Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Monks and Gambits

I've finally finished my four days of classes with Saswot. It was long and sometimes tiring, but worthwhile on many levels. My classmates were four Australians who were very friendly, funny and a joy to be with. I find that after a few days with them, I start speaking with an American/Australian accent. Studying the various accents and dialects from around the world is a very enjoyable hobby of mine, and after travelling for a while, I can almost always place someone's country after a few minutes of talking with them. Something to do.

Saswot has been a great friend while I've been here and I will continue to help him today and tonight, but I must leave Dharamsala tomorrow. Just an hour ago when I was in his room talking, an English woman stopped by asking about the class. It turns out she works with the blind back home and agreed to help him while she's here. One "staff" member leaves, and another arrives. Amazingly, he depends on this year round for all his needs. He actually has a few long-time staff members here who help him when they are in town. It is a thrill to be in the inner-circle of something. When discussing things at night with him, many old and new friends drop by to talk or are on a mission of some sort. In this way I've met many people that I would ordinarily not have met, or at least not on this level. I've been well paid for my troubles. My class was free, and my education while I've been here has been far beyond the typical tourist taking classes.

I took the afternoon and night off yesterday (yes, I get a day off once in a while), and spent the afternoon in the Sunrise chai stall playing chess. It is dimly lit, and smoky, with yellow photographs and old guitars on the walls. Picture a picnic table and kitchen shoved into a phone booth. The chai-wallah is crammed up front. Behind him are two long benches astride a long battered wooden table with a couple of dirty lamps overhead. Very warm and cozy, with the atmosphere of an illegal gambling house on the edge of town.

I played well, and won all my games. As I won, people kept buying me more chai, which by the way was delicious, spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. After a while, the numerous on-lookers started to gang up on me, planning their moves and helping my opponent. One old gentleman (who I swear was the spitting image of Albert Einstein - complete with German accent), who was very good, was eventually calling the shots. It was an exciting and memorable game, but I had a sneak attack and was victorious. All agreed that an afternoon of good chess was a fine way to spend the day. People come and go, crawling over others to get a seat on the benches. It really goes beyond what we think of "people-watching". More like "people-involving."

I watched "7 years in Tibet" at a video-cinema at night, which was a good time. About 25 people sit in a large room and essentially watch a TV with a stereo sound system with the movie playing on a VCR. The traditional theaters here only show Indian films, which I've heard can be a bewildering but amusing experience for a westerner. People shout at the screen, bring food like a picnic, sing along to the music; more like a family outing at a carnival, I suppose.

Today I walked down the hill towards the lower town and walked by and around the large Tibetan monastery and temple, which is also the home of the Dalai Lama. The path leaves the main road and winds around the mountain on a circular path passing many small shrines and impromptu temples. The temple and monastery are surrounded by prayer wheels, which the Buddhists turn as they go by and chant prayers. They are set about 1 ft. apart, and there are hundreds encircling the temple. I didn't go into the monastery. Even without the temple, it would be a fantastic walk with indescribable mountain views and great bird watching. I know that sounds a bit silly, but it is like being inside a nature documentary. Hawks, eagles, falcons, and brightly colored tropical birds fly all around. In the early evening, they circle endlessly on the updrafts that rise from the valley.

I also continued to the Tibetan library, museum, and government complex. The most fascinating things in the museum were ancient tapestries with paintings of incredible detail. Kind of a Buddhist "Where's Waldo." Every square inch is painted with scenes of daily life and Buddhist deities. Everywhere you look is something new and fantastic. I think that I have seen something like this on PBS once. The rest of the museum and government complex wasn't actually all that interesting, but it is incredible to be here in the heart of things. You can just walk around, even have a Coke at a little stand. I met an American family with three kids who were over here for a year volunteering with Amnesty International - very positive people. What an experience for the kids. Beats school, anyway.

Will head out of town by bus to Delhi tomorrow, and then into the desert of Rajasthan.

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