Mcleodganj is perhaps the nearest I will ever go to Tibet. Although I have been to the huge Tibetan settlement, Bylakuppe, in Karnataka, I had never been to Dharamshala or Mcleodganj, where the Dalai Lama stays and where you get to see Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn and Steven Segal roaming on the streets. It was not so much for the Tibetans as for the love for their delicacy, the momo, that we planned this motorcycle ride to the Himalayas this time. Aaron had to see snow, so that was on the agenda too.
Because this is more about Mcleodganj, and I intend to keep it short, I won't go into the details of how we started from Delhi toward Manali on April 7, and eventually, a week later, reached Mcleodganj. For the first part of the ride, please read Prateek's writeup here: http://lifeandmotorcycle.blogspot.com/2008/05/glimpse-of-himalayas-7-11th-may-2008.html
He has loads of photographs, so when you are done reading this, go check out our physiognomies there.
The journey from Pandoh to Palampur the previous day had made all of us sad, because the view from Manali was awesome, to say the least, and Aaron could be taken to the snow line there. Here, the Dhauladhar range, wasn't as white, and Palampur, despite being in the foothills, was kinda warm for my tastes. It had rained that day, and riding with a kid strapped to you in the rains is not a very pleasant idea, as I discovered. Overall, the feeling was of being let down.
Prateek had left a couple of days back from Manali to Delhi, so it was just the two bikes that were left: Sayantani, Aaron, and I on our Machismo A350, and Shuvo and Suchi on their Thunderbird. With our minds full of "should we have stayed back in Manali?" kinda questions, we chugged in to Mcleodganj, 35 kms from Palampur.
Tibetans are dirty people. All mountain people are generally dirty, although rather pure in their hearts. People in the plains of India are dirty both in their lifestyle and their minds, so let's not even think of comparing. Tibetans are dirty, and their kitchens are so dark, you don't think of all that while having the momos. Surprisingly, most of the Tibetan restaurants this time weren't selling chicken momos and the Italian and Israeli ones didn't have momos on the menu, so our intial fantasy of living off beef and yak momos was dealt a severe blow. We did find a couple of good restaurants eventually, but by then we had lost a couple of meals to ordinary food. After Dragon Guest House at Manali, we wanted nothing but the best. (The idea of abducting the chef at Dragon Guest House did cross my mind more than once, but we were already three of us on one motorcycle (which is illegal in India!), so didn't want to take a chance. It would have been hard to explain to the police a wriggling body bag tied to my carrier. I will abduct him when I take my jeep next year.)
As all Bengalis are wont to, Sayantani and Suchi, daughters of the famous Sipra Nag of Kulti, were hellbent upon buying the entire contents of the flea market in Mcleodganj, with no consideration about our means of travel. Once in a shop, they tend to forget that we are supposed to behave as backpackers and act like Caucasian hippies. Their true Indian self peeps out and takes control, manifesting itself in the form of huge paper bags full of FREE TIBET tees, junk jewelry, prayer wheels, tees for the neighbor's kids, etc. About the "how to pack all this extra luggage on to our existing already extra luggage" question, they are absolutely irreverent. That is not a question they allow people to even harbor in their minds, forget asking.
During one of these terrifying shopping sprees, I ventured out to some other shops, with the intention of window shopping. I really wanted a pair of The North Face hiking boots (almost original), but then I am not Sipra Nag's daughter, so the fantasy was brushed away with utter disdain. However, the Bengali in me somehow took me to the nearest shoe shop, and even managed to drag me inside.
The guy at the counter, obviously Tibetan, looked at me and figured I was one of them. He was busy attending to a couple of white customers, who, believe me, start haggling from levels that an Indian shopper would refuse to stoop to. If the guy says something is Rs 300, the white guy will offer Rs 35 and then go up. An average Indian would generally try to bring that Rs 300 down to Rs 250.
The guy figured, as I said, that I was Tibetan too. My haircut, my boots, my tennis court cheeks, my wannabe monk look had him fooled. That was until I spoke. I asked in English whether he had The North Face hiking boots.
What followed was very strange and it's a pity I could not capture it using somebody's handycam. The look on the shopkeeper's face changed in a few seconds. The moment he realized I am Indian (as opposed to a refugee Tibetan allowed to stay, do business, eat, and live free in India), his face contorted in disgust. Although his face was a direct giveaway, he still managed a polite but stern "check out from outside."
I was kinda furious for a moment, but because Aaron had followed me inside soon after, did not kick up a row or throw one of his displayed boots at him as my sane mind was urging me to do. I walked out and kept walking, wondering why the Bengali sisters (our wives) were oblivious to this rude behavior. I was sure all the other Tibetans were like that. All of them were rude, so they must have been rude with Sayantani and Suchi too. They are nice only to the white tourists, who, for a couple of weeks, show solidarity with the cause of Tibet by going on candlelight vigils and praying at the monastery, but soon get disillusioned and go back to their Ferraris and Lamborghinis and mansions and chateaus. Maybe I am exaggerating. The Europeans cannot afford Ferraris. They just make those for the American customers. The European tourist probably goes back to her Volkswagen Golf. Sorry for the outburst, my dears. But fact remains that they do go back.
I walked back up the road, trying to control my outrage, and then spotted some colors. Colors, polychromatic stuff of any kind, kinda lift my spirits, so I stopped to check the wares. Somebody had left a box full of embroidered silk cellphone covers out on the street. I picked up two and kept looking for the shopkeeper...and in my quest landed inside the shop of an Indian guy.
"Ah, so you sell these! Why have you left your wares unattended?"
"Oh, nobody steals here. That happens in the plains," he was nonchalant.
That, from an Indian, was so funny to hear. India is the largest manufacturer of security alarms and iron gates, and also has the maximum number of security agencies in the world. Go validate it, am not bothered, but to hear an Indian say "Nobody steals here" was so hilarious! Although at that moment I was kinda taken aback and thought he was joking.
After paying him for the cellphone covers, I asked "Sir, you are so nice to me, but most of the Tibetans here don't want to do business with us. Why is that?"
And then he explained the story to me. The reason for the Tibetans being rude to Indian customers. "Sir, am not talking about you, but you know how the Indians are. They come into a shop in hordes, check out seventy odd items, and eventually want to buy just one. And even for that item, they want to haggle. The Tibetan guy can use that time to do a lot more business with the white customers."
He had a point. I saw his point. I witness this every day, everywhere.
When I walked up to the shop where my wife and sis-in-law were shopping, my pace had increased. As I was approaching the shop, I saw them coming out with huge bags and the beautiful Tibetan lady coming out to say "goodbye, come again" to them with a huge, simple, smile on her face that you can see only in the hills.
For once, I was happy they had shopped like they had and in my mind picked up the boot I had thrown at the other guy and kept it back in its place.
Will I go back? Yes, to try and change the image of an Indian in a Tibetan's mind.