If I had to sum up our week in Mcleod Ganj, I would do so by saying: it’s a yoga-stretching, mind-meditating, mountain-hiking, good-food-eating, Himalaya-viewing, tabla-playing, sitar-strumming, massage-getting, monkey-watching, and tea-drinking good time. Mcleod Ganj is like no other place we went in India. It’s located far up north in the mountains and has a lot of Tibetan and Nepali influence. The number of cows in the streets were much fewer (almost zero), the cleanliness was taken up a slight notch, and the general feel to the town was one of overwhelming happiness. Mcleod Ganj is one of those places people come to for a few days and either decide to stay for a year or come back time and time again. Unfortunately, we had a flight scheduled to Kathmandu, so we were forced to move on after a couple days, instead of staying long term in our cozy little room with a balcony overlooking the snow capped Himalayas in the distance. Although the thought of staying definitely crossed our minds.
Being deprived of our usual workout routines, John and I were feeling pathetically weak, so we thought a daily yoga session would be good for us. Our guesthouse was right next door to a yoga studio called Om Yoga run by a wacky Indian guy named Om. On our first day in Mcleod Ganj, we showed up to take his 4pm class and ended up as the only students for the day. I had never taken a yoga class quite like this (admittedly, the diversity of yoga classes I have taken is lacking), but we both walked away feeling a bit more limber and sore at the same time. Om had a hilariously repetitive way of teaching and did moves such as flapping his knees in a butterfly position while shouting, “Try your kneeeeees! Touch the grooooound!”, over and over again. He was also a fan of pacing the room quickly while breathing deeply and chanting, “Tryyy, tryyyyy, tryyyyyyy!”. Needless to say, the class was far from boring and we felt like we were actually getting something out of it. At 150 rupees ($2.50) per 1.5 hour class, we decided we would return daily. We had an amazing dinner at a place called Gakyi, owned by a stern Tibetan woman who serves the most incredible momos, vegatable lamen (long Tibetan noodles), and thick-sliced, Tibetan brown bread smothered in honey. It was to die for. We frequented this little joint multiple times during our stay.
The next day, we got up early enough to grab some Tibetan brown bread on our way up the mountain to the Tushita meditation center for an hour guided meditation class. The hike was pretty steep and we were moving quickly, but cautiously to avoid the many monkeys along the path. We arrived at the center to find a nice looking complex with signs asking guests to stay silent during their visit in order to allow those staying at the center for several days of meditation to focus on their practice. We entered the meditation room to find rows of mats lining the floor with small pillows on top. The room was rather packed and John and I found ourselves a pillow and sat down wondering exactly what we were in for. Neither of us had ever attended a guided meditation session, but we both thought it would be an interesting thing to experience, especially in a place like Mcleod Ganj, India. I have a hard time slowing my mind down, so I knew sitting in silence for an hour would be nothing short of torture. The session was broken in to two parts, the first 30-40 minute part being silent meditation where we tried to sit still, close our eyes, and essentially focus on nothing. I admire people who really have the ability to do this because it was definitely a challenge for me, but a great experience. Our legs and butts were numb by the end of the first session and we were given the opportunity to stretch our legs before we started into the next. I adjusted my sitting position and settled in for the next session: 30-40 minutes of reflective meditation where the instructor actually talked us through the meditation, having us focus on a specific concept. Unfortunately, the topic of the day was related to impermanence (i.e. death) and not knowing when you or someone you love could pass away, so I left feeling a little sad rather than uplifted. Regardless, it was a good first experience and I wasn’t going to give up yet.
When Om’s studio was closed that afternoon, we went to another yoga center (forget the name, but towards the center of town) and took a really great two hour yoga class which was more challenging than Om’s class, but still enjoyable. The room was packed and we had less individual attention, but we met some cool people and had a good time. When we weren’t doing yoga or meditation, we could be found eating meals at Gakyi, frequenting an awesome little dessert shop called The Tibetan Bakery where John was determined to try every type of dessert, drinking delicious green tea with cinnamon on our balcony watching the mountains, hanging out at Seeds Cafe for breakfast or some tea and coffee, and wandering the streets of Mcleod Ganj.
Our one year anniversary fell on May 17 while we were in Mcleod Ganj and what a year it had been! It was time to celebrate. We got up bright and early to attend a meditation class Om was holding. This was a different kind of meditation known as focused attention meditation. He played some Hindi music while all of us sat in a designated spot and focused on a red and yellow Om symbol written within colorful, concentric circles. The more I focused on a specific point, the more the colors would blend together and I could actually see blues and greens glowing in spirals! My attention was completely focused on this object and nothing else. My mind was literally blown. I couldn’t believe how I felt after this session compared to the one the day before and we ended up buying one of the Om symbols to use at home if we feel the urge. We took a yoga class with him immediately after and enjoyed some anniversary breakfast at The Crepe Pancake Hut. We treated ourselves to a 90 minute massage each at a highly recommended place where John had one of the best massages of his life. Mine was great too, but my massage therapist was a little less experienced than his. We hung out around town during the afternoon and found a place that sold local ginger wine. We bought a bottle and then headed out to dinner at an amazing Japanese restaurant called Lung Ta. After dinner, we stopped by The Tibetan Bakery to get a magic bar (the best chocolaty dessert ever) and another brownie type dessert and went back to our balcony to eat them with our ginger wine and watch the sun set on the snow caps. It was an amazing first anniversary and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend it!
The following day, we ventured out to the next village over, a 30 minute walk from Mcleod Ganj. This village is a bit busier, but a great place to learn an instrument. We quickly found a music school and went inside to inquire about taking sitar lessons. The owner told us that the instructor was almost through with his current student and could give John a lesson right away. We agreed and I watched as he picked up the sitar faster than I could have ever imagined. The instructor was really impressed and they made great progress in only one hour. John made another appointment for the next day and we headed back to our side of town.
As our time was beginning to run out, we found more and more activities we wanted to do in Mcelod Ganj. We came to realize that this place was a Mecca for learning all sorts of interesting trades whether it was yoga, meditation, cooking, or instrument lessons. We got a little crazy one day and filled our schedule with all sorts of activities. First, we decided to give the guided meditation one more shot. We hiked up the mountain and settled into the class. To my surprise, I felt like I could sit still and focus much easier during the silent session than I could during our first visit. When the reflective meditation portion began, I was pleased that the message was much happier. He had us think about people in our lives who were friends, enemies, and someone we have seen but never met. He then made us imagine that person and think about how we are the same as them. We all wake up in the morning wanting to feel fulfilled and happy and regardless of each persons’ actions, that is a shared trait. He had us tell that person we want them to be happy and forgive someone we felt conflict with, etc. We both left that meditation session feeling very relaxed and happy.
Straight from meditation, we headed down the mountain to grab a quick snack and go to our tabla lesson (an Indian drum). The man was a fantastic tabla player and taught John and I the basics for about an hour and a half. He gave us a plethora of information, taught us notes, wrote down songs, etc. He was extremely impressed by our abilities to pick up the rhythm and offered to teach us some more that evening. We loved playing the tabla, so we agreed, and set off on the 30 minute walk to John’s sitar lesson. He practiced the sitar, I played around with one of their tablas, and then we left in a hurry to make it to Om’s studio for a yoga lesson. When that was finished, we had to run back through the village to our second tabla lesson of the day. The instructor allowed us to video tape him and gave us tons of notes in my journal. He told us he had pretty much given us a crash course on the tabla and we now had the same number of notes that he would give someone after a 10 week course. We felt pretty good that he had that much confidence in us! Feeling exhausted from our amazing day of learning, we walked back toward our guesthouse and stopped at the Japanese restaurant again for dinner. The place was packed, as usual, so we shared a table with a really nice Indian couple who spoke perfect English since they lived in the states for a few years. We chatted with them for a long time before we were basically kicked out on account of closing time. We exchanged information and said goodbye to them and retired to our room to crash after a crazy, but extremely rewarding day.
Our last day had sadly come and we spent the day downing more delicious food and shopping around for a few unique souvenirs. We had to catch our night bus to New Delhi around 5pm, which I was dreading after the insane ride in. Since we were headed to New Delhi and not back to Chandigarh, it turned out to be really easy and smooth compared to the ride in. We watched a pretty entertaining Bollywood movie before sleeping and woke up to disembark back into the thick, mosquito-ridden air of New Delhi. We made our way to the metro for the airport and said goodbye to what was now our favorite country of the trip. All good things must come to an end and Nepal was next on the list! We stocked up on some meds and supplies at the Guardian pharmacy in the New Delhi airport in preparation for our next big endeavor: 19 days trekking in the Nepal on the Manaslu Circuit! Goodbye for now India, we know we will be back!