Restored Voice is entering into the last stretch of its field work phase. Today the final damp, chilly gasp of winter is passing through these hills. Rain and cold keep us prisoners around densely smoking scrap fires or in cozy cafes with fogged up windows. I watch the weather move around me in a way I never can in St. Louis. At this altitude, the clouds creep wetly through town and across neighboring hills and mountains, shrouding familiar sights in mysterious glamour. Somehow, a clear view of mountains in the sun humbles me, but when those same mountains turn misty, I feel excitement and restlessness. The sense of impending adventure arises. I’m unsure why this is and it has me wondering about past lives again. Spring should be starting up any day now, and as beautiful as the snow has been on the deodar pines and temples, I am indeed ready for a steady stream of warmth and sunshine.
Losar, the celebration of the Tibetan New Year, came and went relatively quietly this year. Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong (sort of like a PM), asked his community in exile not to celebrate Losar with the traditional dances and music this year, in light of the ever-increasing number of self-immolations in Tibet. If you ask Tibetans around Dharamsala how they enjoyed their Losar, as I did many times, most of them will say, “Ah, it was okay. This year, not so big. We are sad.” Last year, and this year also, Chinese officials forced Tibetans to celebrate, and taped the farce to show how “happy” Tibetans are in the occupied region.
After much travel, I have arrived in Dharamsala – affectionately called “Dhasa,” Dharamsala and Lhasa combined – at last. Surrounded by Tibetans, their gorgeous script, and the humbling mountains, I feel that the journey of this project has finally begun.
The monks and nuns are a constant presence on the streets. Old and young, they wear puffy quilted vests and sneakers along with their chougu (Tibetan monastic robes). Each time I see the swishing burgundy fabric, I feel this immense excitement, as well as shyness. After traveling all this way, with such anticipation, I find myself at a loss for words every time I see a robed woman in the lanes of McLeod. The desire to speak with them, coupled with months of research and admiration from afar, has me feeling like a schoolgirl facing her crush. But I’m already in communication with TNP India, and my interpreter is finalized – I’ll be meeting the nuns very soon, so my giddiness will have to be subdued. The next few days will be spent polishing my interview questions. I plan on spending time with the women before we sit down for the interview itself – get to know them, and tell them about my life also. I believe that this practice will encourage more equity: I am not simply an outsider asking questions, getting what I want, and then leaving. I want this to be more of an exchange, a sharing.
RVP has crossed into the Eastern hemisphere!
Having walked all over London during a very long layover (but it was worth it, since I spent the day with the director of Fresh Memories, whose photography of Tibetans is as beautiful as it is inspiring to a green-horn photographer like myself), now I’ve arrived in India. My first stop is a personal one – a long-overdue visit with my Indian family the Guptes, who sheltered me and treated me as their own flesh and blood when I studied abroad in 2008.
As I was planning my departure for Dharamsala back in October, I received an excited email from Kalpana, my Indian mom. Her daughter was getting married, and only two weeks before I planned to arrive in India! So I planned in a detour before heading up north. I am enjoying the warm sun, the bursting, sumptuous flowers, and the fresh tropical fruit around Pune as long as I can.
Once the wedding is over, I’ll travel north to Himachal by train and taxi. Then I will make Dharamsala my home, and find another, yet unknown family. The future is bright.
View from my window in Pune – photo property of Olivia Engel