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Mary: Tales from Dharamsala

September 9, 2011

I’ve been trying to write about our epic Dharamsala escapade for the last few weeks but I just kept getting (surprise) side-tracked. For the most part though, things have been pretty quiet in Jaipur since we got back. I’ve mainly just been focusing on school, which we have from 9:30 to 4:30 every day, and reading in my free time. They’ve really amped up the Hindi lessons! We’ve finally transitioned away from the English transcription system we were using to read and learn new vocab words and now we just write everything in the script! I’m incredibly excited because it finally feels like I’m making significant progress with Hindi but it’s also a lot harder than I expected! It feels so strange to struggle through each individual word, slowly pronouncing the sound each letter makes. It really is like being in kindergarten and learning to read all over again. But still, it’s so thrilling to finally be able to read and write in such a strange and beautiful new language!

Anyways, I’m mainly writing this post to share the story of my journey in Dharamsala! I shall start off my swash-buckling account of the small hill station in the northernmost reaches of this vast and wondrous country with the simple and beautiful truth – we didn’t really do much of anything that week. Though I am sure a collective note of confusion may now be heard rising up from the befuddled peanut gallery, allow me to explain. Fact: the city of Jaipur is exhilarating and fills me each and every day with a sense of awe and admiration for the multitude of ways that humans have come to call this planet we live on home. Unfortunately, I believe that in that week leading up to our departure for the north, I had come to experience firsthand a little phenomenon, all too familiar amongst foreign travelers to India, known as “sensory overload”. I was getting a bit, shall we say, frazzled. I was more than ready for a little vacation to somewhere that wasn’t exceedingly hot and wasn’t plagued with the constant blare of traffic horns. Regrettably, the roughly 30 hour rickshaw-train-rickshaw-train-bus-ricksaw ride it took to get from Jaipur to Delhi to Pathankot to Dharamsala was, quite frankly, miserable. I don’t think I’ve ever had feelings of being dirty, sleepy, hungry, and grouchy combine in as great a magnitude as they did that first evening in Dharamsala. To top it all off, as we wandered the streets looking for a hotel, it was dark and pouring down rain. However, good news is that when things start off going that poorly, they can really only improve. We finally found a hotel, negotiated a reasonable rate for the six of us, had a hot meal (complete with carrot cake and chai) in the upstairs café, took pleasantly warm showers and crawled into very comfortable beds and immediately fell asleep.

The next morning, all troubles of the day before were negated and negligible upon our first look out the window. It was indescribably magical. I actually had the feeling of being in some other world where prayer flags wave invitingly from the forests, tiny little women beckon me forward to feel the yak wool shawls they have just finished knitting, monks with shaved heads draped in curtains of brightest saffron orange meander through the streets and the clouds normally drift down to say nameste and hang lazily about all morning. It was also on this first morning that I had one of my most memorable experiences in India to date.

Hannah and I had gotten separated from the rest of the group, lingering a bit longer at some little shop. We were walking down the street, looking for breakfast when a small boy with thin, ungainly limbs and a wide but crooked smile stepped out of the shadows of the early morning mist, eager to chat. “Hallo!” he called, “How do you like Dharamsala? You are travelers? Where are you from?” He reeled of a series of questions, determined to demonstrate his mastery of the English language, hoping to keep us engaged. We were used to this type of behavior from the local street children, the pestering attention this boy was giving us, and I had a very strong feeling he was about to seek our charity. But I could feel something different about this boy, something more genuine. Perhaps it was his persistent yet determinedly casual knack for keeping up a conversation, or the fact that he did not immediately hold out his hand and ask for money, like so many others, which caused me to pay him a bit more attention. As we meandered down the small street, poking our heads into shops selling everything from yak cheesecake to singing bowls, we continued in the boy’s company. A solid ten minutes went by without him asking for anything. It was only when Hannah and I eventually found and were about to enter a restaurant for breakfast that the boy spoke up, “Please madams I was curious, I will not ask for money, but if you would buy me some rice before going in?” Since my arrival in India it has been my personal decision to refuse to give money to beggars but occasionally if I have a piece of fruit or pack of crackers with me I will pass it on. As the boy stared up at me with silent pleading eyes, I found myself answering his question with one of my own, “Would you like to come to breakfast with us?” He looked hesitant; I could see him weighing in his mind the price of missing out on potential tourists against the luxury of a warm meal. Keen to hear more of this boy’s story, I offered the added promise of buying him a bag of rice afterwards if he came with us, which did the trick. We sat down at a table outside with an excellent view of the surrounding mountains and launched into conversation. I learned that his name was Suratch and that he had lived in Dharamsala all his life. He lived with his older brother and his wife, a younger sister, and his mother. He was 11 years old and had never been to school. He told me he learned English from talking to tourists, and he promptly rattled off phrases in French and “Israeli” (which I took to be Hebrew), saying those were the most common languages he heard besides English. When I asked why he wasn’t in school he looked a bit confused and said simply “I am needed at home”. When it came time to order our food, he explained that while he would rather have the chocolate pancakes, they would be gone like that (with a snap of the fingers) and so he would like to have the porridge with bananas because it would be a better meal. We continued to chat through the rest of breakfast about nothing in particular; it felt a bit like meeting a new kid I was babysitting for the first time. As we left the restaurant and I took Suratch to a nearby food stall to buy his promised bag of rice, we were laughing together at the monkeys and he promised that he was going to marry me next time I returned to Dharamsala. When at last we shook hands goodbye, he looked me in the eyes with an enormous smile and said earnestly “I thank you Mary, I thank you, you are so nice, I won’t forget!” Watching him walk away, I was filled with genuine sadness that I wouldn’t see him again. I honestly cannot tell you why that particular morning I decided to spend around 500 rupees to buy breakfast and a bag of rice for a street kid, when every other morning on my way to school I walk unblinkingly past dozens of women and children holding upturned palms in my direction. I can, however, guarantee that the memory of sharing a meal with the little boy who gave me a glimpse of unadulterated human goodness was well worth it.

The next day, the six travelers began the next leg of our adventure, this time it was not so much distance as altitude we were gaining. Before setting out, we had made arrangement with a trekking company back in the city to stay in their “cozy cottage” on the top of the mountain in the little village of Triund for three nights. In total it was about a 9 kilometer hike. Armed with little else besides their promise that the trail was well marked and we would be able to find tea tents along the way, we headed out. It was so magnificent to finally be doing something that required considerable amounts of physical exertion!! Interjection: one of the hardest things I’ve had to adjust to in India is the lack of exercise opportunities. People just don’t like to work out! I think my next project here in Jaipur is to find some dance class to join or something… Anyways, the hike took us about six and a half hours. It was incredibly steep, certainly no easy walk in the woods, and for one of the girls in our group who had never been hiking before and had a hip replacement last year it turned out to be a very real challenge. We all encouraged each other to keep going though and managed to finally reach the top just a few minutes after night fall. Our “cozy cottage” was a very welcome site, with a fire crackling and freshly cooked hot daal and rice waiting for us. There were three rooms to the concrete walled, tin roofed building. Two rooms just big enough to fit a queen sized bed and a store room which also served as the bedroom where the man who lived there slept. We were all exhausted from the hike up so we went straight to sleep after supper.

The next three days up on the mountain have kind of melded together in a big lump of picturesque relaxation. We spent the days exploring the rocky landscape, playing card games, reading, and staring off into the distance, simply sitting in stunned silence, marveling at how beautiful of a place we were in. At one point, we hiked up to where the snow line usually is but since it’s the rainy season we didn’t see anything white and fluffy besides the mountain goats running around everywhere. Really though, the only way to get a feel for how this place looked is through pictures! They are already all up on my facebook but I know some people can’t see those so I’ll post them here as well. As I said, the best part about the whole trip was not having any sort of agenda and being able to soak up the silence and tranquility of the mountain for a few days.

After three days, we hiked back down and stayed one more night in a hotel in upper Dharamsala, also known as McLeod Gang. The hot shower was very welcome indeed and I didn’t even object to watching a little bit of American television in the room that night. We went to bed early though because we had all decided to wake up very early the next morning and head to the biggest temple in the city to hear some teaching from the His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself! The Dalai Lama was once head of state for the exiled Tibetan government and is still considered the spiritual leader for Buddhists all over the world. Plus he’s just an all around great and jolly guy, so we figured it would be well worth the long wait to get in to hear him impart some knowledge. We were not disappointed. The first half hour of the speech was in English, in which his holiness spoke of the necessity of ensuring the happiness of all living creatures. He then switched to Tibetan for the next hour and even though I couldn’t understand what he was saying, simply sitting in that beautiful temple, surrounded by hundreds of monks (ages six to ninety six) sipping chai, was a remarkable experience.

Around noon we finally headed out of the temple, out of the city, back onto the trains that would take us home. I think we were all ready to get back to somewhere more familiar, despite the magnificent week we had just had. It was a long journey home, complete with a seven hour train layover in the Delhi station which we spent the entire duration of sitting in an air conditioned McDonalds ordering ice cream coffee and veggie burgers. It was hands down the best time I’ve ever had at a McDonalds.

And so, we’re now all back in Jaipur, getting used to a stricter school schedule and starting to think about what type of internship we plan on pursuing starting in late October. We’ve been joined by eleven more students who seem really pleasant for the most part but the six girls who have already been here for a month are kind of sticking together. We’re planning on doing some more traveling in the nearby future so I’ll probably have more to write about soon enough! Oh, random side note, I just found out that President Obama is coming to speak at Richmond’s campus this Friday… sigh… of course he decides to come the one semester I’m not on campus! Anyways, it’s late, I’m sleepy, and before going to sleep I really want to watch an episode of this crazy new British comedy show Hannah introduced me to and copied to my computer called The Might Boosh. I highly recommend it to any Monty Python fans out there

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