Well! I have made it to Rewalsar, which is a little town tucked away in the southern Himalayan mountains, near the border between India and Tibet. It’s known mainly as a pilgrimage site for Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, and also for a prominent Tibetan lama who lives and teaches in the caves above Rewalsar.
Rewalsar isn’t much of a tourist destination, unless you want to visit one of the many local shrines, but a friend of mine studied here for awhile and recommended it to me. The initial plan was for me to study with one of the yogis/lamas in the cave–but that’s flexible, and right now I’m just wandering around, taking in the sights and meeting people.
Rewalsar itself is tiny, nestled up against a very small lake in the Himalayas, and is full of small but fascinating sights: a knife-sharpener treadling his grindstone, spitting sparks as he sharpens a blade; a pilgrim making his way up to one of the shrines, prostrating himself full-length along the road at every step; old Tibetan women whirling prayer-sticks as they walk around the lake.
A troop of monkeys roam freely about the town, searching through the trash and romping over the roofs; pilgrims and tourists feed giant carp by the edge of the lake, watched over by two beggar-women. Another old woman sits and spins fine goat hair on a tahkli (supported spindle), next to her small shrine selling offerings to a Hindu god. Tibetan prayer flags flutter everywhere; a weaver sits at his loom in one tiny corner, weaving Kullu shawls.
But overall, the effect is of a deep spiritual peace, overlaid by the bustle of a small town. It’s not a tourist destination, but a good place to sit and think.
The Tibetan portions of India have been interesting. One of the first things I noticed is that Tibetan men react very oddly to me. In fact, they stare. Sort of worshipfully, like they can’t tear their eyes away. It’s sort of eerie. Seeing this for the first time at a rest stop at 1am, I started wondering if there hadn’t been something in my dinner chapati (or theirs).
But no; it turns out that I’m just somewhere near the ideal for Tibetan beauty. Between that, the long hair, and the generally confident air, I apparently poleaxe Tibetan guys. Moreover, Tibetan legends are replete with stories about gods and bodhisavatthas disguising themselves as lone travelers, so, umm…I’ve been warned that I may be mistaken for a wandering deity. (Why does this sort of thing always happen to ME??)
At any rate, I imagine this will make for a MUCH more interesting trip. I’ll be VERY disappointed if nothing interesting happens… 🙂
Yesterday, I spent the first part of the day wandering all over town with my drop spindle (announcing my presence, and also encouraging spinners/weavers to come talk to me). The second half of the day, I spent an hour talking weaving with a beautician, and then went off to see a weavers’ workshop with a guy who runs a weaving workshop in town. Since he was running late, he asked if I wanted to stay with his family overnight, and I said sure! because it sounded interesting.
(A word of warning to female travelers: there seems to be an unwritten law that every Indian male, married or not, MUST make a pass at every female solo traveler, unless (possibly) she’s married. A boyfriend isn’t sufficient. I suspect this is because Western women have a reputation for being “loose”, or maybe it’s just because women don’t travel unaccompanied.
At any rate, if this bothers you, don’t go anywhere alone with an Indian guy, because I’ll give you 75% odds that it happens. (I’m 3 for 3 so far.) The good news is that they largely take “no” for an answer, and don’t sulk about it. I get the idea that they’re mostly doing it just to see what happens. But, do expect advances.)
Anyway, after we got that little pleasantry over with, he cheerfully reassured me that I was now his “sister”, which I think meant that he wasn’t planning to rape and murder me that evening. I admit this was somewhat reassuring, although I wasn’t particularly concerned–people with established shops are usually OK, the beautician across from him knew where I was going (and hadn’t warned me about him), and thanks to Lena I had plenty of friends in town. I’d also marked some landmarks along the path, and gotten the overall direction of our travel–I’m not *quite* so stupid as to run off with a total stranger without taking a few precautions. If you call me paranoid, I’ll cheerfully agree, and proceed to do it anyway. It doesn’t cost much, and the potential payoff is enormous.
Anyway, we didn’t find the weaver–though we did take a good look at his workshop–so we went on to visit his family. I hadn’t realized he meant to hike OVER the mountain to get there…
…the view was *amazing*.
I forgot to mention that Rewalsar is nestled in the Himalayas. In California, that would mean it’s stuck on the side of a bare mountain. But here, the mountains are terrace-farmed…so the slopes are broad slopes of pine forest, green fields of winter wheat, the reddish brown of fallow fields. The curved lines of the terraces texture the mountainside, breaking up the pattern of color.
Over it all, the clouds gather; fog boils over the valleys, breaking occasionally to show patches of verdant green. Sunset on the slopes paints the and the hills, and silhouettes the long-tailed birds as they fly. It’s like looking over the top of the world.
We went on, over the ridge, and went over to see his family.
Vijay (the shop owner) lives with his wife, his two children, his brother’s family, and his parents, in two houses atop the ridge. It’s a nice house, as houses go–concrete, not overly well-appointed by Western standards, but nice and neat and equipped with quite a few luxuries: carpets on the floors, nice furniture, a bathroom with hot and cold running water, and a stable underneath where their three cows and angora rabbit live. (He had 200 angora rabbits at one point–for their fur–but gave up most of them.)
I met his entire family, and showed his mother how to spin with the silver spindle–she showed me how to use it as a takli (Indian supported spindle)–and exchanged notes on our knitting projects. We chatted for a bit, had dinner, and went to bed.
(The last beverage we had before going to sleep was hot sweetened milk, which was the best milk I’d ever had. I couldn’t believe it was just milk and sugar–I couldn’t work it out, until I realized that, like most Indian villagers, they kept cows. Super-fresh, straight from the cow. No wonder cows are sacred in India.)
In the morning, Vijay took me up on top of the ridge (maybe 100 feet from his house) and showed me the view on the other side of the ridge. It was indescribable. I stared open-mouthed for fifteen minutes–I took a few photos, but don’t expect them to come out–and only snapped out of it when another of the beautiful long-tailed birds flew by. At least, I *thought* it was a long-tailed bird. Then I realized it was green, and the head looked funny, and vaguely familiar…
…I was standing there, on top of the world, watching the morning mist and the bamboo forest and the pine trees and the snow-capped Himalayas shining in the sun…with parrots flying by.
I mean, really. Have you ever seen a parrot FLY? I’d seen the little conures that got loose in Southern California, but I’d never realized how long a parrot’s tail-feathers are, or how graceful it looks in flight. Parrots are things that sit on perches in bird cages and ask for crackers, not things that *fly*. And these were *big* parrots, not little parakeet-things. Really, really cool.
We watched the parrots for awhile, and eventually walked down the mountain, where we caught a bus into Rewalsar.
Nothing much to report since then; I’ve been chatting with various people, and meeting others. Lena’s asked me to forward Losar (Tibetan New Year) presents to various friends of hers, so I’ll be playing Tibetan Santa Claus for the next couple of days–which should also give me an introduction to most of the Tibetan community. (Thanks, Lena: I owe you one. 🙂 ) At lunch, I ran into a fellow Westerner (David) who’s here for a long-term retreat; tomorrow, he and I are taking the bus up to the caves, mostly to poke around. (He knows a good bit about Tibetan Buddhism, so I’m hoping he can give me an overview and cultural translation, sort of Tibetan Buddhism 101.) After that, we’ll see; I plan to spend the next few days introducing myself around, and we’ll see what happens. 🙂
I also found a Tibetan guy who works in my hotel, who’s trilingual in English, Tibetan, and Hindi–he’s offered to translate for me, as I want to have a conversation with the beggar-woman who spins on a takli. All in all, despite the lack of obvious tourist resources, I think Rewalsar will be a really interesting place to be.
Current plan is to spend three weeks in Rewalsar (with side trips to Kullu and other interesting weaving areas), then two weeks in Dharamsala, poking about and trying to get an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (also listening in on the first four days of his New Year’s teachings), then fly home. But really, it all depends on what happens.