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.


  1. Andrea, I enjoyed your blog as I ate lunch in the sunshine on the bluff today (Thur). I've thought of Monks differently since they led the last uprising in Burma. Only until 18? Do monks get married and leave ‘priesthood”?
    I didn’t know your grandpa was in a tux. I didn’t view the body.
    So the family waits for hours for the body to burn? You didn’t comment on the smell.
    Momos – sound more complex than the tortellini folding in Italy your mother and I did.
    Climbing – like the hill in nica? For me it was Fisole (above Florence) and the top of the duomo. Be careful about always going higher with the Himalayas above you. More than the climb, for me it’s the ramble, the ability to have randomness, to be open to it and experience it. Do you need to understand all the map? In Florence I knew the river and duomo bounded the place so I went on whatever path suited my curiosity and didn’t worry about where I was or had been. Do you have to understand the big picture? What about the big picture of all the big pictures? It goes on.

  2. Andrea,

    Your words bring back floods of memories, both of the other side of the world and of you. It's such a treat to hear about you having the experiences I pictured you having, and hearing your wisdom and sense of humor in response.
    I'm picturing you sitting in a rain shower of ashes, getting caught in your dread locks. How different, indeed, is death when we don't pretend the dead are still with us, we don't run and hide from the flakes of the departed but stand in them instead. at Tara Mandala when David died we made a cremation sight over night and sat and meditated in his ashes all day while he burned.
    I'm so glad you now know how to make MoMos, and I hope we can make them together sometime. And know this about butter tea- if you end up in the unfortunate situation of having altitude sickness and/or being ridiculously cold, it's taste will greatly improve as your animal needs to gain weight and retain water kick in.
    Loved your poem and your meditation. I know that restless feeling in you. Know this, though- there are endless mountains to climb, as you know, but look at the one you have already climbed, and the one you will be climbing this whole journey. Buy the end of your trip you'll realize that you've been climbing a mountain inside of yourself the whole time and you will have a perspective from up there that you will cherish and always look back on when you come back down. Part of what the people you are with can teach you is how to keep climbing while holding absolutely still- how to journey without needing to take your body with you. The layout you'll see from up there is priceless.

    Love you and miss you. I love picturing you having so many adventures.