10 August 2009

An Oasis in the Sky

We’re now in Dharamsala, in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalaya, at an elevation of 1770 meters (5800 feet). Dharamsala, being in the mountains, has different neighborhoods at different elevations, and we’re actually a little bit above the Indian town of Dharamsala, in McCloud Ganj, named after the Englishman who settled it as a British garrison in the 1850s. (When westerners say Dharamsala, they really mean the Mccloud Ganj neighborhood.) It was a tiny village until 1960 when the Dalai Lama took refuge here after the devastating Chinese crackdown on Tibet. There are more Tibetans (and Westerners) here than Indians, and the town has a quiet, friendly, comfortable feel. There are caf├ęs and movie houses (where they show Western movies on DVD on televisions, some big-screen, for a tiny entrance fee; I might go see The Reader today) and Tibetan handicraft shops and fantastic little restaurants. There are also great bookstores and libraries and centers for Tibetan refugees with museums and information about their plight. And while Indians are certainly religious, there’s a certain quiet spirituality to the Tibetans here (most are monks or nuns, refugees from the Chinese persecution of their religion). Their smiles are beautiful and quick to appear, and they are perfectly honest and fair, which is a nice change from some of the other places where the locals try to squeeze every last rupee out of you and charge ridiculous tourist prices to Westerners. Travelers tend to stay here in Dharamsala for a long time, sometimes months, and study yoga or languages (Tibetan or Hindi) or take meditation workshops or Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) retreats. We’re going to chill out here for a week or 10 days, do some hiking, read, drink coffee, and relax.
Nearby are the villages of Bhagsu and Dharamkot, short 2km hikes away. They used to be tiny villages with nothing there, but now many Westerners, especially Israelis, like to go there, so they’ve been developed a bit with guest houses and restaurants. We’re going to hike there to check them out, but we’ll probably stay here in McCloud Ganj.
I was also here during my first trip to India, in the fall of 1995, 14 shortlong years ago. When we were in Pushkar a couple weeks ago, another place I visited back then, it was mostly unrecognizable, much bigger. I recognized the main market street but otherwise I couldn’t find my old guest house or anything.
Here in Dharamsala, there have been incredible changes in the last 14 years as well. So many new buildings, however here I was able to orient myself quickly and find my way around. Some places from back then are still here, like the Chocolate Log, which serves real coffee and cakes in a sunny courtyard. And we found the guest house I stayed in last time, the Ladies Venture. I told them I had returned after 14 years and they were tickled by that. (This is also where I was bit by the stray dog last time I was here, and had to hike down to the Tibetan hospital for rabies shots, but that didn’t spoil my opinion of the place.) It’s now run by a young man from Kashmir, who not only checks you in but makes your chai and cooks any meals you have in the place, because the Tibetan sisters who own it are getting on in years, but it still has the same peaceful feel (in fact one of the hotel rules is to keep a peaceful (shanti) demeanor, and they reserve the right to refuse service to anyone giving off bad vibes). So we’ll stay here for a while. I might take a Hindi lesson or two.
It’s raining now outside, beautiful cleansing rain, while I write this in our room at the Ladies Venture. It’s also much cooler here in the mountains. I have a conference call with American Jewish World Service and Dreamcatchers, the organization in Mumbai for whom I plan to volunteer. It looks like I’ll be helping them set up social networking systems so that the street children of Mumbai can communicate with one another, express themselves, and envision a better future. Oh yes, I have an Indian phone now, from the US you can dial 011-91-987-166-6539 (international code, country code, and 10-digit number).

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