Arrived in Manali yesterday after an 11 hour ride from Dharamsala. Dharamsala lies to the west and south of Manali, in the northern part of Himachal Pradesh. Home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile, European and Australian dharmabums and far too many Israelis.
Of course, most of these travelers are just passing through. Half seeker-after-enlightenment, half escapist, most know they will have to return to their country one day. There are those Westerners who did end up staying. Paul and I met one pair who looked uncannily familiar--perhaps they had been schmoozing with Robert Thurman or some Tibetan lama at a conference or talk I'd been to. In their late fifties, they had come as seekers of Tibetan Buddhism in the late sixties. Apparently, they had worked every job on the dharma circuit--teaching English to the 16th Karmapa (head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism), working on farms, teaching meditation to other dharmabums, cleaning monastic quarters, etc. Their patterns of speech were decidedly affected by the cadences of local languages and of course by Hindi and Tibetan. It was a language of true insiders. Without fail, each English sentence was interrupted by a phrase or two of Tibetan and not 2 minutes passed before a Hindi fragment came to the surface. They laughed most frequently at things that were either exchanged in Tibetan or after one had cracked a joke about the current politics of the theocratic establishment that were now so closely wedded to. It was bizarre indeed. I couldn't take my eyes off them, as if I had stumbled across an endangered species that I had only heard about but never seen. This was a different brand of ex-pat, less jaded than any I had ever come across and more focused on their purpose than some diplomat in Japan or English teacher in Italy. They had clearly advanced beyond the general absurdity of the dharmabums who attended their mediation sessions. At the same time, there remained that good times, hippie, peacenik sensibility that is too quixotic for my taste. They seemed to exist at a remove from the world, too much enamored of their newfound status in the fantasy world the Tibetans inadvertantly created when they settled in Dharamsala. The streets are filled with Westerners, sporting dreadlocks and turbans and other headwraps, sometimes carrying trekking packs but more often "traditional" Indian bags, their pedigree indicated by the bright colors and course, patch-like stitching. The bags matched the neo-hippie gear Westerners sported--light, flowing fabrics that hung loosely around their shoulders and waists. They wore earrings, noserings, toerings, tonguerings, piercing being a badge of one's status as a Westerner who has "found themself". The truth is they looked like clowns. And at times, Dharamsala felt like a circus. But our encounter with the grown-up pair of dharma teachers in some way legitimated the activity and even potential of the dharmabum.