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  • Theresa Vernetti

Stray Dogs and Holy Cows

September 17, 2006   Dharamsala, India

Another windy road, this time in a bus which handled the curves a bit better even with smooth tires and was full of interesting people mostly aboard for short stretches.  About twenty different passengers occupied the third seat in our row, the small, shy schoolgirls generally preferable to the thick, pushy businessmen who had to be controlled by an occasional, well-placed elbow.  McLeod Ganj is a town in upper Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and thousands of yearly exiles make their home.  There are only about four streets- mostly filled with souvenier shops but also busy with large cows roaming at will, a large number of stray but friendly dogs, street food vendors selling fried momos and sweet buns and beggers missing fingers and toes.  Initially, I thought the shortage of extremities was due to the cold trek across the Himalayas but I was informed by a local that this was not true—that they actually had a “very bad disease”—presumably leprosy.  The highlight so far has been a cooking class at “Sanje’s Kitchen.”  I talked to the teacher in the morning and he created a special class just for the three of us since none was offered that day.  “Ohhhhhh yesss, ooohhhhh yesss…ha ha….”  he loved to say.  The Canadians joined me in making Thukta, a wide noodle veg soup, vegetable momos, spinach and cheese momos (for which we had to learn to fold the wrappers in three fancy shapes), and the most interesting spring roll I’ve ever seen…a large pancake filled with vegetables and fried to  resemble a giant chimichanga.

The cook came to India on foot with his uncle and 27 other refugees on a 24 day journey through the winter snows of the Himalayas.  A Tibetan museum at the Dalai Lama’s headquarters tells the general story and  presents video footage of actual, tragic events in Tibetan monasteries and instruments of torture used on monks and protestors .  We met an older monk later who had been incarcerated for 28 years—the longest sentence served for resistance.  Three thousand Tibetan refugees continue to arrive every year with stories of a rapidly changing homeland.

The main monastery here houses about 200 monks, all beautifully dressed in crimson and yellow robes and vests.  Every evening they can be found out on the patio debating tenets of Buddhism.  Usually, one of the two is seated and the other stands.  They passionately argue points and the one that is standing slaps his/her hands together as emphasis.  The whole scene looks rather aggressive at first but soon it is clear that everyone is having fun—a healthy way of educating—encouraging students to challenge their lessons.

A generous slice of chocolate cake and chai tea in the attached café brings life back to my tired knees and hungry body.  The place is run by some very hip looking Tibetan youth with long hair and  multiple piercings.  Group activities today included a trip to the handicrafts center and some inevitable shopping—planning to later hit one or two cafes popular with monks to have an extended chat.

places visited on this trip:  Delhi, Dalhousie, Chamba, Dharamsala, Amritsar, Simla, Chitrakoot, Allahabad, Varanasi

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