paddington the Express train stopped. For an hour. Then reversed and took me back to Heathrow. There had been a jumper at one of the stations on route and most of the London Tube system was in disarray. I didn’t get to the hotel until 9 PM and I was so beat that all I could do was walk down the street to a random steak house and have a pepper steak. It wasn’t great, but after 3 weeks in India, eating only vegetables, it hit the spot. I was so excited to get back to all the conveniences of civilization, but I had forgotten about all the little things that drive us all crazy in big cities.
My amazing wife, Laura, picked me up at the airport in San Francisco and didn’t even have a hard time recognizing me. I had lost 15 pounds and was rocking a hipster beard, but she recognized me because I was the only guy at the curb that was jumping up and down and screaming ‘Baby Baby!!!’ when she was driving by.
Being back in the Bay Area is pretty great after nearly a month in Northern India. We have it so good here. Restaurants that probably won’t make you sick, roads that are paved, with traffic that actually moves. The electricity at our house doesn’t get turned off during the daylight hours, and our internet access isn’t blocked when a politician comes to town. People seem to be happy with their lives, and seem to be looking forward to something.
There are exceptions, but Im trying not to be one. We were driving on HWY 1 on Sunday and there was a guy losing his mind, honking his horn and hollering and waving his fist because someone had the nerve to change lanes in front of HIS car. I don’t want to be that guy. And I hope that my time on the Ladakh ride helps me remember that the next time some bastard decides to change lanes in front of MY car.
Im not thinking much about adventures at the moment. I check the surf report and then go out anyway, try and get some work done. Look at the pile of motorcycle parts that Ive been intending to assemble into a running bike. Think about building a hot rod again.
But sooner or later I know Im going to want to do it again. But where? Mexico, India, USA, and Western Europe are covered. Whats next?
Do you have any suggestions?