I have lots to catch up on...I'll try to keep it relatively short so you don't fall asleep reading this! This past month has been exciting and interesting and different. I've returned to many of the same places I've been on past trips but as is typical in India, nothing is repetitive.
About a month ago I left Rishikesh. I don't think I mentioned a cooking class in my last blog, even though I posted some pictures about it. The class wasn't anything special but the teacher, Purnima was. She was 23 years old, had 2 sons and had been married for 7 years. After her wedding, she moved into her husband's familiy's house, as most Indian woman do. She quickly became the caretaker of the house, cleaning it daily and cooking for the entire family. Her husband had a real estate job that took him out of the house most days, although it didn't always bring him home with money! So it left her in charge of the shop below the small, 2 room house. To make extra money she started offering tourists cooking, massage and yoga classes...all based on short courses she had coincidentally taken as
a teen. The whole family lives predominantly off of her earnings.
She was extremely open with us, telling us her feelings about the life she has and would trade in a second; being a mother at 18, caring for her mother-in-law, who she refers to as "the monster" and having no time to herself. She gets most of her daily pleasure from befriending foreigners who take her classes or come to her shop. Indians are very direct. She wasn't complaining, just stating matter-of-factly that this was her life, it would never be different even though she doesnt' feel like it fits her. All we could do was listen and try to provide her with a few hours of entertainment and escape from her life. hopefully she will find more tourists to continue distracting her from the mundane monotony that she is consumed with daily.
I definitely can't say the same for my life in India. It is very different being a foreigner here than a local.
After Rishikesh, we (I continued traveling with Staci, the American girl I met while volunteering at Sadhana Forest) went to Amritsar, intending to stay a day with
a family we contacted through couch surfing. It turned out it wasn't the family's house, but their business. a hotel that they offer for free to couch surfers when there's space. There were 3 swimming pools, horses and parties every night! For fun, I milked the cows and buffalos. Although no milk actually came out of the buffalo when I tried! it's hard! the woman who does it everyday made fun of me that I did it only for the sake of a picture because I didn't make much of an effort...do you blame me?!!! that first day, Staci met a local couple outside the estate who invited us to their house the next day. So we went, spent the day with a family who barely spoke English and were mostly fed sweets and chai all day! They took us to their friend's house where we were fed more sweets and chai...they were being hospitable and treating us well by feeding us sweets, something they don't eat everyday. But really, all we wanted was a good, hearty meal of chapatti and dhal! After visiting a Sikh temple (most People in Amritsar and the province of Punjab are Sikh) they brought
us back to their house for one more round and we came across some pictures of guns. So they brough out a rifle and little pistol, encouraging us to take pictures. As we got a little more comfortable holding the guns, and felt certain there was no amo in them, we played around, pointing the guns at each other and doing a mini photo shoot. It was a strange moment in India but hilarious and gave us a way to bond with this family over something that didn't require words. By the end of the night they were in love with us, and asked us over and over when we would come back to stay with them. they even picked us up the next morning to give us a ride to the train station. They were beyond hospitable. They've called me since to find out when I'm coming back! I can't think of anyone in Canada who would pick up random toursts on the street, take them home, feed them and beg them to come back!
After our 5 hour train ride we arrived in Jammu, only to leave a few hours later on an overnight bus
The father of the family playing around
to Srinagar, in Kashmir...a part of India I've been trying to visit for the past 2 years so I was really excited to finally make it; and it didn't disappoint! The 300 km drive took about 10 hours, winding through the mountains. When it stopped at 11:00 for dinner we looked for bathrooms only to realize all the men were peeing on the side of the road. this country is not women-friendly! so we walked away from the bus' headlights and took turns squatting and being on the lookout! Luckily since volunteering at sadhana, I'm a seasoned squatter! and can manage well enough without toilet paper!
Srinagar really is paradise. It didn't take us long to feel like we could easily live there and to understand why neither India nor Pakistan want to give it up...although it also didn't take us long after that to realize we could never actually live in the culture! but landscape wise, it's the shit! The city is full of huge lakes overlooking enormous himalayan mountains. Some full of rocks and trees, others covered in bright white snow. the city feels nothing like the rest of India. It's clean, with signs everywhere
looks like a man with a mustache!
warning people about throwing their trash on the street and actual garbage bins. The roads are newly paved and wide, big enough so that cars don't get run off the road whenever another vehicle heads towards them.
There are gardens all over the city, with manicured lawns and flowers...although by our standards we would just call them parks! but for India, they are considered gardens!
There are small mountains within the city, So in a short time you can reach the top and see a beautiful view of Srinagar...it's massive lakes and old forts sitting on tops of mountains. Then there are tall mountains just on the outskirts, that are just as easily accessible. They were made even easier for us by the local boys we met who offered to drive us around to some of the less touristy sites that are not convenient or cheap to reach with local transport. The experience was amplified by the fact that we were driving around on powerful motorcycles...different from the little moped I had in the south! What a great way to travel...being driven around by someone who knows the secret attractions usually reserved for locals eyes only, knows the way
to get there and can handle the motorcycle. It all made the daily trips so enjoyable. Of course it led to the inevitable...what will he get out of it! But in the end, they were complete gentlemen, just looking to enjoy the company of foreign women. It's not easy in their culture to have women as friends, especially when they have become accustomed to foreign women as a result of having worked in the tourist industry for so many years. And these were boys in their 20s who were eager to be around girls! By the end of our week, they had taken us to multiple lakes, gardens, waterfalls, rivers and of course up in to the mountains.
Our time there had to come to an end so that I could make it in time to the 9 day meditation course I have been excited to do since I left India last year! And it didn't disappoint. Similar to last year's course, I spent 9 days in a quiet retreat center built atop a mountain, outside of the noisy, chaotic city of McLeod Ganj. It is meant to be in complete silence, although it's pretty impossible to
put 40 people in a classroom setting, living in dorms and expect silence 100% of the time. I am happy to say, though that I found it much easier this time around to limit my talking to maybe one short conversation per day! And it usually revolved around the course topic, which was the main difference from last year's course. Rather than a general introduction to Buddhism, this class chose a specific topic to focus on...deepening my knowledge of Bhuddism signficantly. It was quite complex, but interesting non the less. I felt at peace and very refreshed by the end.
After last year's coures, I had only a week left in the area and spent almost all of it discovering how much this small mini-Tibet had to offer. It is one of the reasons I came back to India...to have more time here. There are actually 3 small towns (1 smaller than the next) in the vicinity, maybe 1 km apart. I chose to stay in the smallest one called Dharamkot, not quite built up enough for cars to enter. So it is really quiet...just a small village perched atop the mountain. But with so much to offer. I
have spent the last 4 weeks taking courses in the morning on Ayurvedic medicine and reflexology. and I've spent almost every afternoon walking down the mountain into McLeod Ganj, which is inhabited mostly by Tibetans who have fled Tibet, following the Dalai Lama, who has made it his home since the 60s. Tibetans get no educatiom in their home country and come here barely knowing how to read and write their own language. Fortunately here, many organizations have sprung up, offering them free classes in Tibetan, English and often computers as well. to give them a chance to practice, they ask foreigners to come volunteer for an hour or 2 a day for a conversation class. I was introduced to one organization specifically for ex political prisoners. They have all spent time in a Chinese jail in Tibet for protesting against the government. They are incredibly inspiring, speaking so openly of their stories as if it is just something that happened to them. They are traumatizing events that I think warant at some least anger but they have none. They accept their past as if it is something that happened that was horrible, not something that defines who they are
we stopped on the side of the road at the river and of course had chai!
now. One man told me he isn't angry at all, just sad at the situation his beloved country is in. But I think going into more detail would make this blog waaaay to long!
Until next time,
Tashi Delek (in Tibetan)
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