The narrow alley behind the flat smelled of the monsoon rains, the cement absorbing that moistened hue, and it was occupied by a squatter…a rooster. How can a short bird, handicap of flight, have the ability to caw before the sun rises? There was no need for an alarm. The rooster was always the earliest to rise, pacing in the alley, singing like a vocal misfit. Not that I ever rested well in the twin cot, but still, I never enjoyed an abrupt awakening, in the literal sense anyway.
Each morning consisted of a similar series of events, our morning rituals. Haley made chai, would find an invigorating morning activity to start her day. Usually it was yoga on the rooftop or a hardcore mountain path run. No matter the hour, Haley was all teeth, a habitual smiler, a unfathomable holder of energy. And before leaving for her placement, was sure to take a series of nutritional supplements, droplets of liquid vitamins, cold and sickness prevention, she had it all, our own little Cali Chemist.
Jaye was often the last riser. Perhaps a bit of chai or toast. She never feared the non-pasteurized yogurt or milk that a staff member placed on the kitchen table shortly before one of us awoke. Then she’d meditate on her blue mat for fifteen minutes. Once she rolled out the mat, I usually found a reason to leave the room in order to give her a breath of silence. I always thought it funny that Haley never seemed to catch on to that. If she was in midst of passionate talk, ideas spouting out of her, Haley was in her own place, living in the words and thoughts, oblivious to the rest. And I’d laugh silently when I’d see one of Jay Bird’s eyes pry open and look across the room at Haley.
After the rooster would unkindly stir me awake, I usually laid on the cot for a bit, thinking. Enjoying moments of quiet. If bugs had found their way back to nestle into the sheets or pillow, I flicked them off. Always the same, tiny, black bugs, sprinkled like fresh pepper on the bed. Sometimes, I’d read Ishmael or Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible. Making notes in the margins or jotting ideas on a small notepad. I never acquired a taste for Chai like Haley or Jaye; so, I stuck with either toast or a banana and then a cup of filtered water. I’d grab the Hindustan Times and peruse the English articles to cut one out for Hembei as her homework. Usually, the easiest articles were pop culture related. I remember one being about Jessica Simpson signing on for a film role or something of little importance to the world. And I found myself reading the vast pages of classifieds for singles. Several, full length, newspaper pages dedicated to small descriptions of males and females, their caste, job, hobbies, and so on. I found it interesting that the paper and the culture had incorporated a special section for people who were HIV positive or had AIDS. India has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, but it’s presence had been assimilated into the culture. People infected were seeking fellow partners also with HIV or AIDS. I realized the extreme importance of marriage in Indian society at that moment. No matter how life unfolds, a person’s compliment must be found.
Soon, the sound of Tibetan monks chanting would echo through lower Dharamsala. Often, I would sit on the patio and listen. Having no knowledge of their words, but finding a comfort, a serene wave over me, just listening to those deep vocal tones, like the sounds rose up from the deepest depth of the belly. Sometimes, it made me tremble as if the sound found its way into my skin and reverberated through me. At times, I’d suddenly step out of myself, and realize the unique beauty of it all. Before me were the snowcapped Himalayas, an ash gray morning sky, and all the homes of Dharamsala, arranged in such a way, as if each layer was gradually bowing to the heavens, revealing only their colorful and worn rooftops.
It was rare not to enjoy a Dharamsala morning. Only if the monsoon rain dropped from belly of the sky early, did it damper our first hours of the day. The steep stone steps beside our series of flats would vanish beneath the deluge. A sudden waterfall, colored by dirt and filth, washing everywhere. Often our work would be canceled, but other times, we had to walk through it. It was easy for me to be soaked almost to the knee depending on the path that could be taken. And the rains came almost daily. Usually troubling us early and leaving a summer day that only got hotter. The problem with the rainy season goes beyond travel inconvenience and numerous power outages. Bacteria spreads everywhere. It is the season of illness. And with the water source having recently been changed, even the indigenous people of Dharamsala were filling clinics with stomach and digestive ailments. It wasn’t long until over 3/4 of our volunteer group became sick, and those of us that had to make trips to the clinic often came back with stories that didn’t put much faith in the small owned health clinics in lower Dharamsala.
But before the sickness came to me, before I grew tired and weak, it was those moments of solitude on the patio I enjoyed most. Watching as Dharamsala was gently being coaxed awake by its Tibetan brothers. If I was fortunate, I would watch as the upper flat woman did her morning puja. Lighting candles in a small shrine, saying her soft mantras, before giving me one meek smile and returning upstairs. The shrine had painted tiles with Shiva, Ganesh, and Durga. A sculpture of feet symbolic of Vishnu, and other religious pieces. How strange to be in a place where ritual and religion are like breathing…so natural and a part of life. All these traditions in one place, accepting of the others, and it all coexisted harmoniously. It was unlike anything I had ever witnessed in the states, and I thought, yes, this is the soul of India, and each morning she was so kind to reveal herself to me in the mountains, the land, the song, the puja, the words that I didn’t understand but that I FELT…how I miss my Dharamsala mornings.