Friday, May 26, 2006

Arrived in Dharamsala - I mean, McLeod Ganj

May 17, 2006 - 09:33 IND

It's a cloudy, cooler morning in Chaavadipudur. There's a slight breeze that's blowing the palm leaves outside now, and a metal fan sitting on a short wooden stool is the only thing keeping me company now in this room .

It's just like so many cloudy days I had on my mission in Brazil. I just want to go home.

And in writing that, even if my eyes are tearing up a little bit, even if there's a painful lump in my throat and I feel myself trying to suppress a couple of sobs that would like to come out, I don't feel like this is any kind of failure - though that concern certainly does exist. I mean, it's true that I'm wondering why in the world I feel so lonely, why this comes as such a surprise since I've gone through it all so intensely before on the mission. And I think back to what Ruth, one of my anthro professors this past semester who spent all her schooling years at Cambridge, said to me about anthropology grad work: "Anthropology, I think, is a very good undergraduate degree because it teaches you to think. But for graduate school, you may think about film instead. You see, fieldwork is so very lonely." And I thought to myself then that I could handle that loneliness, that I could even embrace it, learn from it, become stronger through it. What's more, I figured I was able to anticipate, even as she talked to me about those feelings of isolation and disorientation, how bad it could be and somehow through that anticipation reduce the effects of those feelings. I wasn't afraid, you see. I could be stronger than the feelings.

But I forget so often that emotions are felt - really felt! - and that that's what makes them so difficult to contain. Unlike thoughts, which (at least in my own experience) can be conjured and manipulated by the mind for consideration and analysis and still remain importantly in the realm of the Separate-from-Self, feelings for me appear in response to stimuli. I don't find in myself much - if any - ability to conjure feelings like I can thoughts, to manipulate them and experiment with them in the name of emotional knowledge. I think that's because I don't think of them as separate from me but rather as a part or facet of my persona that manifests itself in response to my environment - be it worry for the future, fear of a dog, or love for a girl.

And while I'm thinking about feelings like I was that day in Ruth's office, they sure do resemble thoughts. The fact that I'm thinking about these abstract, unsurfaced things rendered unreal by their non-appearance leads me to forget how difficult they'll prove to be when I find myself facing them - 'them' as a part of 'me' - in the future. And it's that 'them'-as-part-of-'me' bit that makes it most difficult, isn't it? How do you address something that's so linked to you, you the individual who feels drawn to change it?

I'm tempted to feel that all of this means that I've failed. Failed in my inability to anticipate how those emotions I was thinking about would feel, failed in my apparent ineptitude at toning these now-surfaced emotions down to the level of thoughts. But on the other hand (and I think this is closer to being a correct or healthy way of thinking of the thing), it doesn't really seem like those are realistic expectations for anyone. I don't think I mean that feelings can't or shouldn't be controlled (though in my case that kind of control has eluded me). But is there a way to at the very least not be so surprised at them when they appear - and appear to take me over? It seems like the work I'm in need of doing is in the direction of accepting and embracing these feelings; it hasn't proven as easy as I imagined it would be.

It makes me think that it might be nice to have someone with me when I'm doing work in the field later on - someone to share all of this with, and someone who can share with me these same feelings when she needs to. I guess I mean a wife. I may not include that thought on my blog.

May 22, 2006 - 09:46 IND

On a train headed for Delhi. I'm lying in the top, windowless bunk of a small side compartment, separated from the other passengers by a thick (though far from soundproof) curtain, a narrow aisle, and another curtain - one for each full-size compartment opposite my own. My berth now (consisting of a blue plastic mattress, a small light for reading, a blue mesh pocket in which I've stowed yesterday's edition of The Hindu, a chain for stopping the train, and a placard warning passengers what risks they run by pulling the chain needlessly) runs parallel to the aisle, but on the other side the comparments each have four beds (in sets of two bunks), a small table, and some space to move around in. And universal access to a window. Ben, Lily, Elizabeth, and I are all in these confining side berths, with Lily and Elizabeth in a single bunk and me and Ben in separate bunks further down the car - and there's a stream of what I think is Hindi coming from across the aisle and a little further down the coach, closer to the girls in the group.

Most of what I hear is, from all I can tell, a couple of mothers lecturing their children. Each of the two neighboring compartments from which I hear the most Hindi is housing a small family, one with two young boys and one with a very small daughter. Last night the two boys spent most of the evening wrestling before finally falling asleep, and the little girl in the last compartment down has had free reign of the aisle, the length of which she likes to run in very heavy shoes and, having done so, scream back to her "Pa-PA!" at the other end of the car. She also enjoys singing her ABCs - in English - something her mother seems quite proud of.

Across the aisle from me, in the large compartment, a man speaks more and more loudly into his cell phone so it'll work better. I think it's a business call. And an adolescent male voice sings on a pop melody some English-sounding words among which I can make out an occasional "Jeee-suuus...". Strange to know that American cultural trends transfer so seamlessly across continents.

Not that I'm completely disliking this train thing. Or that I'm purely disliking the noises and the wrestling and such. Heck, I'm liking the Christian pop that's coming my way. A couple of things could make it more pleasant, of course - like if they'd let me open the car's doorway, for example, and watch the country roll by instead of effectively confining me to this cramped (though padded) sleeping cell. But I did read 100 pages yesterday, finishing Karen Armstrong's Buddha for my sociology of religion course. That many pages is really unheard of for me in a single day. And now you and I are getting a chance to catch up a little bit on each other, so that's useful too. And what's more, I really just like being on trains.

Plus I've had time for a really nice conversation with Ben about Buddhism, the Self, the self, and spiritual knowledge. One of the things that really struck me about Armstrong's book was her constant reminders that understanding the Buddha's dhamma could not ultimately be an exercise in intellectualism or metaphysical philosophy. Instead, she points out, true knowledge or understanding of Buddhism could only come after certain self-disciplinary action that would allow an individual to tap into his or her own deeper levels of consciousness; after that, meditation on the Four Noble Truths, for example, would place them firmly in the subconscious, make them a deeper part of what one's core instead of just what one does or thinks or feels on the surface.

May 25, 2006 - 23:25 IND

We arrived in McLeod Ganj (upper Dharamsala - where I'm doing my research) rather unscathed, except for missing glasses and a missing foam windscreen for my microphone. The missing glasses are also mine, but don't worry - I have enough contacts to make it all the way through the summer, so I'll be fine. (That was for Mom and Dad.)

This town's about as different as it gets from the other places I've seen in India. First of all, it's downright cool at night. As I type this up - I should really be in bed, but I got to my field notes a couple of hours too late - the stone floor I'm kneeling on is honest-to-goodness cold on my knees, and I'm considering buying a fleece Tibetan-style shirt (with metal buttons on the right side instead of in front) to keep warm. It also rained a lot this afternoon, which I think may have cooled us off even more.

As the rainclouds started rolling in (along with some scattered thunder) we were on our way back, on foot, from Bhagsu, a town just about a 15-minute from where we're staying just off McLeod Ganj's main roads. We had been looking at an alternative place to stay for the next six weeks where electricity wouldn't be a problem. Apparently Ben tried to use his computer here and tripped a breaker because the wiring has been weakened as wintertime tourists run space heaters in the rooms. I don't know how well that story flies, but we're going to see if other rooms' wires stand up better to our electrical demands so we can all stay here instead of finding another place. (By the way, we decided not to do the Bhagsu thing because we want to prevent any potential danger for anyone in the group - especially the girls - on the way back from doing interviews or other research as the sun goes down.)

Prices here at the Kailwood Guest House in McLeod Ganj are really reasonable, and there's a big balcony where we took breakfast and some light dinner today. That sounds touristy, I know, but I figure there are some tourist-types out there wanting to know about where to stay. I recommend this place. The rooms are comfortable for the most part, and the management shows themselves to be both competent and friendly. What's more, it's off of the town's three major tourist roads I've found, which means more Tibetans, fewer Westerners, and a quieter time.

McLeod Ganj's streets are lined by shops and beggars. And restaurants, with names like Chuki's (with a sizable Israeli section on their menu), Nick's Italian, and The Chocolate Log. All three (the shops, the beggars, and the restaurants) center on the tourist/backpacker population, and as this is major tourist season things are in full swing. We ate at Chuki's last night, drawn in by the reggae and blacklights (and the fact that it was about the only place left open), and today we had an incredibly tasty lunch at a little restaurant at the entrance to the Ladies' Venture Guest House. The Something-or-other Dragon was its name. I don't remember what the middle word was. But it's run by a couple of guys (brothers?) who left Tibet a few years back and just opened up the place in September of last year. We spent about 40 minutes there enjoying what Elizabeth seemed to think was the best lemon-ginger with honey she'd ever had, as well as veg. chow mein far better than what I'd had here until then.

As far as shops go, I admit I did venture into a few curio shops looking for a box this evening. In talking to Kirk, a BYU professor whose interests lie in South and Southeast Asia, I realized I needed to keep my videocassettes under lock and key until I destroy them; this is because my subjects are practically all political refugees, some of them former political prisoners, and they and their families (who for the most part have not left Tibet) could be in danger if they're identified. As a researcher I should have no part in anyone's capture, indictment, or punishment or anything of the sort, so I'm taking precautions to be sure this project puts no one in danger. So today I went to talk to a few Kashmiri shopkeepers about wooden and papier-mache boxes with locks that I might purchase. I know, I know - they sound about as tamper-proof as a wet paper bag. So tomorrow I'm also going down to lower Dharamsala (which I've only seen now in passing, on the bus from Pathankot yesterday) to see if I can find a metal lockable box somewhere in the town's shops.

Finally, beggars. I think they know to come to McLeod Ganj because of all the Western travellers here, and the influx of these visitors is probably constant enough that many of the panhandlers probably do okay. After wrestling with the beggar question for a few weeks I've decided, thanks to Ben our local Great Mind, that I'm going to give to one beggar a day. And today I had already given when two adolescent boys, Indians, approached me and held out very dirty hands. Now this is always a very uncomfortable situation, but I knew that I meant the very best in telling myself I would make it a point to give to someone each and every day, and I felt at ease telling these kids that I was sorry, but I couldn't today. Tomorrow was a possibility, but not today. They wouldn't take no for an answer, as is the practice among Indians (and not just beggars, I've found - it's something cultural), and came up to sit next to me on the steps where I was taking some notes on my observations. They watched me write for a while and periodically pressed me to give them some money, meeting my refusal each time. There was some obvious disagreement between them as to what they should do next, and one of them just stayed seated next to me while I wrote as the other went back into the narrow street in front of us to continue begging. He did so for a while, to no avail until the monotony was broken by a tourist-looking guy who gave the boy two sticks of gum, one for him and one for his friend whom the tourist saw sitting next to me. The kid came from the street already popping his share of the booty into his mouth and handed my companion the other piece. I looked at the kid and said, "Don't chew that." He was puzzled. I put my fingers together to my lips (meaning 'food' or 'eating' in India) and then shook a slightly raised hand, palm showing, meaning 'no'. "Don't chew that." He didn't. He sat there and pondered over his earnings, toying with the wrapper. I continued. "You can sell it. Sell. Give gum to someone for money," and I pointed to the dozen-or-so people passing by. "Sell it." He looked confused, maybe understanding but hesitating nonetheless. I reached into my pocket and just hoped as hard as I could that there would be a rupee in there. There was. I pulled the coin out and showed it to him. "Here," I said. "I'll buy it." He understood immediately and quickly put the gum into my hand, taking the money from my fingers.

When he did that I saw, just for a second, a real life in his eyes that hadn't been there before. They got really wide and just lit up. Maybe he was seeing this situation in a way he'd never seen it before. Or maybe he was just excited to have some money. Either way, I think begging - when done with the mentality that I, the beggar, am purely a victim with no chioce or agency or ownership or responsibility in what I do about this situation - can really deaden the humanity inside a person. Something about this interaction between the boy and me had was felt like an awakening effect on the kid - I could actually see it happen, just in a flash like that. (Most of the Tibetans I've seen begging, by the way, have somehow escaped that. They seem awfully at peace with what's going on in their lives - something that's surprised and puzzled and relieved me a bit these past two days.)

I don't think I'm any kind of hero for doing this, but it felt like it was at least a creative and potentially productive alternative to just saying 'no', which is all I had been able to do before. And seeing that kid's eyes widen and light up like they did... I wonder what could come out of this. Something really good, maybe - like maybe he learned something important. Or maybe even something really bad, like that they should steal stuff now and try to sell it themselves. In any case, I hope you'll agree that it was worth a shot.

A quick update on how research is starting, and then I'll get to bed. I think I'm a bit in the honeymoon stage of culture shock again, but it's been good to have a couple days to sit back and just observe a bit of how this place works, at least on a superficial level. I'll be doing much of the same in the next few days, as well as finishing up a consent form for any research subjects and getting that translated and back-translated. I've been meeting a number of Elizabeth's friends, and they're just great folks; I've enjoyed spending time with them and have already learned a lot from (and about) them sitting with them in their shops and walking with them to Bhagsu today. Right now my research is taking the form of really laid-back observations and meeting and getting to know people with whom I might be able to work later as the research develops in the next two weeks. This approach to research feels right to me - making sincere friends and learning through them and about them, doing my best to give back to them when and where I can, mixing all that darn academia stuff with good old-fashioned interaction. I'm having a really great time here.

Of course, this stage of research will end soon enough. I'll keep you posted on how it all goes. Thanks for reading.


Jooj said...

keep it up nephi. i know exactly what you mean about the strange otherness of feelings of loneliness. but a blog comment is not necessarily the best venue to pontificate about the self and other etc. etc., so i'll just say i feel ya and good luck!

Nephi said...

Thanks, Jooj.

The Spacks said...

I appreciated your creative approach to the beggar kid. I think too often the idea of "give or don't give" is too simplified, though it's hard to think up what to do on the spot. You're doing a good job!

Anonymous said...

so maybe it says anonymous because i am too lazy to make a user name, whatever...its whitney...just wanted to say hi, loved your blog, you are really having a wonderful experience inspite of the unavoidable loneliness. Love ya.

Nephi said...

Thanks for reading, Whit. I've gotta tell you, homesickness can be hard, but you'd be surprised how well I've gotten through it. Tell everybody in Provo hi for me and keep me posted about what y'all are up to.