Death's Prediction and Disaster, By Way of Dharmsala
By Dave Lowe

Dying while traveling is not something we contemplate too deeply. Sure we take out insurance, leave itineraries with friends and family, and fasten those seatbelts low and tight across our laps. But with recent cyclones and earthquakes in Myanmar and China as reminders that being caught up in a disaster overseas always remains a slight possibility. After surviving the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Dave Lowe writes about his experience with facing this taboo subject.

It's 2001 and I'm sitting in a rickety wooden chair in an apartment at the end of an alley in Vedado, a working class neighborhood in Havana. A Santeria priestess dressed in white is kneeling before me in the stale heat, watching as I toss well–worn seashells on the floor, making mental notes of the patterns they make. She smokes a thick cigar and mutters Yoruba words under her breath; glass eyes from sinister china dolls in frilly dresses gaze at us from all corners of the room. Neighbors are peering through the lace curtains whispering words to me in another language I do not understand.

Havana santeria

Glancing up at me through the thick smoke, the priestess stands to her feet and pulls aside Carlos, the owner of the casa particular I had stayed in for a week. She then fires off a barrage of machine gun Spanish into his ear. When she's finished, the priestess walks over and grabs my arm in a vice–like grip, matched with a stare that is pleading, almost fearful, from eyes that never seem to blink. Sweat drips off my brow and trickles down my neck.

I turn to Carlos. "Well?"

His face has gone white. "There is only one thing she wants to tell you," Carlos says slowly, searching my face carefully. "She wants to warn you. The god of the sea wants your soul. It belongs to him. Whatever you do, stay away from the ocean. She has seen this in the ritual."

Despite the tension, I almost burst out laughing. I had been an avid swimmer all my life, had a Jacques Cousteau–obsessed childhood, and been a keen scuba diver for fifteen years. Turn my back to the sea? Was she mad?

I bowed slightly to the priestess and thanked her in my creaky Spanish. She is still gripping my arm like a life preserver, her nails digging deep into my skin, those unblinking eyes inches from my face. I can smell cigars on her breath. Before I can say another word, the power cuts, the apartment is plunged into a deep sea darkness, the neighbors scatter, the priestess lets go of my arm and Carlos and I stagger into the sweltering alley and back into the fierce sunlight, gratefully sucking in great big bucketfuls of fresh air.

As we head for Carlos' house, I prattle on nervously about how ridiculous the priestess' verdict had been. Ludicrous, laughable. A sham.

But Carlos isn't listening: he angrily waves me off with a sharp flick of his wrist. As an avid follower of Santeria, the indigenous religion of Cuba, (rumored even to count Fidel Castro as a believer) it was Carlos who had suggested this reading hours before my departure by train across his country, as a send off for his guest. Clearly a harsh verdict such as this was not what Carlos wanted travelers to hear in his country, who came for the sun, sand and samba. They didn't come to be told their soul belonged to a sea demon.

I shut my mouth. In silence, we pass kids playing baseball and a Russian LADA stripped of its tires that had seen better days. As we cross the street, I look down at my arm. My skin is still pale.

The fingerprints from the priestess are still there.

Dharmsala, India 2004
Three years later I'm stumbling off a dusty bus in Dharmsala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, a hub for western spiritual tourists in India seeking enlightenment, redemption and salvation. Under rain–soaked monsoon skies I slip along the muddy streets looking for my hotel. Walls on virtually every building are plastered with hundreds of notices for Tibetan meditation, language and cooking classes plus Tibetan spiritual retreats held deep in the forest.

After several months in India, I know the country is a massive hypermart for spiritualism, where any shopper could bulk up on redemption, but I still wander slack–jawed through crowds of people milling about Dharmsala, where female monks with shaved heads chat to wizened old ladies spinning prayer wheels. And there, amongst them, are two other exotic tribes: The Lost and The Found.

The Lost are wild–eyed and sweaty, staggering under huge backpacks stuffed full of religious books, antique prayer wheels, and rolled up yoga mats, awkwardly juggling their overbooked schedules of classes, retreats and seminars in order to join the ranks of the Found.

The Found travel light. Having discovered themselves in India, their bags are small, they carry no books at all. They smugly shun classes and eschew seminars, preferring to sit in cafes smoking weed and talking in high voices about the Om, ignoring The Lost who hung on their every word. Their wardrobe consists of chunky turquoise Tibetan jewelry, pirate pants and Jesus boots. Or more often, no shoes at all, The Found preferring to pad softly through the muck barefoot with the high–nosed attitude of Ivy League bound high school seniors, but with a killer tan and dreadlocks down to their knees.

Feeling instantly like an outcast in this two–camp town, I soon find my footing when I learn that a group of wealthy Taiwanese Buddhists has given a large donation to the Tibetan cause, and the Dalai Lama is in town to give them one of his teachings. No one believes me that I just happen to be there by coincidence.

At two o'clock that afternoon, The Teachings start.

dharmsala lama

By the time I have walked up the hill through a light rain, the Dalai Lama has entered the building. The English translation of his lecture is already being carried live on local radio, broadcast from scratchy speakers that hang from pine trees around the complex. Surrounded by hundreds of smiling Tibetans of all ages crowding the concrete patio, many of whom are rocking back and forth with tears streaming down their cheeks, I hunt for a place to sit, but can't find one; so crowded is the place that I ended up standing self–consciously in front of a railing, and immediately got squinted looks from The Found. They have clearly seen my new North Face rain slicker and clean hiking boots and instantly branded me as an intruder.

I look down, still listening to the Dalai Lama's distinct voice as it evaporates into the mist pouring over the hilltops, as he goes on about the moment of death and how humans were meant to meditate on it to alleviate fears of it.

Two hours later The Teachings are over. The crowds thin out and walk back down the steep hill to the town. I linger for awhile by one of the exits, nervously fiddling with the zipper of my jacket, still fending off stares from The Found as they lope past, not sure why I am still there.

Suddenly the Dalai Lama himself sweeps down a staircase, stops to touch an old woman adorned with turquoise jewelry on the forehead, and then strides towards me, wearing those familiar glasses and burnt sienna robes. With a smile spread across his face, the Dalai Lama reaches out and shakes my hand before stepping into the car that will to take him back to his official residence.

As I stand there, he smiles at me though the window, and then clasps his hands together. Fumbling with my palms, I copy him, and for a brief moment feel like Richard Gere.

That night, having met a somewhat friendly group of Canadians from The Lost tribe, who were taking a night off from their busy salvation schedules, I recount my meeting from that afternoon. I then find my hand snatched by seven strangers oohing and aahing over my chance meeting, gushing about the epiphanies his books have given them and how "blissful" they feel being here in Dharmsala, being so close to his presence.

As I sit there with my hands held by others, I no longer feel like Mr. Gere, but like someone who has met the lead singer of a rock band they don't listen to.

Maldives December 26th 2004
A month and a half later I leave India for the Maldives. After passing through Varanasi, where bodies burned 24 hours a day, Amritsar, where the Golden Temple was visited by some of the most devout people I have ever seen, and even Karni Mata, where thousands of lowly rats were exalted as descendents of a goddess, none of the devotion I witnessed rubbed off on me. I have moved around the Indian subcontinent for four months with a Teflon skin. Sure, I have slipped off my shoes, touched fire and watched colorful rituals, but it is as though a thick sheet of glass has stood between me and India.

When I step off the jet at Male airport in the Maldives and see not a spiritual tourist, holy cow or prayer wheel in sight, I almost weep. Ahead are palm trees, white sand beaches, scuba diving, and a turquoise blue sea all one meter above sea level. A paradise postcards can't do justice.

maldives tsunami

That is until a week later. An hour before lunch time, the day after Christmas, there is screaming. A thunderous roar as loud as a phalanx of low–flying 747 jets replaces the placid silence.

What the hell is happening?

Before I have time to find an answer my mouth is full of seawater laced with sewage and gasoline, I'm slammed against a wall by a wave and my shoes, sunglasses, keys and cell phone are all sucked off me. Windows are imploding, wood is splintering. Mattresses, television sets, Champagne bottles, and air conditioners are mixed in the roaring current that is surging all around like a washing machine gone mad.

As I watch a palm tree fall in a silent crash I grip a pole, and wait.

An interminable amount of time passes as I hold on. When the water finally subsides, tropical fish are flopping in the sand and 30 meters of ocean are gone. If time had stopped I could have walked along the rim of the atoll.

For the rest of the day though the Indian Ocean acts like a gigantic bathtub, with wave after wave pounding the island from all directions. Between the torrents of water, underneath a burning sun, we wait for rescue, with people screaming to Allah, the Buddha and Jesus, ranting that it is the end of the world, this is the apocalypse, that we should be preparing for our deaths.

maldives aftermath

Singapore to New York, New Years Day, 2005
On the long plane ride back to New York a few days later I watch a brilliant aurora borealis light show illuminate the sky with pinks and greens on both sides of the Singapore Airlines jet.

It is in the long numbing hours of that flight over the North Pole that I remember the half–listened to words of the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, and the priestess' warning in that sweaty back alley in old Havana, where I had been pressed in by her stares and mumbled words.

I look down at my arm. Though invisible, the priestess' fingerprints are still there.

As I continue to watch the lights outside the window, I want to march back down that crumbing alley, to find that priestess and sit back down in that dilapidated chair so I could toss seashells for her once more.

Dave Lowe is from New York City and is the author of Sandwiches Should NEVER Taste Like Cow Crap, a travelogue of the bizarre lessons learned from journeys through Ethiopia, Japan, Cambodia, India and more. Since February 2008 Dave has been the "Globetrekker Guru" answering travel questions on the Pilot Guides forum. He is the co–founder of The Bluemovement, a non–profit foundation dedicated to marine conservation and community projects around the world. He is currently based in Southeast Asia.

Dave's camera and months of photos were swallowed by the sea in 2004, so all of the shots featured here are stock photos except for the first Santeria portrait, which is by Flickr member karolajnat.

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