When I arrived in Dharamsala – or, more accurately, McLeod Ganj – I was broke, starving, exhausted and sick. On the overnight bus-train-bus trip from Rishikesh, via Delhi, I’d been robbed of my camera and cash, my travel companion had gotten explosive diarrhea, and we hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours. It was high summer in India and I had had a permanent layer of sweat for months.
Arriving in the Himalayan foothill town best known for its dominant Tibetan exile community – most notably the Dalai Lama – I was in dire need of a change of pace. With the heat broken here at higher altitudes, I prepared to immerse myself in Tibetan culture. I’d taken a Tibetan Buddhism class in college; now I found myself in one of the best places on earth to get to know it first hand.
After a rough first 12 hours – during which I nearly yell-sobbed at a hotel employee in order to get the worst pizza of my life and my travel companion couldn’t leave the bathroom – things got better. Locals didn’t stare here the way they did in the rest of India. Men didn’t harass us as a matter of course. Tibetans dressed like Brooklyn hipsters and hung out socially with travelers, sharing their culture and refugee stories. The town was home to a surprisingly cosmopolitan expat community, thanks to the significant NGO presence. I began to think I could really love Tibetan culture.
Most important, though, was the food. After months of almost no raw fruits and vegetables – anything that might touch water was virtually inedible to weak Western stomachs – we found cafés that served salads that we were allowed to eat. Lettuce never tasted so good.
A cute café that spilled out onto one of the winding mountain roads served Portland-worthy cappuccinos and lattes, a pleasant surprise I hadn’t expected to encounter for another few countries. We even dared to have a few beers over the course of our evenings, behavior guaranteed to result in harassment for women elsewhere in India.
But I hadn’t come to McLeod Ganj to eat salads and drink cappuccinos. We signed up for one of the many cooking classes in town and learned to cook momos, the Tibetan signature dumpling that seemed to be a cultural staple. They could be filled with anything, like most dumplings, from vegetables to a meat of choice, and were steamed or fried depending upon your preference. The key to making them seemed to be primarily in the dough and the folding technique, which required constant movement and pinching to get them into a delicate crescent shape, one I never quite mastered.
While they were refreshingly different from the dense Northern Indian food of the last month, I can’t say that either of us loved them – they were exotic, so we wanted to, but they tasted rather bland to our long-over-stimulated taste buds. Maybe Tibetan food wasn’t as exciting as we’d hoped.
Not ready to give up, though, I insisted upon trying another Tibetan staple that had showed up often in my Tibetan Buddhism class readings in college: butter tea. The Tibetans around us seemed to love it, so maybe this was the solution. Trekking to the other side of town, to the temple that was home to the Dalai Lama, we slipped into their café and ordered a mug to share. It tasted like drinking salty butter, fatty residue on your lips included. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could drink a multiple cups a day, much less more than a few sips. So much for our Tibetan food foray.
Wandering back through town, we stumbled into an NGO-run café and boutique, filled entirely with local handicrafts and staffed by volunteers. Picking up a brownie to soothe our disappointed stomachs, we chatted with the girl behind the counter. When we learned that all the baked goods were made by volunteers, a conversation from earlier in the week came to mind. We looked at each other.
“We’d love to help,” I chimed in. “How does it work?” Apparently, we’d pick a time, they’d provide the ingredients and we’d spend a few hours baking for the store.
My friend leaned forward. “Can you get peanut butter here?” We were sold.
On our allotted baking day, one of the Tibetan volunteers was in the store. Our cookies turned out mediocre at best – baking at high altitudes is always difficult – and I don’t even remember if the Tibetan girl tried the cookies, but spending the afternoon with strangers while doing such a seemingly mundane activity in order to help the exile community felt like we were finally able to connect with the local community. And it turned out that those peanut butter cookies were more satisfying than any momo.
Photo by Geoff Sterns via Flickr Creative Commons.