Greetings from Dharamsala
Our time in India is quickly coming to a close and we have made the most out of our few remaining days. We are currently in the town of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugee community. Today, we saw the Dalai Lama give a speech for the 52nd Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the 1959 uprising against the Chinese presence in Tibet. The failure of the uprising resulted in a violent crackdown by China causing the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans to flee to India. During our time in Dharmsala we have met with many organizations that are helping Tibetan refugees and working to spread awareness of the gross human rights abuses in Tibet. We have been inspired by their hope and dedication, particularly against the tremendous obstacles they face.
While in Dharmsala we also did a service project with an organization called Tong-Len. Tong-Len was started by a Buddhist monk to help a community of Indian migrants living in slums in the lower section of the town. The migrants had first started coming from Rajasthan due to water shortages and a lack of economic opportunity. Tong-Len began providing education and health services, and basic infrastructure, such as clean water. Our group focused on two projects that Tong-Len had deemed priorities for us to help with. We constructed and painted garbage containers, and cleaned up trash from the areas around the school. Tong-Len staff are going to follow up with the community about why using the containers are important for health and sanitation, especially for the children. The second project we did was to repair and paint furniture for the school, including benches, tables and chalk boards. We completed this work over the Tibetan New Year, and when the Tong-Len staff came back, they called me to say how pleased they were with what we had done.
Another key highlight from Dharmsala was our trek in the Himalayas. The group set out on a three-day journey that included trudging through six feet of snow to reach Triund Pass, which is roughly the same height as Mt. Baker. Triund offers spectacular views of the Dhauladar Range that jut up over 17,000 feet from the valley floor. The trek, both psychologically and geographically, is a turning point for many students. At Triund we are farther away from Washington than at any other point during the trip. Everyone step down the mountain then becomes a step closer to home. Tomorrow we will continue on this path as we head towards Delhi, and then a short stop in Thailand, before returning to the US. Once in Thailand, I will send another update about our flight information and arrival time in Seattle.
A couple of the other many highlights from India include:
Varanasi (also known as Benares): During his travels through India, Mark Twain wrote, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Over 3000 years old, the city is a dazzling maze of concrete buildings and tiny alleys that open up onto the sacred Ganges river. Hindu pilgrims from across India descend upon the massive steps leading into the river. The Ganges is believed to be purify the soul and wash sins from this lifetime and past. If one is lucky enough to be cremated and placed into the river, his or her soul escapes the endless cycle of rebirth and achieves union with the Eternal. Scattered amongst the sacred ceremonies and rituals are endless numbers of touts and world-class scam artists. It creates a bizarre juxtaposition between the divine and irritatingly mundane.
Sarnath: The spot where after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon. Fittingly it is a small oasis of calm from the dizziness and chaos of India. In Sarnath we did a service project with the Save Project, run by Dr. Jain. Dr. Jain set up preschools in the surrounding villages for children of lower castes with little access to quality education. After these were established, he created a primary school for children of these preschool to feed into. He would also like to create an additional primary school and one secondary school. While in Sarnath, the students stayed in homestays and spent time with the preschool children. Dr. Jain said rather than teaching a specific subject like English, he simply wanted us to play with the children. He explained that Indian society will teach these children that because they are from lower castes they are inferior. The simple act of us showing them love and treating them as equals is a much more valuable lesson than any subject we could teach.
Hope all is well back home, I will be in touch soon when we arrive in Thailand.