Saturday, 25 August 2012

Continued Lessons in Gratitude

Sitting on a grimy if fairly comfortable bus, about to embark on my third night of travel since Sunday (which on planes and buses for me means pretty much no sleep), I’m finding it hard to summon the gratitude that inspired the title for this post when I first arrived in India on Monday.

My books travel in far greater style than I do, thanks to the Tibetan tailor in McLeod Ganj.

But just let me re-read that sentence.

Yes!  I am back in India!  How did that happen?

Thanks to the Arts Council of Wales, that’s how, who miraculously awarded me a training grant at the beginning of this year to spend three months in Kerala training in kalari (remember that? If not, here’s a reminder: Kerala, Kalari, Love) and learning Sanskrit. But I’m not quite there yet.

It’s been quite a lead-up to this new prong of the trident, what with a couple of months of pub work to save some money for this trip, which came to an abrupt end when they didn’t like me breaking my toe, revisiting La Blanche (first performed in India, appropriately enough) and making a piece with some children in Milford Haven last June (with broken toe) and then heading straight to London for ten intense days investigating Nancy Stark Smith’s Underscore with her and thirty or so other dancers and a couple of musicians.  There was just enough time for the toe (which only got jumped on once in ten full days of dancing) to recover and it was off to Chester for a week, for the British Aikido Federation’s summer school.  There I got to do a solo of sorts all over again, as I was the only person grading at my (very baby) level and I had a whole mat to myself (with my very helpful uke, the person who had the pleasure many might envy of attacking me).   

grading solo/duet

It’s slightly odd, having the audience effectively at the back of you, grading panel to the front, but I rather enjoyed the conundrum and taught a couple of yoga classes to boot.  A very nice woman who passed her third dan (a sort of black belt grade) told me it was thanks to my yoga class before her grading.  I’m rather sceptical, but am thinking of putting it on my next flyer:  yoga = black belt, and so bypass the 20 years or so training to get there (or perhaps not).

But right now I’m on a bus heading down the mountain from McLeod Ganj to Manali.  The monsoon, which hasn’t let up much since I arrived early Tuesday morning, hit hard this afternoon, turning the streets into rivers.  I found the drive down the mountain hairy enough in the dry season in November 2009; the thought of it is quite terrifying in the monsoon.  So far the rumoured landslides seem to live in the land of rumour and the rain has let up somewhat.  You’ll know I survived this leg of the journey if I get to an internet connection to post this, no matter how sheer the drops off the black roads.  But the bus is rattling and turning too much for me to write anymore, and it’s probably time for one of my failsafe homeopathic travel pills.

I shall be chanting all the way down the mountain.  Om namah Shivaya.

3 Hours Later:

Well the road wasn’t so terrifying in the end, because a landslide emerged from rumour and completely blocked it down from McLeod Ganj to Dharmasala (apparently there’s about 10km and 1000m in altitude between the two, which gives an idea of the steepness of the winding roads).  The bus sat there for about an hour and a half, while the driver slept and turned all the lights out, I went for a wee in the ditch in the rain and the nice Spanish girl in the seat next to me held my torch for me and smoked her cigarette, and the Israelis on the bus lived up to their stereotype by smoking on board and talking loudly and brashly.  In the end, the bus turned round and I am back in my room in McLeod Ganj, having phoned Reeky, my guesthouse manager, who really has been extremely helpful, even if I did decline his offer to share his beer tonight.  As I was here for two and a half days, I'd paid for three, so don’t have any extra to pay for my unexpected extra night, and also convinced him to give the nice Spanish girl (Marta) a room at the same price I’d talked him down to.  So despite the inevitable wobbly (I’m not very comfortable changing plans at short notice; I’ve long been aware of this), India is still looking after me.  And the bus is due to leave again at 7:30 in the morning, so I should be able to enjoy the view this time, and get a bit of sleep tonight (though probably not that much). 

the landslide on the road the next morning

waiting with the schoolchildren for the landslide to be cleared

So wobblies aside, I’m still receiving my lessons in gratitude.

I’ve often had a sense of being looked after when I travel, much more so than when I’m in one place, attempting to find a home (something I’ve not evinced much talent for).  Standing on the cliffs in Southgate (on the Gower in Swansea), looking out to sea with my friend Mark in late June, preparing to head to London for Nancy’s week of dancing the Underscore, I had one of those rare and blessed intuitive moments of feeling my life to be in exactly the right place.   

intuitions at Southgate/Pennard cliffs
This doesn’t stand up to much analysis at close quarters, what with my finance and home situation being really not what I would choose, but nonetheless I had a strong sense that, in terms of my spirit, my work, my sense of place, life is conspiring to send me in the right direction (and considering I was off to dance for ten days with a badly broken toe, this is saying something - I’m not quite sure what - for my intuition).

Over the last few weeks, it’s felt everything in Wales has come to a stillness to let India exert her pull. Unlike the last time I packed my overstuffed bags, leaving London with no sense of where I was coming back to, or even if I was coming back anywhere, I have a clear sense of wanting to come back to landscapes and people and possibilities in and around Swansea.  That’s a bit revolutionary for me.  We shall see what transpires.

India has a very particular personality for me.  I feel like I’m being pulled into the arms of a beloved, strangely wise but anarchic, parent, friend.  And she has looked after me from the time I landed.

Travelling from Wales is a different enterprise to travelling from London and adds a half-day of trains to the journey.  On the Reading – Gatwick leg, I bumped into two dancer friends, Jamus and Lee, on their way to some dancing in Freiburg.  Apart from the fact it was nice to have company and catch-up, it felt significant in that Jamus and Lee somehow seem to act as a gateway into and out of Europe for me.  It was at the Ibiza Contact Festival, after my time in Ecuador and my near-year away from the UK, that I re-connected with them on my last transition back into Europe, and through them did a little teaching later in Bristol.  So already, rightly or wrongly, it felt the universe was sending me serendipitous coincidences.

I was impressed with pretty much everything about Emirates (the airline I’m flying with) and enjoyed my stopover at Dubai airport, gawping at the (actually rather garish) 22 carat gold waterfalling off the jewelers' stalls.  Delhi has been spruced up a lot since I last arrived in that terminal (when in fairness, it was under renovation in preparation for the Commonwealth Games).  My memory was of it being a rather surly, unwelcoming place, but I even had smile from the immigration staff this time (and it seems to be a rule the world over that immigration staff are not prone to making anyone feel welcome, though the US really takes the biscuit for this).

All was incredibly smooth and I was girding my loins (after a near-sleepless night) for the hard part of my journey: figuring out Delhi and the bus to Dharamsala.  Well I found (very easily) the air conditioned airport bus (don’t let the air conditioning fool you; it was still pretty grubby), causing no little consternation to the helpful old man at the bus stand when I nearly sent it and me toppling over in my haste to collect my bags and jump on the approaching bus.  I hadn’t yet adjusted to India rhythm.  The bus wasn’t going anywhere for a while, and the lad collecting the bus ticket was surprisingly helpful and smiling (for what I had expected of Delhi, which last time really did feel like landing in a shark pool; whether the shift is due to the airport upgrade or my own upgrade, I’m not sure), though with the general kindly bemusement I remember from last time I was in India for the mad unmarried foreign woman traveling alone.

When the bus did depart for the Interstate Bus Terminal (Kashmiri Gate, so I was told), it seemed to drive mainly through parks, so I think I have a very skewed impression of Delhi.  I also got to see the Red Fort as we drove by it, which is my quota of Delhi sight-seeing for this trip.  After some time, a little concerned that I wouldn’t be making any overnight buses to Dharamsala, I asked the nice lad collecting tickets how much longer it would be.

“About ten minutes,” he told me.
“Where are you going?” said asked a smartly suited man behind me.
“Dharamsala,” I said.
“I am also going to Dharamsala.  I am going on a good bus.  I will see if they have a seat for you.”
“It’s a good bus,” said the ticket inspector.

At which point, my new fairy godfather phoned somebody and got me the seat next to his at the front of the overnight bus which went on to my final destination of McLeod Ganj, hence making my life at 6:00 the next morning much easier.  When we got off the airport bus together, my fairy godfather arranged and paid for the auto-rickshaw to take us to a garage on some huge main road, where our Dharamsala bus would come and meet us. It turned out it was run by his uncle and is by far the most comfortable bus I ever saw in India, complete with reclining seats, blankets, oodles of space and Bollywood entertainment (helpful commentary supplied by fairy godfather).  So I had no haggling with Delhi auto-rickshaws to negotiate in the rain, was fed crisps and immediately acclimatised to the Indian disregard for Western personal space, and when we stopped, fed again (chapattis, dhal and a paneer dish, all extremely nice) and didn’t pay for any of it, Amit refusing to allow me to contribute to the auto and the guy in the roadside stop (where the loos, however dingy, smelt of bleach rather than some of the things loos at such places often smell of in my experience – something to be supremely grateful for, even if the advantage of the squat variety is that you don’t touch anything) refused to let Amit pay for our food.

Arriving in McLeod Ganj the next morning after a second night of very little sleep and a pelvis in spasm, was a little more daunting. It was tipping with rain, making it hard for me to recognise the place I wanted to go back to.  After turning down one room (very grotty) down the steep steps off the Jogibara Road which gave me such exercise last time I was here, I was still hoping to find my old place, which had been so new and clean and nice when I last stayed. But I got disorientated in the downpour, down the treacherous muddy and wet steps, and Reeky came to find me and showed me the room I ended up taking (ironically, my old place is just opposite; my balcony looks out onto it).

view from by balcony at Ganga House, McLeod Ganj
That was Tuesday morning, and it’s now Thursday night.  I’ve spent the last few days slowly arriving, not sleeping enough, transitioning.  It occurred to me McLeod Ganj (headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama) would be a good place to do this, vaguely familiar, as I attempt to shift from one mode of existence to another, which I don’t find easy, however well-travelled I may be. One of the things I’m enjoying most is having my own space once again, however basic, quite self-sufficient.  I went and had tea in Amit’s shop on Tuesday and went back today to do some shopping (it seemed only fair I buy what I wanted there) but he wasn’t there so I left to run other errands.  I meant to return later but was defeated by the monsoon which turned the streets to rivers, drenched my last pair of socks and stymied tonight’s bus journey.  I feel sad and a bit ungrateful I wasn’t able to shop there and say goodbye properly.  If you ever go to McLeod Ganj, it’s the poshest shop on the Jogibara Road, called something like “Ancient Treasures of Tibet” (though Amit is a Hindu Punjabi) underneath Jimmy’s Italian restaurant.  Please tell him Lucy thanks him for his kindness and his hospitality and is sorry she didn’t have time to make the most of his beautiful shop.

The beginning of what I had to climb to get to the Jogibara Road from my guesthouse.  This is the tidy bit of the staircase!  It turns into a bit of a waterfall when the rain is heavy.

A lot of my time has been concerned with the logistics of arriving: sorting out a Himachal Pradesh SIM card, trying to figure out the text messaging ban (only 5 allowed daily, but I think that’s less if you send long ones. There’s apparently no limit on receiving, except the ones I know have been sent to me haven’t come through and my phone is mute.  Normal calls are fine, if you fancy a pricey chat), looking for the sorts of trousers that will keep me decent and hopefully not too hot, buying a beloved rainbow umbrella which was infinitely useful and then forgotten in the taxi to my ill-fated bus tonight.

So it’s been about eating, sleeping, washing, communicating – very basic, entirely engrossing.  

unpacked at Ganga House, McLeod Ganj

I did manage to get to the Dalai Lama’s temple this morning, having done a little yoga and sitting in a (not yet successful) attempt to sort out my spasming lower back.  There was the sobering reminder on a big panel outside it of the nuns and monks who have sacrificed themselves (most via self-immolation but at least one by drowning) in protest at China’s occupation of Tibet.  Most died, but quite a few are listed as “badly injured” or “all four limbs amputated”, which doesn’t bear thinking about.

Things were cheerier once inside the temple, where I had great fun watching the monks engaging in vociferous debate, which makes BBC Question Time look both very bad-tempered and sadly lacking in panache.  Young monks stood on one end of the gompa, calling, shouting, gesturing in (more or less) unison to some older seated monks on the other side.  It’s all in Tibetan, so I have no idea what it was about, but it was great theatre.   

I also meditated a bit in the main gompa (temple) and circumabulated it, spinning all the prayer wheels, hoping for the blessings of the thousands of Om Mani Padme Hum mantras this is supposed to activate.  I know I’m very blessed, but I feel I could do with a few more anyway.

monk and prayer wheels

view of McLeod Ganj from the Dalai Lama's temple
Dharamsala is known (I now find out) for having one of the wettest monsoons in India.  I’m getting a little weary of the endless damp, which makes even this last very wet Welsh August seem vaguely pleasant.   

So I’m off to see Susie in Manali.  Susie and I were in boarding school together, after which she eschewed the university route and did lots of extraordinary things, and is now married to a Tibetan Lama (I’m not sure how that works, but apparently it does) living in her Shangri-La in the Himalayan foothills.  She promises coffee (I’m bringing the filter papers) and hot springs.  I’ll just be glad of her company, to get to know her two teenage children and her husband a little better, and to use the time to work out the shape of the rest of this trip.  I’m to be in India until January.  Let’s see how she unfolds herself (and me).

Wishing you inspiring unfoldings of your own.

A Day and a Half Later:

And here are some photos, before I go, of my journey through the lovely landscapes of the Kullu Manali Valley the next day: 

loo pit-stop

lunch pit-stop
crossing the Pandoh Dam, as seen from the bus
from Lucy, with love x

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