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.
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…