14 August 2009

chillin' in d'sala

we're still in dharamsala, relaxing here, eating good food, sleeping a lot, recharging our batteries. it's still monsoony up here, and since we're so high up, the clouds lie low like fog, and it rains a little bit each day. not raining now though.
just posted a buncha new pix at facebook. no captions yet, they are forthcoming. these should all be public links, friend or not.
kids, a chicken and a bat
Jaisalmer Fort
camels and more
and a slug


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).

From the desert to the mountains- what a long, strange trip.

It’s been a little while since I last posted here, because we've been on the move, and deep in the desert where internet connections were hard to come by. We got as far as Jaisalmer, a mere 100 km from the Pakistan border, deep in the Thar desert. And now, we are finished with our trip through the desert, finished with our planned tour through Rajasthan, land of kings, and are now back on our own. The tour was nice, it was a good way to see the desert, but it was a little rushed, with more or less fixed departure times, and only a day or 2 in each place. Now we’re on our own itinerary and schedule, and I’m much happier that way.
By the way, thanks to all my readers, I don’t know how many of you there are but I appreciate your interest, and I hope you’re enjoying these little stories. You can respond to any post at the bottom of each one, so feel free to comment, even if it’s just to let me know you’re out there.

Our journey to Dharamsala was incredible; one of those India horror stories (like the dog bite/rabies shots) that becomes an amazing story later. We booked a bus from Delhi, which was supposed to be a nice, air-conditioned overnight bus, leaving at 5pm and arriving in Dharamsala at 7 the next morning. The bus turned out to be awful, with windows that wouldn’t close, A/C that barely worked, and stains on all the seats from previous difficult journeys. And the worst part was that we were in the back, over the tires (I think our seats were attached directly to the tires), so we were bounced around ridiculously. We literally were bounced into the air every few seconds with the bumps. Sleeping was impossible. And just when we thought it could not get any worse, sure enough, the bus broke down at 3 in the morning. The driver left, or climbed on the roof to sleep, or something, but was nowhere to be found. He left the engine running until it ran out of gas about about 8 in the morning. Most of us slept through it, some people didn’t even notice we were stopped. I got off the bus at one point (stepping over a couple people sleeping on the aisle, I guess they could lie down flat, but yuck, that floor), but we were in the middle of nowhere with no one around. Slowly, as the sun rose, we realized our predicament. Apparently the driver took off to find a mechanic, and one arrived at 8:30 or 9 am, took out a very important-looking part of the engine (the starter motor? the distributor? the solonoid?), got on a passing local bus, and left us again. We had no idea what was going on and no way to reach anyone with the bus.
Pretty early on, a group of Israelis (the demographics on the bus were about 1/3rd Israeli travelers (Dharamsala is a favorite destination of theirs), 1/3rd Tibetans, and 1/3rd other Western travelers) decided to bail. They took an auto-rickshaw to a supposed taxi-stand in town, to grab a taxi the rest of the way. The rest of us stayed behind. But when the mechanic showed up, took that part and left again, more of us had reached our limit. I had gotten the phone number of a taxi driver earlier, when the first group left, so I called him back, we negotiated a price, and 6 of us started the drive to Dharamsala. The other 4 were Israeli, and were happy to learn that I’m Jewish and could speak a little bit of Hebrew. I told them if my Hindi doesn’t improve in Dharamsala, at least my Hebrew would. A few hours later, after some crazy winding mountain roads with steep drops and no guard rails, we arrived. That made it about a 24 journey, with very little sleep and much physical discomfort. Heather and I hauled on our backpacks and looked around the main square. It had changed considerably, but I found the road we needed, used the Chocolate Log as a landmark, and sure enough, the Ladies Venture guest house was right where it was supposed to be. Amazingly, they had one room left, so we took it, showered, and crashed. What a journey! But we made it to our destination with a happy ending, so all ended well.
here are some camel pix: