Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hello From the Heat Box

As I write this it is currently 100 degrees in Delhi (but it "feels like" a 123 according to weather.com) and I am sweating despite being in the presence of AC and fans ( I can thank the Fletcher genes for that :) Luckily today is my last day in this oppressive heat as I am flying to Hong Kong this evening en route to China/Tibet.

My last month in India was as good as my first though it involved a lot more traveling. I spit my time up between Darjeeling and Sikkim, both wonderful places that to me felt nothing like India but instead like Nepal. Sikkim, in particular is much cooler, quieter, cleaner, more mountainous, and less populated than the other places I have been to in India, which was a welcome change.

In terms of my project, both places were of great interest. In Darjeeling I was able to interview Tibetans who do not speak Tibetan as well as Tibetan Muslims. And in Sikkim I was even able to locate a Tibetan-Christian family: never before had I met a Tibetan named Grace.

So tomorrow I will be in Hong Kong and then hopefully I will make it to Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) by June 4th or 5th. Since I will be there for my final two months, I am going to try and see as much of the country as possible because who knows when I will next have the time and funds to visit the country. Because of this I will therefore be roaming around a lot (much like a Tibetan nomad, except that I will be traveling by land cruiser and not on foot) and so I have no idea what my access to the internet will be like. However, I will certainly try my best to keep you all updated on what is going on.

Unfortunately I was not able to borrow a digital camera so I have no photos of the last month to show you. However, I just did a google search for Sikkim and Darjeeling and so you can see other people's photos of these wonderful places by clicking on the links below.

Ok then, hope everyone is well, and next time you hear from me hopefully I will not be dripping but instead freezing in the high altitudes of Tibet.

Sikkim Pics: http://images.google.co.in/images?q=Sikkim&hl=en

Darjeeling Pics: http://images.google.co.in/images?svnum=10&hl=en&lr=&q=Darjeeling

Sunday, April 30, 2006

More from McLeod

Hey All,

Sorry it has been a while since my last post. Things have gone really well here in India for the past two months, so much so, that I have been pretty busy and have not had a ton of free time. Basically for the last two months I was in McLeod Ganj spending my days teaching English to recent arrivals from Tibet (which was a wonderful experience!!), learning Tibetan and yoga, and carrying out interviews for my project.Although my dream of interviewing H.H.D.L. did not happen (he is simply too busy-he gets so many requests and does not have enough time), I was able to interview the Tibetan Prime Minister and H.H. The Karmapa (who is considered by Tibetans to be the 3rd most important Tibetan alive). I also met many other very interesting Tibetans and westerns whom I will surely miss. Although in my previous posts I have been giving a summary of my findings in terms of my project, I cannot do so here as I have learned so much and still need time to synthesize it all, so you will all have to wait to read about it in my book. Yes that is write, I have decided, assuming that all my photos come out well, that I want to write a book about my findings as nobody else has done so on my topic and I would feel incredibly selfish if I did not give back in some way after this incredible year that I have benn given.

So anyway, a few days ago I left McLeod Ganj and I am now in Darjeeling (the world capital of tea) where I am hoping to interview Tibetans who do not actually speak Tibetan, to understand from their perspective what the essence of Tibetan culture is. This should prove to be interesting as most Tibetans I have spoken to tell me that the Tibetan language is the most important aspect of Tibetan culture. The question then arises, is one not a Tibetan if they do not actually speak Tibetan? Some Tibetans would surely say no, but I would disagree. But I am getting ahead of myself, you can read all about this topic in my book at some point in the future when I actually write it.

So, I am planning on being here in Darjeeling for about a week and then I am heading to Sikkim. Because I am not able to go to Bhutan because it is way too expensive, I have decided that Sikkim would be the next best thing. So after a few weeks there I will be heading to Tibet (via Hong Kong) on June 1st.

So then, I have kept this blog entry shorter (as many of you have said that they are usually too long). And I have included some photos (which many of you have been requesting) that I took with a friends digital camera. They are all of McLeod Ganj (or the surrounding area). There are some from a hike I took, some of some Australian friends I met, some of monkeys caught up in meditation, and other random shots. My favorite is of a friend of mine who decided that the best way to wash his clothes was to wear them while taking a shower :)

Hope everyone is well,

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pics from McLeod Ganj

I was able to borrow a digital camera from a friend and so I took a few quick shots. Below are some photos from around the town. You can notice I have focused on the mountains--something which I have been missing a lot this year. Also there are a few of my room the best part of which is my clean western toilet :)

Friday, March 17, 2006



About two weeks ago I arrived to India after two short layovers in London and Doha. I was quite surprised to see how developed and modernized the gulf state is (at least it appears to be from the vantage of the airport). And as we flew out from Qatar it was quite funny because I knew I was in India before I even arrived. As we sat on the runway awaiting takeoff I decided to go to the toilet only to discover that some nice gentleman had decided to wiz allover the seat, signaling that even outside the confines of India, the legendary lack of hygiene still pervades.

I landed in Delhi feeling much less nervous about my arrival than I originally anticipated. The only thing I was nervous about was getting through customs, as I discovered 20 min before landing that I had been issued a business visa instead of a tourist one; the last thing I needed was to encounter trouble at customs. Yet, to my luck, I passed right through hassle-free. My bag also made it through unscathed and so my next stop was the moneychanger. The first guy I went to looked as though he was in a drug-induced coma on the verge of falling out of his chair; so I opted to go elsewhere. I handed over a travelers check and the guy quickly gave me some rupees. I counted them and it seemed as though I had received less than I was supposed to, but as soon as I had signed the receipt, the moneychanger snatched the paper out of my hand before I was able to check the amount. Although realizing I was likely taken advantage of, I decided to let it go, as my next stop was dealing with the taxi drivers. In the big cities in India (Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, etc.) people usually take advantage of the pre-paid taxis in the hopes of not getting ripped off. This system works by having the passenger pay for the fair before taking the cab. In Delhi, there is supposed to be a pre-paid booth both inside and outside the airport. Even though I arrived during the afternoon, it seemed as though the one inside was closed, so I headed outdoors expecting to get swamped by touts trying to get me to use their service. However, the opposite occurred and I waited patiently in the pre-paid line, paid my fair, and headed off to my taxi thinking to myself: ‘this isn’t so bad.’

We began driving and were only two minutes away from the airport when the driver decided to pull over to the side of the road and look across the street. I have no idea why he is doing this, and the whole scene is making me nervous because I know the ride is supposed to take an hour and all I want to do is get to my guesthouse. So, I decide to ask the driver what is going on. To my luck, he hardly speaks English, and in a string on incoherent words, the only thing I understand is something about “friend” and “petrol.” I tell him that I don’t care and that we need to get going, but he does not seem to care. Instead, he decides to turn across the road and pull into a big dirt parking lot that is full of dilapidated cars and less-than-friendly-looking people. I tell him not too, but he does so anyway muttering “five minutes” and something about his friend. I gather that he wants to get a friend and I repeatedly and insistently tell him that it is not ok to do so. But, he simply says, “no, its ok sir,” then proceeds to turn off the cab and hop out, taking the keys with him. He disappears down a street and I sit nervously, having no clue what I am going to do if he does not come back; looking around me there is nothing but broken down cars, shady characters, and cows lazily grazing. After about two minutes, to my pleasant surprise, the driver comes back with another guy who I presume to be his friend. At this point, we got back on the main road-but the fun was not yet over.

Driving in India is like nowhere else I have ever been. Even though there is supposed to be two general directions of traffic, cars go wherever there is room, weaving in and out at ferociously high speeds. People often describe it as ‘organized chaos’ and there is no better way to characterize such vehicular insanity. So, even though the other drivers around us are already driving at wild speeds and with little regard for other cars, pedestrians, and animals, my driver, for some reason, decides that he needs to go faster than the rest, to the point where it feels like we are convicts fleeing the police in a high speed chase. This had happened to me last time I was in India where some of the taxi drivers felt the need to “show off” to westerns and therefore drove more insanly than the rest. Why, I have no idea. All I can say is that it did not make me feel particularly safe. So, during my harrowing ride through big streets and back alleys I was made to feel more nervous when my driver and his friend kept saying ‘Manju-Ka-Tilla’ (the name of the Tibetan colony in Delhi and my destination), followed by a series of chuckles, as if to say ‘yeah good luck there buddy.’

Around an hour had passed and I saw no sign of other westerners or Tibetans, which is what I was looking for to gauge whether or not we were there, when all of the sudden in my periphery I saw a prayer flags and a Tibetan sign reading Losar (the name for the Tibetan New Year), and so I guessed that had to be the place. The only problem was that it was on the other side of the road and we were rushing by in the opposite direction. Fortunately, the driver turned around at the next intersection and pulled up to the area, however, taxis are not allowed in, and so he stopped on the street. I told him and his friend that I would give them the pre-paid slip-their money-as soon as I found my guesthouse to which they indignantly replied, “No, that is not the way it works!” So I gathered my things, handed them the slip, and walked off, luckily spotting a Tibetan monk whom I asked for directions. He was not sure, and so handed me over to some other Tibetans who led the way. After a short walk down some alleyways I made it to my hostel, tired but relieved; ‘Welcome to India’, I thought to myself, and laughed.

I spent one night in Delhi and the following evening caught a bus to Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj), the location of my home for the next three months. Although I got no sleep, the bus ride was indeed insane, but not nearly as hectic as my taxi ride had been. A hilarious event occurred twice when the police pulled the bus over wanting to search it for beef (which is apparently illegal in whatever state we were passing through). They decided not to carry out a search, but instead talked with the driver for around an hour, costing us valuable driving time.

~McLeod Ganj~

Even so, the bus got in ahead of schedule, arriving in the dark at 6am. I found my way to the guesthouse where I was supposed to stay, but everyone working there was asleep on the floor. So I waited outside and watched a magnificent sunrise over the mountains—a scene I had not experienced in a while. An hour later, I inquired about my room, but the guesthouse had no reservation for me. I took another room and passed out for a while having slept only 10 hours in the past three days. I got up and wandered around McLeod Ganj, which to me feels almost the same as it did when I was here five years ago: a dizzying array of sights, sounds, and smells. As usual, there are many westerns mixed in with the crowds of Tibetans and Indians. I even recognize the same beggars who have not changed except for their locations. McLeod Ganj feels like a place trying to carve out a utopia; people here are laid back and very friendly and many are pursuing the study of Buddhism, as this is the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile and many Buddhist teachers, including HHDL. The town also has a wonderful selection of wordily foods, with all meals costing from 50cents to two dollars. I would guess this is the only place in the world of such small size (only 15,000 people live here) that can boast of Indian, Tibetan, Italian, Israeli, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and yes, even Mexican food. Yet, McLeod Ganj is in India, and accordingly, it is dirty, loud, and a bit crazy. Surprisingly, however, I have not felt fazed by these things as I did when I was here five years ago.

For the past week or so, I have been volunteering for an organization L.H.A. trying to teach English and also learn some Tibetan and yoga. At first the teaching was a challenge because there is no curriculum and the students (mostly new arrivals from Tibet) come and go as they please and have various speaking and writing abilities. Nevertheless, I have located some ESL materials online and figure that at least they are getting some practice with me, which I think is better than nothing. I am taking a break from this for the next two weeks, however, because HHDL is giving his free annual public teachings to which virtually everyone is attending.

So that in a nutshell is my first two weeks in India. I have been trying to locate a digital camera to borrow so that I can post some pictures for you all to see. But, thus far I have not found one yet. As soon as I do, I will put some pictures on the blog. So until then, I hope everyone is doing well…

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Back in Business

First of all, apologies all around for my four month hiatus from the blog. Suffice it to say that traveling alone got the better of me and my project came to a virtual standstill; and so I did not feel like posting my troubles for the outside world to see.

From that cryptic sentence you probably gathered that my time in New Zealand was a bit rough, however, you will be happy to know that I still managed to see a fair amount of the country, because who knows when, and if, I will ever return there. What amazed me most about New Zealand is its environmental diversity; I have never been to a country (the US included) that has so many different types of landscape. In the course of a few hours one can drive through rolling green hills (reminiscent of England), to deep evergreen forests, to jungle, and finally through snowcapped mountains and the ocean!

In terms of my project The Tibetan community in NZ is very small, from what I understand about 50 people--which includes those who are 1/2 Tibetan and 1/2 Kiwi. My interaction with the NZ community (like the one in Switzerland) was limited. I lived with a family in Auckland for about two weeks (whose only Tibetan member is the mother). And I spent some time with the head of a Tibet-New Zealand organization. Lastly, I visited some Tibetan Buddhist organizations. From this limited exposure I gathered that, on the whole, Tibetans in New Zealand are predominately more concerned with simply adapting to a Kiwi lifestyle and are less concerned with cultural preservation (as I met no single Tibetan who speaks Tibetan fluently). However, I must stress that my contact was limited and so I can not definitively say what the adaptation/ cultural survival dynamic is like for Tibetans in NZ.

I was supposed to head to India in December but decided to postpone it primarily because of the cold weather I knew I would encounter as I would be going to a place high in the mountains. So, instead I opted to come to Sweden (where I am presently) to look at the small Tibetan community as well as spend some time with Anna. Yes, it is also cold here in Sweden, but the insulation/central heating in the houses/the warm clothes I am borrowing are far superior to that of India.

So, since around the 1st of January I have been living in a suburb of Stockholm where we are house-sitting. I have linked up with a few Tibetan organizations here who have put me in contact with Tibetans and also allowed me to do some volunteering. The volunteer work is not quite what I was hoping for but I am making the most of it. At present I am in the process of editing a book on Tibet. Outside of the volunteer work I have been trying to meet with as many Tibetans as I can (there are only about 40 in Sweden and 20 in the Stockholm area) to carry out interviews. Thus far our conversations have been very interesting and I have been pleasantly surprised by what I have learned from them. For example, I had figured that since the Swedish population is roughly the same size as the one in New Zealand that the experiences would be similar. In other words, I was expecting to find Tibetans that have been focused more on assimilation and less on cultural retention. Thus far, however, I have found the opposite to be true.

Many of the Tibetans I‘ve met have learned more about Tibetan culture when they came to Sweden than they did by being in India or Tibet; coming to Sweden allowed them to examine and compare Tibetan culture to the vastly different culture of Sweden. Moreover, I think when they lived in India or Tibet many took Tibetan culture for granted because they were always surrounded by it. Here in Sweden, however, the lack of a large Tibetan community has prompted many to work at preserving the elements of Tibetan culture that they deem most important, which for the most part, has been either the Tibetan language or Buddhism.

The transition to life here has indeed come with challenges. A few of the Tibetans I spoke with told me of the difficulty of getting to know Swedes, who are known for being reserved, quiet, and sometimes closed-off. A Tibetan from India said that he missed big crowds and random strangers talking to him as he had experienced in India. Ironically, however, some Tibetans have said that Swedes are more like Tibetans than Indians are. Specifically, that both Swedes and Tibetans are reserved people who are initially hard to get to know; yet, once the initial barrier is broken, then one is a friend with a Swede or Tibetan for life. They said this differed from many Indians they knew, who are very friendly at first, but in the long run tend not to uphold the communication that comes with maintaining a friendship. They also were appreciative that Swedes are knowledgeable of worldly affairs. None of them have had to explain the location of Tibet to Swedes that they have met. Moreover, some said that many Swedish values strongly correlate with Tibetan values. In particular, they believe that Sweden's focus on avoiding war and maintaining peace—which Sweden has done for almost two centuries—resonates with the Buddhist concept of non-violence.

Another crucial challenge for their transition as immigrants is the Swedish language. The Tibetans who have come straight from Tibet say that learning Swedish was extremely difficult because up to that point they had never learned a foreign language and learning a new alphabet increased the difficulty of doing so. This differed from those coming from India who were fluent in three languages (Tibetan, Hindi, and English) and already familiar with the roman alphabet. For them, learning Swedish was relatively easier. Yet, all agree that one cannot fully understand or access Swedish culture without having fluency in Swedish, and therefore becoming fluent is pertinent. At the same time, many expressed the necessity of preserving Tibetan language, as language is the doorway to any culture and without Tibetan language Tibetan culture would remain inaccessible. Many have spoken of the challenge of balancing languages while living in exile. For instance, if Tibetans solely dedicate themselves to learning Tibetan, the language is preserved, yet, they are left without knowledge of other languages and therefore unable to operate in the host country in which they live. Conversely, if they solely learn the language(s) of the host country, they do so at the expense of the Tibetan language and thus risk loosing it. Therefore, the challenge is to learn multiple languages simultaneously so as to preserve Tibetan language on the one hand, and on the other, be able live and work in the host society.

Challenges aside, all the Tibetans I have talked with express contentment with the access to all the opportunities that arise from living in Sweden, the high standard of living, and the superb welfare system. Many have said that the biggest challenge in India was a lack of legal rights and economic security, two preoccupations which invariably loomed large. While Tibetans seem to like their lives in Sweden, many stated that while living here they have very quickly become used to western amenities and take things for granted, and that it is only by returning to Tibet and/or India that they are able to realize how lucky they are to live in northern Europe. One from Tibet said that when he was young and living in Tibet that getting an apple was big event to be celebrated; however, he said such an occurrence in Sweden quickly looses its significance as apples are plentiful.

So, I must say I am happy that I came to Sweden as it has given me another chance to look at a small Tibetan community. The only downside in terms of my project is that I have not been able to pursue the photography. Either the opportunity has not been right or those that I have interviewed do not want to be photographed because they are politically active and have family in Tibet, and therefore do not want to risk putting themselves or their families in jeopardy. But, I am hoping that I will be able to photograph some before I leave here.

I plan to be here for another month and then head to India in early March where I will stay for several months. Not sure if I will post more info to the blog before I leave Sweden, but if not, I will certainly keep you all informed of my time in India. You just may need to be a bit patient. So, until next time, I hope everyone is well and stays well…

Thursday, October 06, 2005

End of Switzerland, Beginning of New Zealand, and a Change in Plans

Hey All…sorry that I have not written more sooner. I simply just did not have that much to report. In all honesty the rest of my time in Switzerland was not as productive as I initially hoped. I think because I was unable to find a host family, it was difficult to have a great amount of contact with Tibetans in Switzerland. However, I was able to learn some about the community and hopefully I got a few good photos as well. I think what was most interesting, visually, is how style conscious the Tibetans in Switzerland are. I guess this makes sense because most of them have grown up in the country; but seeing Tibetan men and women in tight Italian style clothing with super fancy sunglasses was quite the sight for me. I find it so interesting to see how Tibetans dress in the various contexts in which they live; I guess the way we dress is certainly one of the chief ways we find to adapt more easily to our surroundings.
The end of Switzerland was also a bit difficult because I spent most days on my own with little to do, because there is only so much sightseeing one can do in one of the most expensive cities in Europe, especially when on a tight budget. So I was often lonely and at times somewhat bored; I think traveling can often be wonderful, but it can also sometimes be difficult to do so on your own.
So needless to say I am happy to have now arrived in New Zealand. I got here earlier this week and am currently staying with a family which has provided a new experience. The wife is Tibetan, yet she speaks Nepali, Hindi, and English; her husband is from England; and their daughters were born in Nepal but raised in the Philippines, Egypt, England, and New Zealand, yet they have Kiwi accents. I don’t think that I will be living with them for a long time because soon I am going to meet one of the head Tibetans that runs an association here, who should be able to steer me around the country for my project. There are only about 50 Tibetans in the New Zealand, so I am not sure exactly were I will be going or how much time I will spend with the community.
I have also decided that I am no longer going to travel to Japan. Despite sending out numerous emails I have yet to find any contacts there. And, as it is the most expensive city in the world, I don’t just want to bum around for a month on a tight budget and have a repeat Switzerland experience. So instead, I will be here in New Zealand for two months. This should allow me to pursue my project and also see a bit of the country, which from what I can tell thus far, has an amazing variety of natural landscapes and a interesting blend of European and indigenous Moari culture. I also have to report that I got rid of my laptop because it weighed too much, I didn’t use it enough, and I didn’t want to take the risk of it getting lost, broken, or stolen down the line, especially in India. So I sent it to some friends in London who will take it back to the states for me. Sadly this means that I will no longer be posting photos on my blog. I hope that won’t bum anyone out too much, I didn’t think the ones I put up were all that great anyhow cause the camera took pictures that were of such poor quality. So from here on out, I hope the text will suffice. I will post some more in a few weeks once more has transpired. Hope all of you are well.

Friday, September 16, 2005


I arrived to Zurich on Sep 2nd and moved into a hostel for the first week. Zurich is a beautiful city, and its looks are comparable to other European places I’ve visited, meaning it is ultra clean, has a river running through it, and lots of alleys lined with old cobblestones paths. It also had modern elements: excellent public transportation systems, streets lined with the finest high-performance cars (BMWs, Acuras, and Mercedes are plentiful.) And since Zurich is one of Europe’s banking capitals, the city exudes wealth and accordingly is very expensive. Much of the population is uber-stylish, which continues to make me feel out of place, as I was unfortunately unable to pack my Gucci sunglasses. However, for some reason my first day here I was mistaken twice for a Swiss German, when two sets of people attempted to talk to me on the streets—must have been my German heritage poking through.

After settling in I got in touch with my contact here who advised me to wait until Sep 10th—the day which the Tibetan exile community would be celebrating its constitution and democracy—at which point I could get started with my project. However, I was able to attend one Tibetan function my third day here. My contact Lobsang, took me to a University museum that happened to have a Tibetan exhibit going on. There was an exhibition on all 14 Dalai Lamas. Afterwards we heard some traditional music performed by a Tibetan from California. The night ended with another Tibetan performing American rock music, most notably songs by Cream and Jimi Hendrix. I guess Tibetans rockers are not limited to Toronto.

In the meantime from Sep 4-10 I bought a Swiss rail pass and spent the time visiting a new part of Switzerland each day. In that time I saw the highest waterfalls in Europe (which compared to those I had seen at Niagara a few weeks earlier were small, yet still powerful); visited the Matterhorn and surrounding mountains in Zermat (though unfortunately the day I went to the Matterhorn the mountain was covered in clouds); went to Lucerne to see medieval bridges, walls, and a Picasso museum; and visited the incredibly beautiful city of Montreux, which is situated on lake Geneva and surrounded by spectacular mountains and an incredibly fascinating medieval castle.

On the 10th I moved out of the hostel and into a small Tibetan monastery about an hour from Zurich. On the same day I went to a Tibetan community gathering (celebrating Tibet’s exile constitution and democracy), a daylong even with many speeches and performances. In all it was interesting, though at times difficult as virtually all the speeches were in Tibetan or Swiss-German. The reason for the German is because most Tibetans in Switzerland were born here. In the early 60’s Switzerland agreed to grant asylum to a handful of Tibetans who have since multiplied into successive generations of a current population of around 3,000. Therefore most Tibetans here speak Tibetan, German, some Italian and French, and English (some, to my surprise, with a German accent). The 9 monks in the monastery, however, only speak Tibetan and/or English, as most have come here from India.
I decided to live in the monastery for a few days in the hopes of being able to participate in monastic life so as to better understand it. However, it has been difficult to get very involved because most of monk life is individual. The monks get up at 7 for an hour of morning prayer, followed by breakfast at 8am, lunch at 12, and dinner at 7. In between meals, each monk has his own schedule. Most of them spend the days quietly located in their rooms doing solo meditation, reading, or reflection. Some give teachings to the public (which unfortunately I can participate in because they are in Tibetan and German); others visit local families when needed i.e. if someone dies. Mostly, it is a quiet and simple life. Because I cannot exactly participate in the life, I have been enjoying the quite and have spent my time reading, resting, and taking walks.
I am off to Sweden for a week to visit Anna, after which I will return to Zurich to finish up my time in Switzerland. So for now, that is my report. Not too sure how the last two weeks in Switzerland will unfold, but I will update you. Below I have posted some photos from my travels around the country and a few from the monastery…

A shot of the river in Zurich

Typical street in Zurich

View of Lucern from atop the old wall

The highest waterfall in Europe

Another shot of Lucern, this one of the river

Montreux and its famous castel

A few shots of the Tibetan Monastery in Rikon

A couple shots of the matterhorn (well covered in clouds)