In July 2015, thinkPARALLAX launched the Become an Xplorer Contest. The idea for the contest was based on our own internal employee engagement program: one lucky winner would receive $1500 to travel anywhere in the world and do some good along the way. Our hopes were that the contest would inspire others and raise awareness for causes that otherwise might not get attention.
When we launched the contest, we didn’t anticipate that the final outcome would so greatly exceed our expectations. Xplorer Elizabeth Asha traveled to northern India to assist Tibetan refugees who are living in exile from the Chinese government at the Lha Charity. Her descriptions of the Tibetan people, their struggles, and what she saw and learned during her travels are both inspiring and eye opening.
What follows is Elizabeth’s account of her trip, captured in words, photographs, and video.
In November 2014 I left my job, packed up my belongings and bought a one way ticket out of Portland, Oregon. Initially my goal was to volunteer and travel through Europe for one year, but thanks to thinkPARALLAX I stepped out even further and ended my travels in India. I set my sights on McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India – home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
First morning in Dharamsala
My rickety bus pulled out of Rishikesh for Dharamsala at about 1:00 PM. The 450 km journey is roughly the distance between London and Paris, so if one was traveling on paved highways and obeying traffic laws, it should have taken 5 or 6 hours – not 15. Granted, we did get into a small accident and had to wait around on the side of the road while the bus driver spat it out with a large audience of Indian men.
Roads become cruder (and bus drivers get even braver) the further north you travel in India. Traffic runs all through the night and there’s a good chance a truck will pull around a corner in pitch black without headlights. When we finally arrived in Dharamsala at 4:30am, we were still another 30-minute mountainside bus ride from McLeod Ganj (my final destination) but I didn’t care. I was happy to be alive and off the bus, so I flopped my sleeping pad in an unlit corner of the bus station and waited for the 7:30 am bus up the hill and to my hotel.
Tushita Meditation Centre
I arrived in McLeod Ganj the weekend before I was set to begin volunteering with Tibetans at the Lha Charitable Trust and had plenty of time to explore. Serendipitously, I ran into a friend that I volunteered with months ago in Italy and she told me about a weekend meditation seminar being held at the Tushita Meditation Centre. I had never attended formal meditation before but I decided jump in with both feed – with two full eight-hour days of Buddhist ‘mind training.’
The seminar began with almost two hours of meditation. The longest I’d ever meditated before this was about 20 minutes. We focused on being grateful for having a human mind and on having positivity in our lives. This set the tone for an entire weekend of ‘mind training’, which is essentially rewiring your brain to think positive thoughts and drop all negative emotions about yourself and others. It was my experience that this was MUCH easier said than done.
I’m incredibly happy that I found this seminar – it cleaned my mind from my travels and gave me insight into the lives of the Tibetan monks I would meet later at the Lha Charity.
The Lha Charitable Trust
I walked into the Lha offices expecting to help them with photography, fundraising, or website work but found that their needs were elsewhere. They host jam packed English conversation classes for their students every day, Monday through Friday, and are in dire need of volunteers. The only way to truly grasp a second language is to use it and these conversation periods are students’ only access to native English speakers. I had never taught English or participated in language-learning conversation groups and this was a very intimidating experience for me.
The volunteer coordinator called me into a small square room with pillows on the floor, a chalkboard and around 20 students, most of whom were Tibetan monks. I peeked my head around the door and students shot up their hands, beckoning me with cheers of “Come here! Sit here!”
I settled into a comfortable crossed legged position, looked around and noticed that there were only 2 other volunteers in the room. This left me with six students to entertain on my own. With all eyes on me, I started trying to make small talk with each of the students. They were all eager to get a word in and there was no way I could give each student the individual language practice they deserved. The Lha Charity needs more volunteers and more space for their students. It is not possible to have one-on-one conversation with six people at the same time. That Lha perseveres and provides education to so many students with limited resources is truly amazing.
My second day at Lha I was placed in a group of three students. This was a much more comfortable ratio and conversation flowed at an even pace. I met a monk that could speak six languages fluently and listened to his tales of crossing the Himalayas and hiding from Chinese border patrol. Every monk I spoke with had left his family in Tibet, hoping for a better life in India. Despite the hardships they had been though, these monks told their stories with smiles on their faces.
Giving Kailash Hope
I was sitting in the library at Lha waiting for conversation class to begin when I met Laura. I overheard her talking about raising money for a boy she met in Dharamsala. “I have experience raising money through Kickstarter and Indigogo if you need any advice,” I offered. We agreed to meet for lunch the following day.
Laura was American, had just wrapped a term abroad in Tibet, and was working on social assistance projects with the founder of the Lha Charity. She introduced me to Kailash, an 11 year old born with a rare defect in which he is missing his right mandible, cheek bone, and eye. His teachers recently asked him not to come to school because they feared for his safety around other students.
Kailash’s parents are laborers and average 450 rupees a day – approximately $7 USD. They are saving all their money so that they can give Kailash the facial reconstruction surgery he needs to live a normal life. Without an operation he will struggle to find work in the future. The surgery is less than $4,000 USD.
“Things move fast in McLeod Ganj,” Laura told me. One day she was talking about setting up a crowdfunding page for Kailash and the next day it was live. There is a YouCaring charity crowdfunding page for Kailash. I hope you’ll take a look and read more of his story.
Ven Bagdro and Tibet
I stumbled upon one of Ven. Bagdro’s Facebook posts about Tibet a few weeks before I went to McLeod Ganj and messaged him to meet in person. Bagdro is a full time monk, author, and activist. He’s been featured on the popular photography project Humans of New York and the television documentary Tibet: Beyond Fear.
Since 1959 the people of Tibet have been victims of a cultural genocide that continues to this day. China punishes them for observing Buddhism and recently revoked their right to a passport. In the last 5 years, 142 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to bring awareness to their struggle. With so much else going on the world, Tibet’s problems have faded from media attention. Bagdro has a large Facebook following and hopes to run an internet campaign for Tibet but he needs help getting Tibet back on the map.
We met for dinner and Bagdro told the story of his incarceration and torture by Chinese officials for speaking out in support of the Dalai Lama and a free Tibet. After his three year prison sentence he weighed only 86 pounds.
Bagdro invited me to his house to watch the documentary he was featured in and to learn more about Tibetan history; I was shocked to see how he lives. Bagdro eats, sleeps, and meditates on the second floor of a pink, cement-walled housing complex a short walk from the center of McLeod Ganj. His door is a bed sheet and the ‘house’ is one small square room with a mattress, a bookcase and a transportable 2-burner stove. There is no bathroom, no kitchen, and no running water. Bagdro puts all of his earnings into publishing books and staging activist campaigns for a free Tibet. He’s also the most genuinely happy man that I’ve ever met.
I couldn’t have chosen a better place for my PARALLAXploration trip or think of a better way to wrap up my year of travel. This past year, I’ve lived in hostels, tents, and in a boat. I’ve delved deeper into photo/videography, volunteer work, and seen and experienced many different ways of life. But it wasn’t until my week in McLeod Ganj that I truly understood that life is too short to be wasted on negativity and discontent – regardless of where you are living and what you are doing. Each of us only lives once, so it’s our responsibility that we do what we can to make sure that our individual lives count.