For a couple of weeks I've been living in Mcleod Ganj, adjacent to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile and the center of Tibetan life since 1959.
I'm not sure of the stats, but many of the residents are Tibetan refugees who fled after the 1959 military takeover by the Chinese of Tibet. There are plenty of Indians living here also, but this is hardly what I've come to know as India. It's been tough figuring out what exactly this place is, in fact.
It's floating somewhere in the Himalayas, not far from Kashmir, China, Nepal. The Tibetans have neither Chinese nor Indian citizenship, including those born here (unless they go out of their way to apply for it like other foreigners). Life revolves around His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His residence and monastery are on the edge of town. Though he's hardly around, usually traveling around the world spreading messages of non-violence and Tibetan advocacy, his presence can be felt everywhere. In every shop, every restaurant, and in every Tibetan's eyes and words. There are large, enshrined pictures of him that decorate any available space. And the words "His Holiness" accompany most conversation.
Life here is empowering. I've known about other refugee communities but none like this. There's such unity and a sense of purpose in the air, like a peaceful revolution could happen at any moment. The cold season doesn't bring many tourists so things are quieter and seem focused on what's important. No distractions from swarms of backpackers. Just praying for a peaceful return to Tibet, for "His Holiness' health," and preserving the culture that's slowly being overpowered by Chinese government occupying Tibet.
If struggling groups around the world could produce a leader like the Dalai Lama they'd have a better outlook on the future. And few wouldn't support their cause. Celia and I were thinking what would happen to this community if the Dalai Lama, now 72, who won the Nobel Peace Prize and the recent Congressional Medal in the U.S. passed away. In a recent visit to Japan, he opened the floodgates by speaking about alternatives to reincarnation for a potential successor. Knowing that without him Tibetans would be devastated both emotionally and politically he offered the possibility of a successor by referendum. No surprise, the Chinese condemned the idea stating they support religious freedom and the tradition of a reincarnated Dalai Lama must be upheld. This is the same China that is trying to annihilate Tibetan culture from the map. They are cleverly trying to avoid having a mature and well-respected community member take control. With a child Dalai Lama in power China would have much more sway over a community with no leadership force.
I suggest looking up more information about the situation in Tibet. A cause worth supporting, in my opinion.
We've enjoyed our mountainside spot thoroughly. Tibetan food is a delicious break from the over-cooked, over-spiced and over-oiled Indian food. Our stomachs thank us. Well, aside from the unavoidable bacteria that made us sick for the second time in a month. But that's besides the point. We've bought fresh bread from a little baker we found that keeps our favorite restaurant in stock. Fiber! What a discovery. Also, I'm obsessed with soup. Can't get enough of it. My favorite dish is Thenthuk, a traditional Tibetan dish - flat square noodles with steamed vegetables and some spices in a simple broth. I think cold weather was invented for Thenthuk consumption.
India cheap is even cheaper in Mcleod Ganj. Our hotel room costs Rs.150 (about $4) per night. We eat as much as we want for $3. We got tailor-made wool coats for under $15. I almost ate the wool coat in my Thentuk just for the hell of it.
We've gotten more serious since we arrived here. We've met with all sorts of government and organization officials to find out about the issues in the community. We were pretty psyched to do a story here for a while, but it dawned on us that not much is visually intense in the community. It's calm, pretty, relatively clean, happy, etc. Not the makings for a powerful photo essay.
While I was sick Celia interviewed three Tibetans who were tortured by the Chinese before they escaped to India. I showed up for a few minutes but wanted to barf so had to leave. But apparently they were pretty powerful stories. One lady, a former monk, was imprisoned for 12 years just for being Tibetan. She's part of a famous group of 14 singing nuns who stood up against their captors by smuggling out songs recorded on the inside. She received an extra five years in prison for the offense.
We've been considering going to Bangladesh to cover the cyclone devastation aftermath. Hours have passed at internet cafes making contacts, learning about the freelancing world, figuring out what's going on over there. The main wave of media coverage has passed, but that doesn't meant there aren't many stories to tell about thousands of destroyed lives. On the other hand, there's plenty to cover here in India.
So our next destination is the holy city of Varanasi. Out there on the edge of the Ganges. (If you've ever heard A Prairie Home Companion you might laugh. Or cry.) We hear its as intense or more intense that the rest of India, so we're trying to get our heads back on straight. No more relaxing on the mountainside. No more hiking the Himalayas. No more thentuk.
But plenty of eye candy.