Thursday, October 10th 2019
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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