By Danni Portocarrero
This story began at a kitchen table in Kathmandu. A curious woman named Rita was in a storytelling mood and the rest of us were more than happy to listen to her adventures. “Did I tell you about the time I wanted to see if I could meet the president of Nepal?” she giggled. Rita had woken up one morning with this thought in her head and about a week (and many hours of patient waiting outside his palace) later, she was sitting face to face with the president. This woman had the humble power of persistence in her blood.
Her story sparked a thought in my mind. At the time, I was studying peace and conflict in Nepal and my final group paper investigated the situation of Tibetan refugees in the country. Writing on this subject, I was reminded of Dalai Lama’s face as often as the rest of the world was reminded of the face of Trump. What if I could meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
After the end of my semester, I started a journey with two friends. Our gaze was at the Indian Himalayas and Dharamshala, home of the exiled Tibetans and the Dalai Lama. We crossed the land border between Nepal and India and, for a number of weeks, continued our journey through the boiling hot parts of the country. When the coolness of the Himalaya mountains came closer it was much welcomed, and from one day to another, our then hectic Indian trip took a turn and embarked on the slow pace of mountain people.
We reached Dharamshala at four in the morning. The bus dropped us off in the middle of the forest and being backpackers on a budget we spent three hours sleeping on our yoga mats behind a kiosk while waiting for the daylight. When the sun came out, we happily strolled around Dharamshala eating Tibetan bread and glancing at Buddhist monks while breathing in the fresh air from the tall trees surrounding us. I expected the Dalai Lama to be in his monastery, given the fact that his 83rd birthday was coming up. However, I had not checked my facts. Jonas, my travelling companion, and I only went to the monastery a few days later. By then, I had requested a private audience with His Holiness on his webpage, explaining that I had been studying peace for the last few months and that he was a figure I wished to meet in person. My application was declined due to his old age and busy schedule.
Arriving at the monastery, the reception informed us that the Dalai Lama was out of town. He was travelling in Kashmir, the very hard-to-get-to north of India and would not return in the upcoming months. I, however, had little more than two weeks left until I would have to fly back to Europe. My heart sank. All the tricks and ideas I had in mind fell apart. He was not even home. Walking out of the compound, Jonas turned towards me with a spark in his eye and said: “Let’s find a motorcycle?”.
About a week later and ten days before my flight was leaving from New Delhi, I was sitting behind Jonas on a heavy Royal Enfield packed with a tent, a camping kitchen and a vision: to catch up with the Dalai Lama in Ladakh. In front of us lay 2000 km of savage mountain roads. The journey to Ladakh would take around four days, then we would have two days left to find him to ride back towards Delhi in time for my flight.
Before leaving Dharamshala, I had returned to the monastery’s reception and managed to get the e-mail of His Holiness’ secretary, to inform him about our journey. After three days on the road, I received a reply saying it would be possible to arrange a meeting if I could make it to a place called the Nubra Valley. The valley was located only about 200 kilometres from Ladakh, but it required us to cross the highest motorable road in the world, over 5400m up in the clouds. It felt as if His Holiness himself was testing our determination.
The journey to Ladakh was a roller-coaster through the wilderness, far away from urbanized societies. During these four days of driving the magical sensation of being in Tibet absorbed us. Later we were told the region had belonged to Tibet in the past, so the energy must have stayed. Time was ticking and finally, we were left with three days before I had to return to Delhi: One to cross the high road to the Nubra Valley, one to attempt to find out which monastery the Dalai Lama was in, and one to cross back over the high road in time for the last bus to catch my flight. Jonas would drive the motorcycle back alone.
The morning of the first day we started crossing the high peak leading to the Nubra Valley. When we got down on the other side it was already night, since we got delayed by three rockfalls and a mildly put dangerous fall of our own. On the morning of the second day, we saw the Nubra Valley in daylight. Desert mountains with ancient white monasteries climbing the hillsides surrounding a green valley with springs of fresh water and a gigantic golden statue of a sitting Buddha overlooking it all. We made it to the monastery His Holiness was in by midday. It was surrounded by people who had travelled there to hear him speak the morning after.
We walked up to the red and golden gates and started explaining our goal to the guards. I had spoken to the head secretary of His Holiness, they were expecting us, I avoided to tell him that the secretary had not responded to my last 5 emails. We waited. And waited. After two hours I wrote a handwritten letter to the secretary and asked a guard to make sure it got to him. After another hour I sent another letter. At four p.m. we were told to come back the day after at eight a.m., His Holiness needed his rest.
The morning of the third day, when I should have been on the road back to Ladakh and on the last bus for Delhi, we walked up towards the monastery again. I introduced us to the guard, who opened his book of important details and said the magical words: “Are you Daniela?”. I quickly confirmed as the golden gates opened, and climbed up the stairs that lead me straight into the arms of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The power that lies in persistence opened the president’s palace to Rita just as it opened a meeting with one of the biggest peace figures in the world to me. I cannot help but wonder: Which other doors could it open?
Danni Portocarrero is a nomad soul that came to Uppsala in the fall of 2018 to finish a degree in development studies, before that she was going from place to place in the world. She loves writing, red wine, naked honesty and yoga. Within her field of study, she’s very passionate about nature rights. She’s writing for Uttryck to share moments, meetings and reflections from her past adventures.
Illustrator: Melinda Nilsson