Dharamsala (or, more accurately, McLeod Ganj) was very different from the other parts of India we have seen. The weather there is a pleasant 30 degrees cooler, Tibetan, rather than Hindi, was the predominant language, the beautiful Himalayas rise above the region, Buddhism is more common than Hinduism there, and the people have very different stories.
Our experience in Dharamsala was also more emotionally taxing than we may have expected. We spoke with the leader of an organization bringing awareness to Tibetan political prisoners who are imprisoned by the Chinese government for actions so small as saying “Free Tibet” or possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama. We heard from the leader of the Tibetan Women’s Association about the organization’s role in helping women while their government is in exile. We each had many individual conversations through participating in conversational English classes for adults and with our home stay families about their or their families’ difficult escapes from Chinese-occupied Tibet over the Himalayas. We watched a documentary filmed inside Tibet about life there now, and learned how the United Nations and the US have turned a blind eye to the Tibetan struggle thanks to China’s immense economic power. We even spoke with the long-time translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who gave us further lessons in Buddhism and answered any questions we had about his own role and that of the Dalai Lama. Many of us, prior to this experience, had never been exposed to the issue of Tibet. While the information we gathered was very one-sided in supporting Tibetan autonomy and did not give China’s perspective that it freed the Tibetan people, it was nonetheless disconcerting to realize that I had never been exposed to the conflict.
It was impressive to see that arguably the biggest hub for Tibetan culture exists not in Tibet, but here in northern India. Still, with the immense crowds of tourists (including our group), it feels as though the Dharamasala area has become less of a haven and more of an attraction. Some locals shared with me that tourists bring litter to the area, and a member of my home stay family also shared that with a recent influx of tourists, water has become more scarce. We only had water about 4 hours per day in my home stay home, which I learned was due to a combination of a faulty water system and much of the water being bought by the hotels in the area. Still, many people we spoke with seemed excited that people from across the world were visiting, as they wanted to spread the word about the Tibetan cause and Buddhism. While I am very happy to have been able to visit Dharamsala, our stay also opened my eyes to the effects that my travel can have on a community.
I now write this in my room at Deer Park in Bir, recovering from a fever and reflecting on the weeks we have spent in India. As we wrap up our stay in this country, I have begun to revisit all of the experiences we’ve had and the lessons we’ve learned, and I am excited to share the experience when we return to the States in just a few days.