Days of Tehar

Lights, tracing their way from rooftops, flickering silently as the world around them burns with sound. I focus on the lights, my eyes looping and flowing with the shining blues, reds, yellows, their tranquility infecting my gaze and sinking into my skin. I forget the street noise as I walk past, watching the colors until I’m almost walking backwards.

Tehar is the festival of lights in Nepal. Yesterday the street dogs had red tikas on their foreheads, their necks decorated in marigold chains and their backs showing signs of marigold petals tossed upon them. As I walked around the stupa with Anna and Izac, I noticed one so bedecked dog curled beneath a bench. I crouched down, opening my palms, and she pushed herself to her feet, walking over cautiously. Anna and Izac moved on while I scratched her ears.

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Anna and Izac, running the streets of Boudha

She had flipped onto her back for a belly massage when I heard someone walk up. A middle-aged woman smiled at me, and took a photo of the dog. She spoke a dialect of English reminiscent of somewhere in Europe. She cooed to the dog, murmuring hellos, and then walked away. “I’ll be back,” she promised and I watched, curious, as she joined a larger group of people feeding a pack of street dogs. She picked up a bowl from the ground and brought it over, placing it in front of my canine friend’s nose. The dog’s eyes grew wide, and she hopped up and began quickly downing the rice and chicken.

The woman I met was part of a local NGO, Street Dog Care, which takes care of injured or sick street dogs. I met two other people volunteering with the NGO ~ both of them said they weren’t members, but were in Nepal and decided to give some of their time to working with the street dogs. Tyler, who is originally from Nepal but has been living in D.C. for a while, took this picture before we met:

dog-day  And I took a few pictures:

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I found the lights last night, when a few of us went to Thamel for a night in the city. Anna and I walked a few minutes outside of the intensity of Thamel to meet a young tattoo artist we’d heard of named Isabelle.

It took us a while to actually find Isabelle’s tattoo shop; Thamel’s streets are comprised of layers upon layers of businesses and shops, each with a sign demanding your attention. We dodged motorbikes and taxis and avoided groups of adolescent boys (all wearing Chicago Bulls jerseys for some reason) until we found Isabelle waving from a rooftop. We walked up the narrow staircase of her building.

Anna and I spent hours with Isabelle, listening to her tell stories of her time in Nepal. She’s from the UK and began tattooing in Pokhara, Nepal then moved back to Kathmandu because she’d met so many friends here and loved the culture. Isabelle walked us around her studio and showed us her art ~ dot and line drawings. We chatted about tattoos and politics and everything else as the night grew darker, until finally Anna and I had to leave or definitely become lost in the busyness of the night.


 

Two days ago we all had our final exams for Tibetan language. It was a bit bittersweet because although Tibetan has been a difficult language to learn, I’ve grown to appreciate being able to sound of the Tibetan script I see on buildings and in books, and to sometimes even understand the meaning. The exam was short and relatively easy, but since we all took turns with Tenchoe-la for our oral exams, I spent much of the morning lounging at Yantra House. Pala (the older man who runs the household at Yantra) walked in with a tiny girl who could barely walk ~ his granddaughter, Sonam. Pala saw me watching and called out to Sonam, “Nose!” Her finger hesitantly reached toward her face. “Fingers!” She wiggled her fingers at him. I laughed and Pala told her, in Tibetan, to say hello to me. She stumbled toward me, her eyes wide and her hand outstretched. I shook her hand, laughing, and she shyly moved away.

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Here is Sonam, peering curiously and a bit indignantly at me, lying sideways on the ground trying to snap a good photo. 

 

These stories are random and perhaps may have no punch line, but often, I think, that’s the way life is. Maybe we expect punch lines and logic too often. Maybe they don’t exist. Personally, I prefer nonsense.

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Music and street dogs

I stood barefoot on the cement of the roof, watching the sun play with the prayer flags, sacred cloth drifting like dancers in the evening breeze. My ukulele was slung across my shoulders and I turned, pulled toward the sound of music. Jennifer played a metal bucket, drumming to Izac’s guitar as Anna curled up with pen and paper. As the sun set, it felt like we tossed music notes like drops of fire outward into the valley, street dogs singing their acceptance.

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This was last night. This morning, I met Anna for yoga on the roof, then we walked to a cafe to work on assignments for class. On the way, we walked by the alley where I’d found the brown-and-black puppy. Under a nearby gate we saw a pile of wriggling bodies. A young boy was calling to them, and we sat next to him, saying Hello. He grinned at us and jumped up, darting around the corner. Soon he reappeared, snatching one puppy then another from the pile, pushing them toward us. I laughed as the puppies, sleep evident in their faces, perked up and hopped toward us.

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A young nun walked up to us, squatted down, and pulled a ceramic bowl toward her. She took a bottle of milk out of her bag. “Cow’s milk,” she told us, and motioned for me to pour some of my water into the bowl as she poured milk. As soon as we did this, puppies leapfrogged over each other to reach the milk, each settling in a spot around the bowl.

We spent a while with the puppies and their mothers ~ we found two moms.

Basically, I’m in love with the life here, and the way local people take care of animals in small ways. All it takes is a little thought, a little action. This is love. dscn0186

Evening around the Stupa (involving dogs, of course)

I reached down to the wobbling brown-and-black puppy, his squeaks making it impossible not to smile. He bounced around me, seemingly unable to stay upright unless he was moving.

I lost my balance when a huge chestnut dog butted me, demanding attention. I dropped my backpack and lost myself in a puddle of dogs. Before long, a goat I’d seen earlier chewing the side-view mirror of a stopped taxi nudged her way into the hubbub, and I gave her a scratch, too.

An older Tibetan nun walked up, face masked against the dusty air, and she stopped right in front of me. I could see deeply carved smile lines on the edges of her eyes ~ she was laughing. “Tashi delek,” I said, and she pointed at the puppy. “Chung chung,” I noted, which means “small” (one of the few Tibetan words I know) and she laughed. “Kherang kusung depo yin pe?” I asked, meaning “How are you?” Her eyes demonstrated her grin as she replied in quick Tibetan ~ I could just make out that she said she was well. She seemed to also ask me how I am, so I replied, “Nga depo de kyan yin,” and she grabbed my hand, shaking it and nodding her head. She said more in Tibetan which was lost on me, so I motioned with my hand that I know just a little Tibetan. “Kora?” She asked me, and I nodded. She shook my hand again, waved, and walked away.

Circumstances are different, here. The context of meeting people is important, and this context has given me strength and peace. Here, it is easy to share moments with someone I can barely speak with, someone whose world is vastly different than mine yet in that small period of time, the same. dscn0143

 

Thank you, to a life.

Yesterday, Anna found out that Lemongrass died while we were in India.

Lemongrass was a tiny, frail puppy who I met at a cafe. She was drunkenly stumbling around the cafe’s lawn, her small body unable to carry her full weight. When Anna and I moved to pet her, though, her tail wagged and she gradually flipped to expose her belly. She whimpered every so often and at first Anna and I were afraid we were hurting her, but when we stood up to move back to our table, Lemongrass heaved her body up and followed us. Anna picked her up and she laid in Anna’s arms, her eyes gently closing. We passed her back and forth when our arms got tired or we had to do something, and Lemongrass was utterly content with the love and scratches.

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We returned to the cafe often and saw her, giving her peanut butter and crackers when she would accept them. She became more sick, though. Anna found her sleeping under a cardboard box in the awning of a monastery, and found out through a monk that she slept there each night. The monk told Anna that she was very sick ~ although we knew this, hearing it affirmed was hard.

When we returned from India, she was gone.

I cannot express this feeling. I thought, when I was petting Lemongrass, that perhaps I could take her home. I knew I held a life which wouldn’t last long on the streets of Boudha, but didn’t know if I had the right to take her out of her environment and even if I had the ability to.

Now I wish I did something but still, what could I have done? There are so many street dogs, many with gashes or missing legs from cars, other dogs, or humans. I have witnessed cruel treatment by people, and I have seen dogs starving, mothers refusing to allow their puppies to milk because they are far too skinny themselves. But also I have seen a man, passing by, dropping crackers for a street dog trailing behind him. I have watched street dogs treated by a local NGO each Saturday, the dogs’ wounds being bound, injections given, and the dogs leaving freely afterward. I’ve watched my Amala each night giving extra food to the street dogs, and I saw a young boy playing with a dog, scratching behind his ears and hugging him. And I have met so many street dogs, their tails wagging and refusing food, only wanting love.

These are souls. Regardless of what form, they are living beings with wishes and the ability to feel pain… and the ability to feel joy.

I am writing to say thank you to a soul who gave me joy. I am utterly sorry that I could do nothing more for you, but I hope you knew that you were loved.

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Painting with Dolkar

I’m very proud of the painting Dolkar (my 8 year old homestay sister) and I made ~ there’s a bike, and a tree, and a flower that’s as big as the tree, and birds as big as the clouds wheeling in our blue + white + a little more blue sky. “How to make sky blue?” Well, sqeeze the water into your brush. Yes, I know it’s a bit unusual ~ it’s a travel paint set. Squeeze one more drop, Dolkar ~ now wake up the blue. She carefully mixed the white and the lake-blue until she was content.

Today is my last day in Dharamsala, for now. I think I’ve found somewhere to live when I return in November… it’s down the longest flight of stairs I’ve ever seen. It’s probably halfway down the mountain (and that’s only a little exaggerated). I was with Anna, and we had a vague idea of where to go based on Jaime, a Texan we met in Black Tent Café. “Down the stairs,” she told us, and we knew exactly what she meant. I’d been avoiding those stairs the entire time I’ve been here.

We made our way quickly down, down, down, and walked into a guest house. “Do you have any apartments for rent?” “No.” We continued walking. Halfway down the endless stairs we ran into Alix, a yoga teacher I’d met a few days ago. She greeted us warmly, juggling her baby (whose face showed signs of chocolate consumption) and bag in her arms. There was a young man behind her. We told her about our quest for an apartment, and she grinned. “Follow me,” she said, introducing us to the young man who is one of the managers of the apartment complex she lives in.

I felt a sense of impending doom as we went all the way down the stairs, hoping we’d stop at one of the flights above the bottom but slowly realizing that was less likely. At the end of the stairs, I refused to look up into the face of my future (the stairs) and walked onward.

We wound our way up more stairs until we were among the pines, overlooking an endless valley with a few cows and monkeys moving about. Hello, we said to two young men smoking on a balcony, as we looked in their window to see the room. It was beautiful. “Can I show them the yoga room?” with approval, we made our way further upward to a loft rom which smelled faintly of incense and was golden with leftover sunlight. After looking around a bit, Alix invited Anna and me into her own apartment for tea.

Anna and I looked around the apartment a bit, then sat down with Oscar (the baby). He climbed all over us, using us as leverage to crawl toward items best untouched by babies. We chatted amiably with Alix as she made masala tea, using baby formula instead of milk for lack of the latter. When it was ready, we dragged chairs outside to her porch and talked, listening to Alix’s story while sipping the baby formula tea. This place, whatever it does, has led me to hear so many stories and I cannot begin to explain how thankful I am for this.

Another short story from my past few days: I was followed home on my way to my homestay, two nights ago. It’s something I worried about before coming to India but not since ~ Dharamsala is simply not scary to me. But I noticed someone I had seen before walking behind me, but assumed I had seen his face sometime in the past. It’s a small town here and you begin to recognize people quickly.

As I turned into the alley to my homestay, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around. “Hello,” he said, introducing himself. “I saw you in the main square and you were the only person who smiled at me.” Oops. I had discussed with Anna that habit and how it could be taken wrongly just a day ago. So, he had followed me down an enormous hill, for twenty minutes, for a smile. I wasn’t afraid, just sad to give the wrong impression. “Can we spend time together?” I explained I had dinner with my homestay family. “Can I come with you?” No, I cannot invite you. “Can we spend time together afterward?” At this point, I did feel badly for giving the wrong impression but wanted to get out of the situation, so I told him good luck in everything, and goodnight.

Successfully avoiding a questionable situation at nighttime: check.

Now, I’m sitting with Anna, Jennifer and Julia at a café, slowly drinking rose tea and writing down stories. Their conversation is a murmur which brings a sense of peace. Later, I’ll find gifts for my homestay family, and perhaps get more tea. And probably walk up a lot of stairs.

 

Finding a story in Peace Cafe

Dolkar, my eight-year-old homestay sister, is curled beside me. She just finished showing me each page of a German cookbook, marveling at the pictures and colors. She’s grinning and mumbling to herself as she searches her Pala’s phone for games, reading each game aloud in exaggerated English. She is absolutely full of energy, which she shares eagerly with the rest of us.

I am writing because I am fascinated by the way life works ~ it’s easy change, the way it leads you silently yet assuredly toward something you could never expect.

Anna and I parted nearer to her homestay, so I wandered down the hill toward mine without really knowing what I would do. I had the option to see Miss Himalaya live, which started at 7 pm, but for some reason I preferred to walk slowly and allow my eyes to wander, halfway looking for something to pull me. I saw Peace Cafe ~ yesterday, a slip of paper my Amala back in Boudha wrote for me fell out of my journal into my hands. It said “Mr. Yeshi, Peace Cafe” and gave a few more details about the general area~ I remembered my Amala telling me that her brother owned a restaurant in Dharamsala. So when I saw Peace Cafe, I walked by it but stopped moments afterward. I turned around and walked up to the doorway, peering in. It is a small cafe, with perhaps only 6 tables. Only one was empty and it had four chairs; I didn’t want to use it up, but something made me walk in anyways.

Hello? I asked the man standing at the counter. He looked at me, his face neutral. Can I come and read, and drink tea? I stumbled over the words, made nervous by his consistent neutrality. Yes, sure, he replied, and I sat at the empty table. I pulled out my journal and book, and soon he slid a menu to me. The note, which I’d slipped back into my journal, pushed the pages open so that it sat there, on the table. I looked at it. When the man came back, I asked if we were near to the hotel my Amala had scribbled. Yes, he said, it’s right over there. He pointed. Do you know a Mr. Yeshi? I asked, and he looked at me quizzically. I showed him the note. This is me, he said, how do you know this? I laughed, invigorated that I had found him, and told him about my Amala in Boudha. Nyima? My sister, he said, and I laughed again.

When he left, I reopened my journal and wrote a bit, then began to slowly read. Before I’d read more than two pages, I heard someone walk up to me. “May I sit here?” I looked up to see a middle-aged man, dressed mostly in dark browns, with an enormous variety of tattoos encircling his bared forearms, smiling openly at me from across the table. Of course, I said, and to my surprise he sat directly across from me instead of at the other chair, which would’ve given both of us more individual privacy. I put my book down.

Somehow conversation was easy. We discussed the Dalai Lama, India, our hometowns and what brought us to that table in Peace Cafe. After my tea, then my soup had come out we were still talking ~ I forgot to eat at first, until Mr. Yeshi came over and reminded me that my soup was growing cold.

Chris, as is the man’s name, is a healer. He left his job in California five years ago to travel in search of a spiritual path. I do not want to say too much because I don’t have the right to share his personal story, but I was fascinated by his words. I listened for so long, I don’t know how long, asking questions and learning more about a life completely foreign, yet breathtakingly similar, to my own.

I am writing of this experience because it encapsulates something I know to be essential: connection. A random cafe, a stranger, and the power of storytelling and listening made this one of the most meaningful experiences in my journey thus far, and also in my life.

Thank you, to everyone who is willing to share their stories, and to everyone who listens.

Ladakh, via journal entries

Okay, so although I haven’t been able to blog for the past half-month I’ve kept a journal. Although I won’t describe everything I wrote about, I’ll go over the highlights of each day based on my journal entries and the memories that stand out to me:

September 19th: (When I put quotation marks, it’s generally from my journal ~ that feels weird, but it also feels weird just saying it because I’m a different speaker now)

“Everyone is gathered in a circle on the carpeted floor of the tea/food room in SECMOL. It feels like a home amid somewhere totally new. The air is fresh and clean, and my toes are a bit chilly. Our matron, Marlin, hugs each student since they just returned from a trip. She is quietly strong and absolutely peaceful. We sit in a circle, about to begin a conversation.”

SECMOL truly did become a kind of home, although we were only there for a few days, on and off. We started off at SECMOL then went to Leh, then our village homestays (mine in Shartracour which I definitely spelled wrong), then back to Leh, then back to SECMOL, then to Dharamsala. SECMOL is an alternative school for students who have failed their exams before college, or who are in college and using SECMOL as a kind of dormitory. It is run as a community, with students alternating in positions from working with the cows, in the kitchen, as a representative to outsiders, etc. With each meal/ tea time you wash your own dish. The water was so clean, you could drink straight from the tap, a novelty in south Asia in my understanding. We bunked in two rooms, three girls in one and four in the other, the guys living in a separate building.

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On the 20th, Sandesh Kadur, a BBC photographer, spoke at SECMOL. “His photography is incredible. It is about telling a story.” He spoke a lot about nighttime photography so that night I, along with a few other students, walked up the steep steps to the roof, where we spent hours watching the stars and trying star photography. I found myself atop that roof most of the nights thereafter that we stayed at SECMOL, sometimes with my ukulele, sometimes just the stars.

21st: I fell in love with prayer flags. We drove to Alchi Monastery, where I walked from wall to wall, color to color, my nose inches from ancient Buddhist artwork. “I sat in the garden outside the temple, breathing the thin air and staring at the prayer flags drifting. They moved slowly like breath, their colors sometimes bright sometimes faded.”

22nd: We began our stay in Leh, a really awesome town in Ladakh (northern India). It is at a high altitude ~ approximately 10,000 feet. To walk to town from our guest houses, we wound our way down a steep decline between taxis, cows, stray dogs, and people, the Himalayas rising grandly all around us. We also visited Matho Monastery and met Pheonix and Tashi, two deeply inspirational people I hope to meet again. I also found peanut butter that day, and dried apricots ~ it was a really good day all in all.

23rd: “I just saw a dead puppy. But the rest of the litter was happy and healthy, jumping and roiling around me with tails wagging and tongues out.”

That was a hard thing to see. The street dogs are not generally healthy in Leh; they’re feared due to two incidents where people were killed by dogs at night. They basically rule the streets at night, but are mostly docile during the daytime. When we returned to Leh a week-ish later, I found only four surviving puppies and met a man who showed Anna (I didn’t want to see) a photo of the mother eating one of her dead babies. The difficulty, for street dogs, of simply surviving is blatantly obvious here.

24th: This was when I began to truly miss home. It had a lot to do with marking four years since being with David. I didn’t truly believe that feeling would hit, though ~ I somehow thought myself impervious, I convinced myself that I’d be able to ignore any feelings of wishing for the people I love back home.

It was a good day regardless, though. I discovered the joys of filling up my ratchet Winnie-the-Pooh water bottle (which leaks paint onto my mouth whenever I drink from it) halfway with steaming hot water and the other half with cool water, to create a gut-warming combination perfect for cold weather. That day really did become the most emotional because it was also a wonderful day, where Anna, Jennifer and I found delicious tea at the Leh Ling café (Kashmiri Kawa tea), then met Rinchen, editor of Reach Ladakh ~ a woman-run local newspaper ~ then found ourselves at a sanctuary for injured or abandoned donkeys. “It was brightly painted with donkeys and quotes. We just walked on in, trying in broken English and Tibetan to see if we were okay petting the donkeys ~ we just stayed as he walked around us, feeding the donkeys. I immediately met a baby donkey who realized I could scratch him, and we spent the entire time together. It was sunny and wonderful.”

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25th: We made our way to our village homestays, half of us at the village I stayed in, the other half in Man. I got pretty sick that night off of the Tibetan butter tea, which is basically a steaming mixture of butter, water, salt, and spice. I spent most of the night huddled in my sleeping bag, going from the warmth of my host family’s home to the small mound of dirt outside where it was okay to vomit. It was so cold outside. I definitely appreciate my health more now.

26th: We spent a lot of the day in our homestay’s kitchen with our family, chatting and playing cards. The next day (27th), we made last-minute plans to commission our bus driver to take us up the steep, winding “road” to where the nomads spend their nights and early mornings. That was beyond awesome ~ “Izac, Gilek and I trekked up to a monastery/meditation cave and it felt like we joined the prayer flags in their height and freedom. As we walked back, Gilek asked a woman, Sonam Padmo, what her role was (for my project). Soon she was asking us to take “tara” in her home. Her husband, Sonam Norbu, stuck his head out the door and called, ‘How are you?!’ We all laughed and followed them in. There’s no way to explain the feelings of peace and community of sitting in their kitchen-home, sipping yak milk boiled with a spoonful of tsampa added for heartiness. We chatted for a while, and S.N. was wearing an Orlando Magic hat (!) so I got Izac to take a photo. When we left, I gave them the katak I had in my bag. It was so joyful.”

28th: “God is love.” – Malik

“Air: what is all around us yet we do not see, what’s between us, what we share, that which is all around us. Like love.” –Jennifer

29th: “Jenn, Julia and I did yoga in SECMOL’s library and were walked in on by quite a few head-of-schools from mainland India who were visiting SECMOL for a tour. That was the 29th’s shining moment.

30th: “Saying goodbye to SECMOL was harder and more emotional than I expected.” I made real friends there, through music and dancing and talking.

Here’s where my explanation of days will become muddled, because I feel strongly about this: I have spent much more time in the past few weeks with music. It’s been raw and loud and out of tune, but full of human essence. A few hours ago, I found myself in a tattoo shop right next to my Dharamsala homestay, watching Anna get a lotus tattoo as Izac and three people we’d just met slowly picked up a rhythm and melody, until hours later we were all moving to the music and singing, random men walking into the shop and joining in. We ended on “Yellow,” and my heart melted. To be able to participate in this way of life is… beyond anything.

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