The home of the Dalai Lama

May 12 – 19, 2013

We caught a train early the next morning to Pathankot. We ended up sitting on the train for an hour before it actually started moving. Chandler was getting really antsy but I just read my book and held a woman’s baby until we finally got going. Once in Pathankot, we walked to the bus station and got on a bus that someone motioned at said something that sounded sort of like Dharamsala. We had a moment of panic when Chandler turned on the GPS to make sure we were going the right way and found we were heading south. We decided to stay on the bus for a few anxious minutes before the bus turned back east, apparently making a roundabout circuit of Pathankot before heading to Daramasala. Once in Daramasala, we shared a taxi with two friendly guys from Wales about to head out on a 10 day trek in the mountains. They had been searching for decent hiking boots in town, but had come up empty and settled on heading out with canvas tennis shoes wrapped in tape. At the top of the hill we reached our destination, McLeod Ganj.

McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. There were very few Indians around and most of the population was made up of Tibetan refugees. The town was set on a steep hillside with a few narrow busy lanes. The backdrop of a few 3000+ meter peaks made the place quite picturesque. There were so many shops full of jewelry, fake Tibetan wool blankets and prayer flags. The temperature was finally cool enough to need to carry a jacket during the day and actually wear one after the sun had set.

On our first day, we got invited by an employee of L.I.T. (Learning and Ideas for Tibetans) to volunteer for an English conversation hour with local people. We were both a little nervous to join the group, but felt welcomed the moment we walked in the room. We ended up returning every day that we were available. As English speakers, we were separated and non-English speakers would then form groups around us. The person leading the class then put three questions to be discussed up on a white board. After an hour of talking about the questions the students would then stand up and share an answer with the group. There was no pressure to talk and it was very fun for everyone. The questions were all really hard and thought provoking. The first day’s questions were about the best day of your life. We thought they couldn’t get harder after that, only to find the next day asking about the meaning of life.

There was broad spectrum of English ability and age in the groups, which made it fun to get to know each person in our group over the course of the hour. It was really interesting talking to the Tibetan refugees. Most of them had not seen their families since they escaped Tibet. When talking on the phone with relative in Tibet, they had to be careful about what they spoke of because the Chinese monitor their conversations. They all had so much hope for a free Tibet, but there was also a feeling of despair as their objective does not seem possible in the near future. All refugees also have the privilege of a meeting with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama when they first arrive to the area, and many shared this as the best day of their lived.

We went to a fundraiser for L.I.T. another night which included dinner and a talk from a Tibetan political prisoner. The man was arrested near his monastery in Tibet for distributing fliers which advocated allowing the Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa. He and his two friends were arrested and tortured. One of his friends was eventually murdered by the guards in prison. He spent a total of 5 years in jail before his release. He immediately escaped Tibet and made his way to Nepal and eventually to India. It was a sad situation he spoke of. The topics discussed were deeply personal and somewhat politically sensitive so we decided not to ask to take pictures of the talk or people we interacted with during the English conversation, so sorry to not have any compelling visuals.

One morning we spent circumambulating the main Tibetian temple. The road was lined with prayer flags and prayer wheels, and we made sure to put each one into rotation as we walked pass. We were joined by several elderly Buddhists also on their way to the temple. The temple is located right next to the Dalai Lama’s home, who just happened to the in the United States while we were there. Our walk ended at the temple, were a monks and locals were concentrated in prayer.

A monkey

A monkey

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The largest of the prayer wheels

The largest of the prayer wheels

We spent another morning in a Buddhist philosophy class. A monk read scripture while a woman interrupted it into English. We learned about living life with patience and that the opposite of patience in anger. Even though we are not Buddhists, the teaching made a lot of sense for everyday life. We left feeling inspired to be more patient with each other. Who knows how long that will last!

I think the highlight of our time in McLeod Ganj came during our hike to Triund. The path started in town and began as a cobblestone path. There were frequent tea houses along the trail so hikers could stop and rest. The trail was well defined but really steep in several spots. We were passed by a pack of loaded donkeys at one point which I found surprising they were able to maintain balance on the rocks in some of the boulder fields. When we finally reached the top, we were offered a wonderful view of the town and some snow clad mountains. Chandler and I almost felt like we were at home.

Pack donkeys

Pack donkeys

There was a lodge at the top, but no vacancies, so we rented a tent and sleeping mats. Two young men struggled to set everything up for us as we relaxed and watched. It felt a little strange to have somebody else do the work that we could probably do in half the time. We enjoyed a dinner of rice, dal and chapatti at one of the tea houses and a bonfire with a dozen other people. Our group ended up exhausting the supply of firewood before being forced to bed. It was a great evening of socializing, surprisingly with a group almost entirely of other Americans.

The mountains at the top

The mountains at the top

Looks like a good spot to camp

Looks like a good spot to camp

The next morning we hiked down in half the time it took us to hike up. We had difficulty finding a hotel room for a decent price because there was a big Indian Primer League cricket tournament in Daramasala in a few days and the prices of accommodation had skyrocketed. We finally found something reasonable and decided that night to head back to Delhi a little ahead of schedule since we were getting kind of pinched out.

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Baan Unrak

December 16 – 17, 2012

We spent the first day in Sangkhlaburi relaxing and catching up on emails and the blog. We found an excellent cafe that served real coffee rather than the Nescafe stuff which is usually what passes for coffee here. Our plan was to leave the next day and go back to Bangkok, but we saw a flyer on the door of the cafe at changed our minds.

The Baan Unrak home and school is a place for Burmese refugee women and children. The kids have no papers and are therefore not allowed to attend Thai schools. Two didi’s or nuns came to Sangkhlaburi and opened the home and school to help them out. The school has grown so much that one of the nuns’ home is being used as a classroom. A new building is being built to house the nun and several disabled children.

The superstructure of the building was constructed with steel and concrete blocks. The non load bearing interior and exterior walls were being built out of mud bricks. We were pretty curious to see the project so we figured we would stick around to help out. It was a really awesome experience and we were happy to help a great cause. Plus, the school uses Montessori methods and all the food served there was vegan, so how could I not help.

We helped make mud, bricks and built exterior and interior walls. The mud is a mixture of local clay-rich soil mixed with rice hulls for some tensile strength and water. The mud is then put into a mold to form the bricks, the mold is slipped off and the bricks are left to dry for several days. Once dry, the bricks are smoothed of rough edges and debris. The same mud is thinned with water and then used as a mortar when constructing the walls. We were also given a lesson on making “cob”, a mud, sand and straw mixture. It was incredible how strong the cob was. The cob was used at the end of the walls, to bond the walls to the wooden door frames.

A Canadian named Dan who has lived in Thailand for a while was running the show. A few other volunteers were helping Dan with the construction including a group who bussed in from Bangkok just to help out for a week. We felt bad we couldn’t stay and help longer, but we had plans to head east of Bangkok to continue our ride to Cambodia before our visas run out!

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Mixing dirt and rice hulls

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Mixing the mud

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Making bricks

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Chan pouring mortar

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Exterior wall building

The next day we wanted to take a bus back to Nam Tok then catch a train to Bangkok. We could take a bus the whole way, but we figured a train would be more fun, and we wanted to see the Hellfire Pass Memorial which was on the way. We got up early to go to the Mon side of town for breakfast. Chandler had read about Roti Ong, a roti filled with chickpeas, onions, garlic and spices. After some searching we found them in the main marketplace. They were awesomely delicious.

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Roti ong

We then headed to the the bus depot and tried to buy tickets but the agent wasn’t sure if we could take the bikes. When the bus arrived it was clear we weren’t going. The undercarriage was completely full of cargo. So, we went over the second class bus depot, to find out the 9am bus wasn’t running and that we should come back at 1:15.

We hung out, read, did laundry and had fruit shakes. We got to the bus depot at 12:50 only to find out we still weren’t leaving. The bus had either already come and gone or wasn’t coming at all. It was a frustrating day, but we ended up glad we could spend one more day in Sangkhlburi, which has a very nice laid back vibe. We went back to the guest house for another night and hoped we could get on the 6am bus out of town otherwise we’ll be biking up our favorite hills.