Monday, April 20, 2009

Seven days near Tibet (with pictures)

Tibetan Uprising Day Bday

The short girl with the Tibetan flag painted on her face (and small black tears too if you looked close enough) shouted “China, China, China!” Then came the resounding reply from her fellow protest marchers, “Out! Out! Out!”

Then Facepaint Girl again- When? When? When?
The protesters- Now, Now, Now!

And that is how I celebrated my birthday, chanting and marching for a few hours, a few miles downhill amid a sea of Tibetan flags.

The festivities for David’s 19th- fine, it was also the 50th anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day, were kicked off with a speech from His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, it was in Tibetan, but English translations were passed around for the many tourists. But we’ll get back to my birthday soon enough. First let’s catch up on how we got to be hanging with His Holiness.

After a quick two days in Delhi (or Deh-LEE if you were to pronounce it like an Indian), my Indian gap year program Rustic Pathways, headed north to McLeod Ganj, home to Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

McLeod Ganj, or Mickey G’s as I like to call it, is a strange place. Not quite Tibetan but definitely not Indian, it is a small town filled with Tibetan émigrés, the Westerners, tourists and aging hippies who support the Tibetan cause, and the Indians who moved there to make money off the former.

The streets, all three of them, are narrow and winding up and downhill. The soundtrack to the city is the constant honking of cars as they play Marco Polo around the blind corners. The streets are barely wide enough for one car, so you can imagine how the pedestrians are sent scrambling into the streetside vendors hawking veggie Tibetan dumplings called momos, Tibetan flags and other nationalist paraphernalia whenever a car comes through.

And when two cars play their game of Marco, Polo sounding each other out with their horns around a no-look bend, the people of McLeod Ganj may be forced to seek refuge in the Italian restaurant, or the Mexican place, or the one on the corner boasting everything from Indian food to Israeli.

In McLeod Ganj the four other gappers traveling with Rustic India and I stayed with Tibetan families as part of a homestay. I collapsed onto one of the three beds in the small two room apartment almost as soon as arriving on the 12 hour bus from Delhi. I awoke, bleary-eyed a few hours later startled to find a picture of Pierce Brosnan arm-in-arm with my homestay Bala (Tibetan for father) looking down at me. Later in the day, I found a similar picture of Richard Gere with the owner of a café. So what were James Bond and Mr. Pretty Woman doing in a small town in the north of India? They were two of the many celebrity pilgrims, like Jet Li, who came to see the Dalai Lama.
There are literally dozens of Internet cafes, some with Hebrew letters added to the keyboard. And alongside one of the many coffee ships is a poster advertising cooking lessons “recommended by Lonely Planet.” McLeod Ganj is clearly a small village for more than just the stray Tibetan and entrepreneurial Indian.

My Bala was part of the Ministry of Information and Foreign Affairs which would’ve been fascinating if we could’ve conversed enough for me to find out what the job entailed. Our main translator was my 9 year-old homestay sister, Chezuh. She was much better than her 11 year old brother, named something that sounded like Jimmy. The two of them would sit and watch Cartoon Network after dinner, first Spiderman in Hindi and then a show called Krishna featuring a pint-sized god.

When it came time for bed, generally around 8:30-9, I’d retire to my bed with Pierce Brosnan keeping vigil over me. Bala and Jimmy would sleep in the bed perpendicular to mine and my Amala (Tibetan for mother) and Chezuh slept in the bed together in the kitchen/ dining room. Even after the kids left for boarding school, my homestay parents still slept in different beds. I’m not sure if this was for my benefit, or just the Tibetan way.

When it came time for sleep, the picture of the Dalai Lama surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights went from being an amusing curiosity to an annoyance as flashing Vegas-style lights invaded and interrupted my dreams.

I got a crash course in the Tibetan issue over my first few days in McLeod Ganj. We watched a documentary one day and then met with one of the stars, Ama Ahde, the next day, a Tibetan woman who had been imprisoned for nearly 30 years by the Chinese after being arrested at a protest. Another day we met the flashy organizer of the annual Miss Tibet beauty pageant and the 2008 Tibetan Olympics, who explained his work and his professional view that the evolution of Tibetan culture can organically absorb Western influences without being consumed by them.

We also met with a fiery old man, the most fascinating of all the speakers- a militant extremist. He believed the best (and only) way to free Tibet was to send in an uncoordinated army of Tibetans into mainland China to disrupt communications and infrastructure. He likened it to trapping Arnold Schwarzenegger in a small room with a hive full of pissed off bees, thereby rendering all his muscles useless. His ideas seemed pretty half-baked, but he was a really convincing, charismatic speaker and it was real interesting to hear somebody stray from the Dalai Lama’s pacifistic line.

We spent most of our time when not listening to speakers doing service. Through a community service center, we were each set up with conversation partners at the beginning of week, someone interested in bettering their English speaking skills. I was set up with a Buddhist monk named Palden.

On our first day we talked about Bill Gates, Buddhichita and beating back lust and desire. We had a riveting discussion about the little value in doing good for the wrong reasons, and later the extent to which a devout Buddhist is supposed to be selfless.

For example a Buddhist is never supposed to raise a hand in violence, even in self-defense. But if a Buddhist has a chance to stop someone from doing evil, say a terrorist, then the Buddhist is expected to stop the evildoer by any means necessary, even potentially killing said terrorist. The Buddhist’s actions, taking another’s life even if that saves millions of others, as I understand the Buddhist orthodoxy, still is considered damning. And why is the Buddhist required to do this? So that he can sacrifice himself in place of the terrorist, to stop the terrorist from condemning himself, more importantly than saving the innocents’ lives.

I was pretty excited after that first day with Palden to learn more. I had been interested in Buddhism since reading Hermann Hesse’s classic Siddhartha. But the conversations sort of went downhill from there, and we found ourselves spending some of the time sitting in silence, sipping tea as I checked out the amazing snowcapped Himalayan peaks facing us, and the colorful Buddhist prayer flags strung from building to building.

And then there was the day-to-day life in McLeod.

Showering was bad. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I had the whole conception of showering wrong. See the things is, when I thought shower, I thought “nice, warm, cleansing, therapeutic and just generally not painful.”

None of which applied to my bucket shower in the small, dark stall. My Amala filled up a massive bucket with boiling water and led me to the shower stall, nearly identical to the pit toilet stall my homestay family shared with the neighboring apartment. (Think of an open air horse stable, but much, much smaller with an uncomfortable view of one of the main streets).

The big bucket of hot water came paired with a smaller bucket, which I used to scoop and pour. Cue 15 seconds of beautiful warmth, followed by 3 minutes of shivering and cursing myself. Rub some soap on some small fraction of my body, rinse, repeat. How this is was supposed to get me clean I have no idea. I did know that one bucket shower was one bucket shower too many and that I was done for the week.

At least my Amala made good food. She woke me up every morning by walking in and saying “hello, breakfast, hello.” She then presented me with japatti, sort of like nan or pita and mango jam with a hot steaming thermos of spiced masala milk tea. Dinner was generally potatoes, peppers and some sort of mutton or noodle combo.

On Tibetan National Uprising Day we marched for two hours down through the bigger city of Dharamsala. I chanted loudly, even taking my turn to start one chant of “Release! Release!” answered by the crowd with a chorus of “the Panchen Lama!”

But I didn’t really feel this one like the other protesters. I was more bemused by the whole spectacle of it all, rather than angry at the Chinese or scared for Tibet like my fellow marchers. I was there for the experience and to answer as loud as I could when Facepaint Girl shouted “People of the world!”

“Support us!”

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