At Home in Dharamsala | India | Living in Mexico

At Home in Dharamsala

I am posting from Dharamsala in northern India.

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I'm visiting a friend in nearby McCleod Ganj, an old British hill station that now serves as the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the home of the Dalai Lama.

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A friend of hers loaned her a beautiful house perched on a hill halfway between the two towns. I wake up to the songs of birds and cicadas. During the day, I watch the sun play along the rugged mountains.

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The landscape is not what one visualizes when thinking about India. We live among fir forests and rushing streams, in weather sometimes sunny, sometimes misty. McCleod Ganj abuts a wilderness. Snow leopards roam here. The other night a man was mauled by a bear.

No road reaches the house. Every day I must climb a steep path for a few hundred yards to reach Jogibara Road, a narrow track of crumbling pavement that constantly slides into the ravine. The walk into McLeod Ganj makes an elevation gain of hundreds of meters, a situation sure to improve my conditioning.

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Others use the path leading upward, which runs through our garden. It works like trespass rights in rural England. People walk within yards of the windows, so I have to wear street dress when I'm at home. Modesty may be more important in India than in Mexico.

Entry to our house is gained by unlocking a primitive padlock, one that could be picked with a hair pin. Yet the place is secure. Neighbors watch out for one another. Strangers are carefully tracked. Residents know everything that goes on in this little settlement.

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The interior is pleasant. Locally made furniture and carpets lend a warm and slightly exotic atmosphere. There's no central heating, just like homes in Mexico, but we're situated at the latitude of Pensacola, Florida, and our elevation is a thousand feet less than in San Miguel. Nights are cool, days are warm, even in October.

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A two-burner gas hob serves for cooking. We make coffee in a Bailetti espresso maker. We have to boil water before drinking; hence the large pot.

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Kitchen cabinets are made from galvanized steel with mesh windows, to keep critters out of the food. In Mexico, we'd set mousetraps. But Dharamsala is Buddhist country. We don't kill animals or insects here.

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When traveling abroad, I carry power adaptors, but it's virtually impossible to buy the type that fits Indian sockets. Massive contacts can handle loads of five thousand watts. The things look like they were designed by hyper-conservative British engineers during the Raj—and they probably were.

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Gas for our tiny stove comes in small bottles that must be carried down the long, steep path to the house. Thankfully, strong men do this. I probably wouldn't have the strength.

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The water heater is electric and holds only a few gallons. We turn it on twenty minutes before showering. It's enough.

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It's a Zen brand water heater, "The dependable one." I'm learning to be completely satisfied living more modestly than I did in the States. Here in India, my carbon footprint is very small.

Dharamsala uses buried drain pipes for black water sewage, but they're too small to handle gray water as well. A channel from the house leads to a settling pond and then on to the municipal open sewer system.

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Compared with the tumult of Indian towns, we live in a peaceful oasis. A window seat looks out over the garden and onward to the mountains.

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Last night we walked home just after sunset. Our valley was in darkness, but the sun was still shining on the Himalayas.

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I look at them through my bedroom window. They shine in morning sunlight, peek through ragged mists and clouds in the afternoons, glow in moonlight: a constantly changing scene. Down the road in Dharamsala, the view is more spectacular, not blocked by foothills. But this view is my view. I never imagined I'd ever be lying in bed with these great mountains looming over me.

We're in India, but we're not. Many Tibetan refugees live here. Monasteries and Tibetan Buddhist temples dot the hills.

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McCleod Ganj is a refugee town. Indians are here to be sure, as are people from all corners of the world who are interested in the Tibetan issue or in pursuing spiritual growth. But so many faces are Tibetan. Many signs are lettered in the Tibetan language. When I greet an Indian, I say "namaste;" for Tibetans, I say "tashi delek."

Indian? Tibetan? It's a little disorienting.

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