Monks, Monkeys and Mountains in Mcleod Ganj

India 2013

Thursday, March 14:

This afternoon I will regretfully check out of the pretty little Hotel Ladies Venture - so named by the previous owners, a couple of adventurous and enterprenerial ladies, apparently - and move uptown to the Hotel India House.

My sore leg requires sleep; my sore leg keeps me awake. What kind of universe is that? I’ll take it as a cue to get up and exercise it a bit. Galumphing down the stairs is difficult, but not so difficult as yesterday. Ditto schlepping up the hill, so I just keep going. All the way up Jogibara Road to the Main Chowk.

This whole map (courtesy Lonely Planet) is about 1 km high. So my morning limp is only a little over 500 metres. Turning right on the Bhagsu Road, and just a little past my soon to be residence, I find Nick’s Café and his “American Breakfast.” Heavenly hash browns, eggs over easy, latte, and fresh O.J. Other than the inconvenient combo of lukewarm toast and rock-hard butter, this is just like home.

Nick’s terrace offers a grand view of McLeod Ganj's valley. The snow-capped mountains are just to the left of this shot, and Hotel India House is to the right.

After breakfast, I want to check out places to volunteer. The only disadvantage of being at the top of the hill is that all three of them are back down the hill, and descending is much harder on my leg than ascending. But though I’m still in pain, I’m not in as much worry. There is steady improvement and I feel certain it’s just a matter of time, rest and ice.

My first stop takes me down beyond the Ladies Venture to Learning & Ideas for Tibet. At L.I.T., they have daily conversation circles and classes, plus something I am really interested in: helping to edit the autobiographies of Tibetan political prisoners and exiles. I’m disappointed to find no one at the desk, but excited to peek into a classroom and surreptitiously experience my first Indian ESL class. Not so different from my ESL experiences in Toronto: teacher at chalkboard, students at desks writing and listening. What was I expecting? People sitting in a circle on the ground making marks in the sand with sticks?

Fortunately, my next stop, the Hope Education Centre, is right next door to L.I.T. A slew of people is filing past me into a yard fenced in by a low brick wall.

The last one in line, guiding the group like a shepherd, is a soft faced young man. He’s telling people in a calm, friendly Irish accent "just go over there and grab a chair."
“Are you a volunteer here?” I ask.
“I’m acting coordinator. Name’s Pat. Yours?”

He’s pretty inviting and friendly for a guy in charge of such a quickly moving herd. He whisks me along to join with the others, and before I know what’s hit me, I’ve grabbed a red plastic chair and am paired up with a Tibetan monk and another volunteer tutor named Jo from New Zealand. We start talking and the monk launches right into a rant – to the extent a monk would ever rant - and in very broken English - on Tibet and China.

Coordinator Pat seated next to a H.E.C. conversation circle student, Kenrab.

At H.E.C., the volunteers write down the students' answers to the prompt, and each one gets a chance to read at the end.

Going around the circle at H.E.C.

I must apologize to Pat and take my leave before class has finished. Noon is check out time at the Hotel Ladies Venture. I am really excited to return tomorrow and promise to do so. Hope’s classes are from 11-12, while L.I.T. and my third volunteering option, Lha, have classes scheduled in the late afternoon. I can see doing two a day.

I spend the rest of Thursday icing my leg (my tiny fridge has an even tinier freezer. Bonus!) and just wandering, doing internet errands and talking to a couple of travel agents about options for travel to Delhi. Understandably, I’m not interested in retracing my steps via the Kangra Valley Express, though I might like to search out a certain water buffalo with some bruised ribs. The idea of seeing another town, like Rishikesh or Dehradun vs. staying put here in Dharamsala for two weeks is still unresolved, but as I talk to the travel agents, I can feel myself leaning toward remaining here, teaching, kibitzing, shopping and maybe making some music if the TIPA purchase goes well.


Friday, March 15:

This morning, I have breakfast in the room (oranges and McVitties Digestive biscuits. Yumm.) waiting for a call from Penpa from TIPA. The call doesn't come, but no worries. I have plenty of time, and besides, I enjoy taking pictures and movies from my teeny balcony.

Here is a short clip taken from my balcony at Hotel India House. Monkeys in the garbage and a cat on a hot tin roof.

India House Terrace View

Beautiful little red, blue and green parrot? woodpecker? feeding on fungus.

The conversation circle at Hope Education Centre starts at 11:00. They have a routine. Pat gives out a piece of paper with the day's "assignment." It's really just a prompt and a jumping off point. Because today is Friday, the topic a little more light hearted:
You're stranded on a desert island.
a) List 5 things of a practical nature you would bring with you, and
b) 5 things of a personal nature.

In other words 5 need-to-haves and 5 like-to-haves.

I'm a little nervous, so the ESL teacher side of me is looking for things like the spelling of desert vs. dessert, use of the conditional 'I would like' followed by the infinitive 'to have' and blah blah blah, but my young student starts right in talking, and I soon realize that's what it's all about - talking practice. His name is Lobsang Palden, and he's the same age as my son, James. Beautiful face and smile that seems to be controlled by a switch connected to the heart. They have that in common.

L to R: Lobsang Palden, Me, and Student whose name I forgot. Three items from Palden's list stick in my mind. On the 'personal nature' side, 1) his laptop 2) a wife for companionship and 3) a copy of the Dalai Lama's speech on This Precious Human Life. The laptop would be powered by a solar panel from the 'practical nature' list.

The Dalai Lama really is a leader here. In the west, we tend to think of him as a wise man, a great thinker, maybe a pacifist fighting an uphill battle to save his nation. But I am immediately struck with how present he is in the minds of his people. His picture is everywhere. He is referred to in almost every conversation I have with a Tibetan. He is beloved. Perhaps that's the kernel of my surprise. In the west, politicians are not revered or beloved because they are not revere-able or loveable. Wisdom and kindness are long-lost traits in Ottawa and on Capitol Hill. We are stuck in the faulty reasoning that says a compassionate leader is a weak leader. Imagine if we got unstuck.


After class I head downhill to the Tsuglagkhang complex which houses the Dalai Lama's home, two temples, the Tibet Museum and the little known Buddhist Institute of Dialectics, to pay a visit to a very old friend of Darrol's, Ven. Geshe Kelsang Dadul. Kelsang is a member of the Tibetan Parliament and met Darrol some 20 years ago. A venerable humble gentleman, he brings me straight into his office when he hears I bring greetings from Dr. Bryant. He wants to know how Darrol is doing, wants to know all about who I am and what my trip has been like. Not a word about himself. By the time our visit is over, I have less than 30 minutes to see the rest of the complex. Some monks have just finished an energized debating session and are now sitting and chanting something peaceful and almost mesmerizing. I'll be back another day, or perhaps several.

Monks singing outside the Kalachakra Temple in the Tsuglagkhang complex.


At 4, there is another conversation circle I want to try out. It's at Lha. Lha is a Tibetan word used to translate the Sanskrit deva, meaning “deity,” “god,” or “divine.” There's nothing particularly divine about the appearance of Lha, but the work they do is another story.

Walking up the steps into Lha

I am paired up with a man in his mid 30's in a purple robe. I don't know what order he is part of, but his name in Janpa. He's from Tibet's Kham region and he seems not very happy. At Lha there is no prompt. Just introduce yourselves and get talking. He - like all the Tibetans so far - pronounces my name Liu. Janpa immediately launches into a story about a long illness and his long road to a cure. After years of trying traditional Tibetan medicine, he checked himself into a hospital, where an ultrasound revealed two kidneys full of large stones. He has very little money, certainly nowhere near the 180,000 rupees (about $3,000 Cdn) needed for an operation, so he set about finding a way to raise it. I was surprised to hear his monastery could't help him. He tried to see the Karmapa Lama, but was turned away at the gate. Finally a charity here in McLeod loaned him a portion of the money and wrote letters on Janpa's behalf to raise the rest.

The story is being told to me in very broken English, so I don't completely understand all the details, but I do get that he had the operation, it was a success and he is now extremely grateful for the 1½ kidneys that remain.

Janpa also tells me that he has a very difficult time in meditation.
"Why?" I ask.
"My mind very very bee zee."
"Yes. Thinking, thinking, thinking all the time."

I laugh and tell him it makes me feel very good to know an actual monk has the same problem I have. I remember something Pema Chödrön had to say on the subject, how powerful the busy mind can be and how it distracts us from the beauty of the present moment. Janpa smiles at this. He had never heard of Pema, nor of her teacher Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche. I begin to get a sense of how huge and varied Buddhism is. Janpa further surprises me by saying he could not complete the Buddhist Philosophy course. I presumed one has to pass everything to become ordained. I ask him if that was o.k. with his superiors. "Yes. Of course. The most important thing to learn is to be kind, not to learn Philosophy. Compassion and love are the main parts of all religions." This is coming from a man whose father and two uncles died in a Chinese prison and who escaped Tibet with two young nephews (also monks) in tow.


For dinner I choose Spicy Szechuan chicken from the multipage multinational menu at the Tibet Kitchen on the Main Chowk. It's multi flavoured and delicious. Then home to a nice bath and early to bed. What a fabulous day. I ticked 3 big things off my to-do list, but it's way more than that. I know I'm building a whole mountain of memories for myself, and possibly a hill or two for the people I've met. Tomorrow is another day full of possibility. I'll drop by Dr. Yeshi Dhonden to try to get a token (part of some strange system they've concocted for getting an appointment with this much sought after old medicine man), then up to TIPA to meet the only artist who isn't touring, Norbu Samphel, to get a few tips of how to play the Dranyen and the Piwang, and then there's a little open mic session at 7 pm in the café attached to the Hope Education Centre. Just another day in paradise.

Happy Reading!

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