Saturday, April 16, 2011

Mountains Beyond Mountains

I of course made it into Dharamsala quite easily.  A lot of which was due to my host brother and dad who insisted on accompanying me onto the train platform when they found out I was still waitlisted. So they buy their 1 rupee tickets, wait on the platform and wave me off through the window as the train leaves. It was adorable, especially since they’re both 6’3 and super skinny; they both have this super slow and gangly but kind of regal wave. So someone was nice enough to share a seat, and then her book, Drugs of Choice for Life. She was especially proud of the chapter “Drugs of Choice for Poisoning.”
I got my seat in New Delhi, slept soundly till my stop, crammed into a shared taxi to the bus station, and crammed onto a bus to Dharamshala. The bus ride was an adventure in itself, as it was basically 4 straight hours of climbing scraggly mountain roads that corkscrewed up the side of this mountain. It picks people up along the way to Dharamshala, but it doesn’t actually stop. When the ticket clerk sees someone wave down the bus, he blows his whistle and driver slows down enough that the clerk can throw open the doors and people can jump off and on as the bus passes. If you’re old, make sure someone lifts you on; if you can throw elbows to get yourself on, all the better. The one stop we did make was a five minute food stop at some random food stall on the side of the road. Just as we’re about to leave, it starts pouring. So this other Swedish guy and I climb onto the roof of the bus where everyone stores their luggage. I went to dig out my camera and ipod to save from the rain when the bus engine starts and it lurches into motion with us on top. We both try to balance for a second, but it’s raining really hard so we both slip and end up on our bellies, holding onto the luggage racks as we move. Everyone on the streets is yelling at the bus, but once again, it’s raining, so he doesn’t here them. We finally get him to stop by banging on the wet roof, soaking ourselves even more. When we do get back on the bus and take our seats, the ticket collector comes over and asks me to prove my ticket since I just got on. Really? He didn't remember from the past two hours when he was checking tickets? Was my wet, soot-covered self not enough to prove that I had previously been on the bus?
Anyway, upon reaching Dharamshala I called the two numbers, and landed myself in a cottage guest house with an unbelievable view of mountains beyond mountains. The actual Dharamshala is a quiet hill station town with a lot of random family owned businesses and such. Mcleod Ganj is about 20 minutes away and that’s the town full of spiritual journey seeking tourists. We all rode the bus together from the train station and I got many gasps when I got off before reaching hippie-town. Anyway, so this organization called Gunjan Organization for Community Development is helping me complete my project. I’ve spent three days in the field so far and I constantly embarrass myself. This adorable little woman named Jyoti is my advisor and she helps me get to the villages where I’m doing my research and then she translates what I can’t understand-- which is just about everything. So we walk 15 min from the NGO office, take a bus, then a jeep, and walk another 20 minutes through mountain-ledged pathways to get to the first village. Everything in India happens on its own time, so when we get to the village, we wait for almost 40 minutes before all the women of the self-help groups finally come. I’ve become quite good at entertaining myself here. That 40 minutes passed pretty quickly as I did pretty much nothing but stare out the window and listen to the Jyoti jabber in the local dialect with the village school teacher. At one point, Jyoti paused to tell that I should play and interact with the 4 toddlers who were sitting waiting for the teacher to take them home. I’d really rather shoot the shit with myself than play with kids, but I figured I should try if only to make my advisor happy. So I walk over to them and sit down. They all stop what they’re doing, retract a little bit and get really, really scared. I was probably the tallest woman they’ve ever seen and one of the only white people who‘s come to their school. They were absolutely terrified of me. One started crying, the other literally turned to face the wall and cupped his hands around his face while the remaining two ran to their teacher and hid behind her.  I’ve never been good with kids; it was a useless venture.
Soon enough the women pile in and we all sit together in this dark wooden school room as we discuss self-help groups. The whole experience was fantastic. It was completely voluntary for these women to come since they don’t usually have their meetings on Wednesdays. Yet they came to talk with me and they all really wanted to chat and tell me their story. Who knew they’d be so willing to talk with a white girl who speaks shotty Hindi. Also, I still can't believe that their everyday scenery is a range of dry mountains backed by the snow-capped Himalayas. "It's nice, but on the cloudy days we can only see part of the Himalayas" Jyoti responded when I told her how much I loved Dharamshala.
After two hours or so of talking and interviewing, we finally finished and people start to leave. I’m an idiot and forgot to bring lunch with me, but I figured I would eat it later. However one of the teachers asked me if I wanted anything to eat. The staff in Jaipur had told us that in Indian culture, you accept what is offered. When you go to visit a friend, you take the tea and biscuits; when you go to an NGO, try some of the snacks they offer. I guess that’s different when you’re in a poverty-stricken village.  In my split second decision, I only considered what I’ve known as polite. So I accept and Jyoti kind of warily tells them to bring me yogurt and an apple, what I had the day before for lunch. So I finish up my last interview and then notice one of the teachers coming back to the school having just purchased the yogurt and two apples (which are ridiculously expensive now because they’re out of season) with her own money. Now I feel awful-- like a self-entitled rich foreigner who’s come to India expecting people to serve her--- but I have to eat the food they bring or else it would be a serious waste of hard earned money. So I watch the teacher wash the apples and spoon in water that I know will make me sick and smile as she gives them to me. I’m given a blunt knife to cut up the apples, which are already bruised and mushy, but they’re expensive so dig in. The knife turned out to be a disaster. It so dull that when I would finally get a good cut in the apple, chunks of it would go flying onto the ground, wasting precious fruit. The first chunk was funny, the second chunk got a few giggles, but the third chunk got me a couple cold stares. So I’m sitting there, trying to be quiet and socially acceptable as Jyoti chats with the teachers, but these damn chunks of apple keep flying into the air every few seconds. The teachers start trying to catch the chunks and give them back so as not to waste. I felt like such an idiot sitting there eating food that I should not have accepted and out of the pocket of someone who I will never socially be allowed to pay back. Then I’m flinging apple chunks around their well-kept classroom and throwing away half the chunks since they landed on the floor. Thank gosh I had done the interviews earlier or else I would have been too embarrassed to interact with someone who saw my eating display. At the end, I tried my best to thank and say sorry in broken Hindi. Most of the women just laughed and chatted away with Jyoti. I can’t quite tell if she likes me right now, but she did invite me to meet her children (they will probably also be terrified of me and I will have no idea what to do with them.) Regardless, she’s stuck with this apple-flinging American for the next month.

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