Friday, March 11, 2011

Dharamsala/ McCleod Ganj

   The last night of Amritsar, I have a terrible night.  Little sleep and a particularly disturbing dream from which I wake up sobbing.   The next morning, we board a private minibus early to take us the 6 hours to Dharamsala.  I am pretty miserable until mid-morning, when at a roadside rest-stop I down 2 chai and a wonderfully greasy and butter soaked parantha.  But only good music is keeping me going for a while. 
            However, soon, people are pointing and I look out to catch my first glimpse of the Himalayas.  As we ascend, it is so beautiful I can’t help but cry.  What the heck was I doing traipsing around the south for so long?!  This, this is more like it! 
We arrive in McCleod Ganj, which is really just upper Dharamsala, after one of those constantly weaving and harrowing journeys up a tiny mountain road, around 2pm and it is like walking out into a fairy tale.  This town, nestled at about 2000 ft, is pine trees, crisp air, and the most stunning backdrop of blue sky, dramatic clouds, and white capped summits.   It is intoxicating.  This is the home of H.H. the Dalai Lama, and the people here are largely Tibetan.  However, there is a huge amount of Westerners too.  Strolling before dinner, three of us come to a lookout post and catch a sunset to die for.  And when the sun drops, it is downright freezing.  We put on all of our clothing, and we suddenly understand the shops that are selling huge wool sweaters, as well as North Face Down jackets.  Though cold, I can’t wipe the stupid grin off my face – our hotel window looks out onto a million-dollar view of the mountains.  I am in the Himalayas!

After a cozy sleep with all my clothes and about 4 quilts on (there is no heat here, BTW) we wake up to walk to the Namgyal monastery were HH the Dalai Lama lives because as the third day of the Tibetan New Year, there will be puja – worship service this morning.  It is an immaculately clear and fresh morning and it is dream-like to sit down amidst the monks and nuns in their ochre robes and listen to Tibetan Buddhist chanting for an hour.  It is trancelike to us who have no idea what they are saying.  We are served Tibetan bread (like huge English muffins) and chai during the service, and the monks are offered money.  Jessica comes out trembling at one point – she has just filmed HH the Dalai Lama – the man himself! – who has nonchalantly been a part of one of the chanting groups before walking back, unaccompanied, to his apartment.  We are all astonished.  Could it really have been him?   Darrol doesn’t think so, since he was not sitting up on a riser or anything.  But examination of the footage later on reveals that yes, it was truly him, and without knowing it we had all seen him sitting there, just one monk in a crowd, chanting.  This means that he deliberately did not sit in his customary spot.  Pretty darn cool. 
HH is in there... somewhere!

The first day we find HH’s schedule posted to his door and it appears that he will be makig a public talk on the 10th.  We don’t know where or when,  but after some investigation, we eventually figure out that it will be early in the morning at the main temple – we will be able to be there for sure! 
We are instructed to arrive for 7:30 am to get a good spot.  The TIPA marcing ban will play at 8:30 , HH wil arrive at 9 and he will hopefully talk at 10.  it will be a long and cold morning sitting on the stone outside the temple. 

me with Pema

On our 2nd day here, after that special Puja, we visit the TIPA (Tibetan institute of performing arts).   We hear them rehearse and enjoy the spectacuolar view.  After, Emma, Pam, Joseph, Matty and I walk down the short distance to Bagshu and see the waterfall and do some shopping before the gorgeous walk back to McCleod.  Darrol gives us a long lecture after we meet again as a group.

3rd day we visit the main temple and get a tour from a delightful monk named Pema.  He has been a monk since the age of 12 and he has only a few years left of his formal training at the Tibetan Institue of Dialectics, which offers the highest degree possible of learning – equivalent to at Phd.  The degree length?  17 years!  In the afternoon we visit the children’s village, where 2500 kids are in boarding school.  It is beautiful and the place strikes a chord with many of us – most of the kids here are orphans and many have been left here by poor Tibetan parents who have returned home without them. 


Dharmsala was incredible and I am sorry to leave the place.  When I was in Pondicherry, I felt that I was ‘stuck’ there for the week and I was anxious to leave.  However, most of us agree that we could easily spend a month in McCleod – it is just so beautiful.   There is always something about being the mountains – to the cool, fresh air and breathtaking sights are invigorating to the soul.   However, it was cold.  Last night after I got back to the hotel (Ladies Venture Hotel) after dinner at Nisha’s Indian Restaurant, via borrowing Jessica’s help in picking out a special gift (Thangka) my feet were frozen.  I begged a bucket of hot water from Darrol who was smart enough to have left his hot water geyser on for the afternoon.  I sat with my feet in the warmth while a few of us sat and around and talked before bed. 
In the morning I woke up early and excited – I was going to get a good seat to see HH!  I wonder if others in this group appreciate how blessed and fortunate they are to have the chance to see this person. 
We get there and go through the most thorough security we’ve seen in India so far – they actually turn away those that have cameras and cell phones and even cigarettes.  We sit on the cold floor and wait in the bright morning air as the place packs up with monks, Tibetans, and Westerners.  It is like waiting for a parade to pass on a cold morning.  Finally, the TIPA band comes through and I love the music.   It is marching band style – drums, flutes and bagpipes – which none of us can figure out.  But apparently there are bagpipes in Tibet!  The music is awesome, and in their funky Tibetan uniforms and their swaggering dance, it is a lot of fun.  They are very attractive young men and women.  A few dignitaries come through and the crowd gets expectant.  We are 2 feet from the barrier and we know that HH will be coming within feet of us any minute as he walks down to his special place at the head of the scene.  Is that him now?  No, just another senior monk.  And then, there he is!  Beautiful and small, walking quickly down the lane cheerful and bright as ever, hands together in prayer, blessing us all as he goes by.   He takes his position in his large yellow chair and all I can do is stare.  Two songs are sung – one is the Tibetan national anthem, but the other longer song is something else that all the locals seem to know but we haven’t a clue.  Then, there are long Tibetan language speeches from a dignitary and then by a senior monk.  I can’t understand them, so I just watch HH as he follows along with a print version, and meditate on the day. 
Soon, we are clapping for the last guy and HH moves to a special podium on the left side which is utterly obstructed from my view. For the length of his speech I can only hear him, but we have been given English print-outs of his talk from which we follow along.  It is the Tibetan uprising day – March 10 – and he talks again about the importance of the finding autonomy for his people.  But he also announces something newsworthy and important today that we heard rumours about:  he is officially stepping down as political leader of Tibet so that elections can choose another.  This is enormous news here.  Of course, he will still maintain spiritual leadership, but we discuss afterwards the possible intentions that this other move might make.  He is sure that it is the best move for Tibetans and therefore, he must be right.  In the largest newspaper in India the next day (The Hindu) there is a front page story about this and it reports the swift reaction from China, that says this move is simply a political trick. 
            When he finishes talking, the band plays again and soon the crowd rises and swells, pushing against the gate as we all know HH will come by shortly.  People offer white prayer scarves and flags to him as he walks past, and even though he does not take them we all feel wonderful for having simply received his darshan, his presence. 
            Tired and uplifted, we leave with the crushing crowd, out through the loud demonstration by Tibetan nationalists just outside the gate to the temple grounds, and I dash for a hot cappuccino (which can be found in good quality, Western-tailored cafés all over this tourist town) and a washroom.  Sipping in the cool sunlight, it is a good day.
outside the temple after the talk

            Yes, McCleod Ganj touched me, for sure.  Such dramatic Himalayan beauty!  I didn’t do much studying or meditating here – it was just too darn cold to sit still, and the hotel rooms were the coldest.   I did a lot of eating and drinking of tea and coffee though.  I went out of my way to try Tibetan Butter tea, since I had read about it, and I discovered why it was not very popular or prominent.  But, it was interesting anyway.  The Tibetan food was not something I particularly liked – it was bland and way too full of wheat noodles.  The first night’s meal that I had there was the worst I have ever had, and it was at the best-rated restaurant, too – McCloo’s.    I ordered chop suey, hoping for some veggies, and  I got a bowl full of dry and crunchy egg noodles with what was essentially that red sweet and sour sauce poured on top.  Yeah, terrible.  Emma’s micro-bowl of bad soup was enough to make her swear (don’t mess with Emma’s food, man!). The next meal was not much better.  So, I learned from Emma conclusively that one of my first Indian rules had to go:  street food is almost always better, always quicker, and fresher.  I’m a bit tired of waiting a long time in some restaurant that tries desperately to seem civilized, for some mediocre food I will not enjoy much.  No, in McCleod I learned that the way to go is find a dumpy little hole in the wall filled with locals, or just a plain old street vendor, and eat whatever is hot and fresh.  This way, I have discovered glorious momo’s (a Tibetan dumpling) and have fallen in love with ghee-saturated paranthas.  They are cooked, almost inevitably, on instruments that would downright scare you at home, but friends, the food is safe and tasty and dirt cheap.  And, the small portions, eaten regularly, suit me.  For 10 Rs a few times a day I have been eating better than a single 100Rs plate for sure.  So while others have gone to recommended restaurants,  Emma will look to me and say something like, “So, ya’ wanna’ go find some shady place to eat?” She is hilarious, and as someone who lives in Goa for the cold part of our Canadian year, I like to hang out with her because she knows more about everything here than anyone.  Of course, being Darrol’s daughter, she has grown up travelling to India numerous times as well, and I love the comfort she has with local customs, as well as her laidback attitude towards just about everything besides her hunger. 
            In McCleod I finally did some shopping for gifts, too.  It is a small enough place, and the sweet Kashmiri store owners, with their wools and bright art work, were very inviting and I enjoyed getting a few goodies for some of you back home.  I wish I had a larger pack to carry things with (not to mention a larger purse)!  The rest will wait for Kashmir itself though.  And I am getting close!  It was nice being in the north – the hotel owners, as well as most of the shop keepers, were all Kashmiri, and talking to them all has been great. 
            Otherwise, the group is good, and we are starting to become friends without getting in each other’s way.  I have learned to ignore and avoid the filming fairly well and it does not bother me any more.  And Darrol’s connections and insights have been really worthwhile – I am glad for the example and I feel that at this point some of his mastery of the art of Indian travel has worn off on me.  
Something shifted for me in Amritsar.  I feel almost uncomfortable in my Western clothes now – though I know that this is temporary.  I have been wearing a brown shawl a la Punjabi, and a dark Afghan hat that seems to fit perfectly – and this feels a little better.  I still want to find a decent Punjabi long kurta, though, and a decent Nehru vest.  In a way that I had not expected (and is hard to articulate) I am feeling my Indian soul.  When I ask something in Hindi these days, I am not getting the same stares as before.  Maybe I have just come to a point of comfort here, I am not sure. But time has come to a stop and my life in Canada seems like the dreamy part now.  How long have I been here, anyway?  It is crazy and amazing to lose your self in this way – in travel.  The need or the possibility to redefine every day is liberating.  I can’t say that this is ‘fun’, but I am having a wonderful time.  I don’t want it to end, but I look forward to coming back home, getting back to Full Circle, and discovering slowly in the coming days and weeks just what, exactly, has really happened to me.
View of McCleod from rooftop cafe


Now, we are back down in the Punjab after the most gorgeous drive down from the mountain.  Dinner at a roadside place where we ate outside and watched the sunset while enjoying the warmer temperature.    Navratam Korma was new and delicious to me. 
Sitting in the Pathankat train station with a wait of about 2.5 hours to go before our overnight train to Delhi…

1 comment:

  1. Rob, although I have not been able to stay on top of all your posts, what I have read has been very interesting and well-written!

    I look forward to reading more!


    Dave Steffler

    P.S. I was able to use your x-country skis a few times this winter (thanks!!), prior to spending the month of March in BC.