It's pretty cold in Dharamsala, and for the first week or 2 I don't really meet anyone. I end up staying indoors a lot and begin feeling the miserable, wintery haze that I've come to India to avoid. Thankfully I meet some nice people at the Rogpa cafe - run by volunteers with proceeds helping to support Tibetan single mothers in Dharamsala. I end up helping out there a while, and teaching a little English to a local Tibetan girl. I also find a very nice cafe called the Heart Rock, run by permanently chilled-out local Ran, and end up spending most evenings there - it tends to attract a nice, if sometimes slightly odd, crowd. (For example, English trust-fund Bradley attendee with a craaazy posh English + Austrian accent who lived in Mongolia with nomadic horsemen for 9 months and was prone to extreme and spontaneous mood swings. Or the Indian guy who danced his socks off on his own in the corner all night, often impersonating animals. His 'spider' dance was my favourite)
After a month or so of not doing much but having a nice time, I head to Amritsar with quiet-but-lovely American couple Lexi and Chris. The main attraction here is The Golden Temple, Sikhism's most impressive and significant Gudwara. Apart from the beauty and elegance of the temple itself, the sense of community is astounding. The free kitchen, open to all, feeds upwards of 60,000 a day. No restrictions on religions, race, class, gender. Come in, sit down, eat. And the attitude of it all is something that touches me - it's not a big significant thing to help out. You come in, wash a few dishes if you want, leave. Like it's something normal, not out of the ordinary (there's a lot of self-righteous back-patting in the volunteering community) it all makes me feel a little more positive about the human condition. Plus they have a chipati machine that makes 24,000/hour - WAY COOL!
We also head to the Pakistan-India border for the closing ceremony. At first they get all the girls up and dancing to some bangra, amid loud, patriotic chanting.
Next, the guards stamp around aggressively, looking hard. It's a strange atmosphere, like a sports game; good-natured competition. But the tension between the two countries is far greater than that, and I find it a little odd. It's pretty fun though!
After the few days there, the Americans and I go our separate ways. I have to go back to Mcleod Ganj - I need to think about my bike. I'd decided to sell the bike on reaching Mcleod, but moping about followed by having fun has lead to me conveniently forgetting about it. I put up a few posters here and there, and get some responses. The 2nd guy I show it to is a friendly Austrian and he buys it after having a ride around. There are a few problems over the next few days, but a trip to the mechanic sorts it out (30rupees! 37p for an hour long once over of a motorbike - I love India!). Hopefully he's somewhere on the road on the way sown south - he was planning to go the whole length of the Subcontinent, arriving in Kerala. Good luck to him...
After selling it I'm aware of a massive release of tension - the bike had been keeping me there somewhat. I'm freeee! Some other awesome people I've met, Leo and Sophie, are heading to Jaisalmer for a camel safari over Christmas. Yes please! Sophie's already there with her friend Orion, so me and Leo start the long journey from northern Himachal Pradesh to western Rajasthan.
The camel safari is great to start with. I mean, the novelty of riding a camel is enough! But after an hour or two I start feeling very sick. I end up walking behind, and start throwing up/going to the toilet frequently. The group is in front out of sight by this point, and the guy with my camel has gotten impatient and walked on too. Suddenly I find myself totally alone, in a desert in the midday heat, delirious with illness in a fair amount of pain. Then I realise I don't know which way I'm going. I spend a few minutes looking around, and decide on the most likely direction - thankfully it was. Could've been interesting otherwise...
I end up getting a lift back from the camp that night, although not without seeing an awesome sunset:
and a shooting star, that broke off into TWO MORE SHOOTING STARS! So that made me feel a little better. I spend most of christmas day in bed. In fact the only xmas reference is one man who wishes me Merry Christmas, but then tries to sell me bedsheets.
After Leo, Sophie and Orion return from the safari, we head to Bikaner, mainly to see the rat temple. If one runs over your feet it's good luck!
After that everyone heads off in different directions - I go to Jodpur. It's a lovely place, lots of tiny winding streets and a nice atmosphere. I stay in a tent on the roof of a guest house. A lovely view to wake up to in the morning:
View from the fort:
Next is Udaipur, 'the Venice of India'. Another nice town, and some fantastic scenery from the many rooftop restaurants. The palace was used in the Bond film 'Octopussy' and is suitably grand - you get a nice view of it on a boat ride of the lake. I do a cookery course here too, so I can now make all sorts of tasty indian food! In theory at least...
Next stop on the Rajasthan tour is Bundi, a small, sleepy, rural town. The palace overlooking the town is huge, dilapidated, and labyrinthine. I spend a while tottering up broken steps and peering through dark alleys - it's so refreshing coming from the UK where everything that could possibly be seen as dangerous or even just broken or dirty is closed off. I see some local Indians walking along ridiculously high castle walls like stepping stones. My last day here is the Bundi Kite Festival - a day where everyone flies kites on the their roofs. It's really really difficult! I lose about a dozen kites and cut my hand several times, although towards the end of the day I can keep the bloody thing in the air for a few minutes at least.
That evening I leave for Agra and the Taj Mahal. I had some reservations about going, but everyone I spoke to said yes, it's dirty, smelly, noisy, there's tons of obnoxious tourists and shameless touts, but you simply have to do it, the Taj is worth it. And I'm glad I did.
Finally it was back to Delhi. As with most people I was a little phased by Delhi, but I find it totally normal now, and have a good look around, before catching my flight HOME.
Which is where am I now. Everything's so quiet! Where are the cows? The buffalo? The people peeing in the gutters, the rickshaws, the noise, the sewage, the rubbish, the people asking me questions? The awesome street food and stalls crammed together like jigsaws? The saris and shawls, the dogs and dhabas? I'm going to miss it all.
...though some things more than others!