That’s how Jenny first described the monastery to me when we arrived at Pema Choling last week. And I must say, she did not exaggerate. The funniest part is that the randomness of this place actually inspires pretty random thoughts on my own part. I find myself contemplating things I’d never think of anywhere else.
After flying into Lukla at 7 AM, we walked all the way to Pema Choling, stopping for lunch in the village of Ghat, and finally arriving here at 4 PM. We were ushered into a long dark, cool room lined with built-in wooden benches along the walls and were seated at an end table. Then it seemed that we were basically ignored for a good twenty to thirty minutes, while three older monks worked with clay and paints and a nun stood by with four large thermoses of milk tea, refilling the monks’ mugs after almost every sip. “If they’re drinking out of a cup that never gets empty, how would they ever know how much they drank?” I thought. After a few minutes I decided it didn’t really matter. They live three fourths of the way up a giant mountain. I’m sure no matter how much milk tea they drink, they’ll burn it off by dinner.
The smallest thermos (2 liters) was light pink with a Hello Kitty design on it. Random.
This was my first hint that perhaps the monks don’t take themselves as seriously as I expected they would.
All the while I was growing colder and colder as a breeze swept through the open doorway of the long room and turned the sweat on my back ice cold. I wondered why the old monks sat there chatting among themselves and drinking heaps of hot tea, not offering any to us or even acknowledging our existence. Finally someone brought us mugs and filled them with a cold orange juice drink that tasted like a powdered Gatorade mix.
That was my first lesson. Just because I don’t perceive an activity or intention doesn’t mean it’s not being done or intended. Though they seemed to be absorbed in their work and conversation, the monks were considerate to note that we were hot and tired from trekking and – seeing as they were drinking only hot tea – ask that a cold drink be mixed up for us. I didn’t understand anything substantial of their conversation in Sherpa, but as we were led to our rooms, through the kitchen and out the door at the end of the hall opposite the one we entered, I imagined that what the Lopon (teacher) said to me meant, “You have much to learn, young grasshopper.”
Later, the monk who served us the orange juice introduced himself as Lopon La Nawang Ladop, the head teacher of the school. Lopon La is the title given to those who have a Ph.D. Nawang (which we call him for short) is a title which means “monk” and precedes every monk’s name. And Ladop is the name given him by his teacher. Nawang is a very learned man in many senses of the word. He serves as both a mother and father figure for his students (aged 7 to 12) who have left their families to come live here. I looked through the book from his university in India – a sort of admissions guide and course catalog – and noted that his 14 years of study there included courses in Philosophy, Literature, Metaphysics, Logic, Tantric Studies (one type of Buddhist scripture), Ritual Prayers, Meditation Practices, and English. But despite this attempt at a well-rounded education, I don’t think Nawang has ever taken a course in Geography or perhaps even set eyes on a world map. For during one of our first conversations he asked, “You’re from America, right? And is America part of Europe?” I graciously explained that the U.S. is on a separate continent but thought to myself: Hmmm...il y a quelque chose qui cloche. Random.
The morning before our first day of class Jenny, the volunteer who’s been here for six weeks, told me that when we’re ready to start, we just need to hit the old oxygen tank hanging from the corner roof of the classroom and all the boys will come running. I inquired about the oxygen tank, and she told me that it’s one of Sir Edmund Hillary’s – one that he left here while visiting Pema Choling on his way up to summit Mount Everest in 1950 (He was the first ever to reach the summit). It’s really cool to have this souvenir, I thought, but why was it empty already here at 10,000 feet? I was bounding around yesterday during a little morning trail run no less than 18 hours after I arrived here – my first time ever at such high altitude – and I’ve been diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, something which should make it harder for me than most people to breath thinner air. An experienced mountaineer using oxygen at this altitude? I’m sure there’s a good reason, but again – Random!
This morning during chanting one of the boys, Pasang, was asked to light a stick of incense. He bustled around lighting candles and such and then pulled a long stick of incense out of a red Pringles can that must have been exactly the right height for keeping incense. I smiled and tried to keep from giggling as the monks went about their somewhat solemn rituals, all the while pulling their sacred materials out of a container which formerly housed American junk food. Random.
I’m sure this won’t be the end of the randomness; every day I wake up and something new is happening which I could never preconceive. I usually don’t really understand or even know what’s going on until after the fact. But it makes every day fun and exciting. And just a little bit random.