After a full day and a half of train and bus trips, I had made my way from the deserts of Rajasthan, India, to the foothills of the Himalayas in Dharamsala.
Dharamsala is a town in the province of Himchal Pradesh, in the northeast area of India. Kangra, a nearby town, distinguishes itself as the furthest Alexander the Great penetrated in Asia. His army mutinied there and he had to turn back; they were a long way from Macedonia!
Dharamsala is also the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. As such, the place was overflowing with Tibetan monks and hippies.
I was there to attend a ten-day meditation course. I had booked it a month and a half before, when I was on the beaches of Goa. I had been backpacking then for 4 months. My days had degenerated from the frenzy of trying to see and do as much as possible to a sort of purposelessness.
What was I doing with my life? What’s the purpose of wandering from one place to the next? These questions weighed down on me, as oppressive as the heat and humidity of Goa in April. Looking out across the restless ocean, I felt as unmoored as a little paddleboat floating among the waves.
I resolved to add some regiment to my life. A retreat with a set schedule seemed like a good option and so a month later, I was in Dharamsala.
I liked the place as soon as I got there. On the bus ride up the temperature got progressively cooler, the landscapes more mountainous, the air (a little) clearer. I could see snowcapped mountain peaks peeking over the tall coniferous forests as the bus rounded bend after bend. Yet at certain points I could see the mountains flowing into hills and even lower, all the way down to the plains of India.
After dropping my bags off at a sweet little Tibetan-owned guesthouse, I set out to explore the town. By that time it was already nighttime, and the tall trees, the darkness, the starry skies had always drawn me more than the lights of civilization. Without making the conscious decision to, I veered away from the town up the path into the mountains.
It was incredibly beautiful. The one lane mountain road was so dark I could barely see where I was putting my feet, but the cliff leading into the valley with the glittering lights of Dharamsala was on one side of me. And the other side was mountains, rocks and gigantic pines over 5 stories tall. The stars were so bright. I walked almost to the next town, Dharamkot.
As I was making my way back to Dharamsala, a taxi going along the road stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I said no. But he just kept on driving beside me.
I was by then an old hand at dealing with harassment from local men so I wasn’t too fazed. Generally they are not malicious, they just have a misguided view of western women gained from movies, so they don’t understand that following women usually makes them very, very uncomfortable. The thing to do in these situations is usually to tell them to go away in no uncertain terms. This is what I did, but it had no effect.
So then I started yelling at him: “Didn’t your mother teach you not to harass women? You speak English but do you not understand what ‘GO AWAY’ means?!”
He just replied, cool as a cucumber: “I understand English.” Then he got out of the car.
I immediately started running.
The road was so dark and so twisty it was difficult to make out what’s road and what’s cliff. I could hear the taxi behind me, chasing me. Just before the light of its headlights made it around the corner where I was, I scrambled up the rocks of the mountain and ducked behind a tree. The car was just maybe 2 meters away from where I was, but I was just above where his headlights could reach. The car stayed where I was for a bit slowing driving up and then backing up along the road, looking for me.
After a few tense moments he must have thought I had run past that bend and he continued down the road.
Only then did I feel my heart pounding in my chest, the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I breathed a silent sigh of relief. Since this one lane road was the only way back into town, I decided to wait where I was for a bit so that I didn’t run into that creep on my way back.
But about 5-10 minutes later, the taxi was back, driving the other way. I froze. I could tell it was the same car because the left headlight was much dimmer than the right. He must have found a place to turn around. I knew he was looking for me. Thankfully, he drove past my hiding spot.
Some minutes later it was back again, driving the other way. This guy would not give up!
I knew if he was very persistent he would come up the mountain looking for me. I wasn’t far from the peak of that hill. He would eventually find me as I had nowhere to hide.
But at that moment there was nowhere to go but further up the mountain. It was almost totally dark as even the starlight was obscured by the canopy of trees. I couldn’t see so I could only feel my way up with my hands. I half-clawed, half-slid on the rocks in the darkness, scraping up my hands on the rocks.
After an indeterminate time (in my heightened emotional state it was hard to tell how much time had elapsed), I saw a glimmer of light in the trees. As I got closer, I saw that it was the lit window of a small cottage.
I flipped over their barbed wire fence and banged on the window. A kindly older couple answered the door. I explained my situation, to which they could only shake their head and ask “Why you walk alone at night?” Why indeed, Tianna, I ask myself in retrospect. But the old man grabbed his flashlight and silently walked me all the way back into Dharamsala.
At the time I could only feel relief at having narrowly escaped. Only now do I feel the full extent of my gratitude towards that old gentleman, who saved me from an uncertain fate. Thank you, sir, you are my bodhisattva in disguise.
On the way back, the taxi passed me again. He didn’t stop, but I screamed, “What is your problem!?” as he passed by. Only to be admonished by the taciturn older man: “Do not yell like this.”
When I finally made it back to my little guesthouse, I was covered in cold sweat. It was past 1 AM but I could not sleep. I felt deeply disturbed and angry. I had all these fantasies about what I would do the next day. I knew what the taxi driver looked like. I could look for him in town, report him, shame him in front of others, and so on.
The next day I went looking for pepper spray and finding none, looked for a knife. I didn’t manage to find one small enough to carry on my person, but I did see some fliers pasted on the walls. The header proclaimed that this was from The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the title said PUBLIC AUDIENCE.
The next morning I woke up early to line up at the main Buddhist temple in town, where His Holiness was to give the audience. I planned to listen to the teaching that was to take place, and then get to my meditation course in the afternoon.
The atmosphere in the temple courtyard was just incredible. Despite not announcing the public audience except with these fliers around town, over 2000 people showed up. There were many monks, Tibetans, Indians, and people from all around the world. Once in the temple, we waited about 5 hours, but there didn’t seem to be any impatience in the air. Everyone was so hushed, excited, and warm hearted.
When His Holiness finally arrived, silence fell immediately and a wave moved through the crowd as everyone bowed to receive his blessings and offered white scarves called katas.
It was my first time seeing the Dalai Lama. He is a much smaller man than I had imagined. But his presence was such that the entire courtyard felt suffused by stillness and peace.
Much of what he taught that day was about letting go of anger and the benefits of ahimsa, or non-harm. Everyone is the same, he said, in that they all want to be happy.
Anger, on the other hand, is a hot coal you want to throw at someone else. But it’s actually burning you as you hold it in your hand.
When I heard that, I thought to myself, let it go, let it go. And I felt the anger inside me dissipate.
What was I thinking, going to get a knife? Am I really going to stab anyone? The idea is pretty laughable. And that taxi driver, though his efforts may be ill-conceived and unskillful, is also just another person like everyone else, wanting to be happy and free of suffering.
With those thoughts in mind, I entered the ten-day course at Tushita Meditation Centre up the hill from Dharamsala. Those ten days turned out to be a life-changing experience, and what started me on the spiritual path… but that’s another story.
Later, I would learn that the name Dharamsala means “a place of rest on a spiritual journey.”
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Thanks, Tianna! I learned a lot from you, mostly to just be yourself! Yours, Christine