Thursday, May 3, 2012

India - MacLeod Ganj

MacLeod Ganj – the town of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Much of the population here is Tibetan. Monks in red robes and beautiful long-haired Tibetans wander around the Tibetan markets. Colourful prayer flags and shanti atmosphere. Here no one is hustling us. Just smiling and greeting us. One 60-year-old Tibetan offers me to carry my backpack. Apparently I looked very tired after 30 hours of traveling and three kilometers walking up to Daramkot (upper McLeod Ganj). In Daramkot we had signed up for 10 days Vipassana meditation. 
Vipassana is one of the most ancient Indian meditation techniques used 2,500 years ago by the Buddha to reach enlightenment. He and his disciples distribute it all their lives and today it is preserved in its pure form thanks to the monks in Burma and is taught worldwide by the Indian teacher Goenka. 
It is still the rainy season here and it rains every day. 
Our room was almost mouldy, and my clothes couldn’t dry since 3 days now, as if they were becoming wetter and wetter. We packed our backs for the Vipassana center and until we reach the center we were all wet and my last socks and shoes too. The meditation center is in a dense pine forest full of monkeys. It is divided into sectors for men and women and many small houses with several rooms, separate bathrooms, a big dining room (again divided into male and female) and a large common meditation hall. As soon as we arrived we were separated. We registered and gave all our electronics (phones, players, cameras, computers, etc. are prohibited) and all books and writing materials. Talking or any contact and communication with others is prohibited too. Also a lot of other things are prohibited here - drinking, smoking, wearing jewellery, leaving the center for any reason, any religious practices or symbols, sports, Reiki, musical instruments, singing, dancing. In other words, you don’t have anything left to do but to meditate. I feel as if I am entering into a voluntary prison. They showed me my cell and I met with my room-mate - Hannah 24years old diving instructor from Australia. Totally we were 60 people, 30 men and 30 women. There are girls from Russia, Germany, Austria, Japan, Korea, Israel, the only one Bulgarian (I) and only 3 Indian. The evening before the start they give us last instructions, a small dinner and silence began. 

the streets of MacLeod Ganj

In the morning we were woke up at 4 am by a bell ringing in front of our door. Obviously we have not heard the original gong. Outside is complete darkness, heavy rain and I don’t want to go out of my warm bed. I wonder how to get to the meditation hall without getting much wet. I have very few dry clothes and no socks and shoes, and it's cold outside. At 4.30 begins a two-hour meditation under the instructions of Goenka. Goenka, of course is not here, we only listen to his recorded voice, we have another teacher, who can advise us if needed. It’s very hard for me to stay awake and I wander between consciousness and sleep. Two hours pass slowly and I notice I started to think about breakfast. At 6.30 finally the gong rings and we all go to breakfast. Lunch is from 11 to 11.30 and there is no dinner. In 18o’clock we can have tea and something small - biscuits or ricenuts and older students drink only lemon water. Otherwise the food is diverse and vegetarian and you can eat as much as you want. There are two one-hour breaks, when you may possibly take a shower or wash your clothes. In the rest of the time we are meditating - 10 hours per day. Having spent ten hours focusing at my nose and I realized that this will be not easy at all. In the evening we watched a lecture by Goenka on video. "The first day is over. You have more nine days to go.. " 
On the second day I see a girl crying. I wish I could calm her down, but I cannot and I feel a little uncomfortable. I start to get annoyed by all those prohibitions. I want to rebel - against the early waking, against the assistant who doesn’t let me stretch my legs in the hall, against the teacher who does not appear 4,30h in the morning, against the injustices in the world, against the wars, against the entire Chinese population because of tortures over the Tibetans and mostly against myself that I cannot control my mind even for a minute. I know that meditation should help me overcome this anger, which is poisoning me and spreading to others and that thought keeps me going on. Otherwise, silence didn’t bother me at all. I felt no need to talk to anyone. Neither the lack of dinner was difficult, I didn’t feel any hunger. Even sitting on the ground for 11 hours a day stopped being uncomfortable. But the morning meditation from 4.30 to 6.30 AM is the worst part of the day. It's very hard to concentrate and I barely stay awake. I see that others sleep too, and Indian woman next to me is even snoring. I do not know why but some very old songs get stuck into my head. Today is "I want to break free" by Queen. 

The third day was my most difficult one. All this staring at my nose starts to seem pointless and nothing happens. I notice that despite the peace around me I still can’t purify my mind. I feel annoyed by the Indian woman who goes in front of the queue for tea two times, the girl who pushed my clothes from the rope ... I can’t believe I can be annoyed by someone with whom I have not even exchanged a word. I begin to think that I can never improve. How is it possible to feel unconditional love for all creatures in the world? How can you love someone who causes evil to others? 
At the evening lecture I took a glimpse at Evgeni and he made me a sign to leave. I took a moment to think about the possibilities - to go out and enjoy a happy life of traveling or to stay torturing myself more seven days. I choose to stay. 
On the fourth day the actual Vipassana meditation
started. I feel very happy about the change and until the evening and I was able to focus better and gradually to control my wild mind. Goenka compared our brains with wild monkeys constantly jumping from thought to thought and we all understood what he meant. Soon I began to feel calmer. Now I felt sympathy for the girls I had despised the last day. I wanted to hug them and tell them that everything will be alright. I felt we were all suffering the same world.
On the fifth day my happiness collapsed at the bottom of the stomach and became a heavy lump. Evgeni was gone. I could not meditate, my mind exploded with questions. Where did he go? Why? What is he doing now? How will I find him? I realizes that more than one year we haven’t parted even for a day. I tried to observe my emotions and they were gradually decreasing. I do not blame him. I know wherever he is, he is happy.
Of course I started thinking that I want to go too. For the first time I needed to talk to someone. I was the only one noticing his absence and I wanted to share it with someone. I cannot stop myself and I talked to my room-mate. She was quite happy to hear me talk (although I realize it was mistake) and she is really surprised and asks me whether I will follow him. "I stay" - I encourage us. In the evening I found her  "swimming" in bed with a mask and snorkel. "I think I am going crazy" - she spoke and we broke the silence again. I wanted to calm her down but I couldn’t think of anything to say and we just went to meditate. In the middle of the meditation I almost burst into hysterical laughter as I remember Hannah with the mask and snorkel in bed. I realized why silence was so important for meditation. 
On the sixth day many questions came into my head. If you don’t have any desires, then why would you live? If you do not feel strong feelings, wouldn’t you be just a plant? Maybe Vipassana is for people with problems, and I feel happy, it's not for me. My mind began to create excuses for me to leave. I still stayed. 
I noticed that many old memories came into my head. I almost remembered the words of a funny poem written by a classmate in ninth grade in the class of literature. The old songs still continue. This time is "Imagine" by John Lennon. 
The next days we have to practise aditana and sit one hour without moving a muscle. I started to like the peace and harmony around. I stopped missing the things from the outside world. I watched monkeys and the beautiful butterflies and felt no need to photograph them. 
The ninth day passes really slowly and I feel exhausted, especially when I realize that actually will go to the 11th day. I am thinking that once I get out of here, I will never do this again. 
On the tenth day at 10 am silence is broken. We all come out of the meditation hall and don’t know what to say. First we burst into laughter and hugs and then we start chatting, so sweet that no one remembers to go to lunch. This day is difficult to meditate with all this new information and once more I realize how important silence is. We learn another meditation technique – metapana ( love and kindness meditation). In the evening we go to bed later, after endless discussions and I feel that my head will explode. Even monkeys 
go crazy after the sudden loudness. This is preparation for the outside world. 
On the eleventh morning we get the last instructions from Goenka - to practice every day for two hours and come back after one year. After helping with cleaning we left the center -  freedom at last! I found Evgeni and together with other Vipassana students we gathered for dinner. I can not describe the beauty of this day. I felt infinite love and kindness to all, even my voice seemed changed. I just kept smiling and even the sun was shining for the first time. On the streets I wanted to hug everyone. I admit that this was the most difficult and terrible 10 days in my life but now I think I want to do it again. I can’t describe the changes and inner peace that it brought to my life. As teacher Goenka said “the truth can not be read or heard, it can only be experienced”. So if you have the time and will, there are Vipassana centers all over the world, even in Bulgaria. ( This practice has been applied successfully in prisons and administrative departments in India and I believe it can make people better. 
One man speaks to us in the street "Excuse me, can I talk to you for a second?" Usually wouldn’t pay any attention to him, but this time responded "Why not!" To my surprise the man did not want to sell me anything, but just asked me the strangest question: "Can you tell me how the skin heads look like?" We were surprised by the question, but decided to answer him. The first thing that came to us is that they have no hair. "But there are many people here with no hair  and they are not bad" - answered the man, having in mind the Buddhist monks. Then he explained to us that he had a friend in Germany who told him about skin heads and he wanted to know how they look like in case he encounters one.  The sincerity of people in India amused me. In Europe if you speak to strangers like this in the street they will definitely take you for crazy. Other people stopped and greeted us and was feeling that we shared each other’s happiness. 
My happiness increased a hundredfold when I heard that the Dalai Lama was coming for teaching after a few days here. Usually he is always on the road and we were lucky to see him. We registered for the lectures and when the day came we went to the temple early in the morning to find good places. The queue was already huge, but everything was going very smoothly. The security carefully searched everybody - any electronics, phones, lighters and cigarettes were forbidden. There are separate queues for monks and civilians. The lecture is at the request of a group of Taiwanese people on issues on Nagarjuna's book "In Praise of Dhammadhatu" and was four consecutive days. Everybody was sitting on the ground and singing in anticipation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He arrived on time, smiling as always, with two people helping him to climb the stairs. He is 76 years old, but his skin looks smoother and younger. Great excitement and awe fill the air at his arrival. Dalai Lama speaks in Tibetian, but there are translations in different languages which you can listen to on the radio. In the morning there is Tibetian tea (with salt and butter) and Tibetan bread for everybody, and lunch is rice and lentils for all the thousands of people audience. Cooked in huge vats and served by monks with metal buckets. We were warned to bring a cup and spoon. The organization was perfect, after the food began the afternoon lecture. On the second day I could see His Holiness Dalai Lama very closely and even to photograph him. He looked at me and nodded, smiling. I can not describe the feeling that went through me at this moment, the energy around him was almost visible. 

Young Buddhist monks expect to see the Dalai Lama with excitement 

monks give tea at the lectures of Dalai Lama 
Dalai Lama arrives with a smile 

Dalai Lama at the lectures in MacLeod Ganj 
Rice and lentils for all ... 

in the kitchen of the temple 

After the lecture we went to a four days trek to the highest pass nearby - Indrahar, 4300m altitude. Here the mountains are very green with a lot of pine forests and somehow reminded us of the Bulgarian mountains. On the first day an Israeli girl joined us on the way. She was planning to go to the nearby waterfalls, but decided to come with us, although she had no sleeping mat and sleeping bag or thick clothing. Evgeny was wearing his plastic, torn and thousand-times-repaired sandals from Senegal, so the equipment was very high level. We couldn’t find any shoes size 47. The first night instead of the expected solitude of the mountain there was a loud party at Triund. That was the last place with camping sites and restaurants. A huge group of foreigners, Indians and Tibetans armed with guitars, djembes and bottles. There was a bonfire, singing and dancing until the strings were torn and the wood was finished. The Israeli girl slept with us in our tent. In the morning she decided to go down with the group, while an Australian guy - Ray, took her place as he decided to come with us to pass. He was 60 years and also wearing sandals, but he was walking quickly and tirelessly. There were no signs and markings so we were not sure where exactly is the pass. When we met two tourists with a guide we were happy and we asked for directions. To our great surprise the guide proved quite unhelpful as he did not want to give us any directions and even tried to lie to us that the passage was half an hour up, when we knew we had 5-6 hours more. We saw another person with a guide who refused to speak with us, as if they were guarding a sacred secret. We asked them what time they were going to climb the pass, and they replied that they are not gonna climb it at all. We had not encountered such "guides" in the Himalayas until now, and we were quite surprised. And the people in Triund were also convincing us that it is not possible to go without a guide to the pass and all night and did not want to tell us where is the water, because they wanted us to buy bottles from them. We stayed thirsty all evening and in the morning we found the fountain of 5 minutes up the camp. Unfortunately, local mountaineers were not as kind as Tibetans, Sherpas and Ladahi whom we met in the mountains so far.
 In the evening we reached the foot of the pass and there we all slept in the tent. Luckily we found a nearby spring and refilled the water. This time the night was not so comfortable as Ray did not have a sleeping mat and was trying to take over my mat so I was squeezed from both sides and it was terribly cold. 

Waiting for the sun in Triund 
The tent has served us faithfully and Ray brought a small ukaleyle for good mood 
At 5 am we started climbing the pass. It was still dark and cold, and we put all our clothes on. I didn’t know how they did it with sandals, but I was freezing in my shoes and thick socks. The climb was quite steep and long, we arrived at 11:00 AM just before the clouds cover the peaks around. We ate some chocolate and rested some time at the top, enjoying the view and went down back until Triund. It was a long day, almost 12 hours of walking. In Triund again we had fire and fun, this time with others. I met two Indian photographers and we experimented with some night photos together. On the fourth day we went to some waterfalls, 2 hours away and we went back to MacLeod Ganj, or more precisely to Baksu. 

Snowy peaks seen from above, but there was snow on the pass ... 

Ray and Evgeni - on 4300 m with sandals :) 
even on the highest places there is Shiva 
Night Triund 
a number of cascades near Daramkot 

A Funky Hindu temple in Baksu with tunnels and caves  in which you have to crawl 

inside a cave - udders, cobra and tiger 
We stayed there a few weeks in a wonderful Guest house with free internet and filtered water for only 1.5 Euro for a room! Perhaps first place in the "cheap and best" list. Every day I went to yoga and was practicing Vipassana as Evgeni went for a week to Parvati. I was feeling very good as I stayed for a long time in one place and this place had so much positive energy and things to do. I even joined a course on making jewellery with semi-precious (and precious) stones, and macramé. I started to learn more about the stones and even sold some necklaces. The atmosphere was very relaxed and all people were smiling and good. The kindness of the Tibetans sometimes brought tears into my eyes. Their struggle through non-violence against the Chinese occupiers was moving. Never I heard anyone talk about the Chinese with resentment or accusation, despite all the sufferings and injustice they had been through. They were feeling compassion to the ignorance of some people and hoping that things will change. In the Tibetan Museum I read some terrible stories of the refugees here."They were beating me and I felt sorry for them because I knew that this was their only way to feed their families" - shared a tortured Tibetan. In Tibet, now everything is in Chinese and Tibetan children are not able to attend school, where the Tibetan language is spoken and taught. The "Cultural reforms" that the Chinese apply in Tibet is an attempt to wipe away Tibetan language, history and culture and to assimilate it with the Chinese. So here in Dharamsala and MacLeod Ganj Dalai Lama made Tibetan schools and cultural centers. Most students come to study here, leaving their families in Tibet and often they don’t want to go back. "Here we have freedom," told me one 20-years old Tibetan. Together with friends from my guesthouse I went to a party at a nightclub in MacLeod Ganj, where I saw the other side of the Tibetans. It was a most unexpected sight. Tibetans, Indians and foreigners danced wildly on the sounds of techno music. Indescribable mix of styles and people – Punjabi with turbans and Bollywood steps, Tibetans with long hair and groovy moves, drunk tourists of all ages from many different countries. All were in full swing and you could hardly walk inside. Here, however, the music ends at 11-12 PM and everybody goes home. We even came back with two Tibetan girls and for the first time I saw Tibetian girls and play "like men." They told us that their society is very conservative and if a girl smoke or drinking, smoking and going to parties. They explained to us that their society is very conservative and it is not good for a girl to do these things. But they were determined to have fun and travel. They had even gone to Goa and told us with great enthusiasm about it. 
We were already more than a month here. The season was coming to an end and the shops and restaurants were closing and moving to south for the winter. We finally gathered the courage to go on. Next stop - Amritsar. 

monks washing their robes in the river near Baksu 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a pleasure to read this!
    wish you a beautiful journey where ever you are.
    greetings from finland.
    - eveliina ( we met in pokhara )