Ellen's book will strengthen and guide you in your role as caregiver to an elder parent or relative, and help you understand your own physical, emotional, mental & spiritual needs.
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.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Travelers Seek Authentic Experience in “Voluntourism”
New Book Describes Spiritual Insight Gained by Traveling and Volunteering in India
GIBSONS, B.C. – April 4, 2013 – Author Ellen Besso today announced the release of her new book, An Indian Sojourn: One Woman’s Spiritual Experience of Travel & Volunteering. An Indian Sojourn offers a first-hand look at the growing trend to seek authentic and meaningful experiences through travel. Equal parts travelogue, political discourse, and Spirituality 101, An Indian Sojourn is the story of Besso’s recent travels in India where she and her partner volunteered at the Tibet Hope Centre in Dharamsala, India, teaching English to Tibetan refugees. It offers a unique perspective and frank discussion on women’s rights in today’s India, the challenges of travel in a developing country, and the experience of taking a sacred journey.
Besso’s experience is indicative of several trends that are converging to change the way and reason why people travel. An April 2012 report from the Adventure Travel Trade Association found there is a “growing awareness and demand for ‘giving back’”, so much so that 61% of the tour operators surveyed said they offered voluntourism trips. 34% of the people taking these trips were over 40 years-old, not surprising given that midlife often brings with it a desire to leave a legacy. At the same time, as many people abandon traditional religion and turn to alternatives including Buddhism, Kabbalah, and New Age spirituality, there is an increasing interest in pursuing these new-found beliefs in the countries where they originated and where people have traditionally been more open to them.
“People often long for a spiritual experience, a spiritual adventure. India waited for me for many years. She was everything I hoped for and more. Traveling and volunteering in India provided the perfect backdrop for finding that kind of enlightenment,” says Besso. Finding spiritual enlightenment through voluntourism is a trend that’s likely to continue. An Indian Sojourn speaks to that trend in an engaging and inspiring way, while offering insight into the ins and outs of traveling in India. An Indian Sojourn is a guidebook for people interested in experiencing India at a deeper level than as a typical tourist. It’s the story of the ups and downs of voluntourism, heartfelt stories of refugees and the wild ride that is India.
About Ellen Besso
Ellen Besso has over 25 years of experience as a coach, counsellor and social worker specializing in women’s issues. A long-time believer in the value of employing a holistic approach in life, work and self-care, Ellen mentors and assists women through inspirational coaching, workshops, books and articles. She is a trained Trager bodywork practitioner and meditator in the Kriya yoga tradition.
Ellen has traveled and volunteered extensively throughout India. Unlike most visitors to the country, she has traveled and lived there like a local, establishing friendships and connections throughout India. Ellen worked for the Tibetan Women’s Association, facilitating an English and women’s empowerment program for new arrivals from Tibet, editing refugee stories, and leading mixed-gender conversation classes at the Tibet Hope Center. She and her partner Don are currently sponsors in the Canadian Tibetan Resettlement Program, which expects to bring 1000 displaced Tibetans to Canada over five years.
An Indian Sojourn: One Woman’s Spiritual Experience of Travel & Volunteering is currently available on Amazon in the Kindle Edition and will soon be out in print. It is the second book in Ellen Besso’s Midlife Maze series. Besso’s first book, Surviving Eldercare: Where Their Needs End and Yours Begin chronicles her pilgrimage with her mother who had Alzheimer’s and offers a body, mind, and spirit approach to caregiving
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” Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Robert Kennedy, 1966
Don and I always say we get more out of volunteering than we give and have heard others express the same idea. Here is an excerpt from An Indian Sojourn that speaks to that concept. Hope you enjoy it:
It feels good to serve, everyone says so, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
When one helps others, dopamine is released, Dacher Keltner, author of Born to be Good writes. We are moved to awe, and our “helping part” becomes more prominent, while our competitive side is dampened, the author goes on to say.
Volunteers working abroad experience many stages; each person’s reaction is personal, but there are commonalities. The progression I have noticed is spiritual opening; enthusiasm; a sense of stable routine; then overwhelm/compassion fatigue and finally, separation.
Debbie Leventhal, who studied volunteers working with street youth in Israel, identified formal stages similar to what I’ve experienced. Individuals become part of the greater purpose by on-the-job immersion. Through “reality shock”, as Levanthal terms it, volunteers make sense of their experience. Shock was part of my experience; coming particularly in the form of the refugee stories edited.
After a time, the initial intensity of being in McLeod Ganj, reconnecting with Dekyi, with whom I share a rich past, meeting her family, developing friendships and working with students, began to fade. Events continued to impact me on a daily basis, but I no longer had the sense that they were coming at me headlong. Some internal mechanism activated and I began to adjust to my surroundings and to incorporate the vibration of the town into my own energy system.
When visitors stay a while, immersing themselves in the culture and activities, they gradually segue into an enhanced level of engagement. After a time, a deeply satisfying contentment developed in our routine of volunteering, editing and watching the weekend visitors arrive from Amritsar. Our doctor friends, busy with their daily cycle of work and
family, make time for us when they can; once we’re safely settled in they no longer call daily or turn up unexpectedly with bags of food.
A time comes when many visitors sense they’re nearing the end of their sojourn. It’s not just the arrival of winter, with its cold and dampness that leads us to feel this way, although that is a consideration.
I’ve reached the overwhelm stage in my volunteering experience, that feeling of never being able to do enough. Others have mentioned that they feel the same; it’s a common reaction when there is a great need, as with this population. Underneath our life here, the work done and the precious connections made, runs a subtext; the knowledge that our lives are very different and that we cannot fully comprehend the Tibetan culture or life experiences.
Several rituals help complete the circle for us: a leave taking tradition at our last THC group; dinner with Dekyi’s family, and lunch cooked in our honour by Rinzen from South India.
We had the privilege of participating in the rally, march and protest in Vancouver on Sunday, in honour or Tibetan Uprising Day. The speeches were moving, the walk not overwhelming (3.5 km, half of it uphill). It was not lost on me that we can protest and shout the Dalai Lama’s name as loud as we want in front of the Chinese Consulate, something our sisters and brothers living in Tibet cannot do. It was one of those times that made me very aware that I was born into and live in a free society.
Sunday’s events contrasted with the rally and march we took part in last November in Dharamsala India. Fewer Tibetan refugees of course, as the Vancouver Tibetan population is fairly small, not too many Western- born supporters, disappointing, I thought there would be more Tibetan Resettlement Project sponsors out. Also, in Dharamsala, monks initiate and lead the protests, while in Vancouver the monk population was noticeable by its absence, (although it’s possible there were a few there without their robes on).
We look forward to greeting the Tibetan families coming to the Sunshine Coast next summer from Northern India.