Dharmasala, India Of Monks and Yetis

So I’m in Dharamsala. In particular, the region called McLeod Ganj, which is the headquarters of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and home to His Holiness, the Richard Gere.

His Holiness settled here in 1959 as a refugee under the protection of the Indian government. He was on the run from the Chinese. After a decade of harassment, destruction, and torture, the Tibetan leadership decided they had no other choice but to get the hell out of there. A few hundred pilgrims, the Richard Gere included, made the journey on foot through the Himalayas to Dharamsala. They’ve been steadily bringing refugees over ever since; 10,000 in Dharamsala and another 110,000 spread throughout the rest of India, though there are still millions more held prisoner in their own homeland under the brutally oppressive Chinese government.

Since escaping Tibet, the Richard Gere has showcased his poor acting ability in a string of mediocre films. He can also sing, dance, and take pictures, all very badly.

You know, the term "human rights abuse" is overused. We use it as a catchall for everything from denial of free speech to public dismemberment. We really shouldn’t do that. To me, there’s an enormous distinction. I, for one, find it a whole lot easier to be apathetic about safe workplace conditions than genital electrocution. If the various organizations working to free Tibet would wise up and call it what it is, they’d have had my attention a long time ago.

Anyway, from all indications, the Tibetans are living happy, prosperous lives here, free from the fear of having their genitals electrocuted. The area is frequented by an enormous number of Indian tourists in addition to a healthy supply of dirty, guitar-playing, Israeli treehuggers, and they all seem thrilled to be in close proximity to the devastatingly cool people of Tibet.

There’s something immediately striking about these folks and I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like it before. They have incredible dignity, a placid, unassuming nature, and welcoming smiles for everyone who comes to visit their settlement. Perhaps it’s enhanced by the contrast with Delhi and its many horrors, but I’m just floored by how wonderful these people are. If anyone needs proof of the emotional benefits of meditation, come check this place out.

Here’s a monk shooting hoops.

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McLeod Ganj is perched on a mesa two kilometers above sea level, far from the sweltering heat and pollution below.

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The air is fresh and clean and you don’t have to pick wads of black tar out of your nose three times a day, which is nice. The mountains are vast, green, and everywhere. The only view that isn’t beautiful is looking straight down at the ground. While I appreciate that they want to get back to their home and all, there are refugees who’ve gotten lots worse deals than this.

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Food and accommodation are only a few dollars a day. There are book stores, net cafes, bars, makeshift movie theaters (darkened room, TV, DVD player), everything you’d need to stay here for a long time; which is exactly what a whole lot of people do. Some of them are pretty annoying. For example, that know-it-all, robe-wearing, faux-buddhist chucklehead with the exciting facial hair who you couldn’t stand listening to in high school — he’s here and he’s packing all new ammo. But it’s easy enough to get past that.

Celebrities show up from time to time and leave their signed territorial pissings on the walls. You’ve got your Harrison Fords and your Pierce Brosnans and your Goldie Hawns. In addition to that, there are also monkeys. Much like celebrities, they run across the rooftops naked, howling at ordinary people and occasionally peeing on them.

The monkeys are mostly your garden variety, but Tom and I had one experience that pretty much explained away the Yeti myth as far as I’m concerned. We were walking down the path between the central village and the monastery when Tom spotted something in the trees down below. While he’s indifferent to the monkey population, he has an amazing aptitude for spotting them that I do not share. The thing came closer and stood upright to look at us. It had thick white fur that made it look twice its real size, and a highly expressive, pitch-black face. It stood more than waist-high, and could probably have kicked my ass.

I shuffled for my camera, which somehow startled it into charging straight at us. When it was about ten feet away and approaching at full speed, it leaped in the air straight at Tom — who, incidentally, didn’t even flinch. But instead of wrestling Tom to the ground and biting his nose off, it grabbed a hanging branch and rocketed up into the canopy of trees. It jumped over us onto another branch that looked more than ready to snap under the strain, then plummeted back down to ground level on the other side of us. As it was disappearing into the foliage again, it stopped to look back and I caught a mediocre picture of it, which somewhat conveys its Yeti-like appearance.
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Mind you, this happened fifty meters outside of town.

We visited the temple complex in the monastery of his holiness, the Richard Gere. If there’s a center of Mahayana Buddhism in the world today, it’s right there. And yet the striking thing about the place is how amazingly accessible it is. You can go right in there and you don’t need to worry about whether you’re sitting in the right position. They don’t care if you’re wearing a backpack, shorts, and sunglasses. You don’t have to follow their rituals and practices. There’s no pomp and pageantry. You’re free to experience it in your own way and they just hope you get something worthwhile out of being there.

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Religious centers aren’t generally like that.

The Richard Gere isn’t in town at the moment. He spends much of his time doing speaking engagements to raise international awareness on the struggle of the Tibetan people…and also that the whole gerbil story is totall y an urban legend.
It becomes a little transparent at times that the friendliness of the Tibetan people toward westerners has at least a little bit to do with how desperately they need us. It’s an unfortunate reality that the US is one of the only governments able to stand up to the Chinese and call them on their bullshit. Our willingness to do so relies heavily on how much we know and care about the situation. So while their spirituality and generally pleasant demeanors are certainly factors, I get the feeling they’re on their best behavior around us so we’ll go home and rave about them…which is what I’m doing.

Tom and I spent a day hiking through the mountains and surrounding villages.

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These are some of the locals who inhabited the area long before the Tibetans showed up.

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I don’t even want to think about how much work went into leveling the ground for this soccer field. Nothing is flat up here. You couldn’t even put a drink down without a shovel.

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At least it’s getting some use.

The bus ride from Delhi to Dharamsala was fifteen hours overnight at breakneck speed through the foothills of the Himalayas. The seats in front of us were broken so they were permanently reclined on our knees. The fans didn’t work. There was no hope of sleep. It was easily one of the top five most agonizing experiences of my life.

And to make matters worse, I had to sit behind Jason Vorhees from the Friday the 13th movies.

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He didn’t seem to be up for hacking anyone to pieces. I guess he was on vacation.

Before leaving Delhi to come up here, Tom and I went on the obligatory day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and take the same damn picture everyone else takes.

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Here it is up close.

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I’d say it was pretty, but really, nothing is pretty in 117 degree heat. Everything is either shade or not shade. The Taj Mahal is shade. I can definitely say that for it.

The entrance fee for the Mahal (as I like to call it when I need to save time) is a modest $0.50.,,That is, of course, unless you have pale skin. Whitey has to fork over $17.00 for the privilege. The steep price is, of course, designed to reduce the quantity of visitors, who are apparently causing structural damage to the monument by standing near it in such large numbers.

Nevermind the throngs of locals, something has to be done about those two sweaty white guys with the thick wallets before this place is destroyed.

But not to worry, that price includes a complimentary English-speaking guide at no extra cost — unless you count the money he hits you up for at the end.

This was a pretty good example of the divergent attitudes Tom and I have about sightseeing. Good-natured, college-educated Tom was happy to have someone around who could answer questions, indulge curiosities, and point out nuances that would go unnoticed by the casual observer. Me, I just wanted a couple pictures and a ride back to the train station. I am a simple man.

Even that was unattainable, though. In a further effort to reduce environmental damage to the Taj (as I like to call it when I’m in a really big hurry), they’ve prohibited vehicles from getting within 4 kilometers.

Nevermind that black cloud of sulfur floating down from Delhi, let’s create a magical make-believe barrier so whitey can get some more sun.

On the train back to Delhi, we met a really nice Sikh family from the south and spent the whole four hour ride exchanging facial contortions.

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We talked to a really smart young woman who was racing back home to be with her new husband. He’s an engineer, she’s working toward a masters degree in English literature. Their marriage was arranged, but she gave no indication of being anything less than thrilled with the guy.

Arranged marriages are something I’ve heard a lot about, but this was the first time I’d ever spoken to a woman about it who was actually in one. Just putting a face to it changed my views a little. I mean, she’s an educated person and she seemed really happy about it. And our system of doing things certainly has its flaws. A lot of stuff about gender relations in India really irks me, but arranged marriage is one thing I’m kind of reluctant to pass judgment on.

…wait a minute, no. That’s insane. Forget I said anything.

We spent a couple days back in Delhi before heading up to Dharamsala. In that time we met up with an old friend of Tom’s mother. He’s a mathematics professor at the University of Delhi, specializing in game theory. It was never spelled out for me completely, but I got the feeling he was a pretty big deal in the field. He and his wife took us to dinner with some friends of their son named Kapil and Suchi.

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We hit it off with Kapil and Suchi and ended up spending the next couple nights hanging out with them in our hotel room. Over the course of several conversations, they managed to dispel every notion — both preconceived and acquired — that I had about Delhizens in general.

The main thing was their sophistication when it came to western movies, music, and television. I have a hard enough time understanding how Wes Anderson films became available to them. I can’t imagine how they manage to relate to and appreciate stuff like Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. India is in a completely different world from that; a really insular world that bombards its people with more than enough media of their own. So hearing them quote Simpsons episodes and debate the merits of old Radiohead versus new Radiohead really took me by surprise. They politely tolerated our repeated dumbfoundedness.

Kapil does web design and Suchi, in her spare time, works with children in the poorest slums of Delhi. She gave me a thorough rundown of the caste system and described as best she could what life is like for the lowest of the lowest of the low.

Good people.