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india

10: Interview Incidents, Tourism Talk, and Fruitful Friendship [Dharamshala, India]

Saturday, October 12th, 2019

After my morning routine of having a sunny, crisp outdoor breakfast at Nature Twins Cafe in Upper Bhagsu (Dharamshala), India, I was off to another post office for the 4th time in 3 days to hopefully send a package back before I head off to Rishikesh on a night bus. I walked 20 minutes to get there and waited in line for another 20 minutes, only to be told I need to fill out some forms, have my package wrapped, and give them a copy of my passport. So I went next-door and up the stairs, photocopied my passport, and then down the stairs into the wrapping room where I had to fill out another form. Unlike my last few P.O. attempts, this time I was finally making progress.

I sat and waited for the old Tibetan-looking man to finish hand-sewing a perfectly fitting fabric around his current parcel before he moved onto the next 5 customers ahead of me. I didn’t mind at all. It gave me time to admire his seamless flow; he was so precise, effortless, and efficient in measuring out the fabric, folding it, stitching it with his foot-powered sewing machine, fitting it over the package, and finally sealing it with wax dripped from a candle. 20 minutes later he handed the exquisitely sealed package to me, which I finally brought back upstairs to ship it roughly 7,000 miles away for around 25 dollars. At last my souvenirs were no longer weighing me down.

Near the stairs leading to my room I passed a man who was kindly offering for the eighth time to trade some more rocks for my watch or smartphone. I politely denied; all of my stuff could still only barely fit in my 45-liter backpack. As I was cramming everything in, Anmol knocked on my door.L1050838.jpeg Anmol is a local from Kangra who I met a few days prior at a waterfall cleanup event. We bonded immediately and had been volunteering and hanging out together every day since then. I finished packing up and we were off to interview some local cafes about the No-Plastic-Staw-Initiative in order to generate social media content for Waste Warriors (WW). I had technically been volunteering for WW for the past week while staying in a room that they provided for me through Workaway.info, which helps connect travelers like me with hosts all over the world.

The manager at the first cafe on our list was very rude and refused to interview with us, but we kept high spirits and moved on to the next one. It lied a decent hike up the hill in Dharamkot, close to the Israeli concert we went to see two nights before. We wandered about until finding the cafe owner in the kitchen. We started chatting, but I could tell he wasn’t exactly happy to see us. At first he showed us how he sometimes used paper straws and sometimes plastic for the different size glasses where paper doesn’t work as well. However he was quick to change the subject to bigger issues with the NGO. He was bothered by WW’s apparent excessive time & effort spent interviewing when he wasn’t seeing much improvement in the cleanliness of footpaths and “roads” in his community. Since no cars can make it up to his land, WW employs folks to physically haul his waste down the mountain by foot, and he commented on how those folks are being paid too little compared to the office employees. I couldn’t verify if what he said was accurate, it’s above my paygrade (*volunteer*). Since WW is a small/mid-sized NGO, I don’t think anybody is making bank, but I also don’t doubt that some folks get paid more than others. Anmol and I thanked him for his time, apologized for bothering him, and promised that his complains would make their way back to the director of WW’s Dharamshala branch.

After somewhat of a rough start I had a gut feeling that we in for a break soon, and I was right. We kept our heads held high and just when it was starting to pour we stumbled across our next cafe: Lucky Star. With stomachs grumbling as audibly as the thunder, we greeted the friendly cafe owner and took refuge. I ordered the best lime & mint shake I’ve ever had, plus it was through a metal straw, which we photographed in front of the Lucky Star Cafe sign. We then continued to play chess while overlooking the storm passing through the Himalayas. Eventually I devoured a most scrumptious meal of creamy paneer vegetable curry soup with garlic cheese naan bread. Afterwards, with a full belly and clear headspace, I interviewed the owner.

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He stopped using plastic straws about 5 years ago when an Australian tourist gave him a small pack of metal straws after eating at his cafe. He really liked them, ordered a larger bundle of them on Amazon, and has been using them ever since. We chatted for maybe 15 minutes about other eco-friendly projects his cafe is engaged in such as growing cucumbers and peppers right outside, as well as feeding the leftover food scraps to cows who also provide milk for the cafe. I covered most of questions that WW prompted me to ask, took another picture with him, thanked him, and started to head back.

Once back at my place I had to decide whether I had enough time to accept Anmol’s invitation come to Kangra with him. I was on the fence since I really didn’t want to miss my bus, and the ticket only said Dharamshala on it, not Kangra. However, he was certain that the bus would go through Kangra, so after some deep consideration I put my trust in him again and we went on one final adventure together. I said goodbye to the room that was now filled with memories of giant spiders and ecstatic hippie dance music, and left the key in its hiding spot outside where I had found it over a week ago.

Now for the last time I was to embark with Anmol and all of my stuff on the very familiar journey down the stairs, past the yoga & dance studio right beneath my room, through a tiny concrete tunnel surrounded by buildings, past the guy on the street selling rocks who really wants my $8 watch, and finally down the crazy steep and disheveled road full of vegan cafes and touristy shops selling dreamcatchers, jewelry, leather backpacks, and yoga courses.

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 This was my walk to go basically anywhere else. And it was on this street that I saw the highest percentage of tourists in relation to locals compared to anywhere else I’d visited on my month-long Indian journey through Kolkata, Goa, and Delhi.

It rightfully is a spectacular tourist destination – as the heart of Tibetan Buddhism on a Himalayan mountainside overlooking the Kangra Valley, with relatively mild weather and inexpensive organic vegan/vegetarian food (compared to the states)… it is hard to find a better hippie paradise. And as Anmol and I continued our walk to the bus station near the Dalai Lama’s temple, I was reminded that devout Buddhists from afar must also weave through the flocks of hippies and herds of cows to fight for the chance to personally meet their spiritual leader.

For when I went a few days prior to inquire about seeing the Dalai Lama, there were some 10 other people asking in a much more rude and persistent fashion about seeing him too. “He needs his rest,” His Holiness’ personal secretary said repeatedly, and so I didn’t push it when I asked him, knowing I was about to receive a negative response. It must really be exhausting to be such a popular spiritual figure. The millions who love and idolize you traverse long distances with the hope and expectation that you can give them some advice. And especially as the wise and warm-hearted leader of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s just too many people who want your attention. So as curious as I was to see him face to face, I let him rest, and marveled at the fact that we’ve walked many a same path, just at different times.

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My path down this Himalayan mountainside was now slowly taking me closer to Nepal. We boarded the back of the bus, since it feels most rollercoaster-like, and connected over similarities while comparing cultural differences. We talked about dating, swearing, music, family life – everything that societal norms have a big impact on. He asked me what the weirdest thing was about Indian culture that I’ve seen so far, and I answered, “the fact that I see more grown men holding hands with other grown men than with their partner.” For it’s true, only the younger couples begin to show some PDA (Public Display of Affection), and even as much as holding hands with the opposite sex in public can be very taboo. However, dudes are allowed to hold another dude’s hand (even with interlacing fingers) as a sign of “brotherliness” without any strange looks. It’s bizarre. I asked him the same question but regarding American culture and his response was that in America one is typically expected to move out of their parents’ home once they turn 18. As I mentioned in my 7th blog, families almost always stick together for life in India. With a 1% divorce rate, and most younger generations living with their parents at least until they get married, strong family values (and socio-economic pressure to stay with your family) are far more prevalent in India than in the states. Living with your parents forever brings along no shame or sense of failure like it does in the states. There, sticking with family is valued and even respected. I think we could learn a thing or two from India.

The bus ride to Kangra took quite a while, and we arrived there with only about 45 minutes to spare before my bus leaves. So we hurriedly made our way to his family’s home, and I finally met the superb humans who raised such a well-tempered young man. They told me that next time I come back I must stay and have dinner with them. I truly look forward to the idea of doing so some day. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to speak with them, since Anmol was eager to show me around before I took off for Rishikesh.

We hopped on his motorbike, and squeezed our through the skinny alleys he grew up on. Our first stop was a stand selling a classic Kangran refreshment of soda water & lime. We ordered, drank, and returned the bottles all while remaining on the bike. Next stop was to try some tiny sweets – crispy, fruity, and delicious. L1050848.jpegAfter that was the main temple. We walked in, paid our respects, Anmol gave me a Bindi-like marking on my forehead, and some excited little Indian girl asked for a picture with me, which I gladly accepted. Except now, I had only a few minutes to make it back to the bus station. We hurried out of the temple, back to his house where I left my bag, and over to the Kangra bus station. We made it there right on time, but for some reason, the bus wasn’t there. Was it running late? Or did it leave already?

Anmol asked the ticket officer who assured us that it was on its way, and after an anxious 15 minutes it finally rolled in. It turns out the bus was late because they were looking for me in Dharamshala! Whoops. I tried calling and notifying them, but they must not have understood me well enough. Oh well. I wished Anmol goodbye, hoping in all seriousness to see him again somewhere down the line. Still, I needed to keep moving if I was to meet up with a friend in Thailand by mid-November, especially since Dharamshala was already a detour from my former plans.

I was originally only going to stay in India for 2-3 weeks until embarking for Nepal. By now I had been in India for over a month. The folks I lived with for two weeks in Goa all spoke so fondly of Dharamshala that I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. And if you can’t tell by this blog, it was worth every second of the super squished 14-hour bus ride to get there. By chance I had now made it onto a more comfortable bus, and with a full moon shiningly valiantly upon the surrounding hills, I reclined my chair, pulled up some music, and reflected on my time in Dharamshala as I rode in my first overnight bus towards Rishikesh, my final stop before Nepal.

Upon reflection, one thing was certain: the hand of tourism has had an incredible impact on the look, feel, and flow of Dharamshala in the past 50 years. Aside from some scattered agriculture, including folks who live way up in the mountains herding goats, the traditional ways of life (at least in the area where I was staying) have mostly dissipated. The locals who run the stores live nearby, but most of them can’t afford to shop anywhere other than the small, relatively beat-up corner shops that are made only for Dharamshalans. I’d be willing to bet that at least 90% of all the residents in Upper Bhagsu make practically all of their money off of tourism (Indian and international), for better or for worse. Though some aspects of their culture have been lost to booming tourism, I’d argue that any “original” culture in the area has been shape-shifted a thousand times to be what it is today, which is neither good nor bad. It just is.

For the main tourist magnet today is the home of the 14th Dalai Lama, who migrated to McLeoud Ganj (upper Dharamshala) in 1959 after being exiled from Tibet. But before that, it was occupied by the British, as well as Gurkha (Nepali) troops who fought in World War I and World War II. And before that, it was ruled by the Katoch dynasty for some two millennia and home to many Gaddis (mainly Hindu) who lived a more nomadic lifestyle. Who is to say that any distinct period in time was better or more culturally significant than another?

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The streets and even some natural areas tend to reflect a capitalistic utilization of the predominant Buddhist presence and other attractions. It’s quite inspirational to see plenty of real Tibetan Monks walking around the streets with so few possessions, following the way of Buddha. But their lifestyle is the exception, not the norm. The streets their feet hover through are filled to the brim with superfluous Buddhist-themed objects which no monk would ever buy. McLeoud Ganj has become a tourist town with pockets of authentic Buddhist culture, but mostly an exploitation of the public’s interest in Buddhism. This seems to contradict Buddhist teachings and detract from the town’s authenticity. Nonetheless, I don’t mind. The drive to make money off of a religion is entirely rational and relatable.

For say I place myself in the shoes of a local Hindu who all of the sudden can actually afford to feed his family enough calories to stay healthy by setting up a small stand on the side of the road selling mini Buddha figures instead of growing rice. I see no shame in taking that opportunity. In fact, it doesn’t matter why tourists are there, or how many shops are already selling the same exact thing; if one can better support their family by giving up their traditional way of life to selling knick-knacks, then so much for cultural preservation. If we want to preserve culture, then we (including me) need to change our consumption habits. Just like the rest of us, the locals deserve to seek the best lives for themselves, and that’s what makes Dharamshala what it is today. For better or worse? You can decide (and share your thoughts at the bottom of this post if you feel so inclined).

Happy hopping,

Hopper

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india

9: Volunteering with Waste Warriors NGO, plus… Israeli music? [Dharamshala, India]

Thursday, October 10th 2019

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For my 5th morning in Dharamshala, India, I was off to the Bhagsunag waterfall for my first volunteer opportunity with Waste Warriors (WW) who I was volunteering with through Workaway.info.  As mentioned in my 7th blog, I had visited this waterfall a few days prior and accepted an offer to go hiking and eventually partying with 15 Indians from Rajasthan.  This time was completely different. Though the meeting time was at 10, it took until almost 11 for all of the volunteers to arrive. While waiting I agreed to the usual frenzy of picture-taking with several large groups of Indians passing by who rarely see someone as white as me. Amidst all this chaos, another new volunteer arrived who I was soon to befriend and share many memories with.

He was patiently waiting for the action to die down, then introduced himself to me as Anmol. He was from a nearby town called Kangra, about 2 hours away by bus, and to my surprise discovered Waste Warriors on Instagram. He was helping simply because he had the time and wanted to support a good cause. We bonded quickly over our affinity for classic hip-hop music like Eminem and enjoyment of old video games. With a degree in mathematics, he now works in Search Engine Optimization, and thanks to his flexible schedule can afford to spend a few days volunteering with WW.

After an introduction given in Hebrew for the volunteers who happened to be mostly Israeli, around 15 volunteers (mostly tourists) set off with grabber-tools and large sacks to start cleaning up the main pathway between the town of Bhagsu and the waterfall. Towards the back of the line Anmol and I found mostly small pieces of trash that the leaders skipped over, as well as some far reaches over the railing to find trash that would soon be blown further down the cliff side into the river. The process took less time than I had imagined, and ended at the base of the waterfall where I immediately jumped in and swam around for a bit until I noticed the no swimming sign (whoops). Normally that still wouldn’t deter me, but I was representing Waste Warriors, so I dried off quickly to carry some sacks back to storage with Anmol.

On our walk along a different skinny mountainside path we met a few of the volunteers who were from Israel. We made some chit-chat, realized we all were about to go out for lunch somewhere, so we happily all ate together. They shared stories from their mandatory military service, Anmol showed us some cool number tricks, and we questioned the nature of mathematics. We feasted on a variety vegetarian foods, and made potential plans to attend a live music performance that night by an Israeli named Yair Dalal who we had by pure chance met in the cafe. Both Anmol and I were very interested, so we exchanged Whastapp numbers and went our separate ways.

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I brought Anmol back to my place where I grabbed a few more things before heading out with him on a bus ride to lower Dharamshala. Aside from meeting with WW staff again, I was on a mission to mail some souvenirs back. I had tried the day before, but even though they were open for two more hours they told me to come back the following day. So I did. I brought my bag of souvenirs, and this time they told me I needed a box. “Can I buy one here?” “No sir.” Of course, even at the main post office in the entire 25 sq mile region, you can’t buy a box to ship stuff in. So we went to a small corner shop, and thankfully they had some old boxes lying around from shipments of juice and snacks. I gratefully took one of his beat-up cardboard boxes without payment, and we headed to our meeting with Shomita and Mitali. The plans for the next 2 days were clarified and they approved Anmol to come along with me. I took some scrap paper from them to shove in my box of souvenirs and we wished them goodbye until tomorrow.

By this time the main post office was closed, so Anmol and I chatted for a while in a park near the bus stop before he headed back to Kangra. Since the Israeli concert didn’t even start until 10 o’clock, we made plans for him to stay at my place that night. As my trust was tested the day before when I agreed to a spontaneous excursion with some dude who I met on the streets right outside the Dalai Lama’s home, now it was being tested to a whole new level. A local Indian was coming to my place to sleep, and could easily wake up in the middle of the night, take all my valuables and leave. Yet I didn’t have the slightest feeling of doubt or concern. Anmol was very open about any and every topic, and had a clearly good and innocent heart. This was supported by the fact that even though it’s legal at age 20, he’s never drank or smoked before. While reflecting upon my intuition as I walked back to my room, I passed a monkey trying steal someone’s bag. Primate nature is to steal. Is human nature the same way? Not once we reach a certain understanding of morality, it seems. And I trusted that my friend had reached that point.

Once back to my room I grabbed my jacket and a blanket (it’s actually cold! Yay!) and waited at a nearby cafe for Anmol to arrive. He bussed his way back from Kangra to Upper Bhagsu, from where we walked to the small village of Dharamkot for the concert. It’s the next town further up on the mountain, beyond where any cars or bikes can go due to unroadliness. We walked amongst construction and along tiny sidewalks squeezed between colourful houses for maybe 15 minutes until we spotted our Israeli friends from earlier that day. We made our way into the concert hall with them, and I was blown away by the sheer amount of Israeli people who happened to all congregate in this particular place in India. There must’ve been around 100 people – including families full of every generation. Everyone was simply sitting directly on the hard floor or tiny cushion. I don’t know how many of them were actually from Israel, but the vast majority of all the speech I heard was in Hebrew or some other language. After some research, I found out that there is more than 3,000 Israelis in Dharamkot between March and October. They come to India after their mandatory military service to spend time exploring the hills, eating and drinking with each other, and often congregating at the four-story Chabad house.

Eventually Yair Dalal peacefully mounted the stage in all-white clothing and started playing something that made me feel like I was in the desert with Kings and camels some thousands of years ago. It was very intricate, and in this traditional Jewish/Israeli style there’s lots of open space between the speedy strokes on the violin. His sound was fuller and more rhythmic when he picked up the oud (a stocky, roundish string instrument). It became very intense and emotional when he invited a friend on stage with him to sing. The part I most enjoyed was near the end, when he invited two local Indian folks he had met days prior onto the stage to improvise with him. The older man was super skilled on the tabla (drum) and his wife had a gorgeous singing voice. I was encapsulated in their stirring, harmonious sounds which beautifully blended styles of Indian and Israeli music into one.

It seemed so odd that out of all places to have this experience, it was in a tucked-away village in India. Nearby was a “Shalom Hostel” (Shalom= Hello/Goodbye in Hebrew), as well as multiple restaurants that specialize in Israeli food. Anmol and I again went out to eat with our Israeli friends afterwards where I of course had to try some Israeli food. I ordered the Ziva, which though it sounds like some deadly virus you don’t want around, I gladly gobbled it down while chatting with friends, spinning a local fabric-toy on my finger, and playing a hand drum. Another few musicians start playing guitar and singing together across the room, so we sat and listen to them for a little while, until somehow it was already midnight. Anmol and I wished our friends goodnight and made our way back to my room, where we both slept soundly for the whole night.

 

Friday, October 11th

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As soon as we were awake and ready we took a pleasant morning mountain stroll down to the bus station. After a fun & steep bus ride heading down the mountain to lower Dharamshala, we met up with Mitali at the Waste Warriors office to then take another bus to Kangra. Here we had planned to visit a college to see if we can get some more students involved with Waste Warriors. When we got there they were having an exhibition for their sustainable clothing designs, and so after passing through we met with some staff there and successfully set up another meeting with someone who can get us further involved.

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 We still had some time to kill, so I chatted with a pretty Indian woman about her design made of hospital curtains & plastic tubes, admired some paintings, and met various elders who were quite welcoming to us Waste Warriors.

Our time there soon ended, but since we were already in Anmol’s hometown of Kangra, he spontaneously showed us around to multiple other schools where we chatted up the principals about getting more involved with keeping the city clean. Some were receptive and set up another meeting, and others were not. Some thought that it was the city’s job, they should take care of their own trash and not have to deal with anyone else’s. At least that’s what I picked up from the tone of voice, and occasional english words tossed into the blender with Hindi. What it sounds like to me is, “ravalabidihamanavintarishi waste management shivativinanepineneswava green energy vavanapalabadawa…” Either way, even though I couldn’t contribute much to the conferences, it was really a unique experience to get inside a few “elementary” schools and meet the principles. Most kids would steal a glance at me and giggle, only to shyly look away once we make eye contact. I guess a guy like me is a rare sight at their school. It reminded me of the excitement my friends would get when a teenage girl actually entered our all-boys high school.

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By the time we visited 3 different schools, the sun had passed its mid-point in the sky and hunger had long ago presented itself in my consciousness. I mentioned that I wanted to try some local Kangran food, and we decided as a group that we needed to eat. Yet on our way to some food stands we happened to pass by Anmol’s old childhood school and just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The security there was strict, but after Anmol amiably greeted his old teacher, they let us in. We had to wait to meet with the principal, which was a-ok with me because there was a sizable buffet in the middle of the outdoor courtyard for a special event that day. They politely offered us to sit and eat, and it turns out that (according to Anmol) we were offered some of the most authentic, local Kangran food that there is.

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 It was rice with some lentily soupy thing, with some flavoured chickpeas and vegetables, plus chapati bread. So amazing! Especially on a practically empty stomach after walking around the whole day in the beating sun. Even though the temps up where I was staying in Bhagsu (6,800 ft) only peaked at around 73 during the day, down in Kangra (2,400 ft) it was closer to 90. It was a true gesture of hospitality to feed us when 10 minutes prior we were mere strangers who unexpectedly appeared at their door.

Acting politely and respectfully was very important, and though I was initially quite confused when Anmol quickly bent down to touch the feet of his old teachers, after he did it a few times I understood that it was a norm of showing respect to one’s elders. After eating we met the principle, who seemed happy to see Anmol, and was friendly towards Mitali and I as well. We discussed (finally in english this time) plans for a more formal meeting for some time until we settled on a date, each one of us always ending our sentences with “Sir.” We shook hands and were about to leave when the opportunity arose to visit one of Anmol’s favourite teachers. Upon climbing some stairs we found her busy sorting through papers, but still happy to make conversation over some crispy snacks for 10 minutes. She also politely offered us her snacks many times, and I could see that at this school in particular manners are highly valued. By now I was starting to feel exhausted, and knew it was a long bus journey back to my room. So we skedaddled, found our way onto a bus, and I somehow napped on the way back.

Once in Dharamshala I made a 3rd attempt at sending my package back, but still to no avail. The post office was closed again, and the private shipping company wouldn’t ship my “valuable” Himalayan crystal rocks (which I bought for maybe $5 total) because there’s too much risk of it getting stolen. So after another sunset-lit, windy, slightly terrifying yet gorgeous bus ride back up the mountain, Anmol grabbed his bag from my room and we made plans for the next day. He headed back to Kangra, and I was feeling exhausted from the day’s journeys, so the rest of my evening basically consisted of lying in bed.

And as I lied in bed, I said gratitude in my head. I was thankful for the room that I was staying in for free thanks to Waste Warriors & Workaway. I was thankful that this volunteer experience brought me inside real Indian schools while meeting loads of new people. I was thankful for the food and water that people gave me without expecting anything in return. I was thankful that I could develop a better grasp on what social norms are like in India. Most of all I was thankful to have a good friend to share the journey with. By the time I fell asleep I was ready to have a glorious final day in Dharamshala.

With gratitude,

Hopps

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india

8: Burn Ravana Burn! Celebrating Dussehra (and life) [Dharamshala, India]

Tuesday, Oct 8th 2019

It was a sunny morning in Upper Bhagsu, a suburb of Dharamshala in India’s mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh. At a very comfortable 65 degrees, my 15-minute walk to the famous private home of the 14th Dalai Lama in McLeoud Ganj was a breeze. Beautifully situated on a hillside overlooking the well-populated Kangra valley below, the Tsuglagkhang Complex (pronounced: “tsjfftrslgrkng”) was bursting with life. Immediately when I entered the main grounds I was very surprised not by the large number of monks and tourists there, but what the monks were doing to each other. There were pairs scattered plentifully throughout the grounds, one person sitting and the other standing. The one standing is speaking vivaciously at the other one, culminating in an enthusiastic clap-stomp that involves the whole body. I was initially unsure of what was happening, which turned out to be a friendly, enthusiastic debate with each other. The one standing is the challenger, and the one sitting is the defender. They each take turns debating with each other, trying to break down viewpoints to create a defensible stance, all in good, respectful fun. This practice is unique to Tibetan Buddhist Monks, who have now become the majority ethnic group in their exile-home of Dharamshala at around 19,000 people. You can read more about the practice here.

After I explored around the different buildings of exquisite colour and intricate artwork, past some massive Buddha statues and in the presence of His Holiness (though unfortunately we never met), I walked out the gates to quickly find some local asking me if I smoke. I answered and swiftly walked away, for though I happy wandering around solo, I vowed weeks ago to not ignore people on the streets who greet me, even if they’re just hungry for money or a cigarette. He waited maybe 15 seconds, saw me paused across the street looking at my phone for directions, and came up to me again. He asked me about my plans for the rest of the day, and I admitted to him that I had none other than walking down this path and seeing where it takes me. That was rather symbolic for the rest of my day.

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We conversed for maybe 15 minutes as I strolled through the forest right outside of the Dalai Lama’s home beneath hundreds of prayer flags, spinning the never-ending row of prayer wheels on my right. Amidst reflecting on the magic of this environment, I found out that he used to have a shoe-repair business, but it was taken away from him. Now he calls himself a guide, but without any qualification or official business. He was only a year or 2 older than me, and seems to squeeze by in life by hanging around touristy spots and offering people like me a tour around some other interesting spots of Dharamshala. I was hesitant at first, especially since he mentioned renting a motorbike and refused to tell me his price for the day. But after a while I developed some trust in this guy, whose name I will just say is Sam for confidentiality. He told me that if anyone asks what our relationship is, to just say we’re friends; assumedly it’s illegal to guide someone without an official business. From the outside it seemed risky, but on the inside I felt it would be fine. Unlike my previous major scam in Goa, this guy was relaxed and friendly, with clear intentions and a kind heart. Plus, he mentioned some big Hindu festival that night, which lit my curiosity ablaze.

So I agreed, went back to my hostel to grab a few things, and was soon off with him on a rental motorbike down to another famous Buddhist temple named Norbulingka before the festival. As the summer residence to many prior Dalai Lamas it was naturally gorgeous and peaceful, but with a strangely large gift shop. With time to kill we went to one of Sam’s main hangout spots, where we found all of his friends sitting on logs next to this small, beat-up wooden shack along the river. Immediately the mosquitos were more intense than anywhere else I had yet been in India, so to help they set fire to some nearby coconut husks, as well as to their hash-filled cigarettes and mini Indian cigars known as “Bidis.” Sam’s friends asked me all sorts of questions about my travels, where I’m from, what I do for work, and the likes. Conversely, I learned how some of them had lived in a small wooden structure with only a light tarp as their roof, but after 16 years or so the government kicked them out and forced them to find somewhere “legit” to rest their heads. Now they still live together and struggle to get by, but shared amongst 6 men they can still manage to drink bottle after bottle of rice beer (called Handia). It’s the cheapest alcohol you can find in the region, made right at this tucked-away no-name shack (I’m not sure if they even make anything else). It consists basically of mildly fermented rice, plus some hot spices they mix in for flavor. I tried a little bit to be polite, and it was actually quite odd & tasty, but I was too concerned about the cleanliness of the water to drink very much of it.

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30 mosquito bites later, we were off to celebrate Dussehra, which commemorates the victory of the Hindu god Rama over the “demon king” Ravana. In a wider scope, it is celebrating the triumph of good over evil. We arrived just as the sun was setting to an amazing crowd of at least a couple thousand scattered about the field, concessions and amusements such as a ferris wheel. Front and center in the massive field stood three towering figures perhaps 150 ft tall: King Ravana, his son Meghnad, and his brother Kumbhakaran. We all stood in patience until some flares marked the beginning of the ceremony. I had no clue what was going to happen. They started throwing something like powdery-water on the figures. Was it holy water?

They lit a small fire under the figure closest to me, and I had a feeling that it might slowly reach the head of this figure. What I didn’t expect was that as soon as the flame grew to the calves of the figure, it started exploding in rapid bursts, like the grand finale of a fireworks ceremony. The fires climbed up 150 feet to the head of the first figure in less than half a minute as I stood in total awe of this bizarre, rather superfluous tradition celebrated by Hindus all over India. After the first figure was 90% incinerated, they moved onto the the next one, and finally to the demon king, Ramana. I was blown away by the fantasy of it all; I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life.

Following the destruction of these towering figures was a fireworks celebration, similar to those that one might see on the Fourth of July in America. Safety standards were of course sub-par compared to the states, as a few men walked from firework to firework scattered across the ground, lighting each individual one by hand. You can even watch fireworks explode prematurely into the crowd at the end of the video above. They were beautiful, varied fireworks, but I’ve seen better in the states. Still, nothing could compare to what I watched just moments prior as thousands of Indians cheered over the utter obliteration of these three symbolic figures of evil in Hindu culture. Though incredible to watch, I knew that such a celebration was quite wasteful and only contributes to India’s already enormous pollution problem. Afterwards I contemplated the irony of how it represented good overcoming evil, when it’s really just adding fuel to the fire. However I found delight in reading that some Indian cities such as Delhi have at least added an installation made entirely out of single-use plastics. They do end up burning it (gasp!) but in a cement kiln which supposedly absorbs the bad gases so that “no environmental issues” occur.

Though skeptical of Sam at first, I got to know him quite well over the course of the evening, and just as his friends at the rice-beer shack had told me, he really did have a big heart. He told me of a long-term girlfriend he had from Sweden, who ended up breaking his heart after claiming that she loved him and wanted to marry him. He was happy to share with me the fun and exciting aspects of Dharamshala as well as anything I was curious to know about his life. At the end of the day, a tour like this was incomparably better than one I could have taken through an official guide service. He considered me his brother and despite our stark differences we bonded over many similarities as we got to know each other more. It was clear that he often struggled to get by, and was happy to pay him 700 Rupees ($9) for the unforgettable experienced we shared together. After the festival he dropped me off near my room, and I had a feeling that though we’d occasionally keep in touch through WhatsApp, I wouldn’t see him again, at least on this trip.

Wed, Oct 9th

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It was my first cool and drizzly day in Upper Bhagsu and after 4 nights of staying in a room thanks to Workaway.info in exchange for volunteering for an NGO called Waste Warriors (WW), I was still unable to get in contact with them. So, the day called for a change of pace with some leisure souvenir shopping and laundry-washing. I found the weather rather energizing, compared to the humid heat that drained me in Goa, Kolkata, and Delhi. Thankfully, right as I was finishing my tasks around 3 PM without a clue of what I’d do for the rest of the day, I received a message from the project manager at Waste Warriors requesting me to discuss upcoming opportunities at their office in lower Dharamshala. I immediately took a taxi ride to a nearby landmark, where I wandered around accepting help from multiple kind Indians for at least 20 minutes. Alas, I found the building and could finally connect face-to-face with some folks from the NGO.

I spoke with two women a little older than me named Shomita and Metali, received an official T-shirt and badge, and had some tasks planned out for the rest of my stay in Dharamshala. On Thursday I’d help with the waterfall trail cleanup, on Friday I’d visit a school and promote involvement with WW, and on Saturday I’d interview some cafes near my room who are involved with WW’s no-plastic-straw initiative. Days prior I had booked a night bus to Rishikesh on Saturday evening, and so like that it was decided how I’d spend the rest of my days in this holy Himalayan home-away-from-home. Still, there was plenty of space to fill in with unexpected cultural opportunities and spontaneous adventures with new friends who I was soon to meet.

Walking to find some food before I headed back, I found a patch of plants that blew me away with their elegance and size. What I found most beautiful, however, was a small-flowered plant called Lentina Camerana, which, thanks to its invasiveness across Southeast Asia, I would later identify in the next five places I’d visit in India and Nepal. I fell in love with the variety of its floral displays, with buds in a bow-tie shape, blooming into small lobey flowers of different colors in endless different patterns. The leaves held an intoxicating smell of fruity and minty goodness (though sadly was inedible). Despite it being an invasive species, I must admit that it was my favourite plant I discovered on my entire trip.

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As I stopped for food I saw a “just married” car pull up outside the window. There were the typical celebratory orange Marigolds stuck evenly about the Mercedes Benz, lines of purple ribbons criss-crossing the roof of the car, and a “bouquet” of plants and flowers on the hood of the car. I took this Indian marriage carriage as a sign that good experiences with Waste Warriors were on its way. However, when I returned to my room, I received another sign indicating that my coming experiences wouldn’t be without a little bit of healthy discomfort.

For as I was just finishing up my business in the bathroom, I spotted (without exaggeration) the biggest wild spider I’d ever seen in my entire life. It scurried like lightning across the wall, only to pause right in the doorway where I had to duck my head to avoid being hit. I weighed my options… (1) Stay in the bathroom forever or until it crawls away. (2) Scare the spider away by throwing my toothbrush and soap at it. (3) Run out, grab a cup and magazine, trap it, and release it. Considering I’d never be able to sleep if it crawled away to some hiding spot in my room, I chose option three.

I ducked, ran, and… phew! No spider attack. I measured the 3-inch wide cup against the spider and it seemed too big to fit in it, but I had no choice. I couldn’t kill such a beautiful yet ominous creature. Though still unsure if it could kill me with a poisonous bite, I suddenly flung the cup towards it; I was hoping not to crush its legs, which it thankfully tucked in as it became trapped. I barely slid the magazine underneath it thanks to the bumpy nature of the doorway, but successfully carried it out to my second story balcony, where I tossed it into the open air onto the plants and sidewalk beneath me. Though nothing helps me sleep at night more than the fresh cool air, I promptly shut the windows, which remained that way for the rest of my stay. What an exciting end to a rather easy-going day! Though it initially terrified me, I felt that in some way this incident with the spider was a blessing.

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Much time has passed between now and then. I made it safely home after my 95-day journey through India, Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia. The main reason I discontinued blogging-on-the-go is because it was keeping me from experience more valuable to me than writing – be it socializing, sleeping, exploring, and so forth. Now, with newfound time and a lack of unfamiliar places around me, the blog continues forth! Stay tuned for the rest of my journey by following me on WordPress or by email.

Hoppin’ never stoppin’,

Hopper

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