7 - Home Away From Home

I asked Dan via email how long the bus took from Delhi to Dharamsala. He replied, "Twelve hours but maybe twenty-four hours, and if it's twenty-four hours that's good, because this will help your karma as you learn to be more patient. PS: Welcome to India."

The bus journey took eighteen hours, and despite Dan's pronouncement, I felt no detectable change in my karma. The man who sat next to me spoke passable English but not enough to answer my questions about the culture outside our window, so eventually I gave up the dialog and tried in vain to sleep. I wished that I spoke Hindi.

Finally off the bus, I followed Dan's instructions to navigate away from the wanna-be guides and hustlers to a quiet place where I adjusted my backpack for walking comfort, then I clambered up uneven stairs, smiling in the realization that my world tour had finally begun in earnest. Next I walked to Chuki's Café from where I telephoned Dan as arranged.

My hosts were colleagues of Pedro's from university, and it was nice to finally meet them. Dan was taller than I imagined, and Dana shorter. We hugged as if we were old friends. While Dan ordered beer from Chuki, Dana insisted that I stay at their house. I accepted. We swapped stories about Pedro, then we all drank beer, then we discussed the impending rain, and I felt happy.

I told my new friends about the beggar girl and her shampoo scam, still in shock at the unimaginable suffering. Dan's answer shocked me more. "The girl's parents probably broke her legs when she was born," he said.

I gasped. "No. You mean on purpose?"

"Yup. This way she'll be ensured survival as a beggar. Welcome to India. Poverty is part of the scenery. For many people here, that girl simply has bad karma. Why else would she be born into such misery, if not to pay for her sins from one of her past lives?"

We all drank. I felt sad, and then despite my ethical confusion I felt happy. India!

Dan said, "I don't give anything to children, well maybe food sometimes, but never money. You'll hear them ask for school pens, but it's better to give directly to schools. Give pens not money. If you give money, the teachers will just keep it."

Dana said, "If we stop to cry for every injustice, we'll spend our whole lives crying. Instead, we should work to reduce injustice." Her eyes met mine, and I knew she had seen suffering that I had yet to imagine. I knew that I knew nothing about suffering.

We took a taxi uphill to a village known as McCloud Ganj, then proceeded by foot. We walked past an apple orchard, a yoga ashram, and wild marijuana plants, pausing only to give a cow the right of way.

Dan and Dana's lair was decorated with thangkas, scrolls, and mandalas, all with a Buddhist theme that radiated tranquility. As Dan showed me around, he explained how he and Dana got five-year-resident visas, renewable in Kathmandu, how the exchange rate made some things impossibly cheap, including their live-in cook Vijay, and how if he lived in America, he'd have to work a full-time job, but with positive cash flow in India, he lived like a king.

Dana served tea then her expression turned serious. She said, "There are only three house rules..." I gave her my undivided attention. "One: no toilet paper. The toilet will get clogged up, and we'll make you clean up the mess, and it's just not a good thing when it overflows. Two: if you want to smoke marijuana, fine, but do so only in your room. Sometimes monks visit without calling first. And three: don't be an asshole."

I laughed. "Good rules. About the toilet paper though, what do you use to wipe?"

Dana explained, "Use the bucket by the squatter for water. Pour with your right hand and wipe with your left, then wash up with soap. You'll get used to it. And be careful with your left hand in public. Any questions? Good. You know it's funny. Americans always think it's disgusting to clean your ass with water, but Indians think toilet paper is gross. Water cleans better, and you don't have to leave smelly shit paper lying around. But be careful with water in India. Tourists do get sick from ice, for example, or they swallow water from the shower. We boil and filter our own drinking water. Anyway, regarding yoga, if you want to go tomorrow, I'll wake you up at seven."

"Yes," I said. "I want to go."

Dan said, "Good. And if you want to learn about Buddhism or yoga or anthropology, I have some excellent books."

I said, "Cool. Speaking of books, I'll go get that book from Pedro..."

Dan and Dana sat on their sofa to inspect Pedro's gift, admiring every illustration while discussing esoteric points of philosophy that I failed to grasp, but they did not answer my most basic question: "What's the deal with the fire demons?"

Dan flipped to a page with a particularly fierce-looking spirit. "This fellow predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet," he said. "Pedro's book explains how the ancient pagan beliefs were incorporated into the new religion from the south. These fire demons (as you call them) have since been transformed into protective deities, more or less the guardians of Buddhist dharma."

I asked Dan to explain the meaning of the word dharma (the eternal laws of the Universe), then I chronicled the story of a humble every-man who got busted with a joint. Dana found it hilarious that California cops might consider a book about Buddhism to be part of a terrorist plot. She asked, "So, why do you think your name is on the list?"