A good reason to go to India and Nepal in late November. We also needed to get away from the chaos of the recent election and concentrate on the chaos of Asia. But, alas, that was not to be. We were bombarded on every side by, “What happened to your country? What is going on? Why did you do it? (Who… Me?) Not even in the high ridges of the Himalayas did we escape questions about our election results. I couldn’t help noticing that many of our Nepalese and Indian friends knew more about our government and its legendary philosophy than a good portion of voting Americans. They were used to feeling helpless in the face of quixotic leaders and national disruption. But they thought we were different. Amazing how we are beginning to adopt Third World strategies and rhetoric as the weeks unfold. Meanwhile, moving right along….
This was our first foray onto Asiana Airlines through Seoul to Delhi. I kept thinking, “I must have forgotten something, because my bags are so much lighter.” Yes, they were. At last I had put into practice what I had learned thirty years ago on my first backpacking trip around the world. What you take you carry. There ain’t nobody else gonna’ do it!
Never before had I flown over Russia, and it was exciting to look down at the pristine wilderness—mountains glistening with ice and the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and the North Pacific Ocean rolling out before us in rapid succession.
Luxuriating in our business class seats, thanks to Cary’s skillful maneuvering of our frequent flyer miles (they’re all gone, now, folks), we slept our way to Delhi, so were wide awake at 1:15 AM when Ashwani, our Indian friend from Bir, picked us up and drove us to Dharamsala.
Many of the roads and “fly-overs” leading out of Delhi are new, having been built by the Chinese. Still, we had the predictable wild ride when we reached the outlying areas, racing around the hills and taking chances by passing trucks on curves with the usual Indian aplomb. But I always enjoy the drive up the steep hill (seven kilometers) from Lower Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj, past numerous tall buildings hanging onto every cliffside, and ending as we come upon the Namgyal Monastery where the Dalai Lama lives. It was like returning home when we moved into the Pema Thang Hotel, high on a hill overlooking town. It was already Sunday, November 27th. We had skipped a whole day!
A lot had changed since last year. A new parking garage had been built on the cliff opposite the Ten Yang Café, our favorite coffee shop, and the road to town had been freshly cobbled. Businesses seemed to be flourishing with new ones springing up along the way. But it was still perilous to walk on the sidewalk-less roads, dodging cars and trucks and wishing horns had never been invented.
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Excitement prevailed on our first morning. The Dalai Lama was returning from Mongolia and within the hour would arrive by motorcade at his temple gates. Huge crowds lined the streets, many of them Tibetans, dressed in their native garb. The Chinese had forbidden them to stay in India and go to the Kalachakra empowerment at Bodhgaya, but the Dalai Lama had promised them a special spontaneous lecture that afternoon, and they were thrilled. We were also privileged to attend the lecture.
After the excitement of seeing and hearing the Dalai Lama, we headed up the street to see if we could change some money. Little did we know what was in store for us! We had heard about the demonitization of the Indian rupee before we arrived (stripping a particular unit of currency of its status as legal tender), but had no idea of its impact on foreigners and Indians alike. Fortunately, Ashwani, our taxi driver, who runs a small convenience store in Bir, had put aside 10,000 rupees in 100 rupee bills for us, knowing we would be unable to get small denominations when changing money upon arrival. What a favor that was!
All 500 and 1,000 rupee notes had been taken out of circulation and the government planned to replace them with new ones. This was Prime Minister Modi’s surprise move in the hopes of eliminating black money—illegal, untaxed money that is earned on the black market—and moving the country to a digital economy.
Unfortunately, it was ill-planned, according to many people, and sorely affected the poorer segments of the society and those who needed small bills to do business. Lines at the bank wound through the street and down the hill, reminding me of our gas crisis in the ‘70s. And by the time people had waited for eight or ten hours, there was no more money left. Chaos was the operative word.
We headed for our usual money-changer. Forget it. He was closed. No money. Eventually, and luckily, we were able to find a shopkeeper that had a side business in exchanging US $ cash for rupees. Where they found all those 100 Rs notes we will never know, when the banks and regular money changers had run out.
We used some of our precious rupees at a lovely handicraft store owned by a charming Indian/Kashmiri woman, Sunanda. As with so many of the businesswomen we met, she was well-informed, highly intelligent, and had a wide circle of friends around the world. Her handicrafts were lovely and one of her handwoven runners is now gracing the dining room table in Cary’s new home at Upper Langley.
You may remember my writing about another friend I’ve known since 2011, Bilal Ahmed Gunna, who runs the Paradise Arts shop, with beautiful Kashmiri tapestries and rugs, and says that I’m the toughest bargainer he’s ever met. High praise, eh!? Here is a photo taken in 2014.
We stopped by his shop, eager to see him again, but he was in Srinigar getting married, and his friend, Jacob, was holding down the fort. We talked for a long time with this charming gentleman, getting an overview of Indian-Kashmiri problems and the custom of arranged marriage and family life from his perspective. We live in a varied world, indeed.
As we always do on our first day in Dharamsala, we walked kora around the temple at dusk, and headed up the hill, bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun.
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