The Tigress Nest

So, one week into this whole ISP nonsense that I’ve signed up for. Thought I would take a step back and fill you all in on the wonderful location I had the opportunity to go to last week in the final days pre-ISP/still palling around with my program group.

The Paro Valley, our final stop on our tour of Bhutan, is one of the holiest regions in Bhutan with a range of associations, monasteries, temples, and pilgrimage sites. On our first day, we had the rare opportunity to visit the Tigress Nest, or Paro Taktsang. A site typically pictured whenever there is a mention of Bhutan, it is one of the holiest sites associated with Guru Rinpoche, associated with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. At this point, I have stopped expecting anything when told about an activity or engagement for our group. We have found it best to never anticipate, but participate, as my friend Molly wisely reminds us. So, even though I was told that I had seen pictures of this site before, of a temple built into the side of a cliff, I didn’t want to over anticipate and allow myself to get excited over seeing something that was, in fact, not what we were going to be seeing. Well, that little hope in the back of my mind was ecstatic when we made our way up the mountain.

Being a pilgrimage site, it is understandably a difficult location to reach. Lucky us, especially after the hiatus of exercise we had encountered since leaving Yolmo, we were blessed with the privilege to ride “horses” (more mules and donkeys then horses- you can imagine how funny it was to see some of us taller folk try and ride these with our feet just over a foot off the ground) most of the way up the mountain, cutting down our time of travel significantly. The views along the way up the mountain were enough to gasp at while tracing the edges of the steep cliffs. The walking portion only took about 20 minutes and comprised 1009 stairs to the temple. I took a little longer, however, being that I stopped to take endless photos and hang prayer flags in the perfect location.

There is a tradition where one hangs prayer flags near auspicious sites to allow good fortune to come to whomever hangs them as well as people’s names that are written upon them. I had kept meaning to buy and hang prayer flags as we have made our way through this journey these last few months, seeing as we have been seeing countless holy sites. Lucky for me, there were women lined up, just before we climbed on horseback, selling Buddhist trinkets and prayer flags for those of us who had not planned so diligently ahead. I only bought a smaller set for about $1 USD and wrote names all over their edges for all my family and friends. Their names and flags have a beautiful view of the Paro Valley, river, and distant mountains.

There is little to say to accurately express the emotions evolving from and experience of the Tigress Nest. Mostly, I just felt an overwhelming sense of spirit, something that has been happening ever more frequently as we have been visiting and learning about more and more Buddhist sites and beliefs. All I can really share is how powerful it was to visit such a location. The fact that very few have the ability and means to travel to this site made it all the more awe-inspiring. It was one of the many moments thus far that has taken me back and made me “look up” at the wonderful and once-in-a-lifetime event I have finding myself in this semester. With that, I share with you some of the photos from this location.

On a separate note, I have uploaded some photos to my previous post that was devoid of imagery due to lack of camera and internet capability. Time is flying by and I’m getting slightly overwhelmed with the exceedingly apparent fact that I am going to be heading back to the states sooner then I can even imagine. Conflicting emotions once more; gotta remember to “look up”.

Namaste!

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There is no running from it now…

Hello again for the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan! So, as I have informed all you blog readers previously, I am staying in Bhutan for the extent of my independent research for a majority of the month of April. Thus, here I am at the Paro College of Education (PCE), a sector of the Royal University of Bhutan.

Taking a step back, my group of SIT students and I closed our Bhutan trip with a three day stint at the PCE. Having already submitted our Bhutan written assignments related to the trip, the visit was mostly, at least in our eyes, an opportunity to come to terms with the fact that we were all going to be dispersing for our research period; some of us sooner then others. For the six of us staying in Bhutan, it was going to be the first goodbyes to each other, as the rest of the program was returning to KTM before further scattering to their respective sites. I was lucky enough to have my main hub be our final leg of the excursion, giving me a few extra days to become acquainted with my surroundings.

I have chosen to continue living with my roommates from our excursion period while I am on campus. Sonam and Tshomo extended the offer, and fearful of self-isolation within the college guesthouse and general comfort in the dorm environment, I accepted. Both are final year primary education bachelor students from the Thimphu/Paro region.

It has been an adjustment, once again, of living situations. Having spent the last three weeks hopping from hotel, to college housing, to guest homes with my fellow students had made me soft to being able to adapt quickly to new, and sometimes uncomfortable, living environments. Much like my first day in Boudha when my homestay mother collected me from the program house, I was overwhelmed after giving my bon voyage to all the kids in my group. Overwhelmed by the reality that this was it, the moment that we had all been talking about in a fantastical and removed sense was finally upon me. There was no more time to put off preparations for my research or the fact that I was going to be flying solo without the immediate support from my colleagues for the next three weeks. Though emotional at first, who am I kidding, its been on and off for the last two days, I’m reminding myself that even the family I grew to love in Boudha was once something that terrified me to be a part of. The communication and understanding of schedules, living styles, and the like was not something that came immediately. I have to stay patient, and try my best to respectfully express my choices. When you really break it down, I’m not even going to be here that often. Taking four hours of child development class a week as well as literary research in the library, not to mention time spent with organizations in Thimphu and Paro, will keep me from feeling the pressures to constantly interact with my roommates, and make me appreciate the casual human interaction when I do get back to my room.

Beyond my own personal anxieties, there are institutional structures that are the harshest contrast to my life at school in America. 1) As an official student of the RUB it is mandatory that I wear the traditional dress (aka kira) whenever I am out of the dorm during class hours (8-4, M-F) and whenever leaving the campus. 2) All female students must be in their dorms for an 8:30 pm curfew. The kira is something that is a physical adjustment, in that it uses a tight, and I mean very tight, woven cloth belt to hold a long piece of wrapped and folded fabric around ones waist to the floor, with a matching (sometimes) boxy top, held on by a few safety pins. I acquired a few kira pieces from classmates, who had received them from former RUB roommates, so diversity is lacking for something I have to wear everyday. And as one could imagine, I am not exactly built for Asia; the kiras are a good 1.5-inch short for me. The curfew is just something I haven’t had to deal with in such severity since I was in middle school. My time in Thimphu will give me enough of a break however, not that there is much to do on campus after dark.

After spending the last two days in the library doing research and making arrangements with professors and contacts at organizations in Thimphu, I am feeling somewhat confident about where my research is heading. More on the structure of my topic will make itself clear as I continue to do work.

On another note, after endless searching at pretty much every electronics store in Thimphu my hope on finding a charger for my camera battery was smothered. On the instruction of my wise mother however, I purchased a small and cheap digital camera to take its place during my ISP. She was right that I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t had one, because on our first day in Paro we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to one of the holiest and beautiful sites in Bhutan, the Tigers Nest. More to come on that topic soon.

I’ll be a busy bee for the next few weeks, so thoughts of calm and positivity are warmly welcomed.

Trying to take in as much as I can, knowing that these last weeks will fly by faster then I could ever imagine.

Namaste!

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Bhutaneasy Living

Bhutan

As stated previously, apologies for the delay in this blog post. Many a thing has occurred since we departed Kathmandu a few weeks ago and the internet is more absent then ever before thus far. Anyway, so I’ve been hanging out in Bhutan…

So a little over two weeks ago my squadron of SIT kids said our heavyhearted goodbyes to our home stay families in Boudha. Most of us agreed that we had never anticipated the speed to which our 5 weeks living in KTM would fly by, or the grief that would come with departing from our families. Even with the frustrations and regulations placed upon us by living with a Tibetan family, my family had become a comfortable constant during my stay thus far. My Ama la and I would laugh over minor gossip and hiccups from within the daily lives of us SIT students, while my little brother pestered me on the animal inhabitants of North America, and my Pa la discussed in the most poised manner the fundamentals of Buddhism and politics of living as a Tibetan in KTM. They were my comfort and ease at the end of the day, even when all I wanted was to curl up in bed after classes. Overall, I thank them for teaching me a little more about patience. Remembering to stay calm during my little brothers persistence in quizzing me on wildlife, or when my Ama la would insist I take another helping of rice and potatoes, or when all I wanted to do was stay out ‘til 9 pm having beers with some friends at a café. As I realized on my final few days, it was all because they cared about me; worrying about my safety late at night, my health and diet after I got food poisoning, my mental health by letting me journal in my room instead of watching TV with the family. It wasn’t until it was about to end that I truly appreciated their presence and addition to my experience these last few months.

These last 20 or so days in Bhutan have flown by. Our near constant travel after departing from Boudha has kept us from settling into any kind of rhythm. Starting right from the get go we were in a big ole flurry of crazy travel plans. We flew from Kathmandu to another dinky airport right near the eastern boarder of Nepal. From there we then drove an hour to the Indian boarder, where we tried and failed to gracefully pass through immigration. Delayed, as I’ve found most things in my two short stints in India to be, we were extremely late for our flight, which was another 45-minute car ride away. We had split our party of 25 into a convoy of jeeps with bags and possessions scattered among the lot. I was part of the first party of five to receive their passports and documentation, and thus left in the vehicle most conveniently parked for a rapid exit. Driving faster then I can ever recall upon roads of such low quality (though far beyond those of KTM) we arrived at the airport 20 minutes before our plane was supposed to take-off. We quickly unloaded the bags and were escorted in a tizzy through security and check-in as others from our group began to trickle in. We didn’t know how many were with us until we boarded the plane, which we had attempted to delay as long as possible to try and get our whole party on its flight. We succeeded with 12 of the 20 plus two of our academic coordinators. One may think that the presence of these two coordinators was lucky on our part; in some ways it was, in others it was not. The two, just as us students, are kept in the dark about pretty much all of the logistical and general details about our schedules. With no working cell phones or idea about what we were expected to do upon our arrival at our destination, another airport located on the slightly more eastern portion of the Indian region we were in, we trusted drivers outside the arrival gate who explained to us that our main man in charge (also left at airport), Rinzi, had called ahead telling them to drive the arriving 15 over the Bhutanese boarder to our first overnight at the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) school, the Jigme Namgyal Polytechnic (JNP), which was an additional 5 hour drive from the airport. On the bright side, the unanticipated decrease in populace had given each of us each nearly double the seat space in our new convoy of jeeps.

Long story short we arrived late at the Polytechnic and spent the next day and a half days (which felt like a week) trying to adjust to such a small group.

So, a little background; Bhutan is a very new country within the international community. Previously, and even somewhat today, it is considered a remote nation with little outside influence. Prideful of their traditional cultural identity, access to this little country (having a population of only 600,000) is limited to keep from having more tourist then residents at a given time, as well as part of an attempt to discourage foreign cultural influence, resulting in a typical $250 visa fee per day of travel within the boarder, as well as limited access to various regions. My group of lucky ducks, however, received special permission to obtain student visas for 23 days.

The parameters around our visit were that we came under student visas and traveled from one of the colleges of the RUB to the next, making our way across the country from the rural east to the capital of Thimphu in the west. Our itinerary began with the JNP, then swift moves from Sherubtse College (the first university in Bhutan), to various guesthouse evenings, to the College of Natural Resources, to Thimphu, and onward to Paro College of Education in a few days.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that things could have gotten any more amazing than the places we have had the opportunity to visit and experience within my program. Bhutan was something that I never expected. Honestly, I didn’t even know that Bhutan was a country before I was informed at orientation that I would be traveling here. Which as you can imagine, gave me little understanding of what exactly it would be like traveling here; all people kept telling me was “It’s just such a beautiful country!” It just can’t prepare you from what you really get when you get here.

It’s a country with endless mountains and valleys, views that take your breath away, and modern road systems that take you, literally, among the clouds. Perhaps it is that I was born in raised in Vermont, but the mountains haven’t had that much of an awe effect upon me. In contrast, I think it just helped me acclimate to the region. From the moment we began our travels and experiences in Bhutan I have felt more at peace then I ever had in our previous locations. I almost immediately felt comfortable in my surroundings. The environment allowed me to breath air I’m used to at home (aka no burning trash), the people are welcoming, positive, enthusiastic to share with you what they love about their country, while being more then willing to help you out in anyway that they can. A fellow student from the 802 and I came to the consensus that it felt a lot like home to the two of us.

It was for this reason, and the general rarity of the opportunity, that I have recently decided to stay here for my month of independent research. It would have been foolish for me, even though once making a decision I told myself I wouldn’t sway from it, to go to a location I was generally ambivalent about staying in for a month. I know that this is an environment that I am comfortable and confident within, and will most likely never have the opportunity to come back to. I’m going to be linked with the RUB Paro College of Education with the new Early Learning Center and hope to look at the Bhutanese approach to child rearing outside of the traditional familial unit. A lot of the details are very much in the air and dependant of availability of resources and time, but regardless of what I find myself having access to, I’m so excited to have the opportunity to stay here for another 3-4 weeks. Double bonus, I most likely won’t have to hire a translator because nearly everyone here speaks English as well as the national language of Dzongkha.

One of my favorite parts of this trip has been the opportunity to get to know local college students. We spent most of our college overnights staying with student hosts, allowing us to see how their college life differed from and was similar to our own in America. Our longest stay was just five days at Sherubtse College, and easily one of our group’s favorite places we’ve visited. Perhaps it was just being back in the flow of college life, but we fell in love with it there. We were able to finally connect with the students we were living with and around, making amazing friends that we were all sad to have to say goodbye to. I don’t know exactly why, but I had anticipated the students here to be different from those of the United States. Somehow experiencing something totally different from that of my own college life. In actuality they had the same desires to have less work and more social time, better housing, less severe administrative regulations, etc. It wasn’t that they were unhappy, all of us have quarrels with details of our academic experiences, they were, as any of the students I’ve encountered in the states, proud to have to opportunity to continue their studies.

On a separate note, this trip has also brought some baggage along with it. That sounds dramatic. It has just brought up some conflicting ideas. Today, I officially have 60 days left before I head back home. Even though I’ve been having frequent longing for my friends and being back home (more specifically thinking often about how excited I am for my arrival to Vermont summer and my 21st birthday), I have this conflicting anticipatory sadness around the fact that this amazing crazy experience with these people who I love for everything I have learned from and with them is almost over. In just eight weeks I will be saying goodbye to a group of people who have become unspeakably close with and have helped me in more ways then I can say, and probably more then I know. Cheesy perhaps, but true. I know that I don’t want this to end yet, and even thinking about how close it is to the conclusion and how fast my remaining time is going to go by is too much to think about, while at the same time I get giddy about getting back to Vermont. I suppose this is just something that many travelers experience, and just tells me that I shouldn’t wish away the time I still have, even when all I want is a City Market sandwich at the lake with a brew and some friends.

I didn’t fully understand or believe when people told me that I wouldn’t want to leave once this whole thing was over, not that I really could have. Maybe that means, like many others I’ve talked to, it will make me come back again. I can only hope.

Sidenote: So, like an idiot, I grabbed the wrong wire from my bag of electronic items when packing for this trip, thus my camera is now without its charger… I have yet to locate one within my group that fits my camera. Tomorrow I am on a mission from God to find another charger somewhere in Thimphu. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Anyway, that is the reasoning for the lack of pictures accompanying this post. I’m hoping to snag some off of Facebok from some friends. Keep an eye out!

Namaste!

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YOLO in Yolmo

Woah! So, sorry about the previous delays in posts, life is getting more and more jam packed over here in the Kathmandu Valley. We SIT kids just spent the one of the last weeks in the northern Himalayan region of Yolmo! It was a much-needed break for all of us from classes, our home stay families, and the city.

About a 6-hour drive north of the city, we didn’t really have a lot of pre departure knowledge on what we were going to be doing for the week besides taking part in village home stays and conducting interviews for a written assignment on the region. Lucky for us we were going to be accompanied by Tibetan “research assistants” who live in our home of Boudha, so we weren’t going to have as much of a problem with language barriers.

We set out on Sunday in two buses that were easily 30 years old and acted accordingly, first exemplified when my bus had to pull over to make an adjustment on the brake system. The details were unclear and had most of the Americans giving blind, and half-hearted, faith in the logistics of our travel. We received seasonally uncharacteristic showers about halfway through our drive as we stopped for lunch. Some helpful preliminary information for the reader; the modern road, aka something motor vehicles can travel upon, is new to the Yolmo region within the last 5 to 10 years. That being said, they are exclusively graveled, rock, and dirt (emphasis on the rock), built narrow and close to the mountainside. As we began to zig-zag up the hills that seemed near vertical to the eye, everyone’s blood pressure rose significantly. Maybe not the Tibetans, but they were the outliers of the group.

The bus just fit on the roads, allowing us all prime views of the cliffs we were skirting, as well as phenomenal sights of the valleys we were leaving and mountains we were approaching. I was in the trailing bus, giving me the pleasure of watching the leading bus back towards cliff edges in order to make the turns up the hill, as well as seeing the struggles and sliding of the tires to maintain traction. About half an hour into this death drive, as I like to call it, the head bus got stuck in a patch of mud as it prepared to ascend one of the safer looking regions of road. Failing attempts from the male fraction of our party to shove it free resulted in setting out on foot. Leaving our larger bags for a rescue jeep, we took our daypacks and began to walk.

Now, our program has a reputation of not giving as many details as would be ultimately helpful. For example, leaving out the details that our lodging for the night was at least a 6-hour walk by non-Himalayan foot, and that the final 3-4 hours were straight up hill. That being said, it was a really empowering hike. Being able to look behind you at the snow-capped Himalayas while hiking up rice paddy fields was one of the more romantic images of Nepal come to life. Though it was treacherous for some of us less athletically inclined folk, I couldn’t help but feel euphorically positive from my surroundings and overall situation. What a story for the grandkids, right?

Following the moonlit tail to our hike, not without its momentary loss of our local guide, we spent the night at the wonderful lodge nestled into the hillside of village. First most amazing part of Yolmo was the lack of noise and general pollution. We all felt like we could finally breath again without the constant smell of garbage and burning trash. It’s easy to forget what it feels like to take a lung full of real air. We were all so excited for this that we hung our heads out the bus windows to access maximum air quality (prior to the death hill, of course).

Not that there is much light pollution in the Valley, seeing as there is load shedding and minimal public light, you could really recognize the isolation we were in, and how much the pollution in the city effected the air quality when you looked at the sky. The daytime gave us endless blue skies without a cloud to see; while the nighttime allowed us to see more stars then I have ever seen at one time with a frame of the snow mountains. It was really unbelievable.

Secondly, I am convinced it is unhealthy for the soul to fall asleep to loud motorbikes, dogfights, and airplane landings or takeoff every night. It isn’t until you remove yourself from such an environment, however, that you truly appreciate the lack of sounds in the natural state of nocturnal earth. Never slept as well as I did after that hike our first day.

We spent our next few days in the mountains in home stays with families in Sermathang village. Lucky for us, our first night in the village was coincidentally the last night of Losar New Year celebrations as well as a full moon night. This gave us the opportunity to take part in the day into night drinking of pure rice wine, rice whiskey, and chang, a traditional Himalayan festival beverage. We had heard that they celebrate hard in the mountains, but it was impossible to anticipate the amount these little village women can drink. We were up for hours until easily midnight sitting around the fire as some danced a circle of the traditional cham dance and men paced endlessly filling cups from the bottomless kettles of liquor.

Beyond the party the first night, it was just really nice to experience life within the village, something totally different than what we were used to compared to Boudha. I wish we had a little more time in Sermathang though. We only stayed for two nights before returning to Terkyigian, our initial residence,  and I had just started to get to know my Ama la, even though we had no idea what the other was saying. She just expressed to our research assistant living with us that she liked my spirit and nature and wished that she could talk to me more, but she didn’t know English. I’ve had killer luck getting stellar home stay mommas. There were just some many more things I wanted to observe and experience within the village that we just didn’t have the time to do or work out the details for. It was also really nice to have the ability to spend our free time away from computers, cell phones, and just hangout in the grass and sunshine. Boudha doesn’t really allot us much outdoor space to occupy, not to mention much free time where we don’t have to rush around sending emails and the like.

A highlight to mention, was when myself and a few of my classmates put our industrial strength sleeping bags to the test by sleeping under the stars. It was more like we were stargazing in our sleeping bags, cause even though it gets into the 70 degrees Fahrenheit range during the day, the temperature dropped significantly at night, and ultimately passing out while trying to scout out the few constellations we were familiar with.

Even though we were all slightly ambivalent about returning to Boudha, especially once we were reintroduced to the dust and exhaust of the main roads, it was nice to come back to our home stay families and what had become our homes in Kathmandu. Didn’t expect to miss my Ama la so quickly after just living with her for a few weeks.

Our time in Boudha has officially ended, however. Today we ship out for Bhutan for a month before we start our month long independent research period. Lots of emotions, most unexpected, about the conclusion of our time in Kathmandu. More to come on those and my final days with my family here in Boudha.

Side note, super pissed I’m missing the festival of Holi at the end of the week. One of my larger bucket list items, and I am literally missing it by days. We are thinking about having our own SIT Holi, either in Bhutan, or when we get back in the program house courtyard.

I’m trying my best to keep up with this blog thing as much as I can/want to, but its a lot harder to a lot time to it then I had initially anticipated. I’ll do my best!

Namaste!

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Masked Dance of Losar

Okay, so I had to write this assignment about Losar for my program, and I thought it may be an interesting tid bit to show you guys some more specifics about the celebration rituals. Here it is! Give me your thoughts, I love getting feedback on my writing. Heads up, not my best work. Might have thrown it together a little last minute. Cheers!

Masked Spirits of Losar

The Cham Dance of Tibetan New Year

The Tibetan New Year quickly approached the village of Boudha that traces the edges of the Kathmandu valley. As families bustle to complete shopping and preparation of offerings for religious figures, food for feasting, decorative elements and gifts prior to the ceremonies and rituals of the coming days, I found myself naively blind to what the festivity would exactly entail. Having lived with a Tibetan family for just a handful days, I was still very green to all the intricacies of their family dynamic and procedure for holidays and religious festivities. My own personal investigation and inquiry had left me with little material to paint a vague picture of how they would exactly be celebrating.

I had known of my home stay fathers involvement with the local monasteries through his role of teaching English to the young monks, but had little understanding of his, and the rest of my home stay families, investment and participation within the Buddhist faith. It wasn’t until he told me that the family would be attending the “Lama Dance”, as he called it, two days preceding the official start of the New Year at the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery. My family had told me that the ceremony would be an all day event, utilizing elaborate masks and costumes, and would last from 9 in the morning to around 5 o’clock pm. Preparing for what I anticipated to be an exhausting day of observation, I embarked with my family on the five minute walk to the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery.

The masked cham dance ceremonially happens once a year at monasteries around the world in preparation for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Free to the public, the monastery courtyard had been arranged with seating around the perimeter with chairs and tables set for the Rinpoche, or highest lama of the monastery, as well as other high ranking monks within this monastery, dressed in elaborate and luxurious costumes with large head pieces. As we took our seats at the perimeter, we stood at the sound of horns, drums, and cymbals in the distance, announcing and leading the entrance of the Rinpoche, the rest of the high ranking monks, as well as the large elaborately decorated food offering, or torma, made of tsampa and colored butter (Figure 1). Through meditation, the monks of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery had provoked the wicked and hindering spirits and forces that could cause harm within the coming year into this cake, later to be thrown within a large bonfire to chase away the future negativities at the conclusion of the cham dance ceremony.

As the party took their seats around the perimeter of the courtyard (Figure 2), the Rinpoche rang a small bell, signaling the musicians to begin the instrumentals for the first of three dances. The opening dance was what my father called the “spirit dance”. One monk entered the courtyard from an adjacent room, with a costume similar to that of those whom had previously entered with the Rinpoche. His robe was bulky and wide, with extensive embroidery and long flowing sleeves. His headpiece mimiced the appearance of large gold ears with feathers and streamers standing and falling from the crown of his head. In one hand he held a small bell, and in the other a small goblet filled with rice and water by two young monks prior to his performance (Figure 3). The horns and drums began to rhythmically callout drawing the lone monk into a swirling dance. His movements were those that I would have associated with a dance of much higher pace and much less constricting constume, however, the monk moved with ease and grace. Lifting one leg at a time, he would spin and wave his arms looking as a crane stepping through shallow waters. The contenets of his cup gradually escaped their container throughout the dance, concluding in his forceful thrust, evicting the remaining rice upon the courtyard floor as he finished the dance.

Looking around at my companion observers, I was the only non-local individual I saw, deducing this generalization by the lack of carry-alongs and overall demenor, as well as regional facial characterisitics. I was mainly surprised by the lack of severity, but also lack of blatent enthusiasm in the crowd. As the ceremony commenced, people were shuffling in throughout the first few minutes of dance and music. Not seeming to be concerned with disruption from their voices and discussions upon entering, I would have thought that such a symbolic affair would result in more solomn behavior to avoid distrubing the ceremony. Conversley, individuals were on their smart phones and chatting as the dance and festivities were occuring. Perhaps it is my American approach to religious ritual that has molded my approach to such an enviornment, but even with such distraction from the performance, there was no encouragement or appreciation shown through applause or signs of appreciation. It would appear from my foreign lense that there was little emotional or spiritual investment in the ritual what so ever. Children were focused on placing monatery offerings on the torma, as the adults took photos on their iphones or chatted with their neighbors. As the dancers spun and lept, perchance it is the attendance and spiritual recognition that reaps the benefit, not the passive and diligent survey that serves to benefit.

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Tibetan New Year

One of the great things about living with a Tibetan family is that you get to take part in many of the ritualistic aspects of life that one may not see from an entirely exterior perspective. The timing of my program in Nepal is chronologically amazing for festivals and holidays. One in particular is the Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, taking place on Feb 11th. With my little background knowledge on what this holiday represented or how it was celebrated I approached with blind faith for a culturally exciting experience. Plus, it meant I didn’t have Tibetan language class for three days; an extra perk, to say the least.

Losar is a holiday that takes a lot of preparation. Days before the first day of the new calendar year, families bustled about their homes and local shops making final arrangements and purchases for the New Year. Symbolically centralized around the idea of starting fresh and new beginnings, families around the city, country, and region, literally, were making their starts “fresh”. Physically, materially, and spiritually, my family took every measure to make sure that the unit entered the New Year pure. The family shrine was given new decorations, special and elaborate offerings, every surface of the house was scrubbed twice, every member bathed on the preceding Sunday, and all shopping for the first three days of the New Year were done in advance.

Tibetan families celebrate Losar in a variety of ways. For some it is a time for partying with family and friends from far and wide, for others it is a deeply ritualistic and religious holiday. My family celebration this year was more exclusively the later. Having only been living with this family for a handful of days prior to this, Losar gave me my first glimpse at my home stay father’s religious conviction. Knowing of their association to Buddhism, I was surprised to see my father take the leading role in the ritual and devotional aspects of our celebration. He seemed to be the driving and motivating force behind our activities: Patting dough on our bodies to remove ailments on New Years Eve, followed by throwing our ailment dough into the street, making sure that we arrived early and in proper preparation and appearance in front of the Rinpoche, or high lama of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery for a blessing for the New Year, as well as proper offering and prayer to the house shrine before every meal and in the early morning time. All of these were spear headed by my father. I suppose my surprise came from his lack of involvement when my home stay mother will go to kora, or circumnavigate, the Boudha Stupa in the evenings, a typical and important ritual to many Buddhists in the Kathmandu area.

One of the most notable events of the Losar holiday was one of a less festive tone. Boudha is a region of Kathmandu that is home to a large population of Tibetans in exile, especially those within the monastic discipline. On the third major day of the Losar celebrations, the morning of February 13, a local monk self-immolated around the Boudha Stupa in protest of the human rights violations and injustices taking place in Tibet. My family and I were on our way to the Boudha Stupa, a historical Buddhist monument, for a celebration ceremony when we were stopped and told the news of what had just taken place. After a short delay over tea, we were told again that it was “alright to go”. My Ama la explained to me that the Nepali police would be harassing and arresting those on the stupa dressed in traditional Tibetan attire, as we were that morning, in order to avoid further conflict and disruption.

When walking through the Stupa both immediately following, and later in the day, there was almost no change of atmosphere. As an American, I would assume that such an event in a public sacred space like this would create some sort of direct effect to those within the surrounding community. Those in public showed little caution or solemn attitude. On the contrary, it seemed that it was a normal Wednesday. Later discussion with classmates and academic advisors made it seem that the response, specifically from those linked to the Tibetan community, was done in the private of the home.

There has been a noticeable presence of the Nepali police around the Stupa in the weeks to follow. Dressed in their blue camo, they loiter the shop fronts, batons and riot shields in hand. It wasn’t until the immolation that I, and I assume my classmates, saw the reality and extremity of the daily lives of the families we lived with and their larger community of Tibetans in exile. There has been no discussion of the immolation since the night of the 13th in my home stay; I think this communicates how outcries like this have reaped little to no gains for their cause, and have such, become tallies under rather then effects upon the system they are shouting at for change.

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Cultural Exhaustion

So, three weeks in and I believe that I have started to descend from the honeymoon period of travel. Though everything is wonderful here in Boudha, I have begun to miss many of my familiarities of my Vermont life. Perhaps, it is also due to the general overwhelming nature of my semester thus far and to come. Time has flown by here, and with only two weeks left in my homestay i have realized that it is difficult to balance all of the things I need and want to do here. School, homework, preparation for my independent research, spending time with my Tibetan family, trying to stay in contact with home, personal adventures, and time to decompress has all been very hard to juggle. I find myself going straight from school, to a cafe with my classmates to grab a coffee for a hour or so, then straight to my homestay for dinner, and bedtime by 9pm. I really just wish I had the time to explore more of the city, journal, read for personal and research pleasure, as well as discuss buddhism with my homestay father.
I just need a moment to decompress. Really just wanting to take more advantage of my environment while having personal reflection and academic growth. I guess this is what everyone wants, regardless of location. Maybe all I really need is an american cheese burger and some bad reality TV in English, not Hindi.

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An open question to all.

Okay, those of you who are actually reading these post, I thank you kindly. Now, I propose a question to you all. I have a few weeks after my program finishes to travel in the southern Asian region, and need some help hypothesizing ideas of where to go.

A few of my classmates and I are trying to plan personal excursions to explore some of the other countries in this beautiful area. We have been throwing around Laos and Thailand, but i really just need some other ideas to spice up our brainstorming.

Anyone have a fabulous experience or know of someone else who has that could make some suggestions.

Thanks all! Please keep checking for updates :)

Namaste!

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Home Stay in Boudha

Officially done with two weeks of home stay in Boudha. It has been a roller coaster trying to adjust to life at home and school in this area of the city.

I was picked up from the program house by my Ama la, or mother, and took a 10-minute walk or so to the apartment building where our family resides. A girl in my program, Sarah, lives right next door, so we have become walking buddies. My home stay family is made of four people; My Ama la, my Pa la (guess what that one means), and my younger brother Wesell (spelling questionable) who is almost 13. My home stay sister is 18, and resides at school in India for most of the year. I won’t have a chance to meet her until March when she returns for break. My family is Tibetan, from the region of Kham in the southeast, though a majority of their family resides in southern India, so I haven’t and most likely won’t have the opportunity to meet them.

Our living environment is much more then I was expecting. The SIT program told us that we could possibly be living in very minimal accommodations. Most of us weren’t expecting to have beds or rooms to ourselves. I was excited to find that not only do I have my own bedroom, but also my own bathroom, fully equipped with a western toilet rather then a typical “squatty-potty”, as well as a small balcony. The rest of the house consists of a room dedicated to their Buddhist shrine, exclusively used for prayer and special occasion meals, as well as another bedroom, kitchen, living room, and additional bedroom and bathroom.

I was really anxious and nervous when we started to see families arrive at the program house to collect us. It really started to set in that I was really about to live in Nepal for several months. I had a moment, needed to breath and have a tea and some tears with a friend Camille before jumping ship with my Ama la. It was definitely a little tense at first. The differences in cultural boundaries, rules, and language made it difficult to relax into my new home. There is a general feeling that silence in group situations, especially in the family are culturally normal and accepted. A little weird to adjust to at first, but it’s nice to know that it’s not awkward when no one has much to say. The second and one of the most difficult things to get used to is the portion sizes. All of the students I’m traveling with have had problems finishing the amount of food that we are served. Its not respectful or common for those permanently settled in this area to waste food by leaving what you don’t want on your plate. So, we have been told to try and finish all that you are served, which is usually way more then I am used to, and try and push down a little more. We have all started to express to our families that we don’t want that much food, but it is non-the less still a struggle.

I had a personal problem where I was the lucky first to get food poisoning/ general digestive unrest my first full day in my house. So blessed to have my own bathroom, less blessed that I booted it in front of my whole family when they came to check in on me. I have since, mostly, recovered, and consider myself the initial domino to the rest of my group’s food related ailments.

We eat at a generally late hour, around 7:30 pm, and I am in bed soon afterwards. Waking up at around 6 has really started to get to my sleep schedule. I’m just exhausted by the end of the day. The toughest thing is that there are so many sounds and smells that waft around, and at night it can be hard to get to sleep. The plethora of stray dogs around Kathmandu often break out in fights throughout the evening, motorcycles rawring and burning trash make it hard sometimes to get a solid night of rest. Additionally, because I am not built for Asia, my bed is just short enough to have my feet hang over the edge. I have been luckier then some, in that I had brought a sleeping bag good to negative 15 degrees F, so the temperature drops in the evening haven’t really effected me.

My Ama la and I are definitely the closest in my family. She helped me go shopping to have a tailor make me a chopa, or traditional Tibetan dress of the Kham region, worn often by people in my area. She also helps me haggle the prices so I don’t get ripped off an extra $4 USD. Plus she helps me laugh off my attempts at Tibetan conversation with the family. I’m also more fortunate then some of my colleagues in that my family speaks English pretty well. I have only started to use a few handfuls of words and phrases that I just use for greetings and communicating how delicious dinner is. My Pa la teaches English to the boy monks at the local monasteries, which is double convenient because I’m planning on doing my independent study on children entering the monastic life, and the cultural norms and roles that it plays. My little brother is starting to get a little irritating, however. Having never been in a family with younger siblings, it’s been an adjustment. He watches a lot of TV (as does the rest of my family, whenever we are not using the generator the TV is usually on Hindi soap operas.), which usually consists of Animal Planet, so he talks about dogs and other random animal, as well as their equally useless facts. Endearing at first, it is starting to get old. Plus, the tiny habits of chewing loudly with his mouth open and interrupting conversations I’m in with his parents is really pushing my buttons. We have a week off where our program is going to the village of Yolmo, so that will be a well-deserved break.

I’ve been feeling a lot of cultural exhaustion as well. Just general overwhelming and constant unfamiliarity really breaks down the enthusiasm sometimes. Patience has definitely been tested and grown already in my time here. Gotta remember to keep looking up at this amazing, and short, time that I have in this rich culture.

Look for an update on my Tibetan Losar New Year experience soon!

Namaste!

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a quick update…

So, week one in Nepal; Done. Can’t believe I have only been here for such a short amount of time. It feels like I’ve been here for weeks and a blink of an eye all at the same time.
To delve right into it, I landed in Kathmandu on the afternoon of January 29. After nearly two days of traveling, including a memorable and stressful layover in Mumbai, I was finally collected by my program advisor/director of sorts, Danny, along with the half of the group I would be studying with for the next three months. Loaded into a small bus, we departed for our orientation location of Dashinkali Village Resort, in Pharpang (pronounced “parping”), which is located on the hills surrounding Kathmandu Valley.
To take a step back, I had shut off many of my senses and emotions during my time getting from Burlington to Kathmandu. My experience with messed up airport logistics that made no sense to even the kind local who helped me figure out my layover fiasco, had put me in a fog, making my final destination far less awesome then it actually was. I just wanted to get out of airports at that point. Thus, the first time that it actually hit me that I was actually landing in this distant region I had been talking about for months was when we began to descend into the valley. Every emotion jumped back into the front of my mind, overwhelming really, that I was actually starting something so crazy. This is all really crazy, and I apologize for my overuse of that word. But there are a lot of things that are almost too hard to describe accurately.
There were a handful of things that one first notices when arriving in Kathmandu:
First- the level of poverty and urban growth.
There is trash, all over the place. Nepal is an area where there isn’t the “solutions” that we have found in the west for our waste. It litters the streets in every roadway I have crossed, whether that be village or city, residential or religious area. There are lots that are only inhabited by garbage and sometimes those who have not the resources to reside elsewhere. Burning trash is also a habit of many here. It is also good to note that garbage here does not include food. Food is rarely thrown away here, and what is are the inedible bones, rinds, and the like.
Second- the smell.
As one may interpret from the previous point, trash creates smells; and a diversity of them. Though not initially or always overwhelming or noticeable, one will happen upon smells of garbage, feces, exhaust, and just general lack of hygiene everyday without fail. Though one does not grow fond or ignorant of these odors, it does just become part of daily life. You will see many local individuals wearing masks that cover the nose and mouth or scarves that can act in the same manor to block the exhaust and smells of ones daily commute.
That being said, I walk upon some amazing smells as well. Food vendors, restaurants, and residence buildings will make your mouth water with some of the delicious aromas it produces. I usually have no idea what those smells are linked to, as I do in the United States, but boy do they make me curious.
Third- road/driving lifestyle.
To describe the transportation conditions in a word I would say unorganized. While they do follow the traffic law of driving on the left side of the road, this is not strictly enforced. The road conditions alone do not allow for such a strict system. Generally, there are always pedestrians, animals, parked vehicles, and anything else you could imagine along the side of roadways in the city. This is all in conjunction with the fact that the pavement itself is not what we would be used to in the States. There are many cases where the pavement does not cleanly meat the edge of the road, but is instead framed by rubble or dirt. These, along with speedy motorbikes and other drivers, cause for a lot of self determination and decision making on the drivers part about how they are going to navigate through a street, which they will do one way or another. Not attempting a street has not been my experience so far in Nepal. Even on busy pedestrian streets you will still be alerted by an approaching motorcycle or car that is trying to navigate its way along at speeds that would alarm any new comer.
When facing the outer villages, the roads are, plainly narrow. I found myself often evading the window to avoid seeing just how close to the edge of a cliff or sharp hill our bus was on our drives to and from Pharpang. Best to focus on conversation over sites at some moments. Oddly enough, cars don’t go that fast here. We were told that it will be rare to see our transportation go more then around 30 mph at any time, and if they are, to remove yourself immediately.

Back to the good stuff…
So, our group stayed in Pharpang for only three days to complete our orientation. Though it seemed that we were there for much longer, we were all a little sad to depart for our home stays in Kathmandu. Living in a quiet village bungalow hotel, taking Tibetan and religious courses seemed too ideal to want to leave. Having visited local Hindi and Buddhist temples and monuments only once had given me a taste of something I wanted to take a big bite out of. Most notably of those experiences, was the happening upon a small Hindi shrine with a few of my colleagues where we were blessed by a holy man (his rank or title I am unaware of) as well as walked through the ritual of paying homage to the shrine and its goddess, Kali Sihkali (spelling questionable). The second most notable thing from Pharpang was one morning when two girls, Megan and Georgia and I hiked to the top of a monastery mountain and watched the sunrise. There were endless prayer flags strung from all the trees and monuments. Never thought I would get to experience something like this in my life. Watching the sunrise on a Nepalese village monastery mountain top; this can’t be real life.
For those shocked that I was up to walking up a mountain at sunrise, we have been rising pretty early here. I wake up around 6 am naturally, and get to sleep by about 9 pm. After dinner, I am always so exhausted that I just immediately go to bed. We have long packed days here and I’m kinda loving my sleep schedule so far. Being an old lady is the best, apparently.

More to come soon. Heard from the rents that people were asking questions so I thought this would be a good taste of what/how I’ve been doing so far.

Also, I apologize if my posts are somewhat scattered from here. It’s exhausting trying to keep everything chronologically linear over here.

Namaste!

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