Saturday, June 20, 2009

Peace, quiet and the Dalai Lama

4 March 2009 - 7 April 2009
Well, when I last wrote I was recovering from spending four days looking at a camel's backside and while it was a great adventure and very interesting, I was so glad when it was over. It was one of those experiences that was better to have done rather than be doing it.

Pushkar was our chosen place of recovery because of we'd heard from other travelers what a small, quiet place Pushkar is. To be honest, while it was small, it's absolutely not quiet and as most holy Hindu places in India, it's dirty, crowded and full of cows. As most tourist places in India, it's full of pushy Indians trying desparately to rip tourists off. In hindsight, not a great place to recover, but it did some good points. The guesthouse ownder, Ram, who gave us his house and the other guests at the hotel were a definite plus. It was nice to spend some time sitting around chatting to other foreigners and swapping stories of travel.

One day in Pushkar while I was walking down the street a gypsy woman said hello and dragged me into a chai shop. I'd had so few expereinces with Indian women (they're usually hidden away in their houses) that I didn't resist the opportunity to sit down and chat with one. Knowing I would need an out before I ended up going to this woman's house, adopting her children and bathing her mother, I informed her of a meeting with my husband that I had to leave for in 20 minutes. She immediately grabbed my hand and started to give me a henna tattoo (henna is a plant that is used in India to give temporary tattoos, some of which are absolutely beautiful). I'd been wanting a henna tattoo, so rather than pull my hand away, I let her continue. I watched first with interest and then with horror at what she was doing to my hand. By the time she'd finished, it looked like her henna pen had exploded all over my hand and forearm. Not for me the delicate swrils and flowers of the professionally done tattoo, no, I got the amateurs thick-lined, designed on the fly henna disaster. Thankfully it wasn't permanent and despite what she had done to me, I was feeling generous, so I bought her a chai and gave her 50 rupees (the henna pen costs 5 rupees). She said 'no, chappati flour'. I thought, okay, woman wants food, I can do that. So I let her drag me halfway across town to buy flour. We walked up to a shop and she had an exchange with the shop owner. He went to the back and returned with a bag of flour big enough to make a year's supply of chappati. I asked how much and was informed 150 rupees. I laughed and said 'no way'. She shrugged and said 'okay, you give me 100 rupees'. I gave her the original 50 rupees and walked off, annoyed that my initial generosity wasn't enough and she tried to push for more. You would think that by now I'd have stopped being offended and surprised, but what can I say, I am eternally, naively optimistic about human nature.

Rohan also had an experience with the gypsy women of Pushkar. He was walking down the street and was approached by two made up Gypsy women. He was as surprised as I was to be approached by an Indian woman. One of them took his hand and asked if he wanted 'something'. He took his hand back, politely answered 'no' and walked on. Later he found out that 'something' could've been anyhting from a henna tattoo, to hash or opium, sex. He was lucky to escape with just a handshake.

We left Pushkar and Rajasthan to head north, with the hope of finding cleaner surroundings and quieter airways. On the first train from Ajmer to Delhi I got my shoes repaired. The man wanted to charge me 15 rupees, but he'd offered such a vaulable service I have him 50 rupees and made his day. The train stopped at Jaipur and hawkers got on. One beggar approached Rohan and Ro gave him one rupee (it was the only little money he had on him). The beggar looked horrified. 'One rupee?! No sir, give me ten'. So Rohan took the one rupee back and turned to stare out the window. Even the other Indians around Rohan were a bit surprised, but you should never look a gift horse in the mouth. One rupee isn't a lot of money, but a few more of those and the beggar had a meal. It seemed quite cheeky for him to demand more.

Begging in India is often an organised racket. Poor boys, men, girls and women are organised by a 'pimp' who feeds and houses them and takes their earnings in return. The pimp may maime or disfigure them so they earn more money because of the sympathy a cripple receives. Women give their children cigarette burns to try to get sympathy by showing that their child has wounds and needs medicine and milk. The unwitting tourist gets taken to the pharmacy where they cough up for milk or medicine, which can run anywhere from 200 to 800 rupees. Then when the tourist walks away, the beggar brings back the medicine or milk, the shop gives her 80% of the money and keeps 20% and the milk or medicine for himself and the tourist walks away thinking they've helped save some baby, when all they've really done is further encourage begging. Beggars even fly from Delhi to the norht to take advantage of the tourist season; only the tourists take the bus. What can one do to actually help? Because there's no doubt that there are supremely destitute and wretched people who are genuinely in need. To tell you the truth, I don't know. The moral dilemma of being a 'rich' westerner who actually wants to help without causing more harm is one I continue to struggle with. The sometimes crushing Western guilt is something I think many who travel India (and other nations like it struggle with. But look at me complaining about Western guilt, at least I get a clean roof over my head, clean water to drink and clean food to eat.

After 30 hours of travel we pulled up in Mcleod Ganj, home of the Tibetan Government in exile. It's a beautiful place with the Himalaya serving as the background. The population there is mostly Tibetan, with some Indians and a smattering of expats thrown in the mixture. It was the calmest place we'd been in a while.

On the first morning in Mcleod Ganj I was having some breakfast and asked a monk who was sitting in the cafe where I could register for the upcoming teaching given by the Dalai Lama. He said he was waiting for a friend and then he would show me. We ended up spending the rest of the day with Tashi and Tenzin, two monks who fled Tibet nine years ago in order to receive a Tibetan education, as opposed to an expensive Chinese education or none at all. They escaped Tibet by foot by when Tenzin was 12 and Tashi was 16. At one point, two days walk from the Tibet-India border a blizzard hit. Tenzin's sunglasses had broken and he was rendered snow blind by the blizzard. Tashi held his hand and walked him to the border and to safety. When I was 12 I was worried about wearing the latest fashion and was crushed when I could only get one pair of Guess jeans. The stories of so many of the Tibetan refugees sure do put life into a different perspective.

While we were in Mcleod Ganj, the 50 year anniversary of the Chinese Government invading Tibet was observed. There were peaceful protests and hunger strikes. It is also one of the times of the year that the Dalai Lama gives a teaching on some part of Buddhist scriptures. The teaching is aimed at Buddhist (not like some of the Dalai Lama's speeches given in the West), but even for Rohan and I it was interesting to listen to. The opportunity to see the Dalai Lama's glowing, smiling face was really memorable. Even though he is over 70 years old, his smile and face look like that of a cheeky five year old.

We decided we should explore the surrounds since there were so many mountains around just begging to be climbed. One morning we set off up the mountain towards one of the peaks called Triund. After an hour and a half we reached a tea shop and decided to stop for a cup of chai. It's a good thing we stopped when we did because an almighty storm descended on us. When the rain and hail stopped and we were packing up to get down the mountain before it started again, we saw this very sad donkey. Half of his face was practically rotting off with infection. Both Ro and I felt horrible for the poor thing, but didn't really think there was much we could do for it.

The next morning at breakfast, these people approached us to tell us about an animal welfare clinic in the nearby town of Dharamsala. We told them about the donkey and they said that if Rohan could lead them to it, they'd send up the volunteer vet to have a look at it. Rohan made his way up the mountain after breakfast and found where the donkey lived. He spent the next six days trekking up the mountain with an Englishman we'd met named Jim. Rohan paid for antibiotics, bandages, hydrogen peroxide and anti-septic cream and Jim and he spent five days cleaning the donkeys face and injecting it with antiobiotics. When we left Mcleod the donkey was looking much better, but still needed further treatment, so Jim and Rohan paid the animal clinic to continue treatment and with any luck the donkey will be healthy in no time.

Apart from eating, hanging out with some cool people whom we'd met either in Mcleod or in other parts of India, relaxing and curing donkeys we didn't do much else there. I took on a couple of Tibetan students for a couple weeks of conversational English classes. After a month we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Mcleod.


First stop after Mcleod as Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple is the Sikh Temple, similiar to the Vatican for Catholics. And it is beautiful. It boasts to be made of 750 kilograms of gold and was built five hundred years ago. It's open 24 hours, 365 days a year and is serving free food (suggested donation) all the time. The day we ate there we had rice, dahl, vegetable and paneer curry and some kind of deep fried sweet treats. It was delicious.

Amritsar is 30 kilometres from the only Pakistan-India order entry point. Every day before sunset they have a ceremony where they close the border for the day and lower the countries flags. Neither will lower theirs first, so they have to do it at exactly the same time. Leading up to the flag lowering, there is much pomp and ceremony. It felt like a sports match! Each side is blaring music and attempting to out-do the other side. Pakistan is shouting something to effect of 'Pakistan is the best' and India's shouting something similiar about their country. And there are so many people on the Indian side! Thousands of Indians are sitting around cheering for how great their country is. Some girls got even up and were dancing to show how good India is! Both sides have soldiers who stomp around, glare at each other and attempt to show their superiority. Frankly, they all look a little silly. At the end of it all, the flags are lowered, both sides shake hands with each other and the gates are shut until tomorrow when it will happen all over again. It's a rather odd event, but it's hard not to get sweptup in the excitement of it all.

We celebrated Rohan's birthday in Amritsar with Jim. We had a few beers and some Tandoori Chicken (Sikhs eat meat and since Amritsar is the Sikh capital, we figured we'd be alright).

After a few days in Amritsar, we headed to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Agra itself is as dirty and foul as any big city, but so many people go there to see the Taj. It is really amazing, but after seeing the Taj, we were out of there.

Next stop, Delhi. Some friends we'd met a couple of times in India and spent lots of time with in Mcleod were also in Delhi, so they reserved us a room and we spent out last night in India there. The room was probably the nicest we'd stayed in, with all the things that probably sound normal to folks back home, but here are deadset luxuries: hot shower, clean room, soap, towels, clean sheets and a television. We scrubbed off the dirt of another long train ride in India (our last for the trip), ordered room service and spent our last night relaxing in style.

So, we made it through three and a half months in India. We're both about ten kilos lighter than the last time we saw many of you because of a variety of stomach bugs we've suffered through. We're tired and we're ready for a break from India, but I have to say that I really did enjoy myself there. It was easily the most difficult place I have travelled, but there are so many bright sparkly moment that stand out from the dark times. I've realised new dark depths of myself that I never really knew existed, but I've also glimpsed a better side that can be kind to people even in the face of stress and adversity. At Indian immigration as we were leaving to go to Kathmandu, the immigration man decided to start a discussion with me about the importance of a positive outlook on life. He said if you look for the good, you'll find it and if you look for the bad, you'll find that too. Then looking meaningfully in my eyes he said 'Madam, you are the kind of person who finds the positive and so I think your life will be happy.' That moment as I was leaving somehow sums up what I like about India.

Well, our next adventure is in Nepal. We're heading up into the mountains for three weeks, so no doubt you'll all hear from me when I get back!