Journal of Events in India
The first thing I noticed was the heat. It was almost suffocating and such a contrast to being on the plane. After moving through customs and acquiring our bags, I find myself in a bus on a street driving in what seems to be the most chaotic way imaginable. Horns are constantly going off, and there don’t seem to be any set lanes while driving, although that could have just been my eyes playing tricks on me since it was so dark. We made it to the hotel and, after setting down our belongings in our rooms, some of us left to make phone calls. The smell is so different here! So distinct, so different from the United States. I don’t know how to put it into words really – it burned my eyes initially, caught me completely off guard. It moves up your nose, into your eyes, every sense it can get into. Not a bad smell, but I’m unsure what word I’d use to describe it as it stands.
All of us are exhausted, and it is difficult to see the quality of Delhi in this unlit environment, so I’ll write more about it tomorrow hopefully.
Culture shock punched me right in the face today. Maybe ‘punch’ isn’t the proper term, perhaps ‘nailed with a hammer’ or ‘ran over me repeatedly’ would describe the feeling better. People with no hands and missing limbs. Beggars everywhere. What do you say to such things, what do you do? So much suffering. How do you quantify that in a journal? While I was in a rickshaw today with Kristen, I was cornered by a man with horrific wounds on his arm, which he covered with a sort of shawl. He didn’t want money, he just kept begging me for something, anything, saying “Please, please” over and over again. I panicked, I had no idea what he wanted, I didn’t know how to help. We were separated from the rest of the group and alone, and good God I had never seen wounds like that before, nothing that expansive. That experience has stayed with me all day, and I expect will probably stay with me the entire trip. I know that there is nothing we can do to alleviate the mass levels of poverty here, but at the same time it is impossible to turn away from it. And I’m also beginning to realize that for every truly suffering person here, there is another person who is lying in an attempt to siphon off of your empathy. I hope with time it becomes easier to tell the genuine from the charlatans.
The real prize today was the Baha’i Temple, which unfortunately I got no pictures of (which is no real concern, since others had cameras) due to lack of preparation in the department of batteries. Nevertheless, the temple itself is a rather large building in the shape of a Lotus flower, designed in a fashion that must have called for quite a streak of engineering genius to pull off. We watched a video concerning the Baha’i architectural achievements, and while the information puts the construction in context, it is still difficult not to stare at it in disbelief. I suppose I shouldn’t have my mind blown so quickly on this trip, but the folding patterns and sloping design are incredible on this temple. It is flanked on both sides by what look like pools (though I never got a chance to ask what they were for, if anything, since I didn’t see anyone in them – just for show?), and when entering the temple one is to remain completely silent and reverent. When we got back from the temple and the museum associated with it, I stopped by the internet café to do a quick look-up of this faith and the corresponding temple here in Delhi, and scrounged up a few numbers – apparently over 50 million people have visited the Lotus Temple in Delhi, which puts it as one of the most viewed buildings in the world. Pretty impressive for such a minor faith, I would say. Even more impressive (to me) are certain tenets of the faith itself, for instance the refusal of donations by anyone who isn’t part of the Baha’i faith itself, which to me shows proof of a religion willing to stand on its own two feet. Also the reconciliation between faith and science, listed under the principles of the Baha’i faith, and the equality of the sexes, elimination of poverty, etc, make the Baha’i look incredibly progressive as a religion.
Connaught Place and the Bazaar are like stadium-size flea markets! It’s positively insane. People swarm you like bees, peddling goods, services, information (sometimes true, sometimes not so much), scams, and an assortment of other things. After being released into the jungle of the bazaar, I muddled my way through that ocean of people and finally found myself in a tapestry shop where I bought a few violet and turquoise pieces for friends back home. Simple bargaining tactics don’t seem to work, you have to be willing to just completely walk away sometimes if the price being held against you is too high. I assume due to high levels of tourism that the merchants here know how to deal with Westerners relatively well, so certain tactics that might work at a flea market back home have absolutely no effect here. I don’t know if it was prudent to buy anything the first day, but it was difficult to think clearly in that swarm, so I made a purchase and then did my best to find my way out. I ended up walking with Sarah far down the lane and exploring a little bit, then making my way back and meeting with the rest of the group when our allocated time was up. Quite a sensory overload, really! I almost completely avoided rummaging around in the underground mall we seemed to go into next, as I really had no intention of spending any more money that day, and I wasn’t feeling fully up to par due to the heat and lack of water. It is so easy to become dehydrated here.
I ran into the most interesting character in the Delhi Market tonight outside of our hotel. I gone to the internet café about an hour earlier and when I exited, Chelsea was waiting outside, who seemingly was left behind by some of the others while she was making a phone call at the STD booth. I walked her back to the hotel and then went back out with her into the market after I got some water. As we were walking and exploring different shops, a woman shouts out to us, in an accent I didn’t immediately recognize, “Hello, can I speak to you about the message of Jesus Christ”? Completely thrown off by this, I stopped and spoke to the woman. She turned out to be a German lady named Christina who apparently was here on a work visa with her boss, and on her off time she did what equated to missionary work on the streets in Delhi. She handed me two pamphlets (and apologized for the bad English they were written in), and explained to me that she worked for a German man locally in Delhi, who apparently she was entirely dissatisfied with due to the fact that his attempts at cutting costs in whatever he was making was simultaneously cutting corners with product quality. I perhaps should have asked more questions about what she was doing there (from a vocational standpoint), but instead I asked her more about her preaching, as I was curious what her reasons for doing so were. She gave me somewhat skewed (but expected) answers about the “pagan” Hindus and how their religion apparently caused them to think only of themselves and not others, and a myriad number of other generalizations I see no point in repeating. Not desiring to enter any sort of theological debate, I changed the subject, and she was kind enough to tell me where in the market to get fresh vegetables and cheese that wouldn’t make me sick… knowledge that was unfortunately relatively useless to me due to my limited stay in Delhi, but still was interesting information to know. I would have spoken with her longer, but Chelsea seemed antsy and wanted to move on, so I cut the conversation short. Nevertheless she gave me her number, so perhaps I’ll keep in contact. A very eventful night, to say the least.
Just as I began to grow accustomed to Delhi, we move on, and I suppose most of the trip will be in this fashion. As we left the train that brought us to Agra (a relatively uneventful train ride, besides the casual chess game I was able to watch), we bore witness to what seemed like an arrest. To our direct left a man was being held and brought forward by a group of people obviously involved in law enforcement, and to my surprise they began slapping and hitting him as they walked. There was obviously no shock in the crowd as this happened, and it took me a moment to remember I wasn’t in the United States and that police brutality laws were obviously different here, as are social norms and customs. Agra is no different than Delhi thus far in its share of surprises and new experiences.
Ah, my only wish in seeing these magnificent Mughal sites is that they would bring them all to life again! At the very least running water… I know that it would be impractical, but just the thought of these areas flowing with water would make it overwhelmingly beautiful. A chance to see what once was, to see more than just a dead holy site. But then again, I shouldn’t complain, as I still cannot believe I’m at areas created by the Mughals, one of the most fascinating dynasties to me in history. How incredible is this, to be here and see these incredible monuments, filled with symbolism, symmetry, and Arabic inscriptions everywhere. How long did it take to build these constructions, how long on paper and how long through action? It must have been a fascinating journey, tedious, but fascinating. I spent far too much time taking pictures and not enough time just soaking up the environment and the sites, a mistake I wont make when we go to the Taj Mahal. The ‘Baby Taj’ was fascinating to see in preparation for the larger one, but the real gem was the Agra Fort, not only for its size and scope but for its history. What a monstrous building that was! Apparently Shah Jahan was imprisoned here by his son sometime after building the Taj Mahal, although he wasn’t given free reign of the entire fort – he seems to have been isolated to one small section, and a very small prayer room with high walls to prevent any sort of escape. At the very height of the Agra Fort was a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal that the entire group couldn’t help but take photographs of, and we ended up with plenty of group photos all around the top of the main complex. I’m not a very experienced photographer, so it’s difficult for me to capture any worthwhile (in my eyes) pictures of any of this… nothing seems to come out as vibrant as it should, but I suppose that is the rule of seeing things first hand rather than via a photograph.
The wildlife here bears mention as well. When we climbed to the top and were able to sit over the side of the fort, I spotted birds with the most beautiful shades of blue I remember seeing in recent memory. I’m unsure as to the kind of birds they were, but it was a trip just waiting to see them fly again to catch a glimpse of that color.
The Taj Mahal was our conquest today. How can this be described? How can one explain the majesty of this place without coming off like a gibbering idiot? Pictures do it no justice, view from a distance does it no justice, descriptions do it no justice. Whether erected as an ode to his wife or a show of might, it hardly matters, as the Taj Mahal is a testament to human ingenuity and vision. I feel like I’m fawning, but this is such an incredible place to be. While apparently marketed as a strictly archaeological site by the Indian government (and understandably so), there is a certain amount of reverence that is impossible not to have while walking around inside. The Taj is surrounded by four minarets, which I believe were used to issue calls to prayer (?), and these minarets slope outwards slightly so that if an earthquake were to strike the Taj Mahal with any extensive damages, the minarets would fall away, rather than toward, the Taj Mahal itself. To complete the image of symmetry, there are two Mosques as well that flank the Taj, although only one is a functional Mosque since only one can obviously face Mecca. I left a donation in the (quite massive) donation box and then moved on to the functioning Mosque, which I suppose was only functioning in the past tense since religious devotion is heavily frowned upon there now. I’m not one to let a completely logical rule of conduct stop me, so I of course decided I was going to pray in the Mosque there – after all, being able to say “Well I prayed in the Mosque at the Taj Mahal” signifies some pretty epic bragging rights. So I did so (not realizing of course until about halfway through that I was facing away from Mecca – too late to hop up then!) and probably succeeded in irritating a few people, but it was worth it just for the experience. The Taj Mahal itself is so large that a comparison is very much out of the question, and what is even more incredible to me is that Shah Jahan wanted to build a second one of opposite color opposing it. It is hard to imagine the image of two buildings the size of the Taj Mahal looming in such a coordinated fashion. This monument was built with love.
Blair apparently paid 20 dollars for a shave. I have to say, I’m not surprised.
Agra and its indigenous land-piranha, commonly called the “tout”, has been abandoned (over a long ride) for a wonderful waterfront town called Varanasi. I know almost nothing about Varanasi but the name, although I’ve loved this place the most thus far since we’ve been here. Asi Ghat, which is the area our hotel is located, is such a pleasant and quiet place compared to the loud, obnoxious peddlers of Delhi and Agra. There is far less hassling in this area than previously encountered… two days in and there are plenty of stories to tell. For one, the shops here are fantastic. I not only found clove cigarettes (!!!) the only thing I can stand smoking (unless pipe tobacco counts, which it doesn’t), but there is an assortment of little shops that sell fantastic journals and other paper products apparently made out of recycled paper. The merchant claims they’re made by holy men, a claim I find a bit dubious, but regardless of their maker they’re quality products that I will put to good use. I bought three journals from them, two for myself and one for a friend, outlined with Hindi writing which I of course cannot decipher but which adds to the appeal of the product. I was also able to pick up a few pins, a nice little India stitch-on piece for a backpack, and most importantly, SOAP! Lots of little hygienic goodies – soap, shampoo, conditional, etc, etc. Outside of the shops, we had a wonderful little boat ride that drew us out into the Mother Ganga and allowed me to take pictures of people bathing without being called a voyeur. Without pictures it’s hard to imagine the amount of people who are just lined up in the water to bathe, to clean clothing, etc… and in water that is apparently so filthy that bacterial infections would abound should I hop in! Hilariously enough, as we were in the boat enjoying the morning and experiencing the rich cultural background of a holy river, a man thumps his boat into ours and begins attempting to sell us trinkets. One is never free of a salesman in India, it seems.
I apologize for how jumbled these next few entries will be, I’ve missed a day or so due to running around this city… I feel like I’m finally free to do what I want, as if I’m not on a track set entirely by another. This city grants a certain level of independence that neither Delhi or Agra allowed.
Bookstores, bookstores, bookstores! Our hotel is right next to a fantastic bookstore where I’ve acquired some fantastic little trinkets. I was able to procure a copy of a book called “Indian Philosophy, vol. 1” by an S. Radhakrishnan, who seems to have a colossal grasp of both Eastern and Western philosophy, and an Aristotelian talent for categorization and organization of concepts, ideas, and similarities. They unfortunately did not have vol. 2, so I’ll have to search around for that one. I was also able to pick up a copy of Rumi’s second book of the Masnavi, of which I bought the first back in the States a year or two ago. Rumi is always a delight to read, and finding him here was a pleasant surprise. Also purchased were cheap editions of Oxford paperbacks, particularly the philosopher Hegel’s work, for about 15 dollars cheaper than they would be in the United States. Perhaps not the most fitting thing to buy in India, but I’m not about to pass up cheap books.
Also, I’ve discovered the Haifa as my restaurant of choice while here. They have this wonderful dish called Fahtoosh, a Middle Eastern dish with pita bread, humus, tomatoes and cucumbers that one of my exes uses to make for me all the time. I’ve come here at least once a day (sometimes twice!) since I’ve been here and ordered that and Turkish coffee, which isn’t as flavorful as I’m used to but is still excellent.
I can’t say much for the larger market we were brought to, I’m already for the most part all shopped out. The upturn was lunch, when we had this wonderful meal called masala dosa, which is apparently a southern Indian dish. When we were set loose, I ended up with some of the girls (Becca, Megan, and Nicole) buying spices from some fellow’s home, which seemed a bit shady but turned out to be an interesting experience. My search for tea didn’t turn up any good sellers (outside of a man who seemed to think blowing all over his loose tea leaves to bring out the smell was somehow going to bring about a sale from an over-hygienic American), and when I ended up taking off with Mac afterward we were being offered hash every ten seconds by random strangers. Not exactly the most pleasant of encounters, but it was entirely made up for due to the fact that the bookstore there had the second volume of the Indian Philosophy book I had bought the day previously, not to mention some excellent books on the Jains that I decided to pick up. We were also blessed by a priest, which I think all but Kristen and Chelsea ended up doing (it required a bit of trust as he was taking paint to our foreheads, after all). I wasn’t too keen on having it done – mostly because I had no idea what the symbolism was – but I wasn’t about to say no when he came at me.
Free day! I have got to chart this down today so I remember all of it. Today we were allowed to do whatever we pleased for the most part, so I ended up wandering off by myself to have a look around Varanasi. I went to breakfast at the Haifa, and asked them to exchange 30 rupees into 5 rupee coins, which they were kind enough to do. I planned on going to the market later that day, and wanted coins to pass out to the beggars. I ate and read for about an hour and a half, and then left to wander. On foot I walked the roads for about 45 minutes, and having no idea where I was (and obviously looking lost), and man asked me if I needed any assistance. Having become cynical of any offers of aid in India, I initially turned him down, but as I spoke with him a bit more, we got into a nice little conversation, and I found out he was a Muslim who’s father had a home a few blocks down. I walked there with him and met his father and the many other children of the household, having a few cups of tea with them and talking about American politics, which they seemed very interested in. They wanted to know anything I could tell them about Obama, the new government, etc. I was offered a tour of the home and upstairs came across about 5 women and 3 men making what seemed to be silk scarves. On further questioning, the grandfather showed me a very large collection of beautifully colored and decorated scarves, and I picked out a green one and a violet one to buy. Normally I don’t make purchases that aren’t methodical, but this family was so pleasant, and didn’t once ask me to buy anything, so I felt very comfortable taking my time in looking over their products. I caught a rickshaw back to the hotel and dropped these off, left again, went back to the market, handed out coins to the beggars, looked around a bit (but found nothing too interesting), and ended up rickshawing it back again to the hotel, where I eventually ended up walking along the shoreline and trying to avoid people asking me for boat rides while I soaked in the scenery. All in all, a fantastic day.
Sarnath, Sarnath, Sarnath! Ashokan relics and Tibetan monasteries galore! We went to Sarnath today and were immersed in one of the four holy sites in Indian Buddhism, this place being the area where Buddha first came to when enlightened and began his teaching, converting old friends/followers of his. We visited an Ashokan stupa that was incredibly old, Ashoka being a sort of Constantinian equivalent (though seemingly a much better person overall) that brought India into the Buddhist fold, fostering the arts, sciences, and philosophical studies under the blanket of Theravada Buddhism. The site we went to was laced with memorials to Buddha and messages in a myriad number of languages, and also a fantastic statue depicting Buddha’s first sermon to his new disciples. Strangely, on the grounds of what should be a sacred place, a zoo has been erected with what look like some of the most dejected animals imaginable, which casts a sort of negative light over the experience.
Two other major sites visited today – a Tibetan Monastery, and a Hindu University. First, the Monastery. This was of course the first time I’d been in a Tibetan holy place, and it was a very different experience. Shoes off (like all holy places here), silence, reverent pictures of the Dalai Lama and another fellow who’s name I’m forgetting right now… a young man who is very important politically to the Tibetans. The artwork in the monastery is outstanding, though, simply outstanding. Next, the Hindu University. While we didn’t see much of the University itself of course, we did see the Temple in the middle of it, which was honestly probably one of my favorite places in India thus far. Inside the Temple the walls were coated with Gita quotes about God and the Divine, and students sat inside paying homage, doing schoolwork, or playing chess. It was such a relaxing, pleasant place to be, and I wish we had stayed there longer than the few minutes it took everyone to walk through it. Alas, alas.
A few things I forgot to mention above – music and the museum. The museum we went to we didn’t spend too much time at, but it was a Museum of Buddhist artifacts it seems, with plenty of statues of Buddha (some androgynous it seems), the Dharma Wheel, and a number of other relics and artifacts. It was interesting having read The Holy Land Reborn and then coming here and having pointed out to me the piece of stone that etched the four holy sites of Buddhism that were integrated into Buddhist lore.
As for the music, oh, what can I say about our two concerts, one yesterday, one today? The one the night before, I was absolutely exhausted at and expected to not enjoy it fully. The opening was drums (tabla) and sitar, which then gave way to a flute and tabla performance, closing with an astounding piece on a stringed instrument called a sarangi that seems very similar to a violin. I loved this last performance so much that I bought a cd from the man. The second night, tonight, we witnessed two dancers and a beautiful singer. The singer performed on an instrument called the harmonium, which takes God knows what level of coordination while singing, and the two dancers brilliantly played off each other while acting out mythological scenes and traditional dances. While the female dancer was gorgeous, the male (her brother) stole the show, he had such a level of energy. It was a fantastic end to a very good day.
So, being stuck in a train station for 11 hours is not cool. Not that there was any choice, really, and we did get a few adventures out of it. This is the first morning in Rishikesh, and I most definitely need to recount a little of what happened to get us here. We’re making our way to the train station to move on from Varanasi, and of course our train is late. As the hours go by, it apparently is going to come later and later, until it seems settled on a 7pm deadline. So we all leave to go to a nice little bar about a five minute walk from the station to have a few drinks. This completed, we make it back in time to see our train begin pulling away from the station. We all frantically hop on board of this moving train, only to realize about 10 minutes later that it is most definitely not our train. So we slip off and catch rickshaws back to the station and end up waiting another 5 hours or so, take off on an exceptionally long train ride, get out, eat dinner, and then slip onto a bus which then deposits us in Rishikesh I believe at 2am or so. Not the most pleasant of experiences, and did I mention we spent most of the time in the train station being surrounded by, err, adoring fans? Still, might as well look at the bright side: such a dirty, grimy wait in the train station made the beauty of this mountainous paradise all the better. Places like Rishikesh are proof that God loves the world.
I have lost interest in even making a journal of this place, and we’re leaving today, so I have to speak about all of the different things we’ve done since we’ve been here now. God, only 3 days really in this paradise! Absolutely unfair, such a crime. I could stay here forever. Mountains surround us like a protective blanket, and the air is wonderful. Every morning we’ve woken up to Yoga, and from there a light breakfast upstairs. During my free time I sit at the café in the hotel complex and drink tea and read. So completely refreshing. We trekked up this practically vertical hill where the air thinned out so heavily that I thought I would die – I stupidly started out in front moving as fast as I could, not remembering that the rule of thumb when on hikes is to pace yourself, and I ended up lagging to the back near the end. Yet, I never could have expected our vertical venture to pay off like it did: we came into a hollowed out section where a pool lay with a waterfall cascading down, and all of us jumped in and swam to our heart’s content. I was the last person from our group to get out, I love water far too much to want to abandon it once I’m in. God, I felt like all the sweat and grime that had accumulated over the coarse of the whole trip had been washed off of me. I initially had planned to go back to that place, but I didn’t realize that our stay in Rishikesh was going to be so short (due to our losing a day at the train station), and since we’re leaving at 4pm or so today there’s no way around it for me. What an incredible experience, though. When leaving Varanasi I wasn’t sure if I’d encounter a place I could relax at moreso than there, I thought that perhaps that was a lull in the trip before things picked up again with the peddling and the hassling. Not at all, not at all, it continues to get better, it’s like an upward ascent of consciousness, from the messy cluttered facet of Delhi to the calming, soothing environment of Rishikesh. If this continues, I’m sure Dharamsala will not disappoint either.
One day counters another with better events, and the day after our pool excursion we went rafting on the Ganges. I want to say that again: rafting, on the Mother Ganga. I feel like just the sound of it defeats anyone else’s summer I know. “Oh yeah, what did you do this summer? Oh, a new playstation game, cool. Me? I went rafting on the Ganges”. It’s hard to counter that. We took off in the morning on the river, and through a number of mild to heavy rapids made our way forward. It was difficult to coordinate paddling – you could tell who had never been rafting before – but it was less about mechanical motions and more about the living experience of being in such a fast river. We left about halfway through to have lunch at a little outdoor site, and then finished the trip by moving back into the rafts and then jumping out into the rapids. Being able to just float in the water was so liberating, so wonderful… I had no intention of getting back into the boat until our guide came up to us and called us back in. After we moved on from that, we stopped and camped out at a cliff with a 20 ft. drop or so, which I leapt off of twice with great abandon. How exhilarating it is to leap off of such a height! I’ve been to a few locations such as this in the States, but I’ve never leapt from one so high, much less twice. It was an unforgettable experience.
I feel like everyone has come out of their shell here in Rishikesh. Everyone is far more relaxed than I’ve seen them before. Hardly any arguing or fighting here, no grinding of nerves… everyone seems so amiable, so happy to be around each other. I’m sure I’m totally wrong about one or two people, or maybe my own lenses are just putting that image on things, but I just feel the esprit de corps of the group has been at a new high that it thus had not reached. I myself have bonded with a few people here that I didn’t expect to have much in common with, and didn’t expect to have any lasting relationship with at all. I feel that, while Varanasi helped everyone get their footing in India (and gain their confidence), Rishikesh has brought everyone together as a group. This is one of the reasons I’m upset that we have to leave so quickly. I wish we had more time here, and part of that has to do with that feeling perhaps disappearing once we leave. I hate to throw the general mood of the group behind a specific location, but you never know how quickly things can change until they do. I hope that, once we board the train out of there, that camaraderie doesn’t disintegrate.
So we almost missed our train, which was kind of amusing, though in a way I was hoping we would so we’d get more time in Rishikesh. Also, we passed through an area called Haridwar, which apparently is a holy city for followers of Vishnu. Being able to see it in a car ride hardly does it justice, and I wish we had been able to stop there – maybe next time I’m in India. In any case, we ended up on the express back to Delhi, and then from there boarded jeeps that brought us on a 12 hour jeep ride to Dharamsala. The jeep ride was pretty crazy… I was cramped in between two sleeping people with no head rest, so my ride was a tad disorderly and strained, and the awful, awful restaurant we stopped at didn’t help. The road was in serious need of repair, and so our ride was perhaps the most bumpy we’ve been on thus far. There were about three occasions that I thought we’d go careening off a damn cliff. In any case, the arrival at Dharamsala was accompanied by a very interesting fact – it was freezing, and not only that, but raining. Such a contrast from what I remember of the arid climates of Delhi and Agra. We stopped by a clothing store, but the shirts seemed a bit too big for me to buy on the fly like that… I’ll have to go back when I have more time. More later.
We’ve done a lot since we’ve been here, and I need to catch up on journals to go over that. The days have blended together in this place. It doesn’t even fee like India anymore, it feels like another foreign country that I’ve walked into. The air smells different, the clothing is different, the people are different. Our first day we went to a temple area that seemed to be swarming with thousands of people, laced with Tibetan prayer flags and monks. We passed by the Dalai Lama’s residence, which was a feat unto itself, and ended up surrounded by a crowd of the praying and faithful. Another trivial yet significant advance for me – I can finally recognize some of the figures pictured in the Tibetan artwork posted everywhere, in particular Nagarjuna. I also went shopping finally and was able to acquire a few new shirts (though they’re a tad big on me), a “Free Tibet” patch (I couldn’t resist), and some CHOCOLATE which this place apparently is able to stock without it melting to pieces. Ah, chocolate, how I missed thee.
We saw angels today. We went as a group to the Tong Len facility and had tea while sitting with about a three dozen dozen children split up in different facilities. We sat and played with these children for at least two hours, watched them attempt to pronounce our names (and had us attempt to pronounce theirs), take pictures, play games, etc. It was an incredibly fun time… there is nothing as spiritually refreshing as the laughter of children, especially when coming across so much poverty early in the trip. All of the children were so amiable, so social! Always addressing us as “sir” and “ma’am”, always wanting hugs, always so proper, I loved it. The boys were especially fun to play with, as I got to enter an arm-wrestling match with about 5 of them at the same time, and each one I played, another one would be right behind him just waiting for a chance. It was so wonderful seeing that type of childhood innocence, that type of unwavering glee and desire to communicate, socialize, interact. It was not only a joy to watch the children, but to watch everyone else’s interactions with them, to see how happy everyone seemed, even the shiest in our group. It would be difficult not to find yourself plastered with a smile when you go into such a place.
I’m really falling behind in journal entries (getting into the habit of staying out late with random people kills my desire to journal at night), so let me recap what we’ve been doing. First, the trivial things – there is this awesome restaurant here called the Khanna Nirvana that apparently was created by Californians. The food there is amazing, and they also serve Ginger Lemonade, and to top it off it’s upstairs so you get a bird’s eye view of this adorable little girl balancing herself (perfectly!) on a pole time and time again, while her brother, his face painted like God know’s what, dances around wildly below. The restaurant hosted what might be called an open mic night, where an assortment of locals (mostly westerners) paraded their musical or artistic talents in front of the audience, which was perhaps one of the most enjoyable experiences of the entire trip. Their output reminded me of the little local clubs in Ashville, NC where similar things happen nightly. One of our own, Megan, put herself on stage and did a little rendition of an Indie song that was actually quite good. In my excitement, I foolishly left my whole bag there (passport and all), but one of the people I befriended (a monk-in-training) was kind enough to rush off and grab my bag for me the next morning to save me the trip. This was a lucky break since that morning we were supposed to go see the Karmapa, and my passport was necessary to get in… which would have been lost in my bag had I not re-acquired it. A word on the Karmapa – the day before at Norbulingka (which I’ll delve into later), it was explained that the Karmapa is one of the major leaders of the Tibetan world, and is probably being groomed as the primary leader of Tibet in preparation for the Dalai Lama’s death, since the Panchen Lama is still missing or presumed dead. There seems to be a split among Tibetan holy men (I’m ignorant of this subject in context) about the legitimacy of the Karmapa we saw, with another one claiming legitimacy also being located in India. Either way, we went to see the Karmapa in Dharamsala for about an hour to ask questions, though we were cautioned not to ask anything that might be considered sensitive. Of course, on the way there we tried to think of the most offensive things to say, of which “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”, while perhaps not the most offensive, was certainly the most hilarious to think about asking. Nevertheless, when we went to see him, only a few of us asked questions, and the Karmapa seemed to have trouble giving proper answers due to issues over English, and probably also the fact that he’s only 23 and some of the questions being asked were the equivalent of “What is the meaning of life?”. With that said, it was an enjoyable experience, if too short for my tastes.
On to Norbulingka. Now this was an interesting place. It seems to be designed as a preservation camp for Tibetan culture overall, and there are a myriad number of people of both sex and all ages working there, making wood carvings, clothing, painting, etc. Near the center is a wonderful temple and also an art museum with fantastic pictures of Nagarjuna and I believe Avolokiteshvara. The temple there had the faces of all the incarnations of the Dalai Lama, including the actual faces of the 13th and 14th, a strange mixture of the real and the traditional. I had an awesome conversation with our guide there (who apparently was also a student of philosophy), and loved loved LOVED the woodworking sections, where they were meticulously creating Dharma wheels, drawers, tables, and so many amazing things. Their gift shop was expensive, but understandably so, since the profits weren’t exactly going to some overweight CEO but to a foundation attempting to preserve the culture of a people who’s land had been hijacked by China. Conscience-free stores are always nice to go into, not only do you know you’re helping a worthy cause, but you also know your clothing isn’t being made in sweatshop factories in Cambodia.
I unfortunately missed out on going to what Blair described as a “Holocaust Museum for Tibetans” due to not paying attention to the time, but it was described in pretty stark detail for me. I just wanted to mention this so I didn’t leave anything too major out.
Two other major events have also happened since my last entry – our second visit with Tong Len in the slums, and the visit to the Tibetan Medical Museum. The slums are near indescribable. Layered in grime and with trash covering the floors, and with access to water for only one hour a day, these people live with inadequate food, clothing, shelter, education, anything you can think of. The ‘homes’ are more properly called tents, and are torn up and half covered. The children have discolored hair from malnutrition. How can these things not break your heart, not bring you to tears, not sicken you? They’re apparently migrants from another province and thus have no rights here in HP… not only that, but they know almost no English, so even if they were to escape from this squalor they’ll be far behind others who know even basic English. Even so, the children are still so happy to see you and be around you. Our first day there we took a tour around, and the next day we came back as a group to make a giant picnic for the children. We brought toys, kites, nail polish, and an assortment of other goodies to pass out among the children. The entire group ran around to play with everyone, and I ended up being tag-teamed by a group of like 8 kids who wanted rides all over the area we were at. I was able to get about 6 of them on me before just completely collapsing, but it was definitely worth it just to see their massive grins. I walked back with Blair to get water for the group, and by the time we came back food was being passed out – mostly rice, which the kids devoured like they were starving, which they probably were. We sat and ate with them, played a bit more, and then left… it’s hard to quantify that experience really. I can give a light, vague overview of it, but it’s better captured in pictures than descriptions. Emotions are always difficult to portray when you’re so overwhelmed you’re not sure what you’re feeling. Do you pity the children, do you feel angry, dejected, horrified? I was calculating the costs for the well in my head, a well that if fixed in the local vicinity could provide water to the camp and thus completely change their lives… the price was around 60,000 rupees, or some 1,600 dollars (a liberal estimate). For less than half of the trip’s cost for one of us, we could change the lives us these people for ever. It’s so difficult to imagine, so incredible to realize. I wish I could do more… I’ll keep my eyes on Tong Len from now on, as long as I’m able. We journeyed back again after this, to assist in laying the foundations for a new building in the slums (and to help patch up an old one), but with so many of us there many ended up feeling like dead weight and left early, including myself… though I left less for that reason and more for feeling slightly nauseated, whether from something I ate or the sun.
The Tibetan Museum of Medicine, a place we just got back from not a few hours ago, was a very strange place. Filled with a number of compounds, stones and tapestries, we were given a tour that emphasized the history of Tibetan medicine and its healing properties, and its contrasts with Western medicine. I was confused to hear that a cure for MS and a treatment for HIV/AIDS was apparently in the Tibetan repertoire, but the West had shut down certain clinical trials when advanced in the States. Whether or not these claims are true I don’t know, but the cynical side of me, while always skeptical of medical claims, is even more skeptical of the hyper-capitalistic nature of the United States medical community, and can believe without any doubt that they would do something like that.
There is a lovely little church, called St. John’s, that I have been trekking out to every once and a while since I got here. Situated on what I swear looks like a little English countryside, the church is seemingly abandoned and empty. It is a Presbyterian Church, and thus the old circular ‘celtic’ cross is in use everywhere here, from the pavement leading up to it, to the cemetery markets. The cemetery, incidentally, that it is laid next to, is found by following a path situated between two rows of tall, beautiful white flowers buzzing with bees, and I didn’t see a grave there that was past 1892. As it is, most of the graves were of children aged between 6 months to 10 years, a rate not surprising given the time period. All that is visible inside the church itself are two windows, the cross, and a sign that is ironically (perhaps tragically) asking for donations due to the church being in desperate need of repair. While entirely symbolic, the two times I’ve visited this church I’ve left a 5 rupee coin there to pay my respects. I wonder how long it’s been out of use? I’m told that it was opened during the last trip, but it is quite barred off now, which is unfortunate. I would have loved to venture inside.
Tomorrow I trek up Triund Mt. (I believe that is the name) with I think 5 other people – JT, Rebecca, Brandy, Nicole, and Andy, although Becca isn’t sure if she’s coming or not. My plan is to go out there to the church tomorrow morning and read the first canto of Dante’s Purgatorio there – the symbolism being, of course, that the Purgatorio is where Dante treks up the mountain and by doing so cleanses himself of his emotional and spiritual burdens. There is no way I can pass up that type of symbolic gesture before I myself take off on a hike that will last hours.
Oh my good God today was an adventure. From the beginning:
So I wake up at 5am, ready to head out to St. John’s like specified before. Only the gates are locked and I cannot find a way out. As we’re leaving a little after six, I in no way will have time to get from the church and back and still be able to make the trip… frustrated, I paced back and forth on the roof, trying to figure out exactly how to get down, when the Tibetan monk-in-training, the same fellow who secured my backpack from the Khanna Nirvana earlier, comes up. I speak with him about my situation for a moment, as he asked what I was doing up so early, and he then proceeds to say the magic words: “You know I can boost you over the wall if you want, right?”
So I run downstairs, hand him my scarf and my copy of Purgatorio (my only possessions I’m carrying), and he boosts me over the wall and tosses me my book. I then proceed to run up the alleyway and take off toward the church. There are maybe three other people I’m seeing on the streets as I do this, and packs of dogs (!!!) going through trash piles and being quite aggressive with each other. I make it to the church, walk up to put down my coin, and realize that there is a dog tied up inside that has heard me approach and decided he is going to go crazy with a barking fit right before I get to the door. I panic and jump back, and for 15 minutes I wait until he seems to have gone back to sleep, take off my sandals, and tip-toe up to the door, quietly lay down my five rupee coin, and bolt away as the dog wakes up and starts howling again. I then move on to one of the benches located on the other side of the church, read the first canto of Purgatorio, and flee the area as fast as I can, running back and getting to the hotel right before we’re supposed to leave. I run upstairs, grab my backpack, and follow the group outside. Crazy way to begin a morning!
The mountain itself was the perfect way to end this trip. At about 9500 ft (half of which we trekked up), it was the highest I’ve ever gone up on foot. I have asthma, and the air is thin, so I’m quite proud to say that I was the first one out of our group to reach the top. The way up was relatively uneventful, with passing stops for everyone to catch their breath and drink up if they needed to. Massive eagles with what looked like over 4 ft. wingspans were constant sights on the way up, and while the last 45 minutes was incredibly rough, the payoff at the top, with the sprinkling rain and the little café with hot chai was definitely worth it. We sat there for a while, recovering our strength and exploring the area, and a few of us (myself, JT, and Andy) went up a bit more to see some of the caves that people were lodged up in, but immediately came back down when something began to happen that I truly didn’t expect – hail. No bigger than peas, we got a full on rainstorm of hail for about 10 minutes before it finally let up, and we waited around for about another hour for the sun to come out before heading back down. The trip down was also without any moment of tedium, as about a third of the way down another hailstorm broke out and we had to almost run down the side of a slippery hill to what appeared to be abandoned residences and hide out while the hail pounded on the roof. After this, we moved on and after about an hour made it to the Shiva café (where previous adventures had left many of the girls perturbed) where we stopped to take shelter from the rain. In all of our ventures no one was injured, no one had any serious slips, and we almost completely avoided contact with anything more dangerous than the most evil plants known to man, Nettles. In retrospect, I have to say that I felt like I was at the center of the world when up at high. The pictures I have of it – the pictures everyone has of it – are incredible, breathtaking, beautiful.
This hike was a perfect way to end our ventures in Dharamsala, and I’m glad I decided to go. To be up that high, to see the world from that view, is not an opportunity one gets every day. As we were coming down, we stopped in a pass that gave us perhaps the most amazing view of a mountainous terrain I have ever had. Nicole, standing next to me, yelled out “I can’t be up here and see all this and not believe God exists”. While from a distance such remarks seem naïve and trivial, when you’re there, it’s almost impossible not to share that sentiment. We leave for Delhi and thus the end of our trip soon, and I cannot help but wonder how I’ll react to going back to that place after all this time.