Trip Journal - Dharamsala




Dharamsala -- 29 October 1998

We arrived in Pathankot at 7:30 in the morning. The Jammu Mail wasn't quite as classy as the Radjhani Express had been, there were no thermoses of tea for us when the lights went on. But I'd slept pretty well and felt good, so I forgave the railway pretty easily. We still had a three-hour ride to Dharamsala. George ran around looking for other people going the same way so we could split the cost of a van taxi. He'd obviously done this before. Pretty soon he came back with a young couple and their five-year-old daugther, Harmony. Jen was studying Eastern Religion for a semester at Delhi University. A pretty adventurous undertaking under any circumstances but especially with a child. But then Harmony is pretty remarkable. Gareth was taking a semester off and seemed to have made friends with all of Delhi's touts, which made me admire him immensely. George arranged a white minivan for the trip at 820 rp. with amazing energy and lightness. It turned out to be a little tigther than we had expected, the van was smaller and narrower than its U.S. counterpart, and both Harmony and I had to sit on someone else's laps. George told Harmony jokes and we all got to know each other. The scenery was beautiful and George played tour guide since he was the only one of us who's been here before. Our driver used the horn incessantly, as did every other driver on the road. A couple of hours into the trip, something started smoking in the front of the minivan. All vehicles on the road looked like they were on their last tires, I couldn't believe ours was going to have the audacity to actually die on us. We all tumbled out, glad to stretch our legs and ready to run if we saw any flames. But the brave little minivan had the last laugh, only its horn had died, it was voluntarily silencing itself, a noble gesture I thought. Back in the van and on the road again.

We stopped for chai and toast in a little town called Tilopur, named for the Buddhist monk, Tilopa, who lived and meditated in a cool cave there. (Tilopa had a disciple, Naropa, who did all kinds of crazy things to prove his devotion, like jump out of a window, breaking his arm. There's a Naropa Institute in Colorado, we'll have to check it out.) After we had our chai, George took us to the cave, which is nestled in among large boulders at the bottom of a waterfall. It was small and there was water dripping from the ceiling, but it was filled with Buddha images, offerings and candles. There's a gompa (temple) right next to the cave. And the cave itself is a holy site so we had to take off our shoes to go in. Then we went back to the minivan to begin the real climb toward Dharamsala, a former British hill station, where civil servants and their families went for a respite from the heat of the South. We had our first views of the snow-covered Himalayan mountains, just the foothills, but they were impressive enough. Dharamsala is split into two parts and there's a difference of 500 M in altitude which we weren't sure the minivan would be able to negotiate. We intended to stay above the upper section, called McLeod Ganj, in a little village called Dharamkot. We finally arrived in McLeod Ganj, which didn't look like much of anything to me. (Neither had Dharamsala. My opinion of the place changed considerably while I was there.) It was supposed to be a steep 20-minute walk to Dharamkot, which I was willing to attempt, but George convinced us that we should all get the minivan to take us. He was also going to Dharamkot, to the Tushita Meditation Center, where he was going to do a fire puja (ritual). He'd been doing some sort of meditation course and the fire puja was the last step, apparently there are only a few places where you can do it. In the meantime, Jen, Gareth and Harmony had decided they'd check out Blue Heaven, where we had reservations, to see how it was. George negotiated for us again, and we all piled back in and headed up the hill. At the top of the dirt road, there was just a little tea stall. The Tushita Meditation Center was further along and our place was back down the road a little way and then we had to walk down a quite steep and rocky path to our Blue Heaven. The rooms were really basic, with a bed and two chairs and the standard lack of sheets, towels and toilet paper. But there was a nice balcony with a view and hot water, although our room didn't have a shower, just the bucket wash. I loved it. The price quoted (200 rp.) by the owner's father, a very nice man, was less than the price quoted in our guidebook, and we could pay when we left.

Jen and Gareth weren't as excited by the place as I was. They were cold (of course they'd been living in Delhi for the last six months without air conditioning) and their room didn't have hot water for some reason. (They ended up switching to another room.) They decided to stay though and we gave them all the blankets in our room, since we had our sleeping bags.

After we got settled, the five of us walked down to the Om Hotel for a very late lunch. There had been talk of meeting up with George, but in the end, we had to eat. The Om Hotel has a huge balcony that hangs off the edge of McLeod Ganj and overlooks the valley below. It was reputed to have a really good view of the sunset.

In our ravenous state, Paul and I ordered what we thought was way too much food, but then we astounded ourselves by finishing it all. We had all Tibetan food that first meal: thantuk, a homemade noodle and veg. soup with cheese and egg; bagli, a deep-fried pastry filled with cheese and veggies; and best of all, momos, steamed dumplings filled with cheese and more veggies. It was great. Oh, and spring rolls, which were huge and delicious.

After lunch, we walked around in the market. Dharamsala is the home of the exiled Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government. It's my impression that more Tibetans than Indians live here, but I'm not sure. Certainly the shops in the market seem to be dominated by Tibetans, who are lovely people. Men and women both have round, smiling faces with dark eyes. (It's actually hard to tell monks and nuns apart, with their shaved heads and robes.) Women wear a long dress made like a jumper, with a striped, woven apron in front.

There are all sorts of bookshops devoted to Tibet and Buddhism, Tibetan welfare shops and women's cooperatives with Tibetan crafts. And lovely, soft wool shawls that people drape around themselves in the evening as it gets cold. Women knit socks while walking down the road and cows tipped over boxes of potato chips, wanting to eat the cardboard.

In the center of the market is a Buddhist temple, with prayer wheels around all four sides. These are wooden or bronze cylinders with the words "Om mani padme hum" (hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus) painted or pounded into them. The idea is to spin each wheel one turn as you circumambulate the temple clockwise, while repeating the mantra. At first we heard that you get sort of kharmic credits for doing this, but later I read a book by Lama A. Govinda that said that was the Western "easy way" interpretation and that really, you must do all the steps with the right intent in your heart, which of course only makes sense.

Om mani padme hum means something like hail to the light (enligthened part) in all of us and in the Universe. It implies sending out the intention to live with that part of you foremost and have compassion for all living things. The prayer wheels give you something to focus on while you meditate on this. Buddhism is a very cool religion.

We ran into George, who wasn't at all upset that we hadn't met him as planned. He was downright playful and we walked with him down to the Dalai Lama's temple and residence. He was going to see a friend who was leaving the next day. He gave us a little tour first. In the temple gompa, there is a statue of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is someone who is enligthened enough to attain nirvana but who willingly re-enters the physical world to help everyone else toward enligthenment. The shards of the original statue, which was at the Tokhang Temple in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, were rescued after the Chinese "Liberation" of Tibet and are housed inside the new statue. The temple complex wasn't as nice as I'd imagined it would be, it's not Lhasa II by any means. It's mostly made of concrete and the people who live there give the place its spirit.

It started getting late and we began walking back up the hill. On the way, we stopped near the Om Hotel to watch the sunset, and then continued back to Blue Heaven. We didn't want to have to make the walk down the steep path in the dark. (There are no streetlamps outside of McLeod Ganj, and the power is often out even there.) As it was, we took the wrong steep path and had to come back up it in the dark. A black dog showed us the right path and stopped to warn us of especially dangerous spots in the trail. We eventually made it back. We read for a while, then had dinner at Dharamkot's only restaurant, the Trek and Dine.

When we got back, we said goodnight and went to our rooms but a couple of minutes later, we were called back, to see what Jen, Gareth and Harmony had in their room. It was a huge, brown spider, which Gareth caught and let outside. We said goodnight again, but then I was the one called Jen, Gareth and Harmony back to see what we had in our room. The black dog who'd guided us on the path had taken up residence in the corner and looked so cute, I didn't have the heart to make him go, so he spent the night.

Dharamsala -- 30 October 1998

We got up around 9:00, although the black guide dog had left at 7:00. I wrote on the balcony. Jen finally appeared around 10:00 on her balcony. I was starving so I was glad to see some sign of life from their room. Jen said she'd work on waking Gareth and Harmony up and meet us at the tea stall later. Paul and I went there immediately and ordered chai and toast, which was this terrific, brown, grainy bread with sesame seeds. The school was across the road from the chai stall and class had just started. (I thought that was kind of late but later found out that some kids walk miles over the hills to get there and you can't have them walking in the dark. School also lets out quite early for the same reason.) The boys wore dark blue dress pants and white shirts, and the girls wore punjabi suits, long blue tunics over white pants. All the girls wore their hair parted in the middle with two braids looped and tied with red ribbons. They were adorable. They had wooden paddles that were painted black on one side and used as a chalkboard. On the other side was the alphabet.

A little earlier the man in the chai stall had been very busy dispensing "lollipops" (hard candy) to all children with ready coins. Now the kids were lined up doing recitations. "Head" kids led the recitations and made sure kids stayed in straight rows. There appeared to be two different groups, and they were probably composed of several grades. The kids were finally allowed to sit down, but there were no desks or chairs. They sit outside on the concrete floor. Presumably they are only allowed inside if it rains.

Jen, Gareth and Harmony showed up and had some breakfast too, then we all walked back to our rooms. On the way, we passed men all washing at a communal tap and then an old, white-haired man namaste'd (the traditional greeting, bowing with palms pressed together and fingers at chin level) me with quiet dignity and I was quite moved.

Jen, Gareth and Harmony weren't happy with their room. It was dusty and had no hot water. They wanted to leave. I went through the eternal inner struggle of wanting to please those around me and pleasing myself. Jen obviously wanted all of us to pack up and go somewhere else. I loved it here and wanted just as vehemently to stay, and finally said so. Jen and Gareth hemmed and hawed, or so it seemed to me, while Harmony flitted around, heedless of the weighty matters before her parents. But finally they decided to stay and move into a different room.

George had told us the night before that he would be teaching a class about the four schools of Buddhism and that we were welcome to attend. Despite my best-stressed efforts, we were late for it. It was held at Tushita's gompa, a big wooden room with Buddha images in gold in front and red cushions in longs rows on the floor to sit on. We took our seats sheepishly (I did anyway) but the group was totally cool. I'll not bore everyone with the details of the teaching, click here if you want to read them.

The class was great, George is a wonderful teacher. He makes the practice of Buddhism seem like something that could easily fit into your life, and he's also so self-deprecating that he makes you believe that you, too, could attain enligthenment. Despite how interesting George's teachings were, it was still hard for me to sit Buddha-style for two hours and I was glad when he called it quits for the day. We hadn't had lunch yet, and it was now 3:00. We left the gompa and put our shoes back on, not counting on seeing George again. we figured he'd have more important things to do. But to my pleased surprise, he came out and called to us, and invited us to have tea and hang out with him. There's really something special about this guy and I was very flattered that he wanted to spend time with us.

There are a lot of dogs around the gompa. George told us that Lama Yeshe, who had been the spiritual leader of the Center before he died, had been breeding a cross between the Lhasa Apso and the Pekinese, an interesting political statement if you ask me. So there are a lot of small, fluffy dogs running around with pug noses. Lama Yeshe was George's guru and now, for the last three years, George has been teaching science and math to the 13-year-old Lama Osel, the Spanish boy who is Lama Yeshe's reincarnation. Imaging teaching your own guru.

Jen told us the story of how Harmony got her name. Harmony is a town in California, between Santa Barbara, where Jen lived, and San Luis Obispo. It's an artists' colony and has a population of 16. When Jen went there, she thought, oh that would be a cool name for a child. Then a couple of weeks later, she met Gareth, and a couple of weeks after that, she was pregnant and knew the child would be Harmony. And she was.

Then George told us how after Lama Yeshe died, they were holding prayer vigils that his reincarnation would be found soon. One of the vigils was in Spain, where Lama Yeshe had spent a lot of time. While the vigil was going on, a mother came in with her baby boy, who was crying. A monk said to her, "Can't you keep that baby quiet? We're searching for a lama!" And that baby was Osel. They just couldn't hear him shouting out that he was already there.

I loved being with George. He's so smart and well-read and down to earth. We'd had some brownie-type things with our tea but we finally had to go and get some lunch. It was almost dinner time. We regretfully told George and he walked with us down the faster, extremely steep path to town with us. This road was almost all stairs and full of monkeys going through the garbage on the sides of the hills. Unfortunately, all over India, even in an area as beautiful as Dharamsala, people throw all their garbage down right next to where they live. The cows, dogs and monkeys eat the edible stuff and the leftovers just stay there. We realized on the way down that we didn't have flashlights to get back in the dark, but decided to risk it . We went again to the Om and had momos and thantuk. Gareth told me how to make chai the India way and here's his recipe:

First boil water, as much as you need, but make sure you measure it. Steep regular black tea in the water for about five minutes, using two teaspoons per cup. Then add sugar, again two teaspoons for each cup. Last, add milk to the mixture, so that the water to milk ratio is 2:1. Drink and enjoy.

They don't make it exactly like that at the chai stalls, they have a mixture of milk and water constantly boiling on the stove. But the recipe above makes much stronger, better tasting chai.

We left the Om just before sunset and barely got back before it was pitch dark. Jen had wanted to stay in town and buy a wool hat and shawl because she was cold. Jen, Gareth and Harmony didn't make it back before dark and ended up taking an auto-rickshaw. (These vehicles are insane in the dark. They almost never use lights and when travelling downhill, the drivers almost never actually turn the motor on so you don't hear them bearing down on you, and they can't see you.)

We hung out, worked on the journals a bit, then Gareth came over to check out the website. A little later, Jen and Harmony came over as well. We all went to "dinner" at the Trek and Dine and stayed a lot longer than I had wanted to. I guess with kids, even the ones as exceptional as Harmony, you just have to take everything at a slower pace. It was really hard for me to adjust to. Back at the room, we read for a while, then I set the alarm for 6:00 so I could get up to watch the sunrise, and we slept.

Dharamsala -- 31 October 1998

I got up a little late, but still managed to see the sunrise because it didn't come over the mountain until about 7:15. I sat on the balcony and wrote in the journal and waited for everyone else to wake up. Patience is not my virtue and I was starting to get tired of waiting for Jen, Gareth and Harmony all the time. I think Paul felt the same although he wasn't admitting it to himself yet. And I wasn't willing to be late again for part II of George's teachings for any reason. Paul and I decided to leave Jen, Gareth and Harmony a note and go to breakfast on our own.

We had breakfast at the chai stall and then went for a little hike up above Dharamkot. It was so good to get away from humanity for a while. we sat and vegged on a large, flat, sunny rock and vegged for a while. (Paul and I weren't quite in sync with each other. I had wanted to go out into the wilderness and be still, and he had wanted to go conquer a mountain. So while I was lounging in the sunshine, he was chafing at the bit.) We watched a man herd his very reluctant donkeys up into the hills to graze. Then we saw tiny women in punjabi suits and flipflops come running down the mountain with huge bunches of hay on their backs. They carry them with only ropes looped through metal rings, although the men have leather straps and carry heavy loads from their foreheads. One of the women's flipflops broke as she passed us and she just stopped for a second to take it off and kept running. Paul saw some roped hay on the side of the track a couple of days later and could barely lift it. These people are very impressive.

We stopped for chai and grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches at the Trek and Dine on the way to hear George so we wouldn't get fidgity from hunger. We were a little early and sat in the garden to wait. On the side of the gompa there is a mural of an elephant carrying a monkey, who is carrying a rabbit who is carrying a grouse, and it was entitled "Four Harmonious Friends." Next to the mural was the story that goes along with the picture, which goes something like this:

Four friends lived in the jungle near Kashi (Varanasi), an elephant, a monkey, a hare, and a grouse. They wanted to find a way to establish their ages so that they would be able to pay proper respect to each other. The grouse proposed that they each tell of their first recollection of a certain tree that grew in their forest, and how big it was when they first encountered it. Both the elephant and the monkey first remembered seeing the tree when it was as tall as they were. The hare remembered drinking dew from the tree when it had just two leaves. But the grouse had deposited the seeds from which the tree grew. Now the animals knew their relative ages and the grouse climbed onto the hare's head, the hare on the monkey's shoulders and the monkey on the elephant's back. They travelled around the forest like that quite contentedly. They agreed to walk the path of virtue, which involves avoiding the five moral misdeeds: killing, intoxicants, stealing, lying and sexual misconduct. As the four harmonious friends travelled, they taught the other animals the path of virtue too. Great peace and harmony reigned over the area. The King and Queen were mystified and began to wonder why such happiness reigned. A clairvoyant hermit told the King and Queen of the harmonious four. The King and Queen were impressed and wanted to meet these amazing creature, but the hermit shook his head and said that the best thing that the King and Queen could do was to live the same kind of life.

George came by and sat with us before the teaching. He asked where Jen, Gareth and Harmony were, but we didn't know. We had thought we'd meet them here. George gave us a card for Harmony (did he know he wouldn't see her?) and then went in.

After the teaching, we went to talk to Yeti trekking and the Mountaineering Institute to see about getting maps and see what our options were for renting a stove for our planned trek. Yeti wasn't open. We got a rather vague, "Maybe at 5:00." We missed the Mountaineering Institute and had to walk back up the hill again (on the steep road). They didn't have maps but they had a guide book, which we got. The man behind the desk very modestly pointed out that we were speaking to its author. (I think Indian men must be quite vain, the picture on the cover of the book was of a much younger man, although the copyright was fairly recent. And so many men henna their hair when it goes gray. Even Jean, our Kashmiri friend, dyed his, and he's 70!)

We went to the Om for the usual and then went shopping. Paul found a beautiful shawl and I got some blue Tibetan pants. We had thought we'd run into Jen, Gareth and Harmony along the way somewhere but we'd forgotten that it was Halloween.

When we got back to the room, we found a note telling us they'd be at Khana Nirvana (Food Heaven), a restaurant owned by Americans who were having a Halloween bash. It was too late to go now. Jen, Gareth and Harmony came back a little while later and Harmony and Paul wrought masterpieces on the computer. I tried to get some journal written but it was hopeless.