Sosh P

Monday, September 22, 2008

Raising money for veterans by running

I just confirmed that I'll be able to run my first 'adventure' race in a number of years. It is coming up quick (this Saturday), and I'd like to use it as an opportunity to raise some funds for a start-up non-profit that is doing some incredible work for veterans. The Center for Citizen Leadership (CCL) is a tax-exempt organization that is seeking to develop, enable, and celebrate Citizen Leaders. The Center offers fellowships to returning veterans-with special attentions to wounded and service disabled veterans-in hopes to develop young Citizen Leaders through community participation, service and reflection.

The directors/founders of this non-profit are some friends of mine.  They literally used their combat pay to get this up and running and have already made a great impact.  Helping veterans, inspiring citizens to do is a great program.  I met up with Kaj and Ken at last week's incredible Service Nation Summit in New York. Part of that call to service was to spend September 27th in a day of service...and it just so happens the race falls on that day.

About the race:  The Men's Health Urbanathlon is billed as an urban adventure race. Starting in Central Park, I'll cover an eight mile course, going over obstacles and climbing up the 52 flights of stairs of 7 World Trade Center.  Most run this in relays as part of a team.  I am doing this solo.  My goal is to finish ahead of some of the relay teams and get back into pre-professor shape.  It is going to be some sort of fun.

Any amount is welcome and needed.  Be a 'stair-climber' and donate a dollar for each flight of stairs ($52)!  

Please make a donation by visiting my Firstgiving page: You can donate online with a credit card. All donations are secure and sent directly to the CCL by Firstgiving, who will email you a printable record of your donation.

Please send the link on to anyone who might like to donate!  Thank you very much.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Final thoughts from India--what we did/accomplished

I realize that I've left out the entire justification for the trip--what we did when we weren't meeting with the Dalai Lama, on weekend boondoggles to Amritsar or the Taj. The main purpose of this trip was to volunteer.
Monday through Friday, the cadets and myself were placed in volunteer assignments throughout lower (Indian) Dharamsala. Four worked at a summer camp, two worked with special needs kids, one taught English, and one worked in a local hospital. I taught computer skills and typing in a small community center.

We also saw the power and challenge of money to solve problems. In preparation for this trip, Kris received generous donations from his community, mostly books and supplies to help in
schools. We also ran a garage sale at West Point of all my old adventure racing and military gear that collectively raised about $700. We planned to make purchases once we hit the ground. However, Cross Cultural has a strict policy on donations. Posted around our house were large posters, showing the problem of volunteers giving funds and the very real concern that this would produce expectations, dependence and all sorts of problems that would remain after our volunteers (and money) went home.
Nevertheless, after a number of meetings with the Cross Cultural staff, we found the middle ground. We split the cost of repainting the dilapidated community center, transforming it over a weekend from a run down, dank concrete to something more resembling a school. We purchased school supplies and computer peripherals for the center, sports equipment for the camp, medical instruments for the hospital, delivered on our last day with a member of the staff present.

The guys also saw the incredible need. My center, the Sahyog community trust, created from an initial donation now sees its funds completely depleted. After considering closing down the center, a volunteer earlier this summer 

floated the idea of selling the beautiful Indian scarves online. The sale of each scarf allows the fund to operate for a week. When 

I wasn't helping kids learn how to type or (in classic Army officer fashion) teaching them PowerPoint and Word, I worked with the center's director, Yamini, on how to market the scarves and build this critical business. Shy but whip smart, Yamini is doing what she can to become a businesswoman and keep her center 

afloat. If you have a second and need a beautiful X-mas gift that provides a very genuine feel good, please take a look at what they have to offer here.

That about does it from India. We are now back, half a world a way in far more than actual physical distance. I hope to keep this blog going as already I am loving getting back into the classroom again, teaching 

American Politics during the most fascinating election of my and my students' lives. We have a great semester set up with a slate of guest speakers ranging from Dan Rather to Paul Begala to the head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and others.

The Dalai Lama experience has made our little trip well known and I've been asked to talk about the importance of these relatively new additions to the 47 month experience. This idea 

began a year ago with my simple desire to travel to India (and get someone else to pay for it), received eager support from my department, continued through an application by the cadets, task organization so each had a role/responsibility, preparation meetings at my place where cadets researched and gave briefs on the history, culture, language and political situation. The Rubin Foundation hosted us on a Saturday in April, where we toured their fantastic museum of Tibetan art and heard from scholars of Buddhism and a representative of the Tibetan gov't in exile.

The goal of this 'operation' was simple--to help make these eight cadets to be better officers. Like all military operations, we conducted an after action review (AAR) so I figure the cadets' own assessments of this experience matter much more than my own. Thanks for reading:

The experience provided me with what I feel to be the greatest preparation I could have had for a deployment. This is due to the high volume of cultural immersion and a strong team centered environment emphasized by the Officer in Charge which allowed me to get in the mindset of thinking what it would be like to be a second lieutenant. This allowed for bar none the best learning points in my own personal leadership style than I have ever known before.

It was a fantastic experience that taught me much more than could ever be learned in a classroom setting. It developed me as a person and as a future officer.

I believe that all of the cadets who attended the AIAD received some of the best training for becoming a second lieutenant on this trip than most experiences at West Point.

Knowing what to expect greatly reduced the assault on the senses that was Dehli.

I was exposed for the first time to a situation where my belonging to the US Army was a sensitive issue, which was a valuable experience.

I experienced a very new leadership climate, different from what we usually experience at USMA. It primarily fostered individual responsibility and initiative.

My trip to Dharamsala, India was one of the richest experiences of my life. I truly feel that I will be a better officer because of it.

Not only did I enjoy the trip, the time I spent in country will 100% have a positive effect on how I operate in the not too distant future when I am deployed. I learned how to fit in a foreign culture, the importance of learning the language of the people, and other cultural norms imperative to different regions.

If I had merely traveled to India as a tourist and seen the sights, stayed in hotels and not really interacted with the locals I would not have been able to take away near as much as I did living among and interacting with members of the local community.

One comes to realize that every culture and way of life exists because it works and makes historical or practical sense in some way. Even if you don’t agree on a personal level with the way things are done, learning to work within the framework of that culture and at least temporarily putting aside your disagreements is the only way to be productive.

I may have not understood why certain things are the way they are in India but I came to appreciate them all the same. It taught me not to look down on the people of another nation because it is possibly to learn a great deal from them.

The process of making a contact, sustaining it, and working it to obtain a meeting with a man of such global importance was a great lesson that genuine feeling, a smile, and determination can lead to the incredible.

The exposure to the country we were in gave me perspective on developing nations and the perils of language and cultural barriers. This trip brought forth the realization that you truly need to understand where you are going prior to getting on the ground or else it will be difficult.

Being able to interact with other cultures is a requisite for functioning properly on future deployments. Furthermore, working with mentally disabled children gave me insight into my future profession. I plan on becoming an Army Doctor. Working with these children has solidified my objective of attending medical school and becoming a doctor.

I was able to assist in the delivery of a baby, sit in on a surgery, and refresh my medical skills

As an Army officer, I feel that I will take this learning experience and be ready for anyone, anything or any country that I find myself deployed to

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Sikhs

We're back at West Point, me teaching, the guys marching and learning. But before I wrap up the India experience, I need to express a few things. Namely my love of the Sikhs.

In the summer of 1996, I worked a summer in Africa, splitting time between teaching computer skills at a resort hotel in Mombasa and learning how to write at an opposition newspaper in Kenya. That trip, as a twenty year old, was part of my reason for creating this trip for other twenty year olds. Simply, I grew.

I also fell in love with the Sikhs. Stranded in the vast savanna that is SE Kenya, with darkness approaching, a series of misfortunes and misjudgments ended with me knocking on the door of the Makindu Sikh temple. A traveler told me that if I was in trouble, find sanctuary in the closest Sikh temple. So as the bearded, turbaned, Sikhs answered their rattling gate, there were no questions (why on foot?), no judgment (with darkness approaching?), just free food, free shelter, all at the expense of a relatively modern religion, that focuses on service in this lifetime. Who were these people, the ones that carried daggers and wooden combs as part of their belief? How could they give food to everyone that asked? I met my high water mark for random hospitality twelve years ago, and now, back in India, I didn't have to wait long for another show of Sikh hospitality.

Upon arrival in Delhi, the Cross Cultural staff pulled me aside and asked if we wouldn't mind driving up to Dharamsala. The flight from Delhi to Dharamsala had been overbooked and they needed eight program volunteers to give up their seats; as our group was nine, lean and mean, this made the most sense.

Two of our drivers were Sikhs, easily distinguished by their colorful turbans.
After taking over an hour to get past the outskirts of Delhi, we headed north on highway one. This part of India is distinguished by its indistinguishably. Tabletop flat plains stretched to both sides, providing a glimpse of the rural environment where still 80% of the one billion Indians live. Rice paddies dominated, interspersed between conical stacks of hay and large silos indicating rudimentary brick factories. Every few hours we would see billboards advertising new, massive housing communities. Then, off to the sides of the highway, we would see these half constructed complexes, without exception, sitting idle. I wondered if there had been a housing bust here as well.

About three hours into the trip, we stopped at a collection of shops that served as an upscale restaurant. The new guys got their first taste of Indian food at a Punjab restaurant. By far India's richest state and home to the Sikhs, they benefited from both an industrious culture and the large renumeration sent back from a global expat community. Many if not most of the Indian restaurants abroad are actually Punjabi restaurants.

Eight hours into the trip, the landscape, and roads, began to change. As we came to the border of Punjab and Himchal Pradesh, I caught my first glimpse of the snow capped Himalayas, off in the hazy horizon. We turned off the main highway, and began weaving through foothills seemingly made from solid mud. Water and roads cut paths through the hills, leaving large gashes that didn't betray a hint of rock.

Our driver used broken English to say that this area was his home, and asked if we would like to stop for tea--of course. A few more turns, each narrowing the road, and we found ourselves in a small housing complex that immediately reminded me of rural Iraq. Part house, part barn, we walked through a stable of cows and buffalo. One of the drivers jumped down to milk a cow; he asked if we wanted to and AJ jumped into to give it a squeeze. The guys pounced when he had trouble producing any milk.
Past the stable, the obvious host and patriarch stood straight with a long flowing gray beard. He motioned for us to sit in a semi-circle of white plastic chairs. An old lady sat behind us twirling an odd fan. The nine of us sat down in the open air next to the patriarch, and became quiet. I stumbled through Hindi. He smiled. The driver came back and asked us if we would like tea, or chai.

I've found it amazing how a simple and seemingly immutable provision like tea can change and adapt throughout the eastern hemisphere. From the creamy, super sweet concoction in Kenya that you couldn't let sit for a minute without a gravyesque skin of fat congealing on the surface, to the apple flavored deliciousness of Istanbul that goes exceptionally well with a hook-ah, to the tinking of tiny spoons whipping up the half inch of sugar that sits in the bottom of the hourglass shaped Iraqi version, tea simply happens. The Indian version, at least what we had in that Sikh courtyard, may have topped them all. Fresh, whole milk based, no skin, with delicious hints of spice, served hot in straight small glasses you grasp at the very top, the guys needed little prodding to take the offered second round.

As we sat there stumbling through pleasantries, in an environment so similar to where I did a bulk of my business in the Middle East, I felt I was keeping a promise. In pitching this trip, first to the faculty and then to the cadets, I tried to explain how these experiences do more to prepare you to be an officer than learning to jump out of an airplane. With tea, and Iraq reminiscence, came a bit of vindication.

When we said our thanks, used their squat toilet, and headed out to mount our three cars, a group of women and kids peered cautiously through an adjacent door. My smile and "Namaste" was quickly reciprocated. As Sean gave the old man a frisbee (we should have done better with the West Point gifts), I gave the kids some gum and pens. The guys were thrilled and talking about how great this unexpected stop was.

But that wouldn't be the last of our Sikh experience, with the center of Sikhdom a doable weekend trip away from Dharamsala.

Located close to the Pakistani border, Amritsar with its Golden Temple is the mecca for Sikhs. As you walk through the gates, I was immediately struck by two things mostly absent from India: order and cleanliness.

There is simplicity to the Golden Temple that, even after a long day of travel, we could understand. Take off your shoes and trade them for a token at an organized office. Walk through little pools of water to wash your feet. Cover your head (we bought 10 cent orange bandannas emblazoned with Sikh prints). Touch the ground before walking inside the compound.

And there is was, gleaming in the night. The Golden Temple, covered in gold leaf, glows from a manmade island set in the middle of a square, manmade lake. I've always loved religions that allowed more than hushed whispers and silent reverence in their holy places. Walking clockwise around, you'll see people prostrate, sitting, and conversing on the broad marble walkway and bathing, swimming and soaking in the sacred pool. Above it all comes the singing of priests, piped through the PA system, chanting and reciting passages from their Holy Book. This occurs from 02:30 AM until 10:30 PM, just a few minutes away.

Sikhs don't need an invitation to come up and speak with you. Many youth hang around the temple to practice their English. As I was meandering, one walked up, introduced himself and told me I was welcome to come into the inner sanctum to see the closing of their Holy Book. We walked the single gangway/dock, leading from the side to the temple, mostly covered in gold leaf, with the interior in beautiful inlaid marble much like I saw at the Taj.

The interior was packed. About a hundred worshipers were pressed together in half of the room. Across a small handrail a central Sikh figure, his head wrapped in a deep purple turban sat cross legged, reading from a thick 6" book, about 18" x 18" in dimension. Three attendants sat in this inner sanctum, each with a prescribed task. One swept coins and bills tossed into the center. Two others stood posed on both sides of the book. Four musicians sat to the left, one singing, one patting on a tabla, and two others played an accordion like device, all providing an exotic musical backdrop to the chanting of the central Sikh, who suddenly stopped.

As hundred watched and perspired, the central Sikh closed the book. Then in a slow, deliberate manner that reminded me of an honor guard folding the flag, the two attendants to the side began pulling up and folding sheets to cover the book. As the music continued to play, the book was folded up with dozens of sheets. When done, the wrapped book was huge; the central Sikh put it up on his head, said a few words and the crowd prostrated. My guide directed me out of the sanctum, showed me around the rest of the temple (more priests) and then we joined the masses carrying the book in a golden arc, out of the temple. At the end of the gangway, a Sikh scooped out a clump of sweet dough and plopped it in our hands.

I ran into one of the cadets munching on dough. He said the rest of the guys were already racked out, and they wanted to do as the locals, by sleeping within the temple. I found them curled up together, orange bandannas still atop heads, somehow sleeping on the hard marble. Some of them wore the steel bracelets common to the Sikhs--something past the flowing beards, turbans and daggers to distinguish themselves. As I curled up next to the lake, I feel asleep, proud of the guys.

I woke to water being thrown in my face. It was 2:30 and time for the temple to be cleaned. We got together and wandered over to a large dormitory for pilgrims. Another Sikh volunteer directed us into a room with large platform beds, in which the guys collapsed. Free lodging and health care for anyone is part of the Sikh belief.

The sound of the book being read awoke me a few hours later. As the sun was up, I walked back to the temple and saw life continuing as before. Some Indian tourists mobbed me to ask where I was from. They loved hearing I was from America, although they weren't sure about the increasingly close relationship fostered in a contentious nuclear pact.

A man joined others, and bathed with his son in the lake. While I needed a bath, what I needed more was some food.

Here the Sikhs, yet again, don't disappoint. Providing food for everyone is part of any Sikh temple, no different here than in the remote plains of Kenya. I walked into the central dining facility and again was impressed with the military-like order and efficiency. I was directed to sit in a long line, as volunteers came by, dishing out dahl (a lentil soup), a sweet white rice pudding with raisins and slapping chapattis onto my plate. As the entire line watched my every move with curious smiles, I cleaned the plate.

Turns out they feed 10,000 a day at the Golden Temple. Again, staffed all by pilgrim-volunteers, I wandered first up the stairs to get a birds eye glimpse of the complex. A volunteer stood guard on a room covered with chappatis. I talked with a Brit Foreign Service officer, on vacation from Islamabad, about the odd feeling of walking on bread.
We walked into the kitchen to watch cauldrons of dahl being prepared next to thousands of chappatis being patted and roasted. My digital camera came out and the bakers really started to perform, addresses being swapped, pictures being promised.

I was meeting up with the guys to head back to Dharamsala, so I said my thank yous, dropped some money in the donation bin and headed to our link up spot. They seemed happy, laden with Sikh souvenirs of daggers, steel bracelets and lots of knick knack inspired by the new #1 film in India, "Singh is King" featuring the story of a bumbling, good natured Sikh all set to a soundtrack that features Snoop Dogg. As we listened to rap-Bollywood fusion on the way back to the mountains, the guys were buzzing about how cool the Sikhs were. I can't imagine what it must be like to be a Sikh today, to wear their turbans proudly, despite their own history rife with torture and persecution, by Muslims and Hindus, in the post-9/11 world and to do so without hesitation.

On the first day of class, I always mention the one word that more than anything else will help the cadets be successful--passion. Passion for the subject, passion for the reading, passion in finding out whatever interests you and finding the American Politics angle on it, will help turn the material and subject alive.

I think that is why I love the Sikhs--their passion for doing good now, in this world, for providing food, for their openness, for their pride, for their martial order, for their commitment to service and volunteering. In passion, Singh truly is king.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Border closing

As an officer in one of the most powerful armies in history, there is much for which to be thankful. After seeing a number of other militaries, our non-commissioned officers, equipment and general esprit de corps are second to none. But it is not just our sophistication; I also appreciate the simplicity of our U.S. Army. We walk and salute in somewhat normal fashion. No weird leg kicks, odd arm swings, or spastic salutes, our movements seem very clean, sharp and simple. Second our uniforms don't have nearly the ridiculousness of plumes, crops, riding boots, super-sized medals and strange hats that seem to dominate the rest of the world. These days we don't even polish our boots and our combat uniforms are pajama-like comfortable. Last weekend we discovered the Indians and Pakistani border guards were not so lucky.

On our one free weekend, we decided to head west towards the Pakistani border. Attari is the single border crossing point between India and Pakistan. During the 1947 partition, estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions went missing as Muslims fled to newly created Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled south to India. I expected the closing to be somber, serious and martial reflective of the current conflict, backed by nuclear weapons, that has killed thousands over the years, and a handful even since we've been here.

The drive from Dharamsala took over six hours, even though the distance couldn't have been more than about 150 miles. At any moment, on any stretch of Indian highway, lanes are mere suggestions as cargo trucks swerve around rick shaws, avoiding taxis which dodge around little pelatons of Hindus, riding bikes covered with orange garlands, all of which watched by dozens of people on bikes or simply standing on the side of the roads. And all must dodge, swerve and avoid the damn cows.

The cows are well past annoying, not out of lack of respect for religion, but out of their disrespect for instinct. Nothing in their genetic instinctual wiring should lead them to stand in the middle of a paved road, where there is no food, with huge beasts swerving and beeping just inches, but always inches, around them. Yet this is where I've seen almost all the cows in India, not in the fields munching on grass as one might expect, but in the streets eating cardboard boxes or nosing through the inevitable pile of roadside trash. As we near missed our hundredth cow, I really do believe they are conscious and take great satisfaction in simply screwing with a nation that reveres them.

Dropped off by our driver about a kilometer from the border, we heard the border before seeing it, with the deep thump of techno music and cheers of crowds hitting us. It felt like walking through a parking lot to a baseball stadium, hearing the crowd roar...we quickened our step.

We climbed the three flights of stairs to get to the top of the stadium and wedged through a mass of Indians. What we saw next was nothing like the seriousness you would expect two enemies would display. Thousands of Indians sat and stood in huge bleachers surrounding a road leading to the border gate. Children and women danced to popular Indian songs in the street. A man in teal somehow was appointed to get the crowd going and would occasionally give the 'raise the roof' sign to produce a cheer.

This was usually in response to a cheer from the other side. About 200m away, we could see the Pakistanis, in their own stands, waving their own flags. "Allah...Allah" was answered by "Hindustan!".

Which brings me back to those poor Indian and Pakistani soldiers. While I was impressed with their height, I felt for them in what they wore...what looked like red and gold Chinese fans on top of their hats for the former and much cooler but still elaborate dark fans for the later. These shook and wobbled, making them look like roosters, twitching and strutting and constantly having to reposition their hats to keep them straight.

We talked our way into the VIP section about 50 m from the border gate, and sat a few feet away from a group of plummed soldiers led by what was likely the officer of the guard. In sync with their Pakistani peers, the officer would call each out one by one. They would answer by a straight leg kick that the Rockettes would admire, then with arms swinging straight, march at a double time up to the gate. It reminded me of pro wrestling, with the match getting more complex as more and more ran out of the locker room. Each had a role, mirrored by a Pakistani on the other side, of gate opener, flag rope tier, flag lowerer, buggler, etc. As each got inches from the imaginary line separating these two foes, they would prance and look tough, flexing and preening. The toughness patina ended when they would do their Roxette kicks, with their unfortunate hats, but the Indian and Pakistani crowds loved it.

At the end, the flags were lowered, in sync, inch by inch. The gates were again closed and the crowds were allowed to surge past the rooster plumed soldiers to the gate. I expected hatred from the crowds of enemies now separated by feet, but mostly I just saw little waves back and forth and curious stares peering back and forth. The mirrored movements of the soldiers were replaced by the mirrored reflection of two enemies that up close, looked almost identical to each other.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tibetan Protests

I've seen my fair share of protests in my day. The first I remember were in Kosovo. In a country and a time where you had over 80% unemployment, protests rapidly became simply something to do. My platoon saw a couple and usually it was about 10 central figures, reading scripts, chanting slogans, and about a hundred kids and stray dogs. Usually these were controlled, except with the insertion of media. Then all bets were off as the camera became the focal point. I've heard a political maxim that if the media weren't there, it didn't happen. Later, I would read reports of protests of hundreds of people; while technically true, the counting of kids and dogs just didn't seem fair.

The next big protest I witnessed was during the Bolivian revolution of October 2003. Trying to get into Bolivia, to meet up with a friend from Rolla, from Peru proved very difficult; a group of Aussies and I were the last bus into the capital La Paz, after a fairly stupid midnight attempt to run through the protest blockades. The 12 hours it took to make the typical three hour trip included watching a bus driver get beaten with a cane pole, getting chased by Alto Planos, and moving about a thousand rocks off the highway so we could get our bus through. After making it into the capital, and getting one day to buy up a ton of pashminas and scarves, tens of thousand of the indigenous population completed their cordon of the city and marched through the center. They weren't happy about the government, their American educated president, or the U.S. As I watched one from the edge, tear gas canisters landed a few feet away. I decided to get out on the next flight. Bolivia's government fell a few days later.

In London in February 2003, I saw what became the largest protest in UK history, against the Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands filled the streets, with signs protesting Palestine, Iraq, etc. From Kosovo, to Bolivia, to London, all had the common thread of an anti-American tinge.

About 15 minutes ago, I saw my first protest in the streets of Dharamsala, and my first where the U.S. and our policy was actually liked instead of loathed. By my rough estimate, about two thousand Tibetans or Tibetan sympathizers marched through the streets of Dharamsala. Ethnic Indians folded arms and tried to force their scooters and minivans through a sea, the first third were the maroon cloaked Buddhist monks, with two thirds of mostly Tibetan youth following. As opposed to the quiet, candlelight processions, filled with many Western tourists, that occur nightly in McLeod Gang, this one exhibited a different tenor...more anger, more Tibetan more organization. Several individuals with bull horns read scripts of chants, most in English...the classic "what do we want..." stood out. A robed monk used a high quality camera to video tape the procession. With the Olympics only a day away, it appears that it is not just the Chinese who are organized and concerned about their media image.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Climbing in the Himalayas

Meeting the Dalai Lama is a tough act to follow. Today, we'll actually follow it with another chance of being in his presence, this time hearing him give a public lecture at his compound. He will speak twice a day for three days, on the topic of Korean Buddhism. In this rare opportunity, McLeod is packed. The hippie/caucasian dread lock factor just went through the roof. We've been told to bring a pillow and a FM radio, as his teachings are broadcast in a number of languages.

Maybe he'll speak of human suffering, which is never too far away in India. Every morning, we receive two newspapers on our front stoop. I've been amazed at the amount of tragedy that covers the front page every day. In the 10 days since I arrived here, India has seen the worst terrorist bombings in years, border clashes in Kashmir, rioters slain in Jammu and the closing of 'half-truth' television stations, over 20 dead in a train fire and most recently 150 dead in a temple stampede 'near' us...about 70 miles away but over a three hour taxi ride. Where similar events would each dominate the news for weeks back home, here it seems the bodies are barely cold before a new tragedy takes over the news cycle.

Again, I am using this as a teaching point for the guys. Much like in Iraq, a tragedy even 100 miles away seems like 1000. Life simply and quickly moves on here. Maybe this reflects a society where fatalism and reincarnation pervade personal belief.

In this largely dry nation, my tonic here has largely been massage. I've had three so far with more on the way. A maybe once a year treat at home, with these ranging between $7 and $12, I know that every day I don't get one will be a day I regret at home. So I've had quiet, incense filled room Swedish ones, a Shiatsu that almost made me pass out with the pain, and an ayurvedic that began with pouring hot oil on my head that was actually the best. After my lead, most of the guys have followed suit, with many getting their first. They've made me laugh with talk of 'near second-base'.

Yesterday, two cadets and another volunteer decided it was time to get away from the people and see a bit of the Himalayas. For almost all of our time here, our field of vision has been restricted to the foothills around Dharamsala, with the huge mountains behind shrouded in clouds. We chose a well trod hike into the Himalayas. Along the soaked route, where the trail became the path of least resistance for the torrents rolling onto and down the mountains, small wooden and stone tea shacks provided a chance for us and my dogs to huddle and take a break from the pelting rain. I miss my dog so I've gotten into the bad habit of patting the wet, ratty, rangy and sometimes visibly diseased strays on the head. In turn I receive their loyalty and escort. Joining us in these cramped smokey huts, we found a family of four going up over a pass towards their home town. The mom slung her baby, Krish onto her back like a backpack...I had to keep up a good pace not to be passed by her. We passed another young woman hauling a three foot diameter bundle of grasses. We swapped cookies for photos.

Three hours and 3,500 feet up from McLeod we reached Triund, a saddle that was supposed to give a sweeping vista of the Himalayas. Instead, all we saw was pure gray as we all discovered that the shroud would not lift through sheer will power, karmic beliefs, etc. As we huddled in a small stone shack, warming up by drinking chai and eating a bowl of Indian ramen, two South Koreans, soaked in their shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, shared the hut with us and an upper class Indian family of two college aged boys and their mom who all now live in San Diego. The youngest one sported a Metallica t-shirt so we debated when they went commercial. Our conversation was interrupted by a spectacular ligtening bolt strike about 100 meters away, beneath me. Time to get off the mountain; we finished our ramen and headed out, the dogs and their loyalty left behind.

Almost as soon as we started, the rain began to weaken and the clouds started to reveal the vista of the valley below. Behind us the Himalayas came into focus, enormous, reminiscent of the treeless Rockies. We passed umbrella totting Buddhist monks, out for a stroll, another reminder that we aren't that tough. I felt good, worn and relaxed at the end, but I still think I'll take a massage just to be safe...

Friday, August 1, 2008

15 minutes with the Dalai Lama

I wasn't sure why I was laughing, an odd situation to find myself in that I'm a fairly serious guy. But moments after meeting the Dalai Lama, as he was blessing me by placing a white silk ceremonial scarf, or kata, around my neck, he started giggling. So did I. We sat there for a second, looking at each other, with me trying to catch myself and recognize I was shaking hands that grasped fifty years of world leaders ranging from Mao Tse Tung to American presidents, yet unable to stop giggling away like school boy.

I still couldn't quite believe how I found this moment. Yes, I've tried to suck the marrow out of most experiences and I've talked my way into more than my fair share of rich experiences, but giggling with the Dalai Lama didn't seem likely 24 hours prior. As part of our preparation for our trip, I emailed the Dalai Lama's office and told him of our group. I followed up once we got on the ground. We were thrilled to simply be in Dharamsala at a time when HH wasn't on one of his world tours, at a time where he would be holding public lectures next week. But then one of his aides called me and said we needed to be at his complex the following day to be a part of the receiving line.

So after an understanding Cross Cultural country director released guys with late volunteer placements, a ride up to McLeod and a decent security check we found ourselves sitting on a mossy ledge along a sloping driveway, inside the Dalai Lama's residential compound. As we waited, I could tell the guys were excited with some sitting quietly, while others had a short debate about the merits of two action movies, Demolition Man vs. Soldier. This is a great group.

We watched different groups of people walk up the slope and past our field of vision, stay out of sight for a few minutes, then emerge wearing huge smiles and scarves as they strolled down the hill. The first rotation were the maroon cloaked Buddhist monks, returning wearing the kata draped around their shoulders, what looked like a small red neck scarf tied in a loose knot, what looked like a scroll wrapped in yellow paper and some sort of letter. Then came what I guess were Korean Buddhists (the topic of the Dalai Lama's three day lecture); then a group of school age kids. Each passed through what we heard would be a short receiving line where our group would receive a blessing, take a photo and then quickly be escorted away.

I just tried to soak in the scene. The compound itself was anything but palatial, but that would have gone against fundamental Buddhist teachings. I saw a few hydrangeas as the sum total of the landscaping with a one story pale pink residence needing a coat of paint. With tax revenue less than the cab ride up to McLeod this could be understood.

We were close to going in, when the smiling security guard who moved us through the process, Thekchen Choeling, came and said that we would not be going up with the last group. Instead, HH would like to speak to us after the public reception. The guys started buzzing, and I recocked them to compare the experience to meeting with the Pope. End debate on Demolition Man now.

After the last group moved up the hill, Thekchen took us into the residence and we sat on low couches for a few minutes. The guys could see HHDL through a window and were a twitter. In a minute Thekchen asked us to stand and I walked out onto a porch to walk into a room with the Dalai Lama. Then came the giggling, his blessing of all the cadets. He motioned for me to sit immediately to his left. The room got quiet.

He looked over his right shoulder, to two aides sitting behind him. I heard words closely approximating military and cadet. The aides nodded approval by a short, curt bow of the head. He turned and looked at me. I sat on my thoughts and questions listening to him breathe, inhaling in tight audible breaths.

He asked me what we were doing in Dharamsala. I explained where we were from, my job, the cadets and our volunteering, and thanked him for his time and his aides for allowing us an audience. He took in a number of audible breaths where his cheeks drew tight.

He then asked the group, “So what have you learned?” I don't know why but my eyes shifted to Brian, the oldest of the group and one of my former students. Last night his question about Richard Gere was laughed off the table. But Brian pulled through and spoke to his renewed conviction towards medicine. Sean spoke elegantly about compassion towards others, despite a gulf of cultural difference. The room became quite again past the drawn breaths.

His Holiness said very good and described the ease of getting along with Tibetans, the difficulty with Indians, and the extreme difficulty of the Chinese. “Too national” he said, too mixed up after the protests against the Olympics. But he loved Americans and called us the “champions of freedom, of liberty, of democracy”. Our Army, as an Army of the American people was very good even though Iraq was very bad. We serve and protect the people. The Chinese Army, serves the party and instead of focusing on foreign, focuses on suppressing their own people. “Very sad” he said.

His infectious laugh would come out at odd times, like when describing how tragic the Iraq policy was and how much it had cost America’s standing in the Middle East to the benefit of China. I’ve read this is a true Buddhist laugh, not necessarily light hearted but in line with the desire to sweep away the troubles of your times. When it would emerge, he would turn, lean in so his face was about a foot from mine, look at me straight through the top of his large glasses, and open his mouth in a deep laugh.

He continued on Iraq, describing how he told President Bush the same opinion, and that he had a friend recently come back from Iraq stating how much it had changed for the better. The President he found to be “Very honest, very humble, yet very bad policy” and how he immediately connected with him. Surprisingly he said that Clinton held him at a wider distance, and it took three meetings to become friends.

In his last tour of America and last meeting with the President, he described his last words to George Bush. He prayed that the President could live a long life and could see the end results of his policies, to hopefully see a positive change in the Middle East. A tear, he said, formed in the President’s eye. Very sad he said. As I sat next to a man who fled his country almost fifty years ago, who has worked tirelessly for a return to Lhasa, and who has inspired and advised countless leaders, watching them come, lead and go, I think I saw the definition of compassion, to truly wish for someone else that which you hope for yourself.

He clapped his hands, said ok, we stood for pictures with him directing the tall ones to the back and the short ones to the front, clasping hands with those to his left and right. We all shook hands, as we made our attempts at Tibetan “thank yous” which produced more giggles. At the end he patted my back.

I never got the chance to ask the question on my mind the one I didn't tell the guys last night. “Who takes care of you…through an endless flow of people ranging from poor pilgrims, to Presidents to a group from West Point all wanting time, photos, advice, guidance and blessings?” Not like a world leader, whose rise and set on the stage passes in years, his only passes with death. I'm not sure exactly what he would have said, but I am sure it would have been in between a giggle.