Feathered Aspen


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The Unenlightened

October 4, 2010

We woke up early, packed a day bag, and headed for McLeod. For some reason, I’m still feeling a bit woozy, so we took it slow. In McLeod, we bought a bottle of water and a piece of walnut cake for breakfast, and then we walked down to the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex. At the gate, we joined a throng of Buddhist monks, Tibetans, Taiwanese, and other travelers. After we walked through the metal detector, we were patted down, and found not to be carrying a camera, cell phone, or explosive device, we entered the courtyard.

While we were searching for a spare patch of ground, we ran into Derrick and Aubrey, the couple we had met in Ladakh. In fact, there we recognized a bunch of the other travellers that we’ve been passing by for days now, eating in restaurants together, listening to music, and browsing through handicraft stalls. Although we had a special pass to sit upstairs closer to the reading, all the seats were already taken. I wasn’t too bothered; I hadn’t really expected to be able to see the Dalai Lama as he spoke.

Sitting in a crowd, we pulled out our little FM radios and flipped through the stations to 92.3, the English translation. We waited around for about another hour, people watching and chatting, and then the Dalai Lama came out of his residence, flanked on either side by monks and camera men. He walked about fifteen feet in front of us, smiling and holding his palms together as he nodded, and then he walked up the stairs to the Temple.

After he walked by, everyone got up and found a more comfortable spot. We went to find a seat in the shade, and then we waited for the talk to begin. All around us, people were singing ‘Om Mani Padme Hum,’ and many were standing, touching their prayer-held hands to their foreheads, mouths, and hearts, and then prostrating themselves. Old men were running their fingers over prayer beads and whispering; old women were holding mini-prayer wheels, spinning them and chanting at the same time.

When the Dalai Lama began to pray, all the monks and Tibetans prayed with him. He began to talk, but it took Joshua and I a good 15 minutes to finally get the translation going on our radios. Even then, the reception faded in and out, and the translator became silent for long periods of time.

We sat for two hours on the ground while the Dalai Lama talked. The sound of the translator on our headphones faded in and out, and monks walked the crowds serving milky, buttered tea. I opened my notepad, took out my pen, and started writing.

I suppose now is as good of a time as any to tell you that Joshua and I are buying a house with Josh’s Mom and Step-dad, Yvonne and Dave. We’ve known for a little while now, and the possibility has been on the table for even longer, but I was reluctant to announce it to the world, in case it fell through or my eagerness jinxed it.

So here’s the dealio: last April, Joshua and I were down in the dumps teaching underprivileged children in the slums of New Orleans. The children needed lots and lots of help, and they still do, but the schools we were teaching in made us absolutely miserable. We constantly fell short. I could go on and on, but that’s the gist of it. Anyway, we were contemplating our move out of New Orleans at the end of the school year, and we had no idea what was coming next. We’ve always been the planful types, but now, when we needed something to look forward to the most, we hadn’t a clue.

At one point, Yvonne sent us a link to a farm house that they had found in Ellsworth, halfway between Hastings and River Falls. The house was beautiful, a gorgeous, hundred year old Victorian with stained-glass windows, a turret, and full wrap-around porch. On the 14 acres of land surrounding the house, there was an old barn, three silos, two pole barns, three grain bins, and another animal-stall barn thingy. It was gorgeous, and when Yvonne and Dave suggested that we buy it, we seriously considered it.

For two weeks, I was pretty sure that we were going to buy that house, but the whole time, I fretted about how we would pay the mortgage. I’d have to retrain to get a teacher’s license in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even if I did the training, there was no guarantee that I’d be able to get a job within driving distance of the farm. Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to become more anxious – grinding my teeth and waking up in cold sweats at night – I was overrun with panic.

I told Joshua, and we decided we weren’t quite ready to decide where we were going to live for the next 20 years. First, we needed steady jobs with steady incomes that didn’t make us want to pluck out our eyeballs. This decision abated some of the panic, but the next year was still one enormous question mark.

Then Joshua said, ‘why don’t we go to Nepal after we go and visit your English family?’ So the trip was born, and we put the idea of buying the farm to rest. After school ended, Yvonne and Dave drove us by the farm just out of curiosity. It was beautiful, we said, and exactly the sort of thing we’d love to live in one day soon, but we weren’t ready.

In August, Yvonne and Dave’s property flooded. It was a terrible ordeal, and long story short, they needed a new place to stay. Renting was out of the question because of all the animals, and buying a new place was going to be tricky because they still owned the flooded property. When Joshua told me what happened, I sat and stewed for a little bit. Then I looked him in the eyes and told him that I thought we should buy the farm. I wasn’t sure if it was even possible to try and do something like that half-way across the world, but it felt right. With two couples paying the mortgage, Joshua and I would easily be able to find jobs to cover our half, and I was already beginning to think that I might never be able to face the classroom again. Yvonne and Dave needed a place to live with their animals, and we had talked about living on the same farm together in the past. It seemed like the right timing.

We told Yvonne and Dave, and they said they would look into it. A couple weeks later, they told us that they had approached the seller with a proposal for a contract for deed, and he had agreed. They moved in this weekend. (A contract for deed basically means that, although we haven’t secured a mortgage from the bank because Joshua and I are half-way across the world, we have promised to get the mortgage within the next two years. In the mean time, it’s sort of like rent-to-own: we pay the mortgage, and our payments go towards paying off the home.)

There’s still a lot in the air, and I suppose there’s always a chance that things might not work out, but we’re very hopeful and it all seems like it’s going to happen. We’re very, very excited. Yvonne and Dave are planning to renovate the second floor of the barn for their home, and Joshua and I are going to fix up the old house. For now, when we get home, we’ll all be living in the house.

I tell you this now, because rather than contemplate the three poisons, the light of knowledge, and seeking nirvana as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spoke eloquently and compassionately in Tibetan, I plotted what colors I’d like to paint the walls of our new home. I thought about the kind of plants I’d like to hang from the ceiling, and I considered the fabrics we might buy in India to bring back with us and adorn our new home with.

Since you ask, yes, I feel terribly guilty that I didn’t sit entranced by the Dalai Lama and his teachings. To make matters worse, rather than considering the possibilities of an-atman and bodhisattva-hood, I was being materialistic and day-dreaming about the future. I was definitely not in the present. I failed to attain a higher spiritual plane.

When the Dalai Lama passed us on his way out, Joshua and I picked up our stuff and silently walked out of the complex. This afternoon, he would be continuing his teachings, but I already knew that I wasn’t even remotely interested. Finally, a few blocks later, Joshua looked at me with eyes that told me he already knew exactly what I thought: ‘so what did you think?’

Here’s the thing: when I was growing up, I went to synagogue on Friday nights and Mass on Sunday mornings. Neither the rabbi nor the priest were particularly brief, and it wasn’t unusual for a service to last for about two hours. On top of that, I had Catechism on Tuesdays, Confirmation before Mass on Sundays, choir practice on Wednesdays and Sunday mornings, and the occasional Tot Shabbat on Saturday morning. In high school, I went to Vespers at the local college. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been to more religion stuff than most people I know. I feel all religioned out. While I was sitting on the hard ground listening to a poor translation of the Dalai Lama, I felt that old familiar, antsy feeling. I think I might be done with a religion that talks at you, and if I can’t find it in myself to be patient with the most compassionate and tolerant religion on Earth (Buddhism), then I don’t think there’s a lot of hope for me.

On our way to JJI Restaurant for lunch, we stopped at a stall to buy me a beautiful necklace that I had been eyeing for about a week. It’s gorgeous, and I talked him down 100 rupees. At JJI’s, we ordered chowmein and Cashew soup. I was still not feeling very well, and after reading for a few minutes, I asked Joshua if we could walk back to the guesthouse to rest.

Just before we got back, it started to rain, and we got in our room just in time for it to begin down pouring. Ever since, we’ve been reading and writing and relaxing.

***

After a little rest, we walked through Bhagsu on our way to McLeod and arranged to go on a little outing with Eshai and Hadas for tomorrow. We’re taking a taxi to some hot springs a couple hours away.

In McLeod, we withdrew some money and went in search of the bus stand where we’ll board the bus for Rishikesh tomorrow. Afterward, we chose a highly recommended Italian Restaurant, Oogbo’s and ordered pasta primavera, bruchetta, and an eggplant bake. While we waited for the food, we played cards. It was delicious.

After we paid, we picked up some snacks for the trip tomorrow. While we were waiting, I saw a man run after a dog and kick it over and over again. It probably wasn’t smart of me, but I just started screaming at him: stop! Stop it! Stop! I was so angry, I was about to go over there, but Joshua stopped me. The man was so violent, he kicked the dog into the restaurant we had been eating in and kept on kicking. The owners of the restaurant stopped him and started yelling at him, and at the same time, the man who was selling us our snacks explained that the dog was very dangerous. The same dog has attacked a couple of people, and it’s cost them thousands of rupees to get rabies shots and stitches.

I’m not sure what the dog’s fate was, because as soon as I saw a big group of people walk up ready to take matters into their own hands, I told Joshua that we had to leave. I had already yelled at a local, and I didn’t want to see what they were going to do.

Now, we’re at Green Hotel catching a little internet before we head back, pack up, and go to sleep.

October 3, 2010

Thus far, today has been a bit of a bummer. I woke up very late after staying up so late reading, and we rushed out the door for a quick 30 minute run to Naddi and back. Before we went to Jewelry Making Class (Gold and Silver Jewelry School with Leni and Ravi in Bhagsu), we quickly packed a day bag, got all of our laundry together, and had lunch at the Tree of Life.

While we waited for our food, we played a game of checkers. To drink, Joshua had fresh pineapple juice and I gulped down a sweet lassi. Joshua ordered a full breakfast with veggies, potatoes, eggs, and toast, while I opted for my first salad in ages: shredded beet root and carrots with spinach, topped in sprouts and sesame seeds. While Joshua paid, I hurried up to the school, remembering that they had laundry service on the third floor. When I got to the room where the classes were supposed to be held, the man we had spoken to earlier was there waiting for us. He looked contrite.

With the season ending here in Bhagsu, Dharamkot, and McLeod (i.e. Dharamsala), lots of shop, guest house, and restaurant owners are packing up and migrating for winter. Most head down to Goa or maybe Rajastan. Apparently, it just gets too cold here. When I looked inside the room behind the gentleman, I saw that they had already begun to pack. The man explained that his boss wanted them out and on the road by tomorrow. No Jewelry Making Class for us.

Wanting to be helpful, the man walked us up to the third floor to show us where we could drop off our laundry. After a rapid-fire exchange in Hindi, he shook his head at us again. No laundry today.

We walked away totally crushed. I had really been looking forward to the classes, and although there were other hole-in-the-wall places that advertised their own jewelry making courses, none of them were as comprehensive as Leni and Ravi’s: they have a large room devoted to classes, while others just have corners in their street-front jewelry shops; they have power tools, supplies, and booklets, while others barely speak English. Like the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center (Yoga with Its Shit Together), Joshua had said that it was Jewelry Making Class with Its Shit Together. To make matters worse, I had begun to fantasize about my new bohemian lifestyle, making arty-farty gold and silver pieces and selling them at Farmer’s Markets and the Renaissance Festival. I’d become a household name, and eventually, I’d just be able to flip on my goggles, play with fire and metal, and when I got bored, I’d go into my little office and write. I’d never have to worry about mean bosses who tell you that you’re a piece of shit, students who just as soon assault you as take your tests, or time clocks, commutes, or professional regressment ever again.

I feel the need to explain something to you: I’m not lazy. Really. In many cases, I’m goal-oriented and motivated to a fault. I even prefer to structure my play time; I can’t stand waking up and not having a good plan for the rest of the day, and nothing makes me feel more dissatisfied and just generally yucky than wasting a day doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading, writing, and watching a good movie or TV series, but even then, doing one of those things all day long will leave me feeling restless and unproductive.

That said, the prospect of showing up to a 9 to 5 job in an office just makes me want to keel over and give up right now. I hate being constantly evaluated and somehow always falling short, and it makes me sick just thinking about spending 40 hours (or 50, or 60, or 70) of my life every week doing something that I don’t find meaningful or enjoyable. I don’t mean to be a baby; I know that others suck it up and even do it willingly. It just feels like I’m looking at a box that’s way too small. In order to fit in there, I’m going to have to crumple myself into this weird yoga-torture position and sit there 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year for the rest of my life. Eventually, rather than sit with the pain, I’ll just become this doughy blob that fits well into small, boxy enclosed spaces.

Sometimes, just to torture myself, I’ll browse through job listings on-line. I’ll try to imagine myself as a receptionist or an admissions counselor, anything I’m qualified to do. I think about going back to school to train to be a teacher all over again, and when I get out, I’ll search high and low for anyone to hire me, and I’ll just be right back in some classroom in some school somewhere, given all this responsibility and none of the authority to get it done. Maybe I could go back to school for two years, get into all sorts of debt, and then be an underpaid social worker who can never quite fix anything and who’s always blamed because they’re stupid enough to try to help.

I know I’m far too young to be so cynical, and even though I tell myself that, I can’t shake the dread. I’m not qualified to do anything that I think I might love and be meaningful (read: help people), and yet, I’m not convinced that another two years for some sort of certification won’t just lead me straight back to a job where I’m unliked and I dislike being there.

So, yeah. I’m feeling pretty Debbie-downer right now, and it all started because I wasn’t able to fulfill my dream of changing my name to Stardust, making arty-farty jewelry, teaching yoga classes, and writing long, windy novels that either get published or not, who cares? I’ll be so happy wearing natural fibers and weaving peace and om symbols into my art, I won’t care at all.

Ok. I jest, and now that I’ve worked myself into a real lather, sputtering over my keyboard, Joshua’s had a very firm talking to me. Remember the power of positive thinking, he says. Remember what Lesley said: go ahead and announce to the world exactly what you want. It will come. I’ll become a police officer and they’ll think I’m such hot stuff that they’ll want me to work for the FBI (policing is his flavor of the week right now), and you can work part time and just write and write and write until somebody finally relents and publishes your work, he says. He pulls out all the stops, quoting all the people I love and respect. He throws the words I had told him yesterday (that my dad told me) right back at me: ‘the only people who really ever fail are those who either refuse to see their success or give up.’

A big part of me knows he’s right and an even bigger part of me knows that I’m just straight up blessed to be married to this man. A smaller part of me is still scared and filled with dread. I’ll try to conquer my demons. In the mean time, I must remember to look around. I feel guilty for feeling so apprehensive about life when it’s given and giving so much. I must remember to be thankful, because I am. I must remember that the world is not big and bad and neither are the people who inhabit it: it’s a matter of changing the way that you look at things. If you believe things are shit and the world sucks, then it does, and you can find all sorts of examples to prove your point. The same goes for believing that the world is ripe for the plucking and just ready for you to go forth and find your place in it. When it knocks you down, you can look at how nice the view is from where you’re sitting, and all that sort of stuff. I guess I haven’t found the right balance yet.

The other night, I plopped an embarrassingly existential and naive question straight into the middle of a polite social exchange. Looking around a table of bright and diverse gentlemen, I asked them, ‘are people mostly good or bad?’ (I know, it makes me cringe just writing about it, and before you ask, no, I was not stoned. In fact, I’m never stoned. I act this way sober. Terrifying; I know.) Beatific, smiling Rajjis immediately said, ‘mostly good.’ Warren from South Africa wisely with-held comment, and Eshai told me I was asking the wrong question.

Even though I had already asked the question and I couldn’t take it back, I still didn’t really want to get into it. Philosophical discussions really tend to annoy me, because more often than not, the people who like blowing a lot of hot air about god and good and bad rarely get off their ass and ever do anything about it. So when Eshai told me I was asking the wrong question, my hackles were already up and I challenged him. ‘So what is the right question?’

Eshai said that my question assumes that there is good and bad. What’s good? What’s bad? Not every one can agree. Some things might be good, even necessary for me, but bad for you. When that happens, you perceive me as bad, but what choice did I really have? Am I all bad just because I made that one decision?

He was right, of course, and even though it usually annoys me to no end when people take long drags from their joints and dismantle my questions, I was satisfied with his response. It felt both wise and compassionate, and it means that I don’t have to go on suspecting that vast proportions of the globe are just absolutely rotten.

All this is to say that on the one hand, wandering out buck-naked into the world and expecting it to provide for you is probably not the wisest decision, but neither is hiding in a really tight boxy space, believing that people hate you and just generally dreading a lifetime of pointlessness and woe. There’s got to be some middle ground. That might be a leap (from people aren’t mostly good or bad to life doesn’t win or suck), but it makes a little bit more sense to me. I just have to remember that things aren’t strictly black and white, and when I see all that gray, I should really try to consider all the white that went into making it. I’ll be happier that way.

Phew. If any of you are still reading, I will ask a favor. Joshua says I should. It would make me feel really super-fantastic-great if those of you who slog through my posts followed me publicly. You can go up to the right hand corner of this web page and click, ‘Follow this Blog.’ It will ask you for your name and e-mail address, but don’t worry. You’re not signing up for a lifetime’s worth of junk mail or joining some sort of freaky-deeky cult or anything like that. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ll never receive any mail or Jehovas Witnesses on account of simply signing up; you’ll never have to maintain anything at all. You don’t even have to put your full name or photo up. It’s FREE. ONE TIME ONLY COMMITMENT! NO INTEREST and NO APR for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE!

Ok, now that I’ve shamelessly suckered you into making the leap and becoming a part of the virtual community before you were really ready, I shall cease all moaning and commence with tales from my really great adventure. Love.

***

After we discovered that the Gold and Silver School was jumping ship, we started walking up through Dharamkot to check out other possibilities, but after a few flights of steps, Joshua had an attack of gippy belly, and we parted ways. Joshua went back to the guesthouse to use the facilities, and I finished the climb to Dharamkot. As I had suspected, none of the other options were particularly enticing, so I quick hopped into the Internet cafe to check my e-mail. Nothing there either.

When I got back to the guesthouse, Joshua was kicking back and reading. I made him come inside the room with me to talk about our options. Both of us were feeling a little funny and unsettled. We’ve been a little homesick, and I think we’re feeling a bit done with Dharamkot. We’ve walked every road and eaten in every restaurant. The Jewelry Making Classes were going to be the perfect finish to our stay here: we’d listen to the Dalai Lama in the morning, and then in the afternoon, we’d get the creative juices flowing. We’d be so busy that we wouldn’t have time to feel unsettled and homesick.

Anyway, I told Joshua that there wasn’t much else to do in the way of classes (other options require at least 6 day commitments, and we’re headed off to Rishikesh in 4 days). We brooded for a bit, and then I tried to give us a little pep talk: we have no excuse to be whining here! What’s the worst-case scenario? We don’t find anything to do and we end up reading, writing, and playing cards in a cafe for half the day? We love doing that sort of thing!

We laid down for a little while, poking each other and running our knuckles over each other’s ribs like toddlers or teenagers who are bored and just want to annoy someone to make things interesting. Finally, despite me pulling his hair and tickling his ears, Joshua fell asleep, and I started writing.

Well, as you’ve already gathered, I worked myself into a fine state by writing, and Joshua woke up to me very upset indeed. This time he did the pep talking, and he’s pretty good at it. I calmed down, and when I finished writing, we walked up to McLeod to exchange my book, grab a snack and a cup of tea, and attend the JJI Exile Brothers concert.

On our way into McLeod, we cooed at an itty-bitty monkey that had skipped across the road, not realizing that its very large and intimidating mother was hanging out on the other side of the road. Said mother pawed the ground, bared its teeth, and started charging us. We puffed out our chests, swung our arms, and yelled loudly at it, even though we were terrified. Thankfully, she backed down and we were able to pass.

In McLeod, I exchanged my book (would you believe that I spent however many hours reading it and I’ve now promptly forgotten what it was even called?) for a paperback entitled ‘The Heroines,’ and at Peace Cafe, we ordered some tea, a slice of brownie cake, fruit salad, and a little sandwich. Sitting overlooking McLeod in the dark, I began not to feel very well at all. In fact, I hadn’t felt quite right since we had left the guesthouse. I was nauseous and I had a headache. I felt exhausted. Even though I told myself it was because I had had nothing more than a lassi and beetroot salad all day, plus a rollicking good tizzy that afternoon, I couldn’t shake it. Eventually, I told Joshua that I wasn’t feeling up to attending the JJI Exile Brothers concert. We got up to leave, and as we walked past the Green Hotel, I started to feel a tiny bit better. I suggested that we pop in to check our e-mails and see how I felt in about 10 minutes.

Whatever it was passed, and we decided to go to the concert after all. JJI is definitely the best restaurant we’ve found since we’ve arrived in Dharamsala, and it may even rival some of my all-time favorites: The Cake Bakery in New Orleans and the Shakabrah in Tacoma. I think I’ve already described the beautiful, cozy orange interior, and the fabulous music they play all day long. The food is delicious, and every Sunday night, they hold a concert for the JJI Exile Brothers.

Inside the small one-room restaurant, they had cleared out all the tables and jammed in about 20 chairs. In front, a drum set, guitars, and a microphone were ready to go. We sat quietly as other tourist filed in, and we listened as they introduced themselves to one another. There were a number of people from the states – the most we’ve encountered so far – and a few more from Taiwan, Spain, and Thailand.

To begin, a rangy Tibetan with a pony tail and high cheekbones took the stage and told us that he would be singing a song about the Dalai Lama’s summer house in Tibet. Strumming on a long-necked instrument with six strings, he closed his eyes and began singing. Next, he sang a song about the Dalai Lama’s journey into exile. He sang a couple more songs, a Tibetan drinking song and a traditional and flirtatious call and response song that boys and girls sing to one another. When he was done, he moved to the side of the stage, and one of his cousins strummed the same instrument and sang a song thanking India for providing them a home in exile. Another cousin got on the stage and played an upbeat, foot stomping tune.

When they had finished with the more traditional songs, an older woman dressed in a traditional Tibetan wrap-dress and apron took the microphone and asked us if we were ready to rock. We politely nodded our heads. She asked us again, and we said yes. She looked a little doubtful, and then she said, ‘music brings us together.’ For some reason, I found this very poignant; here were three brothers, three Tibetan, beatnik rock and rollers, and they were singing about home and exile and falling in love. In some ways, I’m sure people might find this incongrous: Buddhist rock and rollers? But when you think about it, it makes sense. Rock and roll can fit so much into one song – longing, pain, and fun, too. Its the perfect vehicle for expressing the gamut of complications and emotions that arise from living in exile, searching for nirvana, and finding few easy answers.

They were great. The older Tibetan woman dragged each of us into the cramped space in front, urging us to dance. Everyone was shy, but I just decided to get over it. I had fun. My favorite song was about a girl he sees ‘in the temple every day, and she says, “om mani padme hum.”‘

At 9 PM, they took a little break and served us all chai and vegan chocolate cake. During the second half, they played a few more rock and roll songs they had written, and then to close, the had all of us stand in a circle and pass around a newspaper-wrapped box. Every time the music stopped, we’d tear off the paper and underneath, there would be directions for whomever had held it when the music ended. Joshua was first, and he had to act like a monkey. It landed on me too at one point, and I had to pretend I knew how to salsa. In the end, the last person to tear off the wrapping won a JJI breakfast and a marigold to tuck behind their ear. It was wonderful.

We walked back to the guesthouse, pleased that our day had ended better than it began. Unfortunately, we had a little altercation with a large group of Indian teenagers: they were being loud, and when we passed them, I turned my head to smile at them, and one of them tried to spit on me. Ick. I don’t think I had done anything offensive; I think they were just being teenagers in a herd, trying to impress one another.

Back at the guesthouse, we tucked ourselves into bed. Tomorrow, the Dalai Lama!

October 2, 2010

Triund is a small village that sits high up on the mountains above Dharamkot and Bhagsu. The climb ascends approximately 3,000 feet in four and a half miles, providing incredible views of the valley and waterfalls below. At the top, a clear day can afford you a glimpse of the mountain ranges beyond.

Joshua and I got a bit of a late start. Packing a small day pack, we climbed the stairs to the Himalaya Tea Cafe at the crossroads between Naddi, McLeod, and Dharamkot. There, we ordered a crispy pancake, a couple of lassis, and some sub-par muesli and curd. The pancake was delicious.

At ten, we started hiking. The night before, Rajjis had given me detailed instructions, and we climbed the smaller cobblestoned path off the road going to Naddi. Up ahead, a couple trekkers who were also headed to Triund forged on down the road. We considered running ahead and telling them they were going the wrong way, but they had already covered quite a bit of distance. They had a map. We figured they were big kids; they could figure it out.
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For the next three hours, we steadily climbed up. One of the frustrating things about hiking in India (so far) is that they don’t really believe in signs. There were multiple forks in the road, and not a single sign identified the way to Triund. We guessed. We ran into a couple more people hiking in the same direction, and one of them spoke Hindi. When we all got lost, he asked one of the farmers plodding by with a ton of hay strapped to his back which way we should go.

Eventually, our path joined another that had run up alongside the waterfall falling to Bhagsu. There were dozens of Indian hikers, and most of them had little FM radios peaking out of their breastpockets. They traveled in big, sweaty, happy, and singing packs, taking breaks to smoke cigarettes and eat Tikka Masala flavored chips. When we passed them descending or ascending, they’d nod hello and say, ‘Namaste, Good Morning, Hello, How are you?’

The day was fairly clear, and we had a beautiful view of the valley and plains stretching out to the horizon. Finally, we could tell where Dharamkot ended and began. We could see Bhagsu, and beyond, we could see McLeod perched on its outcropping. The sounds of honking horns and the smell of decaying trash heaps gradually tapered off, and all of sudden, we were back in the wilderness.

We arrived at the crest of Triund just as the clouds came rolling in. A couple of Indian hikers told us that we had arrived too late: the views from Triund are best in the morning time before the clouds come. We didn’t mind. It would have been nice to get the whole view, but I have a special place in my heart for fog. It started when I was younger and living in Mora. We’d get these crazy, freak fog days where you couldn’t see further than five feet in front of you (say that sentence five times fast). Once, they even canceled school. It was great. In college, I climbed my first genuine mountain, and at the top, the ridge was covered in fog. It parted just the tiniest bit and showed us a glimpse of Mt. Olympia. I thought it was the most magical, ghostly setting in the world.

So, yeah. I don’t mind fog. Joshua stood on a rock outcropping overlooking the mist and few pine trees that poked out, and I got a great photo of him, looking a little bit like the wanderer in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting. We sat for a bit, enjoying the cool air after the heat from our hike, and behind us, a group of monks sat cross-legged in a circle, playing a game that looked a lot like yoga-break-dance. They tossed a ball around, and someone who was unlucky or lucky (I’m not sure which) would have to go into the middle when the ball was dropped. Then they’d do a yoga pose to much applause.

We wandered around for a little while, walking to the outer edges of the village and snapping photos of the peaks draped in prayer flags. Then we headed back down. After about an hour of picking our way down the rocky path, we ran into a group of Indian men. One of them stopped us and began firing off rapid, rehearsed questions in English, not quite pausing long enough for us to answer. Then, smiling and brandishing a small digital camera, he asked, ‘picture?’ We weren’t quite sure what he was asking us, but when he flipped on his cool shades, tossed his arm over our shoulders, and handed off the camera to one of his buddies, we smiled big for the photo. They asked me to pull up my sleeve so they could get my whole tattoo, and then after an alternate photo without the shades, the photographer switched positions and we had another photo with him too.

Whipping out a notebook and pen, the man said, ‘ok. Now you give me your e-mail address. I send you photo.’ I scribbled down my address, and he made me spell each letter out-loud. ‘Ok. Yes,’ he said, ‘nice to meet you. Bye now.’ And off they went.

This is the second time this has happened, and I don’t know quite what to make of it. At the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, it was a group of three Turkish teenage boys. They’re fairly modern, with edgy hair-does and glittery rock and roll shirts; surely, we were not the strangest props they could come up with. Joshua looks nerdy in his vaporwick and Mardi Gras marathon baseball cap, and I’m pretty inocuous in my scarf, pants, and t-shirt. Whatever. I think its hilarious.

It started to rain about half-way down. Craving our very own bag of Tikka Masala chips, we stopped at a little mountainside cafe for a little respite from the wet and a salty snack. A table inside the tarpalin-covered cafe glittered with hundreds of dirty, freshly harvested crystals. (I almost bought one for you, Mom, but I wasn’t sure if that was what you meant by, ‘I’d like some rocks.’)

We wrapped our camera in Joshua’s t-shirt to protect it from the rain and then continued on our way. The rocks were a little slippy, but we managed to descend the rest of the way without breaking anything. We jogged for a little bit along a part of the path that was paved, and 6 hours after we had departed, we arrived back at our guesthouse.

Taking quick showers, we cleaned up and headed into Dharamkot for some grub. Joshua had been fantasizing about the cheese and spinach pizza from the Trek and Dine (where we ate with Matan and the ladies), so we set up camp at one of their tables overlooking the street. To drink, we ordered a pot of chai, and for starters, we selected a small plate of garlic fries. Yum yum. We played a few games of Rummy 500, and when the pizza came, we ate and played at the same time, smearing our cards with grease.

Some of you who read this are probably thinking that Joshua and I eat a lot. This is true. It’s also true that Joshua has lost 10 to 15 pounds since our trip began, and although I hover at the same weight pretty much perpetually irregardless of massive workout or food binges, my clothes are a little looser too. So when we finished the pizza, we ordered another entree: Spinach Kebab Masala. Vegetarian. Delicious.

Joshua kicked my ass in Rummy two times in a row (per usual), and then we wandered over to the Internet cafe to call my mom and send off a few e-mails. It’s crazy that I can have a 40 minute conversation with someone half-way across the world for less than 12 cents.

While Joshua looked up what it would take to become a police officer in Sconnie, I read my book, and when he had finished, we headed back to the guesthouse. We read in bed, listening to the sounds of dogs howling, tourists barfing in the room below, and a couple getting it on in the room next door. There are no secrets here.

October 1, 2010

After we paid the bill at Green Hotel, we headed back to Bhagsu. I had been seeing these black and red signs advertising Gold and Silver Jewelry Making Classes posted all over the place, and I rather fancied the vision of myself holding a blow torch in one hand and creating something sparkly and beautiful in the other.

We found the school, and a nice Indian man led us inside the classroom. There were two rows of low tables, boxes full of silver, gold, and stones, tools, and a blackboard on the wall. Photos of students creating jewelry lined the room. The man explained that the classes were each four hours in length, and a course lasted three days. We could start tomorrow at 1 PM. The price was 1200 rupees for one student, and we thought that very reasonable for such an extensive class. Tomorrow we planned to hike to Triund, so we told him that we’d like to sign up for class starting on Sunday. He told us to show up at one on Sunday, and we could pay then.

Walking away, we were excited. We’d been starting to feel a bit bored, but jewelry making classes would be the perfect end to our stay. We climbed the steps up through Dharamkot, and back at the guesthouse, we paused to sit with Rajjis, Warren, and Eshai in the courtyard. Rajjis is our guesthouse keeper, and I may have already mentioned that he is the smiliest, warmest man I have ever met. He smokes like a chimney, and he sings perpetually as he cleans and cooks. I asked him a little bit more about himself, and he told me that he is a voluntary learner. For the past couple of years, he’s been studying ashrams and religious devotion. He’s spent a number of months in ashrams around the North of India and in Nepal. In the summer months, he runs the Kamal Guesthouse in Dharamkot, and during the winter, he returns to his home in Varanasi. When I told him that we would be heading there, we discovered that we would be there at the same time, and he volunteered to show us around. Apparently, he’s also been a voluntary student of all the architecture and major religious sites in Varanasi, so he’s the perfect guide. His family owns a silk business, and so maybe we’ll explore their warehouse for some bigger stuff to send home, and we might even be able to take his boat out into the Ganges to watch the sunset. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and he gave us his phone number. It would be fun if that worked out.

As the sun went down, we chatted. Warren is from South Africa, and he’s been here taking yoga classes at the HIYC for almost five weeks now. He’s a trained masseuse, and he heard about the course here through one of his teachers in Thailand. He’s worked in a number of different settings – cruise ships, athletic teams, and even in his own practice – but the long hours and physical demands have been hard on his back. Apparently, the yoga has helped a lot. I confessed to Warren and Eshai that yoga hadn’t quite won me over: I just kept wondering the whole time, why am I doing this? They laughed. Warren explained that each asana does have certain purposes – aligning the back, correcting certain ailments, aiding digestion, etc – but that most yoga classes don’t get into the specifics until you’ve been practicing for years. It’s definitely not the Indian yogi’s style to lay out a syllabus and give you goals. Sharat wanted us to feel the changes, and then eventually, after weeks and weeks of instruction, he might begin to explain what those changes were.

I nodded my head. This is exactly what I had been looking for: a syllabus, a goal. I am a product of my upbringing, and rather than being ashamed of my Western ideals, I think I’m ok with them. I like running my life this way. Their way is ok too, but it’s just not for me.

After a while, Rajjis brought us cups of chai, and we started talking about a conversation we had overhead between Rajjis, Warren, and some stranger yesterday. Joshua and I had been sitting inside our room, and all of a sudden Joshua looked up at me and asked, ‘are you hearing this?’

The stranger was talking about how the Queen is vying to take over the world, and major world leaders are all in some sort of conspiracy together. Somehow, the Olympics were involved, and the end of the world was nigh. Joshua rolled his eyes, and we didn’t think much else of it. Asking Warren and Rajjis now, they started laughing. Apparently, the man had gone on and on, and Warren had just sat there, wondering when he had ever consented to this conversation. Occasionally, he’d ask very simple questions like, ‘so what are you going to do about that (the end of the world)?’ And the man would leap into another conspiracy-space-age-escape-plan. I guess he had even called on favors from the Egyptian god Isis. Rajjis, still smiling, stood up quietly and casually escaped without the man noticing. Warren explained that there would be no casual exit for him, now that he was the last man remaining. By the time he had finished the story, we were all laughing so hard, we were crying. Succinctly, Warren surmised, ‘well, if the world’s going to end in a couple of years, let’s get on with it. We’re in India, and isn’t it beautiful?’ We all agreed.

For dinner, Eshai joined us. We walked down to Sky Pie (we finally found it), and sat cross-legged on pillows, playing cards and eating. Joshua ordered an Israeli dish, and I ordered an Eggplant Sizzler. The food was delicious, and while we played cards, I mined Eshai for information about Israel. I’m fascinated about the concept of a young country, and we were curious about his take on Gaza and Palestine. At first, it seemed like a hot topic, and I was afraid to go there, but Eshai brought it up. This is all his opinion of course, and before I give you my opinion, I would have to do a lot of research (because I’m a total ignoramous on the matter), but he told us how Israel had fought with Egypt, and in the process, they had won Gaza. He considers this a huge mistake. He wishes that Israel had never tried to gain political control of Gaza, and he jokes that Egypt knew that they were pulling one over the Israelis. He then went on to explain that the Palestinians have always sort of been the black sheep of the Arab world, and whenever they’ve sought autonomy or more political power, they’ve been trampled over. When Joshua and I asked why Israel didn’t just let them be, Eshai said that they had, but the Palestinians of Gaza wanted all of Israel and they kept bombing, even after all the peace talks. In his opinion, the only thing they really understand is violence. He gave a funny comparison of a big, burly European with a huge gun standing next to a small Palestinian with a knife. The big, burly European blows a lot of hot air about keeping things in line, and the Palestinian knicks the man on the arm with his knife, just to test the waters. The big, burly guy flies into a rage, points at a gun, and asks the small man if he’s crazy. The man smiles. Keep talking, he thinks, and then he slits the big, burly man’s throat. This is all to say that perceived violence is nothing compared to violence weilded. The Israelis might have all the backing and weaponry in the world, but if they’re not willing to use it, the Palestinians with their little knives will.

I don’t know what to think about the whole situation. I do know that the sources all have a bias, and I’m just not sure how those biases twist the information. I’m sure that neither side is purely right or wrong, good or bad.

Eshai told us a little bit about Judaism in the Holy Land. Approximately 30 percent of Israelis are Orthodox, making them a formidable minority, particularly when the rabbis tell them to march, protest, boycott, or vote. When the Orthodox don’t want men and women sitting on the same side of the bus, they get what they want. When they want a phone plan that caters to their needs and doesn’t receive or send calls on the Shabbis, they get what they want. As for the rest of the Israelis, Eshai thinks 60 to 70 percent are observant Jews: they go to synagogue, they bar mitzvah their sons, and they light candles on Friday nights. They are half-heartedly kosher, and they’re fine driving on the Sabbath. Reform Judaism is practically non-existent in Israel, because the Orthodox Jews consider this movement ‘Christianized,’ and hardly any women have bat mitzvahs or become rabbis.

I’m fascinated. The Israel that Eshai talks about is completely different that the Israel I had constructed in my mind. For me, Judaism has always been the loving, constructive, and tolerant Judaism I have seen in my family’s synagogue. Israel existed in my mind as a country like any other, except frought with all sorts of religious tensions. I had never considered how, when Israel formed, it was a country of immigrants just like the United States, but for them, Hebrew was a second language for everyone. Before, it had only been used in religious settings. Now, they had to talk about bus fares and cell phones in an ancient language. Yaddish and Ladino became a part of the language, but there are also scholars who come up with new words all the time. Just like Americans, second or third generation Israelis have family histories that lead them back to places all over the world, and their families have food or little traditions that they’ve brought with them.

For dessert, we ate Hello to the Queen – Shalomlamalika, a dish with biscuit crumble, ice cream, chocolate sauce, and fried banana, and once we were stuffed to the gills, we walked home.


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Star Signs, The Missing Sock, and Momos

No spell-check, so you’re at my mercy πŸ™‚

October 1, 2010

This morning, we went for a run before we walked back into McLeod for our soup class with Lhamo. Both of us had dreamt strange dreams the night before, and we woke up feeling a little bit blue: a couple of times, I had woken up in the night confused. Where am I? I looked around the room for a little bit, and then I thought, oh yeah. I’m in India.

In my dreams, I don’t really remember what happened, but I do remember seeing the sky. A couple of years ago, Dave and Yvonne had taken Joshua, Sarah, and I out to some property they were considering buying. It was late in the afternoon, and the weak sunlight was just about to fall over the horizon. The sky was this milky-white color tinged with pink. The air felt cold and dry in my lungs, and I was hunching my shoulders against the chill. I remember thinking that this was the most beautiful sky I had ever seen.

We’ve lived in Tacoma and New Orleans, and although we’ve had very ambivalent feelings about both places, I’m sentimental about them. I love the Pacific Northwest; I love the candy-colored homes of New Orleans. But really, no place is home quite like Minnesota. When I feel homesick for a place, it’s for Minnesota. It’s for snow.

Done with our run, we showered and walked into McLeod past dozens of monkeys sleeping one on top of the other and grooming. I tried to remind myself that I’m in India and I love it. By the time we reached Lhamo’s kitchen, I had remembered.

There were a couple more students today: Morten from Sweden, Philo from France, and Andrea from the Canary Islands (which apparently is part of Spain. You learn something new every day.). Again, Lhamo delivered his staccato directions, and we made little dumplings for Mhutop Soup and small, square noodles for Thentuk. I’m loving working with dough. Although wheat might not be the greatest for me, I don’t think I’ll be giving it up again. Making bread, momos, noodles, and dumplings is just way too much fun.

As we ate, I asked Morten if he cross-country skied. When he looked confused, I explained that the town I had grown up in – Mora – prided itself as a Swedish community, and every year we held a Vasaloppet. We were led to believe that all Swedes ski. Morten laughed and said no. The first time he had ever skied was last year, and even then, he’d done it only once. We told him that we had been looking up Swedish geography ever since we had started reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and again, he laughed, saying he’d never read the trilogy.

After we got out of class, we walked down to Nisha’s kitchen to see if she was having the second half of her class today. No one was there, so we headed up to the Green Hotel to drink tea, read, and write. In a bit, we’ll go and see if she’s there. We want to learn how to make more Indian dishes!

September 30, 2010

We woke up early to go to the Amchi clinic. Amchi is a traditional Tibetan medicine, and the particular doctor we were going to see had once been the Dalai Lama’s own physician. Tourists and Tibetans alike go to see this doctor for both serious and not-so-serious ailments, as well as check-ups. After a urine analysis and a brief examination, the doctor will provide you with a prescription for traditional Amchi herbal medicines. Apparently, people swear by him.

We rushed to stand in line by 8 AM, taking the shorter, steeper route to McLeod, but when we arrived, a sign said that the doctor was getting older and now he only saw 60 patients a day. No one was there and the sign said regular clinic hours began at 9 AM, so we went to go check our e-mail and relax for a little bit. Back at the clinic, people were milling about, but when we saw mostly Tibetans with serious conditions, we reconsidered. Although it’s fun to find things that are more genuine – less touristy and more local – there’s fine line between abusive voyeurism and respectful participation. Neither Joshua or I have anything serious plaguing with us, and it felt wrong to take up the doctor’s time when there was so many people who obviously needed him. For them, this wasn’t a curiosity or an experiment; this is how they take care of their health.

That said, I was experiencing the most incredible stomach cramping, but the thought of sitting (or, more likely, squatting) down on a public toilet just made me more nauseous. Instead, I made Joshua walk all the way back to the guesthouse with me. We staid a little while, resting and waiting for me to feel a little bit better, and then we walked back to McLeod. Joshua brought the telephoto lens, and along the way, he took some great photos of the monkeys swinging from the branches, grooming each other, and foraging around for food. They’re cute, but they’re also a bit intimidating. We’ve heard rumors of aggressive monkeys, and if you get to close to one that’s eating or protecting its young, they bare their teeth and smack the floor with their hands. Back off!

Our first order of business in McLeod was signing up for the Dalai Lama’s seminar. Before we got in line for the passes, we had to get a couple of passport photos. Other tourists were doing the same thing, and as we waited for our the man to print and cut out our photos, we met a man from California and chatted for a little bit. He’s staying in India for a couple of months, and although he just arrived in Dharamsala, he thinks he’ll stay for a while: the Dalai Lama’s teaching, and afterwards, he wants to take a meditation course at the Tushita Mediation Center above Dharamkot. He was very friendly, and Joshua spent most the conversation secretly envying his fingered vibram shoes.

At the Tibetan Branch Security Office, we filled out a couple of forms and then got our passes for the seminar. Although the seminar itself costs nothing at all, we paid 10 rupees apiece for administrative costs. Before we left, the man in charge told us to get an FM radio: the Dalai Lama will be speaking in Tibetan, but English translation will be provided on the airwaves. We’re to bring headphones so as not to disturb others, a pillow to mark our seats, and a cup. Young monks walk through the crowds to serve tea.

Next, we walked down to the Men-Tsee-Kong, the Tibetan Medical Clinic and Astrological Center. About a mile and a half South of McLeod, the complex sits much lower on the mountain and has spectacular views of the plains below. When we got there, it was closed for lunch time.

Heading back up the road a short distance, we entered Peace Cafe where we ordered Chowmein and Fried Lamo. To drink, we sipped Slice, a soda drink in a glass bottle that basically tastes like a thick, pureed mango. While we ate, we watched (ironically) Chinese soaps on TV.

Back at Men-Tsee-Kong, we entered the Medical Museum. Inside, we browsed through rows of brightly colored pills, herbs, and minerals with little plaques that identified each and described their uses. Downstairs, we looked at enormous, detailed Tibetan paintings with the human anatomy, the blood system, the nervous system, and the solar system.

Outside, we walked by classrooms with Amchi doctors in training and other rooms with thousands of herbal pills being packaged in big cloth sacks. On the second floor of one building, we found the Astrological Center and asked about their Horoscope services.

I don’t think either Joshua or I had expected Men-Tsee-Kong to be so serious. Like everything else in McLeod, I guess we thought the museums, consultants, and astrology to be watered down for tourists. They were not. Instead, we found functioning and active centers where people come regularly to be treated, pills are made for mass export, and students go to learn. The Astrological Center was no different; for nearly 3,000 rupees, they would take the exact date and time of your birth and prepare an entire reading for you, including your personality, proclivities, strengths, and weaknesses. Most importantly, they would provide a medical timeline for you: an analysis of the ailments from your past, and prediction of ailments in the future, with the exact year and month in which you would begin to feel these ailments. The reading takes four to five months to complete, and they would send to you, wherever you are in the world.

Although I think getting an astrological reading would be fun, I wouldn’t pay that much money for it. As Joshua and I walked back to McLeod (up a big frickin‘ hill), we agreed that we wouldn’t pay more for a more legitimate astrological reading; we’re not really looking for legitimacy, we were just looking for the experience, and yet again, it felt sort of disrespectful to treat something people take so seriously as some sort of tourist novelty.

On our way back, I spied Tibet Charity. We had read their posters all over town, asking for volunteers to help with rabies vaccinations. There are hundreds of stray dogs here, and they all tug on our heartstrings: their lovely and scruffy and sometimes ugly, but none of them are aggressive with humans, and some of them will follow you along, acting as a furry guide and protector. Joshua doesn’t let me touch most of them, but sometimes – if they look particularly clean or cute – he relents. I always wash my hands afterwards, but you should see them while I scratch their ears. They look like they’ve found heaven.

On the doorstep of Tibet Charity, a lovely dog sat, guarding his territory. Joshua called him ‘Paul’ right away, and Paul rubbed up against our legs, looking for a little bit of affection. We both gave into his sweet smile and rubbed his ears. Afterwards, he led us to the offices inside.

The man behind the desk looked a little perplexed. When we told him that we were wondering how we could help, he asked us if we were vets. Sadly, we shook our heads no. Apparently, the vet he had been promised had never shown up, and although this was supposed to be the week where they would catch and vaccinate all the stray dogs, they couldn’t do it without a vet. To top it all off, no one had volunteered. They had put out 500 posters with e-mail, phone, and directions, and not a soul had volunteered until us.

He thanked us for coming. ‘There’s not really anything for you to do,’ he said, ‘but just you coming means a lot. This is a pretty thankless job. Not many people care about animals here. If you take care of children or refugees, people pat you on the back. Not with dogs. It’s good to know that there are even a couple of people who care.’

When we walked out, Paul whined goodbye. I don’t have it on me right now, but I’ll post up the Charity’s address in a couple of days. It only costs two dollars to vaccinate one dog, and I’m sure they would appreciate any help you could offer, if you’re interested.

Feeling a little blue, we finally entered the heart of McLeod. Thankfully, the day had cooled off a little bit, and our climb back hadn’t made us too sweaty. Even so, we were feeling a bit off-kilter from our strange day. It seemed like everything we tried sort of fell flat. We felt like strangers more than ever.

At Lhamo’s Kitchen, we took off our shoes and entered a small, brightly painted room. Along the edges, beautiful pillows and seats ringed a table, and at the front of the room, there was another table with pre-prepared ingredients and simple range.

Before we began, we washed our hands. We waited a couple of minutes for our teacher and the other students. At 4 PM, Lhamo started classes. It was just the two of us and another Israeli woman named Efat.

At first, we didn’t know what to make of Lhamo. He was abrupt and he repeated his instructions over and over again in heavily accented English. Every once in a while, he would look up at us and say, ‘understand?’ And we would all feel compelled to nod our heads and say, ‘yes,’ even if we weren’t quite sure what he was referring to. After a while, he cracked a smile, and once there was some down-time in the cooking, he shared a little bit about himself. He used to own a restaurant, but it was too much. He likes teaching now, and even though the money isn’t great, he just has to work four hours a day. His mother taught him how to cook in Tibet when he was young, and when he was 13, he walked for one month and 17 days to escape to Nepal. He’s been living here ever since. He grew even more animated as he talked about the upcoming elections: on Sunday, Tibetans vote for their Minister. He’s voting for the most educated man, a Tibetan who was educated at Harvard and has been living in the United States for a long time. He looked at us, considering. ‘What is the best college in the US?’ We told him that most people would probably agree that Harvard is the best. He nodded his head in satisfaction. He never went to school. In Tibet, there were no schools before he left, and by the time he came here – to Dharamsala – he was old enough to start working. He always wanted to go to school. The man he is going to vote for is very smart. He respects him a lot.

During our two-hour lesson, we learned how to make three different kinds of momos: spinach and cheese, cabbage, and sweet. The fillings are pretty basic, but we spent the most time learning how to manipulate the dough – spread it out, roll it into balls, create little pancakes, stuff them with filling and then fold them into beautiful little top-hat, origami shapes. When we had finished making about 30 momos, we steamed them for 15 minutes, and then we had a momo feast. They were delicious, and we’re already planning to have a momo party when we get back: everyone gets to help make every kind of momo under the sun, and then we’ll eat ourselves silly πŸ™‚

When we had finished with class, we signed up for another. Tomorrow, Lhamo is teaching us how to make traditional Tibetan soups. When we left, Lhamo said a warm goodbye. He’s kind of goofy, but Joshua and I are learning to with-hold judgement – at least for a little while. At first, a lot of Israelis seem mean, but once you get to know them a little better, you realize that a lot of it is cultural. They’re direct, not mean. I think it’s the same with Lhamo.

We walked back to Bhagsu and browsed around the shops for a little bit. We’ve begun to think that we may even allow ourselves some bigger purchase and post them home. It costs 50 dollars for a 5 kg. package, but even with the added cost, rugs and other fabrics would still cost less than they would at home. We’re going to look around for the best deals πŸ™‚

In one shop, a bought a couple of hippy-dippy long sleeve shirts. The nights are getting colder! As it grew dark, we bought some falafel from a street stand. Matan had recommended it, telling us that his recommendation meant a lot: he’s an Israeli and he knows falafel.

The falafel was good, and just before we finished eating, we ran into one of the women we had taken yoga class with. Amira is an older Israeli woman, and although I had found her very abrupt in class, she stopped to say hello and chat. Asking her about her life in Israel, she told us that her parents had been born in Tel-Aviv almost a hundred years ago, before Israel had been formed. Before that, they had come from Yemen. In college, she trained to become a teacher, and for the first 7 years of her career as a high school English teacher, she taught in Jaffa. As a Jew and an Israeli, this was very unusual, and her experiences there were both difficult and incredibly formative. There’s a lot of crime in poverty in Jaffa, and she’s seen many of her students fall through the cracks. We told her that we knew exactly what she meant.

When Amira invited us to join her for dinner the second time, we said yes. Walking up the Tree of Life where we had eaten the night before, Amira stopped to say hello to almost every Israeli walking by. I suspect they all know each other. One man she stopped to talk to was wearing a kippa and talit, and behind his ears, he had the long curls. Apparently, he lives here to try and bring fallen Jews back into the fold. By way of explanation, Amira told us that there is a battle for souls here in India. When I asked her if she is very religious, she wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t like being told what to believe,’ she said. I agree.

When Amira was in her 40s, she went to Columbia in NYC to get her doctorate in Education, and after she retired from teaching three years ago, she went to get her law degree. Right now, she’s traveling and trying to decide what to do. Should she teach more? Practice law?

A lot of the Israelis we’ve met are in the same place: they’ve just finished the military, and they’ve come here to figure out what to do next. When we ask people about their plans, there’s a unanimous shoulder-shrug. They’re here to find out.

Saying goodbye to Amira, we exchanged e-mail addresses and walked back to the guesthouse, absolutely exhausted. We’d easily walked over 10 miles today, and the night before, we hadn’t gotten much sleep because we had stayed up late reading and writing. Joshua finished the second book in the Millenium Trilogy, but I have yet to catch up with my writing.

September 29, 2010

For our adventure today, we walked to the Tsuglagkhang Complex. To get there, we passed through Bhagsu and McLeod. There are three roads that we can take to get to McLeod, and after 9 days, we know which one is the hardest, the longest, and the smelliest. We know which one has the best views and where we can expect to see the most monkeys. Our favorite road is the low road between Bhagsu and McLeod. It’s the longest, but it’s also the easiest stroll, and it has the most spectacular views. It’s nice to stay in one place for a little longer: you begin to recognize other travellers and locals, and they begin to recognize you. You find the best places to eat, and you can work your way through a menu, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can explore all the little trails and villages nearby, and rather than burying your nose in a map to get everywhere, you can ask for directions. ‘Next to the Green Hotel,’ means something.

Tsuglagkhang is the site of the photang, the Dalai Lama’s official residence, as well as the Namgyal Gompa and the Tibetan Museum. It sits a few hundred meters past the heart of McLeod, overlooking the valley between McLeod and Naddi. Inside the gate, we stopped to read some of the bulleitins plastered all over the walls. While most of them were written or typed in Tibetan with faces of missing loved ones, a few were written in English. In particular, one asked us to remember the Panchen Lama, a young boy who was taken by the Chinese when he was six years old and has been hidden ever since. He was the world’s youngest political prisoner, and he is now 16 years old. The Chinese refuse to reveal his location, despite pleas from political leaders and human rights activists around the world. As an important Lama, he has not only been deprived of his identity and religious education, but the Tibetan Buddhists are also missing a vital religious leader.

Sobered by the cherubic face of the Panchen Lama, we entered the main complex through a metal detector and climbed the stairs to the Namgyal Gompa. Taking off our shoes, we entered the temples and saw incredibly ornate altars. With statues of golden bodhisattvas, devis, and gurus at their center, they were wreathed with flowers, jewels, money, and boxes of food. On the walls, lovely, intricate mandalas sat amidst a Tibetan cosmos of astrology, seasons, and symbols. Ringing the temples, heavy, brass prayer wheels had the mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, embossed on their sides. By running your hand over the wheels and spinning them, it is the equivalent of saying the mantra hundreds of times. In the corner, butter lamps honor missing and lost Tibetans.

Before we explored the Tibetan Museum, we walked through the complex to find the Namgyal Cafe. In classrooms, monks in their red robes were studying and surfing the internet. In the library, the read beneath the windows. At the gate of the Dalai Lama’s home, a guard stood watch. In Namgyal Cafe, we ordered food off the fresh market menu. For the second day in a row, we had pizza. The food was wonderful, and while we ate the spinach and cheese pizza with fruit in curd (yoghurt), I typed and Joshua read. Just before we left, a group of foreign dignitaries walked in, glowing from their private meeting with the Dalai Lama. ‘Chairman, will you have a sweet lassi?’ asked someone.

In the Tibetan Museum, we paid five rupees apiece to walk through the simple, small, two-floor exhibit. On the first floor, we read about how the Chinese military led a surprise attack on Tibet’s major cities in 1949. As a part of the cultural revolution, the Chinese systematically destroyed Tibet’s religious architecture and forbade the Tibetans from openly practicing Buddhism or proclaiming allegiance to the Dalai Lama or an independent Tibet. Hundreds of lovely and culturally and religiously significant religious sites, scriptures, and artwork were reduced to rubble, and 1.2 million Tibetans lost their lives. Tibet’s natural resources were quickly devoured, and sacred lakes and forests were demolished. In an effort to eradicate the Tibetan race, the Chinese imported millions of Chinese, making the Tibetans a minority in their own country.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet overland and sought asylum in Dharamsala, India. Since then, thousands of Tibetans have followed suit, making the treacherous journey over the Himalayan mountains on foot. Many have died on the way, and others have lost fingers, toes, and limbs to frostbite. Although there have been a number of Tibetan uprisings in the past 50 years, none have been successful, and those who have protested or chosen to openly practice their religion have been detained, brutally tortured, and imprisoned for many years at a time, if not killed.

On the second floor, a small exhibit was devoted to items that prooved Tibet’s sovereignty before the Chinese invasion: currency, postage, flags, and passports. One wall provides biographies of Tibetans who have spent their lives working for the independence and autonomy of Tibet, and finally, a smiling photo of the Dalai Lama calls for peace in our time and an independent Tibet.

When we left, we were quiet. It seems that the occupation of Tibet is an unbearable irony: it is certainly true that no one would deserve this sort of oppression, but it’s even crazier that anyone would want to eradicate a people and a religion that value compassion, tolerance, and kindness above all else. In particular, I’m shaken by the story of a Buddhist nun who was detained and sexually molested for practicing her religion in public and a Buddhist monk who fled persecution and was so badly frostbitten that he lost both his legs. He says he doesn’t remember meeting the Dalai Lama, because as soon as he entered, he just began crying.

I think something must happen to people when they have power. Do they loose their humanity? Do the numbers grow so big that they can no longer appreciate one, two, or a million lives? I don’t understand, but I know that it happens over and over again, in every corner of the globe. In America, the European settlers killed off as many Native Americans as they could and then pushed the rest of them onto pitiful, barren reservations. In Ireland, first Oliver Cromwell, and then the Catholics and the Protestants found something to fight about. In Spain, they wiped out the Jews, and then they moved West, converting thousands by the sword. Sudan. Rwanda. And then, when I look around, it’s not just the people that are actively killed, but also those who are forgotten and left to die slowly from poverty, neglect, and disease. Outside of the Tsuglagkhang Complex, men and women of all ages – some missing hands and feet, some with hungry children clingling to them – beg for money, for food, for anything at all.

If you were to ask me, ‘Ellie, are people mostly good or mostly bad?’ I think I’d first tell you, ‘mostly good.’ I want to believe in our good intentions, mostly because I want to believe in my good intentions. But really, when I look around, I think there must be something very bad inside all of us as well.

After we went through the museum, we walked back up to McLeod. Stopping at the post office, we bought 104 stamps (for 28 postcards). Looking for a place to sit, we popped into the Rogpa Cafe and sat at the bar with cups of Tibetan herbal tea, tearing off stamps, licking them, and fixing them into place. When we finished, we dumped them all in a big red mail box. We hope you get them πŸ™‚

Up the road, we stopped at the chorten, a prayer room with bright red prayer wheels all along the sides. Inside, every inch of the walls and ceiling were covered in colorful paintings, and we admired the foggy view of McLeod from the rooftop. Back out on the road, we walked home as it grew dark, stopping to experiment with night photos on the way. In Bhagsu, we hopped on the internet for a little bit, and growing hungry again, we went in search of a restaurant.

At The Tree of Life, we found a lovely, cozy room painted in pink with a restful sitting area and lots of soft lighting. We sat on the patio, enjoying the company of the restaurant dogs (one was named Ellie) and eating Malai Kofta (for Joshua) and Channa Masala, a chickpea in savory sauce dish (for me), with a couple mugs of hot chai masala. When we finished we pulled out our reading and writing for a bit, and when it got too cold, we headed back to the guesthouse.

September 28, 2010

On our first morning without class, we slept in late. When we finally did wake up, we got dressed and headed for McLeod, enjoying the clear, blue sky and the sun on our backs. As we walked into town, I voted for JJI Exile Brothers. I really am in love. In fact, I plan to paint one of the rooms in our future home just like it.

For breakfast, we ordered a Tibetan Farmer’s Omlete and a JJI breakfast with tea and a piece of vegan chocolate cake. In the kitchen next store, we could hear them crack the eggs and stir the vegetables as they sizzled in the pan. It smelled wonderful, and with late morning light pouring in through the wall of windows overlooking the valley, we listened to the music sing about going down to New Orleans and laying across a big, brass bed. We read.

It turns out that Tibetan Farmer’s breakfasts are a lot like huevos rancheros, and neither of us are complaining. The food was just as delicious as it was the day before, and polished off both plates as we read. The vegan chocolate cake was AMAZING.

We read for a little while longer, and after a couple of hours, we paid and left to go on a little walk. Taking one of the only roads we haven’t explored yet, we headed in the direction of Naddi. As we walked, we passed dozens of taxi drivers taking afternoon naps with their feet propped up on the dashboard and their mouths hanging open. Gradually, we left the bustle of McLeod behind, and we wound along the side of the mountain through pine trees and stones painted with Om Mani Padme Hum. In the woods, we could hear monks chanting, and little huts had red robes hanging on the clothes line.

Three kilometers down the road, we found Dal Lake. Actually, we found the dry basin where Dal Lake was. The fenced off depression of land was empty, and in the place of glistening holy waters, there were smelly trash heaps and lots of cows shitting all over the place. A sign explained that Dal Lake is used for holy bathing in September.

A little disappointed, we continued on. Up and over a hill, we were joined by dozens of school children walking home from the school in the Tibetan Children’s Village. A couple of them sidled right up to us and stared at us with huge eyes. I asked them their names: Rahul and Ramseng. They asked us ours. I asked them how old they were, and they held up seven fingers apiece. Not knowing any more English, they just smiled and continued walking with us. When we came to their houses, they turned and waved.

On the other side of Naddi, we passed rice paddies and temples to Shiva. We reached the end of the road at a beautiful yoga center that overlooked an enormous waterfall. When we turned around, we followed women with huge bundles of laundry stacked on top of their heads, swaying gracefully down the road.

On our way back to McLeod, we stopped to admire a couple of craft shops. In one, men were cutting wood down to size for beautiful carved tchochke tables, and at the Tibetan Handicraft Showroom, we wandered through a maze of bright silks and items inlaid with turquoise and coral.

Back in McLeod, we found a little Tibetan cafe. Joshua ordered a couple of steamed cheese momos and a toffee banana (which turned out to be a breaded and deep-fried banana), and I nursed a cup of vegetable soup. As we snacked, the small cafe filled up, and a single woman sat down at the table with us. For a while, we sat without talking, but when I noticed her Spanish to English dictionary, I said hello and asked her where she was from in Spanish.

For the next hour, the two of us chatted. Juana knew about as much English as I know Spanish, so we communicated in Spanglish. An older woman from the mountains of Argentina, Juana has been living in Buenos Aires for the past 20 years. She’s a pediatrician specializing in neo-natal care, and for the next couple of months, she’s taking an intensive course in Aryuvedic medicine here in Dharamsala. She loves it here; the misty mountains remind her of where she grew up.

When we said good bye, I said, ‘encantada,’ and I left the cafe just beaming. Juana was so easy to understand, and because we both understand what it’s like to learn a language, we were both patient with one another and spoke slowly. When I get back home, I need to find a language partner just like Juana; practicing Spanish makes my day.

Before we headed for Dharamkot to make a few calls and meet up with Matan (after explaining last nights fiasco via e-mail, we had finally arranged a new time and place to meet), we stopped back at the guesthouse to pick up a few things. While Joshua called to wish Sarah a Happy Birthday, I sat and tried to catch up on my posts. Three teenage Indian boys were sitting next to me, and as soon as I took out my little laptop, they started talking loudly and gesturing at my mini piece of technology. Finally, one of them got up the gumption to ask me what they were all wanting to know: how much did it cost? 18000 rupees (400 dollars). They looked slightly appalled, but I tried to explain to them that 18000 rupees is approximately half of what you’d expect to pay for a full-size laptop. They stared at my screen. The average national income is 40000 rupees; half of that was sitting in my lap.

Feeling a bit embarrassed, I asked them their names. The boy who was speaking on everyone’s behalf told me his name is Inder Kumar Bharwaj and his two friends are both named Misnood. I told them my name, and they all tried it out, rolling the Ls off their tongue awkwardly. I asked them if they’d like to see some pictures of where I come from. They nodded their heads enthusiastically. Going into my files, I found pictures of New Orleans, and they looked at pictures of creole cottages, the French Quarter, and Oscar walking through the Marigny. When I asked them if they’d like to see some pictures from our travels, they nodded again. I flicked through images of Ireland, Spain, England, and Turkey. They were entranced.

When I had finished showing them my pictures, Inder took out his cell phone and showed me pictures of his family. ‘This is my sister,’ he said each time he came to a picture of a young woman. After a while, I said, ‘you have a lot of sisters!’ He shook his head, ‘they’re not really all my sisters, but I don’t really know what to call them.’

Once he had exhausted the photos on his cell phone, Inder pointed at my bracelet. I took it off and handed it to him. When he read the mantra outloud, I asked him to say it again, slowly so that I could write it down: Jai maa vaishnu devi, apparently this is the name of a goddess from Jammu Kashmir. I told him I would look her up. Next, Inder gave me a little pop quiz. Did I know all the Hindi gods? I told him what I knew: Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu are the big three, and Krishna is one of Vishnu’s incarnations. Inder seemed pleased with my responses, and then he made me write down all of the gods’ wives. Shiva’s wife is Parvati, and their son is Ganesh (the elephant headed god). Brahma’s wife is Salswati, the goddess of music and education. Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi, the goddess of money, and Krishna’s wife is Radha. When I messed up the spellings, Inder took the computer out of my hands and wrote them himself.

After Inder and the two Misnoods left, I kept an eye out for Matan. Joshua finished up his phone calls, and as I was saying hello and good bye to Yvonne, Matan wandered in with a little entourage of lovely Israeli girls. Packing up, we headed over to the Trek and Dine.

To eat, Joshua and I ordered a couple of (supposedly) small pizzas and Matan ordered Schnitzel and beer. The Israeli girls smoked, and when they asked me if I minded, I pulled a cigarette out of my bra. Ok. I know what you’re thinking: WHAT?! And I will explain everything: in one of Lonely Planet’s insets, they mention clove cigarettes. Apparently, they’re very popular in India, and they’re wrapped in black paper. When they’re smoked, they fizz and crackle as the cloves burn. In the US, all flavored or mixed cigarettes were banned in 2009, so the only place that you can get Djarum clove cigarettes is in India. When I saw a pack, I bought them. I’ve smoked two, but I don’t own a lighter, so I just carry one at a time with me. If I’m with someone who’s smoking, I take it out and use their lighter.

Anyway, they all thought it was hysterical when I pulled the little black cigarette out of my bra, and when I had it lit, they all wanted an experimental drag. As we waited for the food to come, Matan told us about jewelry making, cooking class, massage class, and sitar lessons. He had taken all four of them during the past four days, and this was how he had met Ola, Sevan, and Leah.

When the food and beer came, we poured six glasses and toasted, L’chaim. Over a plate of Schnitzel, humous, and Israeli salad, Matan rolled a joint and proclaimed himself a happy man. He passed the joint around and all the girls took great big pulls. When Joshua and I passed, Matan told us how to say ‘stoner and sober’ in Hebrew. I’d share it with you now, but I promptly forgot it.

Once we had stuffed ourselves silly, we moved over to the cross-legged seating. Matan showed us a video of zorbing, where two people are strapped into a great big padded ball that then rolls down an enormous hill. He said it was fun, and he was glad that the other man in the ball had waited until they had finished to throw up. Taking out cards and more rolling paper, the girls dealt while Matan rolled another joint. We learned how to play shithead (last one to go out is a shithead).

At one o’clock, the waiters began to close the restaurant. We said goodbye to Matan and the ladies, and they took a taxi back to upper Bhagsu while we walked home. Just before we got back, we heard a scuffle in the trees. Back at the restaurant, the Israeli girls had told us a story about earlier in the evening when a not-so-sane Indian gentleman had told them that there was a black panther loose in the woods. ‘You need a chaperone,’ he said. Then, looking confused, he said, ‘never mind. You can go. The black panther’s in my head.’ Shining our headlamp into the branches, we saw the wide face of red lemur. I’m just thankful it wasn’t a panther πŸ™‚

September 27, 2010

On our last day of class, we woke up early to run past Bhagsu and up through McLeod Ganj. The mornings have begun clear and blue for the past couple of days, and we had clear views of the valley and even the rocky mountains far past these green hills.

At yoga class, Sharat was missing, and his slender, Eastern European trainee led us through the asanas instead. She has the most infuriating ability to hold each pose for many minutes too long, smiling and breathing easily the whole time.

At one point, another one of Sharat’s helpers, a lovely Russian woman with a short, curly mop of hair told me that I should stay after class for some additional exercises to straighten my back. Towards the end of the session, we gradually arched our backs more and more until we were ready for the marathon of back-bend-bridges.

Sharat joined us just as we finished the last pose. Gathering us in a circle, he opened the floor for questions, sort of. Some questions were beneath him. For example, if you would like a refresher on the order of asanas, you should have taken notes, and no, he will not repeat them. Is there another center or teacher he might recommend? No. None are qualified. He is a one man show. Are there any books that might help? No. Use your notes from this course. The more he talked, the more amazed I became that the hall could even contain his enormous ego. His incredibly inflated opinion of himself seemed to seduce some, but I was just irritated. To commemorate our experience, Joshua bought a t-shirt that said, ‘My body is my temple, and the asanas are my prayers.’ I can barely write it without rolling my eyes.

Before we left, I stopped to talk with Alona, the Russian yoga teacher. She was very kind, and she gave me a couple of exercises to improve my posture. As she was instructing me, another woman came over to thank her, and expressed amazement at how much the course had changed her. Apparently, her perspective had ‘done a 180,’ and her body felt miles better than it had when she first started. Alona said, ‘yes, I have seen a certain ease from you when you walk. You have had the second most impressive transformation. This young girl (she pointed at me) has had the most impressive. When she began, her shoulders were up to here (she pantomimed Quasimoto). Now she stands like this (she threw her shoulders back and walked tall).’

I am perplexed. Although I’d say that I feel no different and I certainly did not find a calling of any sort, I had the most impressive transformation? After a couple of days, Sharat had showed me how to hold my hands behind my back to force my shoulders out, and I had been trying to stand and walk in that posture since. He had told me that if I tried to hold myself like that for six months to a year, I would gain the muscles to do it naturally. Apparently, it was already making a difference.

Back at the hostel, we quickly packed a our day bag and headed into McLeod Ganj. For lunch, we ate at a little restaurant called JJI Exile Brothers. As soon as we walked in, I was in love. The room is small and cozy, and the walls are painted a vibrant orange. The menus are handwritten and decorated with colorful sketches, and the soundtrack played music from the 60s: Bob Dylan, Burt Jansch, Skip James, Chuck Berry… On a pin board, there were pictures of the Dalai Lama receiving rock and roll artists. In college, I took a course entitled ‘Buddhism and the Beats.’ The course reincarnated itself right here in this one-room cafe. I love it, and the food was delicious. We drank tea and gobbled up chowmein and Tingmo (steamed bread) on a bed of stewed vegetables.

At 2:45, we beat a quick exit: Indian Cooking Class started at 3:00. On the opposite side of town, we walked into the Taste of India and found the teacher and our one other classmate, Daniella from Israel (where else?). As we introduced ourselves, we followed Nisha, the cook, down to a room in the guesthouse next door outfitted with a kitchen.

Because there were only three of us, Nisha canceled class for tomorrow and told us we could come back on Friday if we wanted the second half. Although that was disappointing, we should be able to return on Friday, and for today, it meant that we could ask as many questions as we liked.

To start, Nisha showed us how to make Aloo Gobi, the simplest dish on the menu. Aloo is potato, and gobi is cauliflower. For all of the recipes, she used an assortment of spices common to North Indian food: cardamom, clove, fennugreek, nutmeg, cinnamin, cumin, tumeric, corriander, red chilli powder, and garam masala. Aloo Gobi is simply a mixture of some of these spices sauteed with potatoes, cauliflower, ginger, and garlic.

The second dish was Palak Paneer. Palak is spinach, and Paneer is cheese. To begin, Nisha showed us how to make paneer. First, you boil milk, and then you add lemon juice. Once the curd and whey separate, you drain the curd in a cloth and press it with weights: voila! Paneer! For the sauce (palak), you combine spinach puree, tomato puree, and a variety of spices. Just before you serve, you add cream and butter.

The third dish was Dal Makhani. Dal is lentils, and Makhani is butter. After soaking and boiling a mixture of lentil and kidney beans, you add spices and milk. In another pan, you fry garlic, ginger, and onions, and then you add the fry to the dal. Once again, before you serve, you add cream and butter. More basic dal dishes exclude the dairy, and ‘Fry Dal’ just means that you’ve added separately fried spices.

Before Nisha made the Malai Kofta, she prepared the dough for Chapati. A simple mixture of flour, salt, oil, and water, it took almost no time at all to measure, mix, and knead into a large roll to rest. After 30 minutes, she separated the roll into smaller balls, rolled them with a rolling pin, and then cooked them like pancakes on a griddle until they bubbled on each side. Once they were cooked, she plopped them on the open flame for a couple of seconds so that the air inside expanded and made them puff out (my favorite part).

Finally, Nisha prepared Malai Kofta. Malai means cream, and Kofta means dumpling. The most labor intensive recipe thus far, Nisha suggested that we stretch out the preparation of this meal over the course of two days. First, we needed to prepare onion paste, white paste, and a cinnamon mix. For onion paste, you sautee onions and then puree them in a blender with water. For white paste, you grind pumpkin seeds, cashews, and poppy seeds together, and for the cinnamon mix, you combine cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Next, you combine all three with other spices and a tomato puree for the Malai sauce. To prepare the koftas, you take plain mashed potatoes and roll them into dumpling sized balls. Then, you take a mixture of crumbled paneer, raisins, cashews, cinnamon, and coconut and roll them into smaller sized balls. Pressing your thumb into the potato balls, you fill them with the cheese mixture and then smooth the potato over so that the potato is completely surrounding the inside of cheese. Next, you deep fry the potato-cheese dumplings. To finish the sauce, you add cream and butter, and then you pour the sauce over the dumplings to serve. Be prepared for your dinner guests to swoon, propose, and then fall asleep, satisfied and drooling like little babies.

As Nisha cooked, she dictated the recipes. We took copious notes, complete with precise measurements, times, etc. She was perfect, and the smells were intoxicating. For a second, we regretted eating anything at all prior to class, but really, we could have been eating all day and still had room for this feast. We ate it all, spewing gratitude and amazement the entire time. Nothing has ever tasted that good. Nisha smiled and sat with us. She told us about her life: she’s been teaching cooking classes for 13 years. In the corner, a map of the world is covered in tacks. Each tack represents the home of one or a hundred of her students (Israel has just one tack, but Nisha was able to translate most of her lesson into Hebrew.). There were even tacks stuck in Antarctica; three women who live and work there had come for vacation and taken Nisha’s class. It was wonderful to think of all the kitchens across the world that were cooking Nisha’s dishes.

Nisha told us about the other food she knows how to cook: South Indian, dishes from Mumbai, her home, and everywhere in between. She loves dishes with coconut and fish. Her family is spoiled; they don’t like her experimental meals, and they want her to cook the same way she has for the last 20 years.

I was fascinated when Nisha told us about arranged marraige. She explained that women are becoming more and more educated and independent. In the city, it’s not uncommon for couples to live together before they’re married. Elsewhere, there are now options. It used to be that arranged marraige was the only way, but now, young people may request a specific mate (which would then be arranged through their families) or they may ask their parents to arrange a marriage for them. In a graceful compromise between the old traditions and new, Nisha explained that while some people prefer to choose their mates, other young people are not as confident or brave; they need help. While her oldest son is comfortable choosing his wife, her younger is not. She will look at ads in the paper or on-line to select a suitable wife for him, and once she has found a good woman, they will all work together – mothers, sons, daughters, and fathers – to see if everyone is in agreement.

I was fascinated, and I found Nisha’s explanations very humane and open-minded. Why shouldn’t families be involved in such an important decision? Once her sons are married, they’ll all live together in a huge family home. They’ll only split up if they have to find work elsewhere. I felt so honored to have Nisha share her stories with us, and when we left, we were smiling, happy, and full.

On our walk back to Dharamkot, Joshua got a gut-ache. We stopped at the Green Hotel to check the Internet, and while I answered a couple of e-mails, Joshua used the bathroom (for 45 minutes). When he got back, he told me he was in a bad way, and by way of an explanation, he pulled up the ankles of his pants. One of his socks was ominously missing. We walked back home as quickly as we could, Joshua clutching his abdomin and groaning as we went. Once we were within sight of the hostel, he was almost at a run. He made it just in the nick of time. His punishment for drinking and eating plenty of unpasteurized dairy products was swift and furious; by the time he was through, he was exhausted.

Although we had planned to meet up with Matan that evening, Joshua wasn’t quite up to it. Once I was certain that Joshua was tucked in and a bit more comfortable, I headed off to Bhagsu by myself, meeting up with Eshai and Hadas along the way. Just as we got into Bhagsu, the power cut out, and the valley went dark. There was no way I would be able to find Matan’s guesthouse in the dark, so I headed back to Joshua, letting the moon light my path.

As soon as I got back, the power came on. Feeling a little bit better, Joshua decided he needed something to settle his stomach, and we turned right back around and headed for Bhagsu. Once we were there, we asked around, trying to find Matan’s guesthouse, but no one knew where it was. Finally, we gave up, hoping he wasn’t waiting for us somewhere, and walked back to the guesthouse, munching on cashew cookies.

September 26, 2010 cont’d

After we finished lunch on the terrace in Bhagsu, we walked to McLeod Ganj. After reading through the Lonely Planet and seeing all the other classes that we could take, we had decided to forgo another week of yoga classes. While both of us had enjoyed learning something new, neither of us had fallen in love with yoga. In particular, Joshua wanted to find a cooking class.

The walk from Bhagsu to McLeod Ganj rings the mountain, and as we walked, we passed restaurants, shops, and houses stacked on top of one another with rebar sticking out of the rooftops, prepared for future additions. In the street, monkeys, cows, and stray dogs scavanged for food scraps in the gutter and around sprawling trash heaps. At curves where the trees break for majestic views, Hindu and Buddhist temples have been built and painted in bright, lively colors.

In McLeod, we wandered down a new street, looking for the cooking classes recommended to us by Lonely Planet. McLeod Ganj is loud and more touristy, and the roads are filled with motorcycles and autorickshaws that honk their horns obnoxiously as they’re passing by: I’m here! Get out of my way!

At the Taste of India restaurant, we found Nisha, the owner and cooking instructor, and we signed up for classes the next day. For 800 rupees per person, we will attend two three hour long classes on two consecutive days. During the first class, Nisha will cook a series of dishes: aloo gobi, palak paneer, malai kofta, and chapati. On the second day, she’ll cook four more. At the end of each session, the class gets to eat the feast she’s just made. Nisha told us to bring our notebooks and pencils: she’ll be dictating the process and recipes as she goes along.

When we left the restaurant, Joshua was practically salivating with anticipation; palak paneer and malai kofta have been his favorite dishes so far, and tomorrow, we’ll learn how to make them! It’s almost too good to be true! Oh my god!

Relishing our good fortune, we continued wandering. One sign advertising aryuveda courses caught my interest, and we went in to inquire. A very eager, handsome Indian man sat us down and explained the program. While he could parse down the course to 3 days, 5 days is best. During the two to three hour long classes each day, he would walk us through head, face, neck, back, legs, and feet massage techniques and we would practice on one another.

We left, saying we would think about it. With so many classes available, it’s hard to make a commitment. We’re worried that there might be something better and cheaper just around the corner. Also, Joshua had made things very clear: his priority is learning how to cook all the fabulous things we’ve been eating.

After wandering around for a bit longer, we headed back up to the Green Hotel for a piece of cake and some tea. As usual, the carot and banana cakes were divine, and we slowly devoured every last crumb. While Joshua read, I finished writing and addressing postcards. Meanwhile, the old man in purple who had invited us to the Karmapa Lama event trembled and hobbled by the tables on his cane, stopping occasionally to share some apocalyptic tidbit with customers. At one point, he encountered a quiet couple with similarly intense religious convictions. Rather than celebrating their zealous kinship, they began a tense religious debate. Thankfully, I couldn’t hear everything, but it was pretty clear that while the old man in purple was crusading on behalf of the Buddha and his lamas, the couple were proclaiming the salvation of Jesus Christ. Joshua and I shuddered in discomfort as their volume grew, and eventually, the old man in purple was reduced to stamping his cane tremulously on the ground and chanting, ‘deadhead! I will never follow someone who is dead! You’re a deadhead!’

Joshua and I quickly paid, fairly tripping over ourselves as we made for the exit. One of my favorite movies is called An Unfinished Life, and before you ask, yes. J.Lo is in it. Anyway, so are Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman, both men I would probably have to consider leaving Josh for, despite their considerable ages. In one scene, Robert Redford is telling his granddaughter that she must be polite to all the guests or visitors on his ranch, ‘except for those people trying to sell their angle on God. There’s no excuse for that bullshit.’ At first, I appreciated this quip for its comic value, but more and more, I agree with the sentiment. Our relationships with God and religion are so personal, and while they might give rise to powerful and meaningful communities, I think the decision to participate needs to be made without force or pressure. I grow very impatient with efforts to convert or proselytize. I think they are more divisive than nurturing or loving.

As the light began to dim, the two of us walked back to Dharamkot. At the Radha Krishna Restaurant, we went out to sit on the pillowed terrace overlooking the valley. Unlike some cross-legged seating, this spot was clean, comfortable, and had a lovely, panoramic view. Above, lights in paper oragami shapes glowed in pleasant pinks and yellows. We ordered Vegetable Kofta and Vegetable Kohlpari with Mint Tea.

While we waited, we cracked open our books to read. I tried to pay attention to the page, but the group on the opposite corner of the terrace were discussing reincarnation a little too loudly. Apparently, on their meditation retreats, they had seen the faces of ‘dirty, third world children’ in their deepest trances. And they just KNEW that these were the faces of their past lives. One of the other women sighed in jealousy. ‘I so want to see my past lives,’ she said, ‘I go to the gurus and the yogis, the mind readers and the mystics, and I just want them to tell me everything. I only have a month in India, tell me my fate! Tell me my past! I want to know who I’ve been and how I might be released!’ The wiser, a verbose and languidly posed New Zealander, said wisely, ‘you have such spirt, my child. You’re on the right path.’

The stars were out, and the food was delicious. While we gobbled up savory sauces and vegetables, sauteed and pattied, we listened to what it was like to be a bird: ‘I soared and dipped over the mountain tops with such assuredness. Where has all that confidence gone?’ the man asked wistfully.

Their conversation veered towards this life, where they had lied and cheated, stolen and left their husbands and wives. They’d traveled the world in search of something, and at last, they hoped to find it here. At last, a contentedness and a sense that all is well, that they are worthy and they have made the right journey… Who or what could give that to them? The men and women in red? Those who have fled and live in exile? Yogis in their contorted positions? Perhaps a woman with cards in symbols of death, life, and rebirth.

Feeling squarer than ever and roughly anti-existential, we paid and left. Perhaps we’re both brand new, and neither of us have the baggage that comes with remembering ourselves as ‘dirty, third world children’ or birds with able wings. I sound catty, but if I’m honest, I think I can identify with their dislocation. With privilege and money, we have so much time on our hands and so little connection to the stuff of survival: food, family, shelter, and the HOME that is made when we make those connections. Instead, I think we search and envy even ‘dirty, third world children’ for their rootedness. I don’t mean to sound like a poor little rich girl, but I am acknowledging that wealth and satisfaction don’t always go hand in hand. Spiritual tourism has always made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, but I’m not sure what the alternatives are. There is certainly a chance that we abuse the cultures we wish to observe and learn from, but perhaps it isn’t all bad. I don’t know.


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More Yoga

September 26, 2010

We slept in. Last night, I gave Rajjis our laundry, and with nothing to run in, we let ourselves sleep. When we woke up, we talked about our options. Initially, we had thought we might take another week’s worth of yoga classes, but now that we had seen so many other classes, we weren’t sure. In the end, we decided to look around. We’re hoping for some cooking classes, and maybe we’ll try a different kind of yoga, too.

In the courtyard of HIYC, I braided Hadas‘ hair, and we waited for someone to tell us to come into the hall. Sharat came out and told us to be quiet: the advanced students were coming out of a long relaxation/ meditation pose, and they were on a different plain than us.

Inside, we set up and ran through the poses as usual. I found myself even more rebellious than usual. When Sharat told me to be calm, to relax, to empty my mind, I found myself asking, Why? I know everyone says it’s important to be present, to calm your thoughts, to empty your mind. But I just don’t know if I agree. I don’t feel beset by an active mind or too many thoughts. I don’t feel exhausted. I like my daydreams. I like my thoughts. I don’t want to be an empty vessel, and even though people say this means I might not be present, I’m here. I’m enjoying myself.

Perhaps I’m not as enlightened.

For lunch, Joshua and I packed a little bag with the computer and our books, and we walked into Bhagsu. Right now, we’re eating lunch on a garden terrace overlooking McLeod’s valley, and the wonderful waiter has given us Aloo Palak and Shahi Paneer with Paranath (a soft chapati with onions baked in). Behind us, the autorickshaws are beeping their horns and motoring over the potholes. I’m not sure what we’ll do for the rest of the day.

September 25, 2010

We woke up early again to run. This time, we took the road to Triund. The hill was a bit more gradual this time, but we’re beginning to expect that a thirty minute run here will inevitably include 15 minutes up hill and 15 minutes down hill. They don’t really do flat here.

On our run, we watched little Indian children walk to school. Tiny little boys were wearing pants with belts and button-up shirts with ties. They were adorable πŸ™‚ Back at the guest house, we changed and headed up the stairs to yoga.

With each progressive day, we move a little bit faster, and we’re able to do a few more asanas. Even so, Iyengar yoga – or, at least, Sharat – believes in hold each pose for at least a few minutes. It may be slow, but that doesn’t mean there’s no strain; my shoulders are so weak, I can barely hold them out for more than three minutes at a time.

Today, we did the usual poses, but instead of bending forward and touching our toes (ha!), we did a succession of backward bends. At first, we lay on our back, next we used a chair to bend over, and after that, we were ready to put our hands up by our necks, flex our butts and lift up. Move your butts! Sharat says. We had to do backwards bridge 20 times. The woman next to me was serene the whole time; I grunted and grimaced and tried not to complain.

Once we had bent our backs into submission, we tried a new upside-down asana. This one is called the plough because you stand on your shoulders and then bend your legs over a bench over your head like an ‘L.’ Theoretically, someone could grab hold of your feet and use your head to plow the ground. This one didn’t hurt quite as much as the plain shoulder stand because there’s not quite as much pressure on the neck, but my feet fell asleep. Right around the time Sharat was telling us to ‘feel the peace,’ I was praying for him to tell us we could come out of the pose.

Yoga ended in Namaste, and we went back to the guest house for another lunch by Rajjis. Before we headed to the rooftop, I took a shower and we gathered our postcards. As we watched the heavy mist play peek-a-boo with the mountains, we wrote. Although I enjoy the process of selecting, buying, assigning, and sending postcards, I haven’t quite found the right informative yet quippy style. There’s so little space! A couple of times, I began to write something and then I read over it. It made no sense, but it was in pen, so it’ll have to do.

Eshai and Hadas came up to join us again for lunch. Eshai wasn’t feeling well, and Sharat had made him take some spices to settle his stomach. Nevertheless, he was still smiley and chatty, and after lunch, we played Takki (which is a lot like UNO) for an hour or so.

That morning, I had woken up fretting about my Tibetan-Kimono thingy. When I had tried it on again to show Joshua, I had noticed it was a little tight in the shoulders. I’m skinnier now than I usually am in the US, and I don’t want it to be too small to wear back at home. Joshua – the patient and kind husband that he is – agreed to walk back to McLeod to exchange it for a slightly bigger size.

Back in McLeod, all the stalls were still open. I exchanged the wrap without any fuss, and after, we walked the streets just browsing. We finally found something we thought Sarah might like, and I also found a lovely bracelet: it’s gold, and it has a hindi mantra for mothers written on it. The man told me he would sell it to me for 100 rupees. I didn’t say anything, and he dropped it to 80. Joshua looked at him and said, I have 60. So I got the bracelet for a little more than a dollar.

At another stall, we found a pair of brass rings, and now Joshua and I are staining the middle finger of our right hands slightly green. We bought a couple more postcards, and Joshua found an inexpensive and incredibly soft Tibetan shawl. We walked back to Dharamkot before we could spend any more.

As we climbed the hill, a few school children were making their way home. A couple girls were walking right behind us, and when I heard them breathing hard, I told them that made me feel much better: if they live here and climbing this hill is still hard, I’m not so pathetic. They laughed and told me it’s always hard. We exchanged names and talked about how cute small monkeys are.

In Dharamkot, we selected one of the only remaining restaurants. We’ve eaten at most of the others. At The Friendly Planet, we discovered a limited Indian menu, and although I ordered a Palak spinach dish, there was nothing green on my plate. We weren’t too impressed.

Afterwards, we went in search of an Internet Cafe so Joshua could call his dad, and on the way, we ran into one of our yoga-mates buying a coconut, tearing off the hair, and trying to figure out how to get the coconut milk out. I was so enchanted with the idea of a real, fresh coconut, I bought one too.

While Joshua called, I read, and when he had finished, we headed back to the guest house. In the kitchen, Eshai and Hadas were eating dinner, and went to find Rajjis to see if he had any pointers on cracking open my coconut. Using an allen-wrench, he punctured the top, and we drained the coconut water into a couple of cups. I gave him and his friends a couple of the cups, and we lifted them, opa! Lechaim! Cheers! Once we had drank it all, Rajjis cracked the coconut on a stone. I gave them some of the flesh in thanks, and then I headed back to the kitchen to talk with Eshai and Hadas and pick apart my coconut. We drank some tea, and when it got late, we headed off to bed.

September 24, 2010

We woke up a little earlier to run before yoga. Heading uphill, we met the main road and headed in the direction we had never been. Running downhill, we met a village and a couple of monkeys, and after 15 minutes, we arrived in McLeod Ganj. We didn’t realize where we were until we arrived in the city center; the road loops around a steep hill, and on one side, McLeod Ganj over looks a cloud-filled valley. On the other side, Dharamkot and Bhagsu work their way up a mountain side. I’m still not sure where Dharamkot ends and Bhagsu begins… Either way, you arrive in one of them whether you turn West or East in McLeod Ganj.

Running back up the hill towards our guest house, we huffed and puffed. It’s quite a climb when you’re just walking, so we were exhausted by the time we had reached the top. At one point, we ran by a large monkey, and Joshua said hello. The monkey bared its teeth and slapped the rock next to him, and Joshua received an extra burst of energy to sprint up ahead.

Back at the guest house, we change for yoga and walked over to the HIYC. The courtyard is lovely; with a temple, green gardens, and freshly painted dorms, halls, and bathrooms, the place is a little oasis of calm. People walk about in their Aladdin pants and hemp bracelets, wishing each other Namaste, and inside, you can hear Sharat telling the advanced class that their breath is centered, their faces are relaxed, and they have achieved relaxation by letting go.

We sat and chatted with Eshai and Hadas while we waited, and after a few minutes, one of Sharat’s helpers told us to come in and set up our mats very quietly. It wasn’t until I was sitting cross-legged on my green mat that I noticed Sharat lying with his feet casually crossed on the wall above him, resting on his shoulders, and sleeping deeply. One by one, each of us settled onto our mats, and the helpers nervously twittered around Sharat. I think they must have had to pull straws to decide who would be the one to wake him.

The lovely helper with a curly mop of hair and smart glasses drew the short straw, but when Sharat awoke, he didn’t seem perturbed. He fell out of his pose with an agile somersault and looked out at the ready class, surprised. He told us good morning.

We began by bending at the butt and resting our wrists on bars. I’m no good at this; I have zero flexibility in my hamstrings. Next, we moved to standing poses. I’m fine at these unless there’s bending required (again, my hamstrings) or we have to hold out our arms for long, extended periods of time. I take back my words from yesterday: it’s not that yogis don’t hold any stock in ‘pain is gain,’ it’s that they choose to subdue the pain and pretend it’s not there. No gritting teeth aloud. As you might predict, I’m REALLY no good at this.

Next, we moved to poses where we tuck our feet under our butts and arch backwards. With hips that are as happy in socket as out, I’m fine at these. We did a couple of twisty poses with bands to make us twist more, and I discovered a little lower back rigidity; Joshua discovered that he was a model of perfection. I think he may have even got a thumbs-up from Sharat.

We moved into the shoulder wall stand pose. Although Sharat and his little helpers say this is the most important pose, it’s also the pose that hurts the most. You’re supposed to situate yourself so that all of your body weight is centered on your shoulders and your back is straight. This means that you have to have pads and blankets under your head and shoulders, but even then, it feels like my neck is about to snap. We lay there, propped up like that for 10 excruciating minutes. Relax your face, says Sharat, breath deeply. No wrinkled foreheads. Yeah, right.

It’s all down hill after the shoulder stand. Honestly, I don’t even really remember what else we do. We lay contorted in some position and listen to Sharat telling us how calm we are. I fantasize about lunch. Finally, he tells us to sit up, Namaste, pick everything up and put it away.

Back at the guest house, we arrange for a lunch of Thali made by Rajjis. Up on the rooftop, we sit and admire the view of the enormous, tree-filled mountains, and we chat with Eshai and Hadas. I ask them how they think it changes their culture to have a mandatory three year draft. Does it make Israelis militant? Is that why I’ve sometimes found them abrupt?

Eshai has lots to say about this. Yes, he says. Chutspah, Hadas says. Israelis are direct, because in the military, you learn to say exactly what you mean. There is no fuss, no pretension. There are lives at stake. When you are 18, you are made to stand guard. You are given a weapon, taught how to fire it, and then told that you hold the lives of your friends in your hands as you keep guard. It’s a great amount of responsibility, and it changes you. It changes everyone. Eshai says that the military is that one common experience that draws Israelis together. It teaches them morals and an ethic, and even now, he is a part of the reserves and he will be until he is forty.

I found this all fascinating. It’s so strange to think of a country that is so young and so small. They are able to speak about their history in terms of three generations: how their grandfathers behaved, how their fathers changed, and how they’ve reacted.

Lunch was delicious: Rajjis even made the stir-fried vegetables to order, without cauliflower in them for me. Afterwards, we parted ways again, and Joshua and I walked to McLeod Ganj.

At Peace House Coffee, Joshua ordered a piece of brownie cake, a grilled cheese and vegetable sandwich, and a lassi. I shared his cake and ordered a hot lemon honey and ginger tea. The cake was warm and moist and incredible. While I read The Waterless Flood (I love this book by Margaret Atwood. It’s both apocolyptic and funny.), Joshua wrote e-mails and surfed the web.

Once we had finished, we went in search of a birthday gift for Sarah. The temporary stalls were starting to close for the evening, but we still had a couple of hours before everything was locked up. While nothing screamed ‘Sarah!’ we found quite a bit that screamed ‘buy me instead,’ and we spent our time trying on inexpensive, handmade clothing. I fell in love with a Tibetan kimono-like wrap with bell buttons, and it took me three different shops to find the right size and price. Joshua bought a pair of soft pants for yoga and laundry days, and he also found a couple of great t-shirts. My favorite is pale, bright blue with an orange graphic of Ganesh, the elephant god.

A few hundred rupees poorer and still no gift for Sarah, we racked up on postcards for a mass send-out, and located a Tibetan restaurant for dinner. I ordered Thukpa and tea, and Joshua ordered a fried noodle dish. The Thukpa looked and tasted a lot like Pho, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the Thukpa we had had in Leh. When we’d finished, laid out all of the postcards and began our selection. This is one of my favorite parts; we try and figure out who would like what best, or which one reminds us most of someone.

We walked back to our guest house in the dark. Joshua has regained his appetite in full, so before we left the shops of McLeod, he bought a Snickers, and I looked curiously at the cigarette selection. I had heard of the clove cigarettes that were so popular, and I wanted to know which ones popped and fizzled as the cloves burned. The shop keeper told me, and then he asked us if it was true that Americans needed to pay the government in order to grow vegetables in their own back yard. We laughed and told him no, but as I walked away, I thought: you know what? I bet the big agro-businesses would love that. What a scary thought.

Back at the guest house, we read for a little bit more and then fell asleep with our books resting on our chests. I have to say: this is the life πŸ™‚


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Yoga Time in Dharamkot

September 23, 2010

I am a yoga ignoramus. Seriously. What I know about yoga might fill a thimble, but don’t hold your breath. Before this morning, here is what I could tell you about yoga:

1) There is something called ‘Sun Salutations.’ I did them with Caitlin on the beach in Oregon. It involved lifting your hands up to the sky, some kind of lunge action, twisting your body, and then maybe arching your back?

2) When I did the ‘Sun Salutations,’ my body was really irritated with me for trying to roll my shoulders back and stand upright. After a couple of decades of some serious slouching, ‘opening up my lungs’ actually makes me feel short of breath. Ironic, I know.

3) Yoga is a series of postures that are supposed to do… Something. I’m not really sure what. I’ve heard some New-Agey gibberish about aligning chakras and securing purity of mind, body, and soul, but what the hell does that mean? Will somebody please speak plain English?

4) Yoga falls in this no-man’s land between exercise and ‘relaxation.’ I’m not sure if you’re following me, but I was always pretty sure that exercise and relaxation sat on opposite sides of the spectrum. I’m especially confused because I don’t think yoga is particularly rigorous or invigorating, and yet people who do yoga have these incredibly toned bodies. Will someone please explain?

5) Lots of yuppies like yoga; I’m not sure why. Women wearing natural fibers particularly enjoy carrying their yoga mats from Whole Foods to yoga class.

6) Yoga comes from India, and it’s part of a whole philosophy/lifestyle. I don’t know what the philosophy is, and I don’t know about the lifestyle either.

7) Yup. That’s about it.

Here are some of the reasons (assumptions) why I’ve always been pretty sure yoga and I won’t mix:

1) It’s not strenuous. As I may have mentioned (over and over again), I prefer things to be strenuous.

2) Most people who do yoga seem pretty in-tune with their bodies. The ‘pain is gain’ philosophy doesn’t really seem to apply here.

3) Most people who do yoga are either not very goal oriented, or if they are, consider ‘relaxation’ a goal.

4) It requires a degree of flexibility.

After my first yoga class ever, here is what I have learned:

1) I’m square (as in, “she’s square.”).

2) Iyengar Yoga and Hatha Yoga are on one side of the spectrum; while these two concentrate on slow, precise movements, Ashtanga Yoga tends to be faster and less precise. And on that note, there are a ton of different kinds of yoga. They all have different philosophies and movements, but I’m not sure what they are.

3) Yoga postures are called ‘asanas.’

4) It is very important to make miniscule movements such as ‘stretching out your toes,’ ‘pushing through your heels,’ and ’tilting your pelvis.’

5) Iyengar Yoga uses props like blocks of wood, stacked blankets and pillows, bands, and ropes.

6) Most yoga follows a certain structure: you begin with standing asanas, move to kneeling or sitting asanas, somewhere in there you try to stand on your head, and then you move to relaxation poses where you try (unsuccessfully, if you’re me) to relax every muscle in your body.

7) Sharat Arora, our teacher, learned from Iyengar himself. I think he might sort of be a big deal.

8) You shouldn’t eat or drink anything before you do yoga in the morning; you should go to the bathroom first; you should wear warm enough clothes.

Here is what I’d like to know:

1) Why am I doing this? No. Seriously. I’m not trying to be snarky; obviously, I’m here, and I’m curious, but I’d really like to know why people do this. I’d like a better explanation than ‘purification’ or ‘alignment.’ What am I purifying? Why? What am I aligning? Why?

2) What are all the different kinds of yoga? Why are they different? What’s different about them?

3) what is the purpose of different asanas?

4) How does yoga fit into Indian cultural and religious history? What are yogis?

***

We woke up just before 9 AM, and headed over to the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center (HIYC). In the courtyard, we waited with the other beginning students, and the Center’s dogs came around, sniffing for food and begging for pets. We introduced ourselves to a couple who sat next to us and discovered that they’re living in the room right behind us. Eshai and Hadas are Israeli and recently married. We talked a little about what we planned to do in India, and then Sharat came out.

Sitting in a circle, we all patiently waited while Sharat shuffled through our registration papers, pausing to read excerpts here and there. After a bit, he began to call out our names and ask us about any medical conditions we had listed. Going around the circle, we heard about our new classmate’s sore backs, knees, and necks. A few of the students had been in serious car accidents; there were slipped discs, fused ankles, torn ligaments, and knee surgeries. One woman had stepped off the bus on her way here to pee off the side of the road, and in the dark with her pants down, she had fallen down the hill. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘I had a heckuva time gettin‘ here.’

About two-thirds of the class are Israeli. When one of them doesn’t understand Sharat’s English, a few of them look over and offer alternate translations in Hebrew. Sharat commented on a couple of names saying, ‘that’s an Israeli name I’ve not heard before.’ There is one Indian man, maybe a couple of Europeans, and the rest of us are American. I think there might be about 30 in the class.

When we finished publicly airing our various ailments, Sharat ordered us into the hall. Taking off our shoes, we went inside. The room is lovely; with concrete yellow floors and walls, a wooden ceiling and lots of paper-globe lights, and plenty of windows, the place is airy and welcoming. We all picked a green mat lying on the floor.

Standing on an elevated stage, Sharat instructed us how to stand correctly. We stretched our toes and pushed our heels. We measured the distance between our feet. We practiced maybe 4 or 5 different standing asanas, and as we moved, his assistant teachers came around to correct our postures. I still felt strangely out of breath when I rolled my shoulders back and stood up straight.

A thin, small European woman demonstrated a couple of the sitting, laying, and upside down asanas, and we watched as she easily contorted her body into the various positions. When we tried, I was not nearly so flexible. Apparently, the most important asana was the one where we built up a pad with blankets next to the wall, lifted our legs above our heads, and used a band to keep our elbows together. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and my neck hurt the whole time.

During the final asana, a relaxation pose, a couple people fell asleep and started snoring. I just lay there, listening to Sharat tell me to relax my eye-sockets thinking, ‘well how the fuck do you do that?’ Finally, Sharat told us to sit up, Namaste, we should go away a feel more relaxed and energized; see you tomorrow at 9:30 AM.

We put away all the props, put on our shoes, and walked out of the hall. No one really talked. I tried to figure out if I felt both relaxed and energized. I think that might be a nice feeling, but I’m pretty sure I have no idea how to identify it. The class had been 3 hours long, and I didn’t have strong feelings either way: I wasn’t in love, and I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t really know what to think.

Back at our guest house, we changed clothes and headed back outside to find some food. We ran into Eshai and Hadas on our way out and decided to all eat together at a local restaurant just a little bit down the road. Once we got there, Hadas gave us some pointers on Indian food: ‘paneer‘ is cheese, ‘aloo‘ is potato, ‘gobi‘ is cauliflower (and therefore, satan), ‘palak‘ is spinach, ‘dal‘ is lentils, ‘korma’ is coconut-y, and chapati is like naan but thinner and dryer. I copied Hadas and ordered thali, a plate of rice with a side of dal, mixed curry vegetables, and curd (yogurt), and Joshua and Eshai ordered mali kofta, potato in a savory red sauce. The food was delicious, and while we ate, we talked about our weddings and religion.

Eshai and Hadas got married a couple of months ago. They met two years ago at ‘a spiritual retreat at the Dead Sea’ and ‘fell in love at first sight.’ Eshai proposed in Rome, but Hadas thinks that he waited too long. At their wedding, they had 300 people, and all they were all in some way related. After their reception, they had the ceremony, and after that, they jumped in a pool with all of their wedding finery on. The rest of the celebration was a pool party.

While Eshai is an atheist, Hadas ate a relatively kosher meal, foregoing any dairy. Eshai believes religion is a tool of manipulation, but Hadas didn’t look so sure. While Eshai and Joshua chatted about their jobs, I asked Hadas a little more about her family. Her mother moved to Israel from Iraq when she was only 1, but both her mother and father spoke in Arabic as their secret language. At Shabbat, they sang the prayers in both Arabic and Hebrew. Of course this was normal for Hadas, but as she told me, all sorts of assumptions were crumbling in my head. I had always considered ‘Arab’ and ‘Jew’ two opposing identities, but apparently, that’s untrue.

After chatting for a while, we paid the bill and went our separate ways. Joshua and I decided to explore a bit, and we headed in the direction of Bhagsu. So far, we’ve discovered that Indian villages don’t really have centers or squares. Shops and restaurants might gather on the same street, but otherwise, it’s hard to tell if you’re really in the ‘heart’ of the village. Bhagsu seemed a bit bigger than Dharamkot, but everything else seemed pretty similar. There were signs up everywhere for every kind of class imaginable: silversmithing, intuitive painting, tantric meditation, ashtanga yoga, power yoga, hatha yoga, intensive yoga, casual yoga, aryuvedic medicine, aryuvedic massage, hindi tattoos, mendhi painting, Indian classical music, Indian cooking… A lot of the signs were written in Hebrew, and as we walked by the restaurants, we saw ‘Israeli Salad’ and ‘Israeli Cuisine’ advertised nearly everywhere. The streets smelled vaguely of weed, and the handicraft and souvenir shops sold bongs and clothing made from natural fibers dipped in tie-dye. Dread locks, Tevas, and Aladin-pants abound.

Past a temple with a pool out front, we followed the signs for the waterfall. Around the corner, an impossibly tall and long waterfall fell between two very green mountains. We followed the stone steps up. At the top, the ‘very, very chill Shiva Cafe where you can eat or drink or just smoke all day’ sat in a foggy oasis of green, draping plants, hindi murals, and monkeys. We paused a bit to admire the foggy, jungle view, and then we decided to follow the path that cut straight across the mountain, hoping it might lead back to Dharamkot and our guest house.

Passing a couple of small temples and few more hippie cafes, we found our way to upper Bhagsu and then Lower Dharamkot. Eventually, we spied our guest house and picked our way over a stream. Along the way, we picked a few canine followers, and they safely guided us back to our home. Changing into running clothes, we went on a short 30 minute jog up the steep hill past our guesthouse, down and around to McLeod Ganj, and then back up the steep hill to our guest house. At one point, Joshua said hello to a monkey on the side of the road, and not impressed, the monkey bared his teeth and beat the stone next to him with his hands. Joshua shied like a horse and sped a little faster up the hill. Running by monks, I decided I wouldn’t wear shorts again. I felt like a hussy baring my legs πŸ™‚

Back at the guest house, we showered. We each had about 3 minutes of hot water each, so we tried to keep them short. By the time we got dressed, it was already dark, so we headed out the door for Dharamkot. At the Moonlight Cafe, we sat on the balcony and watched the nearly full moon rise over the steep mountains of Bhagsu. Joshua ordered Paneer Palak (cheese spinach for those of you who are keeping track), and I ordered Vegetable Biryani (which is kind of like a vegetarian Indian Jambalayah). The food was gorgeous, and to drink, Joshua ordered another Lhassi (he’s pretty much disregarded recommendations to not eat unpasteurized dairy products in India). While we ate and tried to remember all the asanas we had learned that morning (we tried to draw pictures and list directions in our notebook), a group of Israelis sat cross-legged on the floor, eating Indian food, smoking pot, playing cards, and laughing a lot.

When we had finished eating, we walked back to the guest house. Along the way, Joshua picked up a couple of candy bars. ‘Bounty’ is kind of like Almond Joy, and ‘Yummy’ is, as Joshua says, a poor second to a Snickers. I’m starting to like a little something sweet before I sleep πŸ™‚

September 22, 2010

Yesterday morning, we woke up a little before 9 AM, and I quickly got dressed to meet the monk. Joshua went ahead of me to eat breakfast and load pictures at the Green Hotel Cafe, while I waited on the steps in front of our guest house. At about 9:10, the monk came down, brushing his teeth. He said, ’10?’ I nodded my head and told him that I would be waiting at the Green Hotel Cafe.

Finding Joshua, we ordered breakfast, and then I went off in search of a notebook and pens for my English lesson. Back at the Cafe, Joshua ate his Tibetan Porridge with Bananas (Tsampa) and I had my lemon and honey pancake. We shared a slice of walnut cake, which was absolutely delicious. Waiting for the monk, we browsed through the pictures, and I put together a little English diagnostic – I had no idea how much English the monk might know.

By 10:30, I was pretty sure that the monk wasn’t coming. I was a little disappointed, but the night before, Joshua and I had seen a sign for an ‘English Conversation Hour’ held at the Hope Education Center. Apparently, they always need English volunteers. I’ll just bring my pen and paper there πŸ™‚ We read and surfed the web for a little bit longer, sipping our honey, lemon, and ginger tea, and a little bit before noon, we paid and headed back to our guest house to pack up.

Just before we left the guest house, we went into the office to pay. The man at the desk was the monk. He gave me his huge smile, and I figured that there had been some sort of language misunderstanding. Oh well; Namaste. Joo-lay.

The hike out of McLeod Ganj is pretty steep, and although we’re only at 5,000 – 6,000 ft, I could still feel the altitude. We slowly made our way up the hill, passing monkeys as we went. It began to rain. On the other side of the hill, we passed the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center (HIYC) and just a few meters a way, we came across the Kamal Guest House. Although I had wanted to shop around a bit before we settled on our next guest house, when the kind, smiling guest house keeper poked his head out of the detached kitchen and asked us if we’d like to see a room, we agreed. Rajjis led us up a staircase to a balcony and into a small room with plenty of windows and an attached bathroom with a hot-water geyser. For 250 rupees a night, the room was ours. I tested the bed, and like usual, it was hard as a rock. We took it.

Shedding our packs, we decided to try and make this room as homey and clean as possible. We put everything in a proper place, and afterwards, we sat on the bed and surveyed our surroundings. From our window, we can see the HIYC; otherwise, everything is green. It was also raining, and the fog made the trees appear rootless. It was damp, but lovely.

Happy to have a space where we planned to live for more than a couple of days, we decided to stay put for a bit. While I caught up on my writing, Joshua sat outside on the balcony and chatted to our neighbors, two young Italians. They told him, ‘in India, we have found the world’s second best food.’ Naturally, Joshua didn’t even have to ask them about the world’s first best food: their Italians.

After a while, Joshua came back in and took a nap while I continued to write. Outside the window, I spied a couple of people wandering into the HIYC, and desperate to sign up for the yoga class, I followed suit. In the courtyard of the HIYC, five or so women were grilling one of the yoga assistants: ‘why are the classes so expensive?’ ‘will I have individual attention?’ ‘how long are the classes?’ ‘which asanas do you use?’ The man patiently answered each of their questions and then looked up at me, ‘how can I help you?’

When I told the man that I’d like to sign up, please, and yes, I have the payment in full right here, the women started to get flustered. They all decided to sign up too, and as the man handed me the registration form, one of them took it right out of his fingers. He assured them that the hall can fit up to 50 students, and so far, there were only a dozen signed up.

While I waited for an extra pen, I walked down to the edge of the HIYC’s gardens and called up to our window, telling Josh to come on over and bring a couple pens with him. We filled out the forms together which didn’t take very long at all; for all the questions that asked, ‘have you done yoga before?’ ‘if so, what kind?’ ‘have you meditated before?’ ‘if so, what kind?’ our answers were a simple ‘no, n/a.’

We paid the yoga assistant and headed back to the guest house. Now that we had signed up, I felt a huge relief. The main reason that we had left Leh a couple of days earlier and done the whole 36 hour bus ride in one blow was so that we could take this yoga class. I wrote for a little longer, and then Joshua finally demanded that we go and eat.

Taking a footpath, it took us about 10 minutes to find our way to Dharamkot. Walking by the restaurants and shops we were struck by how much Hebrew we saw and heard. Nearly everyone we encountered was Israeli. Apparently, Dharamkot and Bhagsu are Little Israel, and most of the Israelis here are also hippies: we could smell weed in the air, Bob Marley was playing, and most of the cafes had names like ‘Friendly,’ ‘Moonlight,’ and ‘The Happy Oven’ with big, psychedelic murals emblazoned on the walls.

We picked a cafe that smelled vaguely of cat piss and ordered Korma Navratti and Eggplant Masala. While we waited for our order, we looked up at the tack-board above us and wondered what ‘Couples Only Tantric Yoga,’ ‘Real Chill Indian Classical Music Concert,’ and ‘Intuitive Painting’ might be. At the other tables, people spoke in Hebrew.

The food was delicious, and when we had finished, we walked over to the Internet Cafe to post my writing. The keyboard had Hebrew letters taped to the keys, and when we tried to load my blog, everything was in Hebrew and listed right to left. By the time we figured out how to change the default language, the connection was lost, and we ended up just giving up. We walked home in the foggy dark, watching the lights of Dharamkot and Bhagsu glimmer through the tall pine trees.