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It’s Sunday of the third week of October. Moving day has finally arrived and we’re anxious to settle into Kirti Monastery in the heart of McLeod Ganj. The luggage is piled into a cab and we’re driven the two kilometres to the monastery, near the bottom of Temple Road. Our driver takes one look at the steep, narrow lane leading to the monastery and parks near the temple gate. At our request, he helps us cart our bags up the hill to the front door of Kirti.
The main building is perched on the side of the hill at the top of the lane. From this point on, the road becomes a restrictive walking path, winding uphill between Kirti buildings, a nunnery, private homes and guesthouses. Inside the front door of the monastery are several offices. From there stairs lead downward to a courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls.
The monks’ lodgings take up much of the building and two large decks, where the men and boys spend their free time, are located above and in front of the rooms. The guesthouse is situated underneath and to one end of the main building, and consists of three levels of single rooms and several suites.
A monk named Kunchok meets us at the door and helps us down the steep stairway to the guest residence. A mature thirty-three year old, he is the manager of this large monastery, a busy and demanding position. Kunchok has the peaceful, sensitive face of an aesthete and a lovely, mild energy.
With a combination of simple words and gestures, he indicates that our suite is being cleaned, and seats us comfortably in the window of a single room overlooking the mountains. After a short time we’re shown to our apartment. It’s small and lovely, with a magnificent view of the mountains and Lower Dharamsala in the valley below. We sense we’ll be very happy during our time here.
From the narrow communal porch outside our suite we have a view of the monks’ deck on the left. To the right is a lawn and a metal roofed building, both are used daily for lectures, chanting, prayers and debating practice.
Our friend Dekyi located the guesthouse through her network when Don requested a place with cooking facilities. (I myself had no plans to cook.) By Canadian standards the apartment is rough, but it’s relatively luxurious accommodation for McLeod Ganj, and affordable at an equivalent of 10 dollars a day. Electricity and hot water are available around the clock, except for occasional storm outages. The suite is bug-free, always a surprise in both north and south India, where one anticipates tropical beasties.
The door of the narrow apartment opens onto a cozy sitting room with a wide window. Behind is a small bedroom with large curtained windows on the living room side, providing both light and air, then at the back are the washroom and kitchen. The tiny refrigerator in the livingroom works after a fashion, but the freezer is defective and as the weeks go by the useable portion of the fridge shrinks because the food freezes.
The cold water kitchen’s location at the back of the apartment is not an ideal situation. Added to this, the rusted exhaust fan over the propane stove is broken; at times the odour of singed oil creeps into our rooms and we suspect that other fans are also defective. We happily make do, using the facilities to prepare cooked cereal with fruit salad most mornings and sandwiches accompanied by steamed vegetables for lunch. We eat dinner out each day, due to a combination of kitchen fumes, laziness and our enjoyment of an evening outing after conversation group. Before we leave we have one final hurrah in the kitchen, brewing up a huge pot of vegetable soup for our friends.
My favourite area is the sitting room, warmly furnished with an old, but attractive wine coloured couch and easychair, purple curtains, a coffee table and an old television set that displays ghostlike Western shows (oddly, my favourites like Grey’s Anatomy). I’m to spend many happy hours in this room, gazing at the valley below, reading and tutoring our new friends.
Sunday is the day of rest for monks and some are sitting in the shade on their deck. Two small boys play a game together at a table under a tree. Birds twitter, hawks soar in the sky and voices filter down from a second deck above the guesthouse. From the Dalai Lama’s nearby temple the deep, haunting sound of Tibetan horns resonates.
The energy is magnificent here at Kirti Monastery, light and uplifting. This “monk energy”, as I come to call it, built up over time, comes from the heightened state of consciousness achieved over years of disciplined practice.
“Whatever you think or say, you’re wrong; it’s the opposite,” said our 14 year-old guide as we walked the lanes of Varanasi. Attempting to describe this multifaceted nation and my relationship to it is impossible. India is a country of paradoxes where extremes are at play.
Writers often apologize for not being able to clearly explain the intricacies that make up this country of over one billion people, where the middle class now constitutes one quarter to one third of the population and English is the common language in cities and tourist areas.
India’s draw is complex; we can’t understand it within the frame of reference of our Western minds, and that is part of what pulls us in. Once our constant internal analysis abates, we’re more open to flowing with what is unfolding around us. To say that the environment there is over stimulating would be an understatement. People, vehicles, cows, even the colours are de trop, but my approach has been, “bring it on”. I was thirsty for India after waiting for her so long and I wanted to soak in every tiny little detail.
India is very rich and very poor, spiritual yet also extremely material, beautiful but also ugly. The welcoming hospitality we felt everywhere helped to counteract the overload, the frustrations and the oxymorons of the country.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a preoccupation with India and its people, feeling drawn to go there. Life intervened, and my first visit did not take place until I was well into midlife. It was worth the wait, and I viewed it with different eyes than I would have at a younger age.
I’ve always felt quite certain that numerous past lives have been spent in India, and my immediate affinity and strong connection to the country and to the Indian and Tibetan people living there pointed to this. Later a friend, a talented professional psychic, confirmed this for me.
My partner Don and I are very fortunate to be on the same page when it comes to travelling. With our childraising years over and career transitions underway, my desire to see India overtook my homebody routines, and our first six week trip to the Indian continent was in 2007. The adventure was so successful we decided to return two years later for a longer period of time, one that would involve volunteer work as well as travel.
For three months we lived, volunteered, soaked in the culture and breathed the often arid, dusty air of the country. India turned out to be everything I imagined it would be…and more. The women and men we met, almost without exception, in both the North India Tibetan and Indian communities and in South India, embraced us with their warmth and friendship, and a sincere desire to understand more about our country, our lifestyle and us as individuals.
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Please register at the library: 886-2130
Travel Author Presentation: India An Indian Sojourn by Ellen Besso
April 27, 2013 1:00-3:00pm
GIBSONS & DISTRICT PUBLIC LIBRARY
Join author Ellen Besso and her partner Don Smith at the GPL in a two-part event. Ellen will read from her memoir about volunteering in the Tibetan refugee colony of Dharamsala and travelling in other parts of India in 2009-2010. Following this Ellen and Don will give a slide presentation of their time in Dharamsala last fall, their relationships and the events that unfolded while they were there.
Please register ahead at the library by phoning 886-2130 Hope to see you there Ellen
Getting from Point A to Point B is tough in India. City stays can be also, even with the best planning. Here is an excerpt from An Indian Sojourn describing our arrival in Delhi for the second time, after our trip down from McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh.
We reach the heart of the city; by now we’ve been on the road for a tiring twelve hours. As the driver circles the Old Delhi roundabout several times in heavy traffic, I worry that he’ll have an accident in the congestion of the Old City after driving for so long. After an hour of stops to ask directions (I lose count at six), and fruitless attempts by us to phone the hotel without the correct area code, Don finally identifies the landmark Imperial Cinema just around the corner from the Prince Polonia Hotel; it’s lights are out, making it hard to spot.
Finally we reach the door of the Prince Polonia and send our tenacious driver off with a decent tip for all his aggravation. The doorman helps us with our bags and we wearily climb the stairs to the reception desk, only to find that our room has been given away. Someone has neglected to note our planned late arrival, and reading the registry upside down, I see our names with a line drawn through them.
The apologetic staff take us around the corner and down a long, dark lane of mixed residential and commercial buildings to the Sun Village Hotel. The road is strewn with household garbage by night time; triggered by tiredness, I find the street scene revolting. On first glance it appears that there are sidewalk sleepers outside
most buildings, later we realize that the street is an overflow room for the downstairs apartments, and residents sleep or sit on string cots abutting the walls of the building. These beds, or charpoys, are rectangular structures strung tightly with coir rope to form a strong, comfortable bed or chair.
By the next morning the street has been cleaned up; people from the Dalit caste, formerly called the Untouchables, collect the garbage. The past weeks in McLeod Ganj have accustomed me to a quiet, small town atmosphere, but this bustling lane is what life in urban India is all about, with middle class or even rich people often living cheek by jowl with the lower classes.
Ceremonial canopies, ready for a wedding, are pitched in the road this morning, later the drumming begins. Still tired and a bit disgruntled about being stuck in this hotel on the dark, chaotic lane, I wonder judgmentally if the music will go on all night. Then I ask myself, Why would you want to go on a slum tour (a visit to an impoverished community), when you find this street so unappealing? Perhaps I prefer to separate my living quarters from my voyeuristic tourist activities. (In retrospect, I was too hard on myself again; the trip to Delhi was gruelling, change is a challenge for me, and although not yet in touch with it, I’m missing McLeod Ganj.)
Several weddings take place in Paharganj today, and we watch as a bride and groom leave the bride’s house near the hotel, symbolically walking under a canopy. The wedding party then parades through the street accompanied by drumming; shortly afterwards the canopy is removed. Astrology is widely used here to predict couple compatibility and suitable wedding dates. The Times of India reports that hundreds of thousands of couples are being married in the month of December all over the country; about one hundred thousand of the marriages are taking place in Delhi. Now is an ideal time, as the first six months of 2010 will be inauspicious.
The Prince Polonia desk clerks invite us back to their hotel, but we paid for two nights at Sun Village on arrival and don’t want the trouble of settling into a new room and a different bed. Sun Village is a mid range Paharganj Indian hotel, not a tourist inn; the feel is different, it’s plainer in decor and more formal. The staff are not as knowledgeable about the preferences of foreign travellers; they tend to either hover or hang around at loose ends in the rather empty hotel.
While the room is fine, food service is another story. On the first morning, we inquire about the location of the dining room and a staff member takes us up to the deserted outside deck, where two dirty tables sit. “No thank you”, we say, and go round the corner to the Prince Polonia’s rooftop restaurant, where their usual high quality breakfast is being served by friendly people who know us. In early December it’s still comfortable on the roof, but by mid-January it’s a different situation, and everyone has room service.