Hello all! I’ve safely made it to Dharamsala, India! I started traveling at 1:30 PM on Friday afternoon and finally landed in the mountain town of Dharamsala at 12:30 PM on Sunday afternoon. It was a long, hot, sweaty, confusing, and hectic adventure traveling halfway around the world, and now I’m nearly 9,500 miles away.
The flight to Dharamsala was a very interesting one, and I think it gave me an insight into the culture from the get-go. Firstly, it was a super small plane, and it was very late (though admittedly not late by Indian standards, I am told). Second, the passengers were all so diverse! I sat beside a Canadian woman who was about to spend six months at a yoga school and across the aisle sat a Buddhist monk and a Hindu woman dressed in a beautiful sari with a bindi on her forehead and a vermillion mark along the parting of her hair. In front of us sat a large Indian family and behind me, a screaming baby. Needless to say, despite the sleep a jetlagged me so desperately needed, there was none to be had.
After landing, all the passengers filed off the plane and onto the tiny tarmac. Now, there has to be some sort of airline regulation against this, but nevertheless, another small airplane landed on the runway, nearly taking out several of our passengers in the process. None of the local people seemed surprised, so I guess we shouldn’t have been either!
Four of my fellow CCS volunteers and I quickly located a staff member from CCS, Sunil, and piled into a jeep for our trek to Dharamsala, which should have only been a thirty-minute drive away. As luck (or perhaps simply a lack or care of time) should have it, we got stuck in a traffic jam at a one-way bridge where 5000000000000 cars tried to cross at once. Truthfully, this is not a rarity—traffic laws in India seem completely nonexistent. Cars dart all over the road and the norm is to mash on the gas to make it up the steep mountain slopes and only slam on your breaks at the last minute, so as to be as fast and efficient as possible, of course. I think I say with much confidence that Indian drivers are simultaneously the best and worst drivers possible, with insane reflexes and nerve-wracking passing, which is one of many delightfully wonderful contradictions I’ve already encountered.
I honestly don’t know how much time had progressed by this point, but we finally made it to the homebase! Our homebase is a collection of immaculate former-government residences in a lovely neighborhood in lower Dharamsala. There is a crazy beautiful balcony that wraps around the back of the second floor (it’s where I’m currently sitting!) with insane views of the Himalayan Mountains. A rocky river runs through the valley just a few hundred feet from homebase. It’s so zen.
After unpacking our belongings, we went shopping at the market in Dharamsala for Salwar Kameez, the traditional women’s outfit in northern India. (I’ll probably write an entire post dedicated to the clothing of Dharamsala later, so stay tuned!) It was a really awesome experience because we were dropped off at a local clothing and tailor store and given free-reign to purchase whatever color/pattern of Salwar Kameez we wanted. A fellow volunteer, Naomi, and I inadvertently bought the same Kameez (different Dupatta and Salwar, though). (Yes, we totally rocked the same outfit on the same day, too!) I heard that one of the CCS India Directors (and all-around beautiful human), Bela, liked our SK choice so much she went and bought herself one! I went back a few days later and bought two more Salwar Kameez because they’re super comfortable!
And can I just take a moment to rave about the food??? Because it’s kind of sensational. I had actually never had Indian food until a few weeks before coming to Dharamsala, and it was at a restaurant with “India” in quotations, so I was doubting the legitimacy of it a bit. I can honestly say American-Indian food is not quite like the real deal (the basic concept is there, though). Food here at CCS is professionally handled and prepared (so our delicate systems aren’t assaulted by the dreaded Delhi Belly), and it’s authentic to the region. I’m a HUGE wimp when it comes to spicy things, and so I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of the foods are not spicy. Everything has such a unique spice profile that makes my taste buds dance (and usually not cry).
In my first week, I’ve had the opportunity to attend discussions and lectures about Indian culture and history, and participate in Hindi language lessons. Currently, my favorite sentence is “mujhe hindi nahin aati.” (I don’t speak Hindi.) Hindi is a difficult language to learn, but thankfully our teacher is patient and understanding (and also really cool). I’ve learned a lot already and will no doubt continue learning even more as time progresses!
Before I go, I just wanted to say how incredible I already think the CCS staff members are. From the get-go, they have gone above and beyond, providing comfort and support, and answering the endless string of questions I have. They have welcomed me not just as a guest, but a friend. I already feel very comfortable around them, which is something that takes me a while to do. Dharamsala is quickly becoming my home-away-from-home.
This weekend, I’m going with a group of four other girls to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple and watch the border closing ceremony at the border of Pakistan. I’m super excited and can’t wait to tell you all about it!