Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kashmir to Dharamsala

The landscape of the state of Kashmir is in many ways idyllic. Or, it would be, if not for the Indian army occupying it. One can almost get carried away by the fields of yellow saffron flowers flanked by the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas...until one has to step around barbed wire. Or adjust the camera shot so that the man holding an AK-47 isn't in it. Or make a mental note not to forget the curfew that the military enforces.

It's a shame, really. Such a beautiful place that is everywhere tainted with evidence of the human thirst for power; India's unwillingness to let go of a state that so desires its own freedom.

The mostly-Muslim Kashmiri people are among the nicest in India, providing you can overlook slogans drawn with a finger on the side of a car in need of washing that say things like, "Indian dogs go home." Such statements are unsurprising in light of the Indian military's propaganda on billboards with violent messages such as, "kill them, cut them, kneel not."

While in Kashmir we made several friends close to our age. One such friend was self-admittedly an arms dealer (if you're in need of any ammunition, we have his card- haha) and fervently and openly admitted that he wanted Kashmir to be free of India, regardless of the cost or lives lost. His friend, who was also present for this conversation, argued the opposite point--that he would gladly remain part of India, if only the result were peace. I think most people would especially agree with that last part--that part about peace--regardless of whether you call the entity to whom you pray at night by the name of God or Allah.

It's an unfortunate political situation that affects the people of Kashmir's daily lives. In my opinion, they are the true victims. Virtually held hostage by India, it isn't shocking that violence and civil unrest are the result.

Our next step on the all-India trip, however--Dharamsala--taught me that it doesn't have to be that way.

In the 1950s Tibet was invaded by China, under the guise of helping/modernizing 'backward' Tibet. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of all Buddhist Tibetans, was forced to flee Tibet in 1959. The Dalai Lama and, by extension, the Tibetan governement in exile, were given refuge in Dharamsala, India. Since then, countless Tibetans have risked their lives (and many have lost their lives) attempting to flee Tibet. Dharamsala is still the home of the Tibetan government in exile, as well as the majority of the refugees.

Like the Kashmiris, political decisions made by others have dictated the lives of the Tibetans. The Tibetan/Buddhist reaction, however, is significantly different from what is happening in Kashmir. Instead of resorting to violence, they use peaceful means to try to regain their homeland. Sadly, it remains to be seen if they will ever be successful.

Easily apparent, and even more noteworthy in the face of political oppression, I would argue that Tibetans/Buddhists live a more Christian lifestyle than many Christians themselves. Central to Buddhist beliefs is the practice of compassion. It's kind of reminiscent of the whole do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you thing. Sound familiar?

While in Dharamsala, we watched a documentary about the struggles of Tibet and its people. In the documentary, a story was told about a monk who sought an audience with the Dalai Lama (who is hilarious, by the way--have you ever seen him on video??). The monk explained to the Dalai Lama how he had recently been plagued with feelings of guilt. Upon being asked about the source of his guilt, the monk replied: "I feel guilty because I fear that I am losing my compassion for the Chinese."

How often do we harp on the multitude of ways in which we have been wronged, and by who? How often do we wish those who have wronged us ill fortune; delight in their failures; resent their success? How often do we tell ourselves "it's okay for me to feel this way--I am the victim here?"

...all of these attitudes can be said to be 'normal' reactions of any logical, thinking human being who believes in the concept of 'justice,' an eye for an eye. But think of the enormous self-control--the enormous intentionality--it takes to say to oneself: not only am I not going to give in to these negative/vengeful thoughts--I am going to have compassion for the one who has wronged me. Furthermore, imagine feeling guilty when it seems that the ability to have this superhuman compassion for the one at fault is eluding you!

It is also worth remembering that in the monk's case, it was no small grievance. His country was forcibly taken from him; his culture is being systematically destroyed by the Chinese. Like him, many risked death in order to escape. Many, like the refugee who taught the cooking class that Maggie and I attended, have family still trapped in Tibet who they have not seen in fifteen or twenty years. And yet, they persist in practicing compassion.

If the Tibetans can do it, in the face of such oppression, can't we, too?

For more information about the Tibetan cause, click here. There is also widespread information on the internet about the situation in Kashmir.  

"Never give up. No matter what is going on around you, never give up. Develop the heart. Too much energy is spent developing the mind, instead of the heart. Develop the heart. Be compassionate, not just with your friends, but with everyone. Be compassionate. Work for peace, in your heart and in the world. Work for peace. And I say again, never give up. No matter what is going on around you, never give up." -The 14th Dalai Lama

incredible india

Incredible India: It's a slogan coined by the tourism department that's supposed to entice people to the subcontinent. When I first heard it, I remember thinking, well, that's unoriginal. And...convenient. It seemed as though someone had looked up adjectives that start with 'i' in order to fashion a catchy little tag line.

But here's the's true. India IS incredible.

I can say this with a good amount of certainty after the aforementioned all-India trip. I am really just in awe of this incredible country. Whoever came up with the 'Incredible India' slogan wasn't just trying to use some elementary alliteration. Au contraire, they hit the nail right on the head.

The United States is diverse in the sense that one can find all kinds of people in almost any given place. It is truly a 'melting pot,' or, a 'salad bowl' as some would prefer to call it. With the exception of small towns (like New Wilmington, where Maggie is from- ha), one can expect to encounter people of various nationalities, ethnicities, religions, etc in almost any city or state.

India is diverse in a different way. In India, upon entering a new state, one might feel that one is in a different country altogether. Each state has its own language and is very unique compared to others. The population within any given state (with the exception of large, cosmopolitan cities like Delhi or Mumbai) is quite homogenous; cross a state line and cross into a different world. Language, style of dress, food, social norms, religion--all elements of culture--are drastically different from state to state. Kashmir is a Muslim state, while Kerala has the biggest Christian majority of any state. Someone from Tamil Nadu can't communicate with someone from Uttar Pradesh (unless they both happen to know some English). Goa is a Portuguese-influenced wild card. There is snow in Himachal Pradesh; Rajasthan is all desert. Foods in the south are rice-based; foods in the north are wheat-based. The saree, a garment found in most of India, is worn completely different in the north than in the south. The differences go on and on...

It is this diversity that I find so incredible about India. It's just vast, all that India contains. And at the risk of sounding like I'm being paid to write this (I'm not, I assure you), I think that India is a place that every person should visit. It has something to teach everyone.

In many ways a land of contrasts--a land of extremes--it was in those 'in between' places, caught among two or more opposing realities, that I found myself learning something or wondering at (meaning, being in wonderment at) this incredibly vast, incredibly diverse, incredibly beautiful place. The following posts will be some reflections on those contrasts; those 'in between' places.

"Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, April 25, 2011

annddd we're back!


It has certainly been a while. Happy Easter, friends.

I write to you from the home of my site coordinator, Thomas John Achen. It is good to be home!!

Maggie, Jim, and I arrived yesterday from our all-India trip. If you recall, my last post was written just as we were about to leave. Three and a half weeks later, here we are again!

When we arrived to Thomas John Achen’s house yesterday, he, Betty Kochamma, and Binu weren’t home. They knew we would arrive in their absence, however, so we had already been given instructions by Achen: “The key will be in the flowerpot; please hose yourselves off before going inside.”

The last part was said in jest, of course. Achen was referring to the fact that after traveling around North India for almost a month, who knows what dirt/microbes/etc one might have on oneself. Surprisingly, minus the fact that none of us had any clean clothes left, I really don’t feel that we were all that dirty upon our return. Nevertheless, our first order of business was to shower, and it felt amazing to be clean. To be home.

So how was the trip?!?!, you ask?

In a word: awesome. I have a lot to say about it, but I’ll start with a brief synopsis of our itinerary/what we did:

March 31-April 2: Delhi. Saw the Red Fort, Connaught Circle, Qutb Minar, Bahai Lotus Temple, Jama Masjid, Safdarjung’s Tomb, and the India Gate.
April 3-5: Srinagar, Kashmir. Saw Sri Shankracharya Temple, several Mughal Gardens, Tulip Gardens, and Gulmarg.
April 6: Jammu, Kashmir. This was more of just a stopover while in transit to Dharamsala.
April 7-9: Dharamsala (McLeod Gang). Home of the Tibetan Government in exile. Took a Tibetan cooking class, saw the Dalai Lama’s Temple, and went horseback riding.
April 10: Amritsar. Toured the Golden Temple and had langar.
April 11: Delhi. Had a ‘recovery day.’
April 12-13: Agra. Saw the Taj Mahal by sunrise, Agra Fort, Baby Taj, and the Taj Mahal by sunset.
April 14-16: Jaipur. Walked around the ‘Old City’ and saw the Monkey Temple, City Palace, and Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds).
April 17-18: Bikaner. Saw Junagarh (the Bikaner Fort) and went on an overnight camel safari into the Rajasthan desert.
April 19: 26 hour train ride from Bikaner to Mumbai.
April 20-23: Goa. Stayed at Palolem Beach; relaxed and played in the ocean.
April 24: Arrived home to KERALA! :)

I know that’s a really boring account and doesn’t really tell you much. But for photos of all of the corresponding adventures, click here, and here. The photos—especially the captions—will give you a better idea of what, exactly, we did, as well as the context.

In my next post, I’ll give more of a narrative account of some of the more noteworthy places/people/events. Stay tuned!

"The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends." -Shirley MacLaine