Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I go out walkin' after report writing...

Walk, walk, walk. How I love to walk around Shimla. My legs ache in a good way form all the
walking I do here. Up the hills, down the hills, along the Ridge, it’s great exercise for me. Yesterday, after an extensive report writing section, I went up to have lunch at Ashiana restaurant, a lovely round building with views of the whole town and the valleys below. After that I set off toward the Glen, a quiet spot in the forest about 3 or 4 kms away. Down a windy road through the forest, it was lovely to be somewhere in India with little to no noise. A car, bus or motorcycle would pass now and then but for the most part all I heard was the wind through the
trees. Below me I could see Annandale, the former racetrack and polo grounds of the British, now used for cricket playing. It took about 45 mins. To reach the Glen, and it was worth it. Tall pine trees mark this spot along a hill, a path winding down into the thick cluster of scented pines. I made my way down the path for a bit until I found a bench to rest on. Finally, a place in India where one could be alone in his thoughts with no noise and no other
human being around. All I had was the sun shinng on my face and the wind making a gentle soft noise through the needles on the trees. The British used to say this place reminded them of Scotland and I could see that. Hilly, craggy with lovely views—yeah I’ve been to Scotland, I could see that.
After sitting and contemplating the peacefulness of this spot, I made my way back up the winding road toward the hustle and bustle of humanity. There was some sort of protest going on by the Shimla governent building, which blocked the road so the closer to the top of the hill I
got, the more cars were standing beeping and honking trying to get through. People were yelling and protesting about who knows what and the police were all around. Quite the contrast to my quiet solitude of 30 mins before. Along the way back, two college boys joined me as I walked up toward the Mall. They had just finished an exam and were going up to the Mall to hang out. We exchanged names, where are we from, what do they study and all the general pleasantries. Then one of them asks me how often I have sex in New York. A rather direct question to which I replied, “That’s a rather personal question.” Then I asked him how often he had sex in India to which he replied “Once.” I told the young man that he was the second person to ask me about having sex in America. He told me he read some things on the Internet about all the sex people have in the U.S., to which I replied, “People have sex all over the world.” To which he giggled and replied, “Well not in India.” To which I just laughed and changed the subject. When we got to the Mall I bid them adieu and continued on to my hotel for a bit of a rest and to enjoy some strawberries on my balcony and watch the sunset.
Heading up to the Embassy for a lamb dinner, I noticed a big temple all lit up on the
hillside. What was this fabulous diadem blazing in the night skyline? I must go see this place! So after dinner I made my way through the narrow lower streets of Shimla to find this temple. Most of the shops were closed oas I made my way throught the Lower Bazaar but a few stores and
little restaurants beckoned people in the darkness. Some boys were playing cricket in the middle of the road at one point, people going up and down the narrow stairways that link the levels of
streets here. Further I carried on until I saw some men hanging the sparkly gold garlands above the street. This was a sure sign that I was on the right path. I followed the road, with the garlands as my guide down until I came to my destination. The temple was all lit up like a house at Christmas
time, ablaze in the night. I walked around it taking pictures, basking in its warm light. As I made my way back up the hill, I ran into a procession of holy men heading toward this temple.
They were lead by their main pandit, whose picture I saw on the temple archway. We smiled and bowed at each other as we passed in the road. Further up I repeated this as I passed the local mosque on a stairway heading up to the Mall.
Shimla is really beautiful at night and after dinner it’s great to take a stroll on the Mall to check things out. Christ Church is all lit up and high on the hill Hanuman is aglow and watching over all of us. This place closes down early and by 9/9:30, the streets roll up. So as they rolled up, I rolled
down the hill to my hotel, buying some bananas and strawberries from the fruit vendor who was still out there selling his wares. A few more days here and it’s time to head back down the hill to the big city. Until then I’ll relish every minute here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

British Colonial Dreams

Sunset on my balcony again, day 4 of my time in this magical place called Shimla. I’ve just
spent the last few hours walking from my hotel to the Vice Regent Lodge about 4 kms away. I can see it perching up on the hillside opposite my balcony, there in the distance, black against the setting sun. It’s a lovely old place, Scottish baronial they call it. Very majestic and reminiscent of the British
Raj days. Now it houses the Institute of Advanced Studies and is a quiet place for PhD students to research their theses. I took in the tour of the place, seeing the table where they partitioned Pakistan and India, and trying to imagine what it was like back then in the colonial days. Walking the gardens, I wondered who I would be if I lived back then. Would I be the
Viceroy’s wife looking out the window of this lodge at a rainstorm in the distance, or a civil servant diligently going over his books, or a military man trotting around in his uniform atop his mighty horse. Would I look at the Indians as people or as lowly servants that wait on me? Would they be my friends or just people in the back ground as I went about my business. Those
were my thoughts as I wandered through the woods on my way back slowly contemplating colonial matters as the soft afternoon colors painted the sky. A cold wind blew up and the skies turned grey, threatening a rainstorm but it seemd to pass Shimla and dropped its raindrops somewhere else. The mix of smoke and incense wafted through the air as I made my way along the Ridge, past the Kali Mari temple and up to Scandal Point, the peak of Shimla.
There’s an old decrepit house up there, abandoned, rotting, holding on to its former glory
that I like to stop and look at. It reminds me somewhat of Grey Gardens and I half expect the Indian version of Big and Little Edie to come out and talk to me as I stop to gaze in the broken windows and open doorways. I try to imagine what happiness was had in this house, the parties, the different people who lived in over the years and the last people who lived there and the final day they left. Was it hard for them to leave? Were they forced out for some reason? Did
the last person leave happily or sadly? Who knows, I guess I can research it and find out. But there are reports to write, essays and surveys to look over. Plus I like to imagine what happened there—it makes it more interesting.
The darkness comes and the hillside begins to sparkle. There are loud voices down below and I’m half tempted to tell them to shut up. Man some people are loud. So far I’m doing my best to tune them out but a young boy yelling for his mother and father in a harsh, demanding tone is
hard to ignore. I think he’s gone quiet for now—phew! Will I dine in this evening or go out somewhere. I mixed it up today and had lunch at Nalini, the vegetarian restaurant. Maybe I’ll dine at the Embassy or the Ashiana. We’ll see. The moon is about ½ full and the first star is
visible right below it (remind me which one is that?). I’ve just made my wish: Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may I wish I might on the first star I see tonight. Closing my eyes, I send my wish out into the world and hope it comes true. Simultaneously my Afghans are looking up back at home at the same moon and star. They’ll be finishing their evening prayers about now and I wonder if they’ll be looking up at the same moon and star, making their own wishes. It;’s the one thing that keeps us connected tonight. May my wish find its way to all of them and to the others that were included in that wish.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Shimla walks...

Seems it got cold today here in Shimla. The sky is overcast and the sun is not shining as it
was yesterday at this time. Oh well, can’t control the weather, it does what it wants to do and we must adjust to it. The hillside I can see from my window seems to be coming alive, with voices, crows cawing, music blaring from somewhere as another day dawns. I meant to get up and walk this morning but somehow I’m not in the mood for it. I walked my feet off yesterday, first in the morning doing a healthy walk down the Mall, along the Ridge to the other end of town. It seems
the thing to do here early in the morning, lots of people doing a morning walk back and forth through town. I did an hour walk and then plopped myself at the Indian Coffee House for breakfast. It’s a nice old place with comfy seats and woodened paneled walls. Very old school
and classy. For the first time I had coffee, since the Indian Coffee House doesn’t serve tea (well who knew?!?). I feared that drinking coffee after so long would make me bananas but it didn’t. The quality was a bit above Nescafe, so I was fine.
Most of my days here will be spent writing three reports for my jobs. I break up the writing
by taking walks around town, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. My afternoon walk has been up to the Jakhoo Temple, a steep climb up a hill through the woods to the temple honoring Hanuman, the Monkey God. It’s hard to miss it given the giant orange statue that looms high above the trees that can be seen from down below in town. He watches over all of us as if to
protect Shimla and its people from harm. Legend has it that Hanuman dropped a sandal on this hilltop as he was flying by and thus it has becom a revered place. Another version has it that he stopped to rest here after his big battle with Raven the evil king in Sri Lanka. I like Hanuman, he is becoming a favorite of mine, right after Ganesh. He is brave and strong and seems to help people when things are not going their way. I like to hike up and get support
from the Monkey God in these contemplative days of mine.
I like to go pray at the temple, sit and think about what's going to happen next. It helps me to know that everything will be all right.
Of course what is a temple to a Monkey God without monkeys. Lots of monkeys! They are interesting creatures and sometimes when I look at them, I can see a bit of human in them.
Emotions in their eyes, the way they walk, lay around, communicate—it’s just like us really, just on a more primitive level. They lounge around picking bugs off each other, hiss and scream, chase each other from a marked territory, fight over food, love their young, play with
each other--so interesting to watch them. If you’re not careful, they will snatch your things and carry them off. The other day, one monkey snatched a man’s glasses and went up on the roof
with them. He offered the monkey something else and the monkey dropped the glasses and grabbed the other thing, quite a clever way of getting your specs back I must say. After visiting the temple, I stop for a cup of tea at the Shri Mahavir CafĂ© before heading down. It’s a nice place
to watch people and enjoy the sunset up on the hill.
My favorite place to eat thus far is the Embassy Restaurant, a peaceful little place with a
gorgeous view of the town. The dining area is perfect in the afternoon when the sun fills the space, shining in from the small little windows that take up most of the walls. It’s a glorious
place to sit and eat delicious home cooked meals served up by the proprietor, a lovely man who is a devotee of Krishnamurti. The restaurant is covered with little stories, quotes and anecdotes from lots of people both famous and not famous so it’s a nice distraction as you sip
your banana lassi and wait for your food. It’s my lunch spot and I’m sure by the end of the week I will have tried everything on the menu. As I pay the bill, the kind gentleman tries to get me in to a philosophical discussion and talk at length on Krishnamurthi, which I entertain
for a few minutes before I carry on my day.
It seems like a good day to stay indoors today. Bit overcast and cold, possibly rain later on? Well, in any case I have oodles of work to do and I can’t exhaust my fingertips blogging all day. May today be a productive day so I can spen more time enjoying later in the week.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Post-Camp Entry

Sitting on my balcony overlooking Shimla as dusk turns to evening time. It looks like a black
sari with all its sparkles and spangles glittering orange, white, red, green and yellow. Cars move slowly along the narrow roads coming up the hills in and out of town. Horns honk, voices can be heard in the dark, a faucet runs down below somewhere. After a month of intensity at camp, there is peace and quiet and a whole week of reflecting on what happened this past month.
Camp ended on a great note 2 days ago, and amid teary eyes, my students, staff and I all said good bye after a fantastic month together. The kids worked really hard and while there was some doubts about their progress now and then, in the end they came together as a group of future leaders for their country. This is only the beginning for them and I look forward to hearing about all the fantastic things they will be doing back in their communities. The youth of Afghanistan are the ones who will change their country and despite what happens there, I for one
know that there is a bright future ahead.
The end of camp is always a bunch of mixed emotions for me. All at once the students are gone and there is a quiet that is almost deafening, taking up the space where there was loud chatter, laughter and teenage noise. It’s like a sudden death with the immediate shock of not having that person be there. I am also happy for I know that my staff and I have done our job well, and it shows in all the thank you cards, letters and emails I get from my students. I am also relieved that the intense month is over and finally I can relax for a while. Now, perching on my balcony in Shimla, I can process the highlights and the challenges of the month as I write my final report.
Below me lies the valley that stretches out beyond the horizon. It is like my life right now,
open, vast and nothing planned. I was awoken from the dream that was Wonderland and cannot get back to sleep so as to return to it. With that sudden conciousness, my life is adrift towards a point not yet recognized but there are places along the way. After Shimla, I’m flying off to Ethiopia for two weeks to see my friends Bob and Denis and explore another country in Africa. I
haven’t read up much about it but I will once I get there. After Ethiopia, I’m flying back home to my Brooklyn abode for a while to do some housework, gardening and snuggling of Lulu. After that, who knows what is in store for Mr. Tom Toomey but I know it’s all in a bigger plan already designed for me. Everything happens for a reason and in its own time, just like that first bright star twinkling above me right now.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

High in the mountains at McLeod Ganj

A soft morning rain comes down high in the mountains of Northern India. The gentle drops and
the cawing of some crows seem to be the only sound I hear on my balcony in McLeod Ganj. Seems quite fitting given this is the center of Tibetan Buddhism. So peaceful, fresh air to clear the moind and reenergize for the next part of camp. A dog scampers down to a neighboring hotel annex to eat from the scraps off a tray that someone has left outside their door. He finds some bones to chew on, knocks over and breaks a glass, pees on a rose bush and is gone. My teaching crew and I have left our brood of Afghans and hectic pace of camp for 2 days up here in Mcleod Ganj. We were supposed to be meeting with the Dalai Lama but embassies and politics got in the way of that. I suppose the Buddhist idea of everything in its own time will help calm me down about
missing out on this unique opportunity. Next camp. I consider this time here to be reflective, relaxing, and reconnaissance for the next time I come up here with 40 Afghans in tow.
We arrived yesterday afternoon after making the zig zagging trip up the narrow roads to McLeod Ganj, the high altitude giving us a spinning sensation in our heads. After checking in to the Spring Valley Resort and eating some lunch, we walked down to town, looking in all the shops, stopping at a Buddhist temple to spin the prayer wheels, making our way down to the main
Buddhist temple. As the sun set, we walked clockwise around the main temple with all the monks in their crimson robes. Daniel and I went into one of the temples and I showed him how the Buddhists pray. His little hands clasped together and bowing his head in front of the altar—
very sweet. On the way back up the hill, we stopped for food at the Kailash Roof Beer Bar and Restaurant where we snacked on all sorts of food: Chinese, Italian, Tibetan and Indian, all downed by some cold
Kingfisher beer. After some dessert in the main square of town, very happening at 9pm, we grabbed osme rickshaws and sped up the hill to our hotel. Another beer and some more laughs together and we were off to bed. A peaceful sleep in a soft bed with thick warm blankets to keep out the cold of the night. I slept like a baby.

Claire and I were up first on this quiet Sunday morning in Mcleod Ganj. We had some breakfast downstairs and then went to explore up the hill, while the others slept. Up the road was a hotel with a spa offering massages and other treatments. We were keen on having a colon cleansing treatment but that needs more than one day, so I made an appointment for a massage in
the afternoon and Claire decided to look elsewhere.
After the others awoke and were ready to start the day, we headed up the hill to a Hindu temple and a waterfall high up the hill behind it. Daniel was too tired to make it the whole way, so I got the pleasure of carrying him on my shoulders most of the way up the winding path to the waterfall. After our hike up to the waterfall, we mingled in the shops near our hotel
and had a very slowly served lunch at the German Bakery restaurant. After lunch we had some down time, I went for my massage, which was made even more relaxing by a heavy rain storm that passed over for most of it.
Dinner was across the street at Vikas’s restaurant. Vikas is a local hotleier/restraunteur who organizes stays for people wanting to volunteer up here. We met him the night before as we were buying some chips and other snacks in his shop. He had some Brits and an Italian arriving and
invited us to dinner with all of them. He will probably be a good contact for me if I can come up here again with my students in September, by putting some volunteer activities together for us.
By Monday morning, we were enjoying our time off from camp so much we didn’t want to go back.
But all good things must come to an end and away we went down the hill back to our Afghan students who were eagerly awaiting our return. Before leaving I bought one of the crimson shawls the monks wear, which seemed to have disappeared between the car and my room upon our arrival back at camp. I’ve searched everywhere for it and haven’t found it anywhere, much to my dismay. It was a $4 shawl
but I loved it so much and am baffled at how it could just disappear in such a short space of time. I continue to have faith that it will turn up, probably at the end of camp. Like a future visit with the Dalai Lama, I hold on to the tassles of that red shawl, not ready to let go of it, keeping hopeful that it will turn up, just as I am hopeful that I will get that private audience again with HHDL.