Posts Tagged ‘Dharamsala’

North Tour: Dharamsala: An antidote for hubbub

April 19, 2011

Monday, 7 March

DHARAMSALA: Hubbub is an unintentional, unavoidable side effect of manmade monuments.

I have never visited a famous structure anywhere in the world devoid of human hustle and bustle (at least during operating hours). As we saw at The Golden Temple yesterday, people will inevitably come if a place is worth visiting. Where people go, chaos follows. Only natural beauty can be exempt of the undertone of human noise, but as we noticed on the beaches of Goa, that’s no guarantee of silence. Great places always attract great masses of people, in turn transforming them into tourist traps. And tourist traps are not tranquil places.

At least, that’s what I thought before visiting the Dalai Lama’s house today.

Amidst steep green hills and towering snow-capped mountains, we saw our share of foreigners in Dharamsala. There may have been more tourists from outside India than in, and they appeared to have come a long way. Westerners in NFL jackets walked amidst Buddhist monks in maroon and yellow robes. This was a place for tourists.

But it wasn’t really a tourist place. It didn’t have the feel of one, anyhow.

Hubbub was utterly absent. The quietness was striking. Maybe it had something to do with the surrounding air, brought in chilly gusts with a far lower concentration of car exhaust than in most parts of India. The omnipresent pine trees visible for miles in every direction cleaned the air effectively, and the thin winding roads nearby weren’t SUV friendly anyway. The silence wasn’t quite pindrop, but it was close.

Quietness is another of those things that’s hard to come by in India, so it’s even more rewarding when it comes. Walking through Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama’s modest abode, there was no need to speak. Sometimes beauty requires no spoken words.

As we were about to leave, I spotted a man wearing a Chicago White Sox baseball cap.

Chicago’s two baseball teams – the Cubs and White Sox – are bitter enemies. Tension between the teams is always high. Banter between fans of opposing allegiances has the propensity to escalate. At each of the team’s six matchups every year, fights inevitably break out in the stands. It’s not a friendly rivalry.

I pulled my Cubs hat out of my backpack and put it on.

I looked at him.

Seconds later, the man looked at me.

Something came alive in his eyes as he saw the hat I was wearing. He was in the midst of a conversation as he saw me, but it seemed to lull for just a moment. It had just taken a split-second for a connection to be made between us. No matter that we were over 8,000 miles from Chicago. He knew the meaning, the history, and the symbolism behind our headgear, and so did I.

He looked away and continued conversing with his friend.

There was no need to disturb the peace.



North Tour: Amritsar, Wagah & Dharamsala: Everytime we touch

April 18, 2011

7 March

DHARAMSALA: It’s past 4 a.m. as I write this, and by the time I finish, the sun could be on its way up. The air temperature is just above freezing in a hotel so cold its water pipes might be frozen. Jordan, Nikokas and I have two large rooms with large beds, large sofas and large chairs. There’s a lot of options for distributing our body space.

But all I want to do is curl into a ball and keep myself warm. This space seems far too generous in light of the living arrangements of the day and night past.

India is known for its crowds. In malls and in train stations. On the streets and in bazaars. In movie theaters and in candy stores. If you can’t see a wall of humanity in an Indian city, it’s probably because you can’t see. And even if you’re blind, it’s impossible not to hear it, smell it, breathe it in or push yourself against it.

Today – rather, yesterday – I experienced three very different kinds of crowds.

Our sightseeing began in the afternoon with a visit to India’s largest Gudhwara (Sikh temple) – Amritsar’s Golden Temple. It’s hard for me to decide what I found more remarkable about the place – the sheer size and grandiosity of it, or the number of people it was able to enclose.

In spite of the elegant architecture, it was probably the latter.

Thousands of pilgrims were herded through a queue two meters wide and two hundred meters long to get to the main temple in the center of the complex. From the back of the line, RK told us getting through would be about a 40-minute trip.

About 20 minutes later, a man told us we’d probably have to wait an additional hour or so.

It took even longer.

I stood with Anaïs, Jordan, Sam and Serenity. Though Nikolas, Kelsey, Amanda and Nisha stood two arms-lengths away, that was much too far to attempt any kind of communication. Sometimes we’d look down and be unable to see the ground. The 32-degree (C) midday heat was bearing down relentlessly, testing our tolerance for each other, our sweat, and our accompanying smells. Every five minutes or so, two guards would lift a wooden barricade at spaced intervals, and the mob would shuffle, shoulder and push its way into each inch of remaining space.

Yet the experience was not an unpleasant one.

I was always surrounded by people I knew. I felt no need to worry about the friendliness of the touches I was receiving. Even were I to have been alone in the crowd, the atmosphere would have been a cordial one; the pilgrims were only there to worship, not plunder, grope or steal. The closeness was reassurance. Getting to the end was the reward. After nearly two hours of standing in line, we got there.

The crowd gathered at Wagah’s India-Pakistan border was a rather different one.

I traveled within a stone’s throw or two of Pakistan yesterday, but before you keel out of whatever you’re sitting in with horror, don’t subject yourself to misinformation. Wagah, on the Punjab border, is a safe place from which to take a look at India’s closest neighbor. Just before sunset, we went to observe the closing of the international border, an elaborate ceremony of pomp, military marches and patriotic songs. Thousands of observers, including a sizeable smattering of tourists, gathered to see soldiers conduct an elaborate ceremony complete with high leg kicks, tri-color flag-waving, and fluffy red hats.

This happens every day, by the way.

Patriotism abounded on both sides of the border. On India’s side, I recognized several patriotic anthems from the years of independence such as Vande Mataram. The chants seemed to start spontaneously. Like at a college basketball game, half the crowd would holler one word, and the other would recite its complement back. There was no doubting the crowd’s nationalism and the fervor with which they demonstrated it. It was an excited crowd, but not an angry one.

The thing is, Pakistan didn’t look all that different from the country whose soil I was standing on. The distant yells from the grandstands across the border implied Pakistanis sound about the same, too. But 100 meters away was a country with different laws, different ways of life, and a completely different perception to the outside world. There’s a long, sad, story behind the border separating these two countries, and I saw the sun set right over it.

I think I finally understand why Indians and RYE students have such different attitudes towards personal space. In a country of 1.2 billion people, space is limited, and given what’s been fought for it, space has an additional value. In public, personal space can be impossible to find, so it’s flaunted and cherished in private. Go into almost any upper-class living room and you’ll find the furniture spread as widely as possible. The bigger the house, the more space to stretch out. And the homes IYE students stay in tend to give us far more room than we need.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having room to stretch your legs while watching TV. I’m certainly not going to ask our host families to move into smaller homes. But there’s something to be said for closeness. Ask exchange students in Central India what they miss most about their home country’s culture, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it’s physical contact. In India, a handshake is usually as close as it gets, even for long-time-no-sees. Even hugs are traditionally taboo.

Granted, you will often see young men holding hands as they walk the street. At least with their friends, such men are unabashed with physical contact, unafraid to link hands (or even legs). In contrast, you’ll see male/female couples holding hands about as often as you’ll see foreigners, and usually in the same kinds of places.

It’s not exactly Brazil.

We’ve spent a lot of time in cramped quarters lately – in trains, buses and jeeps with little leg- or shoulder-room to spare. But there’s something that’s bearable, even desirable about that discomfort when you’re pressed against the right people. Amidst ourselves, crowdedness isn’t just easy to find, it’s sought after – probably even more than in our home countries. Given the culture into which we’ve been dropped, it’s understandable. Likewise, I can understand when Indians find Western intimacy appalling. With everyday life in India, the humanity is inescapable. Crowds are easy to find.

But when you’re crowded against the right people, it’s a different kind of crowd.


North Tour Preview: Where I’ll be from 28 February to 25 March

February 27, 2011

How many people have the chance to visit the Taj Mahal?

Now how many people who visit the Taj Mahal can claim it may not be the most interesting thing they do in a 26-day stretch?

Once again, I’m incredibly lucky to be on a month long tour of India, and this one looks to be even better than the last. The Taj Mahal in Agra is like The Great Wall of China, The Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa all rolled into one. It’s the first piece of architecture that comes to mind when one thinks of India. It’s one of the wonders of the world.

But I can’t say it’s the most exciting thing I have to look forward to on this tour.

So if not the Taj Mahal, what is?

The Pink City of Jaipur and its monumental palaces? A camel ride through Rajasthan and a nighttime campout in the desert? Dharamsala, a monastery wherein the Dalai Lama resides? Manali, perhaps the only place in India I’m likely to step in snow? White-water rafting in Himachal Pradesh? Delhi, the capital of India and the site of monuments such as the Red Fort, the India Gate, and Lotus Temple? Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest cities, on the banks of the Ganges River? Darjeeling, which provides a view of the third-highest peak in the world, Mt. Kanchenjunga? Gangtok, where we’ll celebrate Holi at two miles above sea level? Kolkata, the cultural capital of India?

I can’t tell you now.

But four weeks from now, when I’ve completed all that and more, I should be able to.