Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Rice paddies on the road to Chamunda Devi

I'm writing this on Saturday, because Friday was so filled with activity, but I'll write it as if it's Friday because it's easier. I'm actually posting it on Wednesday...

Today started with a knock on the door at 7:30 am, which seemed early at the time, but turned out to be relatively mellow compared to the following morning. Apparently some group in the hotel wanted an early wake-up call, and we were accidentally counted as part of the group.

The room was easier to take in the morning, but still pretty dark. The carpet was no less easy to take, unfortunately. We decided to go to the Green Hotel Cafe, which has a wifi setup. We got there and I decided I didn't want the coffee there, so we headed back, and nearly walked into a taxi (not a difficult task). We heard a cry of joy from within the cab, and out popped the nice Kat Ehrhorn, followed by her two sons, Grail and Zeleigh, who were on their way to the Security office of the government of Tibet to register for the teachings. So we decided to get that out of the way.

The line wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, we hadn't had any breakfast yet, and unbeknownst to me, Andrea was running on empty. We were about fourth in line when she melted down completely. There was a spanish doctor nearby, and he rushed to help her, probably thinking she had some kind of serious condition. I think it was nice for Andrea though - he was a handsome fellow, and very caring.

I ran back to the hotel and got some Emergen-C, which I added to her water. She sat there for a while sobbing, but she didn't want to leave because we were next in line, so we actually got our ID cards made and then slunk out, under the solicitously watchful gazes of all the nice people in line.

So we wandered down the hill towards Hunted Hill House, which is the hotel where about half the people we know here are staying. I was hoping to run into the nuns, because visiting with them always cheers Andrea up, or at the very least takes her out of her problems. And sure enough, when we got to Hunted Hill House all the nuns were here - Chunzom and Elly were talking to Sharon, who runs Hunted Hill House and was arranging accomodations for them, and Chukyi was just finishing breakfast.

So we sat at her table, and Andrea and I both had some porridge. The coffee here is french press, which isn't nice for my stomach, but with a little milk it went down okay. The porridge is yum-tastic - it comes with honey, and is made with milk and bananas, which are cooked in and piping hot, so that it's safe to eat. But the main thing is how yummy it is: very.

So what with Andrea feeling sad and overwhelmed, and the comfort of having sangha around, we talked to Sharon about getting a room closer to Hunted Hill House. Fortuitously, a room was just opening up in Hunted Hill House. It was bright and airy, the bathroom had an actual shower head, and the toilet leak seemed to run nicely towards the drain instead of pooling on the floor under the sink. When Andrea saw it, she was really happy with it, so we took it.

You'd think that would be the end of the excitement for the day, but because of the problems with the two-hour-each-way bus ride to the venue for the teachings, we decided that it was best to try to investigate a hotel closer to the venue. Just by happenstance, the folks who are arranging the teaching were there, and were planning to go down the hill, and Chukyi wanted to check out hotels as well, so she invited me along for the ride. There was one caveat; had there been a soundtrack, ominous music would have played as it was stated: I had to be with them for the whole day, and they had a lot of errands to do, so it wouldn't be quick.

Andrea was pretty happy hanging out with Elly and Chunzom (she'd been jonesing to see them even before the excitement at the Tibetan security office). So she agreed that it was okay if I got back kind of late. So the tour group consisted of me, Chukyi, Nancy, Shyam, Christine and Ben, plus our driver, Dipak. Christine and Ben are the main organizers for the event.

They all needed to go get their IDs, and I needed to get our stuff out of Hotel Tibet, so we agreed to meet back at Hunted Hill House at 12:30. I took my spare passport photo and a map and headed back up the hill - I left my backpack with Andrea. On the way to the hotel, I stopped at an Airtel outlet to get a SIM card; turns out that you need proof of residency (a letter from the hotel owner is okay) and a xerox of the front page of your passport. That was a nonstarter, so I headed over to the hotel.

I should point out that at this point that it's been about 26 hours since my shower yesterday in Shangri-la, and it's been bloody hot and humid for a lot of that, and it's still pretty humid, and it's a very steep walk up the hill to the Hotel Tibet, so I am feeling, to put it kindly, "not so fresh." And now I have to haul all our crap down the hill. Whee!

The lady who runs Hotel Tibet was really nice about us checking out - she even offered to return our deposit, which I neither asked for nor expected; hotels here are not chains, and having someone duck out of a reservation can be a real problem. Turns out not so bad for Hotel Tibet, though - they were full, and while we were there two different parties walked in looking for rooms; she turned them both away, so I think she already had the room rented out to someone else in her mind.

She called me a taxi, which took about five long minutes to arrive - I was feeling a little worried about being late for the trip to Palampur. But it did arrive; as we were loading up, Eon walked up, looking his usual happy self. I invited him to ride down with me - he hadn't hooked up with the sangha yet. So he jumped in the cab, and down we went. The fare was fifty rupees - a little over a buck. I didn't have any cash for tipping, and didn't try to do anything about it, because of the hurry. Sigh.

Ian was a little lost and overwhelmed at the hotel - I actually felt a little bad about dragging him down the hill, but it seemed like the right thing at the time. The ride for Palampur hadn't left yet, so I was able to go along.

Palampur is the town where the venue is, but it's a very Indian town, like the ones we went through yesterday. So we'd heard that the hotels were a little difficult, and it wasn't a good place to stay, but that there is a town about thirty minutes away called Chamunda Devi. It's a big shrine site - there are shrines to Durga, Kali and Sarasvati. So there are upscale-ish hotels there, aimed at Indian tourists, but still maybe better than what's in Palampur. And Chamunda Devi is on the road to Palampur from Dharamsala, which makes it easier to pick people up if they're staying there.

One of the big difficulties about the venue is that it's a tea plantation, and they're sensitive to too much traffic, so they don't want any private cars on the property. So everybody has to come from a bus; the current plan is to just come down from Dharamsala, but it's a pretty scary ride from Mcleodganj (upper Dharamsala) to lower Dharamsala, and also it's supposed to be two hours each way, which just seems impossible to me.

So our plan was to look at some hotels in Chamunda Devi. The drive to Chamunda Devi was a lot of fun - we left just as school was getting out throughout the area, so we saw just mobs and mobs of school children walking home from schools in their cute little uniforms. Some of the girls' uniforms include ties; all the boys' do. As we worked our way through these crowds, Chukyi and Nancy kept pointing and crowing about how cute the little ones were. It was quite annoying. (not really)

After riding through many waves of children, in many differently-colored uniforms, they started to thin out - we'd see one or two at a time, but not entire waves of them anymore. And then we rolled into Chamunda Devi. There's a big temple complex down the hill; we didn't look at it too closely, because we were feeling pressured for time. So we went by the temples and found a couple of likely looking hotels. We stopped at the nicest looking one, and went inside to look.

The bridge at Chamunda Devi

The owner seemed happy to see a large group coming in, but there were no rooms until the 28th. Apparently the 17th Karmapa's birthday is on the 26th, and people were in town for the celebration, and so all the hotels in Chamunda Devi were booked. But the 28th isn't so bad for us - the teachings in Palampur don't start until the 27th. The rooms aren't cheap, and they're a bit challenging for a westerner, but some of them are nice and bright, and they all have a lovely view of a beautiful boulder-strewn riverbed with a stream running down the middle. Many of them have showers, and they have western-style toilets.

So we went away from that little bend in the road feeling pretty happy about being able to move a lot of people down to Chamunda Devi if they wanted to go. I still had my heart set on a place John Brady had found at a tea estate in Palampur, which sounded really nice, even by western standards, but it was a lot more expensive, so Chamunda Devi was a tempting alternative.

We went a little way down the road and spotted another guest house, so we stopped there to see what it was like. It was grim. We left thinking that we had found enough information, and didn't need to look at any more hotels. And we were feeling under the gun to get to the venue. A few minutes later, we came around a corner and saw another little guest house, and despite the fact that we'd agreed not to stop anymore, we decided to stop at this one. Actually, I think our driver heard us dithering and decided to just cut to the chase and go in.

This location felt very different - it felt very peaceful and sweet, even though it was right on the road. There's a high kitsch factor - the sign out front says "Pop's Picnic Place and Hotel." The guest house is very basic - less expensive than the hotels at Chamunda Devi by quite a bit, but dark and claustrophibic, like our first room in Dharamsala (but with fewer amenities). But we thought maybe some of the tougher students could stay there, so we took the information for the place.

Then we went back outside, still talking with the proprietor. He asked Chukyi if he could call her "Ani La", which is an affectionate Tibetan way of referring to a nun. She was delighted, of course. He told us those were the only two words he knew in Tibetan, and then told us the tale of how he had met his Lama. We were a little surprised, since this man was obviously an Indian, not a Tibetan.

He explained that when he was a young man, he'd been very depressed, and had several times tried to kill himself. He saw a Lama, Situ Rinpoche, in town in Palampur one day, and decided to try to meet him; after a long effort, he did. When he got his audience with the Lama, the Lama asked him what was wrong. He told the Lama the story, and he said the Lama touched him thrice on the shoulder (he said "thrice") and from then on his wish to harm himself was simply gone. He seemed really happy to be able to tell the story, and he introduced us to his son, who was born after this event, and to his wife.

Pop's pavilion. The picture was shot Tuesday, after a lot of decoration had been done.

Meanwhile, Nancy had spotted a dining hall out behind the hotel, and came up to ask if there was room there to do yoga, and if it would be okay if the students staying there did yoga. The answer was yes, so she went back to investigate further. It turns out that the dining hall is a huge pavilion, suitable for holding weddings. And it's available during the time when the teachings in Palampur are happening, and is very convenient. But we already had a venue, so we were talking about this in fairly academic terms.

We finally dragged ourselves away from the place, really quite reluctantly, and went to the venue. The venue was a barn on an old tea estate at the end of a very bumpy dirt road. It had kind of the look of a winery barn - big machines for sorting and drying the leaves, rather than for pressing wine, but still somehow very similar.

It was four in the afternoon when we got there, and there was a lot of prep work to do at the location - digging toilets, cordoning off the more dangerous areas, and that sort of thing. So we expected a hive of activity. Unfortunately, when we got there mostly what we heard was crickets chirping. No work had been done yet.

Because the location was so rough and because no work had been done yet, we debated for a while and finally concluded that it would be better to simply start the work at the other location, which was already much more servicable, rather than trying to make a heroic effort to get the tea plantation venue working in the short time we had left. This involved two trips back to Pop's, one with to negotiate with the owner, and one with the tent man so that he could check out the location.

Rice fields out behind Pop's pavilion

On the first trip back to Pop's, we stopped in town to get some aspirin for Christine, who had a bit of a headache (and who can blame her - she's one of the two people actually organizing this teaching, and we'd just completely changed her plans). While we were waiting for Ben to buy the aspirin, a few younger women from town gathered nearby and started watching us. There was one with very light brown eyes, wearing a pure white sari, who particularly stood out - she had some kind of mystery about her, and she kept looking at us and smiling enigmatically.

After stopping at Pop's to make sure we could have the venue, we came back to the tea plantation to talk to the organizer. Fortunately, he was there, along with the tent man. Ben and Nancy went off to negotiate the switcheroo, and the rest of us stayed outside so they could have some privacy. The neighborhood kids started to wander in to check us out.

It was a motley crew - two of the older girls were taking care of their baby sisters, one of whom liked us, and one of whom thought we were the worst thing that had ever happened to her - when one of us smiled at her, she hid her face and started bawling uncontrollably. The other kids, most of whom were around three or four years old, just stood around smiling at us. Everybody who had a camera took lots of pictures - unfortunately I didn't have a camera, so I lost out, but maybe I'll be able to get some later to put up here.

One of the people who showed up to watch us was the same young Indian woman we'd seen in town earlier, in the white sari. She had the same enigmatic smile, and kept watching us the whole time we were there. Chukyi became convinced that she was Tara; I'm not sure she was wrong. With her light brown eyes and dark skin, she had a very unearthly look about her.

When we finished with all the arrangements, it was about 7:00 in the evening. We'd gotten a call earlier from Mercedes who wanted two of our party to go have dinner with the Lamas. Fortunately or unfortunately, we only had one car to use, so we all had to go. It's always nice to get to have dinner with the Lamas, but I was really hoping to go home. It was not to be. We had a nice dinner with the Lamas, and then headed back to Palampur to take care of one last errand - Ben needed to pay the hotel bill for a couple of Lamas we'd invited to come visit us in Palampur. So we stopped there. The Lamas were there, so we stopped to visit with them, and got an impromptu teaching on the death meditation - a perennial favorite.

By the time we left Palampur for Dharamsala, it was eleven at night. The ride back was interesting - all the Indian villages on the way had shut for the night, and there were very few lights, so it felt a little bit spooky - villages that had been hives of activity during the day were completely deserted, like ghost towns. I expected to see tumbleweeds blowing through the streets.

At one point a taxi driver flagged down Dipak to talk to him about something - I don't know what because they were speaking Hindi - and we saw two other people on the road who were working on another taxi that had broken down. But that was pretty much it, all the way to Mcleodganj.

It took us a hair less than an hour to get home, and after about five minutes of banging on the door the night manager let us in. Then I had to bang on our door, since Andrea was wearing earplugs, but she finally let me in, and I pretty much collapsed on the bed. Falling asleep was not a problem. Little did I know that someone else was going to be banging on the door at 6:20 the next morning.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Rice paddies on the road to Chamunda Devi" photo is simply gorgeous--and magical. Makes me feel good just to look at.

I hadn't realized that you had posted any entries until yesterday, when YF told me (the rain has kept him offline a lot, lately), so I can only now tell you how truly wonderful they are--full of the kind of detail and local color that makes me hungry for the next one--almost like sharing your eyes--being there without having to struggle with the terrain!

Keep it up--please! And greetings to all the ones I know (for some value of "know").

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 9:10:00 PM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Ditto on the photos!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Oh, thanks. That's a really beautiful rice field, no question. With the digital camera, you have very little control over when it takes the picture, so I've had mixed luck - every picture you see there that was shot from the car and that looks at all interesting was a lucky fluke. That one was just amazing.

I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. I'll do my best. It's pretty time consuming, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Thursday, June 29, 2006 1:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Patricia said...

"… pretty time consuming, but not necessarily in a bad way."

I, for one, appreciate your taking the time--and I bet you will, yourself, later, when you read this again after you're back home.

Thursday, June 29, 2006 9:15:00 PM  
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