The Israel Trail, Bhagsu-Style
Climbing up to Dharmakot Village, I was surprised to see a marker on a rock, remarkably similar to the one for the Israel Trail.
Well, it was not a coincidence. The local Israeli community branded the way to the Israeli colony in Dharamkot with the familiar sign – marking the territory so to speak…
Originally, the white stripe points to the north of Israel (Mount Hermon with winter snow and a ski slope), the yellow/orange leads south to the Negev desert. Blue is for Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, or just your favorite color…
Above is the marker near Dharamkot
Source, Denis Stolnik Facebook photo on https://www.israeltrail.net/galleries/
Shderot Rothchild a-la-Dharamkot
When you follow the Upper Bhagsu marker, you eventually reach Dharamkot’s Main Street. An original street sign for Shderot Rothchild – the trendy, iconic boulevard in central Tel Aviv – is posted at the entrance. And, indeed, all along Dharamkot’s main street, young Israelis hang out in coffee houses, shop for crystals, jewelry, sharwals. They smoke joints, discuss their future plans and current experiences, play frisbee and make music. By now, the majority of the vendors along the “boulevard” speak at least some rudimentary Hebrew, and many are fluent!
Israelis inhabit guesthouses all around Dharamkot and the surrounding hills, sometimes for long periods. They are main participants in the different yoga schools, music lessons and the myriad other activities offered in the area. Some of these activities are described in my post – Bhagsu, Israel’s Community Center in India. Otherwise, the Israelis walk the walks, smoke the smokes, meet with the other sex, and relish the freedom India provides.
Within minutes, a group can form to walk to the Falls, or to Nadi Village, throw a gig, a game or a party. Most are Israelis, but Indians, Australians, Germans and eveybody else are welcome. The secular Israeli traveler tends to be eclectic. Other tourists think we come from Israel in groups. Not usually. We congregate “on the run”.
Us and Them - Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv
In contrast, Beit Chabad, Lower Bhagsu, like many other Beit Chabads across India and “The East”, is a religious center complete with a synagogue, guesthouse and a Kosher restaurant. I stayed there on my first week in the country, as elaborated below.
One of the semi-religious girls I met at the Beit Chabad striked me when she said: “Here is Jerusalem. Up There (Dharamkot) is Tel Aviv”. What she was trying to convey was: Here live the righteous. There is Sodom and Gomorrah!
Everything, seemingly, is imported from Israel: the old conflicts, the “us vs. them”, but also… Turkish coffee and Bamba! See my post on the legendary Hezi and Angels of the Trail.
Bottom of the Trail
I came to Bhagsu by taxi, fresh from the Cloud End Villa Hotel, where I spent my first night in India. The driver dropped me, my suitcase, mochila and handbag by the taxi station, lower Bhagsu.
The place was crowded, dirty, smelly. The driver refused to take me further into the town. According to him, cars don’t go up that road (not entirely true, but they avoid it, if they can get away with it).
The above picture of Bhagsu’s “port of entry” was taken a few days after my arrival, and a bit higher up from where I was originally dropped. At the actual moment, naturally, the last thing on my mind was shooting a picture to commemorate my arrival. The burning concerns were: how shall I find accomodation, carrying all this stuff up the hill? And what if somebody seizes the opportunity to snatch something ? I was overpacked, as my daughters kept telling me, but could not help it!
Jerusalem in Bhagsu - Beit Chabad
Rolling the suitcase behind me, I hoisted the mochila on my back and, with everybody staring, put my daypack in front, walking stick in the other hand and started climbing.
I did not realize, then, that I was already walking on the Israeli Trail in India. That started to get clear when a familiar sight from Jerusalem came into view: men in black getting into an alley. I was actually happy to see them.
“Ken (yes)”. They were going to the Beit Chabad. Yes, I can leave my stuff there. No problem. It was kind of them, as it was Shabbat. On Shabbat you don’t carry and don’t deal with anything money. You don’t even help people who do, like drivers asking for directions.
I followed them gingerly up some narrow pathways to a yellow building not that far from Main Street, but surprisingly secluded.
A group of girls, with various degrees of interest in the religion, but all with a high interest in getting married, was sitting around, idle. The men were praying and singing zealously in the other room, which served as a synagogue.
By default I joined the girls, who told me – yes, of course you can leave your stuff there. Maybe when S., the hostess, comes, she will even let you have a room…
Lucky for me, once S. arrived with her baby, she indeed consented to show me to a room. All was well as long as I did not talk about money. She would not even tell me how much the room went for.
Done deal. I was grateful and happy, having no incentive to go around and look for another place. It was Shabbat after all, no?
The room was decent, if basic, but the view out the windows was simply glorious! This is, after all, what I came to India for:
A Princess Glory is Inside Her Chamber
Back in the lobby, the girls were fondling S.’s baby with longing eyes, and playing with her mischievious 2-year-old, who was obviously enjoying the attention. S. herself was an object of admiration as one who “had made it” – an esteemed husband who was running this major enterprise, and lovely kids. Plus, she was here in India on a mission, getting the best of all worlds.
With a slight “catch”…
All these travellers (secular and religious), gorgeous youth in their prime, come over to her home. They eat at the common dining table, share their stories, then leave their backpacks in the locked room and move on to another adventure. She stays behind, barely ever leaving the compound. This is what she knows of India.
But she is happy being contained. Similarly, most of the Indian ladies are seemingly happy being contained, enclosed, to various degrees of mobility and freedom. There are enormous benefits for this protected at-home family life style, and I don’t mean this sarcastically. Security, stability, family, most likely fidelity. On the streets they are barely seen, unless with their husbands.
Conversely, nowadays, most ultra-orthodox ladies in Israel actually work outside the home, while their men study in yeshivas – schools for religious studies. This arrangement is unique in global terms, but the basic concept underlying the culture is still that “All glorious is the princess within her chamber” (Psalms 45;13, New International Version). A woman’s place is essentially in the home. In similarity to their Hindu and Muslim counterparts, for the seriously orthodox Jewish women Husband, King and God are basically still all one.
As I wrote in my poem, “The Pursuit of Happiness”, the entity of happiness, like the receding rainbow, is elusive by nature. Having a nice family, if at a price, is still a great goal and achievement many in the modern, secular world do not accomplish. But personally, what to do, no, I couldn’t live quite like that even with all the perks.
And as to the religion itself, there are nice things about all religions, and there are things I don’t like about all religions. I am glad I have the freedom to concoct my own “spiritual salad”. India is an excellent place for that, as I will elaborate later.
Tel Aviv - Music, Grass, Beer...
As Shabbat wound to a close, I heard wild singing from a building somewhere above Beit Chabad. In my lonesome singleness, I was aroused, curious, even jealous. Unlike the religious hymns the men were chanting here before, now I heard chic Israeli music – nostalgic, modern, rock and roll – the range. And English, too.
A Pie in the Sky
Looking out, I located the source – an elongated balcony with corrugated rails way up somewhere. People. Loud sounds. Lights. Laughter. A lot of laughter. A sense of freedom, joy.
Is this really India? How does that fit, all this Hebrew singing? Do people come here to give themselves a sanction for disregard, for letting go? When was the last time I heard such a burst of sheer abandon and relish of Life in Israel itself? Or is this who we really are, only I miss it most of the time in that holy city of ours? Does the “true” Israeliness comes to its own better here, against the background of India? And how does it all fare with the locals?
Later I found out the music came from a big Israeli favorite: the Sky Pie Hotel. I was invited there to attend a concert. It was easy to recognize the building, the balconies. Personally, I prefer the cozy family guesthouse I was lucky to find over any characterless hotel, but many Israelis like it, and they make it alive.
It’s a Party
The concert was more about atmosphere and camaraderie than about music. The singer, Hayim Cohen, was decent, pleasant and unpretentious. When women in the crowd joined him on the podium and sang along, things picked up a bit musically. A hat was passed around in the end and people contributed generously – in rupee terms! He was happy nonetheless, probably doing those gigs to finance his own India trip.
Everybody had a great time. To be more precise, most were passing joints and drinking. I and another woman over 40 were dancing. To each their own. The beautiful girls at my table were smoking joint after joint. I won’t lie – it was a bit disheartening to watch.
From Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and Back
Both Beit Chabad and Sky Pie are a part of the larger Israeli Trail in India. They are two facets of our existence in The Land and here. It’s well known that in India many Israelis transform, often moving from the one extreme to the other. That’s why the Beit Chabads are there in the first place – to catch the “lost souls” and bring them back into the fold. They also try to prevent their own folk from “falling”. Temptations are, after all, everywhere. For many, they give a life-saving service, but I know a guy who “graduated India” as a Jew for Jesus and numerous others who came out as Buddhists. I even met an Israeli who became a Kali devotee.
In particular comes to my mind a gorgeous tall blonde guy, previously religious, who once turned, renamed himself “The Prince”. With his looks he could have auditioned for a movie, but here he was dressed in a long worn-out colorful robe and a weird hat, ravenously taking in and tasting “life”. For a living, he was buying crystals from traveling merchants, planning to sell them in Israel for profit, and crafting jewlery. His most curious creation was a wand, almost 2 meters tall, full of crystals and hanging decorations. It was somehow intended to get with him on the airplane…
...One Word About the Spiritual Salad
That topic requires a full post. Here I’ll just mention that, yes, we are a nation famous for its salads. And in India concocting a spiritual salad is simply the thing to do.