Dalai Lama Time 4

I am living in one of 12 hostels at IIT named Kumaon (an Indian mountain range). 3 times a day I go to the mess and eat whatever is served. What I am eating is usually not known with 100% accuracy, and the food is getting quite repetitive, but I know for sure that it will not kill me. One of the best parts of eating here so often is that I get to interact with a lot of my fellow students and residents. Being engineers, some are resistant and not too responsive to my questions, but most are more than willing to talk or hear about India, Canada and the rest of the world. One story stands out in particular. The guy I was speaking to is in first year and so just like me, it was his first time ever being in the big city of Delhi! “Where are you from?”, “Have you travelled much in India?”, “What is so different about Delhi than your home town?” and “How are classes here?”, etc. That seemingly innocent last question made me see my life here in India in an entirely new light. He mentioned that he was from a very small village and that he was adapting quite well to life in Delhi. Classes were going very well for him, except for one which he was finding quite challenging: computer programming. It turns out that two months ago, when he first started this class, was the first time in his entire life that he had ever had the opportunity to sit down and use a computer…

Flying over the vastness of Muskoka in Ontario. Driving through the Rocky Mountains. Sailing along the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Even standing on top of the world in the high Arctic of Canada. Throughout my travels I have seen many beautiful places in the world and now I have another one to add to this list: Dharamshala and Mcleod Ganj. Hopefully I can describe my last weekend better using pictures:

The view from our hotel. One of the more expensive ones, it cost us Rs. 450 a night. That’s an equivalent cost of about $9 CAD per night shared among 2 people…

We walked into this little cafe on the first morning. As the amazing breakfast arrived at our table we engaged the owner of the restaurant in conversation and heard his story. Like many of the people in Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj, he was a Tibetan citizen in exile – escaped from the Chinese government. 10 years before he was in school and participated in a pro-Tibet protest in order to extend rights to Tibetans and stop the Chinese government from continuing its destruction of local culture, language and way of life. His father received a call from a friend on the local police force and was told that he would be jailed for his actions at the protest. Within an hour, our Tibetan friend was packed up and gone from the city he had inhabited all his life. His path was towards the Himalayas, where he lived homeless, trying to survive before being able to coordinate a better plan. Eventually, his father sent an expensive guide to him to lead him through the Himalayas and into safety on the other side. After a month of travel they reached Nepal and eventually crossed over the Indian border where he was able to claim Tibetan refugee status and obtain a special Indian passport. The next couple years were spent doing odd jobs in Delhi to raise enough money to open a 2-table restaurant in Dharamshala. Hard work eventually made him successful enough to open this place which was arguably one of the finer breakfast diners in the entire city!

And crazy as it is, this story is not unique: we must have heard 4 or 5 versions of the same story…

What a breakfast story!

Went out for a walk in the surrounding hills and ended up playing this Indian board game. A sort of billiards played with fingers rather than cues.

Just some monkeying around along the side of the path

Our group of exchange students on top of the mountain with some monks we ran into.

All kinds of Tibetan flags along the mountain tops. We still don’t really know the significance but think it has something to do with pilgrims of monks coming up to the summit from the village.

Just two Tibetan monks contemplating life on the edge

The Tibetan story is filled with misery, hardships and hope as they wage their non-violent war against the ever-imposing Chinese government. A museum we visited had all kinds of personal accounts of tragedy and displacement and was quite the eye-opener.

To summarize:

Tibet is a region in China which composes approximately 1/4 of its land area on the Himalayan plateau (Tibet = 2.5 million km2 vs Canada = 9.8 million km2). With its own culture, customs, language and way of life, it is a distinct group of people. After the Second World War Asia became a continent of changing borders, politics and new countries as China, Nepal, India and Pakistan emerged as independents. Tibet realized that its rights and position within China was decaying and so started advocating for self-government. Naturally, China did not want to lose 1/4 of its country and so held onto Tibet with its political and military power. Appeals to the UN did not help and in 1959 the Dalai Lama and government fled into India to set up an exiled government in Dharmshala. Continued challenges to Chinese power have been futile and as China encourages migration of its citizens to Tibet, the indigenous Tibetans are losing control. Nowadays, there are 6 million Tibetans living within Tibet (43% of the population), and 200,000 exiled Tibetans scattered around the world (80,000 in the Dharamshala region). The Dalai Lama (head of Tibetan government) has stopped asking for a separate nation and is instead focusing on gaining rights for Tibetans and the culture they are attempting to uphold.

After climbing up for hours, I’m standing next to a little monk hut in the middle of nowhere. This monk was in meditation, as they do sometimes for years at a time with little human contant.

Also, this Indian shirt that I bought for $1 CAD reacted poorly with the rain and my shorts ended up with a lot of the yellows and oranges of my top half…

The next day I jumped out of bed at 6am because this would be a very exciting day! Putting on my best clothes (shorts, t-shirt, flip flops), we headed out the door to the big McLeod Ganj temple.

Inside the temple with the hundreds of monks

We sat down among the locals and just looked at the scene around us. This temple experience was quite different than others before it. It was clear that people lived in the temple, getting meals here (milk and bread that they passed out to everyone), and really relied on this place of worship to provide everything in life – by dedicating theirs to it. People were extremely friendly and explained to us what was happening. After an hour or two in meditation and deep thought, there was a big commotion and the Dalai Lama himself walked through the door and into the main hall! As woman and men around us cried, it was clear to see how much this man represented to his people and the terrible things they have suffered together over the past 50 years.

The Dalai Lama prayed in Tibetan (a sort of chant that everyone knew), and I thought about life. Opportunities, disparities, rights, privileges are all things I believed to be aware of. This weekend made it even more apparent how good and comfortable my life is. Current Alex is interested in giving much more to the community and those that really deserve it.

Perhaps in a future blog post I will talk about some of the realizations I had about how I am spending money now that I suddenly have so much purchasing power. Spending habits definitely change and I have been doing much thinking about why and in what ways they are different than back in the West.

Normal Tibetan dress as two locals walk through a main street

Just a little afternoon stroll through surrounding areas

Some school children we ran into along the way. 2 other high schoolers accompanied us for a little while and showed us the way.

One of the worst building projects I have ever seen with my eyes…

Even cows up on the mountainside: they’re everywhere!

My friends Obi (Germany) and Praveen (India) as we stand at the edge of an amazing view!

One of the last and most beautiful scenes we saw in northwestern India! It was sad to leave this place behind…


  1. In real life, the Dalai Lama looks exactly like he does in pictures
  2. When I ask someone here how big a city is, the connotation of population size is not the same. No one here knows what I mean when I ask “how big is Dharamshala?”. I get answers like “3 square kilometres…?”. But even when I ask for the size of the population nobody has an answer for me because a) the population is constantly in flux and b) there are no accurate numbers for this sort of estimate because census data is not right and the city is not arranged well enough to do accurate counting.
  3. Volvo buses are much more comfortable for the 12 hour trek back and forth from Delhi than the Indian-made Tata buses which we took on the Rishikesh adventure two weeks ago. We were actually able to sleep this time!

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