Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Leh. 9 of 16

May 19th, 2004

I have arrived since a few days in Ladakh. This is a region high up in the Himalayas, as far north in India as one can get. It is a desert at 3,500 m of altitude, surrounded by peaks that are all around or over 7,000 m high and are covered in ice, the melting of which produces abundant streams and unusual small islands of green.

The Indus river flows right in front of Leh, where I am currently staying, It is surrounded by fields and trees and flowers in full spring bloom. Then, a few hundred meters away, a desert without even the slightest hint of vegetation.

The temperature swings are extreme: between day (30C now) and night (10C), between sun and shade, between summer (5 to 40C) and winter (-30 to 20C), between one day and the next. Extreme are also the colors that can be seen from the gompas that top almost every peak and hill here: black sky, then blue sky, white snow, then red and yellow deserts, and finally green patches here and there. I am here at the end of the low winter season: all the roads in are still closed, and so are most of the local shops and restaurants. This means that there are almost no tourists, and locals are very eager to interact with the few of us, after so many months of isolation.

That is how I meet some young Tibetans, which invite me to visit their local refugee community and the summer residence of the Dalai Lama. What an interesting experience! First the residence, where my first impression is of surprise at the (very large) number of statues of different Buddhist gods. The surprise continues when my local hosts bow and kiss everything the Dalai Lama might have touched (remember that he is considered to be the material incarnation of the god of compassion). This includes his bed, his chair, his blanket, his shower, and yes his toilet! So long for the original Buddha message of no gods, no rituals, no ceremonies, etc.

Then my new friends invite me over to their house. It is a very modest two room mud building: one room is the bedroom and living room, the oher is the kitchen and storage and study room. Toilet and bathroom are outside, in the garden. But in spite of their harsh living conditions (including having lost their parents, unemployment, interdiction to leave the country, segregation, etc.), they are all very warm, smiling, happy. Except that they spend most of their days watching American movies on TV, and therefore are slowly starting to have a whole new set of dreams and desires.

Funny how in the west we are attracted to Eastern spirituality (Yoga, meditation, Zen centers, Tantra, etc.) because we are slowly realizing that our materialistic and individualistic world-view is incomplete (i.e.: money, wealth and power do not really give us the inner happiness they promised). While in the east they are attracted to Western 'superiority' in terms of personal freedom, individual comfort of life, technological and economical superiority. The excessive focus on spirituality has not brought happiness either, as many are left struggling to satisfy basic needs. It seems to me that one culture has focused too much on the base of Maslow's pyramid, while the other one too much on the peak. Those days I am brought again to seek and question the value of charity and social interaction in a process of personal growth. In other words: is personal growth individualistic and egoistic? And is charity just piety, and social interaction an escape?