Finally, after an exciting, albeit exhausting weekend of travel, me and my group of teens made it to Dharamsala! We almost didn’t make it at all, actually. We left promptly at 8:30 AM and were met with the crazy Delhi traffic you always hear about and hope you never have to experience. We made it to the airport at 10:00, 40 minutes prior to our plane departing. I have never been so stressed out in my life. It would not have been I big deal if it were just me, but for the first time I was responsible for getting a group of volunteers to their final destination, after having already been delayed. I thought I was going to have a panic attack while we were standing in security because the man scanning bags kept casually getting up to walk around. I finally managed to flag down another employee and showed him our ticket (at this point we had about 20 minutes). They sped up a little but it was still frustratingly slow. Oh well, we made it to our plane just in time, and super bonus that my carry on actually fit in the overhead! 1 hour later we safely landed in Dharamsala.
The rest of the week is a bit of an exhausting blur. Jet lag got the best of me and I feel like I’m still adjusting to the time difference. Tuesday we had a great evening celebrating 4th of July. The staff cooked us a proper American dinner consisting of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and corn on the cobb! They also brought us the most epic sparklers ever and we found great joy in lighting as much on fire as we could handle, all while singing our national anthem. Our groups from Australia and Canada watched on with support but also slight confusion.
Wednesday began the first day of placement for me! I spent the week with my teen volunteers working with children from a migrant community. The community consists of about 10 families who have traveled from Rajasthan for work. They live in what is essentially a tent community for the majority of the year, but do go back to their villages during holiday. The school takes place down the street at a temple where the children are grouped by age and learn English, math, and other basic skills (dance parties are also a frequent occurrence). Just within my first week, I’ve noticed something about India that I had never experienced: the value of education. The children here are incredibly eager to learn as much as they can. It’s such a stark contrast from the attitude I’ve seen back home, where school is sometimes seen as a nuisance. They are technically on holiday due to monsoon season, but look forward to coming to “CCS School” every day to learn from the volunteers. We were taken to their village on Friday and I cannot even begin to tell you how hospitable these families were to us. It’s quite amazing to see these people that have so little, but are content with what they have. They all invited us to see inside their homes and offered us tea and places to sit. The children loved showing us where they stay! When they leave, they literally pack up everything they own, tents and all, and move back to their village until it’s time to come back.
This is Anil, my favorite little boy. He’s a bit of troublemaker at times, but gosh darn it he’s adorable and has a smile that will melt your heart.
The cultural activities for the week did not disappoint! Tuesday we visited Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, a local NGO that works to empower women in India, and also educate the public on organic farming and reversing the damage we have done to Mother Earth. We had a lovely talk with the head of the organization and she educated us on the struggles women face in India. I think I left slightly more feminist than when I came in but I don’t hate it? I’m also a little obsessed with the compound they have set up. It’s filled with adorable homes, plants, and flowers! It’s impossible to not feel like you’re one with nature there.
Wednesday we visited Norbulingka Institute, which is a Tibetan temple/cultural museum/Tibetan art center. I loved this place and wish I could have stayed for days. Not only did we learn a bit about Buddhism/Tibet’s culture, but we got to see the various art forms they practice there. Wood carving, wood painting, and thangka painting are just a few things they do there. The art work is so intricate and incredible, it’s truly something you have to see in person! Of course, we also got to visit the temple, and of course it was breathtaking.
Thursday we had a special guest in the house. While I was in Delhi I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of traditional dance, taught by a guru who is a friend of Bela and Monu. Unfortunately, her name escapes me, but her and her granddaughter flew to Dharamsala to give us an in depth class about the dance style and the meaning behind it. At the end of the class we got to practice a short stretch routine that is used and holy cow my legs were actually sore for days. These women have an incredible amount of body strength and control to do these dances.
Friday was the day I had been looking forward to all week: a trip to Dalai Lama’s temple! As some of my family knows, I’m weirdly fascinated with the Dalai Lama and while I have accepted I probably will never see him in person, his temple will be sufficient for now. Quite literally tucked away in McLeod Ganj, his temple overlooks the Himalayas and as soon as you walk in you feel at peace. We got to see a couple different temple rooms, but they were all essentially the same. Also, I touched the Dalai Lama’s seat. I asked Neha 3 times if it was okay and she said yes…so I did it. I also spun a giant prayer wheel, along with all the smaller prayer wheels surrounding the temple, so I’m feeling pretty englightened, you know?
So that’s it, folks! That’s my first week in Dharamsala. India has quickly captured my heart in a way that no other country has, and I’m very excited to explore more of the culture and the people here!