Trip Journal - Dharamsala




Dharamsala -- 16 November 1998

We walked downtown to Khana Nirvana to get breakfast. We were too early -- they didn't even open until 11:00, but the American owners were back in town and indulged us by making tea and coffee for us, and bringing out apple crumble and snickerdoodles. I felt drawn to the woman owner, but while friendly, she seemed to be holding herself aloof. I seem to be desperate for female companionship. We went into Bhagsu Road to get some new wool socks for Nepal, since I'd read that it was better to get them before you came to Kathmandu. On the way there, we happened to run into the two Austrian guys coming out of the Tibetan Security Office. It was an example of the Universe showing how well it can work. The guys told us there was to be a public audience for the Dalai Lama the next day and that they'd just gotten spots. I was really excited and naturally started thinking about all the ways that it might not work out for us to see him. You have to show your passport at the Office and we didn't have ours with us. What if all the slots were filled by the time we walked back up to Blue Heaven, got the passports and came down again? Should we take an auto-rickshaw? Sometime on the walk up I realized I just had to trust that it would all work out. I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama. I said it out loud then let it go. Or at least tried to.

The Security Office was closed for lunch until 2:00 when we got back. We went to the Om for chai and I tried to calm down by ordering mashed potatoes with cheese. It helped. When we went back to the Security Office, the downstairs office was open for business, but a group of young Canadians standing in line told us that we first had to go to the upstairs office to register and fill out forms. That office was still closed. When the man sitting on the stairs reading his newspaper stood up, it appeared to mean that the office was now open. We were let upstairs, about 14 or so of us, but that was all. One official was in the room. He appeared to be waiting for someone else, in an unhurried and unconcerned way. I decided to practice having fun waiting. As soon as I did, the waiting official asked Paul and me to sit down and pointed to two chairs in front of the other desk. Almost everyone else was standing. I felt as if we'd been singled out somehow and gladly complied.

In due time, the other official arrived and took his time setting up his desk (the one we were in front of) and his windows the way he liked them. Then he looked up and said, "Who's next?" To my surprise, Paul said that we might as well go, although we were clearly about tenth in line. No one protested, least of all me. Paul and I were entered as numbers 34 and 35 in separate books, one for men and one for women. Maybe they like to have balanced energies in their audiences, I don't know. We were done upstairs quickly and effortlessly. We almost raced downstairs (after telling the Canadians that they had no problem getting in since our numbers were so low) and squeezed into the very closely packed office to be registered in more books. Lots of redundancy in the system. But we had our spots, I was so excited, I couldn't stop grinning. We were going to meet the Dalai Lama!

We walked up to Blue Heaven and played with Palu, then went to Khana Nirvana. We'd intended to go there for our last dinner tomorrow, but the Khana's closed on Tuesdays. We really splurged. We had Uncle Samwiches, thick grilled mozzarella sandwiches on whole wheat, garlic bread, an absolutely incredible banana date shake, and the snickerdoodles and apple crumble we've come to love. It was wonderful. We met a nice Australian couple there and talked about travel, yoga and organic farming. (They've been funding their trip partly by working on organic farms, with an organization called WWOOF.) They talked about how we were afraid we couldn't afford Tahiti, and they told us to go to Moorea, where it's beautiful and there's camping.

We left to go to the 6:40 showing of Eraser with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Our choices were slim that night. Every Westerner and quite a few locals turned out for it. The Austrians were there. Beth came by, having just done a penance of sorts for Tushita in the form of taking 36 passports (all the people in the meditation course) to the Tibetan Security Office for the Dalai Lama'a audience. It had taken three hours. She thinks the Director, Sally, has a vendetta against her; once she got a monk in trouble by going into his room with him alone. It felt like we really had found a small community here in Dharamsala, and I liked it a lot. The movie was fun, we met the Australian couple again outside the Polo shop, and then we went home.

Dharamsala -- 17 November 1998

We had a last breakfast at the Trek and Dine. To tell the truth, I really wasn't going to miss it all that much. The food was never extraordinary and they were pretty relaxed about providing good service. Maybe from dealing with all the Israelis, who aren't used to much better. Next we took our walking sticks to the chai stall and asked the owner to give them to anyone who wanted them. A Westerner, who was sitting in the front of the stall and appeared to be sewing thankas, said that he'd like one for an axe handle. He asked if we had any winter jackets or sweaters to sell, but I told him we were going trekking in Nepal next and needed our gear.

We had to be at the temple by 11:30 for the audience. We arrived early, having already acquired two prayer scarves, which seemed like the right thing to do, since there were people everywhere on the street selling them, even though we didn't know what to do with them. The courtyard was already full of people, dressed in ways that showed how easy it is for different people to define "decent dress" in a myriad of ways. There had been a very diplomatic sign in the Security Office the day before that said,

The Dalai Lama doesn't care what you wear, but out of respect for His Holiness, please dress decently. The clothes need not be the latest fashion.

In my opinion, that meant cover up, no ankles and shoulders, but a lot of other people had different interpretations. A Mormon from Utah with an earring wore shorts, much to my surprise. In my experience, Mormons tend to be very culturally sensitive.

There had been no security when we arrived, they set it up later, two metal detecting gates, one for each sex, which they had everyone walk through, with daypacks, etc. on, so of course the things beeped on everyone. There was a lot of confusion about lining up, a rumor was circulating that they wanted you to line up according to number, which seemed ridiculous, but people with high numbers kept being sent to the back of the line, so who knows? We moved up a hundred people or so, just in case. We ended up right next to a woman who was very concerned about her rightful place in the whole process -- like me normally only much more vocal about it. I usually only think that there won't be enough for me, I rarely admit my fears out loud. My calm serenity from yesterday seemed to be holding and I merely found her amusing.

We finally got through the metal detectors and then got searched. Daypacks, matches, ligthers and cigarettes were being confiscated -- we thought the guards just needed smoking paraphernalia and this was an easy, inexpensive way to get it, because even though they were handing out numbered tokens in exchange, I bet most Westerners would have been unwilling to stand in line to get them back after the audience. We got into a second line and had our passports checked. Interestingly, many passports were seized and people were told they could retrieve them afterwards. Our passports were not taken. We never found out whether it was just a random thing or not. Or are Americans so worried about giving their passports to someone other than an Immigration official that the Tibetans have learned to just let them keep them -- so that Americans will agree to stay? No idea. After the passport check we were all directed to sit on the floor outside the gompa and wait. And wait. I can only sit cross-legged so long. Finally, one of the security types motioned for all of us to stand, but it was a false start. A minute later, he motioned to us to sit down again. In the meantime, I studied what other people were doing with their prayer scarves. Some were rolling them up, some made elaborate accordion pleats that met in the middle. This took two people to complete. I'd already folded mine and now it was wrinkled. I still had no idea what to do with it.

Finally we were made to stand again, and the front of the group surged forward. All this time, nothing had been said. It was all smiles and hand motions. We (the group) were probably supposed to sense how we were supposed to be lining up, but we were apparently not enlightened enough to get it. A quiet nervous tension reigned. People tried to peek in the windows of the gompa, wondering whether the audience would be in there. I wondered if the men would sit on one side and the women on the other, and whether we could ask questions. If so, I wanted to ask an intelligent question, and worried about what that would be. I could only think of, "Do you think the world is too attached to freeing Tibet?", which seemed dumb and possibly rude.

But my sleepless night worrying about a good question had all been for nought. It soon became apparent that we were just going to be walking past the Dalai Lama. One of the T-men told us to put our prayer scarves around our necks, and then sent us forward in line. (I now know that the proper drill is for you to present the scarf in both hands to His Holiness, he then blesses it and offers it back to you -- and if there's real respect and esteem, he may touch his forehead to yours.) But today we were on the fast track. The scarves would be blessed automatically as we walked by.

It all went very quickly. There was no time for words, just a quick handshake, and a very warm and genuine smile, one that included brief but sincere eye contact. It felt like the warmth you get from a sunny spot on the rug in winter, straight from another human being. It was really quite a remarkable experience, although it all happened so quickly, I could hardly comprehend it. A Tibetan monk handed me a red cord with a triple knot in it (the meaning of which I haven't yet been able to discover) and we were sent down the stairs and left to mill around the courtyard. No one was willing to let the experience end yet; we all looked lost. Since no one had told us what the program was, there was a sense that something else might yet happen. It did.

More T-men came down and told us to sit behind the railings in the courtyard. Soon Tibetans, all dressed in their very best clothes, came down the stairs, prayer scarves around their necks, tears streaming down most of their faces. Each held a large brown envelope in his or her hand. Autographed photographs of His Holiness? They seemed to have had a private audience, but I certainly couldn't begrudge them that, especially after I found out that most of them had walked to get here, some from Tibet. Many of them had given special objects for blessing, and officials handed back silk-wrapped books, tassels, etc. Monks in maroon (compassion) and saffron (wisdom) robes flooded the stairs and we began to get quietly expectant. We knew the Dalai Lama had to come out sooner or later; we were between the gompa and his residence. We were afraid we wouldn't recognize him, after all, monks all dress alike and all have shaved heads. But we shouldn't have worried. The Dalai Lama radiates light all around him. He probably is the reincarnation of Buddha. He made the whole place joy and bliss just because he walked by smiling at us. You could feel the flow of joyful feeling. And then it was all over. We filed out, very much a group now, rather than single people jockeying for the best positions. We walked up the hill and had one last meal at the Om. A very strange couple, probably of Eastern European origin, sat at the table with us. He had on a hillbilly suit (without the straw hat) and mastered everything. The chairs were wet and he tipped the water out of all of them (instead of just the two we had done for ourselves.) He went downstairs for menus, ordered for both of them and even took the empty plates downstairs. It was wacky.

We went back to the room to pack and play with Palu. It was really sad. I didn't want to leave. It has happened everywhere we've been so far, but this time the feeling was really intense. We had arranged for the taxi to pick us up at 8:00, but Paul was already antsy to leave at 7:00. He went up the path at 7:30 to see if the taxi was there yet. I stayed on the balcony, saying goodbye and hoping to see a shooting star or two, as this was supposed to be a night full of them. We carried the first load of gear up the path as the taxi arrived. Coming back down, I slipped and fell the only time since we'd been there. It seemed auspicious, or perhaps I mean ominous. I went into reception to say goodbye to Palu. He was asleep in his basket and didn't wake when I stroked his fur.

I cried on Paul's shoulder in the taxi. It was a crazy, bumpy, fast downhill ride for the first hour. We stopped once so the driver and the ubiquitous "other guy" could have a chai, then made another stop, in Pathankot, at someone's house, where we picked up the tickets. So the travel agent had fibbed slightly when he told us he'd already given the tickets to the driver. We arrived in plenty of time for the train. I went into the Ladies Waiting Room to use the WC and was shocked when all the women jumped up and screamed, "Only ladies!" Did I look like a man? And if so, was it (hopefully) because I was wearing pants?

We definitely were riding trains in descending order of desirability, this last one really sinking low. It appeared that, in order to get sheets and pillows, you had to bribe someone. We pulled out our shawls and used those. But the really appalling thing was all the cockroaches crawling on all surfaces, including the one next to my berth. It was really disgusting and I couldn't stop thinking about them crawling on me while I slept. I pulled my shawl over my head, tucked in my toes and finally dropped off to sleep.