Invisible foreigners

Originally published on the Times of India blogs, 11th October 2011

Q: How on Earth does a firangi become invisible in a place like India?

A: She simply goes to a place where there’s more firangis than Indians.

I could be talking about Goa. Or maybe Rishikesh. But if you’ve read my previous post, you can probably guess where I am: McLeod Ganj, aka the ‘Little Lhasa’ just up the hill from Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.

Compared with the number of Tibetans (refugees – their government is based here in exile, as well as His Holiness himself, the Dalai Lama, although you probably know that) and the hoardes of Western tourists, there are very few Indian people here. Many of the ones who do live here work in the numerous hotels and restaurants, and others – mostly Kashmiris – run souvenir shops. At the weekends, a few streams of tourists from Punjab arrive, but don’t seem to visit the momo joints very often. For the most part, this town feels incredibly un-Indian.

I admit that I came here to feel invisible. I wasn’t interested in proper travelling or sightseeing – if I had been, there are plenty of other places in the Himalayas I would’ve visited instead. No, all I needed was a change of scene, a few breaths of real oxygen, and, dare I use that awful expression: ‘me time’.

Nobody pays any attention to foreigners here, because, like I said, the place is crawling with them. Everywhere you look there are young, slightly unkempt goras and goris, lugging Lonely Planets around like Bibles, their tie-dyed trousers neatly tucked into locally-purchased rainbow woollen socks. They sit in cafes, sipping lemon and ginger tea, comparing stories of camel treks in Rajasthan, tout-encounters in Delhi, and, most importantly, their ever-changing bowel habits.

Of course I avoid these people like the plague. They’re always so doe-eyed and enthusiastic, poking their camera lenses into the unsurprised faces of wrinkled Buddhist monks, and getting up at dawn to meditate on the meaning of life. I have become much too cynical (or ‘realistic’, as I prefer to put it) to spend much time with people like that.

Although I do enjoy sniggering (from behind my newspaper) at their conversations. One group of Americans were discussing the courses they were ‘studying’ here in ‘McLeod’. ‘Mine’s called ‘Emotional Development’’, said one sunburnt, dreadlocked gori. ‘It’s really helping me find the balance in my life, y’know? The yin and yang of our existence.’ (She actually said that.) I wondered if she had the faintest idea what she was talking about.

Other Westerners, on their quests for inner-whatever, have even shaved their heads and donned the dark red robes of Buddhist monks and nuns, wandering the streets of the Himalayan town with a peaced-out, yet always slightly miserable expression, rosary in hand. Rainbow woollen socks on feet.

Before you say it, though, I have nothing against these ‘born again’ Buddhists – in fact, I might even be a little envious of their certainty in choosing such a spiritual path in life. But they really should lighten up a bit. Every Western Buddhist I’ve seen here has looked so serious, nearly always sitting or walking alone. The Tibetan monks chat on mobile phones, play pool, sing karaoke in the evenings. The nuns sit huddled together on benches, bent double with laughter. And just look at HH; he’s the happiest man I’ve ever seen. These Westerners should look around them and cheer up. They’ve not been exiled from their homeland.

Anyway, I didn’t come here to meet these people. I came to get lost amongst them. Even in Delhi, I feel a bit strange eating alone in a restaurant, but I can do it here. I am invisible. And it’s a nice feeling; at least for a little while.

This morning I got up early and walked the ‘Kora’ – a circuit around the Dalai Lama’s residence. Amazingly, there were no other foreigners in sight. A black and white calf and its mother were on the path, and all around us were rocks painted with Tibetan script that I couldn’t read. The air smelled like pine trees and was filled with the sound of cicadas croaking. Colourful prayer flags flapped in the wind. As I walked – the circuit must be done clockwise – a few Tibetan people passed me. Not one of them so much as made eye contact; but I’m pretty sure they weren’t being rude, or shy. They just weren’t really interested in another foreigner. I can’t blame them at all. I will miss that when I go back to Delhi, I think. Although I really won’t miss those rainbow woollen socks…

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