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Traveling in India: and the Berlin Wall

Twenty years ago today a wall that separated not only a city into east and west but an ideology came down. At that time I was in India, and had been there for about three weeks. I was in the tribal state of Meghalaya, far from the western world in many respects. Luckily the Khasis are fairly affluent and my girlfriend’s mother had a TV. It wasn’t state of the art but they did get several channels. Only a very few houses had fridges or showers/tubs. Most still heated water with an electric coil in a bucket, and sponge baths were the norm.

Yet everyone had flush toilets and most had TVs. So it was that one night I watched the Berlin Wall coming down as they sliced through the concrete in big chunks and bulldozers pushed the wall apart. It was surreal, already being divorced from the everyday world by being on a trip. But I remember we were all very surprised. There’d been no warning. There had been no publicized event of this eventuality. It just…came…down. I’m sure it was different for the people living in Berlin.

After a month in Meghalaya, I went traveling to Nepal and to northern India. Somewhere near southwest Nepal, I think Pokhara, I took a bus toward the Indian border. It turned out to be too expensive for the locals. That meant there was a lot of space, no chickens or goats, and the few people were all tourists. There were three people from Japan, one a Japanese Tibetan. There was a couple from Germany and me. The three from Japan didn’t speak much English and though the Germans did, we didn’t chat a lot.

However, at one point in conversation I mentioned the wall coming down. These Germans were obviously from the democratic side of Germany but I don’t know if they were from West Berlin. However, when I said the wall had come down they said absolutely not. I said, but yes it has come down and they adamantly said no way. But I saw it being cut down on TV.

They had been travelling for a few months and it was inconceivable that this could happen. It was such a quiet affair really, and so sudden. I don’t think these Germans believed me even then. They probably had a bit of culture shock going back to their own country.

Culture shock comes with a change from one’s norm of living. It can hit people traveling or living in foreign lands because it is so different to what they’re used to. I had my own culture shock while in India for those two months. For me it was mostly brought on by the dysentery and exhaustion I experienced, making every change and difference hard to take or understand.

The sicker I got the more I longed for home, wishing I could have a glass of cold water, a crisp salad and a glass of real wine, not the sickly sweet stuff they love in parts of India. I felt the culture differences most in the language barriers (the signs if there were any weren’t in the Roman alphabet so I didn’t have a chance of reading them), the sense of time (the “what to do” attitude in India is partly because of the rampant corruption-baksheesh system, so many don’t try hard; that and the heat of course) and communication (you’ll get directions, possibly five different ones if you ask five people but no one will say I don’t know so you spend all day trying to get someplace).

At times I was in an incomprehensible mire as I tried to figure out the culture enough for travelling. At times I realized how different my world was when I asked a group of men where I was on the map I had for a city (Varanasi I think) and as they discussed it in their own language I realized they had probably never seen a map and had no idea how to read it.

Our cultures are different and sometimes a change, whether sudden or by immersion can toss us into a sea of uncertainty. But in essence we are all dealing with our world though our traditions and the events and elements that shape us. Here’s to the wall coming down in Berlin and may we have more positive moves like this throughout the world of allowing people their freedoms.

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Musings From Tibet I

I first posted July 16, 2007 on my Blogspot blog. I want to make clear that I do not know Angela McDonald. She posted this on a list I was on to do with things nomadic. I asked her permission to post elsewhere. With some of the discussion on my piece “There is No God” I mentioned maybe the Tibetans were the only people that were ruled by a benevolent religion. That got some discussion going that there have been discussions to the contrary.

Unfortunately, I worry some on how much of that might be Chinese propaganda. I then stated that Tibetans ruled by Tibetans (and not Chinese) would probably be less oppressive and who knows as the Dalai Lama has never had a chance to rule since he was a young man. And the guy has won a Nobel Peace Prize and really does have some good and insightful philosophies. But it’s conjecture.

I give you one Westerner’s view of Tibet while living there.  Angela McDonald has spent quite a lot of time living with people in Tibet and teaching English to the monks. She sent it July 7th. This is one of three parts. (I have corrected typos.)

Back in India, and happy to be home. Again here with my friends, people who speak English, and of course, my beloved cows. It was very difficult to leave Tibet, but at the same time, in some ways I was ready to leave. I loved it there very much, but I’ll admit that it was a very intense experience, and after 3months, I was feeling the need to go some place relaxing to recuperate a bit.

Before I left Tibet, Jinpa and I traveled around for about a week before finally arriving in Beijing where I flew to Delhi. It was a lot of fun, Jinpa is great. We went to a few different places in Tibet, then into China. Poor Jinpa, it was difficult for him to travel with  me in Tibet because as a monk, it’s not exactly socially acceptable for him to be wandering around alone with a woman (as the most common way for monks to stop being monks and become lay people is to have sex). Especially since he had taken off his monk robes to avoid extra attention from police (or other people for that matter). We did run into a friend of his from Labrang monastery one time. His friend looked at Jinpa, then looked at me, and then got a very concerned look on his face and whispered to Jinpa, “Are you still a monk?” Jinpa laughed and assured him that he was. I’m hoping that no rumors circulated in Labrang about that. Oh, the scandals I create…… 😉

I’m glad that I got to travel around Tibet at least a little. I think my favorite place was Rekong. It is known as the art capitol of Tibet (and I really love art as many of you know), and the monasteries were just incredible. The landscape was also wonderful as the mountains were filled with forests and rivers, so it looked a lot like Oregon and Dharamshala. Made me feel a bit homesick. Labrang is beautiful, but its basically all grasslands, there are very few trees.

We also went to Kumbum monastery which, though beautiful, was actually rather depressing. It was once one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet, but now it is only a Chinese tourist attraction. There is very little monastic activity there. The monks didn’t even really speak Tibetan, they mostly just spoke Chinese. I asked Jinpa what language they taught Buddhism in at that monastery and he looked at me strange and said “Tibetan of course!” But when I pointed out to him that the monks barely spoke Tibetan he leaned down to me and whispered “The monks at this monastery don’t really know much about Buddhism anymore.” Almost all of the monasteries in Tibet were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (I saw ruins of them all over Tibet), but the Chinese are actually allowing them to be rebuilt now, mostly for tourist purposes. They are still trying to restrict monastic activity by putting limits on the number of monks admitted, imprisoning and intimidating many monks, not allowing certain teachings, etc. but they discovered that they could make money on the tourism from the monasteries so they are allowing them to be partially rebuilt. It’s very strange, and makes me really sad to see. Also, in many of the monasteries the tour guides are Chinese (not in Labrang monastery, the tour guides there are all monks, including Jinpa) who don’t really know much about Buddhism or the monasteries, but instead just make things up to tell the tourists. Jinpa listened to the tour guides as we went to different places and many times I heard him whispering under his breath “That’s not true.” I was amazed to see just how much the Tibetan culture was perverted and changed by Chinese influence. It was really difficult to see…..

It was hard to pry myself away from Tibet. Saying goodbye to Mother and Father in Labrang was really difficult, then having to say goodbye to Jinpa in Beijing was hard again. But I am confident that I will be back there again. Jinpa and I are plotting to get me back there next year to really study Tibetan language, and he and I have several projects we want to do together (teaching English, writing books, etc.) when I return. So many things to do…..

And now back to India! The first few days here were strange, there is always a little culture shock when I switch countries. I had to get used to things like running water, toilets, pants, answering to the name Angela, and eating good food again. It’s been nice, but I still find myself occasionally in the market looking around for a field to pee in. Then I remember where I am and instead I just go to a bathroom. Weird…..

I’m still basking in the small glories of life such as toilet paper (but I still find myself rationing it ands tucking napkins in my pockets at restaurants), showers, tampons, people who speak English, peanut butter, etc. But things like tsampa, yogurt, and milk are really disappointing now. You win some, you lose some. But it’s funny how much you appreciate small things like these after you go without them for so long.

I’ve had bad luck on weather. When I left India in April it had just fully turned into summer and was hot, sunny, and absolutely beautiful. Then I went to Tibet and it was snowing. It continued to snow off and on in Tibet until I left, and when I got back to India, the monsoon season had started. It’s still nice and warm here, but there is torrential rain every day (and lots of awesome thunderstorms) which means that everything is in a constant state of dampness. Everything in our house is completely moldy yet again,and the cement walls are literally deteriorating from it. There is not much point in doing laundry as it takes about 4 days for anything to dry, and at that point it is also moldy. If you make laundry a 24-hour job for a few days you can get it done quicker, but that means taking laundry in and out of the house (and hanging it on the line outside) every couple hours between the rains. We’re to busy for that, so I’m just getting used to everything smelling like mold.

As soon as I came back, I was practically mobbed by my friends who were anxiously awaiting news and pictures of their families. It’s been fun to show everyone pictures of Labrang, and especially of their families, as many of them have not seen pictures of their families for many many years. All of Shedhe’s cousins came up the day after I arrived and they were practically bouncing up and down when they saw me. It was very cute. I had so many things to bring here that when I left Labrang I left most of my clothes there and just packed my bags to the brim with all the things for people here. I must have been quite a sight getting into the airport, I probably looked like an overburdened animal (I’d say a loaded yak, but I don’t have a big wood ring through my septum and really I’m just not quite that big).

Yesterday was the 73rd birthday of  H.H. The Dalai Lama, and there was a big celebration at the temple. Shedhe got me to dress up in the fancy nomadic clothing that his mother sent with me from Tibet, so I again became a blonde haired, blue eyed Tibetan nomad walking through the streets of India. Always an odd sight. But it was fun to wear a chupa again, though I didn’t wear it for long as that thing is made of wool and it’s hot here! Today, the Dalai Lama started a 7-day teaching which is wonderful as always. I love being here for his teachings and getting to see him. Never experienced anything else like it, I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.
All in all things here are good. Getting settled back in, and having a good time relaxing. Of course, it didn’t take me long to pick up new students, and as soon as the teachings are finished I’ll start studying Tibetan language and Thangka painting again I hope. There are just to many things here to learn, I feel like a kid in a candy shop…..

Take care, Angela

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