Quoting the Grateful Dead’s “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been” is highly appropriate for this scenario. Yes, my friends, it has been a very long, strange trip. Well, specifically this week. Even more specifically, Saturday night. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Firstly, a recap of the week:
On Monday, I went to the doctor for a sinus infection. He prescribed me some medicine and now I’m on the mend.
Tuesday, we visited the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium, one of the highest cricket stadiums in the world, at 4,780 feet above sea level. On a clear day, one can see the snow capped Himalayan Mountains in the distance, also making it one of the most scenic cricket stadiums. However, since monsoon season is in full swing, the sky was dreadfully overcast and no mountains were to be seen.
A glorious idea was proposed to the fundraising team I’m a part of for the special needs school—we would sell crafts in the Dalai Lama’s temple Saturday and Sunday, and he would be in town to bless the crafts! We canceled our weekend travel plans so we would be able to help with the sale (and get blessed by His Holiness).
Wednesday, we did some shopping in McLeodGanj and made posters for our craft sale.
Thursday and Friday, we held a small craft sale at the market in Dharamsala, at one of the teacher’s (Rita) homes. It poured so not many people showed up either day. We were educated on Indian television culture by Rita’s son, who explained multitudes of shows and the politics of big television corporations. He was very bright! We had a pretty fun time hanging out with all the teachers outside of the classroom (one teacher even brought her wedding album for us to look through!).
I attended an Indian Bridal Preparation Simulation, where one of the volunteers was dressed up like an Indian bride so we could see the (intensive) process and learn more about the wedding process. Indian weddings often time last four or more days, and the couple wears a different outfit each day. All jewelry must be pure gold (or else bad luck ensues). Mehndi Henna is a must. Red saris are the traditional dress of choice. It was very fascinating and full of color! Indian weddings seem like a dream come to life!
Saturday morning, we went to the Dalai Lama’s temple, Tsuglagkhang, and helped set up the crafts display in the courtyard for all to see before climbing the stairs to the meditation area. The kids in the vocational class who made all the crafts were able to come and sit at the booth with us, so they got to see people buying their handicrafts. They were very well behaved and friendly to the customers. The sale itself was incredibly successful!! So many people stopped to look at the crafts and make donations that we raised enough money in two days to potentially sustain the school for six months! It was incredible seeing the generosity of the people (especially the Tibetan monks who donated a lot of money and fed us lunch both days). It was fantastic!
Unfortunately, His Holiness did not leave his special mediation room either day we were there. We were told he was in a deep mediation in wake of the Nice, France attack. He’s known to meditate for four or more days without leaving, so… But that’s okay, because we went to something Saturday night that helped balance out the disappointment—a Traditional Tibetan Evening of Song and Dance. A proclaimed “Unforgettable Experience!” by the Lion Man.
That was an understatement.
I suppose the adventure started as Hillary, ZiZi, and I were walking through the monsoon rains down a 45 degree angled hill looking for the Seed Café, which we spotted down a cliff in the distance. After following some people under a canopy, we found a set of narrow, crumbling stairs that led to the bottom of the cliff, where more stairs led us to a porch we hoped was the Seed Café.
The café was nestled in the attic of barn-esque building, giant windows overlooking a truly breathtaking view of the mountains in the distance and the valley below. The rain dissipated some of the fog, leaving us with a dreadfully beautiful backdrop. Inside, tables and cushions were arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, various posters of famous American rock icons dotting the walls. Prayer flags fluttered on the ceiling and a small stage completed the ambiance, a giant Tibetan flag hanging resolutely above.
Also, there was no one there, save for a waiter who kept darting in and out of the back.
We ordered hot tea and waited for the show to start, a misty rain blowing in through the window behind us. Slowly, people trickled in, all white westerners, save for an Indian couple with a young child. A girl from the UK who was here doing a three-week yoga retreat talked to us for a bit. A group sat in a corner on cushions smoking who-knows-what, clearly in violation of the “NO SMOKING” sign. Everyone was very chill, as one would expect from a stereotypical backpacker’s café.
Twenty minutes past show time, a little Tibetan guy with a manbun and scruffy beard popped on stage and began telling us the story of his migration from Tibet in 1998, and how he has started using song and dance as a means of self expression to help cope. He explained that tonight would be split into two parts—the traditional fight and FREEDOM. With light applause, he launched into a traditional Tibetan song, a cappella-style. Truthfully, the singing was dreadful and I regretted the entry fee and time I had invested into this. Obviously we couldn’t leave at the first song, so we stuck around.
The Lion Man pulled out a traditional Tibetan stringed instrument, called a dramyin, and began playing a slow, somewhat-random piece. As he progressed, the notes became more chaotic and his strums more violent, leading into a free-for-all fingerpicking brawl with himself. That was a little strange, but we went with it.
He moved on to dance next, starting with very traditional dance moves—lunging, spinning—which increasingly became more aggressive until he fell to the ground, hitting his knee. He laid there, crumpled on the ground for several moments and we all thought it was part of the show. Finally, someone from the audience helped him up, and Lion Man limped to the stage, apologizing for his injury. I figured that meant the show was over, or at the very least he would take it easy.
He wanted to perform an “apology dance” for us, which featured a very slow music track, of which he walked around in a circle, his eyes closed and his hands in prayer, for three minutes. It was a bit odd, but we cut him some slack. Perhaps he hit his head when he fell. We all have our moments.
His next dance number involved Lion Man traveling around the circle once more, this time bowing in prayer (almost like an inch worm, flattening to the ground and then rising back up). Again, this went on for three or so minutes. Alright. I figured it was a strange Tibetan ritualistic dance or something.
Lion Man’s next “dance” lasted for over ten minutes. TEN MINUTES OF CONTINUOUS SPINNING. He spun around and around and around… and as he spun, he started to take off his jacket. He must have been getting hot, no big deal.
And spinning and spinning and removing his outer robe and spinning and spinning and why was he wearing so many layers?
At the conclusion of the epic spin journey, Lion Man announced the beginning of the freedom portion of the show. He played some zen music and placed his forehead against everyone’s in the audience, one-by-one, starring into their eyes for at least five seconds. I was one of the first ones, and his sweat dripped onto my arm and I tried not to freak out. One guy wanted to videotape the forehead-connection, and so Lion Man tackled him and maintained contact for at least forty-five seconds. We nervous-laughed a little, unsure if it was appropriate. At this point, we rationalized that he was just really into abstract dancing and this was his way to intimately connect with the audience.
Things started getting really weird at this point.
He started pulling people from the audience to complete tasks. The first two men he grabbed he hugged intimately while spinning around the room. Again, we were kind of like “maybe he’s just trying to connect with the audience.” He grabbed two more guys from the audience and did a fun interpretive dance with them that ended with him hoisting them up and spinning them around. Show of strength, we rationalized.
Next, he selected a couple in their sixties and promptly lifted the woman onto his neck and then the man onto his back. He walked around, carrying the both of them!
He grabbed two skinny European guys and had them get on their knees, one on top of the other, and then he crawled underneath and lifted them both up on his back.
The next two people he chose… happened to be me and Hillary. I tried to refuse because I couldn’t imagine this going over well, but he grabbed my arm and pulled me forward. He placed us back-to-back and took Hillary’s hair and placed it over my head, giving me long hair, I guess. Then he grabbed our legs and lifted us both over his shoulders as though we were sacks of potatoes. His sweat made my entire salwar kameez damp and I thought I was going to be sick because THAT IS GROSS. But I held it together.
He then plopped onto the ground and kicked off his shoes and socks, then grabbed a traditional Tibetan mask and started dancing what appeared to be a very traditional dance. “Okay,” we thought. “Maybe things are turning around now.”
“No,” the Universe shouted, because things are never that easy.
As he hopped around, he took off his inner robe, beating it on the ground and swing it in the air. How far was this going to go?!
He grabbed a roll of toilet paper and wrapped himself in it, still dancing around. Someone brought Lion Man a fire stick, lit it on fire, and let him twirl it around while wrapped like a very flammable mummy. Flaming bits of TP filled the room, raining down on tables and people, a particularly large chunk of ember nearly caught my scarf on fire. He took off his t-shirt after that, no doubt worried about it catching on fire.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE—
Lion Man decided to stick the fire wand in his pants until he burned a hole in them, and then he ripped his burnt pants off, leaving him in nothing but his underwear. He stuck the stick in there a couple times and then the music stopped and the show ended, just like that.
The entire audience just sat there, stunned into silence. What had we just witnessed?
Lion Man insisted on a group photo, and so we all stumbled around into formation, still wildly confused. A British girl said something to us mid-photo about how confused she was, and then we all lost it, busting up laughing at the sheer bewilderment of the situation.
Hillary, ZiZi, and I took a photo with Lion Man afterwards, desperately wanting to document this moment. (It’s so ridiculous, who would believe us?!) We hung around and talked to our fellow shell-shocked audience members, who were from all over the world, before heading out the door. As we stepped through the door, I felt it appropriate to quote the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” A couple of Britain nationales recognized the saying and shouted, “Yeah, that’s good. Accurate!”
Now, whenever we walk through McLeod (as we’ve done nearly every day this past week), anytime we recognize an audience member and vice-versa, we wave and it’s good fun. Hardcore bonding was done at that scarring show.
Best 100 Rupees I’ve ever spent.
To cleanse our souls of the freedom performance of the previous evening, we appropriately returned to the Dalai Lama’s temple on Sunday for day two of craft selling. About an hour into the sale, Hillary, Noah, and I headed upstairs to the meditation area, where a low, guttural humming of “om, mani, padme, hum…” hung in the air, wrapping its way into the ears of hundreds of gathered Buddhist pilgrims and Tibetan monks.
We all found vacant cushions scattered throughout the open-air room, and I settled down beside an old women clothed in a traditional Tibetan dress. She smiled warmly and offered her book of prayers for me to read long with her. Unfortunately, I am unversed in Tibetan script, so I graciously declined.
The chanting of so many voices lulled me into a meditative state, and in that moment, I understood how the Dalai Lama could easily meditate for long periods of time. The air felt charged, heavy with chanting and the gentle whirl of prayer wheels, the calming waves broken only by the low rumbling of six-foot-long Tibetan horns blown by two young monks dressed in orange robes.
It was incredibly peaceful and renewing.
In other news, we made it into the newspaper for our craft sale! #indiafamous