Let’s take a walk

These mountains have become a home to me.

It always stuns me how a place becomes a home. It’s unexpected and sudden; one day it feels foreign, the next I realize I love the curve of the mountains, the way the morning sunlight filters through the pines. The people I’ve met and the places I go are equally what makes this home. It’s terribly ironic that realization often occurs right before I leave, but if that’s the way it is, so be it.

The other day Anna and I decided we’d walk to Dharamshala Animal Rescue which Google maps warned would take 2 hours but we disregarded.”We’re not your average walkers…” We walked almost directly down the mountain. “There’s no money anywhere,” a frustrated English guy muttered as we passed him in Lower Dharamshala. We weren’t looking for an ATM but so many people are ~ since the old currency has become illegal the banks and ATMs haven’t been able to compensate for the amount of people switching or taking out cash. We continued on our merry way, finding ourselves in a totally different world than atop the mountain in Mcleod Ganj. The streets were more dusty, the homes and shops more haphazard in an incredibly touching way, as if they felt more real somehow and there. We were outside of the bubble of Mcleod Ganj, which is one of my favorite places in the world yet it is touristy, with more guest houses than homes. At the bottom of the mountain we could see people going about their daily lives without the facade of tourism. I didn’t notice a single Inji (foreigner) walking the streets.

A couple of hours later and we still hadn’t reached DAR ~ we were becoming exhausted and were walking uphill again. A car passed, and I heard someone say something. Hopefully I said “yes,” and the car stopped. A middle-aged Indian couple peered out at us as we walked up. “Going up?” The man asked, kindly, and we explained where we were headed. The woman spoke in Hindi and, embarrassed, told her I can’t speak the language. We got into their car and began driving upwards.

We stopped at an enormous home a few minutes later, and the woman got out. “Come,” she told us, “You are our guests.” We tried to get into the gate but it was locked. The man explained that their son was getting married and this was the Minster’s house ~ they wanted to give him an invitation. We stood on tiptoe to look through the gate and saw that the house was under construction. “Black money,” the man told us, and shook his head. Black money is apparently one of the reasons the currency was changed, so that extremely rich people couldn’t continue to build up money which didn’t match their income. I don’t truly understand it, but that’s the gist.

We got back into the car and they drove us to DAR. When we got out we offered them a bag of cookies we’d picked up on the way (they were meant for my homestay sister but I’ll just get her more later) ~ the woman laughed and accepted them.

We walked the wrong way for about 15 minutes before asking directions. We were told that DAR was directly downhill from where we’d been dropped off. We laughed and headed back, finally making it to DAR.

Dogs were everywhere. Some without hair, some with casts, others with previously broken legs. The manager, Kamlesh, invited us in and answered our questions. They take in injured and sick dogs and help them become healthy again, often performing surgeries. One dog had just come out of surgery ~ she had bitten a firework meant as a pig trap. It was desperately sad.

The people we met at DAR were intensely motivated and involved. Kamlesh explained that DAR works with the local community to spay and neuter, and also to heal the animals. If there are people and places like this, it is truly a wonderful world.


 

Yesterday Anna and I hiked Triund again, this time with Louise, our friend from Denmark. It was lovely to hike it slower this time, spending long minutes staring out over the mountains. We went about a mile higher than we did last time, reaching Snow Line  ~ from there we could see the entire, endless expanse of the Himalayas.

I met a dog at Triund who led us up ~ we named him Manjushree because he seemed majestic and was incredibly intelligent. Each step of the way to Snow Line he led us, sometimes taking us off the path (our exhausted minds didn’t realize until we were too far off) but we ended up making it to Snow Line. I bought a pack of Parle-Gs (biscuits) at the small shack-cafe up there, and fed them to him one-by-one. It felt as if I was paying him for his service of leading us up. When we walked down, he followed us, sometimes dashing ahead and waiting. When we walked down from Triund he went his own way.


 

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There are quite a few trash cans along the Triund trail, but they aren’t used most of the time. I found a lot of litter along the trail, and in interviews with locals I discovered that litter because of trekking is a big issue.
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This is a sign painted on the wall of a small shack-cafe halfway up Triund trail.
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Anna and I found this quote in a magazine we were reading in Green Cafe, waiting for dinner. I find it quite meaningful.

“Recycling makes me so happy”

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She leapt into the garbage bin as we watched, and looked up when she heard us walk over. Her eyes were liquid and huge. She was thin and obviously had puppies somewhere. As we moved closer she began to shake as her tail wagged furiously. I reached in and scratched behind her ear. Anna tried to lure her out to give her some of the dog food Anna carries everywhere, but with no success.

As we walked away, a garbage truck whirled around the curve of the road. It stopped at the bin and a man hopped out, fastening a large chain to the bin. Our friend jumped out of the bin and we turned back, walking toward her.

Another dog trotted over and I bent to pet him. When I looked up, I saw the mother dog waiting excitedly as Anna poured food on the ground for her.

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This is one of the garbage trucks. On Monday I went with the Green Workers to see how they collect garbage (for my research project) ~ this is the truck we used to store garbage until we brought it to the segregation center to sort out recyclables.

I’m going to change names, because I feel that perhaps I should. I didn’t ask their permission to blog about them.

I first met Jay around 7:40 am outside of the Clean Upper Dharamshala Programme’s Green Shop, where they sell recycled books and other awesome items. He motioned that I follow him, and I did. We walked from house to house, calling for dry waste and collecting it in large tarp bags. After our bags were full, we stopped and waited on a random staircase until Raj and Tashi showed up. I passed the time munching on crackers I’d brought for breakfast. I offered them to my companions, and Jay offered some to the monkeys lingering on the roof nearby.

After a while, we all stood up and resumed work. I walked with Jay to one older Tibetan woman’s home and when she walked out, she brought a box of pineapple juice. Laughing when she saw me, she went back inside and got another box for both Jay and me to have one.

We all met up again at the main road, next to the garbage truck. Jay motioned for me to get in, and it was at that moment that I realized how much I’d always wanted to ride in the back of a garbage truck full of trash. Actually. As we drove super-fast around hairpin turns and I perched precariously on the side of the truck’s bed, I felt that I’d found the purpose of life.

Anna and I have begun typing our ISPs (independent study projects) in the last few days, so we’ve spent an unnecessary (or oh so necessary) amount of time at cafes. We were sitting at Nick’s Italian Kitchen when one of us saw this scene outside.

An old street dog, sitting comfortably on the pathway. A young Tibetan girl walking up. Sitting down. And they coexist. She petted him and her friends mingled about, and Anna and I witnessed the moment. Street dogs are treated better here in Dharamsala than in most of India and Nepal, but it is still rare to see moments of love between our species. It’s unbelievably touching.

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Mcleod Ganj is quite littered ~ for my research project, I’ve documented a ton of garbage tossed in the crevices of the city. Waste lines where city meets nature. Cows, dogs, water buffalo, cats, and monkeys can be found munching on garbage, and often water is cloudy with pollution.

Yet through my research, I’ve found that this isn’t the fault of anyone. It’s the product of ineffective infrastructure plus bad habits and a lack of education. And it’s changing.

This picture, which I took on an hour-long walk up the mountain from Lower Dharamsala to Mcleod Ganj, represents this in my mind: there is such intense beauty. Pollution is not the end.

More on that later, in my ISP.

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In this photo, one of us has already been incredibly sick, another will be within 24 hours, and the third will be in 48. One will come out totally healthy.

The past week has been a humbling one. I’ve experienced what it’s like to be pretty sick in India, with amazing friends to feed me ORS (oral rehydration salts) and an ISP to research and write. It must’ve been something we ate at Triund because all of us hiked and three of us got sick.

It is an amazing world in which you can meet people and get sick and take pictures and laugh about it in the end. Anna and I met Conor and Matt on the nightbus from Delhi to Dharamsala. Mcleod Ganj is a small town, so we saw them often and soon planned the hike to Triund. The night before they had to leave, they stayed in our apartment ~ 5 people including Izac, all in one room with one bathroom and a lot of evil bacteria. The one who was sick spent much of the evening in the bathroom, and that night our toilet stopped flushing… things that only happen in India.

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And a shoutout to this human who has been my adventure partner for the past few months.

We’ve been walking to Bhagsu a few times a week to try to switch our money out at the bank, and have visited this restaurant nearly every time. It has the BEST (and only) chickpea omelettes. The money thing has been a major issue for a lot of people in India ~ the government made all 500 and 1000 notes illegal (these are worth about $8 and $16 respectively) and the banks haven’t been at all prepared for the amount of people who needed to switch to the new bills.

It’s calmed down a lot though since the beginning hullabaloo.

 

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Mountains, at last.

229 flights. Or so says Anna’s iphone’s health app.

My legs were nowhere near as prepared as they should’ve been to trek up Triund. It took us (me, Anna, and two friends we met on the nightbus from Delhi ~ Conor and Matt) 5 ish hours to make our way up the rocky path, through tightly-wooded forest and stomach-dropping cliffs to the saddle of the mountain. Once we reached it, I fell onto the grassy slope and breathed for a few minutes. In the sunlight it was warm, the kind of warm you want to drink in, the kind your skin relishes. In the shade, I could tell the night would be bitterly cold.

The guys already had a tent, so Anna and I had to go find one to rent. The first seller we asked wanted too much, so we found another. 600 Rupees for a tent which we soon found to be a piece of sh*t (hilariously) as one of the poles had no elastic binding it, and the other pole was broken and haphazardly taped together. It was snug, though, and we set up camp quickly.

The sun set earlier than usual because of a large cloudbank above the horizon. When its rays had melted into purples then dark blues, we made our way to one of the scrap metal-tarp shacks to seek out dinner. I ended up with a cup of tomato soup, Anna with mushroom, and we sipped our scalding dinner as the night’s chill deepened.

Going to sleep was a bit of a challenge ~ I was cold to the bone so had a billion layers on… plus adding a liner to my sleeping bag, I spent at least an hour baffled by all of the layers of cloth I was trying to sleep in. When I woke up in the morning, I had somehow pulled the top part of my sleeping bag closed and had burrowed effectively into my layers.

The sunrise reminded me of everything I adore about mountains. It slowly ascended, its sharp and yet soft rays leading it forward. Stray light dotted the mountainside, and the air became a lovely mix of nighttime giving way to day.

 


 

dscn0508This (above) is Anna and Nawang, a monk Anna met at Bogdo Cafe and I met the next day, at the same cafe, because he offered to teach us Tibetan. Our meeting ended up leading to korra around His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple. The korra path is pretty long, perhaps 45 minutes, and deeply green. I should explain korra: from what I understand, it’s walking around a spiritual place, with compassionate intent ~ often people say “manis” (Om mani pemme hum, which is a mantra for the wellbeing of all sentient beings) as they walk.

Nawang is a hoot. He is so patient in teaching Anna and me Tibetan, but often laughs at us (for some reason, who knows). Once I dropped a ring off the balcony of Bogdo Cafe and Nawang followed me down to the undergrowth below, using a shovel to pry away at the stinging nettle blocking the ground so I could find my ring. We had the whole cafe outside, surrounding the bushes, one guy helping to push back trees and everyone else watching and laughing.

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Our apartment has pretty much become a home. The balcony is still my favorite place in Mcleod Ganj, a perfect spot to sit and drink homemade tea (Tulsi black tea + honey + a dash of rose tea), or to watch the sun set through the pines, or to watercolor. Also, the sun spends about 4 hours a day streaming through our plentiful windows.dscn0463

My independent research project has shifted, a bit. I’ve spent a good amount of time with the Clean Upper Dharamsala Programme, learning about their approach to waste management. Through them, I’ve begun to look at sustainable tourism. I went to the Environmental Development Desk at the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration) and learned about their approach to environmentalism.

Through my experiences so far, I’ve begun to realize that there are many different approaches to environmentalism here in Dharamsala. There are political influences as well, since the Indian government has began a “Smart City” project ~ which hasn’t really gone anywhere yet ~ and the Municipal Cooperation isn’t as reliable as it should be.

All of the questions are nearly overwhelming, but I think a picture is beginning to form.

Making our way to Dharamsala

Anna and I got to the airport ridiculously early on Friday. When we stepped toward the baggage check, we were waved away by the laughing attendant, who said they wouldn’t open for another hour. We got a cart for our trekking bags and carry-ons and sat down to chow down on roasted peas we found in the Bhatbhateni supermarket in Boudha. An older woman sat down next to us, and I offered her some peas. Smiling, she reached into the bag.

Her name is Pema, and she’s a Tibetan woman now living in New York. She had been visiting family in Lhasa (in Tibet) and told us of her terrible sadness at seeing how the city has changed. “It looks like Beijing,” she said, “and people will tell you that they’re happy. That they’re rich. But if you ask more, they will soon open up and tell you that they’re in a golden cage.” We listened to her story until the attendant called us to the baggage check.

We made it through security at to our gate in less than 15 minutes and found ourselves plopped unceremoniously on the airport floor, gazing longingly at the chairs absolutely full of humans. We tried to capture a seat once, only to find someone had left their backpack in it. So, we read, journaled and crunched our peas for almost an hour before craving for tea led me to the tea counter. I ordered two milk teas and returned cradling them both. Anna didn’t want hers so I offered it to a couple sitting next to us. The man eagerly accepted it, and offered me his half-drunk cappuccino in return, which I was fine without. We asked each other where we were from, etc ~ they’re from Belgium and trekked the Manaslu circuit. As we all chatted, I noticed the way they looked at each other, and spoke to each other. It was breathtaking. Love is visible.

Despite our absurd earliness our plane didn’t take off until it was nearly 2 hours past our take-off time because we had to wait for the visiting Indian president’s jet to depart. When we did take off, the plane lurched awkwardly into the sky. The man sitting beside us was praying silently, and an older woman in front of us was murmuring manis.

When we arrived in India it was already almost 8 pm, and our bus to Dharamsala was to leave around 9:30. Anna and I jogged through the airport and made it to baggage claim way before any of the other passengers, but our bags didn’t reach the belt until the others had caught up. As soon as we had lugged our bags off the belt onto our cart, we sprinted to the taxi line.

“How much to ISPT?”

“1,800 Rupees.”

“No way. 700 at most.”

He walked away.

Confused about what the price should be, I asked a man standing next to us how much it should be to ISPT. “Don’t buy from these people,” he told us, pointing to the pre-pay taxi stand. Anna jogged over as I chatted with him. “SJ!!” I heard a few minutes later, and scanned for Anna. I didn’t see her anywhere. I was getting nervous, standing on my tiptoes to try to spot her in the melee of the airport exit area when I found her, motioning for me to hurry, talking to a driver. I pushed the cart as fast as I could across the road, and we leapt into the taxi. “How long to ISPT?” “One hour.”

One hour later, we were stuck in traffic. “How long?” “30 minutes.”

30 minutes later, traffic. “How long?” 25 minutes.

FINALLY we saw a sign reading “ISBT.” So the whole time we had been saying it wrong. Goes to show how the night was going. At this point it was nearly 10 pm, and we were two obviously foreign women in Delhi, trying to catch an overnight bus and also meet up with Izac somewhere at the bus station.

Our driver let us out on the side of the road, where we could just make out the bus station beyond lines of buses. There were men everywhere, calling out cities and stations. We made our way, staring straight ahead, to the bus station where we asked, “tickets?” and were pointed up an escalator. Then commenced 5 minutes of going back and forth between ticket stands, until we gave up and followed one word we did understand: “downstairs.” We walked down and entered the hubbub of the buses yet again. “M’am, m’am” we heard as young men pointed to buses or to chai stands. “Dharamsala?” We asked repeatedly, until one man called back, “Dharamsala!” There was still a bus leaving, in 25 minutes!! We hadn’t found Izac anywhere, but trusted that he had somehow found his way onto a bus. We bought our tickets and were assigned seats. Nearby, two Injis (foreigners) were leaning against trekking bags and we walked up, grinning. “What are y’all here to do?” We all chatted for a while, introducing ourselves and our stories, until the man from whom we’d bought our tickets motioned for us to go to the bus. We put our trekking bags in the back, and stepped up into the bus. There were young men sitting in our seats, and Anna and I awkwardly made our way toward them. “What seats are you in?” we asked cautiously, and they jumped up, laughing, and moved to other seats. We settled in only to find we were sitting in Connor and Matt’s seats (our Inji friends) but by then, our actual seats were taken up and the bus was mostly full. The man checking tickets told us all to stay where we were, it was fine.

Thus began our bus ride to Dharamsala. As soon as the bus started moving, the young Indian men around me and Anna pushed their phones toward us, saying “Facebook?” I was hesitant but didn’t know what to do, and they had been kind earlier so I plugged in my name. For the next few minutes, Anna and I watched as they scrolled through my Facebook profile. It was definitely a little uncomfortable, but kind of hilarious.

We chatted for a bit with Connor and Matt and our other busmates, then Anna and I propped my thick Tibetan sweatshirt between our heads, a perfect double-pillow. I woke up a few hours later to Anna nudging me, her face tight from trying not to laugh. She pointed behind us to Connor, who was completely passed out, his head leaning into the shoulder of the Indian man sitting beside him. Matt was asleep in the center aisle of the bus. They both looked like they were having the best sleep of their lives.

When we woke up again, it was because we had stopped. Stretching, we all filed out toward the toilets. It had become pretty chilly, and we had no idea where we were, but we walked around a bit, doing yoga subtly behind the bus.

We all got back on the bus and quickly fell asleep; I woke up when Connor was passing me Anna’s sleeping pad, which had somehow fallen our (not really somehow because the bus was reeeaaaally bumpy at times). I looked up and saw Brail (my ukulele) hanging half out of the overhead compartment ~ I snatched it and put it in my lap. I fell asleep with my head propped on the top of Brail ~ the part where you tighten the strings. I feel much closer to my ukulele now.

When we made it to Lower Dharamsala, we were all exhausted and exhilarated. The men who had asked for Facebook info took selfies with our crew of Injis, and then we hopped on the next bus to McLeod Ganj, where we’re living. We showed Connor and Matt where their guest house is, then made our way down the enormous flight of stairs to our own apartment. Manoj, the manager, met us at the bottom and gave us a key ~ we walked into the most beautiful living space I’ve ever seen. We have a view of pine trees arcing over a small valley filled with small creatures, and in the distance you can see the lines of mountains blending into the sun and sky.

So, we made it. Last night Anna, Izac (we later found him at a friend’s apartment in Dharamsala) and I celebrated with homemade pale (Tibetan bread~ it didn’t turn out super well, but I was impressed that it tasted at least bread-like) and local apple wine as the sun melted into mist and the stars took dominion over the sky.

Family

Love is a human universal.

Although there are surely a myriad of reasons why SIT includes a homestay in this program, I think the most subtle and unexpected of these is when it really works ~ when the student realizes, one morning over breakfast, that they have found a family where they never expected one.

I was initially nervous about the homestay; I knew it’s an important way to immerse yourself in the culture, but I’d heard bad as well as good stories. During my first dinner with Amala, Pala, and Sangay I remember picking at my food and feeling that uncomfortable urge to be entertaining as well as quiet and polite. Halfway through dinner Amala looked up at me, laughed, and said, “Relax!”

Since then, I’ve spent most nights with these wonderful people, experiencing Amala’s cooking (she’s provided me with recipes which I’ll post soon) and listening to Pala discuss local and international politics. I’ve learned how to eat stir-fried potatoes, pumpkin, and eggplant with pieces of pale (pahl-ey: a round piece of flatbread) with Amala’s advice and laughter. We’ve shared endless stories about our homes and hilarious cultural differences ~ you try explaining our custom of saying, “Speak of the devil!” when someone you’ve just been talking about walks in. Tibetans say, “Now, you’ll have a long life!” instead.

This morning was my last breakfast with them. When I woke up I just laid in bed, and that was when I realized how much I would miss them. They have opened up their lives to me. Amala taught me how to wash my own clothes, and since them I haven’t brought them to the laundry shop once. I’ve learned that if you sit on cold concrete (playing music on the rooftop), you’ll get sick (I got really sick haha). I now know to walk on the floor with sandals instead of barefoot (although I sometimes get away with barefoot if Amala doesn’t look down ~ if she does, she sends me right back to the hallway to get sandals). Amala taught me that you should only do yoga before a meal, not after. You must drink warm water after eating, or your stomach will hurt. If you cut up an onion and place it in the center of the kitchen table, no one will catch the cold that one of the family members has. Extra food goes to the birds, or the dogs. You must not take a shower after dinner ~ at least, wait an hour.

And there’s so much more.

So, back to breakfast. Amala called, “Sara-la!” and I answered, “Coming!” lurching out of my bed and slipping into the sandals outside of my bedroom door. I walked into the dining room and Amala grinned ~ I was still mostly asleep. Usually I eat before everyone else because of class, but since there wasn’t class today I was part of the family breakfast. Amala had already laid out my gonga (fried egg) and poured my milk tea. The sunlight was flooding through the open window, giving life to the steam rising from our mugs of tea. I jumped up, ran to my room, grabbed my camera, and came back. Amala and Pala laughed as I took photos, moving things on the table around a bit. Later, as we all began to eat, Amala told me, “Get out your camera again! It is better to take a photo when the plates are full.”

It astounds me how easily it is to love people. I think that we love each other ~ humans to humans ~ easily enough, but I mean a deeper sort of caring. Perhaps each of us experiences it differently; maybe it takes something specific for each of us, maybe it’s like a puzzle-piece thing. But perhaps it’s so much simpler than that. I don’t think it takes much at all.