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.

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