By Adam Lickley
2017 did not end well for me. I was ‘let go’ from my job, my apartment was flooded, and I spent an uncomfortable night in hospital having my appendix removed. Life was on hold for a while, but within 2 short months, post-op boredom set in and I felt the urge once more to work. Trouble was, nothing appealed to me in the 9 to 5 world.
However, Daveseslcafe.com provided inspiration by means of an English Teaching job with a twist. It was nestled discretely within the usual adverts; I stumbled upon something rather appealing.
“Work in McLeodganj for Tibet Charity teaching English to Buddhist Monks in the foothills of the Himalayas, home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.”
I thought it was high time I gave back. You know, do some ‘angel work’ – work for charity.
It seemed like prayers were being answered and this was the kind of blast I was looking for. You see, I spent the previous 7 years working for a giant Saudi Arabian oil company and I thought it was high time I gave back. You know, do some ‘angel work’ – work for charity.
No sooner was I accepted than I was bound for McLeodganj, India, home to the Dalai Lama.
When I arrived I was housed in a small studio flat attached to the school and soon began teaching Buddhist monks and nuns from as far afield as Laos, Thailand, Tibet and Bhutan.
Tibet Charity is located at the bottom of a terrifyingly steep hill, which I nicknamed Devil’s Hill, for its unforgiving length, its steepness and its unholy curvature. As promised in the advert, McLeodganj was indeed nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas and the view from my apartment was quite spectacular. The mythical Himalayas were to the west of my veranda and they always inspired me with awe and wonder; even when the heavens opened. It was rainy season after all.
McLeodganj is a small, culturally diverse, rich yet unlikely town. First and second-generation Tibetan refugees and devoted followers of the Dalai Lama who fled Tibet on foot have made their temporary homes permanent in McLeodganj.
But by far the most dominant or predominant travellers are Israelis. They are ubiquitous; young, post-military service and on what’s they fondly refer to as ‘The Granola Trail’.
Many of my students told me their heart-stopping accounts of how they risked life and limb escaping from the Chinese. Shocking accounts were told to me time and again. The only means of escape from Tibet is by crossing deadly snow-covered mountain passes by night in order to prevent detection by the Chinese authorities.
But if they make it over the border into Nepal, refugees can begin a new life away from the oppressive regime in Chinese occupied Tibet. For my fortunate students, the risk had paid off.
Most small-scale trade in McLeodganj is dominated by Indian Kashmiris. They bring their own Islamic culture to the town and have set up shop to benefit from both the local and international tourist trade. Catering to the tourists means selling jewellery, healing crystals, and mala beads and hand embroidered Kashmiri rugs and shawls. All perennial favourites.
Living alongside these permanent residents are the tourists or travellers who fall into different sub categories; weekend trippers are mostly from Indian Punjab which is only a few hours away by car or coach.
But by far the most dominant or predominant travellers are Israelis. They are ubiquitous; young, post-military service and on what’s they fondly refer to as ‘The Granola Trail’. They are easy to spot in their loose-fitting hippy clothes and sandals. They wear long straggly hair and are always inked to the max. They move together in small or large gangs and have pretty much laid claim to Upper Bhagsu which is a tiny hillside settlement just above McLeodganj.
Finally, you have the local Hindu population who tend to own a few of the restaurants and drive the local taxis, among other things.
As luck would have it, whilst I was in McLeodganj, the Dalai Lama was in residence at his palace, taking a short break from his globe-trotting lecture tours.
Swarms of Buddhist monks snaked up Devil’s Hill, illuminating the dull concrete road with their robes of burnt orange and deep maroon.
As a gesture to the local Tibetan youth, the Dalai Lama had decided to organize 3 days of lectures in The Dalai Lama Temple whilst I was there. The doors were open to not only the local Tibetan youth, but also to other Buddhists or simply the curious from other faiths, enthusiastic to see him in person. A quick registration at a local government office gave me the name badge I needed and I was all set to meet His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
On the day, I was quick to rise; eager and ready to drink in the wisdom of a man who is considered by some to be the most spiritually influential person alive.
But as I drank coffee on my balcony, it was clear I was not the only person in this remote hilltop settlement who had come from far away for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Swarms of Buddhist monks snaked up Devil’s Hill, illuminating the dull concrete road with their robes of burnt orange and deep maroon.
Following closely behind came a steady stream of nuns, all dutifully following and showing no signs of tiredness. I saw hundreds of monks and nuns climbing that hill. And it was spellbinding.
Once at the temple gates, tight security measures were obvious. You could be forgiven for calling it call it a high security temple. It’s something that we are perhaps used to nowadays – security round a temple. Our ancestors would no doubt have shuddered at the sight.
I grudgingly left behind my cigarettes and lighter with security and made my way to a zone designated for foreigners. Then I squeezed myself between a young Italian man and an Israeli woman. Everyone assembled was soon served Tibetan tea and bread.
I can assure you, Tibetan tea is not for the faint of heart. The unlikely ingredients are tea, yak butter, salt and hot water. And yes, it tastes as foul as it sounds, perhaps even more.
I can assure you, Tibetan tea is not for the faint of heart. The unlikely ingredients are tea, yak butter, salt and hot water. And yes, it tastes as foul as it sounds, perhaps even more. I did recognise the kindness of the gesture, but how welcome would an espresso coffee have been at 7 am? Oh, the joys of cultural encounters.
His Holiness did not keep the assembled throng waiting for long and despite the hordes, I managed to get a quick glance at the star we had all come to see.
He was led by an army of protection officers. We the onlookers were content to simply stand and admire. The excitement was real. The crowd fell into a reverie and a feeling of incredulous joy gushed out towards His Holiness. I too was caught up in the wave of emotion that washed around the temple.
The lecture began. The foreigners had been given the cheap seats, so to speak. You know, those half price theatre tickets where the only thing standing between you and the stage is a goddamn concrete pillar?
So, there was I, squeezed by perfect strangers every which way I looked, sitting slumped on an intolerably cold concrete floor and about a mile from the main action.
There was chattering all around from every language imaginable, but that just quickly turned the thoughts in my brain into some kind of rare undrinkable soup. I remembered to tune into my personal radio that we were recommended to buy in order to benefit from the direct translation. The Dalai Lama spoke, the teachings fed back with a delay.
There was chattering all around from every language imaginable, but that just quickly turned the thoughts in my brain into some kind of rare undrinkable soup.
It wasn’t long before my attention turned from the lecture to the numbness seeping into my entire body and the pain in my coccyx. All of a sudden the idea of merely surviving this physical torment for an hour, seemed like an epic victory.
The end of the hour struck and I skulked off, sheepishly avoiding the flagging carcasses of my fellows as best I could, tiptoeing through the crowd that littered the temple. I headed straight to security, reclaimed my cigarettes and lighter, and walked down Devil’s Hill.
I had reclaimed the use of my body and victoriously enjoyed every nicotine hit.
At home, I’m comforted by modern technology; a small tablet and a fast Wi-Fi connexion. I’m on my bed at the moment watching one of the Dalai Lama’s numerous lectures, quilt tossed around me. In my left hand is a cup of English tea, and in my right hand a Scottish shortbread biscuit. I’m propped up by a Hungarian goose pillow. So, if this is the fast track to enlightenment, I’m staying right where I am.