Dharmasala, India Of Monks and Yetis

So I’m in Dharamsala. In particular, the region called McLeod Ganj, which is the headquarters of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and home to His Holiness, the Richard Gere.

His Holiness settled here in 1959 as a refugee under the protection of the Indian government. He was on the run from the Chinese. After a decade of harassment, destruction, and torture, the Tibetan leadership decided they had no other choice but to get the hell out of there. A few hundred pilgrims, the Richard Gere included, made the journey on foot through the Himalayas to Dharamsala. They’ve been steadily bringing refugees over ever since; 10,000 in Dharamsala and another 110,000 spread throughout the rest of India, though there are still millions more held prisoner in their own homeland under the brutally oppressive Chinese government.

Since escaping Tibet, the Richard Gere has showcased his poor acting ability in a string of mediocre films. He can also sing, dance, and take pictures, all very badly.

You know, the term "human rights abuse" is overused. We use it as a catchall for everything from denial of free speech to public dismemberment. We really shouldn’t do that. To me, there’s an enormous distinction. I, for one, find it a whole lot easier to be apathetic about safe workplace conditions than genital electrocution. If the various organizations working to free Tibet would wise up and call it what it is, they’d have had my attention a long time ago.

Anyway, from all indications, the Tibetans are living happy, prosperous lives here, free from the fear of having their genitals electrocuted. The area is frequented by an enormous number of Indian tourists in addition to a healthy supply of dirty, guitar-playing, Israeli treehuggers, and they all seem thrilled to be in close proximity to the devastatingly cool people of Tibet.

There’s something immediately striking about these folks and I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like it before. They have incredible dignity, a placid, unassuming nature, and welcoming smiles for everyone who comes to visit their settlement. Perhaps it’s enhanced by the contrast with Delhi and its many horrors, but I’m just floored by how wonderful these people are. If anyone needs proof of the emotional benefits of meditation, come check this place out.

Here’s a monk shooting hoops.

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McLeod Ganj is perched on a mesa two kilometers above sea level, far from the sweltering heat and pollution below.

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The air is fresh and clean and you don’t have to pick wads of black tar out of your nose three times a day, which is nice. The mountains are vast, green, and everywhere. The only view that isn’t beautiful is looking straight down at the ground. While I appreciate that they want to get back to their home and all, there are refugees who’ve gotten lots worse deals than this.

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Food and accommodation are only a few dollars a day. There are book stores, net cafes, bars, makeshift movie theaters (darkened room, TV, DVD player), everything you’d need to stay here for a long time; which is exactly what a whole lot of people do. Some of them are pretty annoying. For example, that know-it-all, robe-wearing, faux-buddhist chucklehead with the exciting facial hair who you couldn’t stand listening to in high school — he’s here and he’s packing all new ammo. But it’s easy enough to get past that.

Celebrities show up from time to time and leave their signed territorial pissings on the walls. You’ve got your Harrison Fords and your Pierce Brosnans and your Goldie Hawns. In addition to that, there are also monkeys. Much like celebrities, they run across the rooftops naked, howling at ordinary people and occasionally peeing on them.

The monkeys are mostly your garden variety, but Tom and I had one experience that pretty much explained away the Yeti myth as far as I’m concerned. We were walking down the path between the central village and the monastery when Tom spotted something in the trees down below. While he’s indifferent to the monkey population, he has an amazing aptitude for spotting them that I do not share. The thing came closer and stood upright to look at us. It had thick white fur that made it look twice its real size, and a highly expressive, pitch-black face. It stood more than waist-high, and could probably have kicked my ass.

I shuffled for my camera, which somehow startled it into charging straight at us. When it was about ten feet away and approaching at full speed, it leaped in the air straight at Tom — who, incidentally, didn’t even flinch. But instead of wrestling Tom to the ground and biting his nose off, it grabbed a hanging branch and rocketed up into the canopy of trees. It jumped over us onto another branch that looked more than ready to snap under the strain, then plummeted back down to ground level on the other side of us. As it was disappearing into the foliage again, it stopped to look back and I caught a mediocre picture of it, which somewhat conveys its Yeti-like appearance.
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Mind you, this happened fifty meters outside of town.

We visited the temple complex in the monastery of his holiness, the Richard Gere. If there’s a center of Mahayana Buddhism in the world today, it’s right there. And yet the striking thing about the place is how amazingly accessible it is. You can go right in there and you don’t need to worry about whether you’re sitting in the right position. They don’t care if you’re wearing a backpack, shorts, and sunglasses. You don’t have to follow their rituals and practices. There’s no pomp and pageantry. You’re free to experience it in your own way and they just hope you get something worthwhile out of being there.

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Religious centers aren’t generally like that.

The Richard Gere isn’t in town at the moment. He spends much of his time doing speaking engagements to raise international awareness on the struggle of the Tibetan people…and also that the whole gerbil story is totall y an urban legend.
It becomes a little transparent at times that the friendliness of the Tibetan people toward westerners has at least a little bit to do with how desperately they need us. It’s an unfortunate reality that the US is one of the only governments able to stand up to the Chinese and call them on their bullshit. Our willingness to do so relies heavily on how much we know and care about the situation. So while their spirituality and generally pleasant demeanors are certainly factors, I get the feeling they’re on their best behavior around us so we’ll go home and rave about them…which is what I’m doing.

Tom and I spent a day hiking through the mountains and surrounding villages.

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These are some of the locals who inhabited the area long before the Tibetans showed up.

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I don’t even want to think about how much work went into leveling the ground for this soccer field. Nothing is flat up here. You couldn’t even put a drink down without a shovel.

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At least it’s getting some use.

The bus ride from Delhi to Dharamsala was fifteen hours overnight at breakneck speed through the foothills of the Himalayas. The seats in front of us were broken so they were permanently reclined on our knees. The fans didn’t work. There was no hope of sleep. It was easily one of the top five most agonizing experiences of my life.

And to make matters worse, I had to sit behind Jason Vorhees from the Friday the 13th movies.

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He didn’t seem to be up for hacking anyone to pieces. I guess he was on vacation.

Before leaving Delhi to come up here, Tom and I went on the obligatory day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and take the same damn picture everyone else takes.

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Here it is up close.

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I’d say it was pretty, but really, nothing is pretty in 117 degree heat. Everything is either shade or not shade. The Taj Mahal is shade. I can definitely say that for it.

The entrance fee for the Mahal (as I like to call it when I need to save time) is a modest $0.50.,,That is, of course, unless you have pale skin. Whitey has to fork over $17.00 for the privilege. The steep price is, of course, designed to reduce the quantity of visitors, who are apparently causing structural damage to the monument by standing near it in such large numbers.

Nevermind the throngs of locals, something has to be done about those two sweaty white guys with the thick wallets before this place is destroyed.

But not to worry, that price includes a complimentary English-speaking guide at no extra cost — unless you count the money he hits you up for at the end.

This was a pretty good example of the divergent attitudes Tom and I have about sightseeing. Good-natured, college-educated Tom was happy to have someone around who could answer questions, indulge curiosities, and point out nuances that would go unnoticed by the casual observer. Me, I just wanted a couple pictures and a ride back to the train station. I am a simple man.

Even that was unattainable, though. In a further effort to reduce environmental damage to the Taj (as I like to call it when I’m in a really big hurry), they’ve prohibited vehicles from getting within 4 kilometers.

Nevermind that black cloud of sulfur floating down from Delhi, let’s create a magical make-believe barrier so whitey can get some more sun.

On the train back to Delhi, we met a really nice Sikh family from the south and spent the whole four hour ride exchanging facial contortions.

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We talked to a really smart young woman who was racing back home to be with her new husband. He’s an engineer, she’s working toward a masters degree in English literature. Their marriage was arranged, but she gave no indication of being anything less than thrilled with the guy.

Arranged marriages are something I’ve heard a lot about, but this was the first time I’d ever spoken to a woman about it who was actually in one. Just putting a face to it changed my views a little. I mean, she’s an educated person and she seemed really happy about it. And our system of doing things certainly has its flaws. A lot of stuff about gender relations in India really irks me, but arranged marriage is one thing I’m kind of reluctant to pass judgment on.

…wait a minute, no. That’s insane. Forget I said anything.

We spent a couple days back in Delhi before heading up to Dharamsala. In that time we met up with an old friend of Tom’s mother. He’s a mathematics professor at the University of Delhi, specializing in game theory. It was never spelled out for me completely, but I got the feeling he was a pretty big deal in the field. He and his wife took us to dinner with some friends of their son named Kapil and Suchi.

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We hit it off with Kapil and Suchi and ended up spending the next couple nights hanging out with them in our hotel room. Over the course of several conversations, they managed to dispel every notion — both preconceived and acquired — that I had about Delhizens in general.

The main thing was their sophistication when it came to western movies, music, and television. I have a hard enough time understanding how Wes Anderson films became available to them. I can’t imagine how they manage to relate to and appreciate stuff like Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. India is in a completely different world from that; a really insular world that bombards its people with more than enough media of their own. So hearing them quote Simpsons episodes and debate the merits of old Radiohead versus new Radiohead really took me by surprise. They politely tolerated our repeated dumbfoundedness.

Kapil does web design and Suchi, in her spare time, works with children in the poorest slums of Delhi. She gave me a thorough rundown of the caste system and described as best she could what life is like for the lowest of the lowest of the low.

Good people.

15 Responses to Dharmasala, India Of Monks and Yetis

  1. Gary

    One of the pictures of the “locals who inhabited the area long before the Tibetan’s showed up” looks like Elaine from Sienfeld.

    Scary stuff.

  2. S

    u are really a pompous opinated american, the major economy of your country is dependent on India, the less u speak , the less u prove how uneducated u are . u dont know what game theory is ? hahaha Ok :) no wonder making faces of ape is what u enjoyed doing, u havent come much beyond that have you / :))

    have a good one

    S

  3. Poodiesgirl

    Americans are dependant on Indians.. I love to hear that. It never becomes boring. Or.. I really like the one that goes, Indians made America what it is today. Hey S.. Let me put it all into REAL perspective for you. For Americans, Indians are just Mexicans with a degree..you work just as cheaply, you like to eat chilies, and both of your countries smell and look like shit.

    Thats why the biggest numbers of illegal aliens in the US happen to be Mexicans and Indians. How about this, quit trying to make the US a third world country like yours..and perhaps, stay at home and work on your own problems. Indians like to talk about how old and wonderful their history is..but let me ask a really important question. How come if you civilization is 5 thousand years older than us..why are you still a century behind us in progress? And this precious history that you have, maybe you can start teaching your fellow Indians to stop pissing, spitting, trashing and defacating all over it when they visit your historical treasures. I suppose all that money you charge extra to foriegners should more than sufficient to pay for such educational programs. Maybe..instead of investing in other countries like you so nobaly put it..You should work on your own..So you know, little girls arent married off at 12, women are safe to go out alone at night, or perhaps something can be done to rectify the fact that 20 million GIRLS have been aborted. Fix that skewed sex ratio, that is the second largest in the world only second to china..but unlike china, where 95% of women can read, in Indian the number is around HALF that.

    I loved this blog..Its RIGHT on the money about how things are here in India. This whole project is great.. and I love reading about it. Kudos to Matt!

  4. Bud

    Last February I was on a reading binge going through all of the entries you wrote and I remember reading this one and it standing out, but hadn’t come back to it since until now. What’s funny about now and then is when I first read this entry, I really knew nothing about Tibet and its people. I kind of knew the history between them and China, but that’s about as far as it went. That’s entirely different now. I got back from a 3 week trip in Tibet about a month ago and still can’t find the right words to express the experience. I probably never will. The whole time I was there, though, I was trying to find a way to describe the Tibetan people. There was something about them and their presence that was so difficult to find words for because it was something that I had never previously encountered; the only thing I could come up with was describing them as having this aura that emanated these genuinely good and happy vibes that just makes you feel completely content and comfortable. Definitely not something you come across from strangers every day, that’s for sure.

    Anyway, I really liked how you described them in this paragraph…

    “There’s something immediately striking about these folks and I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like it before. They have incredible dignity, a placid, unassuming nature, and welcoming smiles for everyone who comes to visit their settlement…I’m just floored by how wonderful these people are. If anyone needs proof of the emotional benefits of meditation, come check this place out.”

    …and thought you hit it on the head and was glad to see you had a similar experience with them. I think it’s probably hard not to, especially coming from a culture where if you’re walking down certain city sidewalks and smile to a stranger and say “Hello, how are you?” it might not be surprising that in a few seconds later you have a bruised cheek bone.

    Compare and contrast.

    Well anyway, that’s enough of that. Just coming across this entry made me miss that part of the world a lot and I thought the comment page was polluted with some nasty things and needed a shift of weight to the other side.

    Best of luck traveling in the next couple months and I look forward to meeting & dancing with you both soon.

  5. Sahil

    This post is in response to Alex, who thinks how similar Indians and mexicans are. First of all we are not one of the illegal immigrants in US. I dont know where the hell who got your facts from. Infact we are the richest minority in US. Holding all the white and blue collar jobs in your country. I got some true facts for you… here you go:-
    12% of scientists in the US are Indians
    38% of doctors(physicians, dentists, PhDs, etc) in America are Indian.
    36% of NASA scientists are Indians.
    34% of Microsoft employees are Indians.
    28% of IBM employees are Indians.
    17% of INTEL scientists are Indians.
    13% of XEROX employees are Indians.
    …….. Secondly our culture and customs might be thousands of years old but we are only a 60 yrs old country. Whereas you are 250 years old. and in these 60 years we have made significant economic progress. n 1999, Goldman Sachs predicted that India’s GDP in current prices will overtake France and Italy by 2020, Germany, UK and Russia by 2025 and Japan by 2035. By 2035 it is expected to reach as 3rd largest economy of the world behind US and China. We were under foreign control for 700 years. First the Mughals from Persia and then the Europeans who crippled our economy. We are finally coming out of it now. and we are coming out fast. We do have our own set of problems as well. but so do you. Female infanticide does happen but it is very rare and happens only in some parts of India and for those parts too things are changing. What about what you people did to the blacks in your country, or what what about the Indians who’s entire race you tried to wipe out. Hell… fuck that…. it’s not even your own country… you fucking stole it from the natives. Shame on you…… keep your president busy so that he can bomb another country who’s name half of your population can’t pronounce….. HAha

  6. mei

    I enjoy your writing Matt, but there are places where I feel you need to ask a few more questions. For example, the reason that foreigners are charged higher prices for the Taj is that it is incredibly difficult to keep looking the way it looks – due in part to the huge amount of pollution in the area. The government needs to raise the money for upkeep in some way.

    The money that tourists pay to see the Taj is completely reasonable from an international standpoint: it is cheaper than a ferry ride at Niagara Falls, or getting in to see Buckingham Palace. However, if you charged locals the same price, there is no way they could afford it. As you mentioned in your blog on Varanasi, even $2.50 US can be a hell of a lot of money in India – much less $17. I am hard pressed to think of anything so upsetting as living in Agra and never being able to afford to see the Taj.

    I am a Canadian born Indian and when I visit the country I am happy to pay “tourist prices” for national monuments because I know that I can afford them. While there is a fine line between being gracious and being a chump, we should never be frustrated at supporting the upkeep of one of the wonders of the world.

  7. Ramesh

    Sahil is too ashamed to admit the facts. and o seems to be living in some fantasy land. there’s no point in throwing numbers to impress how many have made it to the big corporations of US. for all i care, how much the numbers add up to? india is a billion plus strong and half (yes dear, half) of it goes hungry everyday. why? ’cause nobody cares about them. they don’t have a voice in the goverment of day. who doesn’t know our love for boy child (“its changing”?, my ass). caste is alive and kicking and everyone, no matter how “educated” they may be, still wouldn’t marry outside their caste. and no no no, it wasn’t the britishers or the mugals who ruled us. it was we let them rule us because we were divided among our caste, religion and creed. and divided we are to this day.so all those talks of india shining only affects a small population of india who predominently live in the cities. this is no ridiculing, mind you. i love my country as much you do. but turning a blind eye to the facts is not the right thing to do. so let the facts be brought out.

  8. Phil

    I hate it when you call us “Britishers”. The correct term is “the British”. Former British colonies have done a lot better than former French, Spanish and Portugese ones that’s for sure. Compare Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc. with Algeria, Niger, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

  9. puneet

    Hey Matt,
    I loved your video, it was heart-warming and touching. Also, take your late night dreams of teaching hygiene to the folk of India, some place else, you arrogant prick.

    I used to think you would have some world awareness since you’ve traveled more than most people ever will in their lives, but clearly I was wrong. Traveling to developing nations has its perils…don’t trash on places you know nothing about.

    By the way the spelling of the book you were asked to read was BHAGAVAD GITA.

  10. I’d like to think that Matt is never serious and write what he experiences (without observation to other people’s experiences), and he use metaphors a lot ~ come on guys, he dances badly. How could someone like that be obnoxious?
    Just enjoy whatever he reads, or if not, close the tab. What’s the use of extra sensitivity?

  11. Anupama

    I can’t decide weather I like your blog or not. I’ve been living here in the US for 3 yrs now and as a foreigner there are cultural differences that I see around me that amuse me – like this obsession with the weather that every random stranger subjects you to on the 30 second ride in the elevator (compare to vishal’s obsession with food, although I have to admit he does seem really annoying). Or the obscenely fat Americans that I see all over the place (in stark contrast to India where people go hungry). Then there are the hoarders that hoard even cat carcasses!Lets not even talk about the people who ask me if I’ve found Jesus. And so many, many other things. If everyone were the same and all places alike, the world would be so vanilla.

    People are entitled to their own religious practices and beliefs without being called nutjobs.Most places don’t seem to please you, sort of takes the joy out of every wannabe world traveler’s dream. While a lot of your experiences of India are bang on my point is this – there is a thin line between humorous sarcasm and blatant disrespect. Anthony Bordain seems to be one of the few people who is able to straddle that line. Maybe you need to take a few pointers. Or not, since it is your blog and hence your prerogative. But I might’ve have enjoyed the read a lot more, since the point of the blog seems to be people’s amusement.

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