I couldn't figure out how I ended up running through the streets of Dharamsala, drenched, during a heavy rainstorm, or spending quiet mornings meditating in Tashi Jong, but I knew I never wanted to leave. This program took me to McLeod Ganj, a center of political and social energy for Tibetan refugees, Buddhist monks, and Western travelers alike, as well as to Tashi Jong, a removed village in the shadows of the Himalayan foothills where shared meals, morning meditations, and vibrant locals make the fabric of the thriving community.
City life was starkly different from country life, and each offered its own plentiful benefits. The air in McLeod buzzed with a tangible sense of social commitment as my fellow attendees and I worked alongside Tibetan refugees, teaching English and working on physical labor projects for urban renewal purposes. An average day in McLeod Ganj promised breakfast cooked by my welcoming Tibetan home stay mother, a morning of labor projects (including painting a meditation room in a home for the elderly, picking up garbage, and planting trees), followed by lunch at one of McLeod's many local, affordable restaurants, and an afternoon spent in meetings with high lamas, important Tibetan activists, and influential community members. Rustic Pathways also allowed for plenty of free time, during which we explored the city, shopped at the market stalls along the two main roads, or ventured to temple to watch monks debating philosophy before dinner.
Tashi Jong provided a more relaxed, rural environment where the temperature, along with the intensity of our labor projects, increased. My group spent the mornings breaking ground on an ecological park space by the village's river, which involved leveling hills, weeding, moving large rocks, mixing cement, and picking up garbage. Lunch was always a highlight; the village women cooked a community meal for us every day that we enjoyed with all the members of Tashi Jong. In the afternoons, we took a short hike to a local monastery where young Buddhist monks attempted to learn English from our clumsy (but sincere) attempts at teaching. Evenings held pick up soccer games, hikes through the countryside, and impromptu English lessons with the locals.
The linchpin of this program was perhaps the home stay aspect. To be dropped in the middle of a family whose members spoke only limited English was a true growing experience; finding ways to surmount language barriers led to the realization that kindness is a universal property, and in both McLeod and Tashi, the generosity of my host families moved me to tears on multiple occasions. I felt like a traveler, not a tourist, when my "mother" draped a silky "khata" around my neck upon my departure, and I sometimes find myself still craving a hearty Tibetan meal of bread, soup, and the ubiquitous chai.
A note on food: Northern India is a vegetarian's paradise. While I personally eat meat,the staple dishes of dal, rice, bread, and steamed vegetables never left me wanting more. Local delicacies are not fancy, but they are filling, delicious, and provide the necessary sustenance for a day spent working in the sun. Enjoy what the families have to offer and supplement your diet with plentiful local options (in McLeod) or light Western fare by way of convenience store (in Tashi).
As a company, Rustic Pathways left little to be desired. Both the American staff and the international staff were phenomenal; they worked ceaselessly to abate the inevitable culture shock we felt on our first couple of days in India. Our leaders were knowledgable, engaging, and filled the roles of friend, parent and teacher simultaneously and seamlessly. Their careful organization kept complications to a minimum and ensured that we remained safe, healthy, and effective travelers throughout the entire trip.
I left India in July, and not a day has passed when the residual feelings attached to my experience have not surfaced. My work, teaching English and building communal spaces, endowed me with a lasting sense of accomplishment that surpassed other service projects in which I have participated; seeing a tangible product that stemmed directly from my efforts felt richly rewarding. In return, I enjoyed experiences unknowable to the average tourist. From circumambulating at the temple during the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration to riding down winding streets on top of a public bus and cycling through sun salutations on a rooftop dwarfed by the soaring Himalayas, my time in India afforded me innumerable opportunities that enriched me both as a student and as a global citizen. I never thought it was possible to be homesick for a place I only visited, but the attachments formed quickly and reached deeply, entwining themselves inexorably with my personal narrative.