After 17 total hours of flight and 17 total hours of driving over the course of 5 days, we finally arrived at Jhamtse Gatsal, our final destination in India. We were greeted by the entire school community, which amounts to almost 90 children and 10 adults or so. It was easily the most welcomed I’ve ever felt anywhere, which seems impossible to imagine given that we were in the foothills of the Himalayas at a place that could easily be described by Wallace Shawn (Putney grad!) as inconceivable.
We experienced an outpouring of love and compassion. Let’s note that Jhamtse Gatsal roughly translates to “garden of love and compassion.” It is exactly that. Every stranger there greets you like you’re an intimate family member. Hugs abound. Emotions surge and overwhelm, even confound. You embrace not only everyone you see, but the place as well.
And then you remember you’re from a culture that is decidedly averse to physical contact. Hugging is not normal. Open displays of affection and gratitude and love…these habits are not yours. You question the motives of this place, the people there. You wonder what’s behind their seemingly sincere acceptance of you, their eager embrace of you simply because you’re a human being. What’s going on here?
You question your own cynicism: why am I resisting all these hugs? Why can’t I give back? Why am I going out of my way to avoid all this love?
Still, you quietly reject these new customs, and you wish to return to a place where people mind their own business and walk around stuck in their own heads, knowing that it’s better not to notice anyone else, let alone think to hug them. Heck, they know enough not to even look at you, good people that they are. Ah yes, the joy of anonymity, or at least the joy of personal space. Do these people not understand that I own a culturally established bubble that moves around with me? Why are they encroaching on my birthright territory?
No, no. You’re right. Just jump right into my space and hug me. Remind me that I’m here. And alive. And all such nonsense. Remind me that I’m here to be with other people and not fundamentally apart from them. Disgusting, isn’t it? The way they just insist on restoring the humanity that was dying away in you. Don’t worry though. Before long, you’ll be back to a world where your humanity is mocked and displaced by the unfeeling, untouched self that you’ve learned to embrace. Well, not quite embrace. That you’ve learned to surrender to from a distance, knowing that any other self you might be is only a fanciful dream, born in places where few dare to go, where even fewer ever choose to bring back.