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December 07, 2004


Hotel Dharamsala



In favor of all the friendly people that I've met on my journey and that welcomed me so kindly into their lives and homes, I will write this message in English. In addition to an update about my time in India, I'll try to compose a summary of my travels uptill here so far, so part of it doubles with previous posts.


INDIA - DELHI and DHARAMSALA - November, December 2004

Arrival in Delhi, India for the first time in my life was quite a shock -as was to be expected- but despite the warnings and preparations I was overwhelmed by this madhouse of traffic, noise, dirt, smells, crowds, poverty, touts, beggars, saddhu's, children, dogs, cows and cockroaches. The first two days I explored the surroundings of my hotel in small sections, almost block by block, street by street -all I could handle- until I was able to work my way from Pahar Ganj to Connaught Place, where banks, bars and western hotels can be found. But even there.. this is nothing like any European city. There is hardly any refuge from the pressure, hardly a place to chill-out, so I often ended up fleeing back into my hotel room. As I was well aware -since it was obvious- that I had reached a different continent when I came to Bangkok as well as Jakarta, this time it rather felt as if I had landed on a different planet.

Still I managed to buy a train ticket from the New Delhi train station to Pathankot. An overnight trip in a reasonably comfortable 2nd class sleeper. I suppose after four days of Delhi my standards had already become somewhat adjusted to the Indian way of life.. From there the local bus to McCleod Ganj, Dharamsala took four and a half hours of squeezing, bumping end jumping - preceded and concluded with a climb up onto the roof in order to stow and recollect ones own luggage. This four and a half hours included several detours in and around Pathankot due to heavy traffic, the driver's lunch break, and the replacement of one flat tire. To my relief I had met with three Dutch fellows in Pathankot who were going in the same direction, so there was plenty of opportunity to chat and exchange experiences. However, by the time we arrived in McCleod Ganj, around four in the afternoon, we were all sick and tired and very happy to check in to our respective guesthouses.

After two days only it became clear to me that this was a place to stay for at least a while. That while has now turned out to be more than a month. A month well spent I may add. Daily activities would comprise of long walks into the mountains with astonishing views into the valleys as well as onto the snowpeaks, following lectures on Buddhist philosophy in the Tibetan library, teaching English to some Tibetan (political & cultural) refugees as well as to some of the poorest Indian children in a dusty tent camp (economical refugees), socializing with fellow travelers, reading, writing, drinking chai and gazing into the depths and heights from my guesthouse balcony.

Here too, like in Japan I was granted the experience of an earthquake - this time even more fiercely, because the epicenter was just one valley away. What a way to wake up. Then during my meditation the aftershock came, which disturbed me so much I decided to get a shower instead. However, then I realised that being naked in the shower is probably the least fortunate position to be in during possible further turbulence, so I cancelled that too.

Eventually I found it was time to retire into a 10-day introductionary course on Tibetan Buddhism, so I climbed up to the Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamkot, just above McLeod Ganj. This course gave me a much better intellectual background of generic and Tibetan (Mahayana) Buddhist principles, in addition to some new meditation techniques. Interestingly enough this place is right next door to the Goenka Vipassana centre which is following the "other", Theravada (or Hinayana) tradition. This is the very same one I did last May in Switzerland.

I have to clear out something about the names of the places around here. When people say "Dharamsala", they usually refer to a cluster of small villages including Dharamsala, Dharamkot, Bhagsu and McCleod Ganj. McCleod Ganj is the absolute centre of it all and this is the place where both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile reside and where most travelers will stay.

Finally, I've started saying goodbye to Dharamsala, which appears hard for anybody who tries to do it. This is "Hotel Dharamsala": "You can check-out any time, but you can never leave". I've come to like this place so much, as apparently almost everybody does - one after the other would postpone their leave and often even cancel plane tickets. This is the gateway between many different worlds. Here you find everything you need to know about your next step on the journey, any journey.. and then there's so much in and around this place alone, that the necessity to leave becomes less and less.. Here it is where worldly and spiritual worlds touch, where lowlands and mountains join, where poor and rich, Indians, Tibetans and Westerners meet. In only the six streets of McCleod Ganj, in the mountain hills above and in the Kangra valley below, the universe is contained.

And then from here, any kind of next destination can be chosen. Up into the Himalayas of Ladakh, down into the deserts of Rajastan, on towards the Sikh world of Amritsar, or the Hindu Rishikesh and further along the Ganges, and into spiritual adventures in the many classes, courses, retreats, ashrams and monasteries.

One high-light yet to be mentioned was a 3-second encounter with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.. Leaving the Nyamgal restaurant -part of the temple complex and residential area of HH- some friends and I noticed a gathering of some westerners and Tibetans by the side of the road. His Holiness (which is how everyone here refers to the Dalai Lama) had been giving some teachings outside Dharamsala and was apparently about to return to His residence. One of my fellows exclaimed in excitement: "O Hans, His Holiness is arriving!" and we placed ourselves with the other spectators. After a brief ten minutes a siren was heard and in came a queue of cars swiftly passing by. In the front seat of one of those sat the smiling and waving figure of His Holiness. Everyone folded their hands and bowed in serene admiration. Within ten seconds all had passed. The euphoria remained for hours.


Tushita Meditation Centre - http://www.tushita.info/
Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition - http://www.fpmt.org/
Tibet, Tibetan government in Exile - http://www.tibet.com/ http://www.tibet.org/
Volunteer work in Dharamsala - http://www.volunteertibet.org/ http://www.lhainfo.org/about_lha.htm



English summary of previous posts




Before leaving Europe I went to Switzerland to attend to a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat out of the school of S.N. Goenka. Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation technique out of the Theravada school, which is mainly to be found in South-East Asian countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodja and Myanmar (Birma). During the past 30 years, the teachings of Goenka spread practically all over the world and his meditations centers can be found in practically every western country, but still mainly in India as well as in other eastern countries. During the retreat one is to refrain from speaking, smoking, drinking and sexual activities, for which sake the quarters of men and women are entirely segregated. Meditation lasts upto 10 hours a day in addition to which a video is shown every evening with comments of the master himself. Day starts at 4 in the morning with a meditation of an hour and a half, after which breakfast is served. The next meal is at 11am after which there is just a piece of fruit at 4 or 5 in the afternoon. It was quite an experience (as someone once described it to me: "It's not a picnic"), which really helped me to attain some equanimity of mind - you simply have to.. if you don't, it's just torture. Other than that it's up to each and everyone for themselves to determine if this is something for them; have a look at http://www.dhamma.org/ for all the backgrounds and inside information.



As it being my first visit to Thailand and to Bangkok, I was mostly impressed with the heat, the street-life and the omnipresence of Buddhism. It is hot and damp, much like a discotheque in Amsterdam at 3 in the morning. Then people live -but mainly eat- in the streets everywhere, day and night. Don't be surprised if you come passed an occasional elephant on the sidewalk. Buddhism is everywhere. Bangkok alone has hundreds of temples and monks in orange are to be seen everywhere. The same goes for the villages, as me and my friends visited the home village of a friend in the east, near the Cambodjan border. The village, in the middle of the rice fields and palm-trees, just as hot as the city and at night equally noisy, but in this case from a tumult of jungle sounds. Next to that I visited Koh Chang, a very nice holiday island not yet too overdeveloped, also quite near Cambodja. Lived in a little hut on the beach for three weeks.


INDONESIA - JAVA and BALI / August 2004

Arriving in Jakarta was another shock. Much more chaotic, disintegrated and smoggy than Bangkok. Also tougher in terms of visible poverty and apparent dangers of robbery and possible terrorism (unfortunately this was sadly demonstrated by the attack on the Australian embassy, shortly after I left the country). Don't be misguided however by the bad news only: Jakarta is a metropolis like many others and has just as much to offer in terms of shopping and going out and the vast majority of the people are friendly and welcoming. Drinks and backpackers in Jalan Jaksa.

One of the reasons for going there was the wedding of an ex-colleague, which was an amazing experience of traditional Javanese culture - in addition to a great party!

Other places visited on Java were Bandung (buy cheap clothes here in the many factory outlets), Yogyakarta, Solo, Surabaya, Malang and the Bromo crater. Absolute highlights were Borobudur, the active Bromo crater at sunrise and Solo for its authenticity in Javanese culture. Went to Gamelan rehearsals and Wajang performance here, where I was one of very few - and sometimes the only westerner. A very spiritual place as well, although the mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and specific Javanese aspects was somewhat confusing to me. Interesting old Dutch colonial architecture can be found mainly in Malang and Bandung and some in Surabaya. The latter was specially interesting for me, since my grandfather used to be a constructor in Surabaya, some 80 years ago. Also it's where my mother was born.

Bali is an island full of impressive ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, next to a super beach - and partyplace. A little over the top -specially Kuta-, but I didn't visit the north of the island, which is supposed to be much more laid-back.



Among my first impressions of Japan, those of a fierce nature were undeniable. Within a week I witnessed three earthquakes and one typhoon. The second earthquake was somewhat scary, since it happened in the middle of the night, completely shaking and waking up the Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel). However, by the time I was on my feet, and with pounding heart had been able to decide I had to forget about my possessions and get outside, it was already over.

Japan appeared to me as a strange mix of a modern high-tech- and traditional society. Everything is very well organised an people are very polite, but outside their formal, functional roles I found them somewhat difficult to approach. However in those cases where I did manage to get passed the formalities all barriers seemed to disappear quickly.

Arriving at the targeted Zen monastery in Mishima, Shizuoka-ken I was to find out that there had been a misunderstanding with regards to the dates of the intended Zen-sesshin (retreat), which left me in the middle of nowhere in the heat of the afternoon, with no particular place to go. What else did I come to Japan for? After making it back to the town, the internet helped me solve my problem. Found an interesting Zen monastery near Kyoto open to foreigners, and two emails sufficed to agree on my arrival at the Tekishin-juku monastery in Inukai, Kameoka. Here I stayed for a week, living as a true Zen monk, with people from a mix of nationalities, but nevertheless under the strict rule of Zen tradition. A place definitely worth visiting for anyone seriously interested. See http://www.tekishin.org/.

Finally, I spent one day and night in Osaka, being guided by this friendly Englishman whom I met in the monastery, and is living in Osaka to teach English to Japanese kids. He shows me all sides and many aspects of the city, including how the expats join in for extended dining with lots of Japanese beer and saké. Kampai!

Slightly hung-over I make it to the unreal Kansai airport, built on a completely artificial island somewhere out in the sea... weren't we planning on something like that in Holland...?


THAILAND - SOUTH / October 2004

Back in Bangkok as my "central south-east Asian hub" to the rest of the world, I prepare for my visit to India. When done I explore the south, mainly the islands Koh Lanta, Koh Phi-Phi and Phuket. In Koh Lanta it is still off-season and the island is practically drowning with rains. Koh PP is the most wonderful, colorful place, but by then I am struck with fever and flue and I stay there for a week, just to get better. Daily routine consists of regular healthy meals and nothing but the necessary walks to get to it. Other than that I rest and enjoy the wonderful view of the bay from my hillside cabin.

Most interesting experience in Phuket is the so-called "vegetarian festival", which is quite something else than one would expect. An initiative of the Chinese temples to please the Gods, in favor of which hundreds of inspired participants pierce themselves - mainly their cheeks, lips, ears - with every (un)thinkable object, such as skewers, spears, golfclubs, high-hats (you know, part of a drumkit..?) etc. etc. For ten days they march the streets every morning in a bloody scene, highly inspired and mostly in a trance, which enables them to intermediate for the Gods and bless any - or all spectators by the side of the road. Deafening load and violent fireworks complete the scene.


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