Thursday, May 29, 2008

India by Thumb or: They Don’t Want Me

My column for the Lititz Record with a focus on hitchhiking:

With hundreds of police twenty kilometers up the road, the march has
been stopped for four days, waiting for media to arrive before provoking the fireworks.
It's a beautiful spot to rest at the bottom of a valley
beside a strong clear water that turns to a rush of chocolate during
the unseasonable heavy bursts of rain that come out of the north. The green hills,
crisscrossed with goat paths, sit high above us, hiding many small
caves where I hide from the hubbub of the march.

Except for the nurse where things are going quite well thank you very much, all of my best friends here have left for their home,
further adventures around the world or to go on secret missions with a destination you can probably guess. Time sits heavy on my hands. I play
chess, spend hours swimming with
monks wearing small and/or ill fitting underwear and reread my books (Keourac's Dharma Bums twice in 48 hours, wow, makes me sad I missed the glory day of American hitchhiking and hobo-ism). After a few days like this, I head back to the
last big town to finish an article for a magazine. No, I still haven't gotten paid for anything but at least people want my free stuff. I stopped for dinner at a nice little restaurant called Yahoo! that even had the web portal's logo on its sign. You often see knocked off names in touristy areas such as the Hilson and Shilton hotels in Calcutta. My favorite feature of this restaurant: an
adorable 3 month old Tibetan girl with a shock of thick black hair that I put back to sleep after she woke up. If I have any special skills (debatable, I know), it's being able to put babies to sleep using the patented Pelger "Hush Little Baby" method. A girlfriend once said "maybe I bored them to sleep" but I think she was just projecting.

Because of the cute distraction, I started late from town with the sun almost gone. In a fast jeep, I could get back to the campsite in three hours but when hitchhiking in India, it's usually the trucks who pick you up and they go much slower on the windy, narrow mountain roads. After a few short hops, a happy little guy named Yadow Pandit pulls over to let me in. We stop at a Kali shrine by
the side of the road, a small painted red structure with a white round
roof just big enough for one person on their knees to comfortably

Hinduism Fakt Time: Kali, the goddess associated with death and destruction, has a staff topped with a skull and wears a garland of skulls over her tiger skin clothing. Each god and goddess usually has a few classic depitctions of themselvs with their body in certain positions and carrying their specific icons. For instance, Kali most often has four arms carrying a sword, a trident, a severed head and a bowl or skull-cup to catch the blood of the severed head. This relates to her most famous story where another goddess and her assistants could not defeat the demon, Raktabija, because every time she wounded him, his droplets of blood would form another copy of herself. They called for Kali who solved the situation by eating all of the duplicate demons and then sucking the blood out of Raktabija.

Back to Kali's temple: as we get out of the car, he tells me that he stops here
every time he drives past, a frequent event as the shrine is on the
only road between his house and small restaurant. He pours oil into a
small clay bowl and places a wick inside as he happily points out the
main statue of Kali with a sleeping Shiva at her feet and a small
Hanuman (the monkey faced god) in the corner. As he lights the candle
and a few sticks of incense, he waves the incense in front of Kali's
face and explains how the god feeds on the incense. Then he gleefully
tells me that since Kali eats the incense, we can eat the bananas that
someone left there. He handed me a banana from the feet of Kali and
we eagerly ate as he laughingly repeated a few times that Kali
only eats the incense so we can have the banansas. A jolly guy, we
liked each other and he kept me laughing with his infectous spirit.

It's here I realize I had missed a turn pretty far back. Traffic had already decreased to a trickle so I began my favorite
new trick: jumping on the back of trucks when they slow down for
narrow spots, road construction and mud. These obstructions often come together.
My first try came at a small bridge where I clambered onto an almost
stopped truck. Sitting on top of burlap bags filled with vegatbles
that smelled wonderful, I laid under one of the starriest skies
of the trip with a refreshing cool wind blowing as the truck slowly
lumbered around the sharp curves of the mountain road. As it stopped
for a delivery near the town and my turn, I just hopped off and ambled by the cab,
grinning mischievously to myself because they never even knew I was

Then came the perfect truck with heavenly choir and everything. It
slowed for a big hill as I easily climbed in the back onto bags of sand
and lengths of steel rebar bent into a horshoe shape to accomadate the
longest lengths of steel possible inside the bed. I didn't exactly know how to get back
to the march from this side of town but the truck apparently needed to in the same direction as me. I heaved a sigh of relief once it took the
last turn I needed onto a road with no side roads to distract for a long time. I settled down for an hour of waiting as the moon rose almost full, helping me to spot the scenes of the daily little
adventures I had along the way with Westerners and Tibetans.

After a few hours and a half hour tea break where I quietly hid in the back, the truck stopped right at the small side road that I needed. I
quickly hopped out of the back hoping to not be spotted but the driver's assistant , a young
kid of 18, stood right there helping the driver back up the
truck. He laughed when he saw me but stopped laughing when I refused
to pay him the 100 Rs ($2.50) he demanded, twice the price of a private jeep for this
distance. In fact, in a slightly surly mood from lack of sleep, I said I would pay no
money and walked off into the dark. I had already disappered into the
gloom when he threw two rocks at me that never came close. I swore the third would
result in a thrashing for him but it never came.

I made a bed of pine needles up the mountain from the road, out of sight on one of
the goat trails that make every hill look like a honeycomb. I cursed
softly as a truck trundled past, pulling me back from the edge of
sleep. I thought we had the big arrest coming the next morning so I
should have been staying by the road to make sure I'd get there in
time instead of cutting it close for a few hours of sleep. Waking before
dawn, I waited only 15 minutes until a truck with four guys welcomed
me aboard. I spent the ride answering their questions quickly as I nervously thought about missing the arrest. From
where the truck stopped, I grabbed a bus for the last hour at 10 Rs ($0.25). I got to the campsite just as everyone rolled up the hill for
breakfast. I spent the last 14 hours worrying and it turned out I was
late for nothing.

The rain began to pour down as I got under the kitchen tarp strung
between the back of the two trucks carrying equipment and food. I
chatted over chai (tea with milk and sugar, the national drink of
India) before settling down to read Jamyang Norbu, one of my newest
literary heroes, a political writer, Tibetan activist, and former
freedom fighter who has, for decades, been "pouring cold water" on the
abdunant enthusiasm that arises whenever China grants some kind of
talk or visit. From his 1994 essay "The Heart of the Matter":

"Whenver the Tibetan issue has received any substansial attention in
the world, be it with the demonstrations in Lhasa or the awarding of
the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese have nearly
always succeeded in side-tracking international concern by making
titillating press announcements soon after the event, declaring their
willingness to sit down and talk with the Dalai Lama or his
representatives. Those sympathetic to Tibet naturally heave a huge
sigh of relief on hearing this, and the situation is then effectively

At Dharamsala (seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India) a
delegation to Beijing is announced and fierce intrigues are conducted
by various political factions to get their man on the team. It all
comes to nothing, of course. Once in a while though, the delegation
does actually get to go to Beijing. They invariably return to
Dharamsala in a daze, with a look on their face not unlike that on
Charlie Brown's when he is lying flat on his back, after having been
persuaded by Lucy, for the umpteenth time, to take a running kick at a
football that she never fails to yank away at the last moment. "Isn't
trust a wonderful thing, Charlie Brown?"

Norbu's realistic statements kept him a pariah
state in the idealistic and politically inexperienced Tibetan
community of the 70's and 80's. Now, the new generation has begun
repeating the words he has been saying for years. Norbu just
started a blog called Shadow Tibet ( I admire him for his eclectic references, his obscure quotes and in depth knowledge of his subject. However, I couldn't be a political writer. I want everyone to like me. I'll probably end up writing the scripts for blue

After the downpour, the police took me away to examine my passport and
visa. It made me a little nervous because they had gotten down to
business by arresting anyone who left the camp to get
chai or walk around. After writing down my information several times,
they gave me a "Quit India" notice. Read it carfully. And I quote: "I have reason's for
my satisfaction that you, Edward Pelger, has violated visa rules as
you are on tourist visa but participating in religious activity
'Tibetan Shanti March'. I Foreigner's Registration Officer Distt –
Pithgoragarh, Uttrakhand (India) hereby order you to leave India
within 7 days from the date of receipt of this notice. If you will not
adhere of this order's you will be liable under 14 Foreigners Act." I
only quote this to highlight the haphazard nature of the order. It
looks like a flunky typed it quickly and I don't think it's being sent
anywhere. It looks like a scare tactic to get the foreigners off the
march. It worked because has taken off and the march organizers
told me to fade back to a local town during the next round of arrests.
Understandably it drives me crazy to miss this but it's the only option.

With no media or foreigners present, the arrests are immeinent. They might be hapenning right now and will certainly be over by the time this column sees the light. So now I sit and wait in this idyllic hill station while all 350 marchers get hauled off to jail. Now I have to figure out my next move and how I can help. You can check their website at for updates.

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