Thursday, October 1, 2009

Maybe a Monkey?

I was sitting in my favorite café in Mcleod Ganj enjoying some Tibetan brown bread and a book, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a hulking shape drift into the room from outside. The dogs in Mcleod Ganj, as opposed to the worm-eaten specimens found in most other parts of India, are shiny of coat and relatively robust, so I assumed that one of them had just slunk in hoping to score a hand-out. But then a squeak/giggle erupted from the florid American tourist who sat placidly beading necklaces across the way, and I raised my head to see that a large monkey (seated on the floor they were eye to eye) had stationed itself by her table, and was contentedly devouring the remains of her morning pastry. She had retracted into the far reaches of her chair, helplessly goggle-eyed. “G-go on. Y-you can have it” she whimpered. Monkey skirmishes on the streets ending in bloodshed for animal and human alike are not uncommon in Mcleod Ganj.

This particular simian obviously had something more continental in mind. I half expected him to request a decaf latte- just something in his posture, and the discriminating way he pulled the flaky layers of croissant apart before turning them to doughy pulp between his sharp teeth. I can honestly say that I have never breakfasted with the smell of monkey so very present in the room. I found myself wondering what the omen of a monkey at breakfast portends, exactly, especially as this was our last day in Mcleod Ganj before heading to Rishikesh.

The day was spent in making sure we’d thanked everyone who needed to be thanked, paid anyone who needed to be paid, and offered the last rueful apologies for the seismic impact a group of fifteen American young adults inevitably has. I had my last session with Lhamo and Jigme at Gu Chu Sum, the center for Tibetan refugees where I have been tutoring in English. This has been the most amazing part of my journey thus far. They do not want to learn how to say “Where can I buy some bread and a magazine?” They ask to learn how to articulate things like “The Communist Chinese government has been steadily transferring populations of Chinese citizens into Tibet, and now we are a minority in our own country.”

Lhamo (who crossed over from Nepal with her father), and Jigme (a Buddhist nun) are roommates, and so we often went down to their room so they could show me their pictures, give me tea, and talk about their future plans. On this last day, they brought me downstairs, handed me my cup of sweet milky tea, and started showering me with words of appreciation and prayer scarves and gifts given to them by family in Tibet. We were all in tears by the end. They told me I have to keep my body strong so I can come back and see them. As Suruchi suggested as I left Z Meditation just a few days ago, I think I will come back, but maybe without the 14 or so extra bodies. The more I form relationships as I return to these well-loved places, the more curious I become about how I would experience them without the omnipresent responsibilities of group leadership.

One long overnight train ride and an exhaustion-hazed day of logistical coordinating later, and here we are in Rishikesh. Today, we drive up to a mountain retreat center with our guru for this next section, Prabhavati Dwabha (Coloradan ex-pat and philanthropist extraordinaire), before returning to Rishikesh for ten days of work with her orphanage here in Rishikesh. Knowing that we are about to lose all control of how the next two weeks unfold (one does not tell Hurricane Dwabha which way to blow), I got up at 6am for some stolen quiet moments and a solitary breakfast. Well, almost solitary.

The French couple at the table in front of me is in full-on make-out mode, the waiters are still rolling up their bedding in the kitchen before brushing their teeth out on the sidewalk, and the monkeys swinging along the electric lines outside the window are giving my muesli more than a casual glance. The guy in the gift shop is in a dhoti, fresh from his morning swim in the Ganga, and patting his furry chest with talc. From here I can see that the footbridge that stretches across the Ganga to Laxman Jula is deserted, and I feel an insane urge to race across it waving my arms, and then leisurely spit from the top while watching the currents speed by under my feet. The bridge is about five feet in width, with cows and monkeys and motocycles and photo-snapping tourists all clogging this delicate artery at once. Trying to cross it at midday is like trying to blow a hard-boiled egg through a needle-sized hole in the shell. Alas, no time. There is money to change, a comprehensive update to write to the office, bags to pack, and, of course, Dwabha. I wonder if I could convince that French couple to give me a hug? Might have to settle for a monkey.

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