Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Most Sacred Experience of My Life to Date

Today was an incredible day for me. Before 8am I was seated on a thin green mat on the ground along with hundreds of other people, waiting for the main event, a Long Life Ceremony attended by HH the 14th Dalai Lama in honor of the 20th Year Anniversary of the Death of the Panchen Lama, a Tibetan hero rumored to have been murdered by the Chinese at the age of 50 in 1989.

The event had not been publicized, like so much here in McleodGanj, and news flowed through word-of-mouth between friends and associates. Rumors varied from 7am to 9am start and no one knew exactly what would happen or how long it would last.

At 7:45am I flowed down Temple Road towards HH Main Temple in a river of red-robed monks and nuns from various local monasteries. At the temple everyone was thoroughly searched. I was sesnt back outside to leave my forbidden camera in the care of a popular WiFi cafe then returned to be re-searched before going inside to find a seat as close as possible to the gold-cloth draped dias. Several other "inchi" people (foreigners/westerners) were seated in the same area and we all chatted pleasantly.

Upstairs near the main shrines, chanting resounded from speakers. A long line of well-wishers bearing orange and red cloth wrapped boxes draped with white khato scarves files slowly up the stairs. A Quebecois seated near me who is studying Buddhism said they were objects such as texts, mandalas, and other items to be blessed.

Styrofoam cups were passed to the crowd by young monks, then pocha (traditional Tibetan butter tea) was served. Giant vessels of steamed sweet rice were ladled out into bare hands, paper sheets, and any number of other containers the crowd could find. Of all the Tibetans I have met locally, I saw only a few familiar faces.

The chanting continued, mildly hypnotic, as the line continued slow progress up the stairs. Late comers continued to press into the temple. My friend Mary arrives and joins us, but no sign of Sonam or any of our usual monk compatriots.

By 9:10am I am feeling slightly restless, full of anticipation. The blessing line has slowed to a snail's pace and no one around me is sure what to expect or when it might happen.

Two gilded statues of Buddhas or avatars are rushed down the stairs. Suddenly things begin moving very quickly, in a see of rushing color. Much of the crowd has taken up the chanting.

And then the soft voice of His Holiness comes through the speakers...
It doesn't matter what he is saying, in my eyes. His infectious laughter punctuates the speech. The whole crowd is smiling, leaning forward to hear his words.
A song begins, and a woman begins to descend the temple stairs backwards, sweeping each one.

At this moment, it occurs to me I am about to be in the presence of quite possibly one of the greatest humans ever to walk the earth. A great human soul, a great spiritual leader, a leader of a people striving to regain hope and freedom. A truly amazing man.

Geshes distribute money to monks and nuns, and other monks toss fruits, breads, biscuits, cakes, and sweets, reportedly gifts from Tashi Lumpo (the Panchen Lama monastery). We are all laughing and passing around food to friends and strangers alike regardless of nationality, truly a "breaking bread" experience.
Khatas are being passed through the crowd and draped over railings. One passes through my hands, and I feel as though I am presenting this gift to HH personally. A group of monks scurries down the steps.
At times it seems like a lot of nothing is going on, although I know the continuing chants have deep meaning to those who understand them. Every now and then someone in the audience picks up the melody. The chants are deep, resonant, and really penetrate your body and soul.

Atop the temple, Snow Lion flags are stirring.

The chanting stops, and low cymbals fade til there is only the murmuring of the crowd.
Things are about to happen. Everyone is standing up, peering at the stairs, where a lot of lamas and government officials are coming down to the podium.

With a fan fare of horns, High Lamas wearing yellow head-dresses descend the steps holding a type of decorative sceptre.
Then, suddenly, a giant golden fabric unbrella with orange and turquoise trim appears.

His Holiness himself, wrapped in orange robes over his red monk garb.

He moves quickly, and appears surprisingly small, although he is not a short or physically small person at all. I think his humbleness is deceiving. I really expected him to look larger than life.
He DOES look serene, super kind, and like he is just one of the people...
He takes the Golden Dias and cleans his large round spectacles with the hem of his robe.

We listen to Tibetan speeches commemorating the Panchen Lama by high lamas, government officials and other prominent figures in the community as more pocha and sweet rice were served. It's hard to pay attention for very long when you don't understand the language.

Every few minutes I find my gaze returning to His Holiness.
It is a powerful moment for me when I realize that, entirely unpremeditadely, he and I are swaying in unison to some invisible inaudible stimulus.

At last, HH rises, gently tapping the microphone as if unsure of its effectiveness, although he has addressed modern audiences around the world for the past several decades.
His voice is quiet, hard to focus on, even, I expect, for the Tibetans in attendance.
A Quebec native studying Tibetan language is seated next to me and translates in short form the contents.
HH tells a story of searching for the Panchen Lama reincarnation, of time spent with him in person. He talks at length about the state of the Tibetan plight/cause, the fact that the world loves Tibetans for their realness, their lack of pretention, their honesty, and that they need to preserve these qualities. He tells the locals to remain strong and focused on the drive for freedom and human rights, and not to let their culture die.

Suddenly the golden gilded umbrella re-opens and His Holiness seemingly glides past the crowd, many (myself included) with hands folded in prayer. He views a photo and art exhibit about the Panchen Lama, and emerges again after about ten minutes.

A fan fare of horns sounds again. HH and the yellow head-dressed High Lamas hustle down the centre corridor through a crowd of surging fans, passing within maybe twenty feet of me, and I rush forward with the others trying to get a better glimpse.
And then, behind the audience, he disappears on the pathway leading down toward his residence, leaving a sea of humanity surging towards the exits.

It is impossible to stand still and absorb the atmosphere. People are pushing and hurrying all around me.
All I can do is talk to every other westerner I pass about the glory of the experience and hope I get the chance to see him in person again.
He is 75, after all, and although he appears strong and capable, many whisper that they fear he may not live much longer.

Long Life to Hh the Dalai Lama, and success for the Tibetan cause.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tibetans Talk: Political Prisoner Profile

I thought it would help you to hear some first hand stories of people in my life. People I work with (almost) daily. People who have changed my life forever. Beautiful people with amazing souls and inner strength that brought them through horrors most westerners can never even imagine.
I want to introduce you to some of the Tibetan exiles/refugees and former political prisoners in my life.
I will start with the first former prisoner I ever met...a man who now plays a special role in my life. I want to introduce you to Sonam Dorjee...middle, wearing glasses. Look at his smile. And then read his story.

Sonam Dorjee is a soft-spoken, studious looking man in his late thirties. He comes from a poor farming family in a Tibetan village. Speaking to our international group at a non-profit event at L.I.T. (Learning and Ideas for Tibet), he recalls how the Chinese arrived one day to mine natural resources from his region for shipment to China, and how their factories polluted the rivers so badly that wildlife and farm animals began to die.
In 1992, he says, the Chinese demanded the people of his village denounce the Dalai Lama and stop any talk of a free Tibet. Restrictions were placed on how many children Tibetan families could have (Tibetan families in the city are allowed one child, while in rural areas they are allowed two). He was asked to “round up” women with more children for forced sterilization. Some women were to be given forced abortions. This, he says, is one way the Chinese control the Tibetan ethno-religious population.
Sonam refused to comply. He took part in a meeting with other villagers, and eventually they made a mutual decision to protest. They sewed and planted a Tibetan flag on the steps of the main local temple and refused to denounce His Holiness. A crowd gathered below the steps to support them. After fifteen minutes, Chinese police arrested everyone on the steps.
The group was taken to a local police station where they were forced to kneel and beaten with sticks. Sonam was beaten until his nose, mouth, and even eyes bled. Afterwards, they were taken to a detention center near Lhasa where they were again beaten, and imprisoned without trial.
Sonam was taken to a room where he was forced to stand on a table. His thumbs were tied with ropes hanging from the ceiling, and the table was kicked out from under him, where he hung and was beaten til he lost consciousness. He reports that the beatings were so intense that the blows made his body feel like it was on fire, but that after a few minutes everything would go numb and he couldn’t see or feel.

His fellow prisoners were tortured with finger vises until they were out of their senses with pain. All of them were interrogated repeatedly for months. The Chinese wanted them to admit that the Dalai Lama and/or foreign nationals (specifically American or British) had organized the protest, but they refused to reveal who had organized the demonstration.
One of the most difficult parts of being in prison, he says, was being unable to sleep lying down because of numerous wounds on his body. Chinese doctors sometimes took blood from prisoners, which was reportedly sold for food or to bribe government officials for favors.
The Chinese told them they would be allowed to take their case to court, but they knew it was a lie. Sonam explains that no Chinese court judge can rule in favor of Tibetans, or he will be punished also. They decided simply to accept their sentence.
Sonam was sentenced to thirteen years. Others in his group who were more active in preparing the demonstration were sentenced to fifteen. After a few months, he was taken to Drapchi, the largest prison in Tibet, near Lhasa. There were separate sections for men and women. He estimates there were about 300 men and 270 women. All prisoners were given a thick rule manual which they were expected to memorize within three months. Those who could not were punished.
He was forced to labor taking human waste from the toilets to the greenhouse, where vegetables were grown. The Chinese did not permit prisoners to bathe or ever have clean clothing. He also had to raise vegetables, which were given to outside vendors for sale. He was supposed to earn 12,000 yuan monthly selling these vegetables, with sales being recorded on receipts from the vendors, but no matter what the actual sales were, the vendors always reported they fell short of their quota. For failing to make the required sales totals, workers were put in solitary confinement.
He describes solitary confinement as being too small to lie down or even stretch. While there, he was given only one glass of water and a tiny bit of bread each day. His feet were shackled with a ball and chain weighing 3kg.. After 10 days, he says, he went delirious with hunger and lost consciousness.
When he woke, he decided to attempt suicide to escape his torture. He says he ate pieces of metal and hit his head against the wall repeatedly, but did not die. Then, he says, he thought about how other political prisoners had survived torture for much longer, and he decided to survive the rest of his sentence. He was held in solitary for two months, even though Chinese law states the maximum solitary sentence is twenty days.
Other prison experiences he describes include being forced to stand outdoors in burning summer sun or freezing ice with no shoes for long hours and sleeping on bare ground with no covers. At the end of every year, each prisoner was forced to write a letter stating that what he had done against the Chinese government was wrong.
In 1998 the Chinese flag was put on the wall and prisoners forced to sing Chinese National Anthem. Seven Tibetans were killed for refusing, another committed suicide. Others protested, and their sentences were increased. A monk near him was shot, and he helped some other Tibetans use their clothes to tie his wound. Another prisoner organized a hunger strike, for which everyone was interrogated and tortured. Sonam says the interrogation room was ankle deep in blood by the time it was his turn to be questioned. After this, surveillance cameras and microphones were installed in the prison room, plus two additional guards who spoke both Tibetan and Chinese.
In spring 2005, all political prisoners were taken to a special new prison. There was one guard for each prisoner. These guards were supposed to get prisoners to confess and renounce Tibet. Guards who were successful received rewards.
In late June 2005, Sonam was released and taken to a local police station, where he was told to write a letter promising never to oppose or protest against China again, but he refused. He says his time in prison made him stronger and more determined for a free Tibet.
He returned to his village, but his home and family had moved. When he finally found them, they didn’t recognize each other at first. His sister, who was only 7 when he was arrested, was now a woman. He says he felt like it was not his home or his family, that everything had changed.
For awhile he was glad to be back and tend yak and cattle on the mountains. But after three months, he grew unhappy and decided to look for work. He had to apply for special permission from the local police to leave the village and go to Lhasa, where he found work in a shop for two months. Then, he says, Chinese officials forced the shopkeeper to fire him. Each time he found a new job, he was forced out by the Chinese, so he went back to his village.
He became ill but refused treatment for a long time. Finally he was allowed to go to a hospital in Lhasa, and it was then that he decided to escape to India. He didn’t tell his family, but sought help from a network of other former political prisoners. He traveled from Lhasa to the border of Nepal in a truck, where the border guard was paid 5500 yuan.
He had to cross a river in the dark, and fell down a cliff, hurting his head. He made it to a Nepali village, where he says everyone stared at him strangely. When he found a mirror, he realized his face was almost completely covered in blood. He was taken to a refugee center in Katmandu, where he was given food and medical help for eight days before being sent to Delhi, then on to Dharamsala.
He arrived in Dharamsala in 2007. Along with 150 other refugees, he got to meet and tell his story to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who told him he should let the western world know exactly what the Chinese had done to him and why. He stayed at the refugee center for one year, where he was interviewed by many international news agencies. Later he went to a Tibetan school, then joined Gu Chu Sum Tibetan Political Prisoner Organization. With other members, he helped create a non-profit school, L.I.T. (Learning and Ideas for Tibet) where Tibetans can study English and other subjects for free.
Sonam continues trying to create a new life and now teaches Tibetan language to people from other cultures on request. He tells his story to international guests every few weeks through a translator. He is also active in cooking for L.I.T. events.
When questioned by the international audience, Sonam softly says that although the best years of his life were spent in prison, he feels it was more than worth it, and that now all he wants is to inform the world about what is really going on.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Open Letter to President Obama and Sec of State Clinton

I urge ALL U.S. citizens as well as citizens of other western countries
to copy and re-post this letter which I sent via email to the
White House as well as the U.S. State Department this morning.

In addition, I encourage you to add your signature as a form of
petition and send it on to your local, state and national governments,
as well as local and national news media outlets.
I request that when you do, you leave a comment here telling me
when and where you directed it!
Thank you.

Mr. President: As a US citizen I am deeply concerned over the American policy and actions
regarding the human rights crisis with the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I arrived in McleodGanj, India, home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled
Tibetan government, at the end of November 2009 planning to stay one
month. Within days I started volunteering with a non-profit that offers free
English conversation, grammar and computer classes to refugees. By the end of my first week, I knew I had found my calling. I am now
residing here until mid-March, with plans to return later in 2010 for
an even longer period. Every day my new Tibetan friends, whom I consider family, tell me
stories of their suffering in China. Some were denied religious freedom,
others imprisoned for speaking out against China. Some were beaten
daily, tortured brutally for as long as fifteen years at the hands of the Chinese. Every one of them, as well as myself, is deeply disappointed at the failure
of the United States, UN and other western nations to take a stronger
stand on their behalf. Mr. President, I urge you to meet ASAP with H.H. the Dalai Lama. I urge you
to come meet the Tibetan refugees in person, to listen to their stories and see
how they struggle daily to survive while they wait in the hopes that one day
they will be able to reclaim their homeland. Tibetan culture has so much to teach the western world. I can promise you,
once you spend time with these wonderful beings, your life will never be the
same. I am appalled that US policy regarding this situation is based solely on trade
numbers with China. China exploits Tibet in the most horrible ways. Many
so-called Chinese products are made by forced labor in Tibet by Tibetans. My Tibetan students have asked me to convey one more message to you,
one they agree on strongly. Mr. President, Tibet is NOT part of China. China seized control of Tibet in
1959 by FORCE. They, and I, are deeply hurt at your statement to the contrary. I beg you, please reconsider your stance on Tibet. If you consider it our
responsibility to be in Iraq, or Afghanistan, then how can you NOT
consider it our responsibility to support and offer aide to Tibet? Please, earn your Nobel Peace Prize. Work for peace and a free Tibet! Thank you for your time and consideration. Sincerely, Ms. Tammy Winand US Citizen on behalf of the Tibetan refugee community in McleodGanj, India and the thousands of oppressed Tibetans unable to escape the Chinese occupation

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Living on Caffeine and Hope

Over the past 4-5 days, life has become very "strange" in, it has taken a major departure from the norm.
I have been meeting so many new people, learning so many new things (about Tibet, Tibetans, even about myself), DOING so much more than usual.
I have had bouts of tears, bouts of insomnia.
I have also had fits of outrageous laughter, and deep meaningful discussions.
I have also fallen madly in love (for those truly interested in the inner turmoil of my emotional life, see )

I have found a place I feel can become my home, on the other side of the planet from where I was raised.
I have met some of the kindest, most soulful people in the world, people of a nature I never believed possible.
I have found something worthy of doing...helping an oppressed nation, a displaced people living in exile, learn new things, and hopefully gain hope and show them that there are good soulful westerners with their hearts in the right place.

I have been living on caffeine (darjeeling tea and mochas, mostly), rarely eating.
And on hope... for these people to keep their culture, to keep their natural way of being, to find freedom, to stop living in fear.
And hope for myself, as each day brings new developments in inter-personal relationships. The

The weather is turning...colder, cloudier, windier. Winter is on the horizon, hanging over the Himalayas. there has been snow at Triund and above.

I continue to learn Tibetan language...something new every day. I continue to learn and to grow.
I continue to battle mind-boggling hurdles, not negative, but growth-challenging!
Life is good.
Confusing, frustrating, difficult, but good!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Candlelight Vigil

After English conversation class yesterday, a group of students and teachers,
myself included, chatted over tea, playing tic tac toe and hangman for til dusk.
As I was leaving, I bumped into another western volunteer, who
asked me if I was going to the candlelight vigil.
I had not heard anything about it, but agreed to join her. We walked in
silence to the town "square", where Tibetans were handing out candles and
info pamphlets regarding the recent death of a young Buddhist nun.

The nun, aged 33, was arrested and beaten by Chinese police after
participating with a friend in a peaceful march where they chanted slogans
asking for basic human rights and freedom of religion.
She was tortured and died this Sunday of injuries related to her
beatings/torture at the hands of the Chinese.

A sizeable group of Buddhist nuns and monks, other Tibetan refugees, and
western visitors and volunteers gathered to light candles.
The walk circled the chorten, a temple in the center of town, three
times while the Tibetans chanted in their language.
Afterwards, the procession made its way downhill, to the main temple at
the residence of H.H. the Dalai Lama (who is currently teaching in
Australia), where we listened to different speakers about the recent
events. Tibetan flags waved in the evening breeze.
I was very moved, although no English translation was offered.

All that kept going through my mind was that if we had held even
this peaceful remembrance vigil inside Tibet, we would have been beaten,
shot, and/or jailed by the Chinese.

At the end of the speeches, the Tibetans sang two native songs, and
several people cried.

Friends, how can we allow our governments to side with the Chinese?
How can we stand by and give permission for one nation, China, to oppress,
control, repeatedly punish another, Tibet, for wanting the most basic
human rights and freedom of religion?!

I implore you, do whatever you can to make your voice heard, that we
know what the Chinese or doing, that we abhore what the Chinese are
doing, that will not permit what the Chinese are doing!
Write to your representatives, even to your President or Prime Minister.
Boycott Chinese goods.
Let the world know what the Chinese are doing is absolutely

If you would like to make a donation to a non-profit organization here in
McleodGanj, please contact me directly for more info.
I can see that your donation goes directly into the hands of a refugee or
former political prisoner of your choosing, or, if not specified, that it helps
defray expenses for volunteers and non-profit agencies in town.

Thank you for your support and concern!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Himalyan Home...

McLeodGanj is now "home" much as I have felt at home anywhere in the
past few years.
Shopkeepers great me pleasantly when I walk by in the morning. There is
no more pressure to buy souvenirs or "just look" at their merchandise.
I am learning how to be a local. Learning where the best prices on fruit,
snacks, and clothing are. Learning how to speak basic Tibetan (there are as
many if not more Tibetans than Indians here, thankfully, as this IS the home
of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government and many refugees.

I am volunteering as a conversational English teacher every weekday with
the Tibetan community at L.I.T. (Learning and Ideas for Tibet)...follow the
link to find out more!
Help stop the human rights abuses the Chinese are inflicting on Tibetans!
There is a real community here, both of locals and westerners like myself who
are getting involved with the Tibetan cause.
Actually, I have been selected to choose the topic for Monday's
conversation class, and I am having a bit of a dilemma, but have a few ideas
which I'll run by some other volunteer coordinators.

In other news, I trekked to Triund 2 days ago with a nice girl from Finland
who I met at L.I.T. We started at 7:20am but had a few stops for tea/snacks en
route. The distance is roughly 5 miles one way, starting from 6831 feet
climbing (steeply at times) to 9514 feet.
We reached the summit at about noon, rested and took photos for over an hour,
and started down at about 1:30pm
We made great time coming down until we encountered a fellow trekker who
pointed back the way he had come and told us it was a "shortcut" to
Dharamkot. By this time we were all for shortcuts, so we decided to go for
The slate ledges were steep and loose in many places, and often the trail led
in several directions, so we were never certain we were going the right way.
I was in tremendous pain and on the verge of a panic attack when we
encountered some Tibetan Buddhist monks sitting in front of simple stone
cottages. We asked "Dharamkot?" and they pointed, and a little white dog
sitting with them suddenly bounded off in front of us. Every time we'd lag behind,
the dog would stop and wait. I am pretty sure he thought we were taking him to
town for biscuits, and thereby showed us the way!
We should have been to the village by 3:30pm but the short cut added at least
an hour and a half, so it was nearly 5, the shadows long and leading into dusk,
by the time we came back to McLeodGanj!

I had my first Tibetan language class yesterday afternoon, and today boldly
introduced myself to the assembled group of Tibetan students in their
language, partially to help the girls in my group who had never spoken
English publicly before feel less awkward! If I could say some phrases in
Tibetan...anything was possible!
After class today, I hung out with two other western volunteer
coordinators and a group of Tibetans at the tea shop connected to the
ex-political prisoners association. Somehow the topic turned to relationships,
and everyone wanted to know if we wanted Tibetan boyfriends.
We all agreed that Tibetan boys are very cute, but one of the other girls
boldly said, "Yes, but I have heard Tibetans are very bad lovers!" so I
said, "Well then we just have to teach them!" Everyone loves to joke and
laugh. And now I have three Tibetans playing match-maker for me!
So cute

Well, life is good, and I can't wait to see how things develop.
Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

McLeodGanj...Peace in the Himalayas

After a nightmarish 18 hour journey from Jaipur to Dharamsala via
Delhi, including an over-sized drunk male seatmate who passed out
on me for a few hours overnite after Chandigarh, I arrived, tired but
in decent spirits, to lower Dharamsala at 8am.
A brother and sister couple, Mumbai born but he residing in Texas
with a very US accent, helped me get on a local bus to McLeodGanj
(upper D'shala).
After another brief unpleasant encounter with a cheating guesthouse
proprietor, I got a fellow named Sergei from St Petersburg Russia to
help me carry my bags back up a steep stair to the main street and
found myself a new home at Mount View Guesthouse on Jogibara Road.
I rested about an hour, took a hot shower, and set out to explore my
new environment.

McLeodGanj (pronounced Mik-Klee-owed-Ganj), is best known as the
home of HH the 14th Dalai Lama, affectionately known locally as Kundun
(literally, "presence"...and you can truly feel his presence here), and the
seat of the exiled Tibetan government.
The place is full of red robed Buddhist monks and nuns, often, incongruously,
talking on mobile phones.
People here actually SMILE, and most of the local shops were very low
pressure, totally unlike those I visited in Rajasthan.
I encountered a few beggars, but even they were not over-bearing like the
ones in Rajasthan (who would crawl and claw at car windows at stop lights).

From my hotel room, I can see Triund Peak in the Dhauludar Range of the
Himalayas, plus three other snow capped peaks. It is technically the foothills,
but totally impressive, nonetheless, and I still cannot believe I am here.
The chest cough and sinus infection which plagued me the past month is
almost totally gone, though in the morning I still have a cough until after
my hot shower.

Since arriving, I have started smiling again, sometimes maybe too much.
I like to start the day by turning the prayer wheels at the stupa in the middle
of town, after having tea on the rooftop terrace at my guesthouse.
I have begun reading a daily inspirational guide by the Dalai Lama, as well as
his short introduction to Buddhism text, purchased at the Tibet Museum
I have visited the main temple once, but it is confusing as I know nothing
about the dieties depicted there or the appropriate protocol.

There is amazing shopping here for traditional prayer box pendants (ghau),
prayer wheels, clothing at very reasonable costs, and so much more.

Feeling bolder by the minute, I had my hair cut by a local barber. He did a
great job for only 50 INR about $1 USD), but I had to repeatedly refuse his
offers of a head and shoulder massage!

In the evening, I met a guy who has been voluntering at L.I.T,
Learning and Ideas for Tibet, and he took me to their offices, where I met
Lauren and Mary, western volunteer coordinators.
After a short discussion, Lauren recruited me to come to the weekly Tuesday
Tibetans Talk, where refugees and former political prisoners tell their stories
with an international audience, to take notes and begin writing articles for the
organization's website.
I am also considering an introductory Tibetan language class and also basic
Tibetan cooking (momos!)
fyi Tibetan food is really yummy!
This MAY be my life purpose!
woo HOO

This morning, tired of being stared at and perceived as a young blond, I dyed
my hair back to its natural dark brown color.
I will now let the grey grow out naturally and stop denying my age.
I think this will also gain me greater respect here. Older women are treated
with much more respect than solo young western ladies.

I am now at my new favorite hangout, MoonPeak cafe, a WiFi cafe on Temple
Road, and have finished my pot of lemongrass herbal tea.

Dharamsala is feeling like home. I have random repeated thoughts of
staying on indefinitely, returning annually.
I will be here until at least the end of January, barring any more unforseen
negative experiences.
I will read and write here and walk in nature and do my best to make some small
difference in my own life and that of others (as HH the Dalai Lama advises).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Crossing Rajasthan to Jaipur (rather rambling I fear)

I arrived in Jaipur a few nights ago after an unplanned trip across Rajasthan with my new host.
I was introduced to amazing scenes of luxury hotels as well as the wild hair-raising experience of "highways" in India and rural countryside which remains nearly unspoiled.
I asked endless questions and learneda variety of interesting facts about India.

I saw scenes of farming, and rural villagers going about their daily chores.
I saw impossibly over-loaded trucks on the highway, faced traffic conditions that would surely be fatal on the orderly western roads.

I'm really not sure what to express, in this entry, or how to convey my present emotional state.
I do not feel the level of inspiration I have felt in recent days, and as such am more "thinking out loud", so forgive my lack of eloquence.

I am tired, again, in my body and soul, and physically "under the weather" as my cold and cough have returned full force, and I am again experiencing a lot of digestive troubles despite eating mostly healthy (although in the past two days a lot of fried) food.

I have not had much chance to get out on my own and explore Jaipur. I've been relying on my guide, who I have been meeting in the afternoons. I've been afraid of being cheated, ripped off, misled, or otherwise duped if I venture out on my own. I do not understand so much about this place, still, even though I learn more every day.
India remains a truly FOREIGN country. I hate to become repetitive, but I can't express how true that feels to me.
How do you know if you are getting a fair deal, a true price (like a local would pay)?
How do you find your way around without a local's assistance?
I see other foreigners out walking, even young white girls on their own. Where do THEY get the confidence to venture out so boldly, to stand up to touts, to bravely face what to me seems an incomprehensible system of roads and alleys?
What do you do if you get lost? I'm afraid of looking lost and confused because that indicates weakness, which opens the door to being taken advantage of.
Self-confidence is an issue for me even on the relatively familiar ground of the USA.
Here, I am like a helpless child, lost and longing for someone to hold my hand.
And yet, I still feel the need to maintain my solitude, my independence.
I refuse to be tied down to someone else's expectations of how I SHOULD act, or to rely solely on one person for all my needs.

Jaipur seems to be a nice city, relatively speaking. There are many development projects such as modern shopping areas, broad and fairly clean urban streets, and a better sense of organization...insomuch as anything in India is "organized".
Still, there is an old city, and on roads in the outskirts, too, the jumble of bazaars threatens to consume the uninitiated outsider.

If I had a higher (say, triple my actual) budget, I would be less intimidated. I wouldn't have to worry about being overcharged a hundred rupees because a hundred rupees would be utterly insignificant. But for me, a hundred rupees more a day will mean running out of money long before the scheduled end of my tour.
I think it's time to sit down and do some serious recalculation of finances.
Is it really practical for me to stay here til the last week of March, or should I cut roughly a month off of this tour?

I can change or cancel train reservations easily, if need be.
I would ideally like to upgrade to nicer accommodations when on my own in guesthouses.

Right now it is looking like I "should" cut about 4 weeks off this trip.
The issue now is deciding what I can miss and what should seriously NOT be missed.
Perhaps two weeks in Varanasi is more than enough. Possibly the same for Dharamsala.

After all, what's the point in being here if I can't even enjoy getting out and about and exploring/seeing/doing things on my own?

I'd be better off hiding under a pile of magazines and cats in Florida for a few extra weeks til my WWOOF starts in April!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ahh, Udaipur...

Udaipur…what can I say about the almost magical beauty and yet still jolting realities of this place?

Imagine, if you can, being in a medieval world, where royalty holds sway in palaces (both real and metaphorical) and the common folk struggle to survive in narrow streets teaming with animals and refuse, where open sewage gutters flow in front of luxury restaurants.
Imagine the sounds of dogs, donkeys, cows and common folk echoing off plaster walls competing with motorbike engines and auto horns. Imagine muezzin’s prayer calls resounding from mosques throughout the day and Hindu chanting emanating from lakefront temples, competing with modern Bollywood music blaring from rooftop boom boxes and the sounds of construction.
Streets meander past fabulously painted and ornately carved doors and windows and intricate building facades. Shop fronts overflow with richly colored saris and pashminas, traditional antique silver and semi-precious stone jewelry, hand-tooled leather journals, and statues of various Hindu gods in all sizes, old and new. Fruit and vegetable sellers ply their goods between cyber cafes and mobile phone shops.
From the rooftops, especially at dawn and sunset/dusk, the city seems to float above Lake Pichola, as if emerging from or sinking into a dream. Five hundred year old palace ramparts rise on one side, ghats lined with shops and temples on the other, and in the shimmering lake, the mirage-like Jag Mandir and gleaming white Lake Palace complete the scene.
The incongruities of India continue to astound me, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with fears and tears. You never know what will happen next, here.

Currently I am suffering a deep chest cough (despite two types of medicine “prescribed” by a local chemist).
I have decided, for health reasons mostly, although it is also cheaper, to go vegetarian for the duration of my travels, unless one of my hosts treats me to dinner at an upscale establishment. Food handling standards are iffy and refrigeration often non-existent, so meats are questionable at best. Coincidence or not, my “Delhi belly” has gone away since switching off meats the past two days!
I’ve done way too much shopping here, worn down by the continual haggling of vendors. I am able to bargain, and usually able to walk away, but have become newly addicted to paisley pashminas and printed clothing/fabrics. I bought a bed sheet yesterday, for heavens sake! I’ve managed to avoid the jewelry, with one exception, but it has not been easy, as all my favorite styles and stones are available here at relatively (compared to US) low prices. Still, they are far above my daily budget, and I have another 4 months to survive.

Today is a day of rest, lounging in my cool, marble-floored budget room, happy to have found a local WiFi connection. I am also trying to avoid the guesthouse manager, as he has said some things which have made me uncomfortable regarding purchasing gifts for me….I am uncertain how to express that I am in NO way interested in having anything more than a business transaction and that to accept a gift would be totally inappropriate.

My couch surfing host from Jaipur, the next city on my itinerary, is a tour guide and will be in town here tomorrow. He has offered to take me to dinner then so we can plan my stay in his hometown.

I will have more access to internet after 19 November, and will try to update on twitter and face book daily from there, as well as add new pics to my Udaipur folder on flickr.

Please continue to hold me in your thoughts and prayers. I am especially in need of prayers for good health, good spirits and continued safety!
Thank you.

As I have decided to use my travel experiences in a future non-fiction manuscript, I regret I cannot wax more eloquently or more at length, to avoid not being able to sell the appropriate rights when the time comes. I am sure you will understand...and hope you will look for the book somewhere down the road!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Udaipur Check-In

Just a quick note, reporting I am safe In Udaipur after the 17 hr train journey through the night in the rain of Tropical Cyclone Phyan, for which the warning was posted about an hour before my departure from Bombay.
The cyclone hit in the area of Alibaug, near the beach house I described in my previous post. I have not heard from my friend whether everything there is ok.

The guesthouse where I am staying is called Shiva Guesthouse. The staff is nice enough, though it is surely geared towards a younger, more carefree kind of traveler. I have a nice bed, clean sheets, working electricity and an en suite bathroom with hot water.
My top complaints are that the shower barely emits enough water to wet yourself, and the hot and cold non-shower taps are separate, so if you try to wash under them, its either burning hot or freezing cold! ACK..
The alternative is the local style bucket bath.
I guess I should be content, some fellow travelers I met in the lobby earlier today declared it was a luxury to have the hot water at all.

It has been cloudy and misty, breezy and very cool, with occasional light showers since my arrival. I went out only briefly, explored the Jagdish Temple, where I made some stupid foreigner gaffs for which a guide (unofficial) duly reprimanded me. I did, however, get some great pics there!
The old city area is a maze of narrow winding streets filled with shops where shopkeepers great you in a variety of languages and do everything short o physically drag you into their shops. The array of handicrafts and souvenirs is mind boggling, and the temptation to splurge on my favorite style of silver and semi-porecious stone pendants nearly broke me down. I asked a few prices, but was not prepared for bargaining.
The streets themselves are, again (sorry India) really nasty. Trash as well as dog and cow dung make it nearly impossible to take a step, and you are wise not to look away!

I had plain ghee pulao (butter rice) and a banana lassi for lunch before taking a 3 hr nap, from which I've just woke. It's 8:10 pm. Some of the hotel "staff" is drinking (secretly but the smell is strong) and chatting loudly in Hindi here in the lobby where the computer is located. Normal everyday life, I suppose. They are still friendly and coherent, at least!

I will finish here, make a few tweets, then see about a light dinner (in the hotel rooftop cafe) before calling it a night, in the hopes that tomorrow is sunny and I can find the boat to get a lake tour and/or go to City Palace.

For an international tourist destination voted world's top city, this place sure doesn't make it easy to navigate or know what the heck is going on!

Here I go, rolling with the punches!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cool November Rain, and a Train

Cool, breezy rains began yesterday around 11am.
Mumbaikers are all a bit surprised as November rain is virtually unheard of.
Apparently it is also bad news, despite the lovely break in the heat, because important food crops that should be ripening around this time will, according to my acquaintances here, be spoiled with even a few days' rain.
I am loving the coolness but sad for this news.
Hopefully the rains (a tropical storm in the Northern Indian Ocean drifting NNE inland even towards Rajasthan) will pass quickly.

As the storm moves inland toward Rajasthan, so do I.
Today is the big day.
In about 3 hours from now, I'll be heading out in a taxi for Bandra Terminus where I'll board my 17 hour overnight train for Udaipur.
My host had an office meeting and is unable to take me to the station, so he is sending me with his (non-English-speaking) servant who will make sure I get the correct train, car, and so forth.
I have faith that I will be taken care of, but it is still emotionally stressful.

I am armed with two India-versions of well-known fashion/home making magazines for the train as well as my notebook, camera, and old iRiver music device.
I plan to buy bottled water and snacks for the journey at the station as I have heard train food is not good for the belly especially as mine is still very delicate, to put it nicely.

I have done everything I can to make detailed arrangements for my arrival in Udaipur, although in India plans do not seem to count for much.
My experience so far is that you get told a different thing every time you ask the same question!
(yes, even when asking the same person!)
My guesthouse is supposed to have arranged someone to meet me at the station and bring me to their location....first I was told a "driver" would pick me up, but when I emailed to "confirm" was told something to the effect of a "taxi" will be there to guide me to a "stand" at the station where I will be "met" be an unidentified-someone-else.
So really not sure if there will be anyone waiting there holding my name placard as originally arranged, or if I'll have to take my chances and spend the money getting a taxi on my own.

This rain is giving Mumbai, and my soul, a much needed bath.
Yes, I am still anxious. That is just how I am (for those who are commenting that I need to relax and just let go).
I take medication for severe anxiety, folks. It's not like you can just turn off the wiring and say ok now I'm gonna do it differently. It's chemical!
I fret, I cry, I make detailed plans, I freak out to everyone who will listen.
And then I just do it.

I know that the rest of my travels will be different from Mumbai.
I know that I CAN manage on my own, like it or not.

Undoubtedly there will be much more to report as soon as I can get connected from Udaipur!

My current "plan" is to first get settled into the guesthouse, determine level of safety and room security there, and probably take a nap to settle my nerves.
If I feel up to it, and weather permitting (70% chance of storms in Udaipur Thursday), I may wander the immediate area of the guesthouse before sunset.

I have no set agenda other than a list of places to see, not date specific (even that is a a major improvement for me, folks!)
City Palace, Lake Palace, Jagdish Temple and so forth are my main destinations, plus I intend to sit on the rooftop terrace writing a lot.
If I feel comfortable, I may try to find a spot right on the lake front from where to write, also.

I am scheduled to meet my host for my next destination on 19 November and will be going next to Jaipur.
All his references on the couchsurfing site are positive, and hopefully he already understands my p-o-v regarding being a guest not a party partner!
My friend here in Mumbai has his name/contact info in case, heaven forbid, something bad happens.

A reminder, again, that my posts from here on may become far less frequent. The guesthouse told me they had WiFi.
Their listing on hostelworld's website says "internet available".
I am sure there is a cyber cafe there somewhere if I need to go that route.

So, if you do not hear from me on this blog, on twitter, or via email for several days, do not panic!!
If you do not hear from me before the 22nd...THEN panic!

Thanks for following my adventure!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Beach House and British Expats

The past few days in Mumbai have been calm and yet full of interesting occurrences.
On Saturday morning Titu and I taxied down to the docks by Gateway of India and caught a ferry to a rural area north of Mumbai called Awas, where his family owns property. The ferry trip was interesting, with many families going for day picnics or weekends at their beach property. A group of college aged youth sang songs and had a drumming circle on the upper deck. Children played games while the adults snacked and chatted.
We sailed into the morning sun, making it difficult to see, but Mumbai's harbor (such as it is) was crowded with all manner of shipping vessels from around the globe as well as Naval vessels, fishing boats and private pleasure boats.
The trip to Awas takes about an hour, depending which type of boat you book on.
We arrived and disembarked at Mandwa .
Titu flagged an auto-rickshaw which took us away from the docks towards the actual village of Awas. En route we stopped for chai and a kind of battered potato fritter whose name I can never remember!
The rickshaw bumped along the rutted, crumbling road for about 15 minutes til we got out in the middle of what seemed like jungle. Through a gate, along a leaf-strewn dirt drive, we came to a series of arches and patios and the entrance to Titu's family "beach house" (about a 5 minute walk from beach).
As with so many buildings here, the beach house is redolent of former glory. Arched windows and carved elements but cracked walls and horribly peeling paint, utilities shut off or barely functional. The smell of decay...mold, mildew, dust...was literally suffocating.
No one lives there, anymore. A caretaker (husband/wife) lives on the property, but the house is not maintained.
Titu talked about renting it, or maybe turning it into a B&B, and I had visions of moving in, restoring it lovingly one room, one garden section at a time...
After he talked business with the caretaker briefly, we changed and walked to the beach, which was surprisingly clean and virtually deserted.
I collected a few shells and we splashed and floated in the Arabian Sea for about an hour before heading back to the house, where I was thrilled to be shown how to take my first ever bucket shower/bath!
You literally fill a bucket with water, get a smaller cup for a scoop, and pour cupfuls of water over yourself to bathe! Not highly effective, but good enough for short term purposes!
The trip back to Mumbai was quiet...Titu bumped into an old acquaintance and they talked about "the good old days" when Awas was much less popular with day trippers and the rich/land developers.

Saturday evening Titu left for a social event with some friends...apparently running with the rich and famous. I was invited but did not feel comfortable with the whole production. Reportedly some of the top names in Indian fashion and film (including 2 famous Bollywood stars) were there. Titu's friends, who invited him, are designers and ad execs and producers, if I understand correctly, so he has access to "the scene". (There is still so much I don't know about this man...I only knew him briefly in college and never once thought about him as anything other than a funny frat boy always cracking jokes in the dorm hall).
In ways I regret not having gone, yet now I can say "I blew off Bollywood!" and on yet another level I am just relieved I did not have to stay out til 3am!

While he was at the party, Titu phoned and suggested I go upstairs to meet his British neighbor who's lived in India since 1958!
I thought it would be a good chance to get a different perspective on all this madness, so I agreed.
What a fascinating experience! The man, who's name I'll keep private for him/his family's sake, was born and raised til age 13 in Alexandria, Egypt, moved to the UK during his teens, fought in WWII across Europe (including liberating concentration camps), and returned to India in 1958 with a British-based business.
He met his wife in Calcutta, and eventually they had 2 daughters, both of whom were raised in India.
He can be a cranky old man (well he is 86) but he has so many stories! At times he gets graphic describing war scenes or talks about wanting to die as all his friends are gone...but overall just a fabulously intriguing chap!
I want to write more about him, and yet cannot think of how to encompass it here, now, so will leave it for the (possible) book...

Today is Monday, Titu's at work, and I am locked in my room at his house trying to avoid the cleaning servant who should arrive any moment.
I just don't like to be bothered, and really would rather do the damn housework myself!

It's mostly cloudy today and "cooler" (in relative terms)...though 89, while not as bad as 98, is still pretty darn hot.
Thankfully a storm system is due to arrive either tonight or tomorrow, bringing 60% chance thunderstorms for several days as well as even lower temps.

I leave for Udaipur on the train Wednesday. I still don't know whether Titu himself can get off work to take me or whether I'll be going with one of the non-English speaking servants.
I have no idea how to find the station let alone the train platform!
Terror is setting in.

Next steps after finding the train will include:
keeping myself and my possessions secure during the 17 hr overnight journey,
making sure I get off at the right station in Udaipur,
finding the driver from the guesthouse there who is supposed to meet me with my name plackard at the station in Udaipur, and
getting settled up and settled in at Shiva Guesthouse itself.

In all honesty, I plan to cry a lot between now and Wednesday early afternoon when this next stage of my journey begins.
Titu has spoiled me horribly here in Mumbai, taking care of all my necessities and keeping me safe.
But all this is at an end.
From here on out, I am on my own, armed with only the most basic of Hindi phrases, and virtually no understanding of how to do things in this country.
I am super scared...will I even be able to communicate?
What if I cannot express my wishes/needs?!
Will I be safe?
What about my possessions? Should I leave my laptop here and rely on cyber-cafes the rest of this trip? If I do that...what about my photos? I won't have enough storage on my card for 4.5 months worth of pics. Plus much of my travel info is stored in emails or Word docs.

I am also having serious concerns about money...knowing my budget is so limited. Any miscalculation now could be tragic when I get to the later stages of my journey.

This is all so confusing. What the heck was I THINKING, coming to India alone on a rock bottom budget?! Why didn't someone kick my ass before I got on the plane?