By SUSAN JENNINGS
For the Daily Record/Sunday News
After touring around India for a month in 2009, Tammy Winand needed to catch her breath. She asked a travel agency where she could find a place that was peaceful and safe; the agency sent her to a Himalayan hill station called Dharamsala.
“I ended up in the hometown of the Dalai Lama,” the York Township resident said.
She only intended to stay there a couple days, long enough unwind and take in the culture. But then she ran into a volunteer who’d been teaching English to Tibetan refugees at a local school; the people who were running the school were leaving and they needed new volunteers to take over. Was she interested?
Even though Winand had no background in teaching, she agreed.
She ended up staying in Dharamsala — a place she knew virtually nothing about before visiting — for four and a half months. She returned home to the states but missed the place and the people so much she returned in October 2010 and spent another year teaching at the school.
The city is the headquarters to the exiled Tibetan government and home to thousands of refugees, many of whom Winand spoke with during her time there.
“Talking to political prisoners moved me,” she said. “The things that some of these people had gone through you can’t even conceive of.”
The exiles told her about Chinese prisons — where inmates were deprived of food, sleep, beds and heat. As political prisoners, they were considered a threat to the state and were subjected to torture as the government attempted to “re-educate” them.
Winand wanted to do something that might make a difference in the lives of the men and women she met — even if only in a small way. Since the stories of the Tibetan exiles are largely unknown to Westerners, Winand thought one way she could help was to share them.
When she returned back to the states she started a Facebook page where she’d post photos she’d taken while in Dharamsala, tell the stories of the refugees she’d met as well as provide background and news updates about the situation in Tibet.
Eventually, she adapted the contents of that page and published a book: “Everyday Exile: Life in the Tibetan Settlements of India and Nepal.”
The book is written in three parts. The first section is somewhat of a travel guide — introducing readers to Dharamsala and the culture of the people living there. Part two tells the background of the Tibetan exiles — who they are and how they came to walk across the Himalayas and land in India. The final section follows a series of events that happened during Winand’s time in Dharamsala from 2009-11, which was a period of rapid change for the exile community.
While she doesn’t have plans to return to India anytime soon — she came back to the U.S. in October 2011 sick, tired and burned out — her experiences there are never far from her heart.
“I’m not the same person that I was at all when I went over there,” she said.
One of the most memorable parts of her stay in India was attending teachings by the Dalai Lama. The first one she attended, she had no idea where she was going.
“The students at the school said ‘Tomorrow morning you’re coming at 6 o’clock and we’re going to the temple,’” she said. When she arrived at the temple there was his holiness.
“I really had no concept of who he was,” she said, but she could feel the power of his presence right away — the atmosphere was uplifting and she felt connected to the rest of the community in attendance.
During the 16 months Winand spent in Dharamsala, she saw the Dalai Lama seven times. His teachings on Buddhism, philosophy and world peace influenced her to stay in India longer and helped her connect with the community around her.
Winand, who just moved back to York from Utah, is now working on a short memoir recounting more personal experiences during her time in Dharamsala. She also has another book in the works called “Let it Go” about downsizing your material possessions, which was inspired by her time in India and living among people who had very little.
“I just got rid of almost everything,” she said. “Everything I own on this planet is in one suitcase and one duffel bag.”
Lives in: York Township
Occupation: Self-employed, works in retail and tourism industries
Book: “Everyday Exile: Life in the Tibetan Settlements of India and Nepal” is available as a paperback on amazon.com for $7.19 or as an e-book for $2.99
Readings: Winand is available for readings and cultural discussions about Dharamsala and the Tibetan exiles. Email her at email@example.com.
In 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, proclaiming its desire to “liberate” the independent country. A 17-Point Agreement was signed in 1951, incorporating Tibet as an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China and the PRC immediately began redistributing land held by monasteries and nobility to peasants.
Tibetan unrest led to armed resistance against the PRC, which culminated in a national uprising in 1959 that left an estimated 87,000 Tibetans dead. In March 1959, after a presumed kidnapping attempt by the PRC, the Dalai Lama and an estimated 80,000 Tibetans fled the country, settling in India.
Since then, thousands of Buddhist monasteries and shrines have been destroyed, all references to the Dalai Lama have been banned, the population is under extensive surveillance and China has been accused of torturing Tibetan political prisoners.
Currently, 140,000 Tibetans are living in exile, most in India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Dalai Lama and the headquarters for the Central Tibet Administration (also known as the Tibetan government in exile) reside in McLeod Ganj, a village located within Dharamsala, a city in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
In 2011, the Dalai Lama stepped down from his role as head of state, though retaining his role as spiritual leader as the head of Tibetan Buddhism. The new head of the CTA is democratically elected by Tibetan exiles.
Talks between China and Tibetan authorities over Tibet’s future have stalled in recent years. The CTA has advocated for a Middle-Way Approach, which would make Tibet an autonomous, though not independent, region within China and preserve the cultural, religious and national identity of the Tibetan people.
Sources: dalailama.com; tibet.net; freetibet.org