Last days in Boudha

I’m sipping Everest beer out of a Tuborg glass in Hello Café. The room is painted red, the cushions are red, our cheeks are red and our clothes are soaked from the surprise rainstorm we were caught in. Laughing our asses off, we were the only ones left running around the stupa trying to find somewhere warm and dry while everyone else had found a spot in the overhanging balconies around the stupa. We saw a café we usually go to and ran toward it, but the alleyway was too crowded so we spun back, sprinting and gasping for air. We ran by a man carrying an umbrella and he burst into laughter, holding his umbrella high so we could pass under. When we made it to Hello Café an older woman standing in the doorway nodded at us, smiling widely.

Earlier today a few of us students stayed late at Yantra House to learn from a local Tibetan traditional dancer. We spent more than an hour and a half trying to follow his steps and absolutely failing, unable to breathe from laughing. It’s so easy, it’s so easy, he kept telling us as we stumbled and stomped. At first, he showed us a simple step for which we linked arms, dancing together  to the music of a Tibetan stringed instrument. Then he added words and it became much harder… After long minutes of singing the Tibetan song (which we didn’t know but he tried to teach us) it became apparent we didn’t’ have any idea what we were doing so he sat us down and taught us the song, slowly. We gathered around him with our pens and notebooks, scratching down the sounded-out Tibetan.

Anna and I have fallen in love with a tiny puppy. We keep running into her, laying at the smoothie café Bliss or under a cardboard set-up. She doesn’t eat food we offer her but she pads up to our chairs, slowly, her legs giving up every other step, until we reach down and pick her up, letting her rest in our laps. I can’t explain the feeling of being unable to do anything, but I’m sure you, reader, can imagine. Seeing a being in pain, sick, and being unable to truly change anything.

This has been the last day of class before we leave to India on Sunday. Our eventual destination is Ladakh, a mountain village of mostly Tibetan refugees, then Dharamsala, where the Tibetan exile government lies. Thus I will probably not be able to post much for the next month but I will try!

Leeches and other misadventures

I was bitten by a leech on Sunday. I discovered, then, that I absolutely hate leeches. I am revolted by leeches. Now I am questioning my entire moral system and how it failed me at last, with leeches.

We hiked a beautiful mountain, through fog mixed with clouds, winding up and up and up past mossy trees and the swishing sounds of monkeys in the canopy. The steps were steep and slippery, and I lost myself in the mindset of one step, then another. When we finally reached the top we were all exhausted. We climbed a final set of creaking steps up a ladder-like construction which was the point from which most of the prayer flags were hung. At the top, we breathed.

It was only a few short minutes later that I found out the cute “inch-worms” I’d found were actually leeches. They were all over my shoes, thus the follow photo occurred where I was trying so hard to seem like I didn’t care, but I was mid-slamming my shoes onto the pavement when someone said “look up.”

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On another slightly related note, I’ve caught the cold and am more snotty than I can ever remember being. I sit in class, trying to control my nasal flow, sniffing the coffee our Genlak (teacher), Eben, drinks and wanting more than anything to cave to the craving. It’s all part of the experience and although I am partly miserable, I somehow find it absolutely hilarious.

We’ve begun to really hit the road running work-wise here at Yantra House. I presented on Friday about Chenrezig, the Tibetan Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. I checked six books out of the library at Yantra House yesterday and read parts of all of them then wrote 900+ words of an essay about Buddhist death meditation and ritual. I’ve begun to form the idea of my Independent Study Project. I feel like I’m floating in a jello-like substance of information and books, but in a pleasant and kind of romantic way which would’ve been better described through a pleasant and romantic metaphor but whatever. It’s great, though. I fall asleep with books on my chest, or I wake up with one hand shoved in a book as a last-moments-of-consciousness attempt to save the page. I hear my Amala call, “Sara-la, Sara-la?” and I groggily stumble into the kitchen for scalding Nepali tea and flatbread with peanut butter I bought, because I already ate all of Amala’s peanut butter.

 

Roots to Fruits Language School

Allie, Sophie and I slipped into our sandals, waving and calling goodbyes to our students who were slowly filing into the narrow staircase of Roots to Fruits Language School. A few lingered, calling to us and laughing; a general sense of invigoration and exhaustion filled the room. Moments before we’d ended our class, giving homework not because we’d suggested it but because our students had asked for it.

Today was our first lesson with Roots to Fruits as English teachers. We arrived a bit late because of meetings at Yantra House, and when we finally got to the building, flustered, we didn’t realize it was the right place until we heard voices calling and looked up to see a group of young men leaning over the balcony, smiling widely and waving for us to come up. Laughing we climbed the stairs and found ourselves in the middle of seeming crowd of people, all of whom were apparently waiting for us. Tsering had told us to expect ten people… it ended up being 18. As Tsering showed us our classroom and everyone piled in, we stared at each other, completely unprepared for the reality of teaching English. Tsering smiled when I asked her what we should do, saying, “I don’t know, it’s your class.” The entire classroom full of people looked at us expectantly. Tsering told us that perhaps we could start by introducing ourselves, and it was like being unfrozen. I was first to go, saying my name (I’ve gone with “Sara” here because one of our language partners told me it’s easier to say) and that we were students with SIT. As Sophie and Allie went, I hurriedly wrote our names upon the whiteboard. Afterward Sophie provided the next idea, asking the students their names. We went around the room, hearing names and where they were from, along with if they wanted to learn anything particularly. Everyone was generally shy, with two young men acting as the voices for the group at large. It was interesting to notice how the group sat down; men were on our left while women were on our right, with a group of louder young men sitting at the back left. The women were generally quieter than the men, yet they each were obviously intensely interested in learning.

One young woman told us she was interested in dance and we grabbed onto that, jumping into an explanation of the first kind of dance I could think of: swing dance. Neither Allie nor Sophie knew how to dance, though, so I ended up trying to mime swing dance by myself in front of the entire class. People began to laugh, and as we went through more kinds of dance like jazz and hip hop, describing it and trying to show the dance, the students became more and more relaxed, I think, and began to laugh more. To tell the truth, I think the best move was the sprinkler but I’m not sure if the laughter was at the dance move or in pure embarrassment for me.

After a while of discussing dance, something didn’t feel like it flowed, so we asked if the students would prefer conversation groups instead. The reaction was unanimously yes, so Allie broke the group into three and each of us went with one. My group included two young women, two young men and an older man.

This is where teaching began to click. I’m not sure if it can even really be called teaching because I was learning as much if not more than they; I asked a question and the students went around, answering. When we found an interesting subject we stayed on it, all of us discussing and adding our own thoughts. We talked about politics, spirituality and religion (which was notable because they’d never heard the word spirituality; I’m not sure they are linguistically separate concepts in Nepali), food (we talked about how spice is hard for Americans to digest),  books, music, soccer… after a while it didn’t feel like a classroom setting anymore, more like a group of friends chatting.

Allie caught my attention and asked if we should wrap up soon; I checked my phone and found it’d been over an hour since we’d begun the class, and we’d expected to teach for an hour at most. We stood up, laughing with the students as the words, “It’s five already?!” rippled throughout the classroom. Allie’s group asked if we’d assign homework ~ this is when it hit home, I think, that they truly were here to learn. Roots to Fruits is an NGO that teaches languages for free; some of our students lived many miles away. The meaning of what our group was doing struck me. We hastily came up with the idea to assign a written paragraph, about either family, occupation, or dreams, and told the students it was completely optional but if they did it, we’d check it for errors. Tsering poked her head through the doorway then and asked if we’d come back tomorrow; we told her we would let her know by tonight but that we’d definitely be back next week.first-class

As we walked home, Allie and Sophie being led by one student to find notebooks which we needed for class, myself walking to meet Jennifer at a cafe by the stupa in order to write our assigned discussion project for tomorrow, I felt a sense of calm. I do not want to be reliant upon this work, this feeling, but there must be something to the rightness of it all. In Buddhism as I understand it, emptiness and impermanence are key concepts; the feelings I get result from causes which are impermanent and thus will eventually result in suffering once they’re no more. Yet I deeply feel, resonating in my being, that I am meant to be doing the kind of work we did today. Meaning itself seems to be paradoxical to Buddhism yet both discuss concepts I’ve found as true as I can judge; perhaps there’s no truth except that which each of us finds.

Conversations in Kathmandu

Today began wonderfully, with the sound of rain pattering upon the cement, brick and grass outside my window. Its sound let me drift, slowly and heavily, making the bed feel especially warm and comforting. Soon, though, I woke up because I finally caught that most-despised gastrointestinal problem travelers often face. That led to an interesting morning, involving drinking 1 oz water mixed with “bovine (cow) colostrum, egg solids, silicon dioxide, and vanilla flavor” plus rehydration salts which taste so terrible… But I was kind of proud, in a way, to have made it to Nepal in order to have such a travelers’ illness.

By the time I was feeling better it was drop-off time: Patty, Dorjee and Rinzi had all of us students pile into a bus toward Kathmandu. We had lunch as a group, using our hands as utensils (as Amala says, using your hand makes the food taste better) then walked over to Durbar Square. There, we were given a map, 30 Rupees (approx. 30 cents USD) and told to explore and answer various questions as posed to us via a slip of paper. Avoiding the trinket-sellers and would-be guides, we walked into the area, our eyes wide and our steps hesitant. I found myself walking toward an entryway, a sign nearby stating “Kumari Ghar.”

Walking through the doorway, the sound simply melted away. It was loud with the voices of peddlers, tourists and locals, but suddenly that noise was gone. I could smell a new layer of paint on the banisters, which were a deep red-brown color. The room made way to an open space in the middle, a sacred area in which carved deities sat proudly.

I saw a young man sitting nearby and walked over to him with Allie. We asked him if he’d mind answering a few questions and he said that he wouldn’t. His name was Bissu Takuri, and he was quiet, with an engaging smile which reached his eyes. Through our conversation we discovered that Kumari is the “fortune goddess” to Hindus, and we were in a place for prayers.

Walking to the right outside of Kumari Ghar we saw an enormous white marble building which was crumbling, huge cracks appearing along the walls with some bars against the wall to keep it standing. Scaffolding laced the edges of the building. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with green moss startling the eye against the blue-white walls with gaping blue doorways… to learn more, we began to talk with an old man sitting by the curb, looking up at the building. His name was Salik Ram and he spoke like he had everything to say to us. “Destroyed by earthquake, it was a palace…” he told us, pointing at the building. We asked him what he was doing there, if he was praying. “I have not to pray!” he exclaimed, “I have done everything in my life. I have come to rest.” We found that he’d been a political science professor and a journalist as well; his children are in the US studying or living. He spoke highly of America and said he’d spent 15 years there. Finally he told us that he had advice for us, which he’d learned from his long life: “Life is for you to enjoy,” he spoke, looking into each of our eyes. “Money is not everything. Love is everything.”

We walked on, and met a woman hawking her goods on the main street in the Square. Instead of ignoring her, I asked when she’d started selling. “Eight years ago,” she told me, smiling shyly. I asked why she’d started working the shop and she laughed, pointing at a man behind the table; “Because I married him!” Everyone laughed and another student asked a few questions, and Julia got a photo of the woman, named Vina Karki and her 9 month old baby, Sohara. We spent more time talking, and then walked on, saying goodbye to their smiles.

When we were ready to leave, we asked the ticket clerk for the Square where the nearest minibus stop was. He pointed us in a general direction; after many minutes and more asking people, we found the stop. We called, “Boudha?” to each bus, and were pointed further and further away. Finally we found a bus headed to Boudha but there looked to be no room, and there were 6 of us. The young man taking bus fare wasn’t fazed, though, and hurriedly waved us into the bus. We stuffed ourselves in and I found myself sitting haphazardly across Julia and Jennifer’s laps.microbus-ride-to-boudha All of us were laughing at the tight situation, and one man sitting in an actual seat laughed with us. As the bus started forward one of us began to talk with him. Soon, he was telling us about his work with NGOs in land sustainability and local farming north of Kathmandu. I cannot express the ease of meeting incredible people here in Nepal; the more I speak with people, the more I am stunned. As the bus ride came to an end, I asked if he’d receive volunteers for a study project. He gave each of us his business card and told us to connect with him if we wanted to volunteer; then we parted ways.

Lessons from today: speak to people. We are social beings and, for the most part, simply looking for connection.

Subject to change

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My alarm sounded at 4:45 am and my first thoughts were of frustration at past-SJ who promised she’d go running with Allie and Anna at 5:30. Well, it turned out to be at 5:30 but I thought it was 5 hence the eaaarrrlyyyy morning but trust (a theme I’ve been finding extremely relevant in life lately) … the time was perfect for 20 minutes of yoga facing the open window and the gradually lightening sky.

We met up at the junction between two roads a quick walk from my home, rubbing the sleep from our eyes and questioning the necessity of exercise. We made it to the Hyatt Hotel, through the gate (pretending we stay there) and into the gym quickly enough, ran a bit, showered, and left for home.

As I walked in, Amala called to me from the hallway. I closed the door, which drags across the top step each time (in an oddly satisfying way) and answered Shoppa delek, Good morning. I asked, embarrassed, if she’d gotten my note; I’d forgotten to ask if I could leave early in the morning and had unlocked both the wooden and screen doors of the apartment then taken the padlock off the main gate to get out. Amala laughed and said she’d found the note, and asked if I’d go ahead and eat breakfast. I walked into the kitchen and found my note propped up against the jar of cheese, which I’d been offered but been reluctant to try thus far. Amala quickly threw two slices of brown bread on my place, steaming with heat from having been on the stove moments before. She fried an egg while I looked at the bread curiously; do people eat toast in the same way in Nepal?

Of course they do, and when Amala set a plate with a fried egg down next to the bread, she looked at me quizzically, saying “You put the egg on the bread, make a sandwich.” Then she smiled and left me to my breakfast, herself retiring to the prayer room as she does each morning.

I feel like I should admit that I didn’t make a sandwich, instead using one of the pieces of toast for peanut butter. The comforts of home are sometimes too tempting, and who am I to refuse the siren call of peanut butter.

Class today was wonderful and interesting as always; I’ll try to only mention the things which stick out to me in my memory instead of giving a fully descriptive account of each moment of class but I think I forgot to mention that we sit on pillows in class!!! I adore it.

Anyways, during lunch I sat at a table with other students and one of our teachers, Kaleb-la, who is a student at the White Monastery in Kathmandu. I’d been curious to hear his story because of his obvious passion for the Tibetan language ~ he is constantly describing it as beautiful and giving us the linguistic history of words. It’s quite a wonderful way to learn Tibetan. When I asked him how he’d ended up here, he told us that he’d done a semester in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha reportedly achieved enlightenment. His program had concentrated on different types of meditation: first Theravada then Zen and finally Tibetan Buddhism. What changed the course of his life occurred during the last third of the semester, when he met a Rinpoche, or someone who is highly valued for their teachings. I think the name translates to “precious jewel” or something like that.

I asked him what he did then and he told us that he’d returned to the US for his spring semester, come back to Nepal for a class in intensive Tibetan, then finished his degree in the US and finally returned to stay in Nepal. His reasoning for returning was in order to learn the language of his teacher, the Rinpoche, and other lamas and rinpoches.

His story is much for me to take in. His demeanor is different too; he is calm and speaks slowly, surely. He smiles freely.

Will I meet someone like the Rinpoche, who changes everything? The pressure is too great.

In the book I am reading now the Dalai Lama says that, as humans, our existence is “subject to change.” This statement struck me because of the use of the verb, subject. We are essentially powerless to resist change; whether we expect it or no, want it or no, fear it or no, it will happen. In this way I will calm my mind and try to be as open as possible.

I called a woman named Tsering today, who is an assistant director (I believe) at Roots to Fruits, a language school for young people in Boudha. I had been advised by Tenchoe, one of our language instructors and a beautiful soul, to reach out to Tsering for volunteer opportunities. I spoke with other students about it and three of us walked over to the Roots to Fruits office to meet Tsering.

It took us a while to find the office since it was in a nondescript building near the Stupa, and upstairs. We had walked into someone’s home and hastily walked out, then spent many more minutes asking people on the street to no avail when finally Tsering called me and we saw her, waving from a second-floor balcony. We made our way upstairs. The smell and feel of the language school was like a cloud; once we walked into it, it suffused my being with its sense of peace. We spoke to Tsering for a few minutes and she told us that the language school generally operates during the hours of our classes, but she’d ask her students if they’d want to take any extra lessons in the afternoon with us.

So, more on that tomorrow. But we found the place and met her, and it was lovely and satisfying and exciting and invigorating.

I feel like there’s so much to tell, and I don’t think I can write down each moment but I want to!!!

A balance will find itself somehow.

One last story to tell, and I’ll keep it short: As a larger group, a few students and myself made our way into Kathmandu to visit the Pashupatinah (I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong) Temple, a Hindu temple. After probably half an hour of walking through dusty streets and past many people, colorful in the garb of a salad bowl of cultures, we found ourselves at the bottom of a set of stone steps. We walked up and found ourselves among a spill of cows, children, people, and monkeys.

Monkeys, I learned today, can and will give you rabies if you don’t watch out. Just don’t look them in the eyes and you’ll be fine.

I realized if I think about that tidbit too much around the monkeys, I suddenly realize I’ve been staring into one poor fool’s eyes while I’ve been letting my mind wander. No rabies so far, though.

We walked down more steps to the sacred river and followed a path to a cave, accompanied by a few men siting and talking quietly. We took off our shoes and walked upwards, bending over to fit in the small space. Atop there were many stone deities, carved or naturally-arising from the stone, with red powder and gold flower petals adorning their bodies. I looked at each one, feeling oddly insignificant and somewhat awed, but also a bit embarrassed to be as interested as I was in shaped stone. But who am I to know what to believe?

 

Culture shock?

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Photo by Julia of butter candles, which are found near sacred places which are common in Boudha.  

Beside me is a red and orange book, open to a page where, emboldened, it reads “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism” (by Alan Sponberg).

 

I am reading a book about Buddhism, sexuality and gender. I am in Nepal. It’s both more than I can comprehend and perfectly right.

I am cozy in the crook of a bookshelf and doorway, with five other students sprawled across the floor and papers everywhere. After writing for a while, chatting easily, we stand and leave toward the Boudha Stupa, only a few short minutes from the Yantra House. Once there we begin to let our minds wander, walking to shops or reaching down to scratch friendly street dogs, finally finding our way up a narrow staircase to an umbrella-covered table at the Golden Eyes Café.

We spoke with our waiter and I tried to ask him a few questions, although neither of us truly understood what the other was saying; but he laughed and smiled and we ended up with a variety of drinks.

We sat under the umbrella for hours, speaking of politics and telling stories.

After a while, though, I found myself thinking of the juxtaposition of the café and the sky… I could see the mountains with fog spilling down their sides, peeking up from behind the trees. The sky was cloudy but light blue-gray, the sun setting to my left. I looked at the Stupa and the people performing kora, or circumambulations. I couldn’t think of a word or description for what I was feeling. I listened to the wonderful people surrounding me and felt out of place.

I am in Nepal, yet in the United States. I am stuck in my own culture yet rooted as well; it is positive and it is imprisoning. Today during one-on-ones I met with Hubert, the director of our program and he told me that getting out of your comfort zone is misleading. Instead, we must strive to understand the paradoxes we notice between our mental state, our mindset, and others’. We must attempt to accept and comprehend what makes one person believe in a cycle of samsara, of suffering and rebirth, and thus to tap at the glass of our own paradigms which, of course, remain mostly unknown to us.

I now realize that I have let myself already become complacent with the comfort of my culture. Yet we change, constantly, and in simple recognition I have changed.

This is what I am here for. I am letting old habits be old, and finding new ones. I have that choice. I am here not to sight-see but to comprehend. This does not mean that there is no time or place for the former, but we each must find what brings us meaning in life and I think I understand this for myself a bit more. The quest itself is inherently selfish ~ I have encountered a dilemma in which I understand that, to make myself happy and give myself peace, I must give somehow. It is a paradox. I will think more on this and hopefully come to understand it better, but for now I will follow this drive and seek opportunities here. Am I here to become more deeply happy, more truly at peace? I thought I had a better reason, something more altruistic, but when I am honest with myself… what else drives a person to act? I thought I wanted to study compassion… but then what?

My plan, then, is to learn. I will try to open my mind and be ready for something greater than myself.

 

Homestay and exploration

My back aches. I just finished washing my clothes in two separate buckets in the bathroom outside my home here in Boudha, Kathmandu. The process took a little while; first you fill one bucket with water then pour a few handfuls of washing powder into the water; powder my Alama walked me over to the shop across the street to buy, saying “If you ever need things, come here. It’s a good place,” to the shop owner’s modest smile. The shop itself was dark with the incoming dusk, items and people stuffed into a tiny space adjacent to more small shops. The road itself is dusty, with cobblestones mixing with patches of grass and mud from the rain this morning ~ it is monsoon season here in Nepal. Back to washing: after filling the soapy bucket with the clothes, you let it sit for a few minutes and when you come back the water is a dark brown. It’s oddly satisfying to see the muddy water, as if you’ve already accomplished something. Then you must take the clothes out, one at a time, and wash them in the other bucket (full of clean water) and hang them on the handle of the spicket and the knobs. After this, you empty both buckets and fill the larger one with clean water, repeating the soaking and rinsing sequence with each article of clothing and ringing them out well. Afterward you pile the clothes on your arms, upon which goosebumps arise from the chill of the cold clothing, and walk outside to the wire run haphazardly across the back of your home. You hang the clothes, hiding your undergarments on another wire perpendicular to the main one, harder to see.

Then you walk inside and sit down, your back growling at you for your efforts.

Dinner was beyond my wildest expectations, as per usual. But not in a way I can really explain; it has to do with the smell of this home. The nose is embraced by it, touched and loved by it. It smells intrinsically of home, something deeply human. Lentils, partly, and perhaps soap and a bit of incense from the prayer room down the hall from my bedroom. The prayer room itself is wild, with a curtain barely hiding reds and golds and paintings and pictures. My family here is Buddhist and they pray daily, if only for a little while. Om mani peme hum and other mantras. They think of emptiness and the impermanence of the ego, but “we really know nothing, we are laypeople” says my Pala. He is too modest.

These people have found what makes the soul full, what connects all the dots, what is right for here and now.

I am learning the Tibetan alphabet and language for these human beings. Their culture, their passions, all are inherently connected with Tibetan and I am learning it for them and for myself. I did not, though, realize how much it means to learn Tibetan until I began to live here.

My bed is so much more comfortable than I could have hoped; “You slept under the pad,” laughed Amala when she saw my pulled-back sheets. I didn’t understand until she pulled out the large blanket which I’d mistaken for a pillow. “Past students, they tell me the bed is hard,” she says, showing me the original pad, “so I fixed it.”

Kindness is a culture here.

Tomorrow, classes start at the Yantra House, a haven in the middle of the dusty bustling city. There is a rope swing, and many trees with vines growing everywhere and a library. A library!!! I am happy. Surprisingly so because I had expected to be homesick or physically ill from the water and food changes, but instead I am balanced.

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This is a photo of when I met my Amala, or mother in Tibetan.