Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Gringos in the Mist

Greetings from Dharamsala! I've been having an enjoyable stay so far. It can take a while to explore this town and understand the culture and everything that is going on.

So far, I spend part of each day walking the mountain roads visiting small villages in the area. The thin air and steep grades make the going slow, but it is peaceful and beautiful. There are few tourists out walking the roads, but I pass many Tibetans commuting between the villages. You meet Tibetan Buddhist monks frequently in town and between villages. They are fascinating with their maroon robes, shaven heads, and often black horn-rimmed glasses. I suspect they must all use the same tailor, barber, and optometrist. A hello or good morning and a smile always gets a cheerful response.

A few people stay in the villages near town: to escape the touristy feel of Dharamsala, for the great views, and to enjoy the peace and quiet. And, since there aren't many westerners in these villages, they are all very friendly, and I always join who ever is hanging out and talk for a while before heading out again.

Each morning is sunny and great for hikes. In the afternoon, the clouds roll in, covering the town in a thick fog. It really amazing to see the hawks and other large birds circling in the mists above and below me as I watch from the hotel terrace. Occasionally, the sun shines through the clouds and lights up a small circle of houses that seem to float in the air. Gringos get out their guitars, sitars, flutes and tablas and play at my hotel and nearby, providing a free concert in the afternoon and sometimes all evening.

Dharamsala is different than I expected. More touristy, with many shops catering to western tourists, selling t-shirts, jewelry, potato chips, candy bars, toilet paper (well, it's not all bad), etc. There are many young gringos who basically seem to be looking for a good time; there are bars, dancing, video movie houses, parties, etc. At night the streets are full of young people, meeting friends and making new ones. A lively social scene.

The Tibetan library has several lectures and workshops each day on Tibetan culture and current issues. There is also a video theater that shows documentaries on Buddhism and the Tibetan way of life. Individual courses are also possible. Touring the Dalai Lama's complex is also very interesting. I hope to explore some of these options next week.

The Tibetans who have settled here are very progressive. The town is prosperous, clean, and well organized (a rare thing in India). There is decent sanitation, a ban on burning wood (locals must buy kerosene from a vendor with a large tank, who, every time that I have walked by, is smoking). They have a welfare system for incoming refugees, free education, extensive computer and technical education, and a home for orphaned children. I have heard that they are excellent at communications, marketing, public relations, and embrace the Internet and computer technology as a way to educate the world about their cause. In short, they have been very successful here. This has been a result of hard work and a lot of money coming in from tourism and international support. This has caused many Indians to be critical of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community here. There is certainly more going on than first appears, with complicated politics involving India, China and the US. It would take a long time to understand the situation completely.

I have been enjoying myself by meeting people, hanging out, and have also been doing some hard work, as I will explain in the next message.

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