McLeod Ganj: The Lama’s home, naughty monks and the end of the rain brings puberty.

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Just a few years ago we gave up our jobs, seized the kids out of school, and exited left around the world for a year.

The Tibetan Buddhist enclave that is ‘in the cloud-ganga’ (there is ‘weed’ growing everywhere), was a big turning point in our year away. That was the juncture where we all exhaled, the same as when you go on a summer holiday and it takes you a few days to acclimatise, get your bearings and just relax into it; easier for us, the grown-ups; having travelled several times before; the children now happier, excitable. My daughter skipping about, eight at this stage, my son scouring the guide book for things to do. We had a simple rule when we stayed anywhere, everybody picked one thing they wanted to do, and we had to make time to do it: family democracy without the need of a voting system.

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The place could have that cathartic effect, surrounded by monks and people that want to associate with monks, maybe that’s why the Israelis were there? The rainy season seemed to end while we were here (not a metaphor), not before one last deluge. We were staying only three hundred yards from the centre, up a steep incline. The family unit had all gone off to eat, I was meeting them later at the tiny local cinema to watch ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, as I had been stuck down with what is never called anything but ‘the trots’ by my parents. My trotting was of a dressage nature the short distance to the toilet, but I wouldn’t have won any medals even with ribbons in my hair. Then it rained, like several dams bursting. Taxis couldn’t get up to the apartment due to a fallen tree so I risked it. I laughably had a brolly–little more than an ornament for the deluge to bully. Like a biblical scene the road turned into a river up to my ankles in just seconds, and by the time I had reached the cinema I was super-saturated. We plonked ourselves down at the very front of the thirty-seater auditorium, which looked as though it had been fashioned on an old jumbo jet. To the protestations of my daughter I took my sodden canvas trousers off and placed them on the bar of the exit door to drip metronomically away. She protested further, and I informed her: “No one’s going to come in now, the film’s about to start.” Allayed by parental confidence, she then directed me to rub her lower intestines as she had a stomach-ache. So, I’m sat in my damp undercrackers rubbing a small girls belly, when the fire exit flies open and a sneaky monk comes and sits next to me. The Girl is mortified, demanding I put my soaked britches back on. I inform her I’m not, and the monk is oblivious in a ‘world of pure imagination’.

The next day was our audience with the Lama himself. For a few dollars ($100) you can pop in and have a chat, or at least you used to be able to. We were all excited about this, what better way to spend a few minutes than with a lovely man that is on his twelve reincarnation, and hasn’t got a nasty bone in him. But he was a no-show, he had to go out of the country on business, a little rude, but we had no option but to forgive him. We wandered around the grounds and watched the Buddhist monks worshiping, and we were all shocked to see quite a few of the monks at the back talking and sharing images on mobile phones while the priest was giving a sermon–Well, when the cats away. I talked in church when I went once a month as a child, but I was not trying to come back with the top job, just picking up points for the scout patrol, and when boredom really set in, seeing how many prayer cushions we could collect undetected.

People use the expression surreal far too readily, but if you have played in a mountain stream with your kids while what seemed like every monk in North India washed their clothing around you, then strewn it out on the rocks to dry, while you disappear and reappear behind a small secret waterfall – that is somewhat surreal. Like the night before in the cinema as we exited, the monk had gone before the closing credits, a rampaging cow shot by on the narrow side street, which would have inflicted a nasty bovine injury if it had connected with us. I suppose the unusual becomes usual the more it happens.

My son joined the ‘Trot Club’ the day after. McLoed Ganj was the only place any of us got any food-based sickness in our three and a half months in India. I think we got ill from the unhygienically ‘washed’ plates from a street vendor, but the results are not back from the lab yet. There is a lot of fear about going to India and getting ill from the food, but if you are sensible, we ate hardly any meat and drank only bottled water. I lost nearly half a stone which allowed me to fit back into those budgie smugglers I bought when I was seventeen, which then mysteriously vanished, to rematerialize eleven months later.

My son had the first of his trilogy of his ‘screaming abdabs’, Sydney and Quito airports would complete the trilogy. Puberty was certainly about to wander into town, and he was probably ‘under the weather with the trots’ – as Philip Larkin and/or Alan Bennett may say? He was missing his close friends; his hormones were reaching out to his brotherhood across to the west. He stopped motionless in the deserted street and after an initial aforemath, he let loose with his teary emotional Shakespearean Roman emperor soliloquy:  “I just want to see Jamie… If I could just see him, just for 30 seconds, I would give all the money in the world, just for thirty seconds. If I could just see his face.” We are a little further down the incline and The Wife is already telling me not to laugh at him. He starts again, this time I expect him to fall to his knees and shake his fist at the God-of-missing-teenage-friends. We becalm him and tell him tomorrow we will make sure he speaks to Jamie on the phone and the internet. Jamie helps his psyche by informing him. “School’s really, really, shit. I wish I was travelling with you.” A repeat performance is mitigated by allowing at least an hours’ internet each day wherever possible. The Girl has been somewhat bemused by his street behaviour, and in a quiet moment alone with her the next day I ask her what she made of it: ‘He’s like a big baby.’ I explain that hormones are powerful devilish bastards, like an injured irate psychopath on crack just before payday, in child friendly eight-year old words way. Thinking now there may be more empathy for her elder sibling, she repeats her mantra: ‘He’s still like a big baby!’

The rains lifted, any reservations any of us had about our travails evaporated. We knew we had done the right thing coming away. We knew our older selves would thank our younger selves in the future, as we sit in our fattening pens, or watching the clock until our pensions kick in, or dribbling away in our old people’s home… or with our family gathered around our bed. I was once told a story by a friend whose uncle was on his last legs in hospital. “Any regrets, Uncle?” “Yeah, I wish I hadn’t spent three days in 1973 undersealing the bottom of a Ford Capri.”

The Wife is a great believer in mini retirements, lots of little ones along the way, that’s one of the main reasons we went ‘gapping’. If you are unfortunate enough to be born recently in Britain for example, you may never own your own home and you made be whipped and made to toil until you are 68! – If in fact you make it that far. Mini retirements are looking a lot more appetising now I would wager.

Next week: On the way to the Golden Temple.



Ian M Pindar writes books, and about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a huge team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late. It will take you four hours to read, or half the distance between  Shimla and McLoed Ganj by bus.

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