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Tashi delek (hello), Dalai Lama!

I heard that the Dalai Lama would give a public talk to a group of Mongolian Buddhists (with English translations) in his home town of McLeod Ganj.  Kanda, the village I stayed in, is only one state south of here. And I didn’t want to miss the rare opportunity to see the Nobel peace prize winner known for his legendary clear sightedness and compassion.

McLeod Ganj is nicknamed ‘Little Lhasa’ because this is the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration in exile.  It had been the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatsho, since he fled Tibet in 1959 to avoid persecution by the Chinese communist government.  Today, it is a political asylum for many Tibetan refugees and also a place to preserve Tibetan language and culture.

A photo Tenzin Wangdak shared with me

A photo Tenzin Wangdak shared with me

Since the Dalai Lama arrived here, McLeod Ganj has undoubtedly become a rite of passage for backpackers in India.  There are the new age Western spiritual seekers. And then the nature lovers who enjoy trekking the high Himalayas.  And finally, the adventure seekers who risk their lives riding Enfield motorcycles further up north to the stunning and desolate mountain regions of Spiti and Ladakh.  And of course, the long-haired hippies are a staple feature of touristy India.  For all, it’s a welcome respite from the big cities which can be overwhelming.

The small town is at an elevation of 1800 meters above sea level.  It’s cooler up here and the streets are narrow and hilly.  They are lined with tourist touts, but it’s surprisingly quiet, and has a definite spiritual feel to it.  Maybe it’s all the red-robed monks walking around quietly.

The distance between Kanda and McLeod Ganj is about 500 km.  But for the public transport bound it is a 43-hour uneventful journey.  The journey consists of a half-day car ride, an overnight train ride, followed by an another overnight bus ride.  The rides themselves are comfortable if it weren’t for the awkwardly timed long layovers.  Especially, those moments when you are forced to figure out the logistics of peeing at an Indian train station with a ten-pound backpack strapped to your back at 3 am   It really got me questioning the value of my own life.

Relieved, in more ways than one, I finally arrived in McLeod Ganj at 5 in the morning.  When the sun rose, I was immediately greeted with delicious parathas (Indian flat-bread) and spectacular views of the Dhaluadhars mountain range from my window!  The value of my life has become more apparent.

View from my hotel in McLeod Ganj

View from my hotel in McLeod Ganj

But it quickly dawned on me that I had a big problem.  I hadn’t done my research to know that the town practically shutdowns in the winter. The Buddhist philosophy classes, guided-meditation retreats, and yoga centers shift to the warmer south of the 60’s hippie haven of Goa and Kerala.  Even the hard-core long-haired hippies have gone south.  What was I doing here?

When Paulo Coelho wrote, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” I’m pretty sure he was thinking of me.  Travellers like me who lack the practicality to plan a trip.  But somehow things always work out in the end.

One evening, I was lucky enough to meet Adam, a sweet and exceptionally open-minded American who is studying Buddhist philosophy on peace building and conflict resolution.  An important tenet of Buddhism, like other Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, is its practice of Ahimsa – compassion and non-violence towards all living things.  Born in Israel, Adam’s year-long scholarship to various Buddhist countries to understand this subject is more personal than just academic.

Adam would later introduce me to an ordained Buddhist monk, Tenzin Wandak, with whom I enjoyed meeting with almost daily for lunch or tea.  He patiently answered our questions and shed insight into Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.  Tenzin escaped from Tibet to India to become an ordained monk at the age of 15.  The ordination procedure for Buddhist monks, know, as the ‘Going forth’, includes the daily practice of vows they have committed to take for the rest of their lives.  Vows include, abstaining from lying, harming or taking another life, stealing etc.

He also ended up accompanying us on a day-trek to mount Triund where I learnt the art of Buddhist rational debating!  The Buddha encouraged everyone to be critical and question their own religion, and only accept a teaching when it makes sense to them.  And this is how monks sharpen their critical skills and tested their ability to explain and debate various teachings.  At the end of a debate you yell, “Tsa! Tsa!” to show that you have won.  It’s so much fun!

I couldn’t have planned a better way to learn about Buddhism 🙂

Hiking mount Triund with Tenzin Wandak, Adam and Carol.

Hiking mount Triund with Tenzin Wandak, Adam and Carol. Adam and Tenzin had a Buddhist style intense debate on smoke, fire and dependent arising.

For more photos from McLeod see: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152324881175193.937597.726530192&type=1&l=2b349f7e17

My stay at R.O.S.E Kanda so far (by Vid)

Note: This is a lengthy blog, so I’ve broken them into two posts…but get a pot of chai ready!

In the short time I’ve been here I’ve learnt a few of things about living in rural India.  The most important lesson is that I have no business being here.

Secondly, I have learnt that I’m not the only one who is eager to build toilets.  The project that attracted me to come out here was the opportunity to build toilets to improve the sanitary conditions in rural India.  The Kanda community faces many common rural health issues, many of which could be eradicated through education and simple infrastructure. One primary concern is the contamination of the water supply by excreta-borne diseases. This is almost entirely due to the common practice of open-air defecation in the fields.  One of the projects run by R.O.S.E is the uses of a twin tank composting toilet that is easy to build and maintain, and yields a nutrient-rich compost that can safely be used in the fields.  In addition to sanitation, these toilets offer privacy to women who are dangerously taught to wait until the cover of night to relieve themselves, no matter how many hours away that many be.

Kanda women carrying compost for organic farming

Kanda women carrying compost for organic farming

This is something that Jeevan Verma, founder of R.O.S.E, wants to change and educate the locals about.  But it looks like it’s not just him and I that want to build up toilets.  The toilets were already built by other volunteers before I got here!  While I’m delighted to see that the community has two new safe and sanitary public toilets, I’m also secretly disappointed.  I want to build a toilet, dammit!

Newly constructed toilet with twin-tank composting system

But there is enough work around here to prevent me from proposing the construction of a third toilet.  Most adults in Kanda aren’t educated in English nor do they have computer skills. So they rely heavily on volunteers to help them out.  This is why I’m settling into a familiar role of working with computers.  My work here is to gather, learn and consolidate information for online publishing (Facebook and website updates).

The goal is to raise more awareness and attract like-minded volunteers and much needed donations.

Here is my to-do list:

  1. Capture photos of current project progress
  2. Write about future project plans and associated costs with detailed breakdown
  3. Create and upload a video showing living conditions and what to expect for potential volunteers
  4. Set up an online donation form and PayPal account for faster and easier international donations
  5. Create a webpage with transportation and accommodation instructions (Kanda is so remote that it takes two full days to get here from Delhi – more on that in another blog post)

I hope that I am able to accomplish all of these and help the community in a small way.  My biggest obstacle will be the extremely slow and unreliable internet access.  I am in awe of the patience people have here. That will be my personal challenge.  I have come to appreciate the things I’ve taken for granted like a fast computer, internet access, or no power cuts. But that’s part of life in rural India.  You’ve got to go with the flow to enjoy it.

Jeevan Verma (ROSE founder and my host-family) posing at his plant nursery. The plants are given to the locals to plant in their homes.  Not only does it provide the family with fruits, but it also prevents soil erosion in the area.

My biggest pleasure will come from taking photos of the beautiful scenery and the people that live here. The locals are very easy to chat with – there’s no formality and they love to invite you over to their house for tea or dinner.  I’ve never seen people so accommodating in letting me intrude in on their privacy as I put my big fat camera lens in their faces and homes.  This is a photo-enthusiast paradise. Things move in a slow but constant pace and I’m quite enjoying the change and stress-free lifestyle!