Indian pop music blasted within the autorickshaw and the flimsy metal buggy chugged to a raucous dance beat as we bumped along the road to Bylakuppe. The plump, middle-aged Tibetan woman squeezed into the back seat next to me wasn’t happy. She barked something to the Indian driver in Hindi and he called back over his shoulder as he dodged a jeep roaring at us from the opposite direction. He wore plastic flip-flops but had taken them off so he pressed the pedals with his callused bare feet. “What’s the matter?” I asked her.
“He only has Kannada music,” she grumbled, referring to the local language of Karnataka, the southern Indian state that we were in. “I want Hindi music!” I couldn’t quite tell the difference between the two Indian languages so the music, the aural equivalent of sparkly bangles and sequined hot pink polyester, sounded the same to me. The woman yelled at the driver again until, cowed, he pulled over and rummaged in a compartment under his seat. The driver spoke to the woman apologetically and she let out another stream of chastising Hindi. Finally, when she accepted that he really did not have any Hindi cassette tapes she let him blast the Kannada music and resume the ride.
We were headed to Bylakuppe, the biggest Tibetan settlement in India, and readying to depart the noisy, crowded streets of Kushalnagar, the nearest Indian town. The throngs of chaotic traffic typical of India disappeared as we turned onto a side road leading toward the settlement. Soon we were one of just a few vehicles on a road flanked by woods. When we passed a small concrete building that was a police checkpoint, I leaned back into the autorickshaw to make myself inconspicuous. Foreigners were supposed to get a PAP—a “protected area permit”— from the Indian government to enter the Tibetan settlement and I didn’t have one; I was told it took months and reams of paperwork to get a permit if you were lucky and I had organized this trip just two days before. It seemed a particularly inauspicious time to visit without permission, as security was tightening just a few days before His Holiness the Dalai Lama would arrive for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Tibetan democracy in exile. I had spent a lot of time reporting from Dharamsala, the town that is the Dalai Lama’s exile home in northern India, and had heard a lot about Bylakuppe from Tibetan exiles. When a reporting assignment took me to Bangalore, I welcomed the chance to make a side trip further south to the Tibetan settlement, well off the beaten track.
The main building of Sera Monastery adorned with new prayer flags ahead of the Dalai Lama’s visit. Photo by Amy Yee
I needn’t have worried. The autorickshaw didn’t even slow down as we passed the checkpoint. Even if it had, the Indian policeman slumped in a lawn chair probably would have seen my face and waved me along. I am of Chinese descent, but to an undiscerning, sleepy Indian policeman, I could pass as Tibetan. Tibetans, however, knew otherwise.
Just a few moments after the Tibetan woman climbed into my autorickshaw with her shopping bags, she turned and squinted at me. “You belong to Japan?” she inquired quizzically in accented English. Her voice was blunt as a mallet.
I shook my head. Sometimes it seemed too complicated to explain that I am Chinese-American, born in the US to parents who emigrated from Hong Kong so I supplied an answer that was easier to understand. “I’m from Singapore,” I said. I had to raise my voice over the chopper-like ruckus of the autorickshaw’s two-stroke engine.
The woman’s face lit up in comprehension at the strange sight of an Asian passenger sitting next to her. A hirsute Caucasian traveler loaded with a rucksack was foreign enough to do odd things like travel to small towns in India by themselves. But a lone Asian woman–someone who looked similar enough to her so as to be assessed by her standards–was more of an enigma. I figured Singapore explained the Asianness, but was foreign enough that people from there might also do odd things like travel to small towns in India by themselves.
As far as I was concerned, there were far more unusual sights to behold in Bylakuppe, and I was about to encounter some of them. When we entered the settlement, I was startled by a surreal vista of vast, pristine corn fields and a red-robed Tibetan monk, complete with crimson trucker’s hat, driving a tractor across our path. We were a long way from the rooftop of the world, as Tibet is often referred to.
It was the end of August and I had been staying at a guesthouse in Kushalngar; I didn’t want to risk staying in Bylakuppe without a permit even though I heard coconuts were the only inhabitants of the local jail. Mahalaxmi Guesthouse was named after the goddess of wealth and had clean $8 a night rooms. It was just a short walk from a bus terminal that received buses from Bangalore and Mysore to the north. The smooth two-lane ‘highway’ from Bangalore was lined with bright green fields of spiky sugar cane and roadside restaurants with big signs declaring themselves as “Pure Veg”. The bus station was on Kushalnagar’s main road, which was clogged with small shops and their jumble of signs, clouds of dust, and throngs of noxious traffic typical of an Indian town. Plumes of black exhaust streaming from buses, trucks and cars looked like lung cancer in gas form. It was noon and traffic in Kushalnagar flowed in a messy ooze. Drivers leaned on their screeching, bleating horns. For 50 rupees, or about one dollar, an autorickshaw driver parked on the road agreed to take me to Bylakuppe. This wasn’t the best price–locals paid 30 rupees or less for the 20-minute ride to Bylakuppe–but it was low enough to show I had put up some kind of fight while we were bargaining for the ride. Plus I was eager to escape the cacophony. Shrieking traffic still made me grimace even after years of living in India, where I worked as a journalist based in Delhi, so I jumped into the autorickshaw.