Thursday, July 31, 2008

Preparing to meet the Dalai Lama

A misty gray morning here on what should be an amazing day. We are scheduled to meet HH Dalai Lama later this afternoon.

After the 2:30 wake up yesterday, I went for a run up the mountain to McLeod Gang. It took about 26 minutes of straight up hill running. The placement went well as Yamini and I are working to get a syllabus and plan together. Brian came back from his placement at the hospital thrilled. Initially placed in the summer camp, teaching sports, this former Army medic and civilian paramedic wanted to use his skills as best as possible. He asked to be reassigned and again Cross Cultural staff accommodated. After seeing what they do with so little (bleaching and reusing latex gloves, an ambulance empty past a wooden bench, etc) he talked about a new path in life.

Following the placement, I crashed for an hour and was awoken by a call from HHDL’s office. Where I thought we had an outside chance to meet HHDL when he was coming or going from one of his teachings, I didn’t expect a call so soon. Tenzin Takhla, in perfect English, stated that we would need to be up at the Government in Exile’s headquarters at 11:45 so we could pass through security. Except for not bringing cameras (they would have an official photographer take the photos), little other guidance as to behavior, dress, 2qw given. He suggested we meet with the Department of Information, one of the seven cabinet level departments within their executive prior to the meeting.

First we needed clearance from Cross Cultural solutions; meeting at 11:45 meant that many of the cadets would miss their placement that day. I spoke with the country director back in Delhi to get the approval. She was thrilled, supportive, and only asked that I conveyed to the non-West Point volunteers that this was something in the works for many months to prevent a stampede.

Grabbed the guys and headed up the mountain to the Government in Exile. After a couple or wrong turns, we ended up in the small compound, about halfway up the mountain between Dharamsala and McLeod. We were met by Masood Butt, an employee of the Department of Information. He sat with us and explained the political structure and answered our questions well past the office’s closing time.

He described a judiciary that must work within the Indian judicial system (reminded me of how the U.S. military is governed when stationed abroad, through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA)s), and a complex election allocation that polls the roughly 100,000 Tibetan refugees spread across the world to select 43 parliamentarians and their chief executive every five years. Parties have not developed in this system, instead Madison’s prediction of faction balancing faction manifests in the legislative checking the executive. Six parliamentary seats are reserved for women but more than that are serving in this parliament.

Green books given to every official refugee over the age of six, prove status and also contribution to the government. Those in India are asked to give 56 rupees a year (yes…$1.25, a little more than I’ve paid for a Diet Coke). If they are salaried by the government or more well off, they are asked to give 2% of their income. Dependent on the repatriations from Tibetans abroad (Masood estimated 3-4,000 in North America), all payments are recorded in their personal green books. He recommended asking people to produce these to prove their true Tibetan status.

As monkeys fought in a tree just outside the lobby, the guys asked some great questions, specifically about the Dalai Lama’s role and the prospects of a return to Tibet. Masood stated how the government was modeled after the Indian system, with a President serving as a nominal head of state. The Dalai Lama served this role, but far more than nominal, would be involved in all major issues.

He talked with certainty about the end of exile, “When we return to China, we will dissolve this government.” Masood stated the three main stumbling blocks for a return would be first, China’s insistence on the Dalai Lama stated Tibet’s place within China both in the past and today, second, bringing the three traditional provinces into Tibet (the current Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR encompasses only about 50% of the land Tibetans claim) and third, the amount of internal autonomy granted to Tibet to govern within China. The prospects of all three seem dim; even if history could be rewritten, I just can’t picture the PRC allowing a democracy to flourish within its borders, especially one that claims a huge swath of increasingly important territory (traditional Tibet is the source of water for the major rivers of both China and India and therefore 35% of the world’s population).

When I asked about the Olympics, Masood began with the official answer—that the administration is not against the Olympics and the HHDL has expressed his support of China hosting the event from the start. I pressed on his opinion of the protests against the torch and how his office was prepared for what would likely occur around the world. He emphasized that the government’s ability to control the many NGOs and Tibet support groups, each with their own agenda, was limited to appealing to them, which had occurred. In a democracy, he stated, there is always space for dissent. He admitted the difficult of this period of time when stating, “The Olympics will come. They will go. But the dialogue with China and our eventual return will continue.”

After some final tips on protocol for the meeting, we thanked him and walked outside. Huge monkeys leapt from buildings, to powerlines, to trees, right past a huge banner protesting the Olympics.

Afterwards, we headed up to McLeod. Some of the guys picked up some of the beautiful, delicate white silk scarves that will be presented to HHDL, while others did a primer on Tibetan greetings. At dinner, Loc and Kris gave a fantastic reminder lecture on Buddhism. Loc doesn’t say much, but when the topic is either Buddhism or his time as a squad leader for new cadets, he has much to say. As we ate our power outage produced candlelight dinner, the guys asked questions about Buddhism and debated its merits. The guys put forward the question they would ask if given a chance and settled on Loc’s if we only had one—reconciling Buddhist philosophy with their chosen military profession.

Now headed out to our placements, I hope they get the chance to ask their question.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dharamsala impressions

Woke up at 2:30 am wide awake, after about five hours of sleep. So I'm sitting at our little dial up computer listening to the thunder roll outside. It is monsoon season here in Dharamsala and one of my first purchases was an umbrella.

My days here are starting early, with instant coffee looking out over the valley. Let me paint the picture of Dharamsala. It clutches the very end of the Himalayan range. The town itself is jumbled together; walking through it you get hit with the smells of street venders (minus the urine and excrement that wafted through Delhi), the sounds of dozens of horns beeping as little minibus taxis and motorcycles/scooters weave through the crowd, the sights of the jumble of signs, drooping power lines and mismatched buildings that characterize most of the emerging world. Dharamsala itself is very Indian and while it definitely benefits from tourism, most of the town seems to carry on without noticing the Americans from our group. No beggers or people yelling out "Hello!" "My friend!" as I've found all over the world. The one huge exception to the commonality of the place is the cows. Sacred for Hindus, they roam here as they roam Delhi. I realize that I've gotten used to them already, but picture a cow roaming through NYC and you start to get the picture. No one touches them, herds them, shoos them, they just carry on as if they were part of the landscape.

We live in a house about a five minute walk from Dharamsala. The mountainside is latticed with walkways, most paved, some even lit at night. I sleep in a room with two of the guys, with the other six split between two rooms. We have one real bathroom, one Indian style one (squat) and a kitchen. We eat our meals together in another house where the Cross Cultural staff lives.

I am loving the food. My meals are typically banana or mango lassi (a sweet yogurt drink), a bottle of water, some naan (the fantastic charcoal oven flat bread) and a curry. I love the amount of spice in the food here, enough to let you know it is there but not enough to leave you gasping for water. No real stomach problems yet. Last night we went up the mountain to McLeod Gang with three of my guys; we've had a number of rolling laughter meals and last night especially.

McLeod Gang sits 1500 feet above Dharamsala, clinging to the same mountain just higher. We take a taxi for $2.50 the five harrowing kilometers winding up a road that in many places is only, barely wide enough for one of the small mini-buses. Two way traffic careening up/down, with some sharp drop offs and steep cliffs makes for a fun trip. The trip takes about 10 minutes but completes a transition from Indian to Tibetan. About five minutes up, we start seeing the deep maroon of the monks robes, wrapped around shaved heads. They remind me of the deep red of the Masai on the Kenyan savannah and how their draped robes distinguish them from the landscape. They've surprised me with their umbrellas, slickers and mixed sex.

McLeod is where the Dalai Lama fleed during the Chinese persecution of Tibetans in the 1950s. Since then, he has carved out a goverment in exile on this mountain side. The Dalai Lama or HH (His Holiness) as he goes by here gives public lectures a few days in the year. As providence has it, he is lecturing August 4th-6th on the topic of Korean Buddhism. We went to the gov't office to register to attend. And yes, I've requested a special audience for our group.

HH's presence here means that McLeod will be a focal point during the Olympics. For now, the streets seem very calm, with the Tibetans following the Dalai Lama's call of support for the games, although I watched a candlelight procession with a few dozen Tibetans yesterday. You can find 'Free Tibet' on everything from road signs to shoulder bags. The rest of the town is very much oriented to the backpackers seeking enlightenment. The two-street town is filled with Internet cafes, tons of shops selling knick knack to some very nice items and signs advertising yoga, massage and rekki. A massage costs $7.50 for an hour so you can bet I'll be there on a daily basis. My first was yesterday, in a quiet, incense filled room.

Back to the average day. After coffee, I am out walking/running with one of the guys up the mountain. Yesterday, Leo and I spent a good deal of time watching a troop of monkeys. After the walk, I catch a quick communal breakfast at the CCS house, then off to my placement at the Sahyog Center. I head off with a driver for 25 minutes over more bouncing roads. I work with a young woman who runs the center, Yamini. A mother of one, divorced at 25, she gets up at 4:45 every day, tutors two kids at her house, gets to the center at 8, stays until 6 PM, goes home (she lives with her parents) and tries to fit in studies for a masters in English. The center does two main things--teach English and teach computer skills. I've been paired up for the computer training. Right now I am working with Yamini on something where I can actually help--organization. We are building a syllabus and just organizing the mob of kids that want to come and practice their typing. A previous volunteer got Yamini up on the web and started a small business selling scarves; We all finish our volunteer work around noon, grab a communal lunch and then either have mandatory cultural lessons/classes with Cross Cultural or have the time to our own.

My Hindi is coming along nicely. I am trying to convince the cadets on the power of language, of trying even if you know you will butcher, and my approach to language. Every taxi ride, street vendor purchase, I am doing the same standard conversation (Hi/How are you?/Are you married?/Kids?/Pleasure meeting you!) by now. Universal production of smiles with kids, cabbies, shop owners etc.

The cadets are doing well and making me proud. They are placed in summer camps, learning disability centers, a hospital and one teaching English at Sahyog. Sometimes they remind me they are 20-21 but most of the time I forget. The work put in putting this together I believe will more than pay off...I see it in their excitement, their realization about the commonalities and differences between cultures, their growing confidence in getting around, and their general satisfaction in being treated as grown men.

Some little moments that stand out. Yamini, standing on a plastic chair as she waves incense in a circle around shrines to Ganesh and other Hindi gods that sit above the doorway to the center. My driver teaching me Hindi as we bounce on the roads to the center, removing both hands to do a quick prayer as we drive past little road side shrines for Shiva that remind me of the little road side Catholic monuments in Germany. The odd response most Indians give to almost all questions, kicking their chin to the right and the top of their head to the left, an expression that can mean yes, no, maybe, I don't understand, you butcher my language, etc.