The Flaneur: Mcleod Ganj
A shoeless Englishman, hippies and academics, journalists and activists, monkey road, closeness to death.
The second in a series called “The Flaneur”:
We follow David as he bums around India: drifting from place to place, taking notes, confessing, soliciting trouble.
Mcleod Ganj, India—It feels there are things to be tapped into here, that there is a poetry to this place.
Spring is coming and the tourists are beginning to arrive in droves. They arrive alone or in eclectic groups of strangers who met days or weeks ago, wearing headbands and lots of bracelets and pants with billowing crotches and long blonde scraggly dreadlocks.
A few nights ago I met young Englishman who doesn’t wear shoes.
He came up to me shoeless in the Mount View, a bar that is popular with young Tibetan refugees that live in the area who like to drink and dance, and began talking about how he and everyone else were exactly the same. You, me, Tibetans, Indians — all of us are one and the same. He said it as though what he were saying was revelatory.
As he spoke a Tibetan guy walked up and asked why he wasn’t wearing shoes.
The Englishman said he’d “quit footwear.” He lifted his feet to show us the soles. They were black as tar.
Besides the hippies you’ve got the academics and the anthropologists, and the journalists and the activists, though the town’s population consists mostly of Tibetan refugees. It’s a busy, eclectic place, with a style and speed that is unique in India.
Up the hill you have this tiny village called Dharamkot, which is full of Israelis wandering around barefoot and high. Most have just gotten out of military service and have come here to disappear for a while. It’s a relaxing place to veg out in the open air all day smoking charas and listening to bearded men strum guitars.
Tomorrow I will be moving into a new flat, a small square room with an attached bathroom and kitchen on the rooftop of a building that looks like it may collapse soon.
The rent is $50 a month, including electricity, but it has a number of problems. First, the balcony overlooks the “monkey road,” a belt of forest where each morning dozens of monkeys come crashing through, banging on the rooftops and stealing or breaking everything they can get their hands on. I was told to make sure my door was shut each morning, otherwise they might come in looking for stuff. They keep a rifle on the roof to deal with them. The rifle doesn’t actually work: you just point it at the monkeys and they’ll run away.
The other problem with the flat is that the floor has a declivity to it. I used a half-empty water bottle to gauge the angle. I sat the bottle on the floor and marked the tilt of the liquid with a permanent marker. It looked about ten degrees. I’m not sure if it’s the whole building leaning or just the roof.
At first I was reluctant to move to such a place, fearing it would collapse during an earthquake. Since then I was told by a friend, who was told by someone who had done a geological survey of the region, they every building in Mcleod Ganj — except for the library — would collapse if a major quake hit. Thus no one building is really safer than any other.
This closeness to death is just something you must learn to live with.
The day after I arrived, a young Tibetan woman was walking through the town’s main carrefour when a rock fell from a three-story building and landed on her head, killing her. Later, more rocks fell off the building, and supposedly a child was also injured. Nobody bothered to rope the area off. The rocks that fell off are still lying there in the street, days later.