Monday, July 18, 2011
At seven in the morning, I climbed to the roof to find the white specters of mountains beyond the dark hills. I was comforted to know they were still there, watching over me as they had before, and would continue to do so, so long as I returned to Nepal. I shared this excitement with Tsering, who was making a breakfast of Tibetan bread and papaya, and milky tea for the sleeping guesthouse. We shared a thoughtful smile and he added with a gleam in his eye, "They calm the mind."
With a calmed mind, I headed out to Shree Mangal Dvip to meet with one of the school's devoted teachers, Milan, who has become my friend over the past year. He wanted to take me to the slums of Boudha— just past the main road where there are tents of tarp, cardboard and scraps of metal, that many call home. Milan spends his free time teaching the children of the slums Nepali and English, in a tent with a dry-erase board and two benches for tables.
I arrived early, and decided to sit on the inside steps of the school, where I was greeted by scores of little smiles. A giggly little body came running toward me, and I held out my arms for the embrace.
"What's your name?"
"How old are you, Lhakpa?"
"Five? Oh you're so big!"
"One hundred thou— no, twooo hundred thousand!"
"My goodness! You're really big!"
Lhakpa slapped his tiny hand in mine and showed me a piece of a plastic tube he had found, that was a telescope. He studied me through the ring, with a wide, satisfied grin of pearly baby teeth. Suddenly, with a far-off look, he murmured with great seriousness, "We need the rain."
I held him tightly in my arms and thought about the rain, the rain that can turn from gentility into a beast if it so wishes, snaking down from rumbling grey massifs. Yes, we need the rain.
It was 7:30. I peeked my head out of the gate to see if Milan had arrived, and there he was, smiling as usual. I turned to say goodbye to Lhakpa, but he had run off to discover new worlds with his telescope. We headed toward the Stupa gate, chatting about the mountains.
I was lead down a path paved with litter and green-tinged mud toward a patchwork of tents of all materials. Eyes, cautious at first then warm, watched me as I moved through their neighbourhood. I tried in vain to fade into the background— I didn't want to be thought of as the gawking foreigner— but my self-consciousness was eased as my nervous smile was met with welcoming ones.
On our way to the make-shift classroom, we crossed paths with a familiar beautiful face, a different Lhakpa, one of the older students from SMD. Today was her day off, and she was headed into the slum to teach the resident children some English and Nepali as well. When the three of us reached the classroom tent, little smiling faces popped up from around every corner. Suddenly we were surrounded, the excitement electric, and there were displays of somersaults and cartwheels, games of pattycake and shouts of A! B! and C! A man with intense, but kind eyes graciously offered me tea—and I politely declined.
“Please, you must try a cup of real Rajasthani tea. You came to our slum, it’s the least we can offer.”
“How can I say no to that?” I smiled.
Amid the giggles and play, Lhakpa quietly confessed, “I feel lucky.”
I nodded. I felt an aching inside.
The tea smelled faintly of licorice and spices, and was served in floral porcelain— my fingers burned as I raised the cup to my lips. It was sweet and earthy, as delicate as its vessel. A little girl in wild pigtails proudly showed me the intricate mehndi design drawn on her palm, while a tiny boy folded his hand into mine. Class was not to be taught today— the resident teacher had some business to attend to. When our cups were empty, Milan, Lhakpa and I said our goodbyes.We weaved back through the mud and the tents, past curious eyes and smiles, and parted ways—Lhakpa went off to run errands, and Milan invited me over for tea.
Within minutes, we were caught in the current of the Stupa's devout circumambulators and the constant, melodic flow of the om mani padme hum from a CD player in one of the surrounding gift shops. I felt a million miles away, out the other end of a dream, though I had only crossed a few streets. As we took a shortcut toward Milan’s home, he pointed to a lovely, stoic gompa and asked if I would like to visit the school’s monastery. Naturally, I said yes. I had never been there before.
We entered a cool, peaceful courtyard that vibrated with heavy, low voices in chant, a solemn drum and the occasional explosive horn. As we headed toward the gompa's main office, we passed the dark room unable to contain all the music that was stirring inside it. My eyes met with others that were expressionless, lips moved softly. I saw red, I saw gold, I saw orange.
"Please, sit, sit!" beckoned the young monk behind the desk. He had a beautiful face.
"Tashi delek." I smiled, and bowed my head. A little boy of an age I could not guess— a monk— was earnestly studying his Tibetan in the light of the window.
"Is he one of ours?" I asked Milan.
"No, not yet."
Another monk entered, and began to fiddle with some tea cups on the shelf behind the door. The pretty blue and white cup placed in front of me was soon filled to the brim with a pale, ochre-coloured liquid that had a familiar sheen on its surface. Butter tea. I had my first taste of Tibetan butter tea last summer, and had fallen in love with its silky, yellowed saltiness. As a child, I had read about butter tea, most likely in one of my mother's National Geographics, and would often imagine sipping the hot brew atop Everest as Tenzing Norgay or Hillary.
The warm butter soothed my sun-chapped lips. When my tea reached the half-way mark, it was quickly and generously refilled. As I listened to the gentle tones of Milan and the monk's voices rising and falling in Nepali, I watched the little boy studying by the window, the light kissing his shaved head. This child had different path carved out for him from the children I had met earlier in the slums— a path different from little Lhakpa's as well. I wondered about their adolescence, their adulthood.
"Let's go see if our monks are studying for their exams." Milan laughed, drawing me out of my thoughts. Next week was exam week at SMD, and he thought it would be fun to surprise the young monks who studied at the school, catching them mid-cram. The monk lead us upstairs to the study room, where young faces lit up upon seeing Milan. As Milan kicked off his shoes and entered the room to chat with his students, I remained in the cool stairway with the monk. I learned he was from Bhutan, and that his father painted dragons. I showed him my sketchbook. After a while, Milan reemerged, and we thanked the monk for his hospitality. He had a firm handshake and a warm smile.
After weaving through a maze of tiny streets dotted with shops and apartment buildings from which fluttered both prayer flags and laundry, we arrived at Milan's. It was cool and dark inside the building, a relief from the blistering sun. We needed the rain.
"Just one cup of tea, then I will take you back to the school." He motioned to a little chair by the window.
I sat down with a smile and a Nepali wobble of my head that I had picked up from the students. The tea was from Darjeeling, Milan explained, his homeland. I watched him from my chair, as he poured milk into a pot and turned on the burner. I had been to Rajasthan, Tibet, and now I would go to Darjeeling. The room began to smell of leaves.