Tibet here in Dharamsala

Originally posted April 6th, 2014

Learning about Tibetans in India

A couple of weeks ago I woke up in one of those moods –  discontent, not well rested but too on-edge to relax; bored and lazy but wanting to do something nonetheless.

The weather was un-inspirational, everyone around was slightly ill or exhausted and there was just no energy anywhere. Work was in an ebb of the frequent ebbs and flows they have here, and with no real drive or direction but still wanting to be productive, everything was just frustrating. Besides it was back to plaid shirts and two pairs of socks after a few days of spring had given us hope that the change in weather was permanent this time.

So then I decided to leave the house. The walk to McLeod usually re-energizes me and after months of frustrating iTunes problems (there’s a programme seriously incompatible with international living) I had finally found a way to access most of my music on my iPhone and could once again listen to some old favourites while taking a peaceful walk in the woods.

But then this plan got slightly sidetracked when I ended up going on a search for a leopard-mauled cow corpse and getting a head-massage from a Tibetan man. Sometimes the world likes to remind you that you have to do is leave your house when you’re feeling stagnant and uninspired and novelty will eventually find you.

Let’s explain – I left the house and as I was making the turn next to the Brigitte Bardot Animal Shelter I heard a guy shout down from his porch above “be careful!”. There was a massive cow eating out of the dumpster next to me so I assumed that’s what he was referring to, and gestured to it. “You saw the dead cow down the road?,” he asked me. I hadn’t but now I was curious. He went on to tell me that he’d seen a leopard in the woods just the day before – a young one, but still strong enough to take down a young cow apparently since he’d seen the dead body in the field nearby. I asked if it was normal to have leopards in these woods and he said that they don’t normally appear in the winter but now that it’s spring it’s possible to stumble across one. Then he asked if I wanted him to show me the body. Obviously I said yes. (In case anyone reading this finds this decision odd, I promise it was out of curiosity, not serial-killer tendencies). So I followed this Tibetan guy down the road the way I’d come, while he stopped several times to inform groups of Indian men about what he’d seen. They all seemed quite in awe, so I can’t imagine this is a regular occurrence. When we got to the field it turned out the cow’s body had already been removed, so that was slightly disappointing. But I’m sure a huge relief to anyone reading this because it means there are no disturbing pictures included in this post.

By this point, however, the Tibetan guy I were kind of buddies and he was quite interesting to talk to and seemed eager to discuss his culture, so when he offered to show me around some of the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) complex I agreed.  I’d been to the school which is right up from Dal Lake and the largest (and first) Tibetan children’s school in India with just over 1700 students. And I knew that there was a handicraft centre there too, but what I didn’t realise is that they also have a hospital and a retirement home for teachers who had worked for the school for at least 30 years. It’s quite the organised community.

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He showed me the call centres, the lecture halls and we chatted about the TCV as we went. He told me was born here, had gone to school at the TCV and then worked there ever since. We sat down for tea and shared khapse, a Tibetan bread they eat during Tibetan New Year’s (Losar) celebrations. I saw pictures of his wife and son and I asked questions about the school and about how difficult it is to go back to Tibet. I learned that in the TCV there’s a room for all the babies who came as refugees from Tibet; that many of them are orphans or have only one parent. That many of the children arrive with frostbite from crossing the border on foot. Many parents in Tibet send their children to India for school because back home all the good schools are solely populated by Chinese students, and that children in the TCV are discouraged from taking pictures because when Chinese government officials find out that Tibetan families have sent children to India for school they are punished. He said that it was incredibly difficult to go back and visit, and quite impossible to if you went to this TCV in particular because it’s the most well-known. It was started in the 1960s when Tibetans began to cross into India as refugees and the Dalai Lama realised the importance of establishing a place for them to educate themselves while maintain their culture. His younger sister was told to come oversee these schools and has been a huge advocate for Tibetan refugee children since.

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I asked if the children learn Hindi at school as well, curious about their integration into Indian society, and he said absolutely, and that they also have classes in Chinese. His explanation for this was really surprising – that if Tibetans could speak to the Chinese people in their own language they might be able to have discussions on a personal level about Tibet and to explain that they weren’t a threat and why their culture is important. He said that the government had spread much misinformation about Tibet among the average Chinese populace, and that they believed that the way forward was to enable dialogue, to push through the propaganda. Obviously I wasn’t talking to an unbiased observer here, but this seemed to be a really enlightened and pleasantly simple approach to such a divisive issue.

I still got the impression that Tibetans and Indians around here really don’t mix much. I asked about how he felt the Indian government had been to Tibetans – if establishing all this incredibly organised infrastructure had been a challenge or supported – and he said that while the government had been incredibly supportive, the local Indian people in the area were not necessarily very open to Tibetans. He explained that when Tibetans have some money they tend to be a bit flashier with it than Indians and this can lead to resentment. When he was talking about the hostels they have for Tibetans in Bangalore and Delhi I noticed that while he was mostly talking about how they were there to provide cheaper alternatives for graduates from TCV looking to go to university in one of these cities, one off-hand comment he made definitely made me realise that part of the intention here was to keep their cultures separate and making sure the identity of these Tibetans is not diluted, so to speak, by too much time spent living or interacting with Indians. I realise the importance of maintaining a sense of group identity, but that still made me a bit uncomfortable.

 

And then he was talking about how the school also taught massage for health purposes and he gave me a really intense head massage and told me I need to wear warmer clothes and rest more. So that was weird. And on that note I said my goodbyes, asked what to do if I saw a leopard (he said throw it into the dumpster – but I’m pretty sure he meant throw something at it), and continued my walk to McLeod.

I’m in no position to comment on the politics of Tibet and China and certainly don’t intend on making any of this one person’s comments seem like absolute truths, but it was really interesting to sit down and hear a bit about the experiences one person has gone through and how he sees the situation of Tibetans here in India. I’ve talked to a few other Tibetan men very briefly here and when asked how long they’ve been in McLeod or how they like it, always get the same answer. It’s very nice, they like it very much, but it’s not home and they wish they could go back or at least visit more easily. I tend to forget that people here are refugees just because they dress well and go out and have communities, but when you actually ask where they are from, no matter how many years they’ve lived here in Himachal Pradesh, they always make the point of saying that they live here, but that Tibet is their home.

Fun Club

Originally posted March 22nd, 2014

Learning To Teach

One of the most educational and valuable parts of being here in Naddi for the past two months has actually come in an unexpected form: fun club.
While I came to EduCARE to work in microfinance I was asked if I could also help out with the after-school programme once a week in the community we call JDM. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and it’s nice to have a varied schedule, so I agreed.
The first few classes were challenging. My first week I went to the ASP with another intern who had been running the programme before I got here. He was playing games mainly aimed at improving English skills – things like a counting game, Simon Says using body parts, having one child imitate an animal and the others guess what it is etc.

The next week I took over teaching fun club alone…and dragged a friend along to help. It was pretty unsuccessful. Mostly because – I believe partially due to bad weather – only 5 or 6 children showed up and of these, 2 or 3 of the boys spent most of the time playing outside. The fact that some weeks there are 15 children and some weeks there are 4 makes it difficult to plan activities. After half an hour or so the kids who did show up lost interest and decided it would be more fun to braid hair for the remainder of our time.

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My second solo week there were a lot of kids with a lot of energy. I tried to introduce a few new games using “props” (for example, I drew some simple images on cut-up paper to make cards for a memory game) in the hopes that this would be more attention-grabbing. A few of the kids refused to play the games they knew well already, though, and were incredibly disruptive to everyone else. They were running in and out of class, climbing out the window, locking us in the room and chasing each other around. The class was at least partially salvaged when, towards the end, one of the older girls started writing in my notebook and the ones who were calm and attentive all took turns writing their names and ages, which they seemed to really enjoy.

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So it became clear that something had to be done differently. The kids learn English at school and while the older ones get bored by many of the games, the youngest ones aren’t really given a chance to partake. After a few discussions about what this after-school programme was meant to accomplish I came to realise that it’s aimed at offering alternative education from school, so introducing the children to wider issues and concepts such as environmental awareness and gender equality. While these can be difficult subjects to broach with children, it’s also incredibly important that they are given this forum. Taking more of a creative and varied approach would also hold everyone’s attention better, and so while dealing with serious issues some weeks, others would be devoted to crafts or sports – the “fun” side.

First I planned an afternoon where we drew family trees. The kids spent most of the hour working on theirs and then had to present to me who each family member was and their names. It was the first time that we had done something creative since I’d been there and they all seemed to enjoy having time to work individually and got very excited when they saw the paper and markers.

The following week was by far the most interesting one I’ve taught so far. I decided to focus on geography. I bought a map in Dharamsala and then put together a powerpoint of iconic images from around the world. My plan was to have the kids look at the images – things like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty – and guess where they were in the world. The next activity I planned was to have the kids name a country starting with every letter of the alphabet. Finally, we would end on a creative note by designing our own flags.

When we started it quickly became clear that they had no conception of any countries outside of India.

For every single image everyone would instantly yell “Delhi!”. “No, not in India”, I would say. Thoughtful frowns all around and then one of them has it – “Rajastan!”.

Then the image of Machu Picchu came up. “Naddi!!” yells one kid.

At last they seem to get the idea that none of these places are in India. Ironically they finally understand this as I get to the slide with the image of the Taj Mahal. They all look at each other, shrug, and one girl says, “well, I don’t know, but I know it isn’t in India”. Oh dear.

However, since after every slide I had the names of the monuments and the countries they were in, the kids could read the names and then try to find them on the map. They seemed to really enjoy this, actually, as they got quite competitive about finding the words.

With the second activity they didn’t know any country names from memory but could once again search the map to find words starting with each letter. By the end of this activity they seemed to be getting bored of finding things on the map and were very ready to move onto something more fun and creative.

I handed out different coloured construction paper I had cut up for all of the kids and told them to design their own flags. I showed some pictures of flags to give them examples and said they could draw whatever they wanted – if they had a country, what would the flag look like?

They all drew the Indian flag. I said that was great, but if they wanted they could turn the page over and draw whatever they wanted – as an example I drew a flag with a tree and some hearts and wrote “Lucy’s flag” underneath. They all turned their papers over and after a few minutes I realised that they were all peaking over at my paper. When I looked at their pictures they had all drawn “Lucy’s flag”… These kids are definitely not familiar with using their imagination to express themselves.

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So there have been a lot of ups and downs in fun club thus far, but it gets better every week and it’s really rewarding watching the kids engage more and more every class. It’s a great feeling to be able to give them a space to be creative and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us interns from a variety of interest areas to interact with the next generation in this community.

Feel free to comment with any suggestions for future classes!

A Step Forward in the Chicken Coop Project

Originally posted March 16th, 2014

While the weather may not always feel like it, spring has arrived and so have the baby goats.
Six or seven came running up to us last week when I went to meet Lila, the woman who wants to start up a chicken coop here in Naddi. They spent the entire interview jumping up on my legs and chewing on my shoelaces and it was perfect.

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This chicken coop is my primary focus during my time at EduCARE. It’s been two years since the first chicken coop was started as a microfinance opportunity for one of the families here, and its success has inspired its repetition. Lila has been raising goats with her husband for years and reached out to EduCARE recently looking for the chance to create an additional source of income. She saw how much we have been doing for younger women in the community and questioned why we couldn’t expand to help the older generation as well. She and her husband have had to sell many of their goats and quite a bit of land over the years to provide for their 5 children, including several dowries for their daughters, and Lila explained that she is in need of less energy-intensive work for the future.

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While she speaks no English and therefore communication is extremely limited, her proactivity in seeking out this project matched the energetic and determined spirit I saw in her when we met. It was an exciting step forward in this project. Until now, my efforts have been focused on laying ground work for the long term, but now that the weather is finally improving and construction can take place soon, hopefully it won’t be long until we get to see the coop physically standing and the chickens purchased.

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A Week of All Weathers in the Himalayas

Originally posted March 7th, 2014
…And a lot of household problems.
After two weeks here we moved from our homestays into our intern houses. We spent a long day bringing all of our belongings up the hill from Chenni and arrived to a lovely house with three large rooms for the six of us and a big, traditional Indian-style kitchen. It wasn’t entirely ready for us… for example, some of us didn’t have mattresses on our beds (but we all had pillows! Which, in this country, are pretty much heavy sacks of sand. So questionable prioritising.) and there’s no sink or refrigerator in our kitchen. The next day some basic house supplies were purchased and it’s been a slow process of home improvement ever since.
While we were all upbeat and excited to be living together – we made fires in our kitchen which we’d sit around for hours while a few people cooked group dinners and later others did the washing up – this first week or two certainly had it’s challenges. I suppose like the start of spring anywhere, changing seasons means erratic weather.
Some days we walk around Naddi literally inside of a cloud. You can see it coming from across the mountains and then you’re enveloped in a damp mist and can barely see the person you’re walking next to.
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At last some sun! The first real sunny experiences we’d had in Naddi and we spent all day chasing it around the house. A whole afternoon spent eating and working on computers from our porch and then, as the sun started to set, we climbed onto one of our roofs to prolong our outdoor time just a little longer. As soon as the sun sets here the memory of warmth fades pretty quickly as well.
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And then the snow came. I guess it was due time we were seeing the Himalayas in the winter like it’s supposed to be. Apparently this year has been unusual in how little snow they’ve gotten in Naddi and a local I was talking to said he was worried because they really rely on a certain amount of snowfall every year – then this happened a few days later:
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Our water pipe had broken the day before the snowstorm so fixing it was postponed… we went just over a week with no running water. The snow also shut down electricity and the fuse where our internet router is plugged in actually blew up, so when power did come back we were still stuck without internet for a while. One day, when none of these three facilities were working, we spent pretty much the whole day trying to keep warm by tending a fire, cooking by candlelight and washing up with water we got by boiling snow. It was a really amazing experience having all of us take care of one another and come up with ways to deal with these challenges.
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Like everywhere, though, even when snow is difficult, it’s hard to resent it because it’s so beautiful as well. And the snow-covered mountains are unbelievable.
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Plus, it’s hilarious to see the reactions that Indian tourists have to snow. They all stand around taking pictures with it; even a few days ago we passed a car that had pulled over to take a group photo in front of the last surviving snow pile in town. It was maybe the size of a shoe box and pretty muddy. And the men! We watched several pairs of guys taking turns photographing as the other posed sexily in the snow in a driveway across from Bobs. There was much seductive lying in the snow and several men taking selfies. Very weird.
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Travel to Dharamsala; An Introduction to Indian Transportation

Originally posted February 23rd, 2014

A week into our life here in Naddi, it was time for all the new interns to travel to Dharamsala in order to register with the police.

Apparently the rules regarding who needs to register and who doesn’t changes depending on which employee is working that day, so to play it safe we all made the trip to Dharamsala. Regardless, this was the nearest real Indian city and a place we’d doubtless find ourselves needing to be in in the upcoming months, so it wasn’t a bad idea to get a group tour of the place and figure out the route from Naddi.

Which started with a walk to the nearby Cantt. Usually buses run from Naddi to Dharamsala several times a day, but this particular week they hadn’t been showing up; no discernible reason, they just weren’t there. So it was either taxi down, walk to Dal Lake and tuk-tuk (the auto-rickshaws which are a common mode of transportation around here) down to Cantt, or walk. It was quite a nice day and the walk to Cantt is all downhill, so walk it was.

Down the long stretch of stairs to Dal Lake, then along the main road until you pass the Brigitte Bardot animal shelter (did she start it or is it merely named after her? I don’t know what this is doing in the middle-of-nowhere India, but she is a well-known animal activist, so I guess it’s nice) and down some more stairs to Cantt. As far as I have seen, Cantt is just one street of shops, but it’s convenient location means that shared jeeps and buses stop on the way to Dharamsala or McLeod and as it’s very near Naddi, this makes it a useful place to know about.

As we arrived in the “square” a jeep was already waiting with a few passengers in it. We asked if it was going to Dharamsala and when he nodded and yelled out, “fast!,” I couldn’t tell if it was a promise or a command. Turned out it was both. There were around three of us (we were 9 or 10 total) who hadn’t yet gotten into the jeep when he apparently got tired of waiting and started to slowly pull away. So naturally we jumped into the moving vehicle and launched ourselves into seats as quickly as possible. And then this guy was off. He went speeding around every corner and paused only to pull over and pick more passengers up.
Just when you think that 12 people in a 9 person jeep is pretty crammed, try adding some more! Why not have a stranger sit on you in India? At least it meant that you couldn’t fly across the seats when the jeep went hurtling towards massive potholes in the road. In this part of India, avoiding potholes in fairly useless – our tuk-tuk tried to the other day and he almost crashed into a wall on one side of the road. It’s more a game of choose the pothole when you’re on a stretch with more hole than road.

We made it to Dharamsala in record time according to the one experienced intern who was with us. She’s been here for 8 months and never made it there so quickly.

And to be fair to those other drivers, I wouldn’t be in a rush to get to Dharamsala either. It kind of sucks. Even though I traveled with my nice camera that day, I don’t actually have that many pictures of the city because it’s grimy and unattractive on the whole. There’s a lot of traffic on the main street and then the city itself is just an area for people to go shopping. Which it is good for – there are places to buy kitchen supplies, groceries, fabric and craft supplies… It’s definitely come in handy since we’ve moved into our own place and needed certain household items.

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It’s also a pretty good place to go for certain types of Indian food because McLeod is so Tibetan that regional specialties can be difficult to find. In Dharamsala, for example, you can get Chana Puri, a delicious dish of chickpeas, puffed and fried bread, and raw onions. There are also quite a few bakeries where you can get things like jalebi or gulab jamun, or simply a nice selection of biscuits.

The other day we actually discovered a new dish while in Dharamsala! To clarify, I mean one none of the other interns here had heard of – I’d assume the dish existed in India before our arrival… Just off the bus we decided to stop in a tiny Dhaba (a roadside restaurant with local fare) for lunch. We sat at one of three tables and waited for our chai and Chana Puri while everyone else twisted around in their seats to stare at us. And after eating our first course, we decided that we were still hungry enough to split a plate of pakora. A very popular dish in this region, pakora are fried vegetable snacks, although they can also been done with paneer. We’d seen the table in front of us order some and they’d looked quite tasty; plus we were in no rush to leave. So we asked the owner of the Dhaba for pakora, and he repeated to us “bla-bla pakora?” which we confirmed with nods. And then it got weird. He sent out the other man who worked there for something and started mushing together peas and potatoes. Then the second man returned with a loaf of bread… Is this how they bread the pakora at this place? Is this an unrelated dish or the owner’s lunch break? Then he started spreading the potato mixture between the bread until he had two sandwiches which he then fried, put on plates and cut in half. This is bread pakora – the dish we had accidentally ordered when we’d said yes without bothering to figure out that “bla-bla” was “bread”. Oh well, it was more food than we’d bargained for, but basically it’s samosa filling inside a deep-fried sandwich, so I’m not going to complain.

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Travelling back from Dharamsala was quite the experience as well. This time three of us caught a bus going to McLeod. It was standing room only by the time we got on which really involves some concentration on these roads if you want to stay upright. I had to wait until a relatively smooth stretch and then quickly shift my backpack to the front to open it and get money out for the collector. While I fished out my wallet, my friend had to actually open it and get the money out because I physically could not let go of the rail in order to participate in any two-handed activities. It was quite a team task. I was also stuck clutching this little newspaper bag filled with sheets of plain white paper which I’d bought for the kids after-school programme and when things got really desperate I ended up holding this bag in my mouth while using both hands to steady myself around tight curves. All while having a laughing fit with the other two girls I was with due to the absurdity of the situation. We got some weird looks. And like the jeep, a full bus doesn’t exist in India – if people are waiting to get on, they will find room.

After a brief stop in McLeod we opted to walk home rather than seek more transportation and it was a welcome change of pace.

First Week of Work in Naddi

Originally posted February 21st, 2014

Meetings, Bucket Showers, and Avoiding Eye-Contact with Monkeys 

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My shampoo bottle told me to “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.” I told it “shut up; you’re lucky I’m using you at all”.

This was my first bucket shower in India. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t actually waste my time talking to my shampoo, but the sentiment was there. Taking a shower in Naddi had been an intimidating prospect since our arrival. The outhouse was in two parts; a room with an Indian-style toilet and no light, and then next to it, the shower room. Which is a concrete box with a small, grated window placed high on one wall, a rusty door, a shelf, and a cold-water tap. There’s no escaping the cold here when the weather is bad (which it often is in January and February) as none of the buildings are insulated and nowhere has heating. So while the fact that you can’t have a proper warm shower isn’t the biggest deal in the world, not being able to dry off in a temperate room is pretty upsetting. But finally we had a sunny day and I decided I had to take advantage of it.

I asked Reena to heat up some water for me. This is done by dropping an electric water heater with wires sticking out of it into a bucket of cold water and plugging it into the wall– she may not speak much English but she certainly made sure to get across that we were not to go near this. “Dangerous! You, no touch. NO TOUCH!” When it had boiled I let Reena take the heater out (I really didn’t want to get electrocuted my first week here) and carried my bucket to the shower room where they also provided me with a small pitcher. The following process involved filling this pitcher up half with hot water, then adding some cold and repeatedly pouring it over myself while trying to leave as little time between pours as possible. It was actually quite an enjoyable experience and better than many of the hurried showers I’ve had here since, trying to guess how much time I have until hot water vanishes. And for the past week we’ve been without running water at our intern house, so it’s been back to the bucket shower!

Other things I remember from my first week here… Lots of beautiful mountain views; something slightly different every day:

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Cows casually roaming the streets, proving time and again that nothing fazes them and that they will not be rushed.

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And the most interesting of animals sightings: monkeys. There aren’t that many in Naddi itself, but even just a few minutes down the road in Dal Lake they start appearing (I think this is because it isn’t really a wooded area in Naddi) and I’ve seen them everywhere else in the region.

They’re fascinating to watch because their mannerisms are so unlike any other animal, and at the same time, they’re eerily aware of your presence. Which is not something they enjoy – monkeys get really mad when you stop to admire them. Apparently with the really large grey monkeys (there are also smaller ones like the ones pictured below) they throw fits if you try to take a picture and if you make eye contact for too long you run the risk of being attacked. I always feel just a little on edge when I’m near a group of monkeys here, but clearly it doesn’t stop me from taking pictures when I can. I just wait until they start fidgeting and making angry noises and then I hurry on my way.

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And of course, I am here to work, so naturally some of my first week was dedicated to getting settled not only in India, but within EduCARE. There were meetings to discuss the philosophy of the organisation as a whole as well as its history. (For anyone who’s curious, it was started in 1994 as more of a charity-based group in Punjab by Mr B. – an Indian ex-fighter pilot – and then evolved into a social enterprise here in Naddi. As the homebase of Mr B., Naddi is the headquarters of EduCARE, but then there are also interns based in various other places throughout the region. There are a few just down the hill in Dal Lake, then 2 hours down into the valley in Rajol there’s a group which works with migrant camps and a group all the way in Punjab (a 6 hour trip from here and the only house I haven’t been to yet) which also work with migrant camps.)

We had meetings about our expectations and to discuss our interests; meetings defining what we would each be doing here; a meeting regarding gender sensitivity and a couple of weeks later one on cultural sensitivity.

I learned that my main project while I’m here is to start up a chicken coop in the community we call JDM (right next to Chenni). I’m the shortest-term intern here at the moment and the scale of this project is the most manageable. I’m also assisting one of the older interns on a few microfinance projects throughout JDM, including starting up homestays there.

We learned how to access old documents which would help us get started by researching what’s already been done, but of course this involved internet, something we had no access to in our homestays. So this meant we had to spend most days in a place called Bobs n’ Barley down the road – the hotel with the best wifi in Naddi (which is really not saying much). It’s quite expensive, often colder inside than out, and fairly bereft of atmosphere, but the food is good, as is the coffee, the people are lovely, and we didn’t have many alternatives.

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It was overwhelming and confusing and exciting and, most importantly, we all helped each other to get through it.

 

McLeod Ganj

Originally posted February 20th, 2014

My first excursion outside of Naddi was to the nearby McLeod Ganj.

As I already mentioned, this is the official residence of the Dalai Lama and as such it exhibits a unique blend of Tibetan and Indian influences.

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But this wasn’t my initial impression: my first trip to McLeod was at night and, emerging from our taxis, we were greeted by neon lights. We were in the main square, the small circular nucleus of the town from which 5 or so streets branch off like the spokes of a wheel. There’s a stand right by the drop-off point selling alcohol since only one or two places in the city sell alcoholic drinks, and when they do it’s only beer. And only Kingfisher beer at that. So it’s BYOB(BPYD) – Bring Your Own Booze (But Pretend You Didn’t). If you want to drink, it’s fine, but we need to all act like it isn’t happening.

The contrasts between McLeod and Naddi are vast; in McLeod the sun sets but people are out – the impressive variety of restaurants are actually being used, while hotel  restaurant after hotel restaurant stands empty but lit up in Naddi, eagerly awaiting the promise of ‘tourist season’.
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For just about any need that can’t be met in Naddi we end up heading to McLeod, so I’ve been there quite a few times since my arrival in India. Our big grocery shops happen in McLeod where things come in greater quantity and there’s certainly more variety. One thing that I didn’t expect from buying my own food in India: peanut butter is available in just about every shop. It’s been a major staple of our diets since we’ve been here. Veggies are incredibly cheap but many of the items we buy (pesto, canned tuna, grated cheese) are definitely luxury goods in the local mindset. The one thing we all missed and which is hard to find is cheese. But once again, McLeod is the place to go if you know who to ask. There’s one man who runs a small shop there filled with imported specialties and artisan local goods and if you ask him for cheese you get two options: big or small. What kind of cheese is it? Cow. Those are the options around here – cow or goat. And he usually only has cow. It’s not on display, but if you request cheese he’ll grab some from the refrigerator behind the store counter. It’s really not bad. Not the most flavourful stuff in the world, but it’s rapidly become the most exciting weekly purchase we make.
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McLeod is the place to go for decent pizza and other Western dishes when you can’t handle one more meal which is centred around lentils and rice. It’s the place to go for warm Tibetan woolen scarves, which, while the fact that they’re sold by everyone with a store or stand suggests that they’re mass-produced, are beautiful and, most importantly, warm.  They’re basically socially-acceptable wearable blankets and I love mine more than most things in this world. I’ve rarely taken it off since I bought it in week one. I wasn’t sure it was the wisest purchase initially as I’ve developed an allergy to wool in the past year, but I’m fairly certain that my body has kindly decided to forgo it’s silly Western allergies for the next few months as it hasn’t bothered me at all. Allergies are a luxury I simply can’t afford while I’m in India.
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McLeod is also the place to go for Tibetan delicacies, including Tibetan butter tea, which has a distinctive salty and creamy taste as it’s churned in butter. The first time I tried it I wasn’t overly impressed, but I decided to give it another go at a more authentically Tibetan restaurant just a few days ago. It was much more buttery and thoroughly disgusting. However momos (dumplings), another Tibetan specialty, have been pretty consistently delicious. And the veggie burger served in Tibetan bread (basically a very dense bread, kind of like a really intense English muffin) we had for lunch the other day was phenomenal.
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And of course, McLeod is the place to go to learn a bit about Tibet, something which can be done in part by a visit to the Dalai Lama’s temple. Situated right at the end of one of the main roads, Tsuglagkhang (the temple) is actually part of a larger complex, with rooms for education and vast and open outdoor areas which I suspect are used for reflection and prayer. The view is spectacular and the whole area is painted a warm and lively shade of yellow which makes the place very inviting and peaceful. There are prayer wheels surrounding the temple; each one must be spun clockwise while you circle them in the same direction. This revolution completes a prayer. Then to enter the temple itself you must remove your shoes and try not to laugh when, after walking around for a few minutes trying to be respectfully silent, your thoughts are interrupted by the monk guarding the temple when he starts chatting away on his cell phone.
It feels like a functioning place of religion rather than a monument to past beliefs like so many places in Europe do. While maybe less awe-inspiring or obviously spectacular, it has a distinctive spiritual feel to it and it’s quite a unique experience seeing the chair from which the Dalai Lama gives his teachings. There are also a lot of Tropicana juice cartons throughout the temple. They’re used structurally in the altars, but I believe the use of food throughout all the displays has something to do with non-monetary donations to the temple. It’s not something I know anything about, to be honest, so I feel I should move on. Basically: worth the visit, really enjoyed it, and it was a great first glimpse at a culture/ religion which is entirely new to me.
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Arriving in Naddi

Originally posted February 17th, 2014

I was the first intern to arrive in Naddi.

The other two who had been planning on travelling with me had missed the bus and the girl who was scheduled to fly in to Dharamsala the night before had had her flight cancelled due to fog. Those taking non-government buses were supposed to have arrived at 5 or 6 in the morning but had been delayed along the way, and the couple who had opted to take the train were still en route.

It was the first time that a group of interns had been coordinated to all arrive on the same day but due to buses vanishing from websites and some choosing to arrive in India a few weeks early to travel, we were all finding our own ways to Naddi.

Basically this involves getting to Dharamsala, a fairly big city, with its proximity to McLeod Ganj – the current home of the Dalai Lama – making it a tourist destination. Technically McLeod Ganj and Naddi are in Dharamsala, so this whole area houses the Tibetan government, but since being here I’ve realised that they’re incredibly diverse areas. Dharamsala is a bustling and utilitarian city but not incredibly charming, while McLeod, 20 minutes away, is very international with apparent Tibetan influences. These vary from food to souvenirs to – most obviously – the actual presence of the Dalai Lama’s temple. Naddi, another 10 minutes from McLeod, is a small Indian village completely removed from Tibetan religion and culture.

From Dharamsala taxis are quite cheap to Naddi, as we are around a half-hour drive into the mountains, past McLeod Ganj and Dal Lake. From road signs you would assume that Dal Lake is a major tourist destination, and the name itself, translated into “Sacred Lake”, conjures images of a shining, peaceful woodland retreat. There are several Dal Lakes in India and let’s hope that the others live up to this romantic name a bit better; in reality, the ‘lake’ here is a brown, stagnant pond directly on the side of the road, and we’ve collectively agreed that the other translation of Dal as “lentil” is far more appropriate in this case. The town is equally underwhelming as it consists of a row of small shops on the side of a road lined with barbed wire. There’s also an Indian army base in the area and the many advertisements of this fact make for quite an odd contrast to the spiritual nature of this region the first time you see them – passing through a holy area while images of guys with guns face you around every corner. Although I suppose religion and violence have never been all that far removed in reality…

DSC_0311.JPGBut getting back to the point: arriving in Naddi. Taking that crazy, winding road up to the place where I was planning on spending three months I finally started to feel truly excited about this journey for the first time since my arrival. Like in Delhi, driving involves a lot of honking but here in the countryside it’s used to announce the presence of a vehicle to anyone who may be around the corner. In areas where trees didn’t obstruct the view, the mountain peaks started to become clear and by the time we reached the top it was absolutely stunning.

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Which made lugging my bags down a steep and broken path to the local community we call Chenni slightly less painful. But only slightly – it sucked. And this part was entirely unexpected; we’d been informed that we would all be living in an intern house, but it turned out that the first two weeks would be spent in homestays so that we could start getting to know the families we’d be working with and experience authentic life here in Naddi. Also because this is India and preparations for our stay were running slightly behind schedule so our house wasn’t ready for us yet. One of those things that would have been nice to know before getting here, but part of this internship is learning to accept that expectations must be flexible and the unexpected embraced. Why not start learning on day one!

The house I would be staying in was at the very bottom of this community – a vertically organised clumping of 7 or 8 houses. Apparently a family settled here in the 1920s with each brother establishing a separate house with their families. This means that everyone in Chenni is related with the exception of two families who moved here more recently and rent. These latter families are definitely on the outskirts of society here, though, and their relative poverty is quite apparent as the malnourished children who live in these houses look years younger than their actual ages. Because they’re all related, people in Chenni never marry within the community and, as in much of India, when the women marry, they go to live with their husbands’ families.

The younger, unmarried women are the ones who participate in EduCARE projects the most, including the homestays. A relatively new microfinance enterprise here, the homestays allow the women to earn some extra income by renting out spare rooms to tourists and offering meals throughout the day. On top of the earnings, EduCARE use this system to teach the women financial literacy and to promote cross-cultural exchange. Currently, interns are testing out the system by using the homestays while the women gain experience in hospitality. Naddi is quite a popular tourist destination for Indians, so the idea is that eventually they will begin to stay here as well, allowing a cheap alternative to the many, many hotels in the area.

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I had arrived just in time for breakfast. Sergio, the coordinator here at the moment, had brought me to the homestays and now introduced me to my “family”. The girl is named Reena, a 23 year old who lives with her mother and brother. Her three sisters have married and moved away and her father is a shepherd in Punjab who comes back for a few weeks at a time and then goes away for months to work. We overlapped by around a week in the end and he was a delightful man. Didn’t speak a work of English but would smile and ramble on in Hindi to me and Michelle (my wonderful roommate here), eager to include us in any conversations. He seemed to find it quite hilarious that we had no idea what he was saying.

But that morning it was just me and Reena and her mother. We sat on some mats on the floor by their fire and I watched as Reena rolled out small balls of dough on a wooden board and then threw them, one at a time, onto a small pan placed above the fire. Roll, throw, flip and then toss into the fire itself for a few seconds to let them puff up. This was the morning ritual of making “chapati”, the flatbread which forms a staple of the diet around here. It’s a beautiful process to watch and done with the confidence that comes from years of repetitive action. And fresh, warm bread every morning is the one component of the meals here that I never got sick of. We’d eat this chapati in the morning with a spoonful of some kind of vegetable, or ‘sabji’ (often curried cauliflower or spinach) and, of course, a warm cup of chai. Conversation was limited as Reena speaks very little English and her mother none at all, but it was a friendly quiet with a few attempts at communication. Overall, a peaceful way to start my stay here. After that I had a few hours to myself before lunch and the beginning of orientation so, escaping to my new room, I instantly fell asleep and got some much-needed rest. 

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