Asia | India – In the Himalayas
I keep making excuses for staying places so long-But this time I must be forgiven. The view cafe sits on a hill in the clouds. It is not a difficult; it is an impossible place to leave.
Something keeps me glued to the meteorological show!
At this moment the downpour is about to lift. I can see the sun on the far pine covered hills. The forks of lightning are still doing their late afternoon pirouettes in the rising black cumulous clouds. Sugarcane and a few black umbrellas feel the last breath of the storm…
I am meant to be in the main town giving an English class; but all my movements are dictated by the weather. So are my relationships. Always getting stuck with the most unlikely group of people. Yesterday I spent three hours hiding from a torrent, getting to know a gathering of Indian connect-four addicts in a small chai shop!
Reggae is sounding. Indian culture -NO-, But somehow this music brings me home wherever I am sitting in the world.
This Is Bagsu. A fifteen-minute stroll from Mcleod Ganj. The latter sits on top of the hills that surround the slightly bigger town of Dharamshala, which lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, In the north of India.
How long have you been in Dharamshala.
Oh, about eight
No no Months
I have sat here and watched the old timers leave this place on their way to Delhi. Pulling themselves off the wooden seats to take their last long drag of India. I dont know what it must feel like for them to finally walk out of the clouds. Time is slipping through my fingers like the smoke of beedees. Those small hand-rolled banana leaves I must now puff on as part of the Indian cultural integration process. I know I should be reporting on a myriad of places going with the flow, but I am caught in a whirlpool that sinks me down into the middle of my chair, hearing a hundred travelers tales. Collecting information on places I may never get to see. I am a willing and captive audience.
The world trade center has been hit. The Tibetan calendar predicts a massive earthquake in the Himalayas today. Rumor has it that His Holiness the Dalai Lama sat in oracle and has left the town cruised to Calcutta; while I am left fantasizing about silversurfing a massive piece of shale for kilometers down the crumbling sliding stones of the mountains. Last night we had a large group meditating for world peace. There were supposed to be similar groups over the whole globe doing the same thing at the same time. The Hoards of Israelis celebrated their New Year with a large trance party; but when I walked past I could not reconcile the frequency of the beat with the one buzzing round my head. So I headed back to my beautiful room. It is small and high up. The large window sits about three inches from my head so I fall asleep with the stars and moon shining in my eyes.
I arrived about two weeks ago. The local bus ride came after ten hours on the train. I was resting my head on a hard jumping metal bar. The only thing keeping me from slipping off this pillow was the frame of small hot hands knuckling my skull in a desperate attempt to keep their balance. We had to walk to the otherside of the mudslide, but another bus waited to take us up the rest of the way. There was a sudden rush, and I knew that the weight of my rucksack would stop me getting anything near as good as that headrest.
I felt that my arrival here was somewhat auspicious. After about twenty minutes in Mcleod someone told me to go and register for an audience’ with the Dalai Lama! Dharamshala is the main Indian refuge for Tibetan exiles. The first thing to strike me was how the bright orange Hindu habit had given way to the more sober austere maroon of all the Bhuddist monks. Silver rolling begging tins had turned into turning prayer wheels. Polio had contorted into leprosy.
Considering the position of His Holiness as not only a religious, but also a political leader; I was not at all surprised by the red tape involved in getting to see him. In fact the Chinese are already trying to sway the next Lama as someone who will fall under their rule. I stood in Queues the day before in order to get my name listed. In view of what some people go through in their escape from Tibet only to get one glimpse of him, I felt not only very patient, but also very privileged. The exiting day dawned. No bags no cameras, only the many small white scarves that people wanted blessed, and a full body search.
There was certain electricity in the air. A soon to be orderly line of about four hundred people waited in anticipation. Silence started to emerge between the excited whispers of I can see him. I can see him. The crowed parted to let the cripples and the elderly who had already been at his audience pass through. I was touched to see one man of about eighty lift his friend onto his back and carry him down the hill, out of the big gates and away. The Dalai Lamas residence is a simple place. There were no speeches and no ceremony. The whole process simply entailed walking in file past His Holiness with each person taking it in turn to shake his soft hand. Although Bhuddists would not normally look directly into his eyes, I was keen to get a close feel of his smiling face, but as I walked away I realized that I had naturally taken on that humble stance of the student. After hours of waiting, actually being in his presence lasted only a moment. No words no hesitation and I could not wipe the smile off my face. I have heard it is possible to get a private audience with the Dalai Lama. The procedure requires a letter stating your reasons for wanting to see him, and then letting the information dribble down the beaurocratic tube until it reaches some spiritual resting-place. I kept on imagining myself telling his Holiness how much I loved his music, so I have decided to first vent the only question I can conjure when dealing with some famous personage on someone like, well, Mick Jagger.
Although each area has its own feel, Mcleod Ganj does not seem anything like the mainlands of India. My attitude towards coming here was that if I was going to go to Tibet, it would be a good introduction, and that If I didnt make it there, well, this was the closest I was going to get. Every modem and each toilet door has a free Tibet sticker on it, and yet this place does not seem over commercialized.
Although there are many tourists (not Chinese ones mind you) the way the cultures are integrating has taken on a very different aspect to anywhere else I have been. In other towns it is almost as if we as foreigners superimpose ourselves on the population, but Mcleod has become a place where the tourists make up an integral part of its functioning. The increase of tourism seemed to coincide with the influx of Tibetan refugees in the mid nineties. This was a time when the tin shack known as Last chance café still had some meaning. Now there are hoards of cafes around the next bend and only fifty meters away; which make the shops name seem like some clever marketing ploy. It is difficult to know about the Indian population before the latter groups started to arrive so I can only judge this place as it appears now; that being a close and important relationship between Tibetans and travelers. The whole district relies on tourism for economic development and especially the hotel industry, which has started to flourish; but the importance of tourism goes beyond the circulation of money. For people who have no passports and no option of leaving or returning home, we are the most valuable resource when it comes to mixing with the western world. I have sat many a time with someone whose dress language and mannerisms lend themselves to a completely integrated conversation. It feels like I am talking to another traveler, which makes the shock even bigger when you hear that they have only been out of Tibet for just over a year. They escaped in the night spending the next three weeks in and over literally treacherous mountains, often getting caught and even tortured; then arrived in a new country with no family and no possibility of returning home! It is so difficult for me to relate to, and yet I can still speak to these people as my friends.
For the person who passes through quickly hippies in paradise may be the first impression. As the mists clear you begin to realize that there are many levels of involvement operating in such a small space. From buying goods whose proceeds go towards the Tibetan fund, all the way to active volunteer work such as the tutoring of ex political prisoners. Ive been spending A few hours every evening teaching English at the Yong ling school. It is one of those programs, which does not require any long-term commitment. I dont believe that it was my altruistic nature finally emerging. The classes are loads of fun, and it somehow justified the many hours of sitting and doing, well, not much! It was strange standing in front of a group whose majority included robed monks. I felt that I was the one who should have been sitting on the floor learning from them. To think that the language which spills off my tongue so naturally has become such a desperately sought after commodity gives me a strange sense of power. Two Travelers originally organized these classes in the late 90s. They passed the structure onto another couple who were prepared to stay for a longer time, but now Nick and Victoria are about to leave and there is an acute need for some motivated individual to come along and take their place.
Information about volunteer programs can be found in the weekly contact newsletter which is circulated for free; or by going to the Daramshala Earth Ville Institute (DEVI) which is located in a restaurant called Khana Nirvana near His Holinesss temple. The place doubles as a great entertainment venue where locals and foreigners congregate on Mondays for an open mic session to play and jam with any instrument on tap. The urgency of spreading the plight of the Tibetans is not only about saving territory, but also, at the very least about preserving some of the tradition. For those less willing to teach there are artistic research and study opportunities. At this time I am not so inclined to become pro active in the cause; but I suppose just by writing this (whether you have heard it all before) is my small contribution for now.
When we start to travel we are transformed. Routines, clothes and a whole range of other ideals are thrown out of the window. It seems that this sense of freedom, this rite of passage is the side of our culture that is being passed on and influencing the young refugees.
The most incredible phenomena is how many recipes have infiltrated into the hybrid travelling Tibetan stroke Indian culture emerging; and I dont mean recipe in any metaphorical sense!
Cake cakes, sweet spongy truffles. Walnut, banofee, coffee, chocolate, carrot, banana pancakes!
It is the great bakery in the sky!
And of course in the true spirit of good journalism I have had to try them all- including the two-dollar an hour full body massages. Not to mention the small damp room with its small black curtain unveiling a daily array of western movies on the small screen. I am talking about everything from the remake of planet of the apes, to my personal favorite Fear and loathing in Las Vegas Ok so I walked out of the room with a few very unbhuddist thoughts in my head, but hell; isnt contrast what travel is all about!
Mcleod Ganj is a center of education. From politics to music, traditional medicine to astrology. There is a course to find at every time of the day. You can study religious teachings or Indian cooking. Read, meditate or simply watch ambassadors from a hundred different cultures come and go from your table.
Today I am in my fourth week in Daramshala, and on such a high. The only thing getting me to this state, is the music from last nights classical Indian music concert; my new bamboo flute, and the music lessons I am going to be taking for the next week! This is an instrument that has been calling me for many years, so again I am prevented from leaving. A famous flautist from Varanasi named Sonhan Lal is my teacher. This is not music school. This is sitting cross-legged on the bed in his guesthouse. Listening to his compatriots in the next door room practicing the Sitar and Tabla. This is trying to understand what the hell he is saying while he is chewing a large jaw full of tobacco and Betel nut. Not to mention pacifying the irate half mad Indian woman who comes to complain threatens to call the prime minister every time she hears the scales coming close.
At one stage I was tempted to do something called Vipasana. It is a ten-day retreat where the rules are unbendable. You have to keep in silence for the full duration of your stay. Meditate about ten hours a day, two of those hours spent in absolute stillness whereby the pain in your legs is reflected on in order to take you into deeper states of meditation. These centers are apparently found all over the world, with varying degrees of comfort found at each one. The Dharamshala Vipasana has, to put it mildly, reached some sort of cult status.
I met the man that escaped from Vipasana! After the seventh day he high tailed it out of there. Left in the middle of the night without his money or passport. When the guard at the door asked if anyone knew that he was leaving he replied that if they did they might try and convince him to stay. I personally believe these centers to be excellent places to experience deeper states of emptiness. When else in your life do you have nobody talking to you for ten days! What kept me away was that I realized that I might have spent my time in there wondering how I was going to write about the experience. Then when finally sitting at the computer I would have to write about my ten days spent wondering how I was going to write about it. This created some strange philosophical loop that I decided I could do without.
Instead of sitting in a room, I decided to conduct my contemplation on some of the wonderful mountain walks in the area. Considering the trouble with my knees, my first day trek (in months) went extremely well. Through the pine forests and up to almost four thousand meters on a beautiful grassy plateau called Triund. I saw the clouds continually coagulate and separate to reveal the high Himalayan peaks at close range. I was awe struck!
Climbing brings new meaning to the word inflation. At an altitude of four thousand meters I was paying exactly double for the chai I bought at two thousand. And even stranger than this was realizing after closer examination that what I first took for cows turned into weird faced friendly snorting buffalo hybrids. The one thing I would recommend for anyone heading to the hills are these magnificent thick plasters that act as a second skin. They are made out of some sort of hydrocollid solution; and if you dont need them for yourself, at least you can aid the blistering messes you meet on the way up.
So my plans are to stay a few more days fulfilling my long suppressed musical urges (among other things). I have been here long enough to see the monsoon fade into nothing more than an occasional light evening shower. If I have heard correctly, the Ganges will be running clear and green; so I will head back to the east of India and pray along the banks of the river that I dont get caught anywhere else for too long!