Thursday, November 23, 2006

His Holiness, Second-Hand

Well, I bought some books about Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and I’m slogging my way through the first, The Tibetan Conundrum by V.P. Malhotra, an Indian defense specialist, just so I can move on to the second, Freedom in Exile, the autobiography of the 14th, and current, Dalai Lama. I’m sorting through the facts Malhotra has to offer in order to answer three questions; what is the origin of the Tibetan state, what has been (generally) its relation to other nations in the region, and what the heck is the Dalai Lama? Tibetan history, according to Malhotra, starts 127 years before the birth of Christ, when the people of the region where warriors, but it turns out that the title, Dalia Lama, was created, and bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso, by the politically embattled Altan Khan of Mongolia around 1570. The title gave support to Sonam Gyatso, a Tibetan monk involved in Buddhist factionalism in his own country. Lama simply means monk, but the word Dalai, means “ocean of wisdom.” The title was posthumously bestowed on two previous lamas, and so the first Dalai Lama was actually the third. When Altan Khan named Sonam Gyatso Dalai Lama, he also declared himself the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, who had ruled Mongolia successfully about 300 years earlier. So, Gyatso gained spiritual authority in Mongolia, and what amounts to kingship in Tibet, where he is called Gyalpo Rimpoche, meaning “precious king.” Altan Khan gained political legitimacy through the support of the religious leader. After Gyatso died, the 4th Dalai Lama (Gyatso’s reincarnation) was found in Mongolia, the great grandson of Altan Khan.

monklets, taking over the internet cafe

It’s a typically convoluted cultural evolution; holy mingles with human until the two become indistinguishable. The effort to separate religion and politics, god and king, is relatively recent anyhow, and the state of Tibet, led by its precious king, remained sovereign until 1950, when Chairman Mao’s army came to “liberate” them from “imperialist forces.” After nearly a decade of negotiation and passive resistance, the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and established a “government in exile,” in Dharamshala, India.

November 20 Free Tibet hunger strike

As it turns out, the precious king is here (not literally in this internet café) as I type, preparing to give a teaching. I heard of his arrival in another internet café, several days back. A German girl was Skyping (internet telephoning) with her boyfriend, who sounded like an Italian. They were speaking English. It’s amazing what people will say in public. For instance, I now know all about the power issues in their relationship. I try not to listen, but I’m easily distracted, so I got one piece of information that I actually wanted; the Dalai Lama would be giving teachings at the Dharamshala temple from November 23rd to November 27th, and all you had to do was go to the social welfare office and register. The next day, I hunted down the office, and read the notices on the wall. One said:

“Unlike other teachings, this is only meant for those strict practitioners who have strong inclination towards the practice of Bodhicitta (altruistic intention to achieve Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings) and the practice of the wisdom of Emptiness. The minimum commitment is to do the daily recital meditation of the “Six-Sessions Guru Yoga.”

Well, I don’t even know what “Six-Session Guru Yoga” is, but I do know that sitting there for 4 hours listening to a bad English translation in headphones would leave me closer to irritation than enlightenment, so I opted out. That was November 22nd.

Later that evening, I was having dinner alone, which is always a great opportunity for overhearing, and again, talk was of His Holiness. So, I set myself a mission; each day, for the duration of the teachings, I’ll see if I can hear something.

Day -1; November 22

Israeli male; dreadlocked, studying Reike, smoker currently on a 21 day physical purification, between 22-25

3 Irish females and 1 Irish male; post-university, ambiguously employed, between 23-26

The four Irish people met the Israeli guy by chance in a vegetarian cafe. After some chat about the dangers of travel in India, the Dalai Lama comes up.

Irish male: Do you think he’s really enlightened?
Israeli: Yes, definitely.
Irish female: Well, what is happiness anyways?
Irish male: Ya.
Israeli: Happiness must be the opposite of suffering.

Silence, and then the conversation shifted to the best bag locks for train travel.

I have three questions. 1. Are enlightenment and happiness the same state? 2. What is suffering? 3. What are we that we are aware of happiness and suffering?

Day 1; November 23

Although Jogiwara Road overflowed with students of the Dalai Lama at 4pm, when the teaching finished, participants carrying some sort of reed, I didn't hear much talk.

I went to a restaurant later, and there was a table full of Americans making the "things I'm thankfull for" round. They were drowning out the rest of the voices in the room, but I looked down at the table and this was written there:

"How lucky you are to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."

This seems to address at least questions 2 and 3, and maybe even help you get at 1, if you look at it from far enough away.

Day 2; November 24

I've been a little disappointed that I'm not overhearing much about the Dalai Lama's teachings; so many people are attending, but nobody is saying anything. Maybe that's an appropriate response. I know that when I hear something profound, my first impulse is silence rather than speech.

And maybe I haven't been positioning myself correctly; I've just been going about my business, and expecting something to come my way. Yesterday, my business was Norbulingka, a center for the preservation of Tibetan culture about an hour and thirty minutes down the mountain by jeep and bus and foot. During the ride, Ben (a guy from Bainbridge Island, near Seattle) and I were talking, and he had a slip of tongue. I chose it as my teaching for the day.

“I heard some people overtalking.”

Everybody knows what is happiness and what is suffering when it is happening; it’s when we try to define them generally and out loud that things get messy. I myself am definitely guilty of overtalking.

Norbulingka is the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa, Tibet; a student there told us that the Dharamshala Norbulingka is exactly the same as the one in Lhasa, but I’m not sure of that. Anyways, it’s a serene place. There is a temple and a lovely garden, as well as a school for sewing and a school for thangka making. Thangkas are complex, ritual wall hangings, sometimes enormous and sometimes small, depicting deities, buddhas and related stories, sometimes painted, and sometimes sewn with fabrics. I saw one yesterday depicting the wheel of life (also known as the wheel of suffering); it reminded me of an Hieronymous Bosch painting with its graphic illustration of both gory and mundane details.

sewing a garment for traditional dance

thangka school

thangka school

In Malhotra’s book, I came across a list of names which Tibetans use for the Dalai Lama:
Kyam-gon Rimpoche: Precious Protector
Gye-wa Rimpoche: Precious Sovereign
Buk: The Inner One
Kyam-gon Buk: Innermost Protector
Lama Pon-po: Priest Officer
Kun-dun: The Presence

Whatever you believe about the holy or reincarnate status of the Dalai Lama, it’s clear that he’s revered, even worshiped, by Tibetans. This raises questions about freedom, which seems to be defined as democracy these days. What if a people want to be ruled by a king; are they free to be undemocratic? Are they free to worship their gods in whatever way they choose, even if this means regarding church as state?

Apparently, the Dalai Lama doesn’t think political power is necessary for Tibetan Buddhism to survive. His government in exile has done an admirable job of sustaining Tibetan religion, language, and arts over the past 46 years, but he has publicly declared that he will not hold political office in the advent of the independent and democratized Tibet that he hopes to return to.

Day 3; November 25

Eating lunch yesterday, I overheard two Italian women and a Canadian man discussing the teachings of their lama. They have been studying at the same ashram, but were at the end of their retreat. As such, it was a goodbye and recap sort of conversation. The Canadian guy, a charismatic Aryan Jesus-looking type, and one of the Italian women, were quite the talkers. The other Italian woman performed the function of audience. They talked a lot about Dharma (teaching or way), and it was all mixed up with interpersonal innuendo. The thrust of the conversation seemed to lay in the subtext (the particulars of the attraction that had been developing between the two talkers), rather than the topic itself; it was rather unclear, at least to me. I thought I was the only confused one, but then the Italian woman said:

“If you don’t define the things, then there is big confusion, yah?”

They happened to have been talking about the New Age movement, and the Canadian made the point that New Agers face the peril of gaining breadth while losing depth. I wonder if this also applies to people raised on Christian symbols who turn, in midstream, to an entirely new tradition. For me, although I’m attracted to Buddhist teachings, taking it up as a religion would be as problematic as deciding that in my true nature I’m a Japanese man rather than an American woman, and then undertaking a gender change, pigment adjustment, and relocation to Tokyo. I would have to relearn everything, from the ground up; language, culture, attitude, religion, everything. Maybe the comparison is odd, but you get my meaning.

I’m aware that not every western person has (like me), had the good fortune of a religious upbringing, but this doesn’t change the context, or tradition (in the broadest sense), from which we come. It is a nutrient in the soil of our language and literature, and a source of our fears and expectations. Conversion must be possible, but it surely requires a great deal of study and seriousness.

I’m wondering if this assignment I’ve set myself (trying to overhear something relevant to his Holiness’ teachings) isn’t turning me into a bit of a weirdo. I had the opportunity to sit with the Canadian/Italian group, which I would have enjoyed, and join their conversation, but I opted to sit at another table and pretend to be reading instead. I didn’t want to have any influence on what I heard.

And speaking of reading, I didn’t actually finish The Tibetan Conundrum (half of the book is copies of official documents), but I got what I wanted, and so I’ve happily moved on to Freedom in Exile, the 14th Dalai Lama’s autobiography; he’s humble and humorous, which makes for a pleasant read.

I found his answer to my question, “What the heck is the Dalai Lama?,” in the foreward.

“Dalai Lama means different things to different people. To some it means that I am a living Buddha, the earthly manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. To others it means that I am a ‘god-king’. During the late 1950’s it meant that I was a Vice-President of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China. Then when I escaped into exile, I was called a counter-revolutionary and a parasite. But none of these are my ideas. To me ‘Dalai Lama’ is a title that signifies the office I hold. I myself am just a human being, and incidentally a Tibetan, who chooses to be a Buddhist monk.”

Day 4; November 26

I continue to be disappointed on the Dalia Lama teachings chit-chat front, so yesterday I changed my position, physically and mentally. Around 4pm, I walked down to the temple and stood outside listening to the pause-punctuated rhythm of His Holiness' voice for a while; everything he says sounds like a question. I came across this description of his education in Freedom in Exile.

“Fundamental to the Tibetan system of monastic education is dialectics, or the art of debating. Two disputants take turns in asking questions, which they pose to the accompaniment of stylized gestures. As the question is put, the interrogator brings his right hand up over his head and slaps it down on to his extended left hand and stamps his left foot on the ground. He then slides his right hand away from his left, close to the head of his opponent. The person who is being asked questions remains passive and concentrates on trying not only to answer, but also to turn the tables on his opponent, who is all the time pacing around him.”

This may explain his intonation, and seems like a great preparation for life; conversation is never comprised solely of words, there are always cues, other ways of communicating, going on, and they can lead a person away from the point of the matter.

Around 4:20pm I found a shop positioned on the main road leading from the temple to the town, and I sat myself down inconspicuously on the porch, ready to see who came from the teachings. I put my camera on my knee, and took some video, which is too large to upload to this page. The pictures here are stills from the videos. The white and yellow building in the background is the teaching venue.

I had changed my position physically in hopes of finding something closer to what I was looking for, to no avail; yesterday was the most wordless day yet. So, I expanded the perimeters of what I could consider a teaching, and the most noteworthy thing seemed to me the fact that there are people, in the modern world, alive right now in the midst of this indecipherable mess of possibility and information, who have enough faith in a particular story of being to dedicate their lives to the institutions springing from the story.

I’m sure that for some of the monks it is just a matter of circumstance, a way of life and a situation that they were born into; but there are just as surely many who consciously choose to believe what they believe, and live accordingly, in spite of other options, or other evidence.

In a foreign land, watching shaven-headed strangers robed in red meandering up a road after a 3 hour religious ceremony, I’m moved in a way that I’m not by a Sunday morning church service in my own country. I have plenty of faithful Christians in my own family, and I was even one myself for a time, but now I view taking a story of a virgin birth and a resurection literally with more incredulity than admiration. Is this because I’m better acquainted with hypocrisy and the consequences of literalism in a familiar land than in a foreign one? Of course literalism and faith are two different matters too.

I think I need to work on asking questions more clearly before I posit any answers. In order to avoid overtalking I’ll close with the Dalai Lama’s explanation of Buddhism.

“The fundamental precept of Buddhism is Interdependence or The Law of Cause and Effect. This simply states that everything which an individual being experiences is derived through action from motivation. Motivation is thus the root of both action and experience. From this understanding are derived the Buddhist theories of consciousness and rebirth.”

His Holiness of the best coffee in town

Chew on that for a lifetime or two.

Day 5; November 27

I did some more thinking about my attraction to foreign religions and my indifference to familiar ones, and the primary distinction that I make between the faithful coming from a Buddhist service and those coming from a Christian one is (I’m ashamed to say) superficial. It’s all in the clothes; aside from the aesthetic pleasure I take from robed figures in exotic climes, monks appear to have given over their whole life to their faith, taking vows and divesting themselves of most of the trappings and errands of secular life, while Sunday morning churchgoers, in their everyday, modern clothes, appear only to be performing one more duty in a week full of worldly cares.

My attraction to monastic life has always been strong, in accordance with the extremes of my nature. When I was in college, I spent several weekends at nunneries, and even considered joining one. By that point, I wasn’t even a practicing Christian, and I had never been a Catholic, but I was attracted to the discipline, the ritual, and the resulting peace of the place. Of course, I also thought about joining the military a few times.

It occurs to me now that perhaps it is more difficult to lead a religious life while being a part of the secular world. Maybe it is easier to be a faithful monk than a faithful shopkeeper. Maybe there are some admirable people coming out of church on Sunday morning. Of course there are; there are faithful, steadfast people everywhere, keeping the world from falling apart, while people like me wander around staring.

My find for the 5th and last day of the Dalai Lama’s teachings is something that I overheard myself saying. At 9pm last night I tuned in to see GoldenEye, the first of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films. Before the movie began, the channel was advertising its December film series, the complete Star Wars. And it came into my mind:

"If the Dalai Lama is Yoda, then who is Darth Vadar?”

This in an attempt to avoid formulating answers to the questions I've posed. And, the last lines of The Wasteland, to close the Dalai Lama game, which has ended rather strangely.

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon-O swallow swallow

Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih


After finishing my entry for day 5 I went for a walk in the woods surrounding the temple complex. On my way back to the center of town I saw a man wearing a t-shirt. It said:

Omne Ignatum Pro Magnifico

Everything unknown is taken as formidable

Saturday, November 18, 2006


The Dalai Lama came to Dharamshala ("rest house" in Tibetan) in 1959, setting up a Tibetan "government-in-exile." Now, there are several thousand Tibetan exiles living here, mingling with Indians and tourists of all kinds. I came to Dharamshala two days ago, and this morning, I finally awoke free of anxiety. I simply opened my eyes, located myself, and then noticed that I didn't feel nervous at all, for the first time in at least a week.

One thing that I don't write about is anxiety, although I'm often kicking violently upstream against it. Transit between destinations can be nerve-wracking and is often uncomfortable. I took a plane from Srinagar to Jammu, and then I had to stay in Jammu for the night in order to catch the bus the next morning. That meant I had to lug my bag around town looking for a place to stay, and then I had to negotiate with touts and ticket sellers. I left Jammu at 8:30 am, and took a bus to Paranthkot (or something like that) where I wandered around the "bus station" (read parking lot/ trash heap) looking for another bus to Dharamshala. I finally found it and got on. When we arrived three hours later, I changed to another bus to upper Dharamshala. Finally there, at 3 pm, I found a room, and then I found a restaurant, and then I unpacked, and then, the next day, I proceded to find my way around.

Finding my way around is difficult, especially in India, where I'm rarely allowed to walk without being approached; I don't like this part of travel. I like the part where I am comfortable; my things unpacked, my days free for doing something, or nothing. In my transit between Srinagar and Dharamashala, I ate almost nothing. I ate almost nothing because I couldn't bring myself to face the added difficulty of figuring out what and where food was, and then standing there with everyone staring at me while waiting to be served. I did buy some fried fish from a street stall at one point, not really knowing what it was, and I was rewarded with a mouth full of bones.

Anyways, the anxiety about dealing with a new place, and getting there, begins to build as soon as I start to know it's time to leave and doesn't let up until I feel comfortable in the new place. Luckily, Dharamshala is a very comfortable town; there is coffee, there is fast interenet connection, there is pizza, there are very friendly people, and there is a kind of peace here that I haven't seen in India so far.

Dharamshala street

Despite all my Yoda remarks, I'm becoming attracted to the Dalai Lama, and I think I'll do some research, as well as try to hear him speak, while I'm here.

view from my room

Dharamshala is at an average altitude of 4780 feet, and there is a magnificent view from the porch outside my room. At night, there are three lights visible on a bend in a ridge; they are at the right point on the horizon to appear as a rising belt of shining stars, fit to announce the birth of a new saviour.

It is sunny today, and this is a place where a person can take a walk. That's the plan.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I'll Fly Away

During my last 2 years in South Korea I had a large cell phone charm hanging from the document holder attached to the side of the computer in my office. It was produced by Millimeter/Milligram, a small, hip Korean shop selling items like cards, wallets, and t-shirts. I find large baubles hanging from my mobile phone irritating, but I liked this blue, rubber, gingerbread shaped man enough to buy him. Printed across his front are the words "I'll Fly Away."

sinking boat

He flew away in a box destined for my mother's garage, and I flew away too; but travel, like everything else in life, has its peaks, plateaus, and valleys. I flew from Srinagar to Jammu on November 16, and I'm now in Dharamshala, the place where the Dalai Lama set up shop after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. I left Srinagar not a moment too soon, but possibly a few days too late. In some way, I'm not exactly sure how yet, the place has changed me. The solemnity, a hush in spite of, or perhaps because of, the open acceptance of lurking violence, has stolen into me, and I find myself older now, in both the negative and the positive sense of the phenomenon.

eagle and tree

The effect of Srinagar on me has something to do with its particular and subtle beauty. Buildings and boats, initially painted in cheery colors, are muted by their exposure to weather, and the clothing of the people, especially the men, who make up the majority of figures to be seen in public, is also earthy and mellow, retaining the character of natural wool even when dyed. The lake reflects the palate of the city, and the outlines of things are somehow sharper in their images than in their actual existence. A variety of birds, from small black and white hummingbird-like dive bombers to brown eagles gliding down from the mountains, grace the skies and hunt the waters, and 5 times a day, beginning around 5:30 am, prayers roll out from the mosques of the lake and the city, staggered, one starting after another, until the air is ringing with rounds of indecipherable, but obviously dedicated, chanting. And it is as if the early morning fog on the lake had mingled with the prayers, slipped between the gaps in the walnut window frames, and crept in gentle tendrils into my ears, hanging veils of silence over my heart.

Dal Lake and mountains

The character of Srinagar is restrained; it sometimes yeilds a surface drabness. And so I find myself carrying a cloud with me, unable to break the spell, and thinking about the ways in which the most significant moments of life on the road, just as those of life in an office, are inevitably painted on a canvas of mundane facts. We returned from Pahalgam to find two things; oncoming winter is swaddling Srinagar in clouds and rain, and the electricity was out in the houseboat. I stayed there, transfixed by the lake, for 3 more nights, shivering in my borrowed feather jacket when I left my bed, 2 feet deep in blankets. No electricity meant no hot water, and so I went without that too, but finally, I followed Yasir (who left before me, sick from the distinctively wet cold on the boat) and left the lake, moving to the welcoming home/hotel of Yasir's extended family for my last few days.

Niyaz, Shabir, and Tariq

Suddenly, I had light, and a television, and people to bring me food, and visitors, and noise in the hallways, but this further immersion into the culture of the place (meeting family, being constantly surrounded by people speaking a foreign language, eating only Kashmiri food, never knowing when someone would be knocking on my door to check that I had everything I needed) drove me to recede further from outward circumstances. My stay in Srinagar had reached a point where the strangeness of place and culture weren't going to yield anymore; I had seen as much of the surface as I could, and the depths were going to keep their secrets.

moving, on a rainy day

So, experiencing an increase in anxiety and upping my cigarettes per day to the point that I was sleeping (and often not sleeping) with a pack next to my pillow, I turned away from the foreign and embraced the familiar. In the same way I indulge in McDonald's cheeseburgers, which I never eat in America but sometimes eat in a frenzy of desire while traveling, I turned on the t.v. and crawled under the covers. Building up to the release of the new 007 movie, Casino Royale in Asia, India's movie channel, Star TV has been running Bond flicks, chronologically, every night at 9 pm; a few weeks ago, back when the houseboat still had electricity, I saw bits of Goldfinger, made in 1964 starring Sean Connery, but it failed to capture my attention. By now, I believe I have seen nearly every Bond film featuring Roger Moore: The Man With the Golden Gun, 1974, The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977, Moonraker, 1979, For Your Eyes Only, 1981, and Octopussy, 1983, which I saw more than a month ago in Udaipur, where the movie was filmed; it is shown every night at restaurants all over town.

"Octopussy" palace, Udaipur

lake palaces at night, Udaipur

And you know, I really enjoyed these movies; the first one I watched just because it was on and it was in English, but by the second night I was involved, and when I found out that Moonraker would feature Bond in space I was amused to find myself excited. The movies are downright entertaining, and it was fascinating watching the fashions and political settings of my early childhood (I was 8 in 1983 and -1 in 1974) develop and change over the span of these movies, but I have to admit I also sat through some total crap. One was an American college kids on a European summer trip film. The best lines were, "Dude, you made out with your sister!" and "Let the European sex odyssey begin!" I really can't believe I watched that or a sappy, talking animal movie called, Racing Stripes (I think). It was about a zebra who wins the Kentucky Derby.

houseboat crow

And from there we progress further down the chain of concerns that comprise a life. Shortly after I arrived in Srinagar, I sent most of the clothes I have with me to be laundered. This meant that I had 6 pairs of clean underwear and 3 pairs of clean socks. Somehow, I never managed to do laundry again, and by my second week it was too cold to consider changing clothes anyways. I soon expanded my ideas of what I consider clean, and I changed my clothes for the first time in at least 10 days this morning, in Dharamshala. Last night, settling into my new room, I spent a few delightful hours indulging in an activity I've found comforting ever since I can remember, organizing. With my bag fully mastered and its contents placed around the room, I washed my underwear in the most gratifying hot shower I've ever had, and as I left the hotel this morning I dropped some things at the laundry. Strangely, in Srinagar I had a record run of great hair days, which has abruptly ended here. Also, I think I lost about 5 lbs as my anxiety increased and my ability to eat any more rice and mutton (no matter how delicious) decreased.

Srinagar bird

I know, "Yuck, details about underwear!" But it's the details that make things interesting, right? A thoughtful reader recently emailed me, raising questions about the distinction between me in reality and me creating myself as a character on this blog. She is right, there is are differences between the me who is living my life and the processed me who shows up on the screen; but then the stories I tell, and the way I tell them, turn right back around and change me. There are a lot of things I don't write about, and some things I can't write about. I often have the suspicion that the things I don't write about are as important, and maybe more so, than the things I do, and that the things I can't write are the truest things of all.

eagle, flying away

Another friend remarked to me, shortly before I left, "Wow, so you're going on vacation for one third of the year!" Just to set the record straight, I'm less "on vacation" than I've ever been; I'm performing a series of demented experiments on myself.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Guns & Ammo

I remember well the first time I left North America; I was 21, and I went to Oxford to do a summer study program. It was the summer after my father died, and before I boarded the plane my mother gave me her wedding ring; I've worn it whenever I've travelled, superstitiously, and I'm wearing it now, as I type.

When I dismbarked at Heathrow, I was shocked to see armed police, big, black guns gleaming, patrolling the airport. I had never seen serious weapons out in the open like that. By now, I'm sure this is not an unusual sight in America, or anywhere else. Here in Srinagar evidence of danger is common, as Indian forces form road checks and patrols all over the city. Soldiers and guns still unnerve me, but they go almost unnoticed by the locals.

crow's nest

A few days ago, I took my first long, unchaparonned walk in Srinagar. It was unplanned: I left the houseboat saying I'd be at the internet cafe, but I decided to get a Nescafe first, and then I wanted to sit by the lake and enjoy it, and then I was having such a nice time that I decided to have an amble. I was planning to walk for a few minutes and then return to my stated destination, but as I was walking, I saw a sign for a temple, and I followed it. Soon, I had to pass through a security checkpoint and record my passport. The soldiers there were friendly and curious, wanting me to stay and talk, but I set out on the 5.5 kilometer road up a mountain overlooking the lake.

After about 15 minutes, just as the oppression of being constantly accompanied was begining to lift and my legs were hitting their stride after their long sleep, a truck pulled up behind me and 6 soldiers climbed out. They caught up to me, and I slowed down to let them pass. Noticing my lagging, they said, in the typical Indian overuse of the imperative, "Come," and "Follow me, Madame." Annoyed at the sudden military escort, I followed as slowly as possible. Soon, they came to a path and said , "shortcut," beckoning me to follow. Thinking that I didn't want to shorten my walk or follow unknown men (uniform or no) into the woods, I replied, "No thanks, I'll stick to the road." So, they disappeared into the trees.

my military escort

I was supposed to leave my matches and cigarettes at the checkpoint, but nobody inspected my bag, so I didn't hand them over. About an hour up the road, I stopped at a bluff overlooking the city, and then I went further into the woods to violate the law. I was sitting there enjoying the view when I heard a rustling in the bushes below and a camo helmet came into view. I said, "Shit," and began to put out my cigarette. "Carry on Madame," was his reply. So I offered him a smoke, and he took it with pleasure. He was a long way from home, Mumbai, a Hindu, and not enjoying what he called his "jungle patrol."

Although I'm frightened by guns, I'm also fascinated by them. I had been wondering since I arrived in Srinagar what kind of guns the soldiers were carrying, so I asked this one. It turned out to be a rifle, and I told him a story from my childhood: I must have been about 9, and my uncles took me for target practice behind the barn. They gave me the rifle, and when I shot it, it knocked me flat on my ass. The soldier laughed, and then he offered to let me shoot his gun. I slightly regret that I declined.

gaurding the lake

I finally saw the temple after 2 more security points where I had pretty much everything in my bag except paper confiscated, and I came down from the mountain 4 hours after I began. Yasir found me at the internet cafe a bit later, and he said at least three people had been looking all over the city for me. I apologized, but I sure did enjoy that walk.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Valley Of The Shepherds

As usual, plans changed at the last second. Instead of heading northeast to Sonamarg we went southeast to Pahalgam. We were 5: Yasir, who I met in Kajuraho, his charming uncle Niyaz, a friend of theirs named Shabir, and Chihiro, a Japanese woman staying in the houseboat next to mine. Chihiro speaks very little English, and nobody has the patience to explain what's going on to her, so I doubt she has any idea that plans ever changed at all. She seems happy to be led around, taken care of, and to sit silently as indecipherable noises issue from the lips of those around her and eventually result in decisions. I, in contrast, am often driven to the peak of frustration and paranoia by the constant surrender of will and consciousness required in my current situation, so I ask a lot of questions.

When I asked why we had changed directions, I received two different answers from two different people. Yasir said, "It's winter so they are coming down." And Niyaz said, "No, there is snow." Either of those reasons, militants or snow descending from the mountains, is good enough for me, so off we went to Pahalgam, Valley of the Shepherds.

Typical of a camping trip, our gear-gathering took longer than anticipated, and we didn’t get on the road until early afternoon. We had a two and a half hour drive, and then we stopped at a local market for provisions. By the time we pulled into the valley, it was already dark, so we took rooms at a guest-house. All was quiet except for the river, and the air was damp and cold. I had two choices to keep from shivering, take a brisk walk, or get into bed. I was told it was not safe to go outside alone; so after dinner,having already pushed the limits of my sociability for the day, I went to bed.

the river in the morining

The next morning, Yasir found a cook/caretaker for our campsite. Niyaz and Shabir took us to the site, and as we were setting up tents, they left for Srinagar, promising to come back for us in a few days. I was enjoying some yoga on a sunny patch of grass overlooking the river when, three horses arrived, led by a rosy-brown faced man with merry eyes wearing a bark colored feran (the traditional Kashmiri woolen cloak).

horses appear

I thought I had given up on horse-riding in Mongolia, but when I saw them, I again felt the desire to ride a fast and well-trained horse. And now, having some experience with horse groups and their guides, I was going to have my way. It always goes like this: there is one hearty horse who wants to run and that one always leads. The others are docile and only follow the lead horse halfheartedly and with much prodding. So, I identified the spirited horse (a tall black one as opposed to the shorter brown ones) and demanded to ride it. As predicted, I was told that the horse was too powerfull for me and that it would cause problems, leading me here and there.

I gave in and Yasir (being the man of the trio) mounted the black horse. We had a 12 kilometer ride ahead of us, and as soon as we left the campsite, the black horse shot down the road. My horse followed, refusing to go any faster than a bone-jarring trot, and Chihiro’s horse walked slowly along, led by the horse guide, because she was terrified of falling off. Yasir waited for us about a kilometer down the road.

By the time we caught up with the man and the black horse, I was irate; for me, there are few things more frustrating than riding a horse that refuses to gallop. To make things worse, Yasir was laughing and gloating about having a faster horse. That did it; I started yelling at him. In short, I said, “Every fucking time I pay for a horse I get the a fucking slow lazy old one just because I’m a woman! I’m so fucking sick of it!” More smirking from Yasir prompted, “You think it’s funny? I’m a better rider than you, so why are you on the fast horse!” He just kept laughing, and I rode off, nearly in tears. A few minutes later, he relented, and I mounted the black horse and left him in the dust. And what a fine horse it was, feet barely touching the ground as the road wound up the mountain.

After a bit of a ride, I stopped and waited for Yasir and Chihiro. When Yasir arrived, he was so mad about the horse that I told him we could trade off. So I took the black until we reached our destination, a lovely, high altitude meadow, and he mounted it for the way back, several hours later. Near the begining of our return ride, with the horse in motion, Yasir fell off. It’s frightening to see someone fall off a horse, so my initial reaction was concern, but when it became clear that he wasn’t seriously injured, I went ahead and indulged myself in the last laugh. Obviously, I had the lead horse for the duration of our stay in Pahalgam.

Is that a smirk I'm wearing?

That day, our destination was Baisran, a huge, rolling meadow surrounded by pine trees. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to ride our horses into the meadow, so we took a walk instead and eventually settled against a rock to take in the sun and scenery. This was the perfect place and time for some yoga, so I found a private spot under a tree, and Chihiro wandered over for a lesson. Relaxed and invigorated, we ambled back to the rock where Yasir and the horse guide were chatting. A boy came from one of the huts in the forest and watched us. Later, he took me to a spring to fill my water bottle. Coming from the hillside in a tiny stream, the water was clear and sweet.

the meadow

pensive boy

That night in the tent was the coldest I have spent in a very long time. My neck was warm, because I had a pashmina, but the parts of me that touched the ground were freezing. It was a restless night for all of us. Somewhere in between tosses and turns I thought I might be able to sleep if I emptied my bladder. It wasn't any colder outside than it was inside, so I lit a cigarette outside the tent and stood, stamping my feet and looking alternately at the ground and the sky. Out of nowhere, a large, dark bird flew across my field of vision and then disappeared, leaving a fierce, double cry behind. I'm guessing it was a hunting hawk, but if there's anything I've learned in the past few months it is that I know nothing about plants and creatures.

campsite at dusk

The next morning, stiff and sleep deprived, we broke camp and took another 13 kilometer ride further along the valley but gianing altitude, to Aru. Along the way I tried to teach Chihiro something about reins and riding, but I eventually gave up and went for a gallop.

At Aru, wanting to sleep that night, we took a room at another guest house. We had some tea and sandwiches, and then took a nap. We had planned to take a hike that day, but nobody could move, and by the time we arose, the evening chill was already settling in. So, we had dinner in the clapboard room of the cook, next to the kitchen. He fed the wood stove with kerosene; frightening.

from the road to Aru

All three of slept in the same bed, for warmth, and we woke up well-rested. We took a van back to our starting point and waited for Niyaz to show up. Eventually, he did, and in the meantime I took one last ride.

We arrived back in Srinagar in the evening, and I was reinstalled in the Gulrose, which has no electricity at the moment. By now I've lost track of the number of days I've been back. 3, 4, 5, 2? I do know that it's Saturday, that it's raining, that I've become enchanted by the ever-changing mirror that I'm living on, and that I'm in love with Kashmiri carpets.

Nonetheless, I'll be heading south sometime in the next few days. Sometimes I try to remeber what I expected from life when I was 16. It certainly wasn't this.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Life On The Lake

Yesterday morning I took a 3 minute shikara ride from my porch to the bank of the lake. I crossed the street and had a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of Nescafe. Although the native food is tastier, I need something approximately familiar for breakfast.


Then, I walked back to the bank and boarded another boat for a 3 hour ride around Dal Lake. The nicer boats have a long velvet cushion where one can lay back to enjoy the quiet lapping of the oar while watching life on the lake drift past.

in a shikara

And there is a lot of life to see. There are lotus gardens, and gardens supporting greens I've never seen. Dense turf floats on the surface, sinking and pooling with water around a footstep, and then springing up again. There are enough islands, moored together houseboats, platforms, and floating huts to call the place a town. There is a market, mosques, and a school.

public school

Young boys horse around on plank sized boats.

chasing ducks

Women row about busy with their chores.

And men ply the water selling every kind of ware.

flower boat

I'm suprised to find, with its houseboat lined lakes, that Srinagar has a kinship with Amsterdam. The impression of the sky is similar too; even on the sunniest day, there is something of water in it.

island house

Tommorow morning I'm leaving for Sonmarg, in the direction of Ladakh and the Indian Himalayas for a 4 night, 5 day horse and foot trek. It is cold here, at night and in the morning, and it will be even colder where I'm going. Yesterday evening I gave in and bought a pashmina, a shawl spun from the underfur of Himalayan goats. With its light, lovely magical warmth around my neck, I sat on the bank of the Dal watching the lights shimmer and eating skewered, roasted lamb with chutney and flatbread.

I can't believe I've been in India for a month now; time goes strangely, and every single thing is different. India is a place that demands you either bend or be broken. As inflexible as I am, I'm bending, and it's hard to keep track of things by familiar lights.