The monastery is incredible. I wake up to the sound of the monk chanting in the room above mine and splash my face with water on the way to the kitchen to start the day with a cup of hot milk tea.
Lopon La Nawang Ladop came to Pema Choling a year ago and started the monastic school. There are now 20 boys between the ages of 7 and 12. They say even the smallest one, Pemba, is seven years old, but I’m certain that he’s closer to 5. In the Sherpa community boys (I don’t know about girls) are named after the day of the week on which they were born. The up side of this is that you really only have to learn about seven names in this new language, but the down side is trying to keep track of who is who. Among the 20 boys, five are named Pasang (Friday), two are named Pemba (Saturday), and at least one is named Dawa (Tuesday — you read about the Dawa mix up in my last post). Some of them, like Chimi, Toshi, Kogi, and Pemerin are not from Sherpa families and so have other Nepali names.
The young monks have a total of four hours of class per day. From 6:30-8 AM they practice chanting. A big gong rings out and the boys come running from their rooms, red shawls thrown over a shoulder and prayer books in hand. They kick off their shoes hastily and rush through the curtain that is the doorway to the monastery, leaving a pile of forty identical black sandals outside. After bowing before the giant Buddha in his glass museum-style encasement (surely erected to keep out the dust), they file onto low cushy benches lining the interior walls of the room. Each boy has a prayer book consisting of long 4″ x 10″ sheets of loose leaf paper filled with Tibetan script. The older ones have the entire thing more or less memorized and help the younger ones, some of whom are still learning to read. Nawang leads the chant in his low voice, and I smile as the younger boys enthusiastically pipe in with their higher pitched sing-song voices, mimicking Nawang’s every intonation. This morning, out of curiosity, Joanna, Nate and I asked to join them, and a long carpet was rolled out for us to sit on cross-legged in the middle of the room. I really enjoyed sitting there with the crisp morning mountain air ruffling the curtain behind me, studying the statues, prayer flags and ornate decor in the monastery, and watching the sun come up over snow-capped peaks while sipping a bottomless mug of milk tea, surrounded by a chorus of happy, chanting little boys.
After about an hour the curtain was pulled back and I heard 10-year-old Pasang call “Net! Sita! Sapana! Breakfast!”
“We’re being summoned,” Nate said, as I remembered to listen for my Nepali name – Sita – which means “queen”. There is no “SH” sound in the Nepali language, so it’s practically impossible for most of them to pronounce my name correctly. Some of the other volunteers were having this problem, too. So my language teacher back in Kathmandu gave us all Nepali names.
Breakfast was a huge pot (I’m talking 10 gallons) of instant noodles – a sort of Top Ramen Curry Chicken Flavor. So I had chicken broth and milk tea; it certainly wasn’t gluten free but I’m lucky not to have had too bad a reaction to the wheat. I think my stomach is so busy trying to figure out the spice situation – i.e. why it’s being saturated with curry and such three times a day – that it has better things to worry about than a little gluten contamination.
After breakfast the boys have one hour of class, then an hour break, then one more hour of class before lunch. Meanwhile, the other volunteers and I have mornings off while Nawang teaches. Besides memorizing scripture, the boys learn the Buddhist teachings about morality and how to read and write in the Tibetan language. Outside of the classroom they speak a mixture of Sherpa and Nepali, but classes are given in Tibetan, which is, naturally, the lingua franca
of Tibetan Buddhism. Nawang has a Ph.D. in Philosophy (a 12-year degree) from one of the top monastic universities in India and speaks at least seven languages himself: Nepali, Sherpa, Tibetan, Bhutanese, Hindi, and two different types of what he called Sikhanese – the latter being spoken in a few regions of India.
Lunch is at 12, and then at 1 PM we ring the bell to start English class. We teach Monday – Thursday from 1-2, except for Tuesday, which is “Rubbish Day.” This means that the after-lunch class is only one half hour, and the second half hour is spent picking up any bits of litter around the grounds while reciting a chant that starts with “Rubbish is bad...” So basically my obligations at the monastery total 3.5 hours per week. The rest is vacation time in the most breathtaking place on earth. Not a bad deal.
It’s not a bad deal for the kids, either, because since we live here we hang out with them between their classes and get to “teach” them English in fun ways, just through joking, talking, and playing. Some of them pick it up like little sponges and they’re all really eager to learn. Since today was a Tuesday our first class was only a half hour. Joanna (Sapana) and I taught the lower-level group together, which was 14 boys. After introductions we reviewed numbers and then learned some new words and sentences revolving around farm animals – things like “The horse eats hay. The cow eats grass. The sheep eats grass.” Then we got to dogs. Joanna and I looked at each other and wondered, what do dogs eat here? So we asked the kids in Nepali... Baloo ke khanne? (That one week of Nepali language class continues to pay dividends!)
We started cracking up when the kids responded, Baloo daal bhaat khanne! Baloo (the monastery dog) eats daal bhaat! Daal bhaat seems to be Nepal’s national dish – rice with lentils – some form of which you will eat at every meal. Whereas in America we feed our dogs dog food, the dogs here just get left overs from the kitchen, which is, inevitably, daal bhaat. So the boys were correct – in Nepal dogs eat daal bhaat. We ended our first English lesson with the sentence, “The dog eats rice.” A little unorthodox, but I guess you have to allow for cultural adaptation.
We’re treated like kings and queens by the little monks. We’re always the first to be served at meal time, and the servings are enormous. They scurry to clean up afterwards, collecting our dishes and washing them before we can even move to do it ourselves. Since the cook left five days ago with several of the other monks who went to Namche and then to Lukla for two different festivals, the boys have taken over the kitchen. They cook like pros – everything from Sherpa stew to steamed rice, fried rice, noodle soup, daal bhaat, timos (boiled dough rolls), tea...and that about exhausts the culinary repertoire of the region, I think. While we were leaving the dining room tonight Nate said, “Being here is like staying at a hotel run by little kids.” I couldn’t have said it better!
Tiktik, one of the four monastery dogs, is sleeping under my bed now. The alpha male, Baloo (which means bear – like Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book) accompanied us today all the way down the mountain to a little farming village during our afternoon hike. He seems to know that we belong here now. And I do, too. It feels homey here. I love the boys, the community, the peace and quiet, and this feeling of being at the very top of the world. It’s been a day and a half now, but I still find myself in awe every time I look up and out at the towering Himalayan peaks surrounding us and the enormous valley below.