By: Lelo Macheke
So there I was on the evening of June 28th, packing my excitement, my finest collection of clothing and an ideology of an excursion in which I would seek spiritual redemption by reading all the holy books and praying in temples all day. My retrospective thoughts pronounced these intentions as selfish, perhaps even crude, but the notion of spiritual renewal posed as a good idea at the time.
I was part of a team of 34 students under the organisation of Street School- an organisation that exists in order to bring about personal development. Our purpose was to teach English to Tibetan monks and refugees who had fled from their womb-country to Dharamsala, northern India. Intentions aside, I walked into India knowing that I wasn’t going to receive a DSTV pamphlet experience.
The first day had me in an abhorrent state. I was experiencing severe exhaustion- not jetlag! – as a result of our connection flight from Mumbai to Delhi being delayed 5 hours, forcing us to seek refuge on the cold floors of the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The temperature hadn’t dropped below 29 degrees in the past 24 hours and the requirement of my passport at certain checking stations only but fuelled my impatience.
After the opportunity of freshening up in a hotel in Delhi – an hour in which I used to breathe and regain composure- we found ourselves in Delhi’s congested streets, visiting fallen kingdoms of dynasties of monarchical rule and riding in auto rickshaws. I experienced a violent sense of emotional austerity- a rude awakening to my normal train of thought. I needed not to analyse who the people of India were. Religion is hereditary to them. Their gods swarm their actions. Worship is who they are. I could feel their prayers colliding with my shoulders as they tried to find their way up to seek salvation. I could feel their eyes inquisitively eliciting my soul, wanting to know who I was, where I came from and my intentions for my presence in their land. I was fascinated to witness a noblewoman in a shredded sari, running out of the temple at the first sound of the bells, holding a Blackberry and approaching every second person asking for some sort of assistance. To the least of my expectations, she ran towards me, almost longingly. She asked me if I knew how the mobile device worked. It was something she found in a forgotten bag at a bus stop and was hoping to make a call to the father of her child, begging him to come back and endure the poverty with her and their child. Children play in open gutters while homeless men defecate in the same water upstream, across the street. Poverty runs rife there. It is as hereditary to them as their religion. I found myself contemplating a man sleeping on a sack. His feet, hardened from the thousands of miles he’s walked in search of hope. I asked him ‘’But, where is your God?’’
I only spent a few hours in Delhi before boarding a 500-600km night-shift bus trip to Dharamsala. From India’s capital, the projected 10 hour bus trip was disregarded due to peak-hour traffic where the volume of vehicles, buses, trucks, bicycles and auto rickshaws are at their highest at night than any other time of day. Intimidation is how one attempts to win the war against traffic. What we consider “taxi behaviour”, here, is protocol during tight jams on India’s highways. Hooting, hands wielding the third finger and shouting offensive slurs.
Dharamsala greeted and washed me with a humble breeze as I exited the bus and hiked my way up to the main town. It was nothing like I imagined. Nothing like any author’s words has described or anything I’d seen in movies, the aroma of chicken being braaid in make-shift kitchens intertwined with credulous pedestrians and the cacophony of small taxis and auto rickshaws. The streets were narrow yet busy, but however, were humble. The team and I walk further down the road towards our place of accommodation-the Tibetan Hope Centre. My idea of a monk was a holy being, a spirited individual who was not seen socialising with the rest of society. My perceptions were completely diminished. The monks are integrated in their society, even adding a splash of colour with their red, yellow and orange robes as they strolled in the streets.
“We’ve never really seen actual black people from South Africa here. Please may we take a picture with you?” Each time I was stopped to take a photograph with a local at his/her request- an amusing occurrence which happened quite frequently during my stay in Dharamsala- my logic was disturbed, almost defunct at the fact that I was being valued for my ethnicity somewhere on the other side of the world. During one of my one-on-one teaching sessions, I had the privilege of teaching a monk in training who was able to shower me with all the knowledge of the monkestry and the process of becoming a Lama. Tenzin relayed me his story of how he managed to escape Tibet and find salvation in Dharamsala. Tibet is currently under Chinese occupation and has been so since 1949. After a tug-of-war between the Tibetan government- including the Dalai Lama- and China, it was clear that China had no intention to adhering to treaties and coalitions. Political unrest, indoctrinous policies, the kidnap of the Panchen Lama (The second highest spiritual power after the Dalai Lama who is selected at a young age and trained from there on), detentions, arrests and tortures have torn the Tibetan community apart forcing them to hike the Himalaya mountains for months- some not surviving the journey for a better condition of living- and seek refuge in neighbouring Dharamsala. Though he tries to curtain the pain with nervous giggles and smiles, his heart longs to go back home and be one with his family again. I was grateful that he was aware of Apartheid and the consequences of political discourse on innocent people. “Politics is emotional.’’ he reminded me. Though the thought of being a celebrity for 6 days and having locals request you to pose with them-provided their common reasoning- I later realised that my skin spoke of their torment. It is the fact that my dense pigmentation of melanin provided a common understanding of what it means to struggle.
Dharamsala treated in its finest. It served me the opportunity of waking up to natural wonders outside my window such as mist rumbling through up the mountain, engulfing everything in its path. Shopping in the streets until my carves twitched- most things were reasonably cheap so the hours of walking in and out of flee markets was worth it. It also served me the opportunity to sit down, have tea and converse with a group of youth from the monkestry, shake the Dalai Lama’s hand and sit down with the Tibetan prime minister for a conversation about the state of Tibet’s oppression.
I studied the realm of living without a cent to spare or food to digest, yet the spirit of Ubuntu thrives in Dharamsala’s community: where prayer, laughter and hunger are communal. I learned the architecture of smiling like I owned this seemingly twisted concept of ‘Happiness’.
“God can be anything you truly want. You just need to figure out what you truly want” Tenzin.
Pictures by: Mpumelelo Macheke