Thursday, August 31, 2006

Remote and isolated.

Before I came to Ladakh, I was amazed that the only way to enter or leave in the winter is by flight. Then I went to Padum, the last "big" town on the dead-end road to the Zanskar region of Ladakh, and discovered that the only road is closed by winter snows for half the year - and there are no flights. Then I walked the two days to Phuktal Monastery, and couldn't really imagine winter there. The main route in and out during the height of winter is walking along the frozen river, which is termed traveling along the chaddar. Chad means "to freeze" and dar means "your ass off." The river doesn't always freeze through evenly, so falling through the ice is a definite risk. And in late winter, when the ice is starting to melt, the high passes are still blocked by snow, so even the relative comfort of walking along an ice-covered river is no longer available. I can't imagine. (And I complain about slow traffic at home. Hah!)
But not surprisingly, these are a hardy people. At Sonam's wedding, her younger brother, Tenzin, said he was walking to Manali in four days; its regularly trekked by tourists in ten days. When I said that sounded hard, he said, "NOT hard! You just walk five hours in the morning, have lunch, then walk five hours in the afternoon. Not hard." There was no bravado in his statement - he just didn't think it was hard.
I witnessed one of the results of the isolation of the area. In a well-touristed, relatively affluent village not far from the monastery, I saw a woman sitting on the ground with her head in her hands, like she was in pain. I asked the shopkeeper, standing beside her, if she was okay. She pointed to a rock, and on the rock I saw a long, bloody molar, freshly pulled, without any painkiller - not even aspirin. (The tooth had a cavity in it about the size of a small pea.) The patient/victim was stoic and silent, even though she was obviously in a lot of pain. The shopkeeper/dentist prepared a natural remedy of cooked barley flour, butter and sugar that the patient spooned into the hole in her jaw.
That seemed adequately intense, but then the shopkeeper/dentist took the dental pliers from her kid, who was playing with them on the ground, wiped them off, and went in to extract a second tooth! (Would we EVER go to the dentist if this is what it was like?) Two attempts and two bits of broken tooth later (the root stayed in) and the shopkeeper/dentist proclaimed "Done." As crude as the sidewalk dentist in Varanasi was, at least he used Novocaine. I asked why she didn't use some painkiller, and she said, "Because sometimes it doesn't work." That's your answer?! That's the sort of bewildering logic that is so common here that I didn't even ask any follow-up questions. It turns out that the shopkeeper did have some sort of government-sponsored nurse training, although I'm not sure it was on display on this day.
In spite of the ancient culture and simple existence of the people in the area, most of the villagers are relatively well off. They have large houses, plenty to eat, and many can afford to send their children to boarding schools, either in Leh (the capital of Ladakh,) or Manali or Jammu. The kids are typically at school for 10 months a year, and only home for two. All the subjects are taught in English (which is true of many schools in India) so the kids are quite fluent in English, and know a fair bit about the world. I wonder, though, how many of these well-educated kids will choose to stay in such a simple and remote village life.
I thought I was writing a letter about monks. But if my Newsletter McNuggets get too long, they won't get read. So the monk stories will have to wait...
p.s. I've left Zanskar, and I'm now in Leh. I'm plotting my (gulp) return to San Francisco for work in about two weeks.
There are six photos below:
I met this man walking on the trail. He was really a gentle soul.
You can just make out the trail on the left side of the photo.
A view from the house where I spent one night on the walk.
A kitchen inside a small tea shop.
Carrying water in a village where I don't believe anyone had running water.
It doesn't take much - hold out your camera, smile, and watch it unfold.
(The End)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More photos from Phuktal

I'm afraid I don't have time to write the stories that I'd like to. But you'll find nine photos below from the Phuktal Monastery. I may be off of e-mail for up to a week. See you soon.
A kid wearing a monk's hat.
A view of the monastery from above.
The valley beyond the monastery.
The kitchen for the monastery, set up against the cave wall.
One of the monks.
Another young monk. Who came up with those hats??
(The End)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Confounding moments

I'm sitting here typing on a very fast satellite internet connection in a town with no phone service of any kind. The back of my hands itch with about 25 bedbug bites from sleeping four nights in a six hundred year old monastery, as I contemplate my imminent return to San Francisco. Last night I met a young Tibetan man who fled Tibet at the age of nine (with the help of an uncle,) walking over a 19,000 foot pass into Nepal, where he had to work as a manual laborer for a year before he had the money to head south to India to get an education. And in a few weeks I'm going to put my pampered white ass on a plane to go home to work and make an unreasonable amount of money, where no callouses will be earned and no sweat will be broken.
It's these confounding moments that make all the grief and hassle of a trip to India worthwhile.
I won't cry as often when I'm home, which is a little unfortunate, because I only cry when I'm happy. And I'm not allowed to say hi to kids in my neighborhood, not because of a court order, but because of the sterilizing paranoia that passes for parental concern at home. I play with kids here on a weekly basis more than I will in a year at home. But I'll also get to practice a different kind of love. Love at arm's length is no match for the challenge of up-close, long-term love, complete with annoying habits that seem designed to aggravate. (No, I don't have any offers at the moment.)
"Love, pure and simple; directed to none, denied to none." What does that look like when I've left exotic goose-bumpy India and I'm back in the oh-so-familiar haunts of home? I guess we'll see.
Much love,
The photos below are from the trek to Phuktal Monastery. I'll send stories later. There are nine photos:
The walk followed several rivers, which are brown at this time of year, and blue-green later in the fall. It rained on us in the morning.
Buddhist stupas are important religious symbols, and are found in almost every village. These are in a village of only two houses.
The central room of a Ladakhi house. Meals are cooked on the dung- and wood-fueled fire in the center, while family and visitors sit on carpets at the edge of the room.
It's really rugged territory.
Phuktal Monastery.
The monastery viewed from across the river, next to a small village of five houses. You can see the monastery to the center-left of the photo. The dark spot is a large cave that houses the primary meditation room. The village can be seen on the lower-right.
(The End)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Please e-mail me some rupees.

This was not one of my finer moments. Since I only intended to come down the Zanskar road for one day, I thought I had plenty of money. That was two weeks ago, and I'm down to about $10 worth of rupees, and there's nowhere to change money here. Oops! There were a few Americans I ran into, including a professor from San Diego who is a nun, wears one of those funny/traditional hats, and speaks Ladakhi. I could have groveled before them, explaining my situation. But did I? No. Because I am really unhappy groveling. It's been a humbling experience to feel so powerless and still be unwilling to fix it.
But my Tibetan hotel-keeper, Lekshe, has come through, and I have $200 of traveler's checks bouncing down the 14 hour road to Kargil, in the pocket of a monk, on the way to Lekshe's wife. (His first wife, not his second wife, who he is also married to. Really.) And Lekshe trusted me enough to advance me enough money that I'm no longer in danger of being a vagrant.
Tomorrow I'm leaving for a one-week or so trek to a famous monastery, with a French anthropologist and her local friends. I'll be back in contact when I return...
There are 10 photos below:
A young monk.
These girls (twins?) are from Jammu, and their father comes here for the summer to repair shoes.
A monk inside the monastery of Tongde.
The village of Padum, where I'm staying, is in the center-right. The air is so crystal clear here that distances are confusing.
(The End)

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Ladhaki wedding

I wandered into a tiny village a few days ago, and met a Buddhist nun who spoke fluent English. She said, "Go to the third house and ask for Sonam. She's my sister, and she'll make you a cup of tea. If you want." Yeah, I want! It seemed a little forward, but I took up the offer and went looking for Sonam, who turned out to be warm and inviting, as is the norm in these parts.
There was some ceremony going on inside the house, with a monk and family members chanting from Tibetan Buddhist texts. Sonam, who just happened to be beautiful, said they were praying for her marriage. Wow! A ceremony to try to get her married on the very day that a handsome stranger walks in the door?! What are the odds? Just before I was about to call her father "Dad" I learned that she was getting married in two days. Oh. Sniff.
So I went to the wedding two days later, invited this time, and felt like the fly on the wall that I always wanted to be in a situation like this. The little village of 16 houses looks ancient and timeless, and the family had no idea how old it was or how long their ancestors had been there. The two-story houses are built out of non-reinforced adobe - really just dried blocks of sandy mud. The floors and ceilings are supported by logs, limbs, and twigs, and covered with packed dirt. They're not designed for heavy rain, and a few days ago a ceiling collapsed in a nearby village, killing two children.
There were no disco balls or lighted dance floors at this wedding. I could imagine that the format hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. The only dancing, which you'll see in the photos, were three older men in elaborate costumes accompanied by loud and enthusiastic drumming. Everyone else sat around the edge of the room. The women's role was to encourage/insist that the men drink more chang, a local milky-colored brew somewhere between beer and wine, but not as strong. The men's role was to resist the chang overture, then give in and drink some more. Some of the costumed men conked out when they took a break from dancing, and the women would try to wake them up to drink more chang.
An important part of the ceremony is the bride appearing disconsolate, because she's leaving her family to go to her husband's house and village. (In this case, his village was only one mile away.) A local told me before the wedding that it's not really a sad event, it's just a tradition to act that way. So when Sonam started weeping loudly and practically hyperventilating, it seemed a little forced, and kind of cute. But then I noticed that the older women started covering their faces with their hands. And Sonam's father, who looked a little like Anthony Quinn (Zorba of Zanskar?) shook his head slightly, and brushed away tears, too. The tears were real, and I realized that there wasn't a dry eye in the place. It's much too simple to say that it's just tradition; it felt like the tears and sadness went much deeper than that. I can't say what it represented for the older folks, but it seemed to touch something deep. Sonam kept her head down and covered, and was either crying or silent, the whole time. I never even caught a glimpse of her on her wedding day.
The party moved outside, where gifts were taken out of a trunk while the donor's name was called out, accompanied by shouts of "Jule!" That was followed by more drumming and dancing, while the old women plied us with chang, which we drank out of a single cupped hand.
The dancers continued until it was almost dark, just to make scampering down the steep and rocky hill more dramatic. (That's total B.S., actually - it's nothing to them, and only dramatic to me.) A procession was headed from the small village up the hill down to Padum, the groom's village. By the time we all piled into the three jeeps, it was dark and we got lost going the 1/2 mile to the road. We crossed a couple of rivers and drove downstream through one river for about 100 yards. After we found our way, we had to wait 30 minutes while we waited for the third jeep that got separated from us. Just a few mintues later I was dropped off in front of the internet shop, in a town that has no phone, and only three hours of dim electricity a day. The mind boggles.
Before I ever traveled, I used to flip through those beautiful adventure travel brochures, with photos of spectacular scenery and exotic cultures, and I'd get butterflies. I think this is what I was dreaming about.
There are 13 photos below. The light inside the house was challenging, since it came from a single window.
Sonam's niece.
A view of the village from the house where the wedding was held.
A young monk who was at the wedding.
Sonam's father on the left and another relative reading from the list of the gifts received.
Sonam's cousin and attendant for the day.
Sonam's younger brother and mother.
Each of the dancers wore a silver box like this on his back. It has a small picture of the Dalai Lama.
A view of the village from the other direction. You can see the drummers in the foreground, and the dancers on the right.
(The End)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Love, pure and simple.

These challenging quotes come from "I Am That" by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
Question: In love there must be duality, the lover and the beloved.
Maharaj: In love there is not even the one, how can there be two? Love is the refusal to separate, to make distinctions. Before you can think of unity, you must first create duality.
Love is boundless. What is limited to a few cannot be called love. Personal love, however intense and genuine, invariably binds; love in freedom is love of all. In loving one you love all, in loving all, you love each. One and all are not exclusive.
Love of one and love of all merge together in love, pure and simple; addressed to none, denied to none.
Too much love,
There are 10 photos below:
The youngest of the Ladakhi pilgrims on the bus that I hitched a ride with.
And the oldest of the pilgrims. This man was stooped and feeble, but made the same rugged journey as everyone else.
This monk at the 17th century Rangdum monastery invited me into his room and made lunch for me and his two friends, who were teachers at a local school. You can see a photo of the Dalai Lama on the wall.
Another monk at Rangdum monastery.
The rugged landscape of Zanskar - taken out the window of a moving car.
The old man who was walking down the road with his near-blind wife, leading a donkey.
If I could get the kids to pose and look so adorable, I'd really be talented.
No, I didn't rub dirt on this kid's face to make him look more cute.
Turning inside-out from shyness.
This picture makes me laugh. These boys were swimming in a muddy waterhole.
(The End)