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What Backpackers Do All Day

We were drinking chai at midnight, singing Bob Dylan songs and watching Wild Bill attack his guitar.  A pack of wild dogs ran by, and the six-fingered tea maker screamed over a swirling wind then set up four more fresh ones on the wooden ledge.  The road was wet, mud puddles glimmering like magical pools of chocolate memories from some far away children’s tale.  The Sunrise Café was preparing to shut down, but not before we all got one more fix.  It was, after all, Mario’s last night.

In McLeod Ganj, India you can either hang out inside a restaurant or a makeshift cinema house or you can gather outside – simplicity in a choice-less environment.  The town is small but popular with all the world’s nomads who shrug off first world comfort for reasons they can’t explain, who come to India for revelations they have yet to discover.  But the Third World does have its moments, many in fact, and for most of my fellow friendlies those moments found us outside a dusty little shack called the Sunrise Café.

The café is cozy which means that it’s small, so small that you can count the number of crammed chess players and tea drinkers on one hand and a couple of toes.  A wooden table sits inside the broken-down building with three uncomfortable wrap-around benches underneath that form a horseshoe.  Books, games, lanterns and a few trinkets share table space with well-traveled elbows, while photos of those immortal and home-made artwork hang from the dank wooden walls.  The chai guy bobs and leans to the left of the slim entrance of two rickety stairs and in front of a gigantic windowless opening, sparking nostalgic minds to float across oceans, back to the local Dairy Delight in small town America or rural Anywhere.  Hunched over three large stainless steel pots, he strains his tea into dirty little glasses as the Indians have done for centuries.    

Across the narrow dirt road from the Sunrise Café, several dilapidated benches of wood and metal prop themselves against a cluttered notice board.  Space is at a premium on the inside, but the real excitement takes place out of doors, where forever friendships are forged on those splintered seats.  Travelers squat in heated discussion or jig and dance to the homemade music or just sit quietly soaking it all in.  Watching India pass by under the glow of a full moon while sipping a chai – this is the backpacker experience in its purest form.

The greatest thing I can say about the Sunrise Café is that it felt like home, and that feeling of belonging to something, somewhere, when you’re half a globe away from family and friends and everything familiar, that feeling is what goose bumps are made of.

Mario raised a glass on his final night and spoke about friendship and addressed each of us individually in a way only Mario could.  He was our Godfather.  We sang and danced like idiots in a mad land, outlasting the night and welcoming the morning.  We were an odd gang, dreamers all of us, some quiet, a few performers of the world.  Our common bond was being drawn together in that little town at a specific point in time.  We shared something electric in those wild hills of Northern India, never to be outdone or recreated, impossible to forget. 

It has been nearly a year since those muddy nights huddled in front of the Sunrise Café, and I can honestly say it was a great time spent doing nothing.  So when parents and friends and neighbors of all sizes ask what you did with all those hours not going to work or school, the answer is simple and true – I was hanging out.
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