Away in the mountains

by Gabriella Sonabend

I left Varanasi for a holiday, to breathe fresh air, to walk between tall trees and to sit at the edge of a waterfall with my feet in cold water. I came to the mountains to have a moment of silence and rest away from the city, which has been accelerating my thoughts and causing me to question every experience and action. To come to a place where I would be able to make decisions and not constantly be instructed on what to do or how to behave, but it seems that this mountain life carries its own problems and even in moments of silence I hear the sounds of conflicted misplaced people as the merging cultures create their own intriguing and painful racket.

Our first day in the mountains gave us back our lungs and our energy. As we sat in a cafe overlooking the surrounding mountains, talking to other foreign travelers, I let myself slump onto soft pillows and nonchalantly thought of very little. The following days were filled with unexpected adventures. We found ourselves walking to Baghsu, (what must have once been a very beautiful), waterfall, and which now is a popular destination for Indian men who pose in the water, flexing muscles for ‘lads’ snapshots. We befriended Tibetan musicians, (friends of my Tibetan friend from the UK), and rode on the back of their motorbikes through the mountains to an ancient hot spring. We visited the monastery where the Dalai Lama lives and teaches and spent time in the Tibetan museum learning about the Tibetan genocide and the current situation for those Tibetans who are still living in Lhasa (the former Tibetan capital). We have eaten an excess of momos (Tibetan dumplings), pancakes and sweets, indulging ourselves entirely. We have walked through forests concealing ancient shrines and have been guided when lost by a dumb and mute Indian man who led us back to our village.

Although in the mountains I feel that I can breathe again and that my energy has been restored, I miss the endless complexity and challenges of Varanasi. Here I am able to have my own identity and dress and act as I please, (more or less), but that freedom does not bring me clarity, if anything it confuses me even more as it seems a fake freedom. Here the world feels more literal and transparent. I feel I understand better the various cultural practices and the way people engage and interact, but in truth this feeling is warped. This place is equally complex but it hides under the mask of simplicity. The hordes of tourists passing through give McLeod Ganj the impression of being a resort where travelers can have a taste of Tibetan culture; but outside the hostels, the tourist shops and cafes this place is filled with real people who live an unbelievably conflicted existence. It is a strange place to come to rest. Although it is surrounded by tranquility it is a political hot spot in which people are fighting to preserve what remains of their vanishing culture; whilst the young Tibetan men seek European girlfriends with the hope that they will rescue them from India (and thereby help them to both abandon and disseminate their culture).

My understanding of silence is beginning to change.