Bir, a place of serenity, nature, and beauty
Before deciding to go to India on my own, I always thought I was prepared to face the challenges. India was nothing new to me since I have been to my relative’s city a few times by now, but boy was I wrong! Himachal Pradesh was a whole new adventure.
We were surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains as we were landing in Dharamsala in our Spicejet named Elaichi (Cardamom). The view outside the airport was surreal. Our driver came ready to pick us (volunteers) up and we drove two hours to a small Tibetan town called Bir.
A little history about Bir…
Bir is home to one of the top paragliding spots in the world and a Tibetan refugee colony. Years ago, the Dalai Lama led Tibetan refugees across the Himalayas into India to escape from the atrocities happening in China. The father of my home-stay aunt was one of the people that walked with the Dalai Lama to India. Many refugees came without anything on their backs and left much of their family back home in China.
The harsh winters made the 3-month journey across the Himalayas almost deadly to the refugees. People came with amputated fingers and toes. After struggling to understand Indian currency and adopting a new language, they were able to take jobs as road workers and winter clothing sellers and make a living. The Indian government granted them settlement options and gave them jobs. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is devoutly worshiped and you can see pictures of him in every home. However, it is a crime to even have his picture in a house in China.
Tashi Dalek! ( Greetings in Tibetan)
You really get the essence of traveling to a new place when you live like a local. I was lucky to have such a wonderful host family that took care of everything I needed. However, with no heater or hot water, the first couple of days were rough.
At night the street dogs kept howling and it was almost -4 degrees. I slept with two layers on and three fluffy blankets. And — — I was still freezing! I got used to it after a while and got the little space heater that I had to be an inch away from to feel warm. Bucket showers became a wonderful water saving routine for me as well.
The best part of living in a small town is that you become familiar with every road and alleyway. Faces start to look familiar wherever you go and you have a chance to be part of a huge family! Every morning I would eat some Tibetan bread with Nutella and drink some chai and be on my way to class.
The first couple of days were havoc as I tried to calm the kids down and try to be strict. Which, if you know me, is not my forte. Later I started a system of giving away chocolate to the best behaved and this bribery worked wonders for me and kids started sharing and keeping each other calm and helping each other with the material.
No matter how many dances shows I watch, I could never pick up moves as fast as these little monks could. Their broken Hindi and their energy can bring a smile on anyone’s face. And oh! They can rap in Hindi too!
Every single one of them was such a talented artist! Every day, I would go home with a stack of drawings that they made for me. I decided to put up a wall in my house with all the artwork I got from them.
I also used to teach a class in the late afternoon for a bunch of kids that were older. Most of them were around 16–19 years old. Teaching them was much easier than handling the little kids! They were wonderful listeners and so enthusiastic to learn.
We went over things like poverty, environmental concerns, and other major problems in our world. We read stories that had deep morals and they understood everything so well. Sometimes after my lesson, I would ask them to teach me a little about their views on life, which was very enlightening as well. It’s easy to hear things but extremely hard to actually implement them in your everyday life.
I had imagined my new year’s eve to be celebrated in the four walls of my room with my volunteer friends but it was completely different. About thirty minutes away from our town was a huge palace that was converted into a hotel with beautiful gardens where we got invited through one of our volunteer friends for a grand new years eve party.
The palace was called Taraghar Palace and it was once owned by the royal family of Jammu and Kashmir. It was a night filled with dancing, amazing food, and an open bar! I had the pleasure of meeting many respected doctors and dancing away to Honey Singh and Badshah. It was definitely my most memorable new year.
After a long week of teaching, we all decided to spend the weekend in Dharamsala, which was about two hours away. We were really looking forward to hot showers! The drivers in Himachal are really heroes. There were too many times that I thought our car wouldn’t make it up the mountain with the tire almost hanging off the road. The roads are the scariest but you learn that you can trust the drivers with your life. Although, I had to take a motion sickness pill every time I got into the car due to the windy roads.
We stayed in a hotel called The Pink Hotel because almost everything on the outside was pink. Pretty easy to find even though we had to climb up almost 400 stairs every time we had to go back. No wonder I haven’t seen any fat people here! We were welcomed with some Kashmiri Khewa tea, which I am still trying to find in the states.
The next morning I woke up to the most beautiful sunrise in my life. The rest of the day was spent street shopping through the city for local jewelry and shawls. I visited the Dalai Lama Temple with my friend and found a secret spot that had the view of the most beautiful sunset. The whole town was under fog and it felt like you were standing on top of the world with different shades of orange all around you with just nothingness under you.
We also got a chance to visit the Bhagsu Nag temple, which is believed to be really powerful. Afterward, we hiked up to see a waterfall. By no means was it a waterfall. It was more like a string of water coming down the hill. After hiking for 2 more kilometers, we came to the Shiva Cafe. I had expected an average noodle house and Dhaba style restaurant, but this cafe was amazing. It was located on top of a mountain with nothing but trees and mountains surrounding it. It was quite a workout to get there, but totally worth it. The ambiance of the place was super chill and they were blasting awesome alternative/indie/electronic music.
Everyone inside was just sitting down and smoking hookah and drinking tea. In the northern part of India, Chow-mien is a very popular dish and we saw it served in almost every eatery we went to. However, this cafe definitely had the tastiest. The view, music, and ambiance of this place just takes you away and makes you forget all about your reality.
For my last weekend in India, I decided to take a trip to Amritsar in Punjab. It was about 6 hours from where I live. I had seen the famous Golden Temple so many times in movies and pictures, so I was super excited to check it out. The night we arrived in Amritsar, we went to the temple to see it in the night lights. Although we weren’t allowed to enter the shrine, it was beautiful at night.
The next day we went back to the temple on a rickshaw and got a chance to go inside the shrine. The roads to the temple were super old and it felt like I was going through the streets of the cities my parents grew up in. There were bangle stores, shawl stores, and small dhabas everywhere! One of the dhabas, Kesar Da Dhaba, in the temple area was pretty known in the area so we decided to try it out. The food tasted very authentic. The phirni and lassi tasted like the way it was meant to be made. I probably gained a few pounds that weekend, but I have no regrets!
These are the prayer wheels in the Chokling Monastery in Bir. Spinning the wheel stands for completing a round of prayer, which constitutes of great goodwill and fortune.
These are the prayer flags that can be seen literally everywhere! Blue symbolizes sky and space. White symbolizes air and wind. Red symbolizes fire. Green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. The amazing thing about these is that you will find them in the most unreachable places across Himachal Pradesh and Nepal. The belief is that the wind carries these across to spread goodwill and compassion.
Our next weekend I finally tried Paragliding. Bir is home to the world’s second most popular paragliding destination. For a person that is scared of heights, this was a pretty big step for me. But after knowing it’s that popular here, I couldn’t be scared. I made sure not to eat before because I heard the 45-minute car ride up the mountain was filled with sharp turns. However, no number of ginger honey chews could help me. The ride up in the car was scarier than coming back down in the parachute. Once I was up in the air after successfully running and not falling off the mountain before the parachute lifted, I was able to see the Himalayan snow-covered peaks in the distance and so many small villages. We were in the air for a half-hour and I began to feel queasy after the first 10 minutes. My pilot did some cool tricks like the cyclone, which I definitely would have enjoyed more if I wasn’t feeling so sick. It was still an amazing experience and I would do it again. We landed back in Bir and I was done for the day!
Seeing that I was going to be living in a town primarily of Tibetans and Buddhist monks, many people have asked me what I learned on this trip and what the monks have taught me about life. So by popular demand, I will state some of my thoughts.
It is really not about what they told me or how they live their life. Many people share wisdom and we see quotes to inspire us online everywhere. One day we might see something that tells us to live every day as if it was your last. The next day we will see something that tells us that every action has a reaction and the choices we make today determine our life. Seems a bit contradictory doesn’t it?
I’m not saying that one should disregard it all, but understand that it all comes down to being mindful and experiencing things to understand life.
Although there isn’t one way to live life correctly, there are ways of life in which you are wasting your days. On TV we see ads that tell us that buying a certain car or cosmetic product will make us happier. Real-life is way out of line when it comes to what the media shows us. True happiness only comes when you realize that you are discovering more about yourself and your strengths.
One of the purest forms of happiness comes from helping people. Seeing the difference you can make empowers you and might make you happier than the person whom you have just helped. I see so many people trying to learn how to be happy and sharing posts that teach us that secret to happiness. From what I have seen, It really comes down to just a few things.
1. Take the toxic people out of your life.
You really don’t have to be friendly or spend your useful time with people you aren’t yourself or truly happy around. If you believe you are a good person, then the right people will come to you. This comes to choosing the right relationship as well as the right friends. Why do you think the people in the small villages I was in and the people in the monastery are so happy and sweet?
It’s because they don’t deal with half the bullshit we all choose to put up with. They wouldn’t even understand the fact that people have religious fights over YouTube music videos or that some people can be so insecure and jealous of others around them and try so hard to be like them or put them down. Maybe some aspects of living in the third world are better than dealing with some first-world problems!
2. Work hard but don’t make your job your life.
We all work hard to save money and spend it on things that make us happy. In 24 hours of your day, even if you take 8 out of sleep, less than 50% of the rest of your actual day should be spent for work. Talk to your family and go out with your friends! It might not be that case when you are working in a job that you love though!
Statistics show that the majority of people in the world aren’t working for what they are passionate about. Many people live in poverty in this world and they all can’t afford to focus on what they are truly passionate about and work in a job that enforces that. However, if you have the resources and opportunities to discover what job you were made for, then don’t listen to anyone tell you otherwise.
3. Learn to live in the moment.
I cannot emphasize this enough and although you may have heard it before, but learn to live life in the present. This comes to use especially when you are out traveling or spending time with your friends and family. Put your phones away and take a break from social media for a couple of weeks. Don’t let your social media profile tell you whether your life is any better than anybody else’s.
All of a sudden you have time to try new things and make more real connections with the world around you.
4. Be confident in yourself.
This usually gets stronger when you follow the steps above. If you have positive people in your life and you are working hard and having fun, it really does affect your confidence. Also, focus on yourself and developing yourself. If you are bothered by your size or the way you look, do something about it. Looking at posts that tell you that you are fine the way you are only sound good for about 10 seconds after you read it.
You should love yourself the way you are but that doesn’t mean being lazy and letting go. If wearing makeup makes you feel more confident, then go wear it. If you think you could lose a few pounds, start eating healthier and work out! Even if you don’t look like that model on a magazine cover, your confidence will start increasing daily.
5. Be educated about your world.
Education from just classes will only get you so far. The more you learn about different cultures and different ways of living life, you will be more mindful. The best way to do this is to travel to new countries and live like a local one for a period of time. Follow the news and get to know what’s going on around you. If you can, try to volunteer in a new place!
If you don’t currently have the means to travel, do your own research about different places. Learn about the beauty and the darkness that every country holds and talk to people that have grown up differently than you. Attend cultural events in your area and meet new people. Be more educated and open-minded.
Life is not meant to always be happy. Personal problems, work problems, and sudden unexpected turns and twists are what make life worth living. You know what the good stuff is once you have tasted the bad stuff. Small changes like this, however, can at least prevent you from being MISERABLE!
I decided to be cut off from social media and I hadn’t even talked to my best friends when I was in India no matter how much I missed them. There is an intoxicating feeling about living life in the present moment and only talking to those that are around you along with being in a different place where no one knows who you are in the world you call “reality”. By living in such a place, your true persona comes out. The way you talk, the things you believe in, and what you see all changes.
Having very few facilities around me and being able to make it through made me realize that there are a lot of things I take for granted in life and I really don’t need half the things I splurge on back in the states.
Every day that I spent with the monastery kids, I became more and more grateful for my parents and I realized that I haven’t spent enough time with them. There are so many instances in which I lose my temper unnecessarily.
Even though you may have heard it many times — — you can’t live your life caring about what others will think of what you do.
There is no use being jealous of someone else when you don’t know the balance of the happy/sad moments they really have in life. If I made this same trip in 20 years from now, many people might go around saying I was having a mid-life crisis or I am ignoring my responsibilities as a mother, wife, or employee. Just because I am 21 now, I “made an adventure and I am doing great things.” So I want you to know that who you really are is someone more beautiful than you think and someone more open-minded than you feel limited to. You are stronger than your weakest moment and your life is way cooler than your social media profile.
Thank you so much for taking the time out to read my blog!