I am not sure why, but I frequently think of the room that I stayed in when I went to McCloud Ganj in 2009. It was not my best trip to India, since it was the one time that I have picked up a bad stomach bug that I could not shake off for the entire duration of my trip. I had a few days in Jaipur, the condition of my digestive system rapidly going downhill despite medication and fasting, and finally took the bus back to Delhi where I felt strangely comfortable in the familiar warren of Paharganj.
When I felt that my stomach had at least stabilised, although it was by no means cured, I decided I was well enough to go and spend a week or so in Dharamshala. Or McCloud Ganj, which is what most people mean when they mention Dharamshala. McCloud Ganj is where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees actually live; Dharamshala is a town close by. Anyway, instead of taking the bus – a twelve hour journey that I just couldn’t face – I splashed out and took a flight.
Actually, the flight was wonderful.
The plane was a twin engine prop, rather than a jet, carrying just a few passengers. If one has to travel by air, then I think that there is no nicer way of doing it. We were crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jagged up like freshly whitened teeth from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approached, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We passed Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top had been sliced off – and perhaps it had.
Eventually we came into land – a tiny airport where the aircraft taxied up to the small building, switched off, and then when we got out all was quiet. After the hum of the engines during the flight, the sudden silence with the mountains staring down at us, and the air clear and cool, was breathtaking and almost indescribably beautiful. I just wanted to stand still and drink it all in, but was eventually ushered into the terminal.
And the aircraft terminal was small enough to feel that it was built on a human scale. A few rooms and halls, and not too many people around. And even those people appeared to be in no real hurry, unlike the larger airports that I usually find myself in.
I thought immediately of Leh airport, in Ladakh. That had the same feel.
So I picked up my luggage, and went outside to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).
Once in McLeod Ganj, I checked into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It was basic, but it was clean, had hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I had nothing to complain about, and if you wish to read this as a recommendation, then feel free to do so.
I shall write a proper blog post on McCloud Ganj at some point, but suffice to say I did very little during the week that I was there, other than wander around and look at the mountains, read, eat and drink, and visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (who was out when I visited).
But my guest house room has stuck in my mind.
By the end of my second day there, I had slightly rearranged the room to get it how I wanted it. My few books were lined up on the windowsill. Various belongings were on the table. I had hung a string of prayer flags along the wall. Little touches.
I have stayed in far nicer rooms. I have enjoyed better health at other times. But every time that I feel my life is too cluttered; too full of unnecessary junk and too complicated, it is this room that suddenly springs to mind, and I’m not entirely certain why.
It might have something to do with the fact that I do travel light, and so have nothing with me but essentials plus a few books and my notebook (although I would argue that they are also essentials!).
It might have something to do with the fact that my room that week felt like a bit of a refuge, partly because I still felt unwell, although I am not entirely convinced by this since I loved the town, the people were lovely, and I was completely at ease there.
I think that it is simply symbolic of the feeling that I constantly have that I need desperately to declutter and simplify my life. I think that when feelings of stress and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me, then it is an image of a refuge. I think that it is a reminder of much that I love about India and its people.
Dammit, I need to get out there again!