With exams in Berlin coming to an end, I made my way back to Ireland for a few days before embarking on my 7-week trip to India, where I decided I would spend my generous German inter-semester holidays.
Before I knew it I was on the flight to New Delhi via Abu Dhabi. As I settled into my seat, I turned my full attention to what lay ahead of me for the first time. I had arranged to volunteer with an organisation helping Tibetan refugees in the Himalayan town of McLeodganj, Dharamsala. Once I found the organisation back in November I immediately arranged the visit and booked my flights, but since then I was distracted, first by exams, then by brief hellos and goodbyes, so once I really started thinking about what lay ahead, the excitement started to build.
Upon landing in Delhi I was to go straight to Majnuka Tilla (MT), a Tibetan refugee settlement on the outskirts of the city. I really had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. I only experienced the total mayhem that is Delhi from my taxi window, but I was glad when I reached the relative oasis of calm that was MT. I pulled up to a small cluster of high-rise concrete buildings and entered through one of the three ‘gates’ that lead into the perplexing network of intertwined alleyways running between the towering buildings. Each tiny alley was no more than two metres wide, but that didn’t prevent practically every inch of it being covered with people selling all kinds of goods, from religious wares and Tibetan handicrafts to electronics and knock-off fashion accessories. MT is like its own little world, and you’d never think it’s a refugee settlement. If anything, the micro-economy there appears to be booming. The shops were full and the cafés were buzzing, and everywhere the people were smiling. The people were incredibly friendly and all the passing children wanted to play.
There were some reminders, however, that these were a people fleeing constant persecution and deplorable treatment in their homeland. Sporadically, a voice would make announcements in Tibetan via loudspeakers that were placed throughout the settlement. Upon enquiring what was being said, I was informed that they were there to inform the refugees of the latest news from Tibet and developments with the political situation. One such announcement was news of another self-immolation (the act of publicly burning yourself alive in political protest), which occurred that day in Tibet. It had been the 106th such act since 2002. It was a stark reminder of the plight of the people surrounding me, and of the reason why I’d come here in the first place. The news was received in the form of a hastily arranged candle-lit march, with red-clad monks leading the solemn procession throughout the settlement, as mournful singing followed them as they went.
I stayed in MT for one night before catching a 12-hour bus north to Dharamsala. Kunsang, the founder of the organisation I’m working for, happened to be in Delhi the following day and so he met me and we set off together. I’d been on some adventurous bus journeys during my last stint travelling in Asia, and this one is most definitely another for that list. The bus was due to leave at 6pm and we gathered at the designated spot. It’s a good thing I had Kunsang to guide me for this part of the journey, as there was absolutely no indications that where we were standing was a bus stop. In fact, it appeared to be a perfectly random part of dirt track near the settlement and Kunsang was adamant that it had to be that very spot. As we waited and the clock ticked on, I was jokingly informed that we were now subject to Indian Standard Time, i.e. the bus is liable to come whenever the hell it feels like. You haven’t been on the 145, I thought to myself, thinking of the endless trains back to Carlow I’d missed due to our very own Irish Standard Time. Maybe Indians and Irish have more in common than I assumed, if the inefficiency of their public transport system can be matched by such an ability to laugh it off.
Two hours later we were still waiting, and it became apparent that this was something more than the usual delay. When I asked about it I was told that he bus companies aren’t too fond of paying their taxes in full, and that the police sometimes come to check tax compliance based on how many buses are leaving each evening. A hilarious game of cat and mouse ensued, whereby a bus would arrive out of nowhere as soon as the police left the scene. Ticket-holders were bundled on and the bus would speed away, and another long wait would ensue as the police appeared again. This game continued until eventually our turn came around. To my delight and surprise, the bus was perfectly comfortable, and as we sped away my thoughts turned towards Dharamsala and I drifted off to sleep.
Not long after nodding off, I was awoken by an explosion in my immediate vicinity and the sounds of women screaming at the back of the bus. As the vehicle started veering dangerously on the busy highway, I feared the worst and looked around for signs of fire. The bus successfully pulled in to the side of the road and once the shouts subsided I learned that, fortunately, a back tire had exploded. The sense of relief at avoiding imagined disaster managed to outweigh the resentment at further delays, and I took the opportunity to get to know some of my fellow passengers. We eventually got going again and after a bumpy ride on some precarious mountain paths in stormy weather, we arrived in Dharamsala 18 hours after we set out. As I stepped off the bus, the views of virgin Himalayas covered in pine forest rising up all around me took my breath away. Monkeys jumped around on the power lines and princely cattle brought traffic to a complete stop on the narrow mountain roads. Eagles soared overhead and every second person I saw was a traditionally dressed Buddhist monk. This mountain paradise was to be my home for the next seven weeks and I couldn’t wait to get settled in.