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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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