My last week in Dharamsala flew by quickly, once I established myself a kind of routine. I would wake early and struggle to leave the warmth of my nest. I would sleep with the shawl I bought in Delhi wrapped loosely around my head and through the gap above my face I would see my breath turning to vapour above me. It discourages drastic movements away from the safety of bed. Eventually though, once I had hurriedly washed and dressed, I would take the half hour walk down into McLeod and stop in for breakfast, usually at the Kunga café or Shambala, since the Snow Lion was now closed for re-painting. Often I would see someone I knew, or else I would just enjoy my coffee and toast and omelette or banana pancakes in solitary splendour. After that I might have some kind of errands to run (like buying a hat and woolly bed-socks, haggling for shawls to send to my nearest and dearest, or getting passport photocopies, which you seem to need a lot of here; 3 copies to send a package by post, for example).
At 1pm I would head to the rooftop of Lha to meet with Kirzin the monk for an hour or so of English tuition. Kirzin is a kind and gentle soul. As a young man in Tibet, he and his brother were farmers; tending medicinal plants which grow only at very high altitude. Forseeing only a life of struggle and unhappiness, he decided to instead take a different path and become a monk (evidently a common choice for Tibetan youths). We didn’t talk about his flight from his homeland, but talking to many Tibetans over my time in Dharamsala, a common narrative emerges of a difficult and secretive passage through the Himalaya; a journey taking months, with the fear of capture and summary imprisonment or execution by Chinese security forces. When trying to view the political situation purely from the viewpoint of Tibetans in McLeod, the horizon of credibility is somewhat cloudy and obscure. In the foreground personal stories of exile and loss are obvious in their authenticity; virtually every Tibetan I spoke to told me of their desire to return home. But in the distance, wild stories of Tibetan children being stolen and eaten by the Chinese oppressors cannot (I dearly hope) be given credence. But when all accounts are recounted as definitive articles of belief (and I never met anyone who had firsthand knowledge of these more outrageous atrocities) it makes it a little difficult to know what the truth is. Somewhere in the middle, I suppose, where it usually is; either way they’ve had a bad time of it.
Anyway, Kirzin now lives in a large monastery in the South of India, near Mysore. He was taking every opportunity available to him to diligently work on his English, in order that he might communicate his faith to the world. This was not an evangelical ideal incidentally – he was keen to separate the beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism from the tools (in his words, ‘Buddhist Senses’) which people can use to reduce their suffering and live better, more compassionate lives. Our sessions were divided more or less equally between existential discussion and reading and comprehension practice, for which Kirzin had a hefty tome published sometime towards the end of the British Raj, I think, which was filled with delightfully anachronistic situations and language; a world of picnics and things being ‘a jolly good show’. Kirzin had many questions, and I endeavoured to elucidate on those things that weren’t completely irrelevant. I was reminded of the Vampire Weekend song: “Who gives a **** about an Oxford comma; I climbed to Dharamsala too, I did. I met the highest lama – his accent sounded fine to me, to me.”
At 2pm it was time for Ingrid’s intermediate French class. Beginner’s would have probably been more my level, but I muddled through with my seeming wealth of vocabulary and total lack of grammar, covering plurals, accents, quantities and homonyms whilst weaving through a variety of tenses. It was nice to do a bit of learning, and it was surprising to me how much I remembered from GCSE French in the distant past. Le lapin mange le pain dans le pin!
At 2pm I would find some lunch. Possibly a 50 rupee thali from the first hole-in-the-wall thali stall on Bhagsu road – a glorious all-you-can-eat-fiesta of rice, daal, curried veg, raw onions and chapattis. Then some more mooching until 4pm, when it was time for English Conversation class, which would find me cross-legged amidst a circle of six to eight Tibetans between the ages of 13 and 50, trying to communicate, which was sometimes easy and sometimes like getting blood from a stone, but always a lot of fun. I found it very easy to warm to the Tibetans, who seemed in general to be warm and full of good humour.
At 5pm the volunteers would meet outside Lha and go for dinner, and sit around drinking tea and then maybe having some more dinner, until maybe 9pm, when things would wind up and I would wrap myself up in everything warm I could find, get out my headtorch and walk back through the cold darkness to Upper Bhagsu. This sojourn started to wear on me after a while and for the last few days I moved back into town, finding a room in the same guesthouse as Jeremy, once again at the bottom of the 188 steps I had first walked down after getting off the bus from Delhi.
Waiting for momos; Louise, Jeremy, Konrad & Artur