Rewalsar and the Dalai Lama

Friday 30/3 – Tuesday 3/4

We got up early on Friday morning and prepared to say goodbye to McLeod Ganj. I’d really enjoyed being in the area, and especially the several wonderful restaurants we’d found – including the one attached to the hotel we stayed at, where I’d got my first ever taste of Tibetan food. But the Dalai Lama was going to be giving a teaching a few hundred kilometres away, in the town of Rewalsar. It took three buses and a rickshaw to get there, and when we arrived it was already dark. As we climbed up the hill to Rewalsar, I started noticing a lot of Australian trees and plants – gum trees of course, but also bottlebrushes, banksias and wattles. How completely surreal to be seeing the Dalai Lama surrounded by Australian vegetation!

Our first stop was a hotel recommended in our guidebook. We got there and they had one room left for the night, but nothing available at all for the following two nights when His Holiness would be visiting. We were pretty exhausted, so took the room, had dinner in a nearby cafe, and collapsed into bed.

The following morning we started asking around at the nearby hotels and guest houses to see if any had rooms available for the next few nights. We were pretty much laughed at – other people coming here had arranged it weeks or months in advance, not as a spur of the moment decision. One of the guest house owners said he knew someone willing to rent out her spare room. He checked up on that for us and it turned out to still be available. For Rs.1000 per night we stayed in an Indian family’s children’s bedroom.

We’d heard a variety of different accounts about what would be happening and when. The Dalai Lama’s security office in McLeod Ganj had said that he’d be inaugurating a temple on Sunday and giving a teaching on Monday. The teaching, at least, would be a free for all – just turn up in the morning and you could go. Everything else was uncertain. We walked up to the biggest Buddhist temple in town, the one on top of a hill with a massive statue of Buddha on top, looking down over the lake. They told us that as of half an hour before we arrived, the temple inauguration ceremony wouldn’t be taking place there, but at a different temple on the other side of the lake.

We went to the other temple, and one of the monks there ushered us towards the eating area. It was lunch time, and we were hungry, but it still seemed wrong to eat the food that we were offered. But there was no easy way to turn it down, even though the signs up everywhere said “for invited guests only”. It was a very tasty lunch, even though completely undeserved.

After lunch, we asked at the office about attending the following day’s inauguration ceremony. They seemed a bit surprised that the ceremony was happening there – I guess they’d learned only recently too – and a little bit unsure of what was going on. They told us that the ceremony was for invited guests only. Guest passes were difficult – if not impossible – to get. After talking for a while and asking a few different monks, one eventually said he’d see what he could do, and disappeared. A few minutes later, he returned with a guest pass. Our hero! And also, I think, a testament to Erin’s ability to sweet-talk people. It probably also helped that she’s very pretty and “it’s my birthday tomorrow and it would make me the happiest person in the world to see the Dalai Lama on my birthday” is a rather good story to be able to tell.

The monk’s name was Sangay. He was from Bhutan, though now lived in the Himalayan part of India, and had just completed his masters degree in Buddhist studies. He was also very friendly – not at all dinstant in the way I’d imagine a monk to be – and we ended up seeing him quite a bit while we were in Rewalsar.

Afterwards, I went back to the room, completely over the moon about what had just happened. Erin was off at an Internet cafe, soaking up the internet. Sangay called, saying that the programme for tomorrow had been cancelled. The inauguration might be the next day, might be the day after. Everything was uncertain.

That evening, at dinner, Erin somehow ended up talking to another monk, named Sandup (?). He was from Ladakh, which was very exciting because I had been planning to going to Ladakh in a few weeks, after visiting Jammu and Srinagar (Kashmir). After dinner, Erin announced that this had been a sign, and she wanted to go to Ladakh now too. We booked flights that night, leaving from Delhi and a little bit earlier than originally planned because the flights from Srinagar were all booked out and Erin didn’t have enough time left in her itinerary to go there (nor, I think, was she particularly enthused about visiting there rather than other nearby places).

Not quite sure what happened on Sunday. Erin was in a pretty bad mood, despite – or perhaps because – of it being her birthday. I wasn’t amazingly chipper either, having just a day previously been expecting to meet the Dalai Lama then.

On Monday, we got up early, and arrived at the teaching a bit before 6am. It didn’t start until 8am, but there were already a lot of people there. Erin and I managed to get separated, and Erin had the FM radio that we were planning to share to listen to the English translation, so once the pre-teaching chanting of Om Mani Padme Hum was over and His Holiness began talking, I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. It was still amazingly exciting just being there and seeing the Dalai Lama. After a little while – maybe half an hour or so – I decided to leave, because it was crowded and not particularly comfortable and I couldn’t actually understand what was being said.

I was feeling in a very contemplating mood, and had originally thought I’d go and find a quiet spot to sit by the lake and meditate, but there were no quiet spots – people were everywhere. Instead I went back to our usual cafe and had a spot of brekkie. I ended up writing a long stream of consciousness about myself and my thoughts about Buddhism and the way I interact with the world and how recent experiences had affected me. I’d written about 1500 words when an Australian woman sat down opposite me and we got talking as we ate breakfast. Similar to me, she’d been at the teaching but didn’t have any way of hearing the translation so had left early.

After breakfast, I went back to the room briefly. No sign of Erin but I figured I’d bump into her at the inauguration. I went back down to the lake just as the teaching was ending, and followed the crowd up to the temple. I waited for a little while outside the entrance, expecting Erin to appear, then went inside where I was once again treated to an absolutely delicious lunch that I didn’t feel completely comfortable taking. At least this time I had a badge confirming me as an invited guest, although when I got there and realised how small the event was, and noticing that there were only three other Westerners present, I realised just how big a favour Sangay had done us in giving us the badges. After the ceremony – where I was just on the outside of the fairly small temple which the Dalai Lama was in the middle of – I left the temple in a small procession, ending with His Holiness piling into his car. In case you ever wondered what car the Dalai Lama was driven around in, it’s a Toyota station wagon.

When I got back to the room, Erin was waiting there. She’d thought that the inauguration ceremony was on the following day, so had come straight back from the teaching. But she had, however, caught the English translation of it, which I was more than a little jealous of. Just after I got there, Sangay called Erin, asking where she’d been, and told her that there’d be more stuff going on at the temple soon. So we finished packing up our stuff, moved it to a room in the guest house whose owner had found us the last-minute accomodation, and went up to the temple again.

At the temple we were treated to a performance of traditional Bhutanese singing and dancing. Then, by complete chance, Erin got talking to Sangay’s cousin, Jamil. Afterwards, we went out for dinner with Sangay … a pleasant end to a long, surreal day.

Tuesday was our final day in Rewalsar. We took care of some mundane things, booked our overnight bus tickets to Delhi, said goodbye to Sangay and had a lunch/dinner at Lotus Lake Hotel, where we’d spent our very first night in town. For the first time in a few days, they had their full menu available rather than the reduced “too many people are coming here so they can all eat the same thing” menu they’d provided. Cheese momos! I was happy. Tibetan food had been a pleasant relief from the constant fried greasiness of Indian food. Even the weather seemed to be saying goodbye to the Dalai Lama, with thunder and lightning off in the distance.

Then we took a cab to Mandi, and on the way it started to rain. It was the same fantastic feeling – and smell – that you get anywhere when it hasn’t rained for months and suddenly the heavens opened. We sat undercover just outside a travel agency and waited for the bus to come. It was delayed for an hour but eventually we made it. Somehow I managed to sleep better than expected on the bus, because at some point I lost track of time and consciousness of anything, and suddenly it was Wednesday morning.

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