Staying Put in McLeod Ganj

India 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013:

Today I'm starting my last week in India. Between teaching at two schools, taking lessons on dranyen and piwang, practicing, and seeing the things I want to see, it will be a busy one. This morning I head down the the Hope Education Centre for an 11 - 12:00 conversation circle. I am matched up with two students, Venn, whom you met two chapters ago, and Kenrab.

Kenrab reads to the group.

At the end of class, I overhear Susan, a volunteer from Australia, asking Pat if she can teach an extra grammar class. "The students need some grammar on top of their conversation practice," she says. Pat replies, "There's an empty room. If you can fill it, you can use it." I jump in and offer to lend a hand. We agree to team teach tomorrow at noon. So Pat makes an announcement in his fine Irish lilt, that "after class tomorrow, Susan & Lou will be offering an extra class if anyone's interested."

From the H.E.C., I head up to Nick's Café patio for my very first music lesson with Chung Den. I really don't know what to expect, but I'm ready as I'll ever be, and open to field whatever he throws my way.

Chung Den at his 'office' on the patio of Nick's Café.

To my surprise, Chung Den writes everything down by hand for me. We start with a regular old major scale, ascending and descending. Everything except the 5th note gets played with an upstroke of the dranyen's wooden pick, as indicated by the arrows above the numbers 1 to 7 in the top two lines. The third line is double notes: up-down, up-down, up-down, and then triples, d-d-u, d-d-u, d-d-u. The bottom 3 lines are the beginning of a song. In fact, it's Shiveh Khang Seng, one of the songs he played last night at the concert. (See previous chapter)

I mention having met Norbu Samphel up at TIPA. "Norbu was one of my students," he tells me, "when I taught at TIPA." So I know I've found the real thing. Chung Den's explanations are very clear and I get the feeling he's happy to be teaching a Westerner. Tibetan culture is an endangered species, and it seems to be part of his mission to disseminate it in any way possible. I fold up my precious paper into my damien case for later practice.


Now it's off to the Dalai Lama's place (Tsuglagkhang Complex) to catch the monks debating in the Gompa. Finally. Been wanting to see this since I got here. On the way, I run into Tyom, the Russian guitar enthusiast guy I met in the hat shop last week. He asks me if I want to hang out. Mostly I don't, but he's such a nice fellow in his shy kind of way, I say yes. I follow him up to his $2/night guest house. And I mean UP. There's got to be 250 stairs, winding up the mountain between narrow alleys. We have tea on his terrace with an outstanding view of the valley, where I give him a guitar lesson. The monks' debate will have to wait for another time.

Heading back down is the worst on my injured leg, and I barely have time to grab lunch before my 4:00 conversation circle at Lha. About 20 students and 4 volunteers crowd into a 12 x 12-foot room and sit on the floor, in 4 bunches of 6. I tell my group my name and they inform me that Lou means sheep in Tibetan. I baaa for them. They introduce themselves: Kunga Dawa, Ta Chi, Yama Tsering, Tsering Llamo and Tsering Llamo. No, you're not reading double. Two young women are named Tsering Llamo, AND they are best friends. The group then has fun discussing ambitions, goals and dreams. I learn that thank you in Tibetan is tu chi na. Upon leaving, we are all full of tu chi na's for each other.

At 6:30, there will be a candle-light vigil for the most recent self-immolation in Tibet. I plan to participate, but have an hour to spare, so I pop into one of McLeod Ganj's numerous internet cafés. I plan to upload a few pics to the folks back home, but when I put my card in the USB reader, and plug the reader into the computer, I get an error message. "CARD NOT RECOGNIZED." (If you read Chapter 18, you already know about this, as I stepped out of my present tense time warp to zoom ahead to today as a way of explaining a dearth of pictures and movies. You may skip to the next paragraph. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.) I eject the card from the computer as quickly as possible, pull it out of the reader as though it was contaminated, and put it in my camera. "CARD ERROR," says Mr. Canon Sure Shot. I feel something like cold death sweeping over my body. This can't be happening. Well, it is happening. My pictures and movies of the last 12 days are kaput. Gone and irretrievable. All that care in framing, lighting, all that delight in getting just the right shot, in capturing each beautiful exciting incredible one-of-a-kind momentous moment, is forever gone bye-bye.

Crushed and angry, my ego is poised to do its usual dive into the depths of Poor Me. It starts to remember all the events, torturing me with each specific image and movie that used to be, pining like a heart-sick teenager... And then I hear the chanting. The vigil is beginning to move down Jogiwara Road toward the Tsuglagkhang Complex. Hundreds of Tibetans, walking double-file holding candles with little cardboard candle holders that double as wind shields, chanting under the direction of a couple of megaphoned volunteer leaders.

As I walk along with them, trying to learn the syllables of the chant, my unconscious is being gently massaged into realizing that my troubles don't amount to a hill of beans compared to the people I'm walking with. I'm not aware of this massage, but within about 20 minutes, I suddenly notice I am not clinging to loss, and the feeling of trauma has disappeared.

Lobsang Thokmey, Ngaba, 16 March 2013, died
Lobsang Thokmey edit_0.jpg
"Lobsang Thokmey set himself alight on the fifth anniversary of the killing of 13 unarmed protesters in Ngaba in March 2008. ... he is survived by his parents, three brothers and one sister."

The vigil culminates outside the Tibet Martyrs Memorial. There is singing, there are speeches, and then a service of monks at the Gompa.

As the vigil breaks up, I walk home among the dispersing crowd thinking about all the young Tibetans I have met, and feel grateful that they are still walking on this earth. Before turning in, I stop in at the internet café - not to check the pictures one more time, but to have a much needed Skype call with Sharon.


Tuesday, March 19:

I have finally decided on my return date! I'll leave next Monday on the night bus to New Delhi, pick up the sitar that'll be waiting for me there, and Wednesday morning it's adios sub continent, bonjour Canada. (I don't know good-by in Hindi or Tibetan, so Spanish will have to do, tu chi na very much.) The worst that can happen by staying put is I'll get a little bored. In that case, I'll just consider it Seva (selfless service) and a chance to earn some good karma.

Speaking of Karma, as I'm having breakfast at good ol' Nick's, who should come by but Karma of the Tibet Music Trust?!

Karma's handing out this flyer for another concert Wednesday night. I tell him I won't miss it and promise to bring some friends.

And speaking of friends, Julianna - the Kazakstani woman I met at Bhagsu Falls on Sunday - comes over to join me at breakfast. She was supposed to have left McLeod Ganj yesterday, but tells me she got violently ill and so is staying another day or two.

Reporting for work at the Hope Centre at 11:00, I find myself with two students: sweet-faced Lobsang Palden from Friday, and Dee, who sports a real hip-hop attitude and a dry sense of humour.

Lobsang Palden (L) and Just Plain Dee read the main points of their thoughts on todays topic: "What makes you really happy?" Answers range from hip hop music (guess who?) to emptiness, to sharing stories about their childhood in Tibet.

A Hope Education Centre student reads to the circle and to the mountains beyond.

This fellow is part of the audience, too. It appears we have given him plenty to think about.

Dee jots down an idea while another student reads from his list.

At the end of class, Pat reminds anyone who is interested that Susan & I will be teaching a grammar class in the classroom behind us. We get about 7 students. There's actually a chalkboard and about 12 desks. I had prepared a couple of things just in case, but the guys have so many questions, we just wing it and have a lot of fun doing so.

Today seems to be Surprise Meeting Day. As I'm walking up the hill, I run into my friends from Kolkata, Andrew Kay, his girlfriend Delia, Jonathan Kay and his soon-to-be fiancé (shhhhh!), Shayna. Big hugs all around. You'd think I'd known them for years, not just 6 days. We all grab a Tibetan lunch at the Peace Café, then head down to the Tsuglagkhang Complex and actually catch the end of the debate.

In this short clip of monkish logic, the yellow awning behind the courtyard is the main entrance to the Photang (Dalai Lama's house). I would love to know what points of Buddhist philosophy are being made. The refutation seems little more than a snigger. Maybe I will get one of my students to come down another day and help me translate.

We go inside the temples. For me it's the 3rd time, but I don't mind retaking a few shots I lost last night. In the main temple some monks are busy working.

What's this? A surgical procedure in the middle of the temple?

A sand mandala is a colourful work of art, made by dropping fine streams of different coloured sand onto a surface. After hundreds of man-hours of creation, the work is simply and swiftly swept off the table.

Here is a short clip of these dedicated men at work. I can't imagine a more exquisite expression of impermanence and its beauty.

Two boys, about ten years old, approach me. One of them speaks softly. "Excuse me sir. Do you know what they do?" His English could be described as 'in progress.' I explain slowly about the making of the sand mandala. "When they will finish?" His little friend grabs him by the shirtsleeve and starts mimicking: "dey will feeneesh…dey will feeneesh." I notice the first boy's father standing nearby and he's encouraging the boy to ask me more questions - i.e. practice his English. He looks very proud of his son and we exchange knowing glances: fine boy…he should keep practicing… Fathers are given the same manual the world over. We all have it down and can pretty well quote page and paragraph number, even if facial expressions are the only language available.

The Kays & I part company, with a plan for me to come to their place for dinner. They are staying in the grand and beautiful home of some old friends. It's situated way over on the next ridge, about a 30-minute taxi ride. Just tell the driver "Tirra Lane" and look for "Officer's Cottage." The husband is in the military and the wife is with a government arts foundation, and I think they have been given this place to live in. It includes servants quarters, where a gardener, a cook and their two sons live. The couple is currently out of town, but the servants are there, and they are all great friends of the Kay Bros. I don't really understand the whole situation, but am happy for the adventure and the opportunity of a home cooked meal.

I am too late to teach at Lha today, but I go up to the administration office anyway, just to let them know I'll be coming tomorrow. The young woman behind the desk and I start to chat. When she learns that I play guitar, she asks if I will give her a lesson. I accept, and we make a date for after tomorrow's 4:00 class.


It's 6:30, and dinner's at 7:00. I'm not really sure where I'm going, but feel confident that the auto rickshaw driver will. I'm armed with the words "Tirra Lane" and "officer's cottage." How difficult can it be? Besides, I have Kay's cell number if we get lost.

How difficult? This difficult. It's now 8:30 and we're still driving around, squinting at signs on the twilit country roads, asking everyone we come across. There is no cell service. I've been telling the driver for almost an hour to just forget it and take me back to McLeod Gang, but he's like a dog with a bone and just won't give up the search.

I know that there are two young boys at the place, so when we pass by a large white house on a ridge with a couple of kids chasing a cricket ball in the yard, I ask the driver to stop. I get out and yell Andrew!? Jonathan!? The kids hightail it inside and a minute later, out comes Jon and Andrew. Whew. Sweet success.

The evening passes smoothly and pleasantly - an anomalous contrast to the craziness of getting here. The kids (aged 10 - 14) are animated and full of innocent mischief. The meal, which we eat cross-legged on a sort of raised platform in the cook's cottage, is superb. When it's time to leave, Andrew and Delia walk with me about 20 minutes to the little village where I can grab a taxi back to McLeod Ganj. The taxi stand is as closed as the squint on a nearsighted old lady. The village is as dark as a solitary cell at Alcatraz at 3 a.m. and my metaphors are as as exaggerated as the whole universe forever and ever.

I'm just about ready to head back and stay the night with the Kays when a big Jeep pulls up. Military Police. Good news? Bad news? They're offering me a ride to McLeod Ganj. Good news. Hop in the back seat. The Jeep smells of booze. Not-so-good news. At first their questions seem a little bit belligerent, but I hold my ground, answer them and keep to myself, and it turns out they're not so threatening after all and the driver - thank god - can handle the twists and turns of the dark mountain road just fine.

I am dropped off at the Main Chowk, a two minute walk to my hotel and a much needed sleep. Tomorrow's another busy day.

Happy Reading!

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