Shirah Foy
Shirah Foy
Nepal 2012
Namaste! I'm a native Oregonian who loves to travel, enjoys a good conversation, a long walk, and a hot cup of tea. This summer I'm in Nepal, teaching English in a Buddhist monastery in the high Himalayas. I love to hear your responses to my adventures and experiences, so join me! Read More About Shirah →

Weekend in Thamel

Upon arriving at the RCDP hostel in Kalanki last Tuesday, I was given a dal bhaat lunch, introduced to several new volunteers, and then told that not only was the hostel already full, but five new people were arriving from the airport that night, so the program was going to take me to the nicest tourist neighborhood in Kathmandu – called Thamel – and put me up in a hotel there for the duration of my last ten days in Nepal.

Despite my waning funds, I was happy to fore go the cockroaches and dal bhaat meals in Kalanki (since, after all, I’ve been living on dal bhaat for three months now) and venture out to make friends, use wifi, and feed myself in Thamel. I realized that my standards have changed when I became outraged with one fruit vendor who tried to sell me seven bananas for 150 rupees (USD $1.74). I haggled him down to 50 rupees (USD $0.58) and still felt ripped off. Oh no, I thought, walking away – how am I going to handle the move to Helsinki next week? The thought of paying 8 Euro (USD $9.83) for a relatively cheap lunch in Helsinki gave me goosebumps.

I’ve been enjoying my time in Thamel. The weather here in Kathmandu Valley is much warmer than up in the Himalayas. Whereas it averaged 50-70 F at Pema Chholing, it’s upwards of 85 F in the humid capital. The non-existent Nepali constitution, which was supposed to have been written and approved back in May by whatever chaotic group of people now constitutes the governing body, never was. So the strikes continue, and continue to thwart the plans of my fellow volunteers who’d like to move around the city. Public transportation doesn’t run during the strikes, and if you’re lucky enough to find a taxi driver who’ll risk it, you’ll pay upwards of 5-10 times the normal fare. Fortunately, since my trip to the Finnish Embassy last Wednesday (I’m now officially a resident of the EU!), I haven’t needed to leave Thamel.

I’ve spent my days here wonderfully... taking my morning cafe au lait (oh, how I’ve missed coffee!) in breezy rooftop cafes high above the hustle and bustle of morning traffic; catching up on work, emails, and research while enjoying the company of fellow travelers (it seems that everyone who comes to Nepal is interesting – after all, people don’t come here from the West for the comforts of a luxurious vacation; it’s neat to explore the different motives that bring others to this beautiful yet impoverished land). I spend the late afternoons and evenings wandering the streets around Thamel, browsing stores full of trinkets I like to inspect but don’t want to buy, trying on hats and saris and traditional shoes because it’s fun to dress up and the vendors have fun with me too, and people watching.

I woke up this morning with a deep, throaty cough and my body racked in pain. I’ve been told it’s a throat infection – something that many people get from the pollution on the streets – and it feels exceptionally strange to be hacking up a lung in the middle of summer. This is the type of cough I’d expect to fight in the dead of winter, or a long, drizzly spring. Not when traipsing around in flip flops and sun dresses.

In Nepal, life in Thamel is the polar opposite of life at Pema Chholing. Yet I’m happy here. After travels in 30 countries, experiencing both the perks of life as a US diplomat and the lows of Nepali outhouses; organic home-cooked meals from Trader Joes and a 3-month pure rice diet, the beautiful ocean views from a ritzy apartment and a $1 per night mattress-on-the-floor hotel....I’m starting to think that there’s nowhere I won’t be happy.

I don’t think it’s completely sunk in that this will be my last week in Nepal, and yet on some level I know it: I’ve been collecting my photo souvenirs – the best kind – they don’t cost anything, won’t be a hassle to stuff in a bag, and won’t incur any additional luggage fees. I’ll post them, print them, gift them, and look at them whenever I need to relive Nepal...

Happy Day!

I wake up bubbling over with joy today. Life is wonderful.

I’m happy to be part of such an amazing community where friends are family.
I’m thankful for the hour I got to spend on the phone with my mom yesterday, the 4th of July, and impressed with the excellent cell reception I get even when calling from the exact opposite side of the globe.
I’m thankful that I was born in a free country that the world envies, a place where people from every corner of the globe dream of living.
I’m looking forward to the walk to Lukla tomorrow and a chance to check my email, check in with my friends.
I’m happy that I’ll be back on the trail for four hours, in the company of my good friends Sapana and Pasang.
I’m so thankful for Sapana’s friendship and the memories we’ve made here at Pema Choling.
I’m excited for her and all the possibilities as she continues her five-month journey to Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lumbini, then to volunteer in Africa and hopefully to visit me in Finland come September.
I’m excited about the the cloth I’ll buy at the tailor’s on the way back from Lukla, and the little drawstring pouches I’ll make for my little monks to keep their marbles, rubber bands, candies, and other treasures.
I’m overjoyed when I remember that I’ve been accepted to a Master’s program, that my Finnish residency permit has been approved, and that – even though it will be so hard to leave my beloved Himalayan home and friends – I’ll start a whole new adventure in just two months.
I smile upon making friends with Dawa, my only Sherpa girl friend, and when she tells me she only completed seventh grade before starting to work, I’m infinitely thankful for the education I’ve received at one of my country’s best universities.
I’m so excited because look at all this free time I have! And how much there is to learn here! Sherpa society; Buddhist history and philosophy; Nepali culture; farming and horticulture; Nepali, Sherpa and Tibetan languages; building and construction; art and sculpture; not to mention a dozen books I hope to finish on my Kindle in the next month.
I’m giddy because I told my mom about Pasang’s incredible artistic talent, his desire to take a break from monastic life after 14 years, his gentle patience with the younger monks and capacity to teach, and my silent wish that I could bring him to America as a master craftsman to share Buddhist art and technique with the West.... I’m giddy because my mom is so passionate about others; she believes in their talents and dreams and has offered to help me help Pasang and is actively looking for schools, universities, art guilds, monasteries, and Buddhist foundations that may sponsor or host him.
I’m joyous because I live on top of the world, and at this moment I wouldn’t trade the breathtaking view from my bedroom for any of the First World comforts.
I’m thankful because I can’t imagine a more blessed life than this.

Luptin, and the Sherpa relationship with food

“Shei, shei, shei!” It’s the national cry of the Sherpani: “Eat, eat, eat!!”

Sapana just returned from her farewell breakfast with Luptin, the bearded monk who hosted us at saano gumba during the festival. She walks into our room and empties her pockets, removing handfuls of chapati – flat, round, thick, and filling Tibetan bread.
“I just couldn’t eat it all!” she cries, “but I didn’t want to waste it.” She packs the chapati into a plastic bag for an afternoon snack and turns to show me the immense feast Luptin prepared her for breakfast: Chapati filled with veggie omelette, served quesadilla style with a yak cheese and red chili sauce, a hard boiled egg, a huge bowl of boiled carrots and bok choi and a glass mug of bottomless black apple tea. It looked genuinely delicious, and once again my heart was melted by the incredible generosity of a people who have nothing, yet give continuously of their very best. Cheese and eggs are such a luxury here! Even vegetables demand a special occasion in order to make an appearance.

During the week we slept at saano gumba, Luptin brought us a thermos of hot water every night before bed. If we seemed awake he insisted we follow him up to his small room above the monastery to sit on the floor together and share mugs of instant vita-drink that tasted like milky oatmeal and a tin of butter cookies. After a half hour spent looking through the Chinese photo book of his Tibetan homeland and the various postcards and photos of Natur Rimpoche and other Buddhist leaders and incarnations, he’d send us back to our rooms laden with fresh tea bags and a box of unopened chocolate covered wafer cookies.

Though 60-year-old Luptin speaks no more than 20 words of English, we communicate effectively through smiles and gestures. I’ve come to learn that silence is not awkward for Nepalis, especially during meal time, as they believe talking while eating is not good for digestion. I enjoy the peaceful quiet of tea times with Luptin and the awareness that it brings out in me as my tongue stops and my other senses become more acute. But I also enjoy the fun challenge of communicating with him. We learn that he is a devoted servant to Zatur Rimpoche (brother of Natur Rimpoche, who is currently residing at saano gumba) because Luptin’s teacher – the one who raised him in the monastery – was the former Zatur Rimpoche. After Zatur’s death, it was Luptin’s responsibility to find the reincarnation of Zatur Rimpoche, and then raise the boy. After the current Zatur Rimpoche was recognized as a reincarnation of a high lama, his two brothers were also recognized as incarnations: Datur Rimpoche and Natur Rimpoche. We’re told that this is very rare for so many siblings to be recognized as incarnations; this is perhaps the only family with three boys in such high positions.

Luptin conveys that Natur Rimpoche has been traveling in Russia, Europe, and America. He cannot accompany, however, because he doesn’t have a passport. Putting together the pieces of his life puzzle, we surmise that Luptin is a Tibetan refugee and without documents; a citizen of no land. I look to his laughing eyes, dancing as always, and I wonder what pain, what stories lie in his past. I understand how the Buddhist teachings of non-attachment and ideal of freeing oneself from desire help the Tibetan people cope with their political and physically impoverished circumstances. Of the many peoples I’ve encountered throughout my travels, the Tibetans and Sherpa are among the poorest in material possessions yet among the richest in spirit. I leave Luptin’s room with my belly full, my mind joyful, my heart humbled, and my spirit renewed. I snuggle into my sleeping bag and smile myself to sleep; I marvel at how sometimes the most meaningful communication takes place in spite of a language barrier. Through the sharing of his food, Luptin reaches out, ministers to us and shares much more.

For Buddhists, “to prepare food for others is equal to preparing food for a shrine. If you feed others, you honor them.”* To feed is to nurture; to satisfy another’s hunger is to show compassion; to promote compassion is to build karma; to acquire good karma is to ensure rebirth into a higher realm of samsara and brings one nearer to enlightenment. During Dumzi, I told an old trekking guide that I was interested in the overlap of Sherpa culture and Buddhist culture. “They are one and the same,” Dorje told me, drawing his two index fingers together as if to illustrate their synonymie. No wonder Sherpa people insist on feeding you till you can’t quite possibly handle another bite. Though filling up on the carb-centric Sherpa diet might not honor your digestive system, it does honor your soul.

Following my three day fast due to food poisoning (or rather, water poisoning resulting from an improperly washed cup), Sapana and I were both lacking in appetite and asked for very small lunch portions as Pasang ladled dal into our bowls. Though we lifted our hands palms up as if to cover our bowls – the polite way to refuse food or drink – and serenaded him with a chorus of “tuche, tuche, tuche” – no thankyou! – he stopped just briefly and then poured in a little more. We gave him a look of joking disdain, as if to say, “Come on, we don’t want to waste it!”
He snickered, “It’s the rule, we have to give twice.” Sherpa protocol demands two scoops of food be put on a plate (I demand two small scoops) and for alcohol or ceremonial drink, the one pouring the drink will not leave until the recipient of the cup first chugs at least half of the full cup, takes a big gulp after is it refilled, and again one more after it is filled a third time. All the while, the Sherpani with the pitcher hovers with one palm under the mug, tipping it steeply to ensure the drinker drinks. I’ve gently but steadfastly refused all alcohol except one cup of chhang (Sherpa millet wine, which I forced myself to drink for the full cultural experience) so as to avoid alcohol poisoning, or even worse, drowning at the hands of an eager and generous Sherpani with a pitcher.
* An excerpt from “I Taste Fire, Earth, Rain: Elements of a Life with a Sherpa” by Caryl Sherpa.

Third World Packing List

Traveling in a developing country is much different from a sightseeing trip to Paris or even a backpacking trip around Europe. Even plans that are “guaranteed” to work will fall through and you’ll learn to depend on no one but yourself.

* Take all the money you’ll need for the entire trip in cash. Hide it carefully and don’t forget your secret safe spots.
* Learn to be your own doctor. Know your body, the ailments you’re most prone to, and the treatments that work best for you. Make sure to check for extenuating circumstances in the regions you’ll be traveling (e.g. high risk of malaria, poisonous plants, heavy pollution).
* Keep in mind your essential needs: Clean water, adequate nutrients, the means to regulate your body temperature, a way to use the toilet, and a way to wash your body. Pack with these in mind, thinking about how you can take care of each in a relatively comfortable and hygienic way, and then replenish your supplies.

In most countries you won’t be able to get your favorite brands, and sometimes you won’t even be able to find a product you want, so think about your essentials and the brand-name items you’d hate to run out of. Bring enough to last you the entire trip. Another rule: if you see it on a shelf in your destination, buy it. Don’t count on it still being there even 10 minutes later.

Essentials upon arrival:

* Enough clean water for 24 hours
* Toilet paper
* Hand sanitizer
* Facial wipe and toothbrush/paste

Invaluable commodities:

* Plastic bags (both Ziploc and grocery bags)
* Rubber bands
* Bobby pins and/or clothes pins
* String (often needed to tie up heavy or odd-shaped converters or plugs that refuse to charge your electronics without alleviating some of the weight and/or adjusting the angle)
* An all-plug converter (make sure you can charge your phone, laptop, and camera in not only your destination, but any country you might happen to fly through on the way)
* Vitamin C and other multi-vitamins
* A versatile warm fleece jacket (waterproof is helpful)
* A “buff” – all in one bandana, head band, beanie, scarf, and my favorite – the “blind chicken” blindfold that allows you to sleep in the sun and the most fluorescent lighting.
* A sleeping bag, or at least a sleeping bag liner. I’ve slept in some pretty questionable beds, and on blankets that I know have never been washed. Almost everyone else I know has been assaulted by bed bugs; I’m certain that sleeping inside of a flannel liner, inside of my sleeping bag, and zipping both up has protected me from the wrath of my beds’ insect residents!

Shortcuts (these make life easier):

* 2-in-1 Shampoo & Conditioner: Invest in a good brand like Pantene. Not only is it convenient for washing hair and body, but doubles as a laundry detergent with built-in softener and leaves even hastily hand washed clothes smelling pleasant. I got some funny looks when I walked away from the clothesline in Labuche with my nose in my hiking socks, but I couldn’t resist – they smelled so good!
* Face and body wipes: I love the Neutrogena acne-preventing pink grapefruit facial wipes. They come 25 in a travel pack and are a perfect, natural and gentle cleanser in a use-anywhere format. Use one to wash first your face and then your upper body. I bring other wipes, medicated with anti-athletes foot, anti-bacterial, ph-balancing wipes for my feet and lower body. These are especially important in regions where bathing once a week is a luxury and you might have only ten minutes with a bucket of warm water or even have to bathe fully clothed in a spicket of glacial water in the public square.


Dumzi Festival – Part IV

It’s 6:00 AM. Sapana and I kick off our shoes and file into the monastery with the monks. As always, I try to inconspicuously refrain from the three prostrations before the Buddha statues which accompany any Buddhist’s entry into a monastery. While the older monks take their seats on the padded wooden benches around the perimeter of the room, Sapana and I take a seat on one of two parallel carpets that have been rolled out in the middle of the room. The younger boys line up and sit down with us, their prayer book in one hand and metal coffee mug in the other. From my seat in the very back of one line, I watch Ngatar, Tendi, Samten, Dawa, Chimi, Lakpa, Karma, and Pasang get situated, untying and unwrapping the cloth holding together their loose leaf prayer books.

We sit in a line, each person directly behind the person in front of them and so close that our knees touch the back of the one in front of us while our backs are up against the knees of the person behind us. Personal space isn’t really a concept here, but that’s okay because having grown up together everyone is a brother and even the two older, middle aged monks are called O’Tom Cho and O’Serpa, the “O” meaning “uncle.” The handwritten festival schedule posted outside the monastery accurately describes us as the “Pema Choling Monk Family at Thulo Gumela.”

It’s so cute how excited the boys are; though they practice puja every morning for an hour and a half, they never get to take part in the big monks’ puja. Their participation in the special Dumzi puja is both a privilege and a rite of passage.

My friend Pasang (the older Pasang – 22 years old) must be in charge of the ceremonial rituals because all morning he’s been arranging and rearranging things on the altar, lighting and spreading incense, swinging the smokey soul purification pot, and filling the silver offering stands – first with sprinkles of rice and then black tea.

I haven’t seen much of him for the past three days. He’s been like a hermit, camping upstairs in the tiny 5′ x 10′ room above the monastery, working tirelessly to create the most intricate of the thorma adornments. I’d go up periodically to check on him, and there he’d be, always sitting in exactly the same spot, in the same position – legs folded Indian-style, bent over an incredible little butter sculpture. Colin and Lakpa would be there too, sometimes accompanied by Dorjee or Kagi. They’d often laugh and joke, but more often worked in silence. Every so often Lakpa would hand his work over to Pasang, who seems to have the final say on the finished work. All of the older monks participate in making thorma, and the craftsmanship is generally good, but Pasang is exceptionally gifted. I’ve made him promise to let me take home his floating Buddha sculpture when Dumzi is finished. Otherwise it would just be disposed of, just as the alter offerings are later eaten by hungry monks and – in the case of the Nyune festival last month – Jenny and I, who were craving chocolate.

Turning my thoughts back to the ceremony taking place before me, I recall the schedule posted outside the monastery. Puja starts every morning at 6:00 or 7:00 AM, going until our 8:00 breakfast. When the chanting stops I file out of the monastery and into the dining hall with the monks. Breakfast is brought to us immediately by a handful of Sherpa women and kitchen hands who deliver steaming dishes of hot food and mugs of tea, juice, or Coke. The monks eat very quickly and I’m always the last one to finish. They walk right back into the monastery and resume puja until lunch at 12 noon. After breakfast I stay seated in the dining hall, watching a steady flow of thermoses full of tea being taken into the monastery and Pasang running in and out to fetch new offerings and carry out others.

The chanting stops again and monks eager to stretch their legs pour out of the curtain that hangs over the monastery entrance. They come in for lunch, a beautiful spread including a mountain of boiled rice, potato and cauliflower and chicken curry, lentil soup, a salad of fresh lettuce, tomato, red and green onion, and a sour yogurt drink to finish the meal and cleanse the palate. Eating quickly, we enjoy an hour break after lunch. Puja resumes at 1:30 PM. “Khaza” – an afternoon snack, also called “second lunch” – is served at 3:00. Yesterday was chow mein; today it’s delicious fried chapati – Tibetan round, thick, flat bread made of rice flour – topped with a potato curry. So good! We’re truly spoiled this week.

Back to puja at 3:30, and by 6:00 it’s finished. Dinner is ready right away: Thukpa! This is a wide, flat traditional Tibetan rice noodle in a clear broth topped with sauteed veggies and dried yak meat. The festival sponsor, Ngawang Dorje, tells me that he had these thukpa noodles specially ordered and made in Kathmandu just for Dumzi. I’m impressed.

After dinner we relax. The monks are exhausted and I am, too. I rejoined puja right after lunch, and five hours of sitting – my legs folded under me, in concentrated meditation and close observation of the sacred rituals unfolding before me – leave me mentally and physically worn out. We drink a thermos of milk tea and then head to our rooms. Our 5:00 AM wake up call will come before we know it!


Dumzi Festival – Part III

Dumzi is the most sacred of all festivals at Pema Choling. Two days are spent simply in preparation: The making of thorma is the primary activity during this time. Puja (chanting) will last four days, and the final two days no one will sleep: Sherpa dancing, a traditional line dance in which both men and women participate, will fill the days. After dinner the atmosphere will be transformed and the wholesome Sherpa dancing will morph into a full on disco party, complete with strobe lights, all types of Nepali, Hindi, and western music (including Shakira, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and various rap artists), and an unlimited supply of chhang – Sherpa wine made from millet. I follow the festival sponsor, Ngawang Dorje, into the store room and watch three women arranging 8 or 9 barrels of chhang, which Ngawang tells me have been in the making for seven months at his lodge down the hill from here in Phakding. I poke my head through the doorway to get a better look at the barrels and the smell of fermenting millet hits my nostrils. So strong is the smell I jerk my head back involuntarily. My whole nose and sinuses feel brutally cleansed and I’m certain my head cold is cured once and for all. “It’ll be a really nice wine,” Ngawang says with a proud smile. After dinner I take him up on his offer to try the chhang; it’s smooth and the taste is alright, but I still don’t like the smell.

Morning. Just thinking of the chhang makes me sniffle, and I pick up my mug for another sip of hot milk tea. It’s only the first morning of puja, and I’m already feeling the need for a break, so after the breakfast break I retreat with my laptop to the dining hall where I can write while staying out of the way but still feel amidst the hustle and bustle of festival excitement. I’m interrupted by a tiny woman with jet black wavy hair pulled back in a braid, dressed in a silky lime green pastel chemise under a royal blue Sherpa dress of the same shiny silky material, embroidered with exotic flowery patterns in a rainbow of red, orange, yellow, and green thread. I love her demeanor; I was watching her yesterday and she’s certainly the most friendly and outgoing of the typically shy Sherpa women who stick to the kitchen, always ready with thermos in hand to pour a steaming cup of tea for anyone who wanders into a 10-foot radius. But this little lady is always laughing and smiling, flashing a gold tooth in her upper left set of molars.

She motions for me to follow her, and we walk through the dining hall, the kitchen, outside, and into the store room, where she shuts the double wooden doors behind us. She places her backpack on a bag of grain and turns to me with a big smile. “Okay, Sherpa dress,” she says, pulling a pile of clothing out of her pack. I hold out my arms and she eases me into a forest green blouse of the same shiny, silky material hers is made of. It boasts an understated iridescent zigzag print in the same forest green color; you wouldn’t even see the zigzags if it weren’t for the light catching the thread. She proceeds to pull a black dress over my head and ties it, then unfolds one of the beautiful Sherpa aprons – the hallmark of the Sherpa costume – and ties it high around my waist. I look down; the apron of brown, tan, camel, purple, white, and silver stripes stands out against the slimming black dress whose hem barely brushes the tops of my ballet slipper shoes. I love it.

I walk back out through the kitchen and into the dining hall, knowing that I’ll be under close inspection for the next few hours. Sherpa people are curious, boisterous, and proud of their culture; I know they’ll be both enthusiastic and tickled pink to see their favorite little white girl in traditional dress. Sure enough, I enter the room to an explosion of joyous catcalls, “Ho! Sila! Sherpini!!” Sherpini is the name for a Sherpa woman: All Sherpa men’s last name is Sherpa, and the women’s last name is Sherpini – although when used colloquially the term “Sherpini” usually refers to a married woman.
“But I’m not married!” I protest. They’re doing their best to change that. Things have been moving beyond the once innocent suggestions that I marry a Sherpa.

In light of yesterday’s conversation in the kitchen, I try not to feel self conscious as two men in particular inspect my new attire from across the room.

You might feel uneasy, too, if you had witnessed this that conversation...
Sapana and I am talking with the festival sponsor; they sit side by side while I stand facing them, my back to the fire. Ngawang sits with one leg crossed over the other and his hands clasped, fingers laced together around his top leg. He leans back comfortably and gazes into the fire while talking, then falls silent. I am absorbed in thought with the stories of his various houses in Nepal and his travels to the US when, after this pause in the conversation, he suddenly lifts his head to meet my gaze and steadily, thoughtfully says, “You know, I’ve been thinking about taking an American wife.”
I chuckle, knowing he’s already married with two kids; he only just finished showing my pictures of them on his iPhone some twenty minutes ago. He just smiles.
“Aren’t you married? What would your wife think of a second wife?” I tease, thinking he’s joking, of course.
“Oh, she has no problem,” he replies, completely serious.
“Wait, is it okay for Buddhists to have more than one wife?” I ask, not knowing why the idea makes me feel a little unsettled if not concerned.
“Yes, it is okay in our culture,” Ngawang says carefully. “This is more common that divorce. Perhaps 5% of Sherpa families include more than one wife, while less than 1% are divorced.” The idea still feels a bit incredulous, this is the first I’ve heard of polygamy in Sherpa culture.

After the arrival of some guests interrupts the cultural discussion and provides me some time for thought, Ngawang takes his seat once again and together with Sapana, the three of us fall back into conversation, this time joined by an older monk in his late 50’s, who also goes by Ngawang. I’d met this Ngawang just the morning before; apparently he’s been here at the monastery the entire time I have, but I had only seen him briefly the first day I arrived because the following day he started a month-long meditation and remained in one room above the monastery, talking to nobody and having contact only with the young monk who brought him his meals.

I’d only become cognizant of his existence a week ago, and then when I walked into the kitchen the first morning of Dumzi, there he was offering me milk coffee – a big treat in a place like this. After accepting a bowl of corn flakes (also a first time treat) from Kagi and allowing Lakpa to douse them in hot milk tea, I paused my wonderment at all these culinary treats and wandered over to meet the new face in a kitchen I now considered familiar domain. I approached Ngawang and used my ever-growing Nepali lexicon to ask his name and where he’s from. After exchanging only a few words, his face lights up and he suddenly says, “I enjoy you. After the festival you will come to my lodge; I own the Kala Patthar Lodge in Phakding. We’ll drink tea, eat some food and talk.”
“Okay,” I replied, returning his smile. What else could I say? It’s not very often a brand new acquaintance demands my presence as a guest in their home. I’m not quite sure what he saw in me, but Ngawang made up his mind about me very quickly. Perhaps first impressions are especially big with him, and I happen to be a morning person...that’s all I can figure.

That conversation ended when Ngawang was called out to attend to some matter with a visitor. He started to walk away and then double-backed, saying, “Okay, I will see you later and we will talk more.” I said goodbye and then picked up my phone, remembering I needed to call my mom during the brief period each day when the time difference between Nepal and Oregon is favorable for both of us. I caught my dad at home and we talked for about 20 minutes; then I started to walk back to the kitchen to refill my mug.
I looked up when I heard a voice in front of me asking, “Everything okay?” and suddenly strong arms were wrapping me up into a big hug. Everything really was okay, and in the midst of me trying to figure out what expression I might have made to make it seem as if something was amiss, it took me a moment to realize that it was my new friend Ngawang enthusiastically hugging me. All I could think was that, after a month of voluntary solitary confinement, he must be so happy to finally see people that he just can’t keep his joy to himself. That’s sweet, I thought, and then assured him everything was perfect before continuing on my way.

Now I was sitting with Ngawang, the enthusiastic hugger, and Ngawang, the festival sponsor, and they were talking about how they’d like to find me a Sherpa dress for the festival. “I’ll have my wife give me one to bring tomorrow,” said the first. “Be careful,” warned the second, “you might look quickly and mistake her for your wife.” That got a lot of laughs and invoked a series of jokes about him taking me as a second wife. I laughed along with them – not really feeling like there was anything else I could do – but had a strange feeling that they weren’t entirely joking.

So now I’m in full Sherpa costume, being paraded around as a one-person fashion show for the amusement of all present. Both Ngawangs are surprised and stop to admire my new look, and I’m not feeling any better about the marriage jokes. I might have shed the dress and ran back up to my room for the rest of the evening if I only knew what was to come...

After lunch Sapana and I sat in the dining room, chatting. A few people got up and Ngawang the meditating monk saw us and scooted down to say hello. Somehow, slyly, the conversation was immediately turned to marriage. Ngawang told us proudly, “You see that old monk over there, spinning the mani? That’s my poppy. He’s 84. And he walked here from the monastery in Ghat!” A two hour walk involving a steep climb of 200 m (about 600 ft). Sapana and I are impressed. “You know, he had seven wives. And my grand-poppy had eighteen.” Our mouths drop. Eighteen wives? The old monk places a hand on my leg. Weird flirting and innuendos ensue. Of all the places in the world, I thought this would be the last I’d ever be subjected to such treatment. But oh, it gets worse.

After dinner Sapana and I, the slow eaters that we are, find ourselves again one of the last few people in the dining hall. The old meditating monk comes by and asks me (for the third or fourth time), “Where do you sleep?”
“At saano gumba,” I tell him, “with the little monks. Remember? Big festival. Many people here. Festival sponsor in my room. No space for me here!” I simplify and exaggerate, convincing myself he’s only asking because he somehow didn’t understand the first three times.
“No, eat dinner now, you’re tired. That hill is too big. It’s late and dark. You stay here, you can stay in my room.” My mouth drops. I look at Sapana. We’re both in shock. Is he really saying this? “My room. I have two beds, two blankets. You stay here. Good for you.” I want to run away. Fast. I laugh nervously and tell him “No way, that’s a horrible thing to say.” And then I escape to the monastery, where big and little monks are hanging out and stuffing goody bags.

I stay away, far away from this old monk and prepare to slap him if he touches me again. I absolutely cannot believe that, as the most senior lama in the monastery, he would dare to speak and act this way, especially in front of the other monks. I employ the monks my age as my body guards and pay them in Hershey’s Kisses I brought from Oregon. When the festival ends this dirty old monk will go home to his lodge in Phakding and won’t bother me. I certainly won’t be visiting his lodge for tea!

Dumzi Festival – Part II

On the stove a dish called dildo bubbles in a wok blackened from what appears to be years of use over an open fire. I saw a menu nailed to a wooden plank in the kitchen yesterday, a hand-written grid neatly printed on a blank sheet of paper, and couldn’t help but laugh when I read that “Dildo with Mixed Curry” was on for lunch today. What in the world could that be? The rest of the dishes on the menu – besides “Macroni with Veg/Cheese Tomato” – are traditional Sherpa, Nepali, or Tibetan dishes, and I haven’t come across anything called dildo yet.

It was Pasang Genzi, assistant to the festival sponsor, who pointed to the corn meal and hot water bubbling in the wok and told me, “See, they’re making dildo. Very good, you should try it.” I watched as first the corn meal was cooked, then tsampa (barley) and millet, all in the same fashion. Then all three were dumped into a huge twenty-gallon pot to become a mixture so thick three cooks had to heave the pot off the fire and onto the floor, where they propped it against a wooden log which they used as leverage to stir the dildo with huge wooden sticks.

Lunch time approaches and I’m chased up to the dining hall to take the meal in a long room with wooden benches and long narrow tables lining either side. The thick brown paste that they call dildo is plopped into a copper dish and served with a bowl of chicken potato curry on the side. No utensils included. That’s pretty typical for Nepal – everyone eats with their right hand only. But usually the other volunteers and I are given utensils automatically, and I’d even say most of the monks use utensils most of the time. But apparently this dish is hands-only, so I have to seek out a spoon for myself. When I return and start sipping some of the curry soup off my spoon, I look up to see everyone staring at me and laughing – not insultingly, just amused. I seem to constantly be a great source of amusement for pretty much everyone here. The monks demonstratively roll their dildo paste into marble-sized balls and then dip them into the curry before popping them in their mouths. Colin jokingly threatens to throw one at me. It goes against every lesson in table etiquette my mother ever taught me. What happened to “No playing with your food?” Sherpa kids don’t learn that lesson.

Even though I know the dildo dish contains barley and therefore gluten, I’m curious enough to taste it that I risk a stomach ache. One bite is enough though; I find it bland and too rich all at the same time, and after three years of carefully avoiding gluten, the taste of grain is foreign in my mouth. I opt to stick to my bowl of curry soup instead, which is truthfully wonderful. I think the festival cooks are a bit less fond of chili and masala (spices), so for once I can actually taste my food.

I wander a bit after lunch, touring the grounds to check progress in our monastery-turned-thorma-making-factory. But eventually I find myself back in the kitchen, eager for a warm place to sit and read and subconsciously hoping for a hot cup of milk tea. I’m pleasantly surprised to find a huge pot of boiled potatoes on the floor and a group of happy Sherpas sitting around it in a sort of peeling party. Laughter bounces off the walls, the fire pops, and the smell of twisted rice-flour kapsi cookies boiling in soybean oil fills my nostrils as I’m welcomed into the room.
“Can I help?” I ask with a smile, pointing to the pot of potatoes.
“Sure, sit down,” Purbu replies. I’d crouched next to him in the yard of the other monastery a few weeks ago during the Nyune festival, slowly pressing a huge pile of barley-butter-water paste into hundreds of teardrop-shaped thorma the size of my fist. He and the others surrounding the tarp – all men between the ages of 16 and 40 and all trekking guides – laughed and joked as I very slowly and painfully produced my first thorma. No matter how long I massaged the paste, gently shaping and smoothing the surface, it would crumble the moment I pulled one hand away.
“No, like this,” said Purbu, as he forcefully smashed a handful of crumbs into a very dense, compact ball. He kneaded the dough for a good two minutes, then handed me a perfect sphere. Having three fourths of the work done for me, I quickly and easily shaped the ball into a beautiful teardrop, pinching the top with thumb and forefinger to emphasize the cone shape. I was really proud of myself, and so was everyone else. Purba and I continued in this manner – he doing the heavy lifting, me taking the credit for a perfectly compacted thorma – for at least two more hours, until the tarp was empty and we were surrounded by hundreds of teardrops on baking sheets. Remembering our teamwork and his kindness, I’m touched that Purba offers me a potato and a seat next to him.

With five people peeling, the twenty gallon pot of potatoes empties quickly. I reach in to pull another out while maintaining eye contact during my conversation Purba and am startled to find, when I finally look down, that I’m holding an egg. “Ewww! Uh oh! It’s an egg!” I cry. Everyone laughs. I look down into the pot. I count four other eggs camouflaged among the potatoes. For some reason I’m startled and confused; I don’t understand why you would ever boil eggs and potatoes together. In fact, I’m slightly concerned that the chicken poop on the eggshell contaminates the potatoes. But I peel the egg anyways and move on to the next potato.


Dumzi Festival – Part I

I take a seat on one of the wooden benches halfway up the three-tiered stadium-style seating in the auditorium outside of the monastery, watching as monks of all ages scurry around in preparation for the six-day festival which starts tomorrow. This is the largest Buddhist festival of the year in the region and takes place at exactly the same time every June-July. I try to envision 1,800 people crowding into the auditorium outside the 500-year-old monastery. Built in the 16th century by one of three brothers who all founded monasteries in the region, Pema Choling should be a World Heritage Site. The paint of ornate designs adorning every inch of wall, ceiling, and wooden supporting post is very thick, maybe a quarter-inch thick in many places. I wonder if this is because of the clumpy nature of butter-oil paint they use here, or if it’s simply the result of many – perhaps more than a hundred – layers of paint used to put a fresh face on the monastery from time to time.

A steady, deliberate and lyrical recital of the universal Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum wafts out of a pair of loudspeakers mounted on either side of the monastery doorway. Buddhist rosaries consist of 108 prayer beads and the devout will make their way round an entire rosary morning and night, pushing aside one bead for each recitation of “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The mantra has become a familiar and comforting sound; it’s especially beautiful when put to music.

Someone opens the door at the far end of the auditorium and I’m suddenly sitting in a wind tunnel; a high mountain breeze ruffles the curly wisps of hair threatening to fall out of my braid. The damp room becomes unbearably cold for me and I pick up, meandering into the kitchen to take refuge in front of the fire. Namchok, the cook, is crouched in front of the fire, blowing repeatedly, functioning as a human bellows. He stands up to split a long log into three pieces with a khukuri – a long, curved Nepali knife. Steadying the log with his foot which is covered only with cracking black plastic sandals, I wonder how the Sherpas seem to avoid injury when they fail to practice what a westerner would consider the most basic and mandatory safety precautions.

I like the kitchen. In the perpetual drizzle during this monsoon season everything is damp, including all of my clothes folded neatly in my room, and I seem to have caught the “Khumbu cough.” I come here to warm my outsides as I stand in front of the fire, my clothes drying against my body and melting the goosebumps underneath, while I warm my insides with a steaming mug of black tea.

Today five additional cooks have arrived and installed themselves in the kitchen to help feed the monastery population which quadruples during festival weeks. It’s a warm and lively place, but the normal kitchen crowd – both older and younger monks – is conspicuously absent. I wonder if, for once, they’re too busy to lounge around with almost nothing to do, or if they were warned not to clutter the kitchen at such a high-volume time. I’m happy and relieved that no one’s asked me to leave.

In a society which seems so highly stratified, my status remains fluid, somewhat of a mystery, and an invisible all-access pass seems to hang about my neck. I often marvel at my ability to go anywhere and do practically anything I please, despite being an outsider and despite being a woman. I’m treated with respect everywhere: I’m ushered in to eat with the monks – something I only recently realized is quite unusual and a privilege; I move between buildings and groups of people, observing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it – even taking photos; and I’m politely offered a steaming cup of tea wherever I go. Nothing seems to be off limits for me. Of course I’m always conscientious, respectfully curious, and lend an interested ear whenever a Sherpa wants to speak, and I think this goes a long way. I’ve learned enough Nepali-Sherpa to hold only a basic conversation, but even such limited ability has earned me quite a few instant friends.

Though initially I attracted a lot of attention, it’s been nice to fade into the background as the people get used to the little blonde white girl hanging around. I wander from balcony to auditorium to upper kitchen to lower kitchen, to upper monastery to lower monastery, making the rounds and exploring the many exotic new activities to be observed.

While I sit in the kitchen typing away, no less than five curious Sherpas sidle up to sit down next to me and inspect my laptop. Some can read elementary English and think I am a journalist. One of these is Pasang Genzi, assistant to his uncle, the festival sponsor, and a sort of fix-everything guy. Eight-year-old Ula comes up and becomes a permanent fixture at my side. Despite his learning disabilities, he recognizes my cursor as the letter “I” saying, “this I.”
“Good job, Ula! The letter ‘I’!” I applaud him. “Ke chha?” I ask – “How are you?”
The Sherpa man sitting at my other side tells me that Ula doesn’t understand normal language, “but if you give him a mobile he’ll dance every time.” Sherpas keep their music collection (usually limited to a handful of songs) on cell phones – no iPods and no laptops. I turn on some music for Ula, failing to find any suitable “disco” music – as they call dance music – among my Coldplay collections. After a few minutes Namchok chases the boys out of the kitchen. So apparently a no-kids-in-the-kitchen-during-festival rule has been enacted.

It’s only 10:30 am, but two big pots of potatoes are boiling on the stove in an incredible amount of curry. I’m sometimes rather indifferent to the food here, but often enjoy it when I can taste it. I think they drown everything in chili and curry sauce to escape the blandness of their almost exclusively rice diet. There’s something called Sherpa chili – which 12-year-old Pasang Tendi delighted in making us try our first day – a green plant with lots of stems and little pea-sized pods at the ends which look and feel like small capers. I couldn’t tell you how it tastes, however, because upon biting into one of these pods a numb feeling quickly crawls up your tongue, into your gums and lips. Those nasty little Sherpa chilis leave you tingly and unable to taste anything for a good twenty minutes. Sherpa people especially like to eat them with dal bhat and other dishes in the form of aachar – pickled. I find even the smell of this homemade death pickle especially repulsive and can’t figure out their appeal. They may call me “Shirah Sherpa” for the way I conquer a rocky mountainside, but this is where I draw the line...they won’t ever catch me snacking on Sherpa chili.

Luckily, I don’t think the Sherpa chilis will make much of an appearance this week; there is so much delicious food during the festival! Everything we eat at the monastery, both on a regular basis and during festivals, is brought as a donation from community members. Over the past two days of preparation, and even in the few days leading up to these, loads of vegetables, grains, eggs, cookies, and everything else imaginable has come trickling in on the backs of men and women who’ve come to visit, participate, or work during the festival. A stocky Sherpa woman walks in, a red plastic bucket filled with cauliflower and lettuce in hand – both certainly home grown in her own garden. The woman wears a flowered short-sleeve blouse under a traditional Sherpa dress in maroon, and has a beautiful matching apron of horizontal stripes in brilliant colors tied around her waste. This is an indispensable part of the Sherpa woman’s costume. On her head, a red bandana and on her feet, black socks inside of red leather sandals. She has a gold loop earring in both ears and a bracelet of clear diamond-shaped glass beads around her right hand. She takes a seat on the bench a few feet down from me, visibly tired from her foot journey. It’s often hard to tell the age of Sherpa women because they tend to be very small-boned, shy, and develop slowly through their teens; but once they reach child-bearing age they work hard and age quickly. This woman’s eyes are dark brown hazel and almond shaped – typical Tibetan features. She has a cute button nose protruding from her otherwise flat face, and a wide smile as one of the cooks hands her a cup of juice. Every traveler receives a cup of orange powder-mix Tang juice and then as much milk tea as they can drink. Though the Sherpa people have little, they are generous and share everything; Buddhist philosophy teaches them that there is no real happiness in this life, but by being generous and kind they may foster good karma that will facilitate their rebirth. Therefore they gladly give of their earthly possessions and labor for the lives they believe are ahead for them.

Donating to and serving at festivals like Dumzi is part of building good karma. The monks are not expected to pray for nothing; villagers pay the monks to pray for good weather, good harvest, good luck, and protection from evil spirits. Dumzi is the most important of annual festivals. For four days the monks will chant, praying to push away the bad spirits, demons, and wrathful gods. The fifth day is filled with dancing; the “lama dance” is a representation of the gods and a reenactment of their interactions. On the final day of Dumzi, a new set of prayers will welcome everything good to this region and the Sherpas’ lives. The mountains are blessed, the sky, the earth, the rain, the rivers, etc. Today is only Day 1.



Buddhism 101

I was able to start asking my first round of questions on Buddhism yesterday when a conversation with the festival sponsor and former monk of 19 years, Ngawang Dorje, turned into a veritable lesson on the basics of Buddhist philosophy. He’s the first one I’ve met who speaks English well enough to explain any of it. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Everyone is trapped in samsara, cycling through birth and rebirth in this world of suffering. There are six realms in samsara, represented by the universal mantra Om Ma Ni Ped Me Hum. Humanity is a being’s highest attainment in samsara because only humans are capable of saving themselves from this cycle by entering nirvana through enlightenment – achieved only through Buddhist practice and mediation. However humans are vulnerable to four major sufferings: hunger, sickness, dying, and death. Below humans, in the second realm, are gods, who may not attain enlightenment and who do not suffer until death. However their death is a great suffering. Ngawang Dorje describes these gods feeling and smelling their bodies rotting and they are given no comfort from other gods they may have called friends – the gods’ relationships are very shallow and based on looks. The third realm is that of the semi-gods. Their major suffering is that they are constantly fighting with the gods but, as demi-gods, they can’t compete on the same ground. Despite some inevitable sufferings, these first three realms are considered relatively favorable.

The fourth realm of samsara contains all animals. They suffer because they cannot speak, and because they eat each other. In the fifth realm are insects. The exact description of their suffering is not clear to me yet, although I think is has to do with being considered undesirable and everyone else killing them all the time. Finally, the sixth realm is called the realm of pechri – “hungry ghosts.” They suffer greatly because though they have large bodies, their necks are no bigger than a single strand of hair and thus they may never eat or drink.

Outside of samsara there exists a heaven, in which reside many Buddhas, “thousands of Buddhas,” as Ngawang Dorje explains, and other enlightened beings. There are also some enlightened gods (however I haven’t been able to ask yet how they got there, if gods in samsara cannot attain enlightenment directly from the god-realm). Tibetan Buddhists pray not only to the Buddhas and enlightened gods, but to some unenlightened gods which reside in samsara, as well. One of my questions, then, was why – if human beings are higher than samsara gods – would we pray to them? The answer provided is that, though they reside in a lower realm, they are still able to help us and to protect us. Ngawang Dorje explains that there are both personal deities, “I can have my own deities; you can have your own deities,” and also general, widely recognized deities.

These universal deities are the ones recognized and honored in festivals like this one, Dumzi, during which several days are spent preparing thorma – intricately painted and decorated sculpture representations of the gods made from barley, rye, millet, corn, or rice flour mixed with giu (butter) and tato pani (hot water). Some of the thorma are beautiful, and some are rather grotesque. For example, a guided tour last night of the day’s production revealed that the armless, vaguely human-shaped thorma with a stick protruding upward and diagonally out of their side and topped with a red globule are actually representative of the gods’ hearts extracted and apparently speared. The white and light-colored grain thorma are peaceful gods, while those painted red are wrathful gods. Some are white with red hearts atop their stick. I concluded that these are otherwise peaceful gods with wrathful hearts. The dark-colored thorma which the little monks fashioned into something resembling a starfish or man in flight with all limbs spread are actually the hungry ghosts.

Additionally, I’ve learned that there are two types of meditation: First is bipashana, which is a non-religious meditation and “will keep you happy all the time,” says Ngawang Dorje. I question him on this because he just finished saying there’s no real happiness in this life for anyone. He confirms that even the happiness coming from bipashana is, in the end, not a lasting or true happiness because after all there is no real happiness in samsara. There is also Buddhist meditation, which includes the contemplation of the Lord Buddha’s teachings.

A key point of Buddhism is the acquisition of karma: Good, compassionate acts earn the believer good karma, and mean-spirited acts are either a debit to one’s bank account of good karma, or they pile up as bad karma in a separate account only to come back to haunt you later. I think of the idea of karma as a faith-injected version of the English saying “What goes around, comes around.” Accumulating good karma is important for Buddhists because it helps ensure that when they die they’ll be reborn as a human again – hopefully into even better circumstances than the current – and not as an insect, or worse.

All of this information takes a while to process. After having lived in the monastery for a month already, this explains so much. A 30 minute discussion has illuminated more of the Buddhist faith for me than a 12-week world religion course I took in college.

While I simply listen and don’t give voice to any of my reactions during our conversation, I draw some conclusions. Underlying the theory of karma and rebirth is an inherent assumption that we’ve come into this life on earth having earned it. I see that a belief in karma as an eternal record of one’s actions helps keep order in Sherpa society and motivates people to do good while dissuading them from bad, but if one’s good works are the only thing that count when it comes to reaching heaven, then there is little room for mistakes. If I were a non-committed agnostic, looking for a religion to follow, Buddhism wouldn’t be my first choice. No true happiness in this life? Everything depends on my good works? I prefer the Christian god who freely gives grace, eternal life, and real happiness. I’ve learned a lot about the Buddhist way of life during my time here, and I’ve come to understand that there are two types of adherents: on one hand the devout believer who embraces all of Buddhist tradition with it’s fantastic stories of deities and demons, on the other hand the conscientious practicer of Buddhist philosophy who attempts to approach everything in moderation, who practices nonviolence, generosity and compassion. There are lessons I have learned here which I will certainly take with me as I move on from Pema Choling, but my faith in my own God has not diminished and as far as I am a student of Buddhist philosophy, I fall into the latter of those two aforementioned categories.


Nepali Birthdays

Today, July 6th, is His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama’s birthday. Apparently it will be celebrated here; I’m eager to find out how. My curiosity is piqued because though the names of all Sherpa people reflect the day of the week they were born on, they don’t celebrate annual birthdays.

Sitting around the kitchen fire last night after dinner, I asked the older monks when were their birthdays. They couldn’t even tell me the month and date! They only know the year and the day of the week. I’m the same age as most of the older monks and learn that I was born in the Tibetan year of the Dragon, “Duk.”

“No Happy Birthday,” said Kagi, the joker of the group. “No money, no birthday.” I can understand that, but convinced them that even a milk tea party would suffice. In simpler words, I tell them it’s not so much about the material celebration, but the togetherness and appreciation of a person’s life!

“Okay, tato pani party,” agrees Kagi. Now the running joke is that we’ll celebrate birthdays while drinking a mug of hot water. These guys are priceless.

A recent dream resurfaces in my mind and I smile at how fun it would be to take the six older guys – Dorjee, Kagi, Pasang Temba, Colin, Lakpa and Pasang Nuru – to a big city like Chicago, or to the beach in Los Angeles, and watch them explore. If I win the lottery, this will be one of the first things I do! And I’ll throw each of them a birthday party just to watch them blow out the candles and probably overdose on sugar with huge helpings of their first birthday cakes.