The 25x45 square foot courtyard was lined with low-slung plaster and concrete buildings designed in the way of government buildings everywhere, drab, just a little dowdy, and smacking of red tape and delay. When we arrived in the courtyard, spare passport photos and ten rupee notes in hand, there were approximately 15 people already there waiting, pressed along the shady edges to avoid the warm midday sun. Each offered a brief acknowledgement with a smile and nod as we took a place against a wall, knowing that we had another hour before the office issuing passes to foreigners for tomorrow's teaching with the Dalai Lama would open.
We'd been in McCleodganj, home to the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama in India, for a week at this point. We'd already grown to love its muddy streets tucked into the Himalayan foothills and the incongruous sight of red-robed monks with iconic white earbuds protruding from their ears or gathered around a computer screen in a small coffee shop. We loved the mix of Indian and Tibetan culture and the dreadlocked, backpacking travelers who came to pray or meditate or learn yoga or simply be in this fascinating (and extremely inexpensive!) place. We loved watching the stray dogs sleep against murals and get their heads patted by passing nuns or small morsels tossed to them by pink-cheeked shop owners. We even loved how there were constant intermittent power outages and how we could be in the middle of dinner at a restaurant, the power would go out, and someone would simply go around and light the candles on the tables while no one, diner or server alike, blinked for even a moment.
Mostly, we loved that every day brought someone new into our life with a captivating story of how they came to be there. We met more than one Tibetan exile with a story of fear and Chinese oppression and beloved family left behind in a homeland forever lost to them. We met an Indian couple who gave up their rather glamorous life in Delhi to open a restaurant there in the mountains, searching for quiet and peace and a different rhythm to their days there in the thinner air. We met an art student from the American middle west living in an adjacent town studying the ancient art of thangka painting under a master.
On this morning, we'd walked into our favorite coffee shop (with the best banana cake and masala chai) only to find it full. After scanning the room, we found a booth with only one man at the table and made our way over to join him. After a quick hello, he went back to his journaling and we ordered our tea, discussing our plans for these last days before beginning our journey home. As our teacups emptied, the man closed his journal and asked where we were from in a British accent and this is how our acquaintance with Mr. Julian Bound began. Toward the end of what would be the first of many good conversations with him, he asked if we were planning to attend the Dalai Lama's teaching the next day. We corrected him…the teaching wasn't for another few days and we were devastated to know that we'd miss the experience by so little time. Julian corrected us in turn, informing us that, no, indeed, the teachings began tomorrow and he knew that because he had a press pass and would be photographing it. As we absorbed this news, Julian went on to walk us through the process of getting passes and told us where to go, assuring us that we still had time.
So here we were, awaiting the office issuing passes to open and giddy with excitement and anticipation. As the minutes passed, the courtyard filling and then crowding, that giddiness faded a bit and we began to look around at the people waiting alongside us. There was one other American that we noticed, a girl in her early twenties with a Farm League trucker hat looped to her backpack. Otherwise, the crowd around us was formed by a few Israelis, a couple of Australians, a girl from Argentina and her companion from Uruguay. There was a girl from Hong Kong and a guy from Chile along with the small girl from France that I found myself nose-to-nose with as the crowd grew ever more pressing. This little group immediately surrounding us was all young travelers, none of whom seemed to be older than about 22. English was the language that they all had in common, so their accents mixed as they discussed where they were from, where they'd been traveling, and where they might be heading next. To a person, they were all on epic travel adventures, most of them having been on the move for 6-8 months at that point and most having made their way to India from Asia, usually Thailand or Cambodia or Laos. They were backpackers, traveling as cheaply as possible- staying in hostels, eating cheap street food, hitching rides- more interested in who they could meet and what they could experience than five-star cuisine or high thread count sheets and concierge service.
Eavesdropping on their conversation was more than fascinating, it was bolstering. They were open and inquisitive and interested. They grilled each other, not in competition, but in genuine curiosity and enthusiasm. As the hour that the office was scheduled to open came and went with no sign of action, their patience and conversation was unwavering. The French girl (whose nose I had the very bizarre urge to kiss), I learned, had been traveling for just over 7 months, came to India via Cambodia, had just retained the services of a local monk to teach her Tibetan, and planned to just hang out in McCleodganj until she learned it. When I asked what other languages she spoke, she rattled off nine others. NINE languages. She was 20 years old.
Eventually, after almost three hours of being packed into that courtyard like cattle, the office finally opened its doors. We expected chaos to ensue since there was nothing even remotely resembling a line and the press of people was suffocating. But it was nothing like that. There was calm and courteous consideration almost uniformly shown as people who had arrived later graciously made room for those who had arrived earlier to go ahead with a smile. It was perhaps the most shocking experience we had during our travels, this display of patience and community despite the heat and wait and the office administrator's tardiness and brusqueness. We walked away from the office a mere 15 minutes after the doors opened with our passes in hand and our hearts soaring from the entire experience.
The next morning we made our way to the temple and joined the throngs of people waiting to hear the words of one of the world's great teachers. Justin prodded my side and pointed out where, about 30 yards from where we'd placed our own cushions, the group of travelers from the courtyard were all seated together, smiling and laughing as they waited. As the Dalai Lama entered the temple, passing within feet of where we stood, it truly felt as if a wave of love that was tangible and material passed over us, and we listened over the next hours as he spoke on the topic of compassion, of seeing commonalities instead of differences. I couldn't help but glance over at the group of early twenty-somethings who, despite various and distinct backgrounds, had so immediately connected, had so quickly supported and encouraged one another.
As the monks came around the crowd offering tea, Julian found his way over to where we were seated and we shared in his excitement over his first (of many!) experiences photographing such an exceptional event. He snapped a shot of the two of us and then went back to work, his warmth leaving us smiling.
Over the next few days, we began the journey home, one that included more than 40 hours of combined taxis, overnight trains, oddly timed layovers, and seemingly endless flights. But despite weariness and the grime of train stations and airports clinging to us, we made our way toward home with the lightness of the best of what travel can gift us with. We felt unspeakably connected, not just to the people we'd met and had conversations with, but to all people, everywhere. We walked through airports and squeezed into tuk tuks and ambled down packed streets and waited in lines and all the while felt a kinship with everyone we passed. With the words of the Dalai Lama ringing in our ears and the curiosity and enthusiasm of everyone we'd met singing in our hearts, we squeezed one another's hands and smiled broadly.
THIS is why we travel.