Postcards from Abroad: India

As Pat de Brún’s time in Dharamsala comes to an end, he reflects on unforgettable experiences and teary goodbyesHaving spent a month teaching English to Tibetan refugees, the time eventually came for me to leave Dharamsala, and I did so with a heavy heart. During my stay there I managed to have some incredible experiences that I know will stay with me for a long time to come.A month is a relatively short time to spend volunteering, but the bonds I formed with some of people I encountered make it feel as if I spent much longer there. I was accompanied to my bus by a variety of friends and students who came to see me off. When the teary goodbyes had been said and my bus pulled away, I couldn’t help but question whether moving on had been the right decision. Dharamsala felt like another home to me, and with that thought in mind, I reassured myself that I would be back again and tried to turn my thoughts to the long road ahead.The time I spent teaching gave me the opportunity to meet some incredible people, and one or two of them remained in my thoughts long after Dharamsala was out of sight. All of my teaching had been organised though one NGO, The Tibet Hope Centre, with the exception of one student, whom I decided to tutor outside of my official responsibilities. I first met Sanju when he was sitting on the side of the road in Dharamsala, asking passers-by if they would like to have their shoes fixed or cleaned. My shoes weren’t in particular need of repair on the day in question, but he invited me to sit with him and a brief chat turned into a full afternoon getting to know one another.Sanju is 21 years old. He, like his father and grandfather before him, fixes shoes for a living. There was never a question that he would work at anything else, and he was similarly never given the opportunity to enter into any form of formal education. He picked up remarkably good spoken English due to a combination of an incredible hunger to learn and the necessity of attracting wealthy western customers, but he had never been taught to read or write. By the end of the day, we had agreed on a tutoring schedule for the month.Each day, as we sat together at his usual spot on the road, we made some gradual inroads into his illiteracy, but it was hard work. His enthusiasm was unwavering however and we grew closer as the lessons progressed. After a few lessons, he invited me to meet his family and to have dinner at his home in the slums outside Dharamsala. It was a huge honour to have been invited and I accepted without hesitation. On the day of our dinner, I travelled with Sanju in a tiny jeep on the 12km journey to the slums. The minuscule vehicle had 15 other slum-dwellers in it, and I’m sure we would have qualified for some sort of Guinness world record had the appropriate authorities been present.The slum was an amalgamation of “tents”, which were essentially sheets of plastic propped up by wooden poles. There was no electricity and two sources of running water. The houses had no floors and everywhere there was thick, acrid smoke smelling of kerosene and burning rubbish. The first thought to strike me was my own shame at having initially baulked at my own homestay accommodation, which I had previously considered extremely basic but now viewed as palatial.Despite the undoubted difficulty of the living conditions there, the people I encountered visit mainly seemed happy, or at least equally as unhappy as the wealthy and privileged people I know. That being said, I have no intention of glamorising slum life and I did see many of the universal social problems that inevitably come about as a result of extreme poverty and inequality. It wasn’t the last time that I visited Sanju in the slums and it was incredible to be able to get to know his family and neighbours, and to get to know a little about the dynamics and realities of slum life. By the time Sanju’s lessons came to an end we had developed a genuine bond, and it was tough to see him disappear in the distance as I left Dharamsala behind. Like many volunteers, I left him with the feeling that he had taught me a lot more than I had taught him.The next morning my bus arrived in Delhi, 500 kilometres by road but a million miles and more from the tranquillity and beauty that had surrounded me in Dharamsala. I was travelling with three people I had met in Dharamsala, fellow volunteers who I would now be travelling with for the rest of my trip. I usually try to avoid the generalisation that a city or particular travel destination can be inherently ‘bad’, and normally subscribe to the idea that you just need to know the right people and the best places. The time I spent in Delhi pushed that particular theory to its limit however, as we were hassled and conned at every turn while trying to navigate the bustle and ugliness of this mega-city.The highlight of my short visit and our purpose for being there however was Holi, the traditional Hindu festival of colours, which is celebrated all over India. The anticipated celebrations didn’t disappoint as we got into the thick of it on the city’s streets and arrived home weary and multi-coloured. The only major downside to the festival was the treatment of my female friends, who were routinely groped by drunken locals at every second turn. India has received a lot of bad press for attacks on women in recent times, and my first-hand experience has led me to believe that there is a very serious underlying cultural basis behind the treatment of women. I could go on about this particular issue, but it will have to be saved for another day.We left Delhi the day after Holi and set our sights on Nepal. I will be spending my final two weeks in the country that’s home to Mount Everest and safaris, and taking in the sights in a country that has fascinated me since I was a child. The entire trip has been an unforgettable one so far, and I’m sure the rest won’t disappoint.