Wednesday, July 27, 2011

foggy-headed and gummi-legged

I just returned from Lumbini yesterday evening, and after the eight or nine hour bumpy, twisty, beautiful microbus ride, I'm still foggy-headed and gummi-legged. I had a great time in Lumbini, and though it was only a few days, it felt like a week. I'm a shade and a half darker and have lost what feels like a kilo from all the sweating— the Terai in July is truly, very hot indeed.

I tell you, the flip of a coin can really point you in wonderful directions.
More stories and pictures to come, once I wake up!

Friday, July 22, 2011

off to lumbini!

The afternoon burst of rain has soothed the blistering air. I wonder what kind of heat lies in store for me in Lumbini. I have, through the help of my friends at Shree Mangal Dvip, secured a ride down to Lumbini with a very kind and generous monk. I feel quite lucky and grateful. I'll be going unplugged— so I'll see you in a few days time, hopefully with loads of pictures, sketches and stories.

Until then, my friends— namaste!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"teach us what you know"

I've been having odd dreams here— it's as if my subconscious is running at a different speed. The night before last I dreamt of a gleaming mountain above the clouds, and that I was walking with a monk in the woods. He told me what my name meant, but as dreams typically tease, I had forgotten what he told me as I awoke.

When Lama S.T. asked if I'd like to go to Namo Buddha with him and some SMD students and staff members, he was barely able to finish the question before my "yes" burst out. My experience at Namo Buddha a few weeks ago had left such a profound impression on me, I was thrilled at the chance to return. I packed my bag full of paper and art supplies with the plan of sketching the exquisite, colourful shrine room which had so deeply moved me.

Heavy, dark clouds threatened a downpour, but graciously kept their rain for our journey. The road to Namo Buddha was as mucky as ever, our jam-packed jeep swerved and spun but proved no match for Lama's cool driving. We bumped and lurched our way through the forest until the familiar golden roofs of the monastery appeared, like a break of sun in the clouds.

Upon arriving, we came across a long line of people in all colours of cloth, waiting for a visit with the free clinic's doctors, whom our own group came to see. While they waited for their check-ups, I was taken by a young monk to the staff room at the monastery school, where I met Lama K.S. After a cup of coffee and a brief chat about where I come from and what I was doing in Nepal, he lead me to his classroom, where a small group of teenage monks were studying Tibetan. As we kicked off our shoes and entered the modest room, Lama pointed to a cushion at the front, indicating my place, and sat down with his students.

"Ok. Teach us what you know." he commanded, with an encouraging smile.

I could feel my face turning red. I was handed a dry-erase marker, which I twisted nervously in my hands, avoiding the blank stare of the white board at my back. Eager eyes and grins surrounded me. I fumbled through an awkward demonstration of one-point linear perspective, realising I wasn't making any sense. I laughed. We laughed. I put down the marker, deciding to show the monks my sketchbooks instead, and sat down on the green cushion, the monks gathering around. As we flipped through every page, I recounted stories of the people and the buildings I had drawn, of what I had been thinking and feeling during each sketch.

"You can draw one of us, then we can learn through watching you." suggested Lama K.S. The monks agreed this was a good idea. After a brief warning about my ability to perform under pressure, I got out my pencil case and displayed my tools, explaining their various uses. I cracked my knuckles, generating laughter.

"Ok. Here we go." More laughter.

I felt surprisingly at ease despite the small crowd around me. I explained my movements, what I was aiming for and my general process. We talked about adding details after mapping out the general shapes. We talked about light and shadow, value and line.

When the 'lesson' was over, Lama K.S. lead me back up the hill to where Lama S.T. and the SMD group were having lunch. A shy breeze rustled through the trees around us. Lama asked my name.

"Samantha, Samantha..." he repeated. "In Sanskrit, it means 'respect'."

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.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


When I spied this gorgeous violet beetle, I couldn't help but pick it up. I'm not sure what captivated the little girl in yellow more— the bug, or me holding the bug. Fortunately Şebnem was with me, and able to capture the moment in photographs.

Friday, July 15, 2011

happy teachers' day!

Today was Teachers' Day. For those of you who are just joining the adventure here at Harika, I am currently spending the summer volunteering at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children in Kathmandu. I taught art classes here last summer, and to put it simply, I fell in love. I was deeply touched by the students I met, and formed wonderful friendships with some incredible people who are dedicated to getting these children the bright futures they deserve.

The day was packed with song and games, laughter and cheer, and the distribution of red pens from little hands to big ones. I haven't laughed so much in a long time.

As I was about to leave for the day, one of my art students stopped me, telling me I had a surprise coming my way. My sweet, talented artists had a gift for me, and made a beautiful card that got me misty-eyed. They placed three kata around my neck, and thanked me for the lessons. I honestly don't know what to say. I love these children. They make me so very happy.

that old familiar face

Last year, I was shocked and delighted to discover this Atatürk mask hanging among the knick knacks of a shop in Durbar Square. Of all the people in all of history— Atatürk? In Kathmandu? It was so very odd, so unexpected. After a brief conversation with the shop owner about how he acquired the mask (he wasn't sure), and a quick history lesson about the fall of the Ottoman Empire, I left Atatürk in Kathmandu, among the toothy faces of demons and other characters.

You can guess what my first thought was upon returning to Durbar Square. I ran off in hopes of seeing that old familiar face. An entire year had passed— could someone have randomly bought this strange, handsome mask? Did other travellers from Turkey perhaps, take him home?

There, against the same brick wall, the stern and charismatic founder of the Republic of Turkey remained, watching over the square with a furrowed brow. By good fortune, I had met two other teachers from a school in Istanbul, who just happened to be staying two doors down from me at Ngudrup Guesthouse. I had told them about the mysterious presence of our home's father, and when we all discovered he was still in the same place I had described, we burst into laughter. Cameras clicking and loud declarations of disbelief brought a suspicious shop owner out to investigate.

"Do you remember who this man is?" I asked the curious shop owner, pointing to the silvery mask.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

by the flip of a coin

I have a week coming up when the students at Shree Mangal Dvip are taking exams, during which I can go on a little adventure. Last summer I went to Pokhara, where I met the most wonderful people, and finally got to see the mountains I had fantasized about ever since I was a little girl. I could not decide between Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, and Ilam, land of stunning hills and tea plantations. Both had captured some part of my imagination; Ilam for the landscape, and Lumbini mostly because of a strange dream I had about six months ago. I dreamt I was walking on the banks of a river upon which stood a weathered building with large steps outside it. Rows of monks in crimson robes were lined up upon the steps, facing the river and me. I have it in my mind that this building, a monastery, is in Lumbini— though I have never been there, nor seen any pictures of the place.

So I flipped a coin.

I head out to Lumbini next week.

what my eyes struggled to understand

I have been struggling for days with how to describe what I saw and felt upon entering the great shrine room of Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery in Namo Buddha. As I passed from filtered sunlight into dark, my eyes first became aware of red— a burning, cadmium red that I could feel throbbing against my retinas. After the red came the gold, then the blue, then the pink in waves, each more powerful than the previous colour. My heart was thunderous— I could not control the gasp that escaped my lips. I placed my hands on my chest, for fear this mad, thumping little organ might escape its cage.

I prostrated three times at the door as I was taught. Palms together, fingers to the sky, I raised my hands to my forehead, lowering them to my chin, to my chest, then bending down to touch the cool floor with my forehead. Pure body, pure speech, pure mind.

As I looked around me, my eyes fought hard to understand what they were seeing. I felt hot tears welling up; the beauty of it all extending to some place deep inside me, shaking me, moving me. I cried when I stood before Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows. I cried when I caught that first glimpse of the Himalaya, peeking from behind the clouds. I cried before the Buddha.

That night, I dreamt I was in the shrine room again, prostrating over and over, and over again.
I was crying in my sleep.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

through the mud

Our little van bumped and swayed up the muddy, slippery road to Namo Buddha, through lush, green forests and past even greener rice fields. Prem, our trusty driver, truly a master of his vehicle, spun the wheel to the left, then sharply to the right, manoeuvring through the muck. At one point, half the passengers, including myself, were kindly asked to get out and start walking in order to lighten the weight of the van, which seemed content to sink deeper into the mud.

I have no idea how long the journey took— I refused to look at any time-telling device. Eventually, I found myself before the impressive, golden-roofed Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, perched atop a hill that anywhere else would be called a mountain. Clouds slithered over the dark crests of hills, lazily curling up among the rice paddies in the valley below. Somewhere, hidden beyond them, great mountains slept.