Lumbini is a quiet dusty town with two roads, one dirt and one paved. It is one of those towns you could easily pass by without realizing anything special was hidden there. However with the help of two bikes and a map we found a dozen giant breath taking Buddhist temples. Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddha and many Buddhist groups have built monasteries to celebrate the Buddha and his mother. Each monastery is built in the architectural style of its region. There are temples from Japan, China, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Korea and Tibet among others. The Tibetan temple is behind me. We spent two days riding bikes on tiny winding muddy paths through the forest. Now and again an unbelievable structure would rise from the horizon and we would have another gigantic structure to explore. There was hardly anyone else around except for temple guards dozing off in the shade or young monks going about their daily routines. A great sense of peace exists here.
Behind me in this photo is the Peace Pagoda in
We have been in
The event happens in Durbar square one of the oldest sections of
The folks in the courtyard were mostly young. There were some elderly folks on the ground but they were mostly leaning out of their windows, watching from above. The children were the most thrilled and frightened by the demon. They would run away as he danced around the courtyard. Two boys probably about 7 and 9 pulled on my coat to ask if I was scared. They told me they were very scared, especially when the demon shakes his head. As the dance wound down the boys invited us to follow them to the main square. At the square they explained more of the festival telling us of the giant white elephant who would appear and chase the demon away. We parted ways and they disappeared into the massive crowd that had assembled.
I was particularly struck by those two kids. I was surprised by how well they spoke English because they were so young. I was surprised they were wandering through such a huge crowd without an adult. But I was really taken aback by their kindness. They were genuinely interested in our reaction to the festival, attempted to explain elements of it and they were kind enough to guide us to the main square. In my handful of other travel experiences, I have rarely found adults to be this kind and helpful let alone kids. I think those two kids reflect the warm and welcoming attitude I've experienced in
We spent the next hour or so walking through the rain, and watching the crowd. We saw more red masked demons running about and a giant white elephant made of cloth representing the god Ganesh. Processions of musicians passed by and finally three giant wooden chariots, with wooden wheels, appeared, one of which we knew held the Kumari. The chariots were heaved by groups of men, intoxicated with the excitement of the festival. They were encircled by a large group of police who seemed bewildered with keeping the crowd at bay. The chariots must have been incredibly heavy because they did not roll smoothly and only moved in starts and stops. The crowd of men would pull and then quickly move to avoid the approaching wheels. The middle chariot, the one with the Kumari, came to a dangerous, abrupt stop just in front of us. We were barely able to see her because the chariot was also filled with other people but Zoe did get a picture of her.
We left the square soon after the chariots passed. We were soaked from the rain and I was drained from the entire event. I was also eagerly looking forward to my birthday meal, which turned out to be one of the best on the trip so far.
I’ve only seen India by night. Through the windows of overnight buses. For the last three weeks we have been in Tibetan enclaves, tucked away in dusty quiet corners of India. We have been surrounded by Tibetan people, news and culture. From the bus window, India is a mess of watercolors splashed on tiny grubby rectangles of glass. The florescent colors are dripping, swirling and exploded on the other side of the window.
Our latest overnight bus ride was from Dharamsala to the Tibetan Colony, Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi. The ride was like a Saturday Night Live skit. We boarded our deluxe sleeper bus around 6pm with 35 other people. Every seat had its own funky problem and every white person wanted to change seats. My seat was situated at a very funny angle so I had to lean on Justin during most of the ride. My seat was also soaking wet from the monsoon rains that came earlier that day. Justin was caged into his seat by a metal ladder leading up to the sleeper cell above us. Every once and a while dainty plump toes would swing down from the sleeper cell above. Justin would duck to avoid getting kicked in the face. Some seats didn’t recline and others would only stay in the upright position. The whole bus smelled like armpits. Justin and I watched tourists yell and moan while frantic bus drivers tried to accommodate everyone. Mostly that meant grumpy tourists getting their way and local folks getting busted seats. After about an hour of intense arguments and seat rearrangements we started to head down the mountain.
It was misty and bumpy. Our three Indian bus drivers spirited us away, hurling us around hairpin turns while swerving to dodge oncoming construction trucks. Once and a while the fog would lift and we could look across a valley at the road we were just on. The hillsides were sparkling with tiny lights from homes and car headlights on the other side. The sliver of a deep yellow moon dangled above us. When the light was right we could see the steep and craggy cliff we were driving along. We only sideswiped a few cars before hitting traffic. I think there must have been some sort of landslide and the road just couldn’t fit our deluxe sleeper bus and the truck full of dirt ahead. But they tried. As our bus inched past the truck I buried my head in Justin’s shoulder. I was scared that the metal hooks on the dirt truck would bust through our window. What a sigh of relief when we our window was in the clear. But just then, CRAACKKK…POPPP, shattered glass all over the back of the bus. The breaks screeched and the three Indian bus drivers ran out of the bus to start fighting with the crowd of people standing around the dirt truck. A Tibetan woman in the back calmly picked pieces of glass off her seat and dropped them out the hole where the window had been. Each shard plopped down into a pile of dirt bellow.
Soon we were off again. I was so happy when we got out of the mountains. We were lucky I guess. Earlier this year a tourist bus drove off one of a cliff killing a dozen people. When we reached the lowlands it was hot but the heat seemed like a fair trade to be off those roads. For the next 9 hours we rattled through many villages full of incredibly poor people. Everywhere people were sleeping on the side of the road or on the median between two roads or in their cycle rickshaw. Sometimes we would pass glowing Hindu temples all lit up with multi colored lights and blasting music on loudspeakers. At some point in the middle of the night we forged a river because a bridge was unsafe. We were in water halfway up the side of the bus but no one seemed to mind. Around 9am we arrived in Delhi. A monk we made friends with on the ride walked with us to our hotel where we passed out.
We arrived in India around midnight and spent hours bribing a pack of customs officials to let us bring a bag full of cameras into the country. After we handed over a ridiculous amount of money we went straight to Majnu Ka Tila, the Tibetan colony in Delhi, to sleep. From there we caught the overnight bus to Dharamsala, the town in northern India where many Tibetan refugees live and where we will spend a good deal of our time this winter. Dharamsala is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Tibetans walk for weeks or months over the Himalayas to arrive in this rainy mountainous safe space. Some refugees set roots but many Tibetans seem to stay only until they have the English skills and resources to move to other areas of India or abroad. The town is also bubbling with foreign travelers. The majority of the young tourists are Israeli hippies. Most of the Israelis come after doing their mandatory time in the military.
The Tibetan community has done an incredible job of harnessing the tourism industry for their benefit. Many tourists volunteer at community centers, eat at the restaurants and buy stuff in the market. Dharamsala is not the place to go if you want to learn about ancient or untouched Tibetan culture. But it is the perfect place to learn about the current culture of Tibetan refugees. Thousands of refugees have incredible stories that they are eager to tell. We learned a lot volunteering in a conversational English class. Each day for two weeks we sat with groups of 5 or 6 people to practice English. I would begin by asking a general question about Tibetan culture but the conversation always turned to politics and the issue of Tibet’s freedom. People spoke directly about the hope that Tibet will soon be free. Many feel it is time to rise up and fight for Tibet’s freedom. The youth is restless and many monks are willing to give up their robes to take up arms. Still, most of the people we talked to greatly respect and love the Dalai Lama. While he is alive the majority of Tibetans will follow his non-violent middle way approach.
We spent two weeks in Dharamsala, which we will write at great length about soon. We left Dharamsala last night and will return there in November to hold an unseenamerica/unseenworld Bread & Roses photo class with an incredible group of refugees. The class will be made up of are workers, monks and Lha staff. They already have the cameras and will be emailing us stories about their lives while we are on the road. We are now in Delhi on our way to Tibet. We are traveling over land by bus, train and jeep. The journey should take a week or two. I am happy we have the time to go slowly.
I would love to hear all of your thoughts…
We arrived in Dharamsala at dawn on September 5th. We were exhausted from the overnight bus that carried us along dirt roads from Delhi to Dharamsala. The bus chugged, rattled and shook for 12 hours before climbing the steep winding mountain road to this little town. We were met with a warm smile by Karma who brought to his home, fed us porridge and tea then sent us down the hill to hear to the Dalai Lama’s public talks. We were there just in time to cram into the temple yard with hundreds of Tibetans and listen to His Holiness talk about compassion.
We slept for a solid day before beginning our work at Lha. Lha is a Tibetan run community center in the heart of town. Their website is www.lhaindia.org. At Lha we have been teaching photo and English.
The project we are working on while traveling in South Asia is unseenworld, an international arts project for workers and refugees to describe their lives through photography. Photographers learn to become seen while they document impacts of globalization on communities throughout the world.
This September the project launched a class with Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India. We’ll continue over the course of a year throughout Asia. We hope to also work with Burmese refugees in Thailand. The core of the program is a series of free photography workshops. Workers and refugees receive cameras and photography instruction while engaging in discussions about self-representation. Participants tell their stories through their photographs. The pictures will be accompanied by audio recordings of storytelling, street sounds, community festivals, and the sounds that compose the pulse and spirit of daily life. We hope that the culmination of unseenworld will be a traveling exhibit, multimedia website and book.
unseenworld is an expansion of unseenamerica, an innovative arts project created in order to add the vision of workers to the vision of society. unseenamerica was conceived by Esther Cohen the Executive Director of the Bread and Roses Cultural Project of 1199SEIU, a 30-year old non-profit 501c3. In the last five years, unseenamerica has completed photography workshops and exhibits with workers, immigrants and refugees in over 300 cities and towns across the nation. unseenamerica has been featured on CBS, NPR, and World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, among others. Articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and scores of other national and local papers. In May 2006, Regan Books of Harper Collins released a beautiful hardcover book of photographs from the project, entitled: unseenamerica: Photos and Stories by Workers.
We are thrilled to have the privilege to be doing this work while we travel. Zoeann will focus on the photography while Justin’s focus is audio. This blog will help us stay in touch and share our travel experiences and creative process with you.
Zoeann & Justin