Touching Base

I suppose, as so often, I’d better open with an apology for the long absence. There’s been a lot going on, connectivity here is dodgy and, well, other excuses that I don’t imagine you’re interested in. After the makes dial-up look quick speeds of Nepal and the price fixing of the Pokhara Cyber Association, which set every café in the city at nearly three times the rate we were paying in Kathmandu, the internet cafés in India are a welcome relief. Sadly tough, the computers themselves are often still painfully slow. For the first time a café with half an awareness of computer security meant I was unable to patch Firefox to 3.x, so tried using (the surprisingly installed) Google Chrome instead. As a first experience with the software, it wasn’t pleasant—presumably because of it’s practice of running every tab as a separate process. When I’m being charged by the minute for access I like to try and do any many things as possible at once. One day I’ll find an internet café properly equipped with Macs, and that will be a glorious day indeed.

We arrived in India on November 17th, the day before our Nepalese visas expired. Leaving by bus from the border town of Banbassa the first obvious difference was the presence of railways. The second was the fascinating array of English language signage. From the board just up from a level crossing warning train drivers to be wary of elephants on the line through the poetic practicality of “we like you but not your speed” and “speed thrills but kills” to the direct quotes from western lyricists found on traffic signs of the winding roads up to Uttarakhand’s hill stations. The hi-vis “school zone” sign in Mussoorie, though, did make me think more of the Bexhill refugee compound than anywhere I’d actually want to send my children.

We spent our first two nights in India in Nainital, which felt rather like having spent two and a half months on the road only to find ourselves at home. Lonely Planet describes it as a town founded by homesick Brits reminded of the Cumbrian Lake District. The hills are somewhat higher than anything in Britain, but the comparison’s not unfair. The Victorian iron railings along the lakeside promenade seemed more Sussex seaside resort than Uttarakhand hill town. Even the voices overheard in cafés seemed to speak with a British Indian accent, and church bells rang out across the lake at night. I think a lake is something Bradford’s missing. The colonial legacy seemed to have left more European denomination churches than “local” religion. I did manage to make a brief visit to the Catholic church, and encountered a spiritual presence there that I’ve not felt in countless Buddhist or Hindu temples. Maybe it’s because it was a serving place of worship not a museum, or maybe I’m just conditioned to react in a certain way to enormous crosses.

From Nainital we moved on to the Navdanya farm near Dehradun. Navdanya is the biodiversity movement founded by Vandana Shiva. They have farms and seed banks all over India where they grow hundreds of crop varieties under threat from de facto extinction beneath the growing weight of industrial farming and patented plants. Seeds are available to organic farmers at no cost—they simply return a portion of their first harvest to the seed bank, keeping another portion to replant the following season. The Dehradun farm was Navdanya’s first, and is also the site of an alternative collage called Bija Vidyapeeth. We turned up hoping just to see the place and volunteer in the fields for a few days. We’d been told we’d have to leave after four days as there was a course starting. For four days we worked, and ate beautiful food with the regular staff sat on the floor of the kitchen. Virtually all the food was grown on the farm, and I enjoyed some of the best potatoes I’ve ever tasted. Every day I would look forward to the gyrating twists of steam that danced above my chai in the dawn light. From there it was a walk out to the fields, usually to harvest mustard, though I also got to put years of canal holidays to good use winding the winnowing fan. Actually living something of the agricultural life, if briefly, gave a fresh insight into some well known parables. I don’t know if it’s the same type of mustard Jesus was referring to, but I found it hard to imagine this stuff growing into a tree birds could nest in the branches of. Crawling through the fields squatted down, painful though it was, did however really show how the harvest is affected by by the soil, and the plants were noticeably different depending on whereabouts the seed had been cast. It was amusing to watch the Egrets waiting around in the empty fields, and then hopping into line behind the plough as it passed, churning up… whatever it is that egrets eat. I guess they’re probably a pest, stealing valuable worms or something from the soil.

The whole place, however, was slightly chaotic and getting accurate information about what was going on proved awkward. It became apparent that people were arriving from all over the world for a course on Gandhi and Globalisation, taught by Satish Kumar, Samdhong Rinpoche and Vandana herself. The opportunity seemed to good to pass up, so we stayed for a further two weeks. Sadly, due to the political situation, the Rinpoche had to cancel, but every other part proved excellent. Satish might be disappointed that I thought he had more to tell the world about Gandhi than about spirituality, but he was a charming man, and an inspiration to learn from. I will be making it a priority to read his books. Vandana seems to have been a somewhat more prolific author, but I’ve picked a few I’d like to start with. She was only with us for two and a half days, but in that time it was as if the whole place came alive. Her speaking carried such authority that several people there said she had rocked their world, as she conveyed with clarity and researched evidence the injustice of globalised trade, and the horror of genetic monopoly. The other students were an amazing bunch also, with some involved in fantastic projects and others just setting out on grand journeys. I’ll be sure to link to any who have sites of interest as things develop. In particular, look out for our rainbow coloured WWGD (What Would Gandhi Do) bracelets. Some said it missed the point, but I think it’s an opportunity ripe for exploitation.

On a couple of days during the course they let us out of the farm, once to visit a Sikh temple, and once to visit a Tibetan monastery. The temple visit had always been planned as, apparently, every Sikh temple will give a free meal to all comers, 24 hours a day—a fine example of Gandhian principles in action. The food was basic but good and the temple interesting, though I have to confess I find centuries old religious shrines decorated with plastic flowers, flashing lights and drapes of finest viscose slightly odd. The monastery visit was planned at shorter notice, following Samdhong Rinpoche’s withdrawal, and it showed. No one really seemed to know what was going on. We got a look round a large stupa, and an even larger statue of Śākyamuni Buddha, before being herded back onto the bus to go… somewhere else. Some of us took matters into our hands and stayed for the afternoon, when we’d heard some kind of empowerment ceremony would be going on. I didn’t really understand a word of it, but it was amazing to see the maroon ocean as hundreds of monks assembled. In Tibet itself we never saw more than three monks together. We sat in and watched from the back, among the lay people. Apparently it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand, and you get empowered just by hearing whatever ancient text it is that the lama was reciting. The whole event felt religious, but had the atmosphere more of a festival as people sat on the lawn listening, but also chatting and doing their own thing. The Tibetan woman next to me had bought her English language copy of The Kite Runner to read during the ceremony.

The day after the course ended we missed the night bus to Dharamsala and ended up sleeping rough on Chandigarh bus station. I say sleeping. That’s probably the wrong verb. These kind of places ought to have internet cafés. I had a lot of catching up to do, and they’d probably run at a reasonable pace at 4am. I’d like to say it worked out worth it in the end, but I’m not quite sure I can bring myself to. We did, however, get to spend the following morning at the Nek Chand fantasy rock garden—a kind of dreamland of rubbish—which we would otherwise have missed. It’s an enchanting place, and well worth a visit, I just wished it could have gone on a bit longer. And that I could have gone there awake.

In the end, it was late evening by the time we finally arrived in McLeod Ganj, home of the Tibetan government in exile, and we were all anxious to get a good night’s sleep as quickly as possible. The following day we moved into a working monastery, which seems to be the cheapest place in town to stay, and started to do a little exploring. We got tickets for a Tibetan music concert that evening, that provided an answer to the perennial question “what does a monk have on his iPod?” The answer: it sounds a bit like Tibetan Boyzone. To start with it seemed it was going to be more a mime show than a music show. Thankfully, as the evening wore on Ronan’s influence died away a little, but it was all performed to backing tracks by solo vocalists. The one man who appeared with a guitar clearly confused the sound engineers, and the feedback spoilt things slightly. The whole show was performed in front of a large painting of the Potala Palace, and it was odd to think that we had been there only a few weeks ago when most of the others in the audience live in the perpetual hope that they will one day see it again.

We spent the weekend on a two day hike up to Triund and back. If the last few kilometres to Everest base camp had been like hauling the One Ring up Mount Doom, this was more like Caradhras—an unrelenting and seemingly never-ending ascent, but one that followed an established mountain pass. Given how it had a name and all, I’d kind of expected an actual place at the top. It turned out to be just a small government run guesthouse and a few shack-like stalls looking out over the valley. The government guesthouse was pretty pricey, so we ended up paying one of the shack owners the same price as we paid for a double room back in McLeod Ganj to sleep in his cold, dark lean-to. He was able to give us a pretty decent dinner and breakfast (not included), and as we were eating I heard what I think must be the most offensive radio advert I’ve come across. The India Today media group was asking people to join their private war on terror with the tagline “Be the change—log on to india today slash war”. I’m not quite sure I can see Gandhi declaring war on anything. And has the rest of the world learnt nothing from seven years of disastrous Bush foreign policy? The Times of India was reporting a few days later that more Indians are killed by lightening strike than terror attacks, calculated as a daily average. Apparently, eight people a day die from lighting strikes in India.

On Monday, the other’s left me. It’s now Friday, and I’m talking over a class teaching “Advanced English” on Monday. I’m not sure I even know what advanced English is, but I’ve sat in on the class the last three days, so hopefully I’m learning something from that. I’ve committed to at least a month’s stay here in McLeod Ganj. If I’ve any time left over once I’ve finished worrying about the next day’s class, I might get to spend some of that time seeing the rest of the sites. It feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface. For one, I’ve not even been near the Dalai Lama’s temple yet. So, of the Tibetan experience, I’m sure I should have lots more to write. And a post on Tibet itself should be following fairly soon.

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