Happy Losar!

India Travel Blog

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Leave it to me to find the one place in India where it's snowing.  A lot. 
I'm just back this morning from Dharamsala (or, more precisely, it's neighbor McCleod Ganj).  This is the home of many Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Llama himself, and is sometimes called "Little Lhasa."  I travelled by overnight train there during which ride I met a delightfully small, mostly bald, white bearded Scotsman who now lives in Northern Ireland.  He might have had slightly pointy ears, come to think of it.  When a guy like this invites you to his old German friend's house (who's now married to a Tibetan) for a traditional Tibetan New Year's Eve dinner with the promise of "Lucky Charms" in the soup, what's a girl to do but go?  The Lucky Charms in question were not the frighteningly sweet component of a breakfast cereal but were rather one gum-drop sized dough ball in each person's soup that described her/him in the year that's just ending.  The late sixties-year-old British woman wearing both a long braid and a pill box hat got a bit of coal in her dough ball and was told this meant she had a "bad heart" (last year) and that she needs to promise her family and friends that in the upcoming year she'll be better.  In my ball was a piece of cotton (are you reading this, Erin?!?) which means "the opposite of the coal" and that I need to promise my family a friends that in the upcoming year I'll be better.  Go figure.  Other people in attendance, including a well-known Thangka painter (Buddhist mystical art), some of the country's best known Tibetan activists, and an amazing 1.5-year-old who speaks and understands English, German, Tibetan, and Hindi, got equally confounding information from their soup.
We were also given the opportunity to take another bit of dough to touch to every part of our body that had either sickness or sin in the past year in preparation to cast it out before the new year.  I quickly rejected the notion that I sould strip down and rub the thing over every square inch of my skin, deciding that touching some part of my skin will probably suffice.  These we gave to a little dough man who was tidily outfitted with a little dough horse, food, money, clothing, and a candle for his journey out of town.  We took him to a crossroads, did some ceremonial sweeping, and set off some firecrackers, and he's never to return.  Apparently, Tibetan communities used to do this with real criminals each year until the practice was outlawed.  Yesterday was a day without a year and today starts the year of the Fire Pig, which I'm told will be good for breeding.  So, happy Losar all!
As for the rest of my time, I did some hiking in the gorgeous lower Himalayas, froze my butt in a hostel with a bunch of monks and no heat, and tried to chat up one of Dalai Llama's security guards to see how I far I'd get in my plan for a private audience.  I mean, if it's more convenient for the guy to meet with me over his Corn Flakes (certainly not Lucky Charms), I'm game.  Sadly, I think my Tibetan coversational ability wasn't quite up to the task.  His Holiness is on retreat until 2/24 by all accounts, although many people thought he'd make an appearance for Losar festivities this morning.  Rumors like this abound and are not good justification for changing one's travel plans.
As for a rewind to Varanasi:  hmmm...well, I'm still processing it.  "Overwhelming," "heavy," "deep," and "full-on" all come to mind.  This is one of the most sacred spritual place for Hindus and Buddhists and is thus full of religious pilgrims.  When I was there, the waterfront was also heavily tented by visiting saddhus (holy men in orange) and baba nagas (holy men more likely to be naked or covered in ash) and dreadlocked Westerners who were gathered for the annual Shiva Ratri celebration.  Varanasi is a town with the most awesome human landscape on my trip thusfar.  In one glance at the Ganges one might see ritual bathers in the Ganges, others washing clothes, the cremains of loved ones being sent to their final rest, and boats full of singing wedding parties.  There's just so much HUMANITY there.  Each night there's an hour long tribute to Mama Ganga, which makes the incredible pollution of the river that much harder to understand.  Perhaps her power and beauty are so transcendant that such here and now business is not that important?  I'm not certain.
Incidentally, Varanasi is where Ayesha's aunt's film "Water" is supposed to take place.  It's nominated for an Academy award, so see it and keep your fingers crossed!
I'm not exactly certain where I'm going next, but I'll probably leave out tomorrow or Tuesday.  Hope you're all well.  Sorry this note is so long, but it's been a very heady few weeks.
All my love,
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