May 05, 2004
On Top of the World
When I departed for Nepal on March 4th, I had no grand expectations other than to climb a few mountains and visit a monastery. It is hard to believe that two months have passed that were filled with wonderful memories that have changed my life.
It all started on line at the airport when I was standing behind a British couple, Sheila and Clive, who had just arrived in India en route to Nepal, the first stop on their one year adventure throughout South East Asia. They were bustling with enthusiasm about things to experience and places to go. I was drawn to their optimism, curiosity, and honesty.
Who would have thought that some eleven days later, the three of us would be boarding another plane together ˝ this one destined for the town of Jomson (2173m), nestled near the top of the sacred Mountain of Dhaulagiri. For 11 days we trekked through the Himalayan mountain range known as Anapurna, visited the auspicious pilgrimage site of Muktinath, walked through the Gandaki Gorge (the deepest in the world), dipped in the hot springs at Tatopani, watched the sun rise over the mountains at Poon Hill, and slept night after night in the blue shadows of massive mountains surrounded by endless skies of stars and moon. Every day we were met by a different terrain and climate -- one day dry arid plains in between snow covered peaks, the next terraced hillsides of wheat filled fields, followed by oak and rhododendron forests as well as apple and orange groves, all interspersed with suspension bridges crossing fierce rivers and waterfalls and cozy little tea houses where we made our temporary homes.
While these destinations were all spectacular the best parts of this adventure were the moments in between: sharing a plate of this and a portion of that with Sheila at almost every meal, our visit to the steam bath after ascending and descending more than 1,000m in two short days, alternating use of the valuable knee braces Clive brought along, receiving puja from one of the many SaduÝs who passed in route to Muktinath, meditating in a different monastery every day when traveling through territories that were once a part of Tibet, washing one another as we basked in the sun at the hot springs, inspiring each other with our triumphs over doubt and fear, laughing and crying about my adventure with a horse, doing yoga together in the grass at Ghorepani, racing down the mountain in order to get back to civilization before the Maoist rebels closed all the roads, sharing medical remedies and treatments all along the way. . .
One beautiful sunny day I was walking ahead of She and Clive, they often dallied about an hour behind me as they preferred to stop for cultural exchanges with the local children and merchants. Having some extra time, I opted to stop in a tea house to use a proper toilet rather than relieving myself in nature. For the record, the term ýproper toiletţ is a relative term here meaning a small room with a hole in the floor and a bucket of water for washing (instead of toilet paper). This ýsquat toiletţ is pretty much the norm throughout India, Nepal and Tibet and after several months of using them I have actually found myself quite fond of them (the ones that are clean) and, so I thought, adept to using them like an old pro (not so easy as there is a definite knack for balance and aim required). As I entered the toilet room I put my bag down and clipped my sunglasses to the front of my shirt. Next I set myself up with firm footing as I planned to be there for a while if you know what I mean. After completing my business I straightened my legs to wash up, leaving me in the forward bend position. Before I knew it my glasses had slipped from the collar of my shirt and fell into the hole. I tried to think fast as I had fear of them falling into the abyss of excrement, a place of no return. Lucky for me, my own pile of excrement served as a lovely obstruction to that path, holding my glasses right in the middle of the toilet basin. I stood there for a few minutes considering my options -- I knew I had several more days of trekking in the sun before reaching the land of opticians and eyeglass shops; the fact that the frames were Gucci and the lenses prescription made them far to valuable to just let go; and there were no tools around to fish the glasses out of the toilet -- thus I was left with one option. Acting like the true rough and tumble mountaineer that I was posing as for that two week period, I rolled up my sleeve, bent down, reached in, fished out, rinsed them off, rubbed some Purel (hand sanitizer) on them, slapped them back on my face, and went on my way ˝ end of story!!!
Another morning I arrived in a picturesque town with cobblestone paths and traditionally carved decorative windows and doorways, known as Marpha. Eager for my daily meditation in the local monastery, I went straight to its gate and asked the monks (young boys that were between the ages of 8 and 13) if they could open the temple. Not long after they unlocked the door a few other tourists had arrived to see this historic institution (this monastery as well as many others in the region date back to the 7th century). As they walked around looking at the many paintings of Buddha on the wall, I sat down and prepared to meditate. As always, a few minutes passed, the other tourists departed, and I was left alone to absorb the energy of the thousands of other people seeking enlightenment who had sat here before me.
I was not alone for long as some of the young monks had noticed me meditating and were curious to observe me further. First they stood off to the side, watching and whispering. Slowly they came closer and closer, until they were literally sitting right next to me. The monk who was sitting directly to my right (he was so close that his knee was touching mine) pointed out to his friends the way in which my stomach would rise and fall every time I took a breath. Next he waved his hand across my lap to see if I was awake or asleep (of course I could see all of this because I meditate with my eyes slightly open as is the customary Buddhist practice ˝ ensuring you are truly present). He even lightly poked my knee a few times to see if he could disturb me. I did not flinch. The calm and auspicious vibe of this historic monastery combined the childlike nature of these monks had me very present and very much at peace. I continued to meditate for a few more minutes and then I slowly opened my eyes to observe my observers. They were still sitting around me watching with there eyes opened wide. We sat and looked at one another for a few seconds and then the boy to my right asked, ýAre you a monk?ţ
Nothing could have made me happier than to be asked such a question by a monk himself. We sat together for a while, talking, laughing and taking pictures. Soon enough, I was saying good-bye and heading on my way. While I left them I have kept the image of their smiling and curious faces imbedded in my mind and heart.
After 12 days of walking and some serious knee pain, Clive, Sheila, Kabi and Devraj (our porter and guide) descended the mountains to the lovely and lazy lakeside town of Pokhara. Here I spent a few days simply reading, relaxing and eating. Actually there was one little Italian caf╚ we found that served delicious, authentic and organic food, that became my home away from the hotel while in Pokhara. I would arrive there at seven in the morning (often before they were even ready to receive customers) sit in their open air restaurant sipping tea and eating everything on their menu including eggs, pastries, fruit and curd, mixed green salads, pasta, pizza, ice-cream and cake. In between snacks and meals I would read, and read, and read. The only times I left were to buy another book, take a shower or sleep ˝ what a decadent treat to do nothing.
Upon completion of the trek and visit to Pokhara I returned to Khatmandu and prepared for my trip to Tibet. This eight day, overland exploration of the land of snow was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I spent five days traveling in a caravan of Landrovers with 8 strangers (including my guide and the two drivers) from Khatmandu, over the Nepal/Tibetan border to the capital city of Lhasa. We visited important historical monasteries that are now just token reflections of the impressive institutions of spiritual learning they were before the Chinese occupation. We drove through numerous traditional Tibetan villages all adorned in prayer flags where people maintain a simple and hard life among the arid plains that distinctly characterize their country. We experienced the harsh extremes of weather so common to these parts including night temperatures that dropped far below freezing, snow, rain, hail, wind and blistering sunshine that leaves the cheeks of so many Tibetans stained a deep red. Our cars voyaged through many mountain passes, some exceeding 5,000m, marked by stupas and flapping prayer flags. As we got closer and closer to Lhasa we saw the effects of ýmodernizationţ that the Chinese have brought to these peaceful and traditional people in the forms of ugly new commercial buildings, industry and a very public military presence.
Over the course of our journey I heard several courageous stories of people who made the treacherous journey across the Tibetan border in search of freedom, security and hope that they were not afforded in their homeland. Once such story was that of our guide Tashi. At the age of 13 his mother was killed by the Chinese authorities with his father passing away soon after that. Thus, at the age of 16 he headed out for the Solo Kumbu pass to Nepal. After 15 days of walking through the snow and over the very steep mountain range that includes Everest he arrived in Nepal and then made his way to Dharamsala, India. He had no intentions of returning to Tibet as long as his country was still occupied by the Chinese. That is until his brother (who was still in Tibet) informed him that he was receiving threats from the Chinese that would continue or manifest unless he could convince Tashi to return -- which he did just six years after he fled. He spoke of Dharamsala with fond memories and a tear in his eye. He expressed hopes to return some day with his wife.
Another girl I met during this road trip told me of her treacherous journey to India at the young age of 9. Leaving behind her entire family, she also walked through snow and cold of the Solo Kumbu Valley en route to Dharamsala. Now 19 years of age, she has returned to Tibet to take care of her sick mother (she is an only child). She too hopes to return to Dharamsala to continue her studies. She plans to depart sometime this fall, perhaps bringing some other young children in order to offer them a better life.
When I asked Tashi what was the worst aspect of the Chinese occupation of Tibet he replied, "They are destroying the Tibetan culture," specifically pointing to the demise of their language and religion. The decimation of their culture is glaringly evident when one visits monasteries and nunneries that serve as institutions of learning to less then ║ of their capacity due to strict quotas enforced by the Chinese authorities. The debilitating affects of these laws on the ability of the spirited Tibetan people to sustain the religious traditions that are so integral to their way of life was most present for me at the Tashilumpo Monastery in Shigatse. This Monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism (second only to the Dalai Lama), and hence one of the most important institutions in the country.
Back in 1995 the eleventh reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was identified by the monks of Tashilumpo and approved by the Dalai Lama (as is customary) in a six year old boy named Gedhum Choekyi Nyima. The Chinese government was unwilling to allow the Dalai Lama to exercise authority over the naming of such an important figure, and thus have kept this young boy and his family under house arrest in Beijing ever since, making him the youngest political prisoner in the world. A photo of another young boy has been placed in the Monastery, a boy that the Chinese government hand selected to serve as the Panchen Lama. The monks and pilgrims who visit are expected to honor him as their spiritual leader, although most do not accept him as the true reincarnation. Due to the strict regulations that govern the speech and behavior of Tibetan people, there is no public protest, just a deep, unspoken sadness for all those who visit.
This sadness greeted me at the gates of Tashilumpo ˝ I felt a lump in my throat as soon as I entered these sacred grounds that I could not explain. Upon entering the temple of the future Buddha, with his enormous golden form towering over me in the small confines of the room, I was overcome with tears, for the many lives and much hope lost over the Panchen Lama situation, including that of both boys.
Despite the systematic practices to suppress the Tibetan way of life, the spirit of these people is strong and its power is in force, especially around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Starting in the early morning and continuing way beyond the fall of the sun, devout Buddhist stand in front of the temple entrance doing full prostrations for hours on end. Simultaneously others circle the temple again and again spinning their prayer wheels, grasping their prayer beads and chanting ýOm Mani Padme Humţ. These acts are done with the intention of cultivating virtuous merits that will allow their next life to be better than this one.
The people surrounding the temple range in age and wealth as well as cultural sects of Tibetan culture (distinguished by the different ways in which they are adorned with clothes and beads). Despite these differences they all have a common warmth and joyous spirit that is unrivaled by any group of people I have ever met. My choice to wear a traditional Tibetan dress when walking among these people afforded me a special bond, especially with the older women. All would smile while other would take my hand and press it to their red cheeks. Often these beautiful women would shy away from the cameras of tourists, but they were so pleased by my choice to publicly honor their culture that they would gather around to join in a picture with me. None of these women spoke English and I spoke no Tibetan other than greeting them with ýTashi Delekţ. But no words were necessary to express our mutual love, respect and gratitude for the other. Each of these exchanges (and there were many) made my smile bigger and made me feel at home, once again, in a distant land.
After 5 days of travle and 2 days in Lhasa, I boarded a plane destined for Khatmandu. On this day, the sky was clear with only a few fluffy clouds to be seen, perfect conditions for our flyby Mt. Everest. The snow covered pointed peak was an awesome sight. Everest and the surrounding Mountains were so still, so strong, so unshakeable -- a reflection of the spirit of the Tibetan people, or them a reflection of these mountain. I am sad that I was only able to spend eight days in Tibet, especially since the remnants of their culture will likely fade quickly under their present circumstances. I feel fortunate to have seen and experienced what I did.
During my various stops in Khatmandu I had the pleasure of staying with Leila (mother), Pasi (10 year old son) and Soraya (4 year old daughter) ˝ friend of friends who quickly became like family. It was particularly appropriate that I was adopted by this family as they are the only African and white interracial family I have come across here, and of course I looked and felt right at home.
On my second day in Khatmandu, the people of Nepal were celebrating Holi, a festival of color to honor the end of winter. During Holi people walk the streets throwing balloons filled with colored water at one another, children and adults alike. On the Saturday of Holi, Ramesh, the family driver, showed up with all the supplies for a successful Holi including balloons, a water-machinegun, a bucket, and red powder to color the water. He filled the bucket with red water and placed it in the hatchback of the car as I filled the balloons. Next the whole family piled in to his friends taxi armed with a handful of water balloons. We pursued to drive all over the city doing drive-by hits on everyone we could while Ramesh would shoot red water at folks, refilling his gun from the bucket in the back. This was especially fun as we were told and had experienced that westerners were favorite targets on Holi. From the safe confines of the car we were able to turn those tables on the people of Nepal ˝ ha ha!!
I so enjoyed the time I spent with the family and participating in the routines of their daily life. I was particularly amused by the 4 year old daughter Soraya as she reminds me so much of myself at that age ˝ addicted to drama, a fiend for affection, and driven by a vivid imagination that is often difficult to distinguish from reality. Interacting with and observing the interactions between Leila, Soraya and Pasi have reminded me of how much I want to have children and a family of my own someday.
Outside of the generous comforts of the family home, there was a lot to see and experience in Khatmandu. Among my favorites was visiting the Bodinath stupa, one of the largest in the world and thus an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. I was also fortunate to be here when the Jazzmandu Festival was going on and I got to hear many awesome jazz bands perform. I also spent 10 days at the Kopan Monastery studying and practicing Buddhism and meditation (which I wrote about in my last posting). How appropriate that my last day in Nepal, the birthplace of Shakyamuni Buddha, was also his birthday. In honor of this important event I visited the Swayambu Temple with many other Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims (these two religions have a unique overlapping relationship here in Nepal that was hard for me to understand but seems to flow so effortlessly and natural for everyone else).
While my visit to Nepal has been characterized by so many wonderful experiences, it is important to note that a civil war between the King, the various political parties and the Maoist rebels has been going on the entire time. On many days the entire regions would be closed to car traffic, sometimes for multiple days in a row. Towards the end of my trip the violence in Khatmandu was escalating resulting in almost daily brick throwing and multiple arrests. The sad thing is, it is almost like the people and government have accepted these interruptions as a regular part of their lives. They often speak of the devastating affects of the political instability on their economy, security and quality of life. I was asked by more than one Nepali man to marry him so that he could come to the US and earn a decent living to support his family (always offering half of their earning for the first three years in return for this favor).
While Nepal has brought me endless joy (ok, maybe not endless as it also gave me a lovely parasite that had me down and out on three occasions), I am saddened by the political situation. I feel powerless to return the happiness they have given me other than to share with others the wonders of this land.
Today is Wednesday May 5th and I am departing by plane for Delhi. Upon arrival there this afternoon I will board a train to Dharamsala, where the Tibetan government in exile resides. While you await my next posting know I among Tibetan people and thus I am happy.
Posted by Jyllt at May 5, 2004 06:04 AM
Jyll, your stories of the journey are fantastic. I laugh. I am moved to tears. I can picture you right there. When I saw the pictures of the obviously little biracial girl, I wondered who she was and how on earth you found her. Great little interlude for you. Isn't synchronicity grand? I often wonder why I neglect to notice it more often. It's always there - we just have to slow down enough to pay closer attention. Thanks for putting it all in words and capturing it all on film. I'm not sure I have ever seen your smile more radiant and your enjoyment of life more obvious. I continue to pray for your safety and for your increasing knowledge and wisdom. Much love to you, Gail
Posted by: Gail at May 5, 2004 01:00 PM
Yo, sitting here in brooklyn I feel as if I have just been traveling with you .Your sharing of this journey and of yourself is making my heart sing, thank you..Love always ,r0n
Posted by: ron jean-gilles at May 10, 2004 08:41 PM