quarter breakings: a weekend with beth and sethany

We were blessed to have Bethany’s brother Seth visit us at the end of September. He was in the country for three weeks for professional reasons, providing musical events for some ministries in South India, and was able to finagle a short hop up to Mussoorie before flying back to the States. He came at just the right time: at the end of monsoon and coinciding with our quarter break. We of course shopped in the bazaar, walked the chukkar, and worked in a little hike to Flag Hill.

beth and sethany shop for shoes for ivian and vezra.

One of the highlights was taking Seth out on the scooter on a little excursion to some neighboring towns and villages. We probably had 600lbs on that little 125cc, and the locals seemed to get a kick out of seeing three giant white people riding Indian-style.

We rode out to Himalayan Weavers and then decided to find lunch at Sicoli, a little collection of chai stalls and subhzi shops at the junction of three roads.  We sat on the back deck overlooking the still-lush Garwhali hills, where about 8 or so Indian men were eating and smoking. After we sat down, one of them suddenly sat at our table but didn’t say a word. Soon the others gathered around, and before we knew who they were or what we were celebrating, a bottle of whiskey appeared and they began to pour us shots.

I declined at first, being that I was not only driving, and toting not one, but two close relatives on the back of my scooter. This was not persuasive to them. “We too are driving!” they cried, as if to point out how little one had to do with the other. I might as well have said I couldn’t drink because Siberia is cold. They seemed very keen on liquoring us up; as soon as anyone dipped below the halfway mark, the whiskey wallah was urgently summoned to top it off.

When our food arrived, the men simply helped themselves to it, then insisted on ordering more. Eventually, some introductions were made. They were on a business visit to the nearby forestry office and had a lunch break. What better time to gorge oneself on dal, roti, mixed veg subhzi, and whiskey? “Come into the forest with us!” they urged with laughter, as if the party would continue there. We laughed back and politely declined.

Eventually, we all laughed our way out to the road to get the obligatory pictures of white tourists. They picked up the bill for the entire meal (drinks included) so who were we to complain? Then with a few hoots and more laughter, they piled into a car and took off for the forestry office, leaving us standing in the road shaking our heads in disbelief.

On the way back we stopped for chai and found a tiny kitten shivering on the table.

Here are a few videos documenting the epic weekend:

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dalai lama standup: a buddhist monk, a reporter, and a bomb-sniffing dog walk into a gym…

The Dalai Lama came to Woodstock today.

Though it’s unusual, it’s not all that surprising. Woodstock has many Tibetan students, including the son of the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary, so there is a strong connection between the school and the Tibetan leader.  When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, the exiled Tibetans initially set up camp in Mussoorie.  They established a school called Tibetan Homes in a region called Happy Valley which is like Little Tibet and to this day there’s a strong Tibetan presence in Mussoorie. In fact, he’s now visited four times since the exile, and was in town this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of Tibetan Homes. Due to his personal connections with Woodstock, he came to speak to the community on Sunday afternoon.  His topic: “The Need for Compassion in Today’s Interdependent World”.

It was quite a sight to see the campus locked down with security on a Sunday afternoon.  Everywhere you looked Indian military personnel were doing what they do best, which is mostly standing around shooting the breeze.  But what they lacked in activity, they made up in ubiquity.

Once inside the gym, there were journalists, more military, and a bomb-sniffing dog.  Everyone was their in their seats in their sunday best for 30-45 minutes while organizers puttered about, making sure everything was juuuuust so.  Then suddenly, the gym went silent.  A side door opened and a few men emerged, followed by a familiar figure in burgandy and gold.  (The Dalai Lama is an FSU fan, apparently.)  He shook some hands and made conversation with those near him, chuckling loudly into the nervous silence as he pressed the flesh.  Eventually he made his way to the chair, and then the podium, where he delivered an entertaining, though not entirely linear talk, which–as far as I can tell–was on the topic of How to Live Better.

Then he sat back in his chair center stage and took questions.  A few select students sat to the side with screened, carefully-worded questions they had prepared, but HH just looked out at us and said, “And let’s have some question from you all, maybe one from this section, and one from here, and one from those over on the side.” One gets the impression that his handlers are keen to run the sort of tight ship becoming of a world leader, but HH himself seems mostly interested in talking to people and telling funny stories.

One of his most memorable traits is the earthy chuckle he lets out whenever he says something that he finds amusing.  For example, in one of his answers, he remarked that “As a monk, I can’t drink, you know…” and then turned and gave a pointed glance toward our principal and let out this prolonged cackle, as if to imply something about the principal’s drinking habits.  Later, while making a point about being realistic and the danger of empty formalities he told a story of a queen at an outdoor ceremony whose skirt was blown up by the wind.  The king was positioned to correct the situation, but being occupied by his own sense of ceremonial propriety he stood frozen, and the queen just had to stand there with her undergarments exposed lest someone break from protocol.  HH also found this story very amusing, and so did we.

He spoke very little about religion, other than the need to move past it in terms of living interdependently with those of contrasting faiths.  He argued for a human ethic which transcends religion.  He frequently referred to scientific findings and expressed concern over global warming (though Tokyo might be in trouble, Tibet wouldn’t be submerged, he said).

I found myself interested in what makes this man such a rock star.  Granted, he’s the first Dalai Lama to live in the era of global celebrity and certainly sympathies toward the Tibetan plight have raised his profile.  But I’ve always heard people speak of HH in such glowing terms, as if just meeting him is a life-changing event.  I have to say: it was utterly disarming to see such a revered leader so completely comfortable in his own skin.  His answers wandered. He had to ask his translator/assistant several times–on mic–to remind him what the topic of his talk was. He could be a bit gruff–he had an elderly way of barking his words at you and he wasn’t afraid to address bathroom habits and raised skirts.  He seemed to say just whatever came to his mind with no evidence of any sort of filter, and that’s refreshing from someone called “his holiness”.

I think by and large people are intrigued because he is just a (self-described) simple monk from a small, occupied nation who happens to rub shoulders with Obama, Richard Gere and the Pope. (At one point he casually referred to “my christian friends, like the Pope…”)  In the same way we want to believe that celebrities are just like us, we enjoy seeing this man who’s life is nothing like ours be so human. He seems to be a natural pastor, genuinely interested in people. On several occasions he pointed into the crowd and asked, “From which country?” and he expressed care for the infirm who were present. And it is not hard to see why Buddhist philosophy appeals to Americans: the focus on self-improvement, self-reliance and compassion. There is no concept of a creator; there is only yourself, and everything you need can be found within you.

Watching people follow his every movement and word as he walked around the room, it was easy to envision Jesus doing the same. Just a simple man of humble origins whose compassion, spiritual insight and uncommon habit of cutting through pretense drew crowds of people to him.  HH was quick to point out today, however, that he has no power to heal anyone.  So he offered a hug and a blessing to the crippled instead.

9th graders waiting for HH to appear.

korean student, russian hat.

this dog sniffs out drugs, bombs, and the chinese.

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monsoon, monkeys and media: three things bethraham dominates

“several Indians ran and completed the race, and here’s a picture of a white woman.”

Well, the hills are alive once again with ferns and mossy undergrowth, the trails have been transformed into streambeds, and our closets bear the familiar scent of mildew.  The kids are back in dorms and we just finished our first full week of classes.  The sights and smells of this season bring back all kinds of memories for us and how Bethraham’s domination of Indian media has unfolded.

During our first fall here we posted some pictures, one of which depicted a langur wallah (monkey trainer) with his majestic langur friend, who was working on campus. Shortly thereafter, former Woodstock staff living in Chicago were watching an evening news report about the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.  In a segment about how CG officials had brought in langurs to keep the rhesus monkeys at bay, they recognized a photo from Woodstock’s campus and forwarded the video to our alumni relations office, who forwarded the photo to someone else who recognized it from our blog and forwarded the news story to us.  And there was our photo in a Chicago evening news about the Delhi Commonwealth Games. When we contacted the news agency about using it without permission they claimed they found it on a public domain photo source or some other nonsense, but we didn’t press the issue because their negligence contributed to our fame.

Later that year, Bethany ran an 8k “10k race” in Dehradun with other staff and students. Though she finished 6th in her age/gender group, she was the first white woman to finish, which is why she was quickly swarmed after crossing the finish line and ended up on the front page of the Garwhal Post.

That the Post is a top-notch journalistic operation was confirmed just a few months later when our Bandarpunch expedition made the pages due to a warrant being issued for our arrest while we were sleeping on a glacier.  Of course nobody was actually arrested, but nevertheless Bethraham’s media shadow grew a bit taller.

Last year we found ourselves cast in an Indian TV show about a famous writer living in Mussoorie. By playing American missionaries suspected of murder, Bethraham demonstrated a new versatility as Thespians in that we are capable of playing anything from badly-dressed American missionaries to badly-dressed Canadian missionaries equally convincingly.

This fall Bethraham conquered viral media when the reputable high-brow news outlet Right This Minute did a breaking news story about our vacation video.  Not only that, but can you believe what Kim Kardashian has been wearing lately??  OMG.

It’s a bit of a dirty business, but we are finding that our new global fame suits us.  Please know that when we move to Mumbai to become Bollywood A-listers, we will remember you fondly as “the people who helped us get here” and who “never stopped believing in us.” So if you’d like a shoutout from the stage at the Indian oscars, just leave us a comment below to remind us how you helped us become huge global celebrities.

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pictures: nubra valley and the legend of khardung la

Our last major excursion from Leh was to the Nubra Valley, which lies about five hours’ drive northeast of Leh. The route takes you over the Khardung La pass, which is advertised and known as the “highest motorable road in the world” at 18,380′. )According to most everyone but the Indian tourism industry, that figure is inflated by some 800 feet and two roads in central Tibet actually reach greater altitudes. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?)

Leaving Leh in the early morning we drove up towards the pass when the rain drizzle began to turn into snow. By the time we reached at 16,000′ it was coming down in sizable chunks and accumulating on the road. This was very bad news, as the road is treacherous without inclement weather. As we reached a turn where several cars began to lose traction and get stuck, Rinzin pulled over and indicated he would put chains on the tires. At this point we all looked at each other, breathed a sigh of relief and reaffirmed that we had the best driver in all of Ladakh.

With chains we were able to make it over the pass without much trouble and we stopped at the top for photos and chai. According to my own measurements (i.e. how out of breath I was), the altitude was approximately really very super high.

give or take 800’…

Nubra Valley is the massive barren space between the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges. There is one town, Diskit, which is nothing more than a few guest houses, a tiny bazaar and multiple stray dogs. Nearby is a stretch of dunes where you can pay to ride two-hump camels. A few pictures of the valley:

The next day we explored one of the side valleys, then headed back up towards the pass. The snow coverage was still pretty thick and we were not more than 30 minutes from the top when traffic stopped. When it didn’t resume, we went walking to see what caused the delay. Around a bend we saw this bus, hanging rather precariously by two wheels on an icy stretch of road. After an hour or two, a backhoe came and shoved the vehicle back onto the road, and the passengers re-boarded and went on their way.

Everywhere we went in Ladakh, we saw signs reminding us that the roads were maintained by Border Roads Organization. But on each sign, they simply said “BRO” in the same font as the actual sign text, so everything had a very familial, friendly tone. As in, “Drive safely, bro.” In addition, BRO has gone to great lengths to give us clever reminders to drive safely.

no problem, bro.

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photos: a tour of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries

A couple of our days in Ladakh were spent touring the monasteries within a two hour radius of Leh.  These striking structures can be seen for miles away, perched up on rocky outcroppings throughout the Indus Valley.  They all shared the same color scheme: white walls with red and black trim.  Inside they were mostly spartan except for the temples themselves, which were full of richly colored murals and figurines of various Buddhist deities.  There were usually some shelves of holy writings as well.

I can’t say I understood what any of it meant, unfortunately.  It would have been nice to understand the significance of the things we were seeing.  The smell inside the temples was incomparable, though.  Maybe it’s the dry, ancient wood, but it reminded me of cleaning out the Abbey several years back.

chemde monastery.

At the Chemde monastery we were invited in to the tea room to have chai and conversation with several of the lamas (monks).  There were a couple scruffy looking ones who, apart from their red robes, could have been any twenty-something Ladakhis and there was a middle-aged lama who seemed to be in charge and used a cell phone.  Surprised by this level of technological engagement, we asked if he was on Facebook too.  “No, no, no,” the younger monks quickly assured us.

Then there was this 92 year old gem:

a stack of holy texts and other items

library of holy texts

is this monk escaping?

lama and cat

two many buddhas in one day: bethany looks completely monasteried out.

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excursion #1: pangong lake was tso beautiful

After a couple days rest in Leh, we headed out to the Pangong Tso, a famous high-altitude lake that sits on the border between India and China. Pangong Tso is 83 miles long (most of which is actually in China), and sits at 14,270′.  At five hours’ drive from Leh, is apparently a popular tourist day trip.

The drive there, like any drive in Ladakh, is brimming with spectacular scenery.  The landscape changes constantly and on this ride the green hillsides and snow melt eventually gave way to barren piles of rock of varying sizes.  We came out of a winding valley and suddenly there in the distance was this expanse of otherworldly colors.  There was nothing there but a few parachute (tented) cafes and a small herd of very-out-of-place gulls.

There’s nothing to do there but walk around staring at the water. For the hours we spent on the shore we simply could not stop taking pictures. The problem is that as the clouds drifted and the light changed, the water would shift colors before your eyes. The effect was mesmerizing, not unlike watching a fire or the ocean. So here is .0001% of our photo haul for the day.  Someone had to document each shade, dangit!

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ladakhulous beauty: just leh back and enjoy the view

Two Indian destinations have been repeatedly recommended to us as non-negotiable “must-sees” in India: Goa and Leh.  We spent a week at the former over this past winter break, and it was every bit as gorgeous, peaceful and balmy (about 100°F in the dead of winter) as people claimed. During summer break, while most of India is inhospitably hot, a high-altitude northern destination like Leh has ideal weather.  Indeed, the busy tourist season lasts from about June to September, then Leh basically goes into hibernation until the snow melts. There are only two roads into town and both are closed to traffic for about 7 months out of the year. Rinzin, our driver, works very hard for 4 or 5 months driving tourists around then goes back to his village until the roads open again.

Leh is the capital of the former Kingdom of Ladakh, which is in the northwesternmost corner of India between Pakistan and Tibet/China. Situated at nearly 12,000’ in the Indus River Valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks on all sides, it’s an ideal base for excursions to various valleys, passes, lakes, and monasteries. There’s not much to do in Leh itself, but the draw is its stunning and otherworldly setting, and just getting there is half the experience. The Leh-Manali highway in particular is always on those lists of the most amazing roads in the world.

But it’s a very pleasant place to stay.  The weather in summer is a perfect concoction of warm sun and cool air.  They only get 4″ of rain per year, so they’ve adapted by redirecting snow-melt into a maze of streams which meander through town and provide much needed irrigation, which means wherever you go, there is a babbling brook. The locals, who are largely of Tibetan descent, have figured out who butters their bread, so everybody it seems either drives a jeep for hire, rents mountain bikes, organizes treks, sells Tibetan handicrafts, or runs a restaurant or internet cafe. Leh is charmingly rustic, and most Ladakhi architecture (which may be Tibetan) is just stone blocks, but each window is accented by ornately carved window and doorframes like this:

a typical Leh hotel

Most of our time in Ladakh was spent exploring the areas surrounding Leh, like the Pangong Tso lake and Nubra Valley, but here are a few pictures from the town itself:

Leh as viewed from the monastery.

Leh palace.

Tae Young (who we found wandering the streets of Leh), Katya and Haydn enjoy lime sodas and the evening sunset.

Leh palace and monastery viewed from our rooftop restaurant.

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