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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happy Earth Day, sort of...

Happy Earth Day!

It's been a temperate spring day and I just took a stroll through the drought and storm battered Memorial Park. Depending on who you talk to, the park (one of the largest in the U.S.) has lost 10,000 or 40,000 trees. On Arbor Day, volunteers planted 25,000, but drought conditions are due to return this summer and may be even worse. The Memorial Park Conservancy seems to be strapped for cash, though I'm told that the board isn't terribly proactive and didn't act to retard the effects of last year's drought. I haven't found anything online to support that, but my source is pretty reliable.

That said, I hope that the city rallies to help the park out for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to preserve a recreational resource, but also for the benefit of everyone's health. The preservation of green space in and of itself is laudable, but less trees and more open space means more heat trapping pollution, increased particulate matter in the air, a higher heat index (and in Houston, that's just plain hell on earth), greater strain on the grid and all of these come together to bake a sizable population.

Not everything is bleak, or at least not completely: Trees for Houston stepped up to the plate and I think there's increasing support for making the city more pedestrian and bike friendly. Of course, the biggest issue is that Houston's mass transit usage is deplorable. People here are practically threatened by the idea of not using their car.

I hope that this finds you all well in your respective geographical regions and that environmental awareness spreads accordingly. Then we could have truly happy Earth Days!

Yesterday brought a serious downpour that washed out some of the trails in the park. I was on my way back to sis's when it started to come down. After a couple of hours, I sucked it up and went for a stroll. I tried to walked between the drops, but wasn't too successful.

The rains let up for a while, and then resumed. I meditated in the deepening dark.
Today, I saw the effects of both the wash out and trees that have been removed from Memorial:

The ground is still as sere as it was last summer and with the trees cleared away, you can see through to trails that weren't visible before.


Because I don't want to end on too much of a gloomy note and bearing in mind that is, after all, supposed to be a day to celebrate Mother Earth, here are some flowers, both reminders of joy to be preserved and a caution of what can be lost.


Part Two: Points of Departure - Day Trip to Bir

I'd been looking forward to this for some time since the Kangra Valley is replete with some of the most amazing countryside. Plus, any time spent with Dolma and the family is quality time, for sure!

One of the first things you may notice is the drive down from McLeod Ganj/Upper Dharamsala takes a good while, but it's a fascinating look while transitioning from what is, for all intents and purposes, a Tibetan village to a more typically Indian town. Both are great, by the way, but you get a quick study in the differences of cultures right away. Once outside of Dharamsala proper, you're in some of the most beautiful scenery ringed about by the Himalayan foothills. The photos which follow hint at that, but hardly capture it.




The first stop along the way was Palumpur, flush with tea gardens and abundant with water flowing down from the mountains ("palum" means just that). Unfortunately, people still don't get the idea of conservation despite highway signs telling people not to litter. We stopped at one juncture along the way and I watched in disbelief as a taxi pulled off to the roadside so the driver could get out and toss what looked like five pounds of trash into the river! Dorjee pointed that out as one more way things India was going to have to change. And it's not Indians only; I'm doubly shocked when I see my Tibetan friends just casually toss crap off onto a mountain or hill side.

All that aside, our first stop was the zoo at Dhauladar State Park, which has approximately fourteen kilometers of trails. It's a modest affair and charming because of it. By the time we got there, most of the critters were sleeping. The bears and leopards were napping in the shadows which didn't make for great photos, so I opted for more intimate looks. I forewent the roosters and chickens, but I did grab the porcupine and vulture following. And Dolma pulling her hair back!




And in case there's any doubt:

Before moving on, I want to note that Palampur itself is definitely worth exploring. Aside from its natural attractions, the town itself is extremely proactive in terms of health training, agriculture and education. The literacy rate is something like 78%, considerably higher than the national average of 59%. Moreover, despite my repulsion at the flagrant dumping of trash in the rivers and streams, there really is a lot of work going on to preserve, protect and nurture the environment.

Once again, I have a number of pictures from my camera and once again, these will have to be uploaded to my Picasa or Photobucket streams later.

Tashi Jong is the main monastery around which the Tibetan camp/community had been built. It's a Drukpa Kagyu monastery founded by Adeu Rinpoche and as well as performing the liturgical functions, is also a haven for the traditional arts. Tenzin-la pointed out to me that the community of Tashi Jong is thinning out as young people choose to move away to pursue other lives. While this is a common, if not predominant trend among the Tibetan communities across India, it's impact is felt more in these smaller settlements.

Tenzin also told me something I wasn't really clear on; that the communities would either be supported more by agriculture or by what he called industry - that is, the traditional arts and crafts manufactured and sold by the village artisans and guilds. Both models find themselves in jeopardy as the younger generations leave to pursue better pay and integrate into more modern lifestyles. Needless to say, this is having a negative impact on these communities in many different ways, not limited to population decline but also to diminishing familial and social support, something that is cutting deeply into traditional communities across the world, but is more acutely felt in populations at risk like the Tibetans who are extremely communal and family oriented.

Below are some snaps of the monastery, its stupa and the exterior of the meditation hall. Just as a side note, I don't know why I didn't take any pictures of the interior. It's really beautiful, and I was extremely moved just being there, but I didn't feel 'right' about it. I mentioned that to Dolma when she asked and I couldn't really explain it.

This is the main entrance ramp. What follows is pretty much what you would see as you go up it and onto the grounds.















From here, we were on our way to Bir. I joked that it would be fun to have a beer in Bir, but puns should just be left alone. The silence was threatening until my dear Dolma said a beer in Bir would be nice. Sadly, no beer, but a good time, nevertheless, was had by all.

Bir is home to Deer Park, by the way. One of the great resources for Buddhist study and practice as teachers from all over the world come and teach. I was sad that Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was coming to teach there just as I would be leaving.

We stopped at Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö Institute which was built on an earlier foundation in the 1990s and was overseen by Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk until his passing. It's been supported and consecrated by many high lamas, most notably and recently, His Holiness Sakya Trizin. The institute seeks to preserve the shadra tradition while at the same time training teachers to be more sophisticated in their methods of teaching in a more modern world. Frankly, upon walking through the gate, I was ready to live there.

The grounds are immaculate and the meditation hall is a marvel of architecture, with classrooms on the upper levels (we could hear the rumbling of hundreds of monks overhead as classes let out). The hall interior is fantastic with a remarkable collection of thangkas. The outside murals are beautiful renderings of episodes from the life of Gesar, mount Meru and other representations of Abhidarma, along with sculpture of various buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The grounds
Palden and Tenzin on the veranda overlooking the institute grounds.






This is such another world altogether and one I wouldn't mind visiting again, for a much longer stay.
Following is the gate and the some of the surroundings. The road leading to the entrance is lined with saplings (I want to say elm trees but I could be wrong).
The day was beginning to wane and we decided to adjourn to Bir itself. There was a cafe whose owner Tsultrim Kalsang was friends with. He and I strolled up the road out of town and this is where we all sat and enjoyed some terrific pie and cappuccino.


These are from the stroll to the cafe.



Note the hang glider upper right. Big draw for Bir!
....and a couple of family photos, for good measure:

Before heading to Tashi Jong, we stopped off at a hotel/resort that had been a retreat, of sorts, for the British during the Raj. The grounds were well-appointed and we had a pretty good meal.

Can I tell you how dear to me Dolma, Dorjee and their family are?

Photo: Tenzin Dorjee. I was about to say something witty to Palden...I didn't realize I was squishing Dolma! Honest!
In Parts 3 and 4, I'll take a last look at McLeod and Part 5 will be the wrap-up in Delhi. Not that I want to interrupt my fond farewell, but today is Earth Day and I have a separate post for that.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Part One: Points of Departure

Never can say good-bye: I'm dragging out the last three weeks in India because, well, just because.

The sad thing about this post is that I actually had begun it on April 5. However, I lost the content when I tried to set a link to a photograph. I'm not going to try to recreate the content, though. It's best to simply start fresh and the beauty of blogs is that they are pretty extemporaneous.

I've been back in the states about a week and a half and feel pretty strongly that I'm still traveling. I'm staying at my sister's for a month, maybe two, but recognize that for what I want to do, a return up east is in order for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is ease of re-establishing myself, networking and overall familiarity with the area will go a long way to funding my return to India.

In the meantime, Houston is not without resources and its odd vitality. There's a Bon center nearby, as well as what appears to be a couple of pretty healthy Buddhist communities (a few, really). Additionally, I suspect I can dig up something worthwhile to do; it is, after all, the country's fourth largest city and there's always opportunity for making oneself useful.

My original draft was much more political; but I think I'll save that for later. By way of closure, I am posting a bunch of photos from the last three weeks or so in McLeod Ganj.

The Norbulingka Institute was set up to preserve and promote traditional Tibetan arts and handicrafts. Dorjee, Dolma, Palden and Dolma's sister-in-law Tashi Yangzom and I took a day to head down and explore....and eat...and for me, shop for souvenirs for family and friends.

It's an exquisite place and Dorjee and I both agreed that spending a day there would done well spent. There is a meditation hall, exhibits and like the original Norbulingka, a contemplative park in which to stroll and reflect.


There was a shrine that once inside the gate contains mani stones, tsa-tsas and images.



This is a view across the park of one of the main exhibit halls.









This was a tsa-tsa of Yamantaka. Above is Chenrezig among a nest of manis.








Inside the meditation hall, the gentleman with his back to the camera is Tenzin Dorjee. I should point put that Dorjee passed along some photos he took of your humble narrator and the family later in our perambulations for me, this is a huge honor because in my eyes, he's one of the best photographers around. He graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology, was perhaps the youngest official photographer for the Tibetan Government in Exile, has won his share of awards, had worked published in Time, Aperture, Magnum, etc. You can - and very much should - check out his work here:

Lunch was a pretty eclectic and as usual, spirited time. The restaurant was out of a fair number of items, but that didn't stop us from having a good time.


Tashi-la checks her messages. The peace sign belongs to...

The very talented Miss Palden!

We finished lunch and began the walk back to the car. A fine drizzle kept us cool...and perhaps a little damp.


Photo: Tenzin Dorjee

I really don't mind getting wet! It's just kind of a drag when you have merch in danger of getting soaked.

Part Two: Road trip to Bir