Saturday, June 16, 2007

Trying to Improve our Dharma in Dharamsala

dharma: essential quality or character, as of the cosmos or one's own nature.

It shouldn't be surprising that Dharamsala was going to have an uphill battle winning my affections when I arrived hungry and exhausted, but it's growing on me.

Dharamsala is a 12-hour bus ride north of Delhi, and the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. It is also a haven for those who embrace dreadlocks, yoga, meditation, hippie pants as well as numerous Indians on vacation. The town is on a hillside, with five main roads radiating off from a main square. Walking down any one of them is almost visual overload, with shops selling Tibetan/Kashmiri/Ladakhi goods, restaurants, internet cafes, monks, colorful sari-wearing women, travellers, hippies, the occasional cow and then the motorbikes, autorickshaws and occasional car that try to force their way through the crowds.

Fortunately, Tyler found us a great place to stay. We have a corner room, with lots of windows and an amazing view of the town perched on the hillside. The downside of having a view, of course, is getting up there. We have 107 steps from the street to our door, which gets tiring after the third or fourth trip each day.

Some of the 107 steps to our lodging

The view that makes all that effort worthwhile

After a quick nap and settling in, we took off for some much needed breakfast, with the plan to then wander around and get ourselves oriented to the town. After a delicious breakfast of milk tea and thantuk, a Tibetan vegetable and noodle soup, we decided some time in nature might restore my spirits and headed out a few kilometers to a nearby waterfall.

Tyler practicing the art of drinking hot Indian tea from a glass--holding only the less scalding portion near the lip

Unfortunately, as we had noticed in Manali, the vacationing Indians we've seen seem to have a slightly different perspective on "enjoying nature" than we do. There are tons of people, stands along the way selling food, drinks, mehndi, what-have-you and lots of garbage floating around. We didn't even walk all the way to the waterfall when we saw there was a souvenir stand set up right at the base. Instead, we decided to sit, soak in the view of Indians enjoying their vacation and goats making their way down the mountainside, and try to figure out how to salvage this Indian leg of our trip.

Everyone says--even we said--that India is the hardest place to travel in. That you'll experience high highs and low lows. I just didn't expect the lows to be so low and the highs to be so far and few between. And maybe it's just been disappointing because of all the locations on our itinerary, India has been on my want-to-go-to list longer than anywhere else we've been. We were supposed to be smart, seasoned travellers. And now it felt like India was kicking my butt. I was starting to dread the idea of walking down another street filled with souvenir shops. Most sightseeing ideas just made me feel blase. I needed something edifying, something to kick me out of these mid-trip/India doldrums. (It's an ongoing question whether India just happened to fall in the time we'd experience mid-trip doldrums anyway, or if our India experience has led to travelling lassitude.)

After staring off into the distance, watching some goats increasingly harass some people eating at a restaurant, we decided to take some actions that we thought would help our situation: call and tell the travel agency we were done with them, regardless of the financial implications, and find something to do that we could get excited about--a Tibetan cooking class. We're still having to spend some energy trying to figure out how much money we can recoup from our now cancelled contract, but tonight we start a three-day Tibetan cooking class. Tonight will be momos, Tibetan steamed or fried dumplings, tomorrow we learn about Tibetan breads, and the third day we learn about Tibetan soups and some main dishes.

The other thing that helped improve our mood was meeting up with some fellow travellers for dinner and some beer. We met an English woman named Kate who had been travelling in India for six months. She assured us that everyone has some problems at some point, even when they think they should know better, and it could be worse. So we're trying to focus on letting go of all of our frustration and anger and find a way to connect to India in a way that can be meaningful to us.

So today we set out with lighter spirits than we've had in quite awhile, with plans to eat a big breakfast (I wanted to try some of this Tibetan bread I'm going to learn how to bake) and check out the Namgyal Monastary, which includes the Dalai Lama's residence (when he's in town, which isn't the case right now), temples, and a museum about Tibet.

The main temple, with a large gold-covered Buddha and sacred texts on either side

A stupa erected in honor of the Tibetan struggle with China

An example of the many, many prayer flags hung in the circuit walk you can do around the monastary complex

While "Free Tibet" has been a cause celebre for quite awhile, I'm ashamed to admit how little I really understood about the plight of Tibetans. Since the cultural revolution through current times, China "liberated" Tibet by taking over the country, destroying monasteries and all signs of Tibetan culture, turned the country into a place for nuclear testing and dumping of nuclear materials, and squealched any dissent or signs of religion by imprisonment, torture, and human rights violations. Many Tibetans escape through dangerous journeys over the Himalayas to reach Nepal or parts of northern India. (You can learn a lot more here.) As much as we've learned about the generosity and beauty of the world through our travels, we've also been exposed to a lot of the atrocities that people and government can do to each other as well.

We'll be in Dharamsala for at least a few more days, and we're still trying to decide on what our next steps will be. If anyone reading this has been to India and has any suggestions, let us know. Also, if you can commiserate, share any similar stories and tell us to just buck up and accept India for what it is, we're all ears.


ambika said...

The Czech's always served their tea in regular glasses, too. It was bizarre; you'd think mugs were endangered dishware.

The move is just to lower Queen Anne at the end of the summer; Ben & I figured out that cohabiting might make more sense than the constant back & forth. So we'll be here! And we're very much looking forward to your return.

Sarah said...

Good luck with the move! That's exciting!

The General said...

Yeah, glad to hear you will still be in town when we return. Sounds like people are getting a little more scatter (not everyone on Capital Hill!?)... but that might be for the best.

Sorry to hear about your arm!