Monday, February 28, 2011

Lessons from a tiny hill village

 I combined an essay I had to write with a blog post, so excuse the formality...

Everything emotion is suffering. I sat on a low bed looking at the marigold door hanging, thinking of the book I’d just finished on Buddhist philosophy. My thoughts created a tangible enclosure around me, spinning fast with the rhythm of the prayer wheel whirling in the hand of ancient old man sitting next to me. Lit only by candle light, he kept tempo and murmured prayers while I sat and watched my thoughts. One after another, they leapt out of the smeared spinning walls of memories and distractions, one after another into focus, into consciousness. A thought is born- happiness, fear, devotion, desire- all the same yet coming from seemingly different directions. I struggled to keep afloat, to keep the whole structure from caving in. One emotion invites a thought, that thought coercing three more and they six more each. The only way to keep them from taking over was to recognize each at its conception. Are they going to rob me? Fear was the easiest, not more than a second went by before snag! I see you and it disappears. Before I got too far in congratulating myself, losing myself in pride snap! a bead from the prayer wheel hit the side an woke me out of my state. Ah, it must be the wheel, that’s what I need, I thought, mapping the trail out for next time. Shut up, I thought, stop thinking. Ugh stop criticizing! That’s criticizing too! Ughh... These thoughts came from down below, low in the plane of my mind. Next came happiness, elation really. I’m sitting in the one roomed house of an old Sherpa lady and what must surely be a wholly enlightened man, meditating in the middle of nowhere Nepal. Fate must have brought me here, she just called down to me from the porch of her stone cottage and invited me in. Maybe he’s my guru or something, I thought, I’m the luckiest girl in the world. Snap! Another bead hits the side, from the old woman this time, and I’m drawn back into reality. Elation, like fear, was just another distraction. How do I do it? If it’s this difficult not to be sucked into my thoughts and emotions here, with hardly any distractions, how can I carry it into my day to day? If I sit like this, back straight, and just take note, just watch where my thoughts come from and where they lead, maybe these little snaps will happen from time to time throughout the day. With practice it’ll get easier. I bet they live in this state all the time. A moment of silence. The beat between the thoughts that elongates with practice and can eventually become constant. Who are they? Are they married? Its interesting they have separate beds, and that his is higher than hers. Man I can’t believe everything they need is in one room,  but it looks to suffice. This house must be old, look at the carving on that support beam… and the thoughts came rushing in, filling up the safe distance I’d somehow created like centrifugal force of the wheels, they consuming the space, taking charge again. As if on cue the old woman motioned toward the door that it was time for me to leave. I stepped out into the night and looked at the starry sky, stars so frequent they seemed to run together. Maybe this place is special.
            I spent last week in Maratika, Eastern Nepal, exploring caves visited by Padmasambava, the bearer of Buddhism to Tibet, and climbing up well terraced mountains. Six days out of the city was all I needed to convince myself that Nepal is indeed where I’m supposed to be, that outside of the city there is life and green and water and ancient customs, generations, families living on family land and communities strung together by dirt roads and goat paths. At the foothills of the Himalayas, in site of Mount Everest itself I sat where Padmasambava and his consorts received the Tara teachings and I crawled through narrow passages to absolve myself from the eighteen hells realms, repay my mother for childbirth, and prove my white karma. It wasn’t mystical, it wasn’t magic, just a long history of good intentions and devotion played out over the years. The Dalai Lama once explained that one place can be made more sacred than the next purely by the energy of the those who once dwelt there; an apartment formerly owned by a cello player is more auspicious than that previously owned by a drug addict. So while the validity of the actual location of the Maratika caves as mentioned by sacred text is currently debatable, to me, the experience is worth the trip. Fresh air and two days of hiking to get in and out of the place may have been all I needed, but the spirit of the people there, the energy of the place was enough to give me an experience that has made my whole trip to Nepal worth it in just one evening, just meditating with an old Sherpa woman and an old man on a throne. In fact when I came back, the little puzzle box that had been closed shut, locking in all my sacred objects and meditation materials, had miraculously been opened in my absence. While my intellect tells me one of my host sister must have gotten into it and left it open for me, part of me can’t ignore the synchronicity of its closing and revelation. So the question remains how to carry on the auspicious feelings generated in that village far away. I hope that like the cello player I leave a bit of good energy everywhere I go, with everyone I meet. What more could I hope for in life, anyway, than the collect and generate bright energy and distribute it to those around me?
 A bell at the top of a mountain where padmasambava left his foot print

 The tiny plane that took us to lambidanda before walking to Maratika
 Terraced hillsides
Sunset at the guest house

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to bathe in*

Three days of rain has done nothing to remedy the lack of running water my family has experienced since Friday. It’s not a big deal, really, since they have stores of water saved up for occasions just such as this. Plus, the water’s poisonous to me anyway. The only problem is I was away this weekend and didn’t do my laundry, so my supply of clean…anything, is on its last legs. Fortunately, I got my hair dreaded this weekend so I don’t have to worry about washing that for another few days. My host family and my real family have surprisingly parallel reactions to my new do: we liked your old hair better. My two year old host sister is terrified of my locks, and the family uses them to scare her into doing things—she only listens to edible bribes or spooky threats, the second category under which my hair now falls, right up there with stringing nettles (which they pick outside the house and chase her with) and mice. Speaking of which, we caught a mouse last night, but not the one that likes to chew my door at night. Maybe next time.

            Class keeps on keeping on, Tibetan is making progress (I learned how to read last week!), and the other students and I have found ways to amuse ourselves in this town that goes to sleep at sunset. Everyday after school we head to a cafĂ© and discuss the events of the day, complete our homework together, and sometimes talk about “real life.” Weekends are full of excursions to sites around Kathmandu and trips to Thamel, the shopping/tourist district. Most of us share the love-hate relationship we have with this program and this place—so monotonous, but so interesting; so dirty, but so intriguing. Every day brings new waves of emotions rocked unexplainably toward one side of the other: one day you effortlessly find the beauty in everything, the next you’re walking around with your own personal rain cloud. Despite this see-saw we’re all stokked to be here and getting really excited for out independent study projects. After a month in Bhutan we get to go off on our own and study a topic of our choice, composing a forty page academic paper about what we’ve discovered. Luckily for me I’ve done this five times already; as a packet for Goddard consists of largely the same outline and results. Thus, I am very excited to get out of the classroom and back into the world, never looking back. For those of you who supported my decision to leave the classroom in the first place and transfer to Goddard, thank you!
            So I’ll wade my way home through the sticky swamp in our program house’s front yard, made so by the trash the plugs the drains in all the streets and the unfortunate doggy-doo that mixes with the standing water in our front yard and try not to see it as it is, but instead as an adventure. Our director told us that our experiences over these four months are the equivalent to four years in “real life,” and it certainly feels so. Despite the lack of night life there’s never a dull moment, whether it’s maneuvering your way through the crowded streets swelled with pilgrims and immigrants from the frozen mountains or trying to catch a word shot back and forth in speedy Tibetan at dinner. Like the rain, like my classes, I keep on keeping on, trying to savor every moment and look at life with starry eyes like I know I’ll look back on it. And even on the days when I can’t, I sure enjoy the rain.

*for any English majors out there, sorry for the use of a preopsition at the end of a sentence. "Water, water everywhere and not a drop in which to bathe" doesn't sound quite as good.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A list, a poem, and a meditation

A list:

Monks on motorbikes, and other interesting happenings

I've been in Nepal for about two weeks now. Talking to some Dutch tourists, it struck me that two weeks is usually the amount of time people would come to spend in Nepal on vacation or traveling, but I barely feel like I’ve scratched the surface. Part of this, of course, is that I’ve spent more time in a classroom, than exploring the country, much to my dismay. I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled at Goddard, designing my own curriculum and teaching myself, so now I find lectures extra boring. But I guess that comes with being a student in a traditional school setting, even if SIT is more “progressive” with the independent study project.
Anywho, here are some interesting things I’ve come across/done in the last two weeks:
1.      Monks on motorbikes
In the West, I’d always considered monks to be a special kind of person, somewhat holy, and definitely on a pedestal. Here in Nepal, where a large portion of the population completes monastic education up to age 18, it’s come to my attention that monks are just regular people. I’ve seen monks on motorcycles, monks at a rock concert, monks spitting on the side walk (actually, due, I believe, to the heavy pollution, EVERYBODY spits, like giant loogies, all the time. Especially my host grandma.) Its also a normal occurrence at our house to have monks over for dinner.
2.      Cremations at the Prashnapati ghats
I spent my first Saturday off at the nearby cremation site of Prashnapati, one of the holiest sites for Hindus in Nepal. Here, Hindus bring their dead to be cremated on the side of the river, their bodies covered in orange cloth and marigolds, wailing family members in toe. Unfortunately, the holy river is so polluted and filled with trash it barely flows, but the ashes, burnt wood, and other remains are swept into the boggy grey regardless. This was my first time seeing a dead body aside from at my grandpa’s funeral, and I was struck by how different we react to the dead in the West- my grandpa was dressed in a tux, left in a large empty room for each of us to visit his grand coffin one at a time. Here, the colorful parade of family members carry the dead on a wood stretcher, pouring handfuls of the sacred river water into his mouth, and process to the burning site where the body, wrapped in cloth, is placed in a mound of hay and kindling, and set alight. It takes hours from the body to burn, white ash floating down from the sky onto our clothing and hair. Not your typical Saturday afternoon I’d say.
3.      Momos, tsampa, and butter tea
As far as I’m concerned, Tibetan culture has three traditional staple foods: momos, tsampa, and butter tea. Momos, the most tasty of the three, are steamed dumpling filled with meat or vegetables. On Monday night I helped Lhakpa prepard buffalo momos, learning with practice from my patient teacher the three ways to encase the meat, ensuring that the edges are sealed to prevent liquid from leaking or explosion inside the steamer. The momos turned out great- but you could definitely tell which ones were made by the amateur. I suppose more practice is a must- fine by me!
My experience with tsampa was different from that of my classmates. Normally, tsampa is toasted barley flour mixed with hot liquid to produce a thick, sticky mush, able to eat on the go and sustain one for hours, as the dense carbohydrate keeps one full for a long time. Mine was given to me in powder flour form, to be mixed with my morning tea, but the foreigner that I am I tried to put a spoonful of it in my mouth! The flour immediatel6y stuck to my teeth and tongue and turned into a sticky mess that could only be remedied by a cupful of hot water. Got to hand it to the Tibetans though, I was hardly hungry for lunch six hours later.
Butter tea. Oh dear. I’d long been warned about the stuff, a thin, salty tea made from yak butter (?), water, and I’m assuming salt. As many of you know, I am not a fan of salt, and less a fan of drinking it. I’d been told many times to think of it as a soup, not tea, so that your taste buds aren’t offended when drinking it. Let’s just say mine were offended, rather, insulted. It wasn’t the taste so much as the slight allusion to a soup in Mexico that made me quite ill, the result an immediate gag reflex when I bring the mixture near my face. Thankfully, though, unlike in Mexico, it isn’t all that rude here to say that you don’t like something, especially as many Tibetans are used to Westerners not taking to butter tea. An acquired taste, some in my program can’t get enough. I’m happy, though, to sip my chai as my Tibetan grandmother mixes her tsampa with her butter tea and calls it a morning.

A poem

Self-portrait of a dollar sign

A sketch in the stone, a man selling grapes, marigolds orange like the cloth of cremation. A strange young traveler, dollar sign on her head,
sits on a stoop and writes.

What is she doing, so far from home?
Where is she going and from where has she come?
Will she buy my mala today, sent from India, not from Kham,
 or sit and snap pictures of the place I call home?

The foreigner here is an interesting one.

So sure not a tourist, yet rides buses and tides,
tides of the seasons, the weather, taking sides,
taking pictures and paintingsm leaving nothing behind.
Nothing, of course, but the big dollar sign.

In a nation of Buddhists, of Hindus and saints
in a world full of dragons, white plaster and paint,
shouldn’t there be much more than the quest,
to fill up the wallet, and forget the rest?
Yet its all just the same here, believers or not,
we all want what we want,
who cares what we’ve got.

A meditation:

Going Up

Every now and then I get the urge to go up, fast. Some people know this about me, sprinting to the top of the nearest hill in the middle of the night, finding the tallest mountain around and pointing: “I want to climb that one.”
I’ve been told it’s because I’m a Capricorn, half human half goat. My tendency is to climb, up, to the top of a mountain, physical or mental, and immediately upon reaching the summit sighting the next one, taller, and starting up again. It’s gotten me far, I must say, always setting my sights high, as I usually having the capacity and will power to reach them.
            It came over me today, the urge to go up. Perhaps its due to my largely spatial understanding of my surroundings, I often want to go up and look out when I’m confused, frustrated, or somewhere new. There’s a sort of clarity when you’re up, high above your environment, able to look down and piece things together like a map. From up there, I can piece my mind together, my thoughts, see what fits and where to go from there.
            But always wanting to go up can be a curse, too. It’s in the always wanting, always climbing higher. A wise friend once told me: “if life were a marathon, you’d sprint and sprint to the finish, wining, never looking back. I would stroll around like a walk in the park, stopping to have a picnic in a bed of roses.”
            I’d like to think since then I’ve matured, come to appreciate the journey. The thing is, I like climbing. The rush of the wind when you reach a summit, the sparkling clarity of a mysterious labyrinth explained from above.
            And here I am, at the foot of the Himalayas, wanting to go up, again. This time body and circumstance won’t allow it, at least not yet, so I’ll have to find another way to explain the world to myself. I’ve taken to wandering, aimlessly, creating a map in my head, always finding my way back to the golden stupa in the center of town. But still, so much lies left unexplored, unexplained. Can I ever understand my surroundings, in detail, without the big picture? Like looking at a fresco, a Monet, from up close, each stroke of color a pixel of a larger frame. How can I make sense of the drawing without stepping back, looking down?
            Maybe, like the streaking sunlight and smell of roses, the careful wooden beads and powered red bindhis, I’ll just have to come to appreciate the strokes themselves.

Thats all for now folks, hope you enjoyed it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tashi Delek from Boudha, Nepal!

*disclaimer* this blog post, and perhaps more to follow, are quite long. Its an account of my trip as much for my benefit as that of the reader, so read what you wish and ignore the rest. I hope you find it interesting- enjoy!

Tashi delek from Boudha, Nepal!
            I arrived in Kathmandu on Saturday, January 29th. Looking out my window of the Delhi-departed airplane, I my eyes fell on their first glimpse of the Himalayan Mountains. Snow-capped and gleaming, my jaw literally dropped by their majesty. Their very presence commands attention.
            As the plane dropped low below the smog, the foothills came into view, giving way to a wide, dusty valley, stacked flat buildings reaching up out of the dirt. These mountains reminded me a bit of the San Gabriels backing highway 134 in Eagle Rock, CA. I wondered: would these hills, too, become the source of direction? Could I navigate the valley, find my way home by the different jutting peaks and dark patches of trees like their smaller Californian counterparts? Only time would tell how much this foreign place could become home.
            Disembarking the airplane I first took notice of the schoolhouse-like airport, its structure made of the same red bricks that would come to define so much of Kathmandu.  A burgeoning metropolis, every building seems to be under perpetual construction, the infrastructure far behind its booming population. Our bus rattled by speeding traffic, the honking of horns warning everyone of everyone else, line-less roads a rush of traffic, motorbikes, and pedestrians. Trash lines every street, building, and water source, litter preferable to burning, which adds more poison to the already ghastly air pollution.
A note to Angelinos: LA smog is a fresh sea breeze compared to Kathmandu, even on the worst days. Take the Santa Ana fires and put them in a dusty valley. Now trap them with the tallest mountains in the world, far from any ocean. That’s the air in the city of Kathmandu.
            Despite the air, which forces many to wear unsightly face-masks, a constant visual reminder of filth, the city is like a living festival. In Swayambhu, where our three day orientation took place, activity centers around the grand Swayambhu stupa, a giant temple which sits on top of a hill protruding out of the valley laced with hundreds and hundreds of prayer flags. Each day at dawn hundreds of Nepali, Tibetan, and Nawari Buddhists circumambulate the mount, climbing to the top to spin golden prayer wheels and say prayers and receive blessings. Some come from far away, making kora on an auspicious day, prostrating on the street circling the entire base of the mountain, touching prayer formed hands to forehead, lips, and chest before lying flat on the ground to touch forehead to earth. Up above, the site, also called the Monkey Stupa, is home to hundreds of small brown monkeys that clamber among practitioner and tourist, searching for food and posing for pictures. Ancient scripts engraved in stone and gold painted shrines set the backdrop for CD salesmen and exercising youth, an example of the contrast between ancient and modern so apparent in the valley.
Kathmandu is changing, has been changing, and the effects are obvious not only in the trash-filled streets and black puffs of smoke but also the contrast between generations. Nike and Adidas (or sometimes two brands inscribed on one Chinese-made knock-off garment) have taken the place of chubas and scarves, the younger generation influenced by film, television, and the passage of time. English is the language spoken in school, and internet cafes squish between tea houses and shops selling incense and kathag, offering scarves. It’s a valley of contrast, both visually and spiritually, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims living side by side, traditions adopting and overlapping to form an altogether holy space, the sacred respected by all.
At nightfall, the stars and moon are brilliant, despite the fog. Lack of light pollution, due to 14 hour-a-day load-shedding, allows many constellations to take form that I’d never before seen. From the roof of our guest house, I see the Nagarjuna stupa to which we climbed the day before, a seven hour trek straight up from the valley, the top from which one can see Everest, on a clear day.

Today we packed out of the guest house after our third Tibetan class, which, more like a comedy show due to the comedic nature of our two teachers, Mingyru and Thupten, will be our only preparation for our first night of homestays with Tibetan families in Boudha, the Tibetan quarter of Kathmandu. After a brief lunch at our program house, we departed one by one with our new families, shy greetings of tashi delek taking place of excited bleats of “jelah-jeliong!,” Tibetan for goodbye. My host family is made up of three sisters, 30-ish, 18, and 12 and their two-year old niece. All (except the baby, who has yet to master Tibetan) are nearly fluent in English. They come from a village in northern Nepal, just along the Tibetan border, their parents escapees from Tibet in the seventies. Born in Nepal, the sisters do not have Nepali citizenship, but rather a Tibetan refugee card which allows them asylum in Kathmandu. They live in the bottom floor of a tall pink building, and host me in their shrine room, a bright, calm room in the front of the house.
            The sun sets outside my window on my first day with my host family. The little one, Zhang-mo, provided endless entertainment at an otherwise very awkward time, the first day of home stays always have been rather uncomfortable in the past.  Lhakpa, the matriarch of the family, lends me English meanings to Tibetan words via repetition toward her niece, a gesture meant as much for the education of the little one as for my own benefit. Zhang-mo delights in stealing my phone and wearing my giant shoes around the house. After kora around the Boudha stupa in the center of town we sat down to dinner on a rug laid out on the floor of the living room, two monks in company for the meal. The monks, she explained, are en-route to Dharamsala, and invited as guests in gratitude for the divinations performed last year to heal their sick brother. The monks and sisters chatted away in Tibetan, throwing my name out every now and then, while I showed pictures to their visiting momo-la, grandma, and made faces at Zhang-mo across the way. The dinner of rice, dhal, steamed vegetables, potatoes and tofu (I think due to my student form saying “vegetarian,” as the momo-la was confused as to what it was) filled me up, eaten late to “create heat needed to stay warm while sleeping.” As I lay out on the bench/bed in the shrine room, pictures of deities and His Holiness the Dalai Lama flickering in the light of my candle, I thought back to the snowy pointed roofs of Washington DC and New York, the beach of Capitola, so far away now, such a contrast to the world I’m in. I can only imagine what this next week will bring. Until then, sim shag nang, goodnight!