11.04.2012 - 14.04.2012 28 °C
I survived India!
I’m currently at Amritsar Airport (which is packed with Indians with British accents – perhaps Sikh’s visiting the Golden Temple?) waiting to board my flight to Kathmandu via Delhi, so unless anything goes horribly wrong in the next 2 and a half hours, I can safely say I conquered India. My experience has been…interesting, and definitely worthwhile. Towards the end I definitely began to experience some homesickness, and every day I continue to endure culture shock, but all in all it’s been a fabulous journey and I’ve learnt so much. It’s such a big country that I’m sure I’ll come back and explore more, as this place is nothing short of amazing. They don’t call it Incredible India for nothing!
My next stop is Nepal, where I will be volunteering again, this time teaching English in a monastery. I’ve been told that the monastery is in Kavre, which google maps shows to be about an hour and a half from Kathmandu, but I can’t find much else on the area, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see what that has in store. I also plan to go to Pokhara, possibly do a yoga and meditation retreat, maybe do a trek, and do a jungle safari in Chitwan. But, I haven’t really made any plans so I guess we’ll have to wait and see!
The past three days I had spent in Mcleod Gang (near Dharamsala) with Elena, which was amazing. I can’t believe we almost left it off our itinerary. It is an ENTIRELY different India in the Himalayan region.
Dharamsala is where the Dalai Lama was moved to when he became exiled from Tibet, and has since become a very popular destination to receive refugees who have fled Tibet. As such, the entire town is completely devoted to the cause of freeing Tibet, and everywhere you look there are signs, stickers, and paintings advocating it. There are a number of NGOs there too who work with refugees to help them learn English and skills to join the workforce. It is also very touristy, however all the tourists there are typically vegetarian dreadlock-clad hippie backpackers, who are all very friendly and chilled out, and interested in Tibetan culture. As you walk down the street there are probably about 30% Tibetan market-stallholders, 30% monks, 30% tourists and 10% Indians! It has a very unique vibe to anywhere else I’ve seen in India.
As we were driving up the mountains, both Elena and I could feel this vibe immediately. She looked very solemn and pensive, overwhelmed by the change, and I couldn’t keep the giddy smile off my face. We were both ridiculously glad to be here. For about a week before Elena had really felt she’d had enough of India, and I’d begun to feel the same a few days later (hence we indulged so much in Delhi!), but once we arrived to Dharamsala we both felt we could stay another month! Elena’s even considering coming back soon, and personally it’s made me very excited for Nepal.
When we arrived at about 10.30am, Titu took us to the Pink House, top rated guesthouse on TripAdvisor. It was a bit of a splurge at almost $7/night each, but it was for two of our last nights in India and Elena was keen for a bit of luxury. It had amazing views across the mountains and even hot water in the showers! Something I definitely haven’t experienced in a while. While we waited for our room we had some breakfast and met a lovely couple from LA, Michael and Malorie, who had just arrived also, and swapped Indian travel war stories. After we were settled, we decided to take a walk around town. It was quite cold and a bit rainy, but my spirits weren’t dampened as I actually quite miss the cold. A walk through the streets revealed many little bakeries and market stalls, and on virtually every wall or shop window were advertisements for activities going on around town, such as movie nights and discussions, run by local NGOs aimed at educating foreigners on the Tibetan situation. There were smiling people everywhere – a stark contrast from drab Amritsar. It was also an amazing feeling every time I looked up and realised I was enveloped by the overwhelming Himalayan Mountains all around me.
By lunch time we decided to go to a Japanese restaurant we’d heard about during our walk which had spectacular views of the mountains. We then continued our walk away from the town and discovered a path in some bushes, where a temple and monastery resided. Everywhere you looked the bushes or poles or shrines were covered in beautiful Tibetan prayer flags, and through them magnificent views of the cloudy sunset could be seen. It was the afternoon, and several monks and Tibetan Buddhists were walking there, as it was clearly a place of worship. I’m not sure how or why the practice exists, but there are cylinders lined against the walls and larger ones under shelters that the Buddhists walk past and turn. I think I’d also seen this in Myanmar. They also carried and twisted their rosaries (I find it interesting that Buddhists also call their female monks nuns and carry rosaries), and walked around and through poles muttering prayers. I don’t understand the practice at all but it was quite interesting to see. The path continued and we eventually got back to a place we’d been in the morning, so we made our way back to the hotel.
That evening we decided to go down to Oasis, a café run by the Tibet Hope Centre – one of the many NGOs I’d mentioned that are around town dedicated to the Tibetan cause. That evening they were doing a discussion on the issue, which was very enlightening. The guy who runs it (I forget his name) spoke a bit about their charity, which does all sorts of things, and then told us about the history of Tibet and the current situation there with China. He also highlighted the importance of awareness – I agree that the Free Tibet campaign has become somewhat unnoticed despite the fact that it’s a current and horrid issue. As such, I’m going to write a separate article dedicated to what I’ve learnt about Tibet since I’ve been here in Dharamsala. There are events like this on all over the town every night which are great, as the spreading of information is surprisingly powerful, and each of these tourists has a Facebook with hundreds of friends on it who they can then share the message with.
After the talk we were invited to ‘Dance meditation yoga’ or something at Oasis the next night – described to me as ‘letting your body move to the freeing music while you close your eyes then stopping and seeing what position you’re in’, but personally that sounds a bit too hippy for me and I outgrew musical statues a few years ago. Elena and I were pretty tired and decided to head back to the hotel and hang out on the roof for a while with chai and soup to heat us up, until the chilly weather got the best of me and I headed down to bed (in our delightfully comfy bed with lots of doonas!)
The next day we got up bright and early for some breakfast on the roof – the sun was out and the fogs had cleared, so there was a magnificent view of the snow-covered mountains that seemed almost close enough to touch. The day before we’d signed up for Tibetan language classes at Lha, another NGO for the Tibetan cause, which teaches massage, language and cooking courses. We went there at about 9 for an hour long class – man that’s a tough language! I can pretty much only remember ‘Tashi Delek’ now (hello/goodluck) but I’ll post my findings with my separate Tibetan post!
After class Elena and I split up and she went for a walk to search out the waterfalls we’d heard about, and also just because this is a great place to walk. Unfortunately I woke up with a really horribly sore ankle, I’m not sure why, but I was wearing the hiking boots Dutch Sasha had left me in Jaipur to try to keep my ankle straight, and I decided putting more strain on it wasn’t a good idea. So, instead I headed to Oasis again. Funnily, I saw a bunch of people we’d seen in Amritsar who shared out Pakistani border taxi – I guess we all do the same route.
At 11-12.30 a conversation class is run next door at Tibet Hope Centre (the group who run the café), where basically volunteers come to practice English with Tibetans who are trying to learn, allowing them greater job opportunities in the industries in Dharamsala or greater India – apparently some are even working globally now. Volunteers are welcome to drop-in, so I offered my time that morning and it was lots of fun. I was given a group of about four students, with vastly ranging skills in English, and each group was given a scenario that they then had to act out and be questioned on – unfortunately I think I picked the short straw by getting a scene involving aliens, meaning I had to explain what aliens were and then explain the fact that they were mythical – one of my students found that particularly difficult and I think she was beginning to fear the green flesh-eating creature from Mars I was describing to her. At the end of the class the various groups acted their scenes, and it was actually pretty funny. It’s great how there are activities like this foreigners can drop-in on and volunteer their time with. I know there are a few longer term volunteers, and you can work in the café there too (that’s their main source of financing the project), which I think is pretty cool.
After class Elena met me at the café and we went and got some lunch at a restaurant near our hotel, as it also offered beautiful views, where we tried our first momo! Momo is a traditional Tibetan food, and is like a dumpling type thing – we tried spinach and cheese which was pretty good, and then followed that by a walk to one of the many bakeries and bought the most amazing ‘chocolate rough cake’ ever – it was sort of like a cake mixed with an undercooked walnut brownie, which we devoured at a cute tea house across the street.
That afternoon I’d planned to go to a Tibetan cooking class to learn how to make momo and other fancy traditional treats, but I’d gotten my times wrong, and eventually decided to give up and just learn in Nepal instead. We rested at the hotel for a few hours before going for a walk just before sunset in search of the Dalai Lama’s monastery. Or at least I think it’s his – sneakily he’s off speaking in Honolulu I believe so I’ll have to let that slide for now.
We walked around the monastery for a while watching the sunset and people meditating or performing yoga – funnily it was more often Westerners than Tibetans. We also entered the shrine room itself (I’m not familiar with the formal name) and it turns out the Dalai Lama loves Nutella too..! At each of the cabinets containing statues of gods or images of the Dalai Lama there were offerings laid around it – typically a jar of Nutella, some biscuits, Mars bars, crackers, money, etc. We also saw some cute Tibetan children with their mothers at the monastery, and Elena tried to kick a ball to one of the little ones and instead knocked the ball right into his wee little head! It was pretty funny, and his mum mustn’t have minded too much as they offered us some delicious vanilla wafers!
After we’d had our fill of monastery we headed to another organisation down near Oasis café, who was doing a Tibetan pizza (strange spinachy-cheesiness, but nice) and movie night. We saw two films about the situation in Tibet, which was once again both enlightening and frightening. One film was by a British man who returned to Tibet to try to get the perspectives of local Tibetans and see what the situation was truly like. The second was by a Tibetan man who wanted to ask local Tibetans about how they felt about the Beijing Olympics and whether it was something to celebrate. Both risked their lives by doing so – the latter was arrested and hasn’t been seen since. As I mentioned earlier, I plan to write a specific article on Tibet, so I will put some facts from these films in there too.
After the film I grabbed ANOTHER piece of rough chocolate cake – delish, and headed to bed.
Yesterday morning Elena and I grabbed some breakfast on the roof, enjoying our last morning of sweeping mountain views, and then headed to the Tibetan museum, which is in the same complex as the monastery but had been closed at the time we went before. It was quite interesting and there was a lot to read about, and it was very striking to see images of those who had walked from Tibet all the way to Nepal, often suffering frostbite and malnutrition – if they survived at all. It also provided some information about Tibetan Buddhism, and a message from the Dalai Lama. There was a book at the end where many people had signed their names and wishes for Tibet, which was filled with some truly inspirational messages. I wrote a short message and we left shortly after.
We then went for our last walk through all the markets and shops, and picked up a Free Tibet t-shirt, some stickers, and prayer flags. I debated heavily whether to get a bag, but decided I needed to keep the money for when we go back to Amritsar – though I wish now that I had. I guess I can make one when I get back home – it’s all just about spreading awareness of the Tibetan cause wherever you can.
We stopped for lunch at a nice rooftop café, where people were playing instruments and chilling out. Elena and I got some juice and shared a plate of chicken momo. It took FOREVER, and we ended up having to rush the waiter… which later proved later to be a bad move. As we walked out of the restaurant we saw our driver, Titu, waiting for us, and we quickly grabbed our bags (it was NOT fun walking my billions of bags up that enormous flight of stairs) and jumped into the car, regretfully leaving the relaxing sanctuary of Dharamsala.
It wasn’t too long after that I had to stop – and up came the momo, all over the floor of some squat toilet at a petrol station. I had been feeling shocking, and felt a bit better once it all came up, but turns out that wasn’t the last of it. For the whole five hour journey home along the Pakistani border, I was stopping and puking out the side of the car. The annoying thing was, there wasn’t anything in my stomach, but it was like I was just having spasms in my throat and stomach. Titu was freaking out and wanted me to go to a hospital or something, but after assuring him I was fine I eventually ended up back in our hotel.
I’d remembered that yesterday was the anniversary of the Amritsar massacre, which coincided with a harvest festival (I forget the specific name of it) so there were even more people on the streets heading to the Golden Temple, and some fireworks too, but I didn’t have enough energy to participate in much of the festivity.
Elena went to get some dinner and I fell asleep, woken next to the sound of her leaving for her 4.30am train. It’s so strange not to be travelling with her anymore after six weeks side-by-side, but her having left in the midst of my slumber meant that the goodbye was quite easy. I thought I’d like the idea of travelling alone again, but Elena and I are very compatible travel partners and I’m going to miss her lots. Plus I’m jealous of her getting to meet up with Dutch Sasha again and spend a few days in a luxury hotel above the mall in Delhi!
Anyway, I got up pretty early this morning and organised a rickshaw to the airport. I must say it’s one of the strangest airports ever…I got there but wasn’t allowed in until 8am because I had to get my ticket printed from an office which was outside the airport. So I waited on the curb of a rather quiet airport and eventually made my way in, went through some strange security, and am now just waiting for my plane to board. I’m still completely exhausted, and don’t want to arrive to Nepal like this, so I’m downing some coffee and Snickers – thankfully my stomach is feeling fine for now.
Anyway – I guess I’ll speak to you from Nepal!