Saturday, April 30, 2005

An anigompa sleepover and gulab jamun

Hello all, just a quick update of where I am and what I'm up to. I'm writing from Kalimpong, India, a medium-sized city and our springboard to begin our rural homestays for tomorrow -- we'll be staying with farming families for about 6 days, and they won't speak any English so we're in for a challenge. We've spent the last few days seeing a few sights and driving through Sikkim--staying in smallish towns, enjoying the lush greenery and avoiding the frequent rains of the monsoon season that appears to have begun a bit early this year.

Outside of Gangtok, us girls had the chance to spend the night at an anigompa or nunnery. We had quite the adventure, including a gang of yappy dogs, a 3:45 a.m. awakening for a 4:00 puja in which we determinedly held our eyes open while a dozen nuns chanted in Tibetan for 2 hours, a broken bench (that I had slept on the night before), which we nailed back together by using our nalgene bottles as hammers, and a bunch of really sweet, amazing nuns who guided us through it all.

I'd like to get out of the glare of this computer screen and back onto the streets, so I'll just share with you all the 'yak-yak' I wrote about the Indian sweet that has taken all of us (myself most definately included) by storm:

Known to the fans in our midst as 'brown balls', to exasperated group leaders as 'indian crack', and to our taste buds as the doughnuts of the himalaya, gulab jamun have become a fetish, addiction, and dare I say preoccupation of 90% of our group.

Picture a sweet ball of doughnut dough -- now deep-fry it, then soak it in sugar syrup until it is saturated and dripping, and keep it in a heated tray in your street shop until the consumer comes to eagerly devour them as the sugar drips from her hands and down her chins. Sometimes they melt in our mouths with warmth, other times we discover a hard, doughnutty interior, sometimes the sugar syrup drips all over the place, other times they develop a delicious crust from sitting in the tray too long -- any way they come they please the taste buds and warm the heart.

We have all developed eyes for the small sweet shops that stock our favorite spherical delicacies -- when we come into a new town in our jeeps we scout out the best places and frown in disappointment if no-one makes the beautiful delicacy that is gulab jamun. Other indian sweets -- julabi, bright orange pretzel-shaped deep fried corn syrup; sweet white patties in custard; fudge-like sugar cake -- they please some among us, but nothing can bring a delighted smile from the whole group like a bag of gulab jamun on a humid Sikkim afternoon.

Love you, and I'll be home to see you all before you know it!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

H.H., monks, and the blind - a message from Kathmandu

Hello everyone,

We're back in Kathmandu for a one-day layover, before tomorrow's day long journey by plane and jeep to Gangtok, India.

I just want to relate an experience in our last day in Lhasa when we went for a quick tour of a school for blind students. Only started 7 years ago, the school now has over 40 students and dozens of graduates who are now working and thriving on their own. The students stay at the school except for a 2-3 month winter vacation, and learn Chinese, Tibetan, and English, plus the corresponding braille for all three languages. The woman who showed us around was one of the first students, and she related how difficult it in her village because she was practically homebound because of her blindness, until she came to school and learned skills her sighted neighbors had never had the opportunity to learn. She now has started a massage clinic and has eight employees. The students get to decide what they want to do after they get the fundamentals down -- learn massage, go to school with sighted children, or go home and set up a small business, like two brothers who recently open a tea shop. Playing with these kids was absolutely amazing -- they have such confidence, poise, ability, and better english than anyone else we had met in Lhasa. One boy, about 10, sung us a practically un-accented version of that song 'you and me, me and you, so happy together'. We were all extremely touched of the beauty of the moment as he belted out the melody, his whitened eyes rolling and his entire heart poured into the endeavor. The sucess of these children and this school impressed upon us all what is possible if you just put your dreams into action -- one of the founders, a blind woman from Germany, discovered there was no Tibeatan braille, so she invented it; no blind school in Tibet, so she made one!

The day after tomorrow, in Gangtok, we may have a chance to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak. I would be thrilled if this possibility actually materializes, as I have been reading a few of his works and he is an incredibly inspiring man, both for his compassion and humor as a human being and for his iron-fast resolution to a peaceful path as a leader in exile. While we were in Tibet, his absence seemed to have a presence larger than anyone who was there in the flesh -- his picture is banned throughout, and his name is spoken only with caution. The throne (a simple raised platform on which one sits crosslegged, as all 'thrones' are in Buddhist tradition) he should be occupying in the Potala Palace in Lhasa is filled by an empty robe, delicately arranged into a triangle shape that gives just enough of a sense of a human form to make H.H.'s absence all the more of a presence. Carrying pictures of H.H. into Tibet is officially banned, and the Chinese customs officials are becoming even harsher about enforcing this. Nevertheless, Tibetans would occaisionally ask us for these pictures, which are impossible to find within Tibet. A few people in our group had accidently brought pictures in, and they described how those poeple they bestowed them upon would put them to their foreheads and simply cry.

Aside from the emotional allure of H.H., his books and interviews convey the depth of his wisdom and the thing that, for me, separates Buddhism from other faiths. The Dalai Lama holds to the idea that if science can disprove any of the beliefs of Buddhism, then they will revise that belief to accord with science; Sakyamuni Buddha himself told his deciples not to accept any of his teachings on faith, but rather to test them against their own experience. H.H. has much to say about everything from human compassion to global politics, and I would love to have the chance to meet him in person.

After a few days in Gangtok, we will be moving out into rural Sikkim to stay briefly (7 days or so) with host families and get to experience the reality of rural farm life. **A side note, a monk in his gold and maroon robes just sat down next to me at the internet cafe and is computing away.... such is the joy of this part of the world** Depending on how things go in Gangtok, it may be another week or two before I will e-mail again. By that time, I will be heading into the last week of the trip.

I cannot believe how fast time has gone, yet at the same time I also cannot believe all that I have seen and experienced, and what I have come to take as normal - monks walking down the street, disabled men and women begging on the street, disgusting trough-style toilets, living out of a backpack, crossing the road frogger-style because there are no traffic lights, and having to bargain down the price for everything from taxis to a pair of jeans. I have come to understand the reasoning and efficieny behind some of these things that at first seemed so foreign and counter-intuitive. Perhaps the deepest thing I have learned is something we've all, myself included, been taught on an intellectual level - as human beings we are all one and the same wherever you go and whatever you do - but I think I've finally internalized it, come to fully understand that we all have the same desire to find happiness. Even without a common language, culture, or background it is always possible to communicate this common humanity: with a smile, a laugh, or a touch of the hand.

Love to you all, Kendra