We have been in India for six weeks now and while visiting five states one thing we can say for certain is this country is diverse! In a land where “guest is god” but prices are based on what country you’re from and holy cows wander the streets while elephants tout tourists beside camel rickshaws carrying cargo, one never knows what to expect. Disputed territory in Kashmir is flanked by pomp and circumstance with the Pakistanis in front of a grandstand of hundreds of people at Punjab’s Wagah border. 1.2 billion people speak hundreds of languages in the seventh largest country in the world yet there is only one time zone. It’s law for the driver of a motorbike to wear a helmit, but not the passenger. India has one of the worlds fastest growing economies while millions live in poverty reinforced by the cast system. Signs read “keep your town green ‘n’ clean” but garbage is thrown on the ground; it seems as though the environment is the lowest class. Buddha, Vishnu, Guru Gobind Singh, and Mohamed have all left their mark while St. John’s church stands proud in the Nadie Valley and the Bahai’s Lotus Temple is a must see. Cities bustle while the desert winds blow, trains rumble while people pilgrim, heat swelters while the mountains are cooled by snow…and it is in the mountains where we currently find ourselves.
Mcleod Ganj, sitting at 2,000 meters in the sky, is the only place we’ve seen where packs of monkeys rival dogs as the dominant scavengers and eagles soar below eye level. It is also the only place where I’ve seen a robed picture of the Dalai Lama alongside posters of Bob Marley, Bon Jovi and Queen in the local snooker hall. The most striking contrast however is the cultural diversity of the village as thousands of Tibetan refugees mix with the local Indians while hosting a variety of international guests. Not only does this bring a welcome diversity of eating options (no longer curry for breakfast!) but highlights an ongoing injustice suffered by the Tibetans. After the Chinese occupation began in 1949 the following religious and cultural persecution caused thousands of desperate families to either flee or send a child, often walking for weeks, in hopes he/she can follow the path over the Himalayas laid by the Dalai Lama and find a better life beginning in Mcleod Ganj alongside His Holiness. Many people arrived alone but the risk of contact with their family is too great so they rely on prayers to communicate. Saffron robed monks recite mantras while the politically charged ‘Students For a Free Tibet’ organize protests then the two walk hand in hand demanding freedom and hoping the international community will back them up. Their conviction is palpable and we can feel the sadness in the air every time a candle lit vigil weaves its way through the streets on the way to the temple as the community mourns one of the 15 martyrs who have self immolated in Tibet over the past 5 weeks in which we’ve been living here. The Dalai Lama insists on non violence so instead of using terrorism to attract international attention they take the ultimate sacrifice with the hopes to gain the same attention. They are doing everything they can to get their freedom call heard and when it is they are asking for people to pressure their governments to take a stronger stand against China and to spread the word so more people are aware of their struggle.
As I sit in my heater-less guesthouse wearing most of my clothes on this crisp +1c evening I am laughing at my assumption that I would be escaping the winter. Just as India doesn’t smell that bad, there is order to the chaos, and most Indian foot isn’t that hot, contrasts in perception and reality are part of the mystique of this ancient civilization. Just when we start to think we’re understanding it something happens like being swarmed in a holy Sikh temple by two separate families asking us to take photos with them, before we knew it Sarah was holding a baby and I was holding hands finger in finger with two brothers while dad knelt in front. We figure the best way is to just let go, bob our heads sideways and take it all in. At least we know one thing for certain, wherever we can be found so can a warm cup of chai!
This week’s question: Have you ever participated in a protest? If so then what for, if not then what would you protest for?