Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

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India

INDIA is a vast South Asian country with diverse terrain, reaching from the Himalayan peaks to the Indian Ocean coastline. It history reaches back five millennia.

I have traveled, extensively, in India since 1988, and return almost every year with my daughter, Cary, to visit the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, and the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) school in Suja. I have gone from the northernmost area in Ladakh (and the disputed Kashmir) down the coast to Rishikesh, Gokarna, Udipi, and the most holy cities on the Ganges, beginning with Varanasi. In recent years I spent time in the south, exploring Ft. Cochin and beautiful tropical Kerala, making my way north to Hampi, the Bandhavgarth Tiger Reserve, and the amazing Ellora and Ajanta caves carved out of the hillside. From now on, however, I think I’ll stick to the north. The south is just too hot for me!

Click  HERE for blog posts of my travels in India.

Click on a photo to start the slideshow.

IT’S 2015, I’M BACK FROM INDIA AND NEPAL, AND I’M STILL ALIVE…

…despite the grueling 20 hours from Delhi to Amsterdam to Seattle, sitting bolt upright while watching movies I’d never think of paying to see, in the hopes that they’d put me to sleep. Dream on, Meg, which was the only dreaming I did! I survived the interminable security checks and tortoise-like behavior of unsmiling customs and passport personnel, the incredibly awful food (Weight Watchers take note…there may be a solution you’re missing), and the even worse jetlag upon returning that I can’t seem to lick no matter how many times I travel to Asia.

I will say that Cary and I lucked out on the way over just before Thanksgiving, when an almost empty Delta flight on the Amsterdam leg allowed us each a row of seats in which to lie down. And on the way back we perfected a procedure to get priority seating and circumvent the mile-long waiting lines at the terminal. “Just use your old lady routine, Mom. Puleeze? And try to look a little frail.” It worked, but I still feel guilty. It’s Cary, however, who will suffer the demerits in the next life, for it was her idea. I’ve been told, not always subtly, that I’m verbose at times, and admonished to start at the end of the story…to keep the reader from lapsing into a coma.

I have taken this advice to heart so will treat you to the final leg of my recent trip, starting at the  Shechen Guest House in Boudhanath near Kathmandu and into the glorious Yolmo/Helambu region of Nepal. This was the trip I missed last year when I injured my knee in Bhutan. Poinsettias abound at the Shechen Guest House in Boudhanath, just in time for Christmas!

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Before I start I must say a word about our flight on Jet Airways from Delhi to Kathmandu. After all the terrible things I’ve said about the food on our other flights, this was a radical change. The minute the door closed several well-groomed stewards raced down the aisle waving Carlsberg beer (in India?). Then followed a full meal, good curd, and real chocolate pudding. All in the space of an hour. As we left the plane Cary said to the smiling stewards, “After watching you sprint for the last hour, I wonder if you’ve ever thought of trying out for the Olympics.”

You’d think after twenty-eight years of bumping around Nepal in buses and cars of questionable quality I’d say “Enough already,” but hope springs eternal and every year a few more roads are surfaced that were, previously, back-breakers. And every year I get older and become more adept at holding myself up off the seats just high enough that I don’t bang my head on the roof. I also was lucky to drive in a larger car that had handholds above the doors, and not a bus.

I can’t believe that after I touted the warm sunny weather in Nepal it should start to rain on the first day of our departure for the tiny village of Tarkye Gang, where we were to begin trekking. There was even fresh snow on Mustang and the surrounding mountains. But after all, you say, it IS December in Nepal…and you would be right.

Our driver from Boudha to Tarkye Gang, a matter of only 77 miles that took over five hours, was a radiantly cheerful fellow who didn’t seem to mind the road conditions. He drove a Nissan four-wheel drive, where in order to get all four wheels engaged, he had to stop the car, get out and lock the front wheels. This occurred several times when we got stuck in the mud on steep inclines. What a hassle! But nothing seemed to faze him!

P1060530 P1060492 He informed us that he was taking the lower road through Bhaktapur and Dhulikhel, because the roads higher up (which we took on our return trip) were too perilous in this weather. Worse than these? How is that possible?

Our first stop was for breakfast at an open-air restaurant filled with men. Everyone had long skinny loaves of bread that looked like pastry, and, as local custom would have it, they were dipping them into their tea. I asked Ram if I could have some eggs and coffee and while he was scrambling to find some, we decided to try our hand at the bread dipping…carefully. Soon we were encircled by flakes of pastry, which filled the table and spilled onto the floor. What were we doing wrong? Nobody else was making such a mess. Fortunately, birds came to our rescue and cleaned it all up. We were perched on the edge of a cliff and by the number of cartons of empty whiskey bottles piled high outside, I’d say this was a very popular hangout.

The weather worsened as we drove higher, but we could see the outline of the mountains and the neatly terraced fields through the mist.

P1060515 P1060487 P1060526 P1060518 When we took time out for lunch at Thimbu we noticed a bus struggling around the corner below us. How it had navigated over the narrow track and avoided going over the cliff amazed me. The driver had to stop in town and turn around. That’s as far as he dared go. When the locals had boarded, the bus slowly made its way back down the slippery mud and rocks that served as a road. We watched incredulously.

P1060497 P1060493 Fun on the way down….

P1060762 Pictures cannot do justice to these roads! You have to feel them, experience them. Several times I was sure we’d have to get out and push. Fortunately, the rocks helped stop the spinning wheels whenever we’d slide backward. It would be several days before any bus could pass.

This was especially poignant when we discovered that an Indian wedding was in full swing when we arrived at our proposed guesthouse in the small village of Tarkye Gang. All the guests would have to negotiate that road by foot down to Thimbu the next day. But nobody seemed to care. They were eating and drinking, toasting and dancing, and immediately invited us to share in the festivities, which continued until 3 AM. We were touched by their hospitality, but declined. The celebration would have to continue without us.

Our new guesthouse was a treasure: a large dining/kitchen area, an open stairway that led to several bedrooms, and a Western toilet (hurray!). There is no central heating in any of the places we stayed, so it was great to sit near the fire in the  dining area and get out of the incessant rain.

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The next morning we awoke to clear skies, but were admonished not to climb Ama Yangri, our goal for the day, because of heavy snow and ice. It is a sacred mountain and considered the female protector of this area, dedicated to contemplation and reflection.  Cary had climbed it last year and wanted to share the experience with me. This was a big disappointment for both of us. The swings in the weather were such that by midday the sun was so hot that we had to climb in shirt sleeves. It took us seven hours to reach our destiny, a picturesque farming community high in the mountains.

Starting out in the morning

Starting out in the morning

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A preview of tomorrow's climb!

A preview of tomorrow’s climb!

Yet to come…photos of our climb and our day in Upper Melamchi. Stay tuned….

A BLIZZARD ON HALLOWEEN AND INDIAN SUMMER IN NOVEMBER…WHAT’S NEXT? CROCUSES AT CHRISTMAS!

And we have a couple of days of sunshine and warm weather before the Big Day, so I’m keeping my eyes open…and my camera at the ready.

New Years Resolutions are passé and apologies are boring, so I shall just try to catch up this week before wishing you all a 2012 of unlimited possibilities, good health, and prosperity. That about covers it all, unless you want me to throw in World Peace, which has been elusive to me ever since I turned 13. Ah, yes, but I’m still right up there with the hope that springs eternal…. 

Once, again, I’m playing catch up. I was still reeling from Hurricane Irene (remember her?), when along came a storm that flattened my bushes, tore off limbs front and back, and left branches and piles of debris lining the streets of this fair city. So I guess it”s not too out-of-step to write part four of my adventures in Washington last August. Everything else is topsy-turvey!

Before heading south with Jon Pollack to Walla Walla, I spent the evening with my new friend, the incomparable Betty Tisdale, who lives in Queen Anne’s, a lovely section of Seattle. That is, when she’s not traveling to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and a host of places in Asia where she has started orphanages. I’ve written about her before (be sure to check it out), and will, again. Her website, H.A.L.O. , stands for Helping and Loving Orphans.

It was a six-hour drive, south and east, to get to Walla Walla, a rather quaint city tucked into the wine country, and home to Whitman College. This is the first time I’d headed in this direction and I found the variety of landscape enticing. Rugged mountains were followed by an expanse of semi-arid land that reminded me of the Trans Karoo in South Africa. There were fewer and fewer trees, except for the pines along the banks of the Yakima River. It was so different from the lush hills and valleys of northern Washington.

As we approached Selah, however, the countryside began to change. Orchards, farms, and vineyards, perfectly symmetrical rows of plants, stretched for miles. Yes, this was the heart of wine and fruit country.

...stretching for miles and miles

We settled for a couple of nights at Fishhook State Park campground on the shores of Lake Sacajawea, which is really just a dammed up part of the Snake River. It was quite different from most of the campgrounds where we stay. More like a giant lawn sloping down to the lake, facing cliffs. This is the only place where I managed to get a swim.

On our way to visit my old friends, Mary and Jim Carlsen of Walla Walla, we stopped at the Whitman Museum, a national historic site commemorating the work of the Whitmans. This brave couple traveled by covered wagon from St. Louis and arrived in 1836 to set up a mission at Waiilatpu, (Cayuseland), which later became the Oregon territory. Their goal was to minister to the Indians, both in medicine and as Christian missionaries. Many of the Indians died of smallpox and measles, and eventually they blamed the white man, attacking the mission 11 years later…killing and burning. The Whitmans were among those killed. You are struck by the pervasive genocide perpetrated on the Native Americans during that period. You’re much more aware of it in the West than in the East. The killings ended the Protestant missions in the Oregon country and led to war against the Cayuse by a volunteer militia from the Willamette and lower Columbia valleys.

Symbolic covered wagon

Grave of massacred settlers

Surrounding Oregon landscape near the Mission

Jim and Mary Carlsen

Our next stop was Horsethief State Park, where we camped in near-hurricane conditions near the desert and Horsethief Bluff, which we climbed on our first day of exploring. We sat at sunset looking over the craggy rattlesnake-infested grassy area and marveled at the geological structure of the land…basalt melting into ancient glaciers, forming the Columbia River gorge. To use words like spectacular and indescribable are understatements for this whole region. But the pristine-looking lake rimming the campsite was anything but! Unfortunately, flocks of Canada geese had spoiled it, as is so true of many areas they infest. But they didn’t spoil the carefully maintained and beautifully constructed park. Thumbs up for this site.

Our campsite on the edge of the park was desolate and very, very windy!

Horsethief Butte from the campground

Grounds of campsite

A peaceful setting, but look who’s standing watch on the tree branch….

Cliffs across the lake

Sunset at the campsite

You can hike anywhere if you don’t mind snakes!

Starting up....

Close-up of rock clliff

Not an easy climb!

Almost there....

View from the other side

There she is at a distance....

Some of the many petroglyphs in the area

We visited our last historical site before heading to the Lewis River. This was the Maryhill Museum of Art, which houses a world-renowned art collection and was built by Sam Hill, the son of Quaker parents. In 1907 he acquired 7,000 acres in southeast Washington, planning to build a Quaker farming community. This never materialized, but his chateau-like home was turned into the Maryhill Museum in 1917. My favorites of all his collection were the Rodins.

Maryhill Museum of Art with Mt. Hood in the background

Windmills dot the countryside

Hill was in Europe in WWI and was shattered by the death and destruction all around him. While in England he visited Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, where he was told that the structure was believed to have been constructed by Druids as a place of human sacrifice. He concluded that there was a similarity between the loss of life in this, the greatest of human wars, and the sacrifices of ancient Stonehenge. Therefore he decided to build a replica on the cliffs of the Columbia as a reminder of the “incredible folly of war.” It took from 1918 ‘til 1930 to complete the construction. He died a year later. His epitaph read: Samuel Hill: Amid nature’s great unrest, he sought rest.”

Replica of Stonehenge

Mt. Hood as we leave Oregon

Mt. St. Helens as we leave Columbia Gorge and head for the Lewis River in Washington

The inevitable Cultural Update: The first concert of the year for the Plainfield Symphony featured Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Der Freischutz, and the stunning Shostakovich Piano Concerto #35. In December we finished the season with a Christmas concert at the Shiloh Baptist Church featuring a chorus that sang both the Quincy Jones rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus and the original Handel. It was, indeed, an inspiring afternoon!

Theater included the excellent Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the not-so-excellent new play by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King’s last night on earth. I was also fortunate to see Bonnie & Clyde, a new musical that I felt was charming and homespun, despite its subject matter, and more like an operetta than a robust Broadway show. Bad reviews caused it to close early. Sometimes I’d like to strangle certain reviewers!

To complete the Christmas season of giving, I took daughter Martha and grandsons Thomas and Adam to see Billy Elliot, one of my favorite musicals. I really gave my theater addiction a good feeding this month, with two viewings in one week. Martha is a delightful partner in crime. Shame on me, but it was great. Sorry it’s closing.

I highly recommend Seminar, a new play by Theresa Rebeck, starring the inimitable Alan Rickman. You can’t beat this one! And I was also thrilled by the new production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at the Irish Repertory Theater. When it comes to Irish plays, they are the greatest.

My only large social gathering this year was a superb reading by my dear friend, J. Carol Goodman of her latest book, Never Lie Down. (Check it out on Amazon.com) I think of it as my holiday party. Forty people crammed into my living and dining room, a fire in the fireplace, good food, good conversation, and good fellowship. It just doesn’t get any better!

 Finally, I did manage to get to the opera, thanks to my friend, the percussionist, Phyllis Bitow, who drives a group of us opera addicts to the Met and drives us home before many people have even gotten out of the City. Bless her! This time it was a new opera for me, Rodelinda by Handel, starring Rene Fleming. The orchestra had shrunk to baroque size, and the playing was perfection.

In looking back over this varied year, which started in Sikkim at the foot of the Kangchenjunga mountain range, moving through southern India, back to the U.S. for the wedding of my only granddaughter, and on to California for a family reunion and a folk festival, I am filled with gratitude for my good fortune, my good health, my children, and my great family of friends. Thank you all!

I promise to finish this journey before the New Year. We still have the magnificent waterfalls and trails of the Lewis River to explore. Please stay with me. I resolve to be brief in the New Year…yeah!

YOU THINK SECURITY IS BAD AT U.S. AIRPORTS? TRY INDIA

Just getting into the airport building in Delhi is a challenge. I thought the new airport would be different, but was I wrong! There are guards at every entrance and the line is long. But don’t push. This is when patience is definitely a virtue and a lack of said virtue can put you behind the eight ball big time. You need to have your ticket handy, your passport, and whatever extraneous information came with your ticket print out. In my mind I ask them if a pint of blood and my firstborn would suffice, but I keep that joke to myself. A sense of humor should be parked at the door along with any sense of urgency.

Once inside you are faced with a swarm of humanity that takes your breath away. As you know, I’ve been traveling for centuries, or so it seems, and you’d think I’d be hardened to such mob scenes. But this was the longest, most circuitous “Congo line” of my life and it snaked like a giant intestine that forgot to stop growing.  I kid you not, I was in line over an hour. At that point I was so tired that they could have stashed me in an MRI machine and I would have remained comatose throughout. Don’t ask me to relate the padding up and padding down. Beaten and bewildered, I didn’t even notice.

A couple more observations about India that I failed to mention along the way are that the vegetables are plentiful, cheap, and superb. Cauliflower, one of my all time favorites, was huge and in every conceivable dish. The carrots were the large reddish variety and sweet, and peas were a special part of the many paneers (cheese dishes) served in a succulent sauce. Being a vegetarian in India is no hardship…it’s a pleasure, for there is so much variety to choose from and unlimited imagination in the preparation. Once I persuaded a particular restaurant in Gokarna to make me “veggies al dente”  (my phrase) without spice, I was in heaven and never wanted to leave. I even ate them for breakfast.

Another food that I had from the very beginning was papaya…huge, ripe, orange papaya. Cary and I ate one a day in Dharamsala and you could get the large ones down south for less than a dollar. I never tasted any like this at home.

Before I leave Gokarna, let me share a few more photos of this charming location.


Lee sunbathing on the beach

Trimming the palms in our front yard

The restaurant next door

Our cozy cabin

Squabble on the path…I’m outa’ here!

Pilgrims swimming in the evening

Watching the passing parade

Beach life

A delightful young man at his sewing machine….

Camel ride at sunset

We exchanged hello’s on the beach

Bargaining at a local shop

Gullvli & yours truly in front of the local "chariot"

Gullvi and yours truly in front of the local “chariot”

Ladies washing clothes in communal wash tanks in the middle of town

…and now they have company

I had to slow down on theater this month because of rehearsals for our last concert. The Plainfield Symphony went out in a blaze of glory led by Charles Prince, our new conductor. We knocked ‘em dead with an evening of French opera featuring two soloists and highlights from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah and Bizet’s Carmen. It doesn’t get much better than that!

I did, however, see some pretty great shows starting with Million Dollar Quartet, and ending with The Book of Mormon, the new smash hit musical, which looks like a Tony winner. Irreverent, totally off-the-wall, it was the first Broadway show by the two masterminds behind South Park. You can imagine the language!

At the Metropolitan opera Rossini’s Le Comte Ory was perfection, starring Juan Diego Florez and Susanne Resmark.

I waited until the end to be sure this glorious spring was not going to go away. Maplewood/South Orange is ablaze with color and here is just one slice. I thrill at the richness of nature that I enjoy on my daily walk up and down the hills of this peaceful town.

My little begonia finally found a home….

INCREDIBLE INDIA!

Pizza arrives in 30 minutes, the ambulance doesn’t….

More mobile phones than  toilets….

Car loans are cheaper than  educational loans….

Foodgrain rots as people die of hunger….

Sex is everywhere except where it is supposed to be, in the bedroom. This last one requires an explanation, Upwardly mobile Indians (a small percentage of the population, to be sure) are so intent upon chasing the rupee/money dream that more and more married couples have no time in their busy schedule to procreate. The answer? Fertility clinics. To quote Prakash Kothari, “Couples don’t have either the desire or the time to have sex these days.” Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?

What I have just written was on the cover of the December 26, 2010 magazine, The Week, an excellent  news magazine that prints candid articles by outstanding Indian journalists about current problems in India…and they are many, from the garbage, plastic, environmental ones to the skyrocketing birth rate, to poverty, to the crumbling infrastructure. The country is growing fast and it is a bundle of contradictions. In this issue they celebrate their idiocyncracies and ironies. But they also take them seriously. One disturbing statement that, as yet, goes unanswered is that it is a country where rice sells for 40 rupees a kilo, but SIM cards come for free. It is a land where people make arduous pilgrimages to shrines of goddesses, but kill their daughters in the womb. It is a mindset that seeks out a fancy mobile in preference to a basic toilet.

I am seeing this in my everyday life here. The handsome young owner of our guest house laments the fact that he can’t find a wife, because there are ten eligible men for every woman…even when arranged marriages are the tradition. The gorgeous beaches are used, regularly, for defecation, but mostly by men, some of whom are pilgrims. They don’t even bother to cover it up. Plastic is burned all the time in the middle of town or in front of guest houses, the stench second only to what it’s doing to the lungs, the brain, and the environment.

But I try to be philosophical with the mantra…This is India, what do you expect? Still, thinking Indians resent that statement and are disturbed by the pervasiveness of their problems.

On the lighter side, I had an experience while walking to town. I’ve told you about the cows. Well, today there was quite a congregation of them and I walked into an altercation between two bulls, who were head-butting. What to do? The path was narrow and the bushes lining it prickly. I tried to sneak by, but they shifted just as I passed. You never saw me run so fast…even with my bum knee. I didn’t even stop for a photo!

I’ve been using a steri-pen to purify my water, so I won’t add to the plastic problem here. But a friend showed me the bottle he just bought. This was written on the side, supposedly as an ecological statement. You be the judge: Dispose of this container responsibly…crush.

I’ve also had some sweet experiences, like the time I walked by a fancy home on a back street in town. A cow was preceding me slowly. A beautifully clad lady was looking out her door. Just as the cow reached the door, she opened it, bowed, and the cow walked into her tiled parlor. She smiled at me and closed the door.

I may have mentioned this before, but more and more I am amazed at the openness and affection shown between men of all ages in this country. They put their arms around each other and walk hand-in-hand down the street. Seldom do I see Indian men and women eating together, except when there are children with them. The women go to town in pairs or groups, as do the men. Also, I was surprised to see both men and women doing their wash at the beautiful rectangular tank of azure water near the small temples away from the main street. It’s a lovely section of town and boasts many fancy homes meticulously landscaped. The washing place reminds me of the ghats of Varanasi. It’s a colorful panoply of activity. And the characters participating are a photographer’s dream!

As in my first ’round-the-world trip in 1987, the three predictable statements made in all of the Asian and African countries I visited remain the same. Those of you who travel will, I’m sure, recognize them: No problem; Trust me; and Don’t worry. It’s at this point that I start to worry!

Now I’m going to go back to the beach, wait for my dear friend from Sweden, Gullvi Eriksson, to arrive from Goa, and hope that those two bulls have settled their problems before I pass by.

MY ADVENTURES WITH THE TIBETAN COMMUNITY ARE OVER AND I’M OFF TO SOUTH INDIA

I’m now in Dharamsala just a day away from the grueling overnight bus trip to Delhi and then a flight to Cochin in Kerala, South India. Am working on getting my blog updated on the events of the past three weeks. Stay tuned!

To read about my travels in Sikkim, scroll down to my post from Dec. 6th, or go to http://megnoblepeterson.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/sikkim-is-everything/

BACK FROM THE CANADIAN ROCKIES TO A NEW JERSEY INDIAN SUMMER!

 

How great it is to hang on to summer for a few more days as I attempt to absorb the glorious month spent in the Northwest, visiting my daughter, Cary, and her friends on Whidbey Island; my nephew, Frank Magill, jr, wife, Jessica Plumb, and daughter, Zia, in Port Townsend; and climbing for ten days in the Canadian Rockies with my Himalayan buddy, Jon Pollack, of Seattle. I also spent a day and a night with Nancy and Bob Quickstad—always an inspiration—an afternoon with Yana Viniko, with whom I traveled for a time in Myanmar, and whose reports from her 2008 trip to Myanmar with Lee Compton have appeared on this blog, and, finally, a few enjoyable hours swapping stories with the peripatetic Beth Whitman of www.WanderlustAndLipstick.com. She just published her practical guide to adventuring in India, part of her Wanderlust and Lipstick series, this one entitled, For Women Traveling in India. It’s crammed full of well-researched, helpful information for anyone visiting this fascinating country. Go get it, if you want a full rundown and Hot Tips on how to negotiate this elusive and enigmatic continent.

 

I also spent an evening with Dale Reiger, a Whidbey Island friend I connected with in Myanmar in 2007, and he showed me his art work (not his etchings!), which he sells to help finance a community clinic he built in Honduras. His son, a Cornell student, is the executive director and has managed to staff the clinic with volunteer doctors, most of whom come from the University of Arizona. If you want to know more about Dale’s extraordinary work visit:  http://saludjuntos.org/ 

                              

Hikers and travelers—if you haven’t experienced the unspoiled grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, add this to your “must see” experiences of a lifetime. If you are able to do it by camping in the wilderness, as Jon Pollack and I did, that gives you a special, unspoiled view, but it can also be enjoyed by a cross-Canada train ride or by car (once you dig your own oil well…those expanses are wide and the gas is astronomical!) or by helicopter. The national parks of Canada are well-maintained, tended by a plethora of helpful personnel, and provide campsites a well as cabins and lodges to fit most budgets. It saddened us to realize how many of our own parks have been affected by deep budget cuts and do not have the number of rangers or the new facilities found in the Canadian parks.

 

Before beginning our ten-day sojourn, we spent a long weekend climbing in eastern Washington, having been unable to carry out our original plan to camp at Divide Camp near Mt. Adams, which was now dangerous due to subzero, snowy weather. We went with old friends Carol Johnson, and Pat and Dennis Larsen, and pitched our tents near White Pass, climbing to Tieton Pass with some added hikes on the Pacific Coast Trail. Dennis, a consummate storyteller, regaled us every evening with tales from his historical books about the 1850’s and the beginnings of the famous Oregon Trail. He recounted the life of those times, marriage and courtship practices, and stories of Ezra and Elizabeth Meeker, two pioneers who were passionate about the preservation of the trail. Ezra was an entrepreneur in the early American tradition and lived to be well into his 90’s, having driven a team of oxen across country to Washington, D. C. (in his 80’s) to call attention to the trail. Title: The Missing Chapters: The Untold Story of Ezra Meeker’s Old Oregon Trail Monument Expedition, January 1906-July 1908. The book is available from the Ezra Meeker Historical Society on the web.  Dennis’s second book, Selling Soup: Ezra Meeker’s Letters from the Klondike, 1898-190, will be published in 2009.

 

Returning to Seattle, we drove through Stevens Canyon with its gorgeous views of the Tatooch Mountains, the foothills of Mt. Rainier. This was all within Mt. Rainier National Park. I was appalled when I saw the damage done to Sunshine Point, where Jon and I had camped two years ago. It had been completely washed out by a violent storm and flood the previous year. All the trees were gone and a river now ran through where fireplaces and tent sites once stood.

 

On September 8, as we drove through Idaho to the Canadian border, we noticed the effects of the pine beetle, which is devastating the forests of Canada and creeping into northern Washington. Whole swaths of forest are brown, and the giant fir trees stand like ghosts, withered and bowed. It doesn’t seem to have reached the graceful, feathery larch trees, however, which were on the verge of turning yellow, then orange, before they dropped their needles. At first we thought the damage had been caused by forest fires, but the devastation was just too widespread. Both the U.S. and Canada are working, tirelessly, to solve the problem.

 

We crossed into Canada at Inverness and drove to the heliport at Mt. Shark for our flight into Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia. The helicopter was a compromise, because we didn’t have time for the two-day hike over Wonder Pass into the park. We set up camp on a high spot a mile from the lodge and Magog Lake, one of the pristine glacial lakes in the area. Mt. Assiniboine, often called the Matterhorn of North America, could be seen towering above the other mountains, its chiseled peak gleaming and clouds trailing like wispy prayer flags from its summit. It was very cold our first night, but we did get glimpses of Assiniboine in the sunrise—fingers of gold carved into slabs of rock. Then came the sleet and we retreated to our tent for warmth. Fortunately, the weather improved, so we headed for The Nub, an 8,000 ft. peak affording perfect views of the park, and covered with a spotty blanket of snow. We climbed steadily through larch forests until we reached one grassy knoll overlooking Sunburst and Elizabeth Lakes. Continuing on we stopped at the Nublet, just before the summit. I chickened out on the last hundred feet, which had to be reached by a slippery corridor of jagged rocks covered with ice, and completely exposed on both sides. There were trees everywhere, even at this altitude. I’m always amazed at how high the forests reach in the West. In the White Mountains our tree line ends at 4,000 ft.

 

After our climb we stopped in at Mt. Assiniboine Lodge, a charming log house run by Barbara Renner. She informed me that my nephew, Frank Magill, had given me a birthday present of two dinners that evening (naturally, Jon ate one of them). Well, that was one terrific present, believe me! And the company was wonderful, too. I bonded with a Vancouver lady, originally from Holland, Ine Doorman, and found out more about the park and Barbara’s family. Her children are all skiers and one daughter won a silver medal at the 2006 winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. What a lovely spot to have been raised! For those of you who want a backcountry inn, accessible by hiking, on skis, or by helicopter, with a guide, comfortable rooms or cabins, and incredible meals, go to: www.assiniboinelodge.com. I just found out that it was the first cross-country ski lodge in the Canadian Rockies and is celebrating 80 historical years.

 

On our second day we moved to one of the small cabins in the Naiset enclave (like Assiniboine, this is an Indian name). Barbara suggested this. She was afraid that we would freeze, since the weather predictions were for more cold. She even offered me a down comforter and pillow. Did I look that fragile? (I should never have told her my age!) The day started out bright and sunny, but just as we reached Wonder Pass it started to sleet. Big time. We turned and hurried back down the path, which was fast disappearing. Snow followed. The biggest flakes I’d ever seen. It was like slogging through a Christmas card, the only sound being the crunch of our boots as we raced back to our cabin. It snowed all afternoon as we huddled in a newly-built cook house with hikers all trying to keep warm while enjoying a touch of winter in August. The afternoon was spent in conversation with our new cabin mates, Chris (Canadian) and Ladislav Malek (Czech) from Thunder Bay. Needless to say, the topic of choice at every gathering was the upcoming election in the U.S. The rest of the world is as eager for a change in our country’s direction as we are.

 

We spent the next morning exploring around Lake Magog and enjoying the fresh winter wonderland that greeted us. When the helicopter arrived I sat in the back and took movies. I had ridden in the front next to the pilot on the way over, which was much more exciting. Try to get that seat if you can.

 

The scenery as we drove down the trans-Canada highway toward Lake Louise was breathtaking. In fact, all the scenery was. Therefore, like a good travel writer, I will not use that word again. Perhaps just to say sublime would sum it up: the towering mountains as far as you could see, the rock formations, and the bear bridges built across the highway, planted with trees and underbrush so the animals could cross. We traveled through a charming small town, Canmore, and picturesque Banff, where I had led workshops twenty years ago. For the rest of our trip we were in the province of Alberta.

 

After settling into our campsite at Lake Louise, with a view of Victoria Glacier and Temple Mountain, we headed for Moraine Lake in the valley of the ten peaks, named because its deep turquoise waters were ringed by ten majestic mountains. We walked way up where we could look down at the sparkling water and the intermittent waterfalls descending from cliff walls. This is one of the most beautiful lakes in the region. For me it had a richer feeling than the light blue-green, almost opaque color of Lake Louise. And I liked the simpler lodge rather than the rambling European-style hotels at the Lake Louise resort.

 

Early the next morning we drove to the entrance to Lake O’Hara, another magnificent glacial lake, and climbed into a bus, which took us to our campsite in the woods near the lake. Here we set up camp and spent three days climbing, taking advantage of the beautiful weather before the cold and snow arrived. Our first hike was to Opabin Plateau, where we ate lunch at Opabin Prospect (viewpoint), an outcropping with views of the valley, the streams, and the amazing monolithic stone formations everywhere. In the afternoon we scrambled up a 300 ft. pile of sand and scree to Sleeping Poet’s Tarn, an unusual “hanging tarn” high above the ledges. The rest of the day we walked around the Yukness Ledges to Lake Oesa, another jewel of a lake. In addition to the waterfalls and glacial streams were huge square boulders that looked as if they’d been sliced deliberately and tumbled onto the trail. We were surrounded by immense rock creations, as if some giant hand had thrown every possible geologic design in our way—piles of thin granite slabs stacked up like pancakes, smooth lavendar stones at the foot of etched columns, fanciful designs intersecting at ten-foot intervals on cliff walls. Upheaval was everywhere, the result of cataclysmic eruptions millennia ago. My imagination ran wild. And I was happy about the fact that I seemed to have conquered my fear of exposure on the high ledges. It must have been my trek in Ladakh that cured me.

 

After negotiating a difficult trail back to Lake O’Hara, we peeked into the fancy lodge and met a delightful couple, Shannon and Tom Palmer, whose parents had come from the U.S. and settled in Canada years ago when oil was discovered. This was my first election news in days and you can imagine the ensuing conversation.

 

Our next hike to MacArthur Lake was halted for a time by a lightening storm, during which we sat huddled under the trees until the rain stopped. It turned out to be a wet, but interesting trail leading to the mist-laden lake. We returned via the Elizabeth Parker Huts used by the Alpine Club of Canada.

 

The final hike came hours after an all-night snowstorm had covered the area. We waited until mid-morning, when the sun had melted most of the ice, and started up the Big Larch Trail to Devil’s Rockpile…which is exactly what it was! The views of Schaeffer Lake, Mary Lake, and O’Hara were excellent. After lunch we climbed a very steep and slippery trail to All Soul’s Prospect, one of the best views in the park. And ahead of us was Yukness, where we had climbed two days earlier and a slew of other peaks, one of which was Hungabee Mountain. We stayed there a long time, grooving on the views and basking in the sun. By the time we left, much of the snow had melted, but the trail down was still muddy and treacherous.

 

On our drive home we traveled through Rogers Pass to Revelstoke and on into Kamloops, where I had stayed in 1991 during a cross-Canada train ride. We lost over 6,000 ft. of altitude in a few hours, dropping into a river valley leading to the town.

 

Did we meet a grizzly? Well, we didn’t meet one, but we passed one not many feet away in Assiniboine. And, yes, we kept going. At O’Hara we came close to a white mountain goat and some friendly marmots and chippies, but all in all it was pretty tame.

 

Again, nothing surpasses the beauty and the peacefulness of this part of the world. I’ve gone into more detail, perhaps, than you wanted, but if you have a limited time in the Canadian Rockies and want some good pointers on a perfectly planned and executed trip (thanks to Jon), you have them. Be sure to write if you want any more information. This trip was unforgettable, but I still like reminding.

 

Also, there was a mix up with my server a few weeks ago, about which I knew nothing. After receiving letters from friends, who told me my website was down, I remedied the situation. Know that I always like to hear from you, especially if this sort of thing happens again.

 

I won’t talk about my theater addiction this time, but want to urge all of you to see Taxi to the Dark Side, an excellent documentary from Alex Gibney, who gave us the film: Independent Lens: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. You may remember that excellent film. This one is even more harrowing and disturbing, dealing with the U.S. policy on torture since 911. I urge every American to see it.

 

                                               

 

 

It’s off to Ladakh, northern India

I think it’s rather symbolic to write on Income Tax Day, April 15, as I watch my money drain out of what’s left of my investments like blood from a freshly-inflicted wound. But, you say, at least you have investments. And you believe in living simply, so what’s the beef? But the question keeps arising: how can you travel so much if you’re not rich. Hey, folks, read my blog and you’ll see. I won’t have a car, so no high gas prices. I’ll pay $10/night for room, meals included, and I won’t be tempted to run into NYC to feed my theater addiction. (Only two plays this month…MacBeth and 39 Steps. I’m recovering.) And as you know, I’m a pretty good bargainer when it comes to treks and jeep rides into the mountains. I’ll let you know how I fare as I go along.

That was as far as I got in April, which brings me to May 2nd as I prepare to run out the door to catch my 19-hour flight to Delhi. Nineteen hours? Are you crazy? No, I’m going by way of Chicago which…you guessed it…gives me a very good price. What’s a little sleep when you get to see the windy city for an hour.

A capsule of this past month would include the very sad fact that Dith Pran, the lovely Cambodian journalist/photographer made famous as the central character in The Killing Fields, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 65. I spent three hours talking with him two years ago when he took my picture for a New York Times profile, and we connected over photos I had taken at Siem Reap near Angkhor Wat, his Cambodian home. His vision to end future holocausts and bring people together will live on, which he said on his deathbed, “would make my soul very happy.” He also said that one killing fields is one too many. A wonderful human being.

Daughter Cary returned after fourteen months in Nepal, Tibet, and northern India. She was there during the height of the Tibetan protests against Chinese oppression of their homeland and the fiery episodes plaguing the “torturous” journey of the Olympic torch. Her movies are inspiring—crowds of monks and civilians marching with candles, very similar to the scenes we saw last March in Dharamsala, and speeches near holy sites in Kathmandu. The papers are full of pictures and stories about the contentious crowds along the torch’s path, and I can only hope that this time the Chinese are serious about making some changes…if they do actually talk with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Yes, hope springs eternal.

On May 5th I’ll fly from Delhi to Ladakh, the highest, most remote and most sparsely populated region in India, close to Pakistan and Tibet. It’s cut off by snow for six months of the year and will just be coming into spring when I arrive. The Ladakis practice the purist form of Tibetan Buddhism and some say the monks have been meditating there from three centuries B.C. I can’t wait to meet these people and tell you more.

HELLO FROM BEAUTIFUL TSO PEMA (REWALSAR), INDIA.

For the last three sunny days Cary and I have been in Tso Pema, the site of the sacred lake (Tso means lake and Pema means lotus), a holy place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. People come here from around the world for various retreats. It’s a lovely small town about 100 miles southeast of Dharamsala, not far from Mandi, a teaming metropolis. You drive over mountains and climb up winding roads with hairpin turns second to none, through pine forests and along cliffs which look down on terraced valleys to the Beas River flowing below. When you think you can’t go any higher you suddenly see this jewel of a lake come into view, and three Buddhist monasteries, a Hindu temple, and a Sikh temple. In the distance are the ubiquitous Himalayas with their snowy peaks.

The week after the teachings was one of celebration with the families of students Cary has helped, the first being the night before we left Dharamsala. These dinners are Tibetan feasts where we, as guests of honor, are treated to mo mos (meat or vegetable-filled pasta), unusual soups, rice, and dishes too numerous to describe or to eat. There’s the ever-present milk tea or lemon ginger served before the meal with cookies or a type of homemade fried pastry called kapse. Custom requires that you bring small gifts, usually fruit, butter, or specialty foods, and we, as guests, sit eating while our hosts and their children delight in our enjoyment of their cooking. This is unnerving at first, but you get used to it. Actually, I find these gatherings a lot of fun, mostly because of the children, who tend to act as our interpreters since their English is often better than the parents, and who are so thoughtful and attentive. One little girl even insisted on untying my shoelaces as I started to remove my shoes before entering (another tradition I like–no shoes in the house).

On March 14 we headed for Suja with Dolma Lhamo from the Dharamsala TCV school. En route we stopped at Norbulingka, the center for the preservation of Tibetan culture and arts, and visited the workshops of thangka artists, painters, and makers of exquisite wall hangings and furniture. Within walking distance was Nyingtobling, a school for Tibetans with special needs. Their artwork was outstanding. Further down the road is the monastery where the amazing Karmapa resides. We hope to visit there before we leave India.You may remember that he escaped five years ago from Tibet at the age of 16–a real blow to the Chinese, who were restricting his access to teachers and education, thus greatly curtailing his spiritual freedom.

Our next stop, as we wound over narrow country roads and through one small town after another, was the TCV (Tibetan Childrens Village) school in Gopalpur, where I met the 17-year-old student I sponsor, Tsema, who is studying art and journalism. You may be interested to know that Tibetans do not have a family name as we do. They usually have two names only. Sometimes I find this confusing, but even ‘though the first names can be the same, the second one is usually different. For example: Tsering Somo and Tsering Lhamo, or Tenzin Tselha and Tenzin Palmo.

Tsema, however, has only one name (and you thought Madonna was unusual?). He’s a bright young man who was in the middle of drawing a mountain scene on the computer when we walked in. His enthusiasm for his studies was evident. I also discovered that he and some other students have started a small band and especially like Hindi popular music (all these students speak Hindi and Tibetan, and are studying English with a ferocious intensity). He sang a song, which I recorded and played back to him, to his delight. Then we talked for an hour and Tsema was very open in discussing his feelings about leaving his family and home. He said it helped to talk about it. Like every student I was to meet, he is motivated to become educated and successful, because he knows why his parents sent him and doesn’t want to disappoint them. He considers being here a privilege and is determined not to squander it. What a wonderful visit!

As we wound around the hills I noticed that our driver was using multiple horns of varying intensity as he cut the corners or scattered the cows and people in the small villages. I asked him about this and ended up taping six different horn sounds, which he used depending on his mood and the number of people he wanted to terrify (my explanation, not his). He thoroughly enjoyed our interest and from then on played with the horn as if it were a musical instrument. It was anything but that!

For the next week we were guests of the TCV in Suja, a school for 2000 students, all of whom escaped from Tibet. The classes are set up not by age, but by the level each student has reached. Since the Chinese didn’t allow Tibetans to study their language or English, and the schools were very poor anyway, you can imagine the amount of “catching up” there is–not only in language, but also math and science. We were housed in the guest quarters and every morning, starting sometimes as early as 3:30 AM, we were awakened by young men shouting their lessons, mostly in English, as if this would plant the work more firmly in their memory. By 6 it had quieted down and you could hear the breakfast “blessings” being sung in tandem by groups of boys in the dorm near us. I have some beautiful tapes of the singing, which occurs before each meal.

I find it difficult to fathom the motivation it takes to sit outside in the early morning cold and repeat lessons over and over. But it wasn’t just in the morning that this occurred. Every free minute I would find clusters of students poring over their books. Now and then I’d stop to ask if I could help. One day I happened upon two boys sitting on the grass outside our room. The younger one was writing his ABC’s meticulously and the older one was reading a book. I asked how long they had each been in Suja.

The older boy said, “Five years, but he arrived [pointing to the younger boy] five days ago from Lhasa, where my home was.”

“Oh, did you know each other before?” I asked.

“No. But he is my friend. He is my new brother.” And he put his arm around the boy.

The day after our arrival was a school festival, with games and musical performances. A jolly fete, indeed. Like our school fund raisers, everyone bought tickets and tried to win a prize. Flowers from the field were sold and there were games of chance, games of skill, kick a soccer ball through a tire, or throw baskets for rupees. Cary really got into it, and I managed to kick a ball through a tire, to my amazement. It was a riot! (Football, which is like our soccer, is huge in India and both boys and girls play in the large field whenever they get a chance.)

The children had created a lavish museum showing dioramas of Tibetan culture, and beautiful drawings and reliefs of the temples and countryside back in Tibet. They proudly escorted me around the museum and collected three rupees for their school fund. In the evening was a rock concert with three popular Tibetan singers.

Cary and I spent Sunday morning (the one free day for students and faculty) with Tsering Somo, her daughters, Tenchoe and Tselha, and her husband, Sonam Hara . Mully and Cary, and the Landel family, have been sponsoring Tenchoe and Tselha for many years, and Cary visited them when she was here two years ago. We walked through the fields to Bir, where Sonam works at the Tibetan Primary Health Center, and were treated to a sumptuous meal at his nephew’s restaurant. Mo mos never tasted better, and I actually tried some salad, with no adverse effects.

In the afternoon Cary, Dolma, and I traveled along a tree-lined road to the new monastery, The Dzongzar Institute, where the monk Cary and I sponsor, Thubten Tashi, lives. The head lama is the famous film maker, Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, whose recent films are The Cup, and Travelers and Magicians. The monastery (500 monks!) and temple are beautifully laid out, with well-tended gardens, and we sat in Thubten’s room enjoying a peaceful hour together. Bless Dolma, who acted as interpreter. Cary is learning Tibetan, but Dolma made the experience much richer for all of us.

Every day in the late afternoon a group of women, including Dolma, Lochoe (the secretary for sponsorships), and Tashi Lhazom, an accountant at the school, gathered at Tsering’s, for milk tea, cookies, and good conversation. Tsering teaches the newly-escaped students English, Tibetan and Math, getting them ready for the regular classes. We sat together in a space the size of my dining room, where couches become beds at night and one large cupboard holds the family’s clothing. A small refrigerator stands on one wall and a small kitchen is off to the side.

I learned much in those conversations about the organization of the TCV schools and the dedication of the staff, many of whom are former TCV students themselves. As I was walking home one night I met a man carrying his small, sleeping daughter, and started talking with him. I asked if I could tape his story. He had escaped from Tibet twenty-four years earlier and TCV had become his family and home. After college he returned with his young family and now teaches social studies. “I want to give back some of the love and compassion that I experienced here at TCV so other children can lead happy, productive lives.”

Gifts are a big thing with Tibetans. Everyone gives according to his ability and takes great joy in it. Cary and I brought gifts from the U.S. for all our sponsored students, ranging in age from 8 to 17, and those sponsored by several friends and family members. They numbered 10, and we were fortunate to meet with each student as well as visit them in their respective “homes” with their housemother. (Of course, we drank lots of milk tea and ate the homemade kapses offered us.) This was a marvelous experience. Their English was excellent, and their gratitude for this connection with interested, caring people around the world extremely important to them, perhaps even more than the monetary help. They were so proud of their rooms and their housemates. Everyone, as we’d walk around the school grounds, greeted us with “Good evening,” or “How are you today?” Such smiles and such politeness! It made each walk a joyous occasion.

The day after presenting the gifts, I was given a long letter for each sponsor, written by his or her student and usually decorated with pictures and verses, in addition to the writing. These were spontaneous, with no help from an adult. I can’t wait to send them, along with a picture, to each sponsor.

We spent a day in Bir, where Cary reserved a room for April at a former monastery, now called Deer Park. She plans to practice and to study Tibetan in a retreat situation, socializing only on the weekends. We could hardly believe it, but while walking through the main street of this small town we heard “Amala” (Mother), and there was Dorje, our Tibetan guide from Mt. Kailash, once again. He was on his way to Suja, where he had been educated, and where his niece was in the infirmary. Like many recent arrivals from Tibet, she had contracted TB as a result of poor medical care by the Chinese, and a weakened immune system. Respiratory diseases and anemia are big problems for incoming students, especially female.

Next door at our guest house was a pediatric cardiologist from Vancouver, Canada, Dr. Marion Tipple. She is associated with TRAS (formerly Tibetan Refugee Aid Society and now The Trans-Himalayan Aid Society), an organization started by the Canadian author, George Woodcock in 1962 after meeting the Dalai Lama for the first time. He asked His Holiness what could be done to help and he replied, “Do something for the children. They are our future.” The organization was started to assist displaced Tibetans in India and Nepal. Shortly thereafter the Dalai Lama‘s sister, Jetsun Pema started the TCV schools and each year hundreds of children escape across the border. Nobody is turned down. TRAS has not only helped these schools, but has a very successful sponsorship scheme for Tibetan children and has expanded its work to help other areas in the Himalaya, including India, Nepal, Spiti, and Ladakh. They support grass roots projects directly, and have given millions of dollars over the past forty years to benefit the Tibetan people. The work of TRAS, except for one half-time paid executive, is all done by volunteers. ( www.tras.ca)

We had a very disturbing conversation with Marion about Chinese tourism in Tibet and how the religious and ecological sites are being trashed. “It’s become the Chinese Disneyland,” she said of her recent trip there. “The culture is being completely disregarded. It’s the total objectification of Tibet.”

Cary and I could see this three years ago with the impending (now completed) train to Lhasa, the mining, and the plans to build a resort near sacred Lake Manasarovar. Already the Chinese outnumber the Tibetans two to one, and Tibetan language and literature are not allowed to be taught in the schools.

Is it any wonder that these children and teenagers, who walked days, and sometimes weeks, before crossing the border between Nepal and Tibet to reach freedom, treasure this school, do their chores happily, and are grateful to be in a house with 45 other students and sleep in a simple bunk bed? They help prepare the meals, and keep the houses spotless. Flowers grow in pots everywhere, and I saw two pet goats that were kept in the yard. Everybody knows that grief, sorrow, and homesickness are part of the life here and can be shared and expressed. Then they must move on. They are strong, resilient children.

The day before leaving for Tso Pema Cary, Tsering, Dolma, and I made a pilgrimage to the Prohit Flower Nursery in Palumpur to buy plants and shrubs as our gift to the school. We had a jolly time picking out choice plants and watching the ladies bargain with the owner as only the Tibetans and Indians can. When we returned in late afternoon it took an hour, with everybody helping, to make a beautiful border around the new prayer wheel and the front walk near the guest house and administration office. That night there was a huge thunder and wind storm, and I despaired of our little plants ever surviving, but the next day they were standing erect and colorful. I swear I detected smiles on their faces.

On March 20, after Cary and I had taught two classes in English and thoroughly enjoyed the responsiveness and eagerness of the students, we took a clinic vehicle to Tso Pema with Dr. Tsering Dorjee , head physician at The Tibetan Primary Health Centre in Bir. It was a beautiful, hilly drive through pine forest, with the Himalayan peaks getting closer and closer, the higher we climbed. We had a lively discussion about the bleakness of Tibet’s future (“There will be no forests or animals, just a barren wasteland by the time we get it back”), the disastrous effects of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the medical problems in India. He treats the children who recently escaped from Tibet and spoke of their severe malnutrition when they arrive, as well as the respiratory diseases I mentioned previously. He also said that his elderly patients show few of the illnesses of their western counterparts. No cases of Alzheimer’s and only one case of Parkinson’s. They seem happy and content, but many experience hypertension due to a diet high in salt ( i.e. quantities of butter tea).

In a lighter vein, I still am amused by the number of cows reclining halfway into the middle of the road, and the skill with which these drivers avoid them as well as the oncoming cars. The rides would be perilous (passing on hills and curves, avoiding huge oncoming trucks and buses) were they going fast.

 

We were overjoyed to arrive in Tso Pema and settle in at Sonam Hara’s apartment, which he graciously lent us for our stay. It’s conveniently located near the Zigar Monastery, in a small Tibetan enclave, and an easy walk to the lake. Prayer flags hang in great sweeping layers along the lake and thousands of sacred, but incredibly ugly carp churn the water, waiting for people to throw crackers to them. Monkeys wait, too, gathering up the remaining crumbs and cavorting noisily along the bank.

Cary had gotten in touch, upon arrival, with Lena Feral, the English interpreter for Wangdor Rinpoche, whom we had both met on Whidbey Island when he gave a teaching. After three koras around the lake, we decided to climb the hill to see her new apartment and stop on the way at the almost completed giant statue of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the famous guru who introduced Buddhism into Tibet and is an almost mythical figure in the history of Buddhism. There are many stories about him. The one related to Tso Pema is that a king became very angry when he discovered that his daughter, Mandarava, was the guru’s consort, so he imprisoned his daughter and then attempted to burn Padmasambhava. At the end of seven days, Guru Rinpoche was still alive and there was a lake at the spot where the fire had been, with the guru sitting in the middle on a lotus flower. The king then felt great remorse and converted to Buddhism, freed his daughter, and left the two to continue their work in peace.

We walked up the steep hill to the huge unfinished statue of Padmasambhava sitting on a lotus flower. Cary was recognized by Mingchuk, the engineer in charge of the construction. They had met two years before. He was delighted to see her and showed us around, explaining about the tsa tsas, sacred texts and objects that will be put inside the body of the statue. The dimensions are enormous and his presence seems to hover over the entire town. It will be a beautiful center, with a library, meeting rooms, and restaurant, when complete.

It was great to see Lena again, and meet her partner, Joy Schulenburg, who handles the Rinpoche’s busy schedule ( www.customjuju.com/wangdorrimpoche ), and friends Pia Topgyal, a Buddhist practitioner who lives and works in India, and Nyonda Nadi, a computer consultant. I listened and learned a great deal from Lena, who had lived and practiced in the caves above Tso Pema for several years, and from Pia, who married a Tibetan Buddhist and moved from Denmark to raise her family in India. Her son is a Rinpoche and her daughter now lives in Denmark.

Lena also clued us in on a great Indian restaurant with a very unlikely name, The Chopstic Fast Food Corner, which is neither fast nor does it have chop sticks, however you want to spell them. But the Indian food (not too spicy) was unequaled in our travels. Vijay Kumar is the owner, cook, and waiter, and we spent every meal there, becoming good friends. We even told him how to improve his coffee and make a grilled cheese sandwich. The restaurant has a perfect location on a quiet street leading off the kora, opposite a smaller statue of Guru Rinpoche. Hardly any vehicles are allowed on the street, unlike Dharamsala, where sitting in front of a restaurant can be a noisy affair.

During our three days in town we met several people who are here for retreats, and all had fascinating stories. One of the young women, Jessica Black from Canada, we had met, previously, at the library in Dharamsala where she was doing research for a book. The second young woman, Audrey Haller is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist and yoga expert, whose Irish father, Ryushin Paul Haller, is the co-abbot of the Tassajara Zen Retreat Center in the San Francisco bay area. She was raised in Zen and is still assisting her father in running his many retreats. This summer she’ll go with him to Ireland for a peace meditation. Audrey and I talked a great deal and she helped me understand the three phases of the kora and many Buddhist concepts. I appreciated her clear explanation of “emptiness” from a scientific and Buddhist point of view. The young man in the group, Brook Flath from Saskatoon, Canada, has been traveling for several years and is settled here for extended practice.

While eating lunch at Vijay’s we also met Ursula Taylor from Hamburg, Germany, who comes here every year for three months of practice. She told us where to find the best parantha in town at a little stand by the bus stop, for ten rupees. What a great tip that was!

By the way, I’ve finally been able to find Indian food that doesn’t blow my head off and clear my sinuses at the same time. I’ve also branched out into a few new foods like: parantha, a chapatti filled with potato; palak paneer, spinach and veggies blended and combined with chunks of white cheese; pakora, string potatoes and some greens dipped in batter and fried, and chukki-ata, a special whole wheat chapatti. I’ve also been introduced to many kinds of curd–so much better, I think, than our yogurt–and in one case it came mixed with troma, small tubers grown in Tibet.

On our second day in Tso Pema we climbed up a steep path for an hour or more (rather than walk 11 km. up a winding paved road), past small houses and pastures, and through piles of rock to the caves when 70 nuns are living. These caves in the high mountains are Spartan, but have small stone or cinder block additions with tin roofs. Recently, electricity has been added. Cary was here two years earlier so was acquainted with several of the women. We visited two, one of whom, Orgyen Choetso, is sponsored by Cary’s friend, Mully, on Whidbey Island. We delivered some long silk underwear to her to help, during the cold winter months, alleviate her severe arthritis. It was a jolly visit, ‘though verbal communication was difficult. But there was plenty of milk tea, and, as we were leaving, Orgyen Choetso opened a large keg and gave us a bag of tsampa, the barley grain used for cereal. You mix it with a small amount of butter, tea, and sugar, and kneed it with your fingers before eating. I tried some in Suja, and it’s rather good. And certainly healthy. We didn’t understand why she gave so much to us, but she insisted. Lena said, later, that it was for Cary to use when she was on retreat. We had thought, since she mentioned the lake, that she wanted us to feed it to the fish.

Wangdor Rinpoche, who lives in a very simple room there, had headed for the monastery, so we climbed back down to town, watching the sun disappear over the mountains and the giant statue.

Lena took us to the monastery the next afternoon to visit Rinpoche. We entered his room, where he sat on a raised platform amid wall hangings, decorative candles, and piles of gifts which he, in turn, gives away. He greeted us warmly–a small man in his early seventies, who had escaped from Tibet in 1959, carrying his teacher on his back, while being pursued by the Chinese. We discussed many things, with Lena as interpreter, including his upcoming trip to the U.S. and the different Buddhist paths. The next day, before we left, we had lunch at the monastery at Rinpoche’s invitation, and were joined by Sonam Hara and his son, Thubten. We continued this discussion, which helped me understand the many facets of this powerful religion.

Before lunch we had climbed up to Lena’s, where a group of nuns from Spiti were visiting. Lena had told us the night before about their predicament since the Chinese invasion and takeover of their country. They were no longer supported by the community and compelled to do heavy road work every summer, earning about 100 rupees, or $1.25, a day (I often saw women like this in India carrying large loads of gravel on their head from one construction site to another). This money would be used for food over the winter. Some of the nuns were in poor health and getting too old for such heavy labor, but there was no other work available to them. Therefore, Lena was giving them funds to help tide them over until sponsors could be found. Cary and I decided to make a donation as well, but had not expected to be able to meet the nuns. It was an honor to help such dedicated, compassionate women.

At 1 PM on March 25 we started back to Suja, hating to leave this idyllic town, but eager to have one more evening with our TCV friends. And what an evening it was! This was Founder’s Day at the school, with speeches and dancing to celebrate the anniversary of its founding. We missed the afternoon celebration, but attended a tasty buffet where we were privileged to sit with the new director of the school and the principal. It was a treat for Cary, who received a Tibetan lesson on the spot from the director. A caring man with a great sense of humor, he tested her, urging her to translate everything I said to him. I was really impressed with her proficiency. And she was thrilled to have such a great exchange.

While at dinner we met a French lady who lives in Luxembourg, Monique Paillard, a big supporter of the TCV school in Suja. She has an organization, The Friends of Tibet, with a website ( www.amis-tibet.lu) , brochures, and tapes available. What a dedicated lady! She inspired me to start a similar project in the U.S., time and energy willing.

The next day, March 26, we were able to get a ride in a TCV car that was going to Dharamsala. Before we left, however, we had an extraordinary experience. Tsering Somo let us sit in on one of her beginning English classes, which she teaches to the children recently arriving from Tibet. What a bright-eyed, eager group they were! During the session, the new director stopped by for a word with the class. I could almost tell what he was saying by his gestures–study hard, take care of yourself and have good hygiene. Then he pointed to Cary and me (calling me Amala). Later on I found out what he’d said to the children. If they became educated they could someday take their mothers or families on a journey into the world, just as Cary was taking me.

At the end of the class I asked if I could record some folk songs. Before beginning, each child shared where he or she had come from (most were from Kham, where Cary is heading this summer), then sang in a clear voice songs that were haunting and full of passion. I looked around at the other children. They were mesmerized and following every word. One boy looked out the window as he sang about mountains and plains and his life in a nomad family. The music is so different from ours–with high runs and intervals that seem improvised, and notes held longer than usual–a timing unfamiliar to me. The tunes were intricate and flowing, painting pictures of joy, longing, and sorrow. Moments later I replayed the tapes and was treated, gleefully, to a group song before leaving.

Next episode. The return to Dharamsala.

 

Dharamsala, India

I can’t believe that I’ve only been in India for two weeks. And what a two weeks it has been! The words of an old man I talked with on my last day in Myanmar kept running through my head as I said goodbye to James and my Whidbey Island friends in Yangon and boarded a plane for Bangkok, alone. “The only thing in life you can depend on is change,” he said. It is the letting go of preconceptions and attachments, and the awareness of the impermanence of life that Buddhism teaches. I keep this in mind as I round every corner and am faced with surprises, disappointments, and joy.

This was the perfect time to take a break from the intensity of my time in Myanmar and meditate on the meaning of the past month. But that was not to be. It all started swimmingly. I arrived at Bangkok’s fabulous new airport and hopped into a new cab, complete with seat belts and air-conditioning, and roared down pristine highways lined with shrubbery. What a contrast from the ailing infrastructure of Myanmar. Then the traffic started. Streetlights lasted from two to five minutes as we inched our way through Friday night traffic to the student area in the old part of town. Chaos reigned, and two hours later I was still sitting in the cab, trying to find a room in a hotel or guest house. It was panic time! My son, Christopher, would have said it served me right. He always hated that I seldom made advance reservations. Lee’s suggested guest house was booked and I was stuck tramping up and down Khao San Road, the hippie heaven, which I hadn’t liked ten years before, and liked even less now.

At 9 P.M. the place was still going full throttle. I finally found a windowless room for $2.00 and went back to get my pack and ask the driver to pull up a few yards, when he slammed my door and sped off. “Stop!” I shouted. “I have a room. Let me out.”

He continued to drive saying, “No room. Holiday.” Was I being kidnapped? “Stop,” I shouted, to no avail.

Fifteen minutes later we pulled into a parking garage and the driver announced, “Hotel, Madam.” It looked like a cell block. I staggered out, grabbed my pack, which gets heavier by the hour, and was led to a fourth-floor room, blessedly air-conditioned. The streets were emptying out, with only a couple of restaurants open. I was heartened, however, by the orange juice stands where tiny oranges are squeezed on the spot, bottled, and sold for pennies. This sustained me, along with the almonds I always carry in my bag.

Bangkok was not peaceful, and I had no time to visit Chiang Mai or Songkla, my two favorites. It was noisy, polluted, and crowded. The highlight of my time there was a visit to a female dentist Lee had recommended, who gave me an hour-long cleaning, the likes of which I’d never before experienced. At the end she took a model of a set of teeth and explained the correct way to brush. She also told me to jettison my battery-operated tooth brush. All of this cost $15.00.

After this Bangkok was a whirl of street vendors and aggressive hawkers. It would have been worthwhile if I could have had a cheap face lift, but the confusion of getting around jangled my nerves, so the next day I fled to Delhi. That’s like going from the frying pan into the fire.

Lines were unbelievably long at the Bangkok airport, but when I finally got through, I spent three hours exploring the amazing new structure. I met a crazy Italian, Carlo, and two American students from Virginia, Morgan and Dwight, and we agreed to share a cab to Paharganj, the Main Bazar near the Delhi train station. I couldn’t get reservations to the Tibetan hotel where I’d been before, and was nervous about finding a room after my Bangkok experience.

Arriving late, we waited in line to get a fixed price taxi ticket for 250 rupees, half the normal price, even with a 25% charge for after 11 PM. I highly recommend this to anyone coming into Delhi’s confusing, broken-down airport. Next it became a scramble to get a cab. They were parked haphazardly around the exit and once you engaged a driver he had to extricate his cab from the jumble. Horns were honking, people were shouting, and I began to feel very sick to my stomach. Must have been some fish in the sauce they served on the plane. How could I ever make it to a hotel?

If I hadn’t felt so bad, the whole scene would have been very funny. Our driver was aggressive, even getting into a cab that was blocking his way and pushing it with one foot on the pavement. Naturally, a wrangle ensued. Delhi definitely needs a new airport and revamped transportation system.

The ride to Paharganj was as crazy as the one my first day, a month earlier. These drivers inch their way into lanes that aren’t there, and tangle with trucks and buses, fearlessly, tailgating, swerving, and honking. I was in misery, trying to decide in which direction to throw up, when we passed the Hari Krishna, a hotel The Rough Guide had recommended.

“Stop!” I shouted. And we got out.

The roof leaked, there was no top sheet, the toilet had to be flushed by pouring buckets of water down it, and there was no sink, towel, soap, or toilet paper in my room. I know, you get what you pay for! All the next day I was so sick that the desk clerk suggested a doctor. He moved me to a room off the lobby and was so solicitous that I didn’t even complain about the mouse scampering about the room. “No, it’s free, and it will give you company, Madam,” he said when I asked if I had to pay extra.

It rained the next morning and, in my weakened condition, I decided that I needed to get far away from Delhi. I didn’t have time to go to Bangladesh or southern India, so would head north. I’d been devouring my guide book, but failed to heed the warning in bold print about “touts” in India. A practiced, slick breed of hucksters I had certainly encountered before in my travels. I hailed a cab and asked to go to the main r.r. station, an easy few blocks away. I realized that we were not going to the station when he pulled into the office of OIT near the East Market. I still did not smell a rat.

“I want to go to the mountains and do some trekking,” I announced. Before I knew it, a sleazy operator named Manu had talked me into a week in Kashmir for several hundred dollars, staying in a “luxury” guest house on Dal lake in Srinagar, with the option to trek if I so desired. He said I’d better book immediately, since it was such a popular area and there might not be any plane tickets left. And he assured me that it wasn’t dangerous anymore. Manu was also proficient in the happiness line (now refined to “Madam, I can make you really satisfied.”}, saying “old is gold,” and he just happened to be free all afternoon. I was laughing by the time I left his office, and exhilarated by the thought of finally being able to get to Kashmir, a place I’d dreamed of for twenty years.

When I told those gathered at the Hari Krishna about my planned trip, they showed me a newspaper clipping telling of the ice blanketing Srinagar, and the inability to get food or people in or out of the city. There were also graphic reports of ice and snow on the TV. Predictions were for more of the same all week. Hell, I could stay in Jersey for that! I also finally read my guide books, both of which warned about the still-present danger to foreigners in that troubled area. I was livid, called Manu, immediately, and cancelled. And wonder of wonders, I was given a complete refund. Nobody believed I could do it. I think he was worried that I had too many connections in the field of women traveling alone. I didn’t even need to threaten. He knew he was wrong, but he still tried to get me to book another trip with him. Some people are totally incorrigible.

That afternoon I bought a second class ticket for 250 rupees (about $5.00) upstairs in the r.r. station where there’s an office for foreigners, and boarded a train for Haridwar at 4:30 P.M. Little did I know what an auspicious time it was to be at the “Mother Ganga,” as the Ganges is called. The next day, February 16, was Shiva’s birthday.

My next episode will bring you up-to-date, as I travel back to Delhi and on to Dharamsala, where daughter Cary and I are living in The Kongpo House, a wonderful guest house up a treacherous dirt lane, overlooking the mountains and valleys of McLeodganj, the upper section of the city. This is in the Northern Himachal, at the beginning of the Indian Himalaya. Cypress trees dot this Tibetan section of the city, and the temple where the Dalai Lama resides is at the foot of our hill. It couldn’t be better! We’re now preparing for two weeks of teachings given by the Dalai Lama.

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© 2017 Meg Noble Peterson & Site by Matt McDowell