Friday, December 19, 2014

Nepal Adventure: Last 5 Days in Nepal

My bags are packed, and I am now waiting for the taxi that will take me from Kopan Monastery to the Kathmandu airport. The past five days went by so quickly – it is amazing how much you can get done, when you know you are about to leave a country.

On Monday afternoon, December 15 a friend from my November course Discussion Group, Alana and I visited the Boudha stupa to do some circumambulations of the stupa. It is a 30 minute walk downhill from Kopan Monastery, through the streets of the neighboring Kapan Village. That means the walk back up to Kopan requires a bit more energy.

Kapan Village.
Alana and I made it back up to Kopan in time for my 5pm meeting with the Canadian nun, Ani Joan who does the live transcription of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings. I had offered to help Ani Joan with her projects while I had some extra time. We reviewed a project during 5pm tea break in the dining hall, and then I started work on the project that night. It felt great to be doing something that challenged my brain in a different way, as opposed to all of the more academic style studying we had been doing during the November course.

I later learned that 160 FPMT monks and nuns from Kopan and the FPMT nunnery on the hill below the monastery left for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in south India, while Alana and I were at the stupa. They are traveling from Kathmandu to south India overland, which is going to be a long trip. I am looking forward to hopefully recognizing some more familiar faces in the room of what will likely be tens of thousands of people, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching starts in a few days.

My Brazilian roommate, Stella left at 5am on Tuesday morning, December 16. It was great interacting with her. She learned to speak English by watching ten years of episodes of the TV show Friends, so speaks with a New York accent and mannerisms. I loved it. She always made me smile. Now, it’s just my Australian roommate, Vanessa and I left in what was a room of ten girls during the November course. Vanessa is doing the Silent Lam-Rim Meditation Retreat, that I opted not to do. The retreat ends today.

I got in touch with Room to Read – Nepal before the November course started, to see if I could join in on one of the non-profit’s regular tours. Normally, visitors get to visit one of the sites where Room to Read works, in Nepal. The December tour was cancelled, but a member of Room to Read – Nepal’s staff, Rishi very kindly offered to have me over to the Room to Read office, to take a look around and learn more about their work.

Rishi gave me public transit instructions from Kopan to Room to Read. The directions involved taking a public bus to the bus terminal I am familiar with, then taking a “tempo” to the office. I stopped some teenage school girls dressed in school uniforms on the side of the road at the bus terminal, to ask them what a “tempo” is. I pointed to a mini van that drove by us on the road, and asked if that was a “tempo”. They got a kick out of my question, and pointed out a tempo. It is a three wheeled vehicle that roughly looks like a covered tractor and wheelbarrow. I thoroughly enjoyed my first tempo ride.

When I got to the office, I found that Teach for Nepal was just across the street from Room to Read. When I had visited the US Education Foundation office in Kathmandu, the staff there had mentioned Teach for Nepal had recently opened. I was happy to stumble upon the office.

When I arrived at Room to Read, I took a tour of the office lobby and corridors, and read some of the children’s books that the nonprofit has created and published for use in Nepal’s government schools. Rishi then invited me into the conference room and gave me the power point presentation that he usually gives visitors. It was fantastic.

Rishi in front of the Room to Read office.
Room to Read was founded as a result of John Wood’s 1998 trek in Nepal. When he passed through Nepali communities on his trek, he found that the Nepali schools had few books for the students to read. In 2010, the organization he founded as a result celebrated its 10th anniversary and the opening of its 10,000th library. It was so cool to visit the organization’s first office, here in Nepal, and to learn about what they do.

In Nepal, the team runs four programs that provides support to students attending the government-run “government schools”. Room to Read – Nepal programs include reading and writing instruction to bring primary school students who attend government schools up to government literacy standards, building and expanding school libraries in government schools, publishing children’s pictorial books that develop  students’ lifelong love of reading, and building or adding onto government schools.

In addition to Nepal, Room to Read now runs literacy and gender equality education programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Zambia, and Tanzania. Room to Read is headquartered in San Francisco. Rishi visited the San Francisco office last year regarding his role as the storyteller of the Nepal office. It was fun to talk about storytelling, my work in Nairobi, and to learn a little bit about how Room to Read handles their storytelling. I was also really impressed by the emphasis Room to Read places on measuring the impact of the organization’s work, and the strong emphasis the organization places on partnerships with local communities and the Nepali government.

In talking about the Girls’ Education Program, Rishi and I got to talking about the kamalari, young Nepali girls who are illegally forced to leave school to become indentured servants in exchange for land their families can then till in the community. Nepal’s kamalaris are profiled in the documentary Girl Rising.

I learned from Rishi that Room to Read partnered with two nonprofit organizations working in one Nepali community in order to rescue the girls, the kamalaris, and to bring the girls back to school. Some of the girls have been out of school, working as kamalaris for eight years. Room to Read’s Girl Mobilizers work with the rescued girls, to help them catch up on what they missed in school. One of Rishi’s favorite moments happened when he visited the program. It was so great to meet Rishi, and to experience his enthusiasm for his work. It was such a great visit.

Rishi encouraged me to follow up on my interest, and stop by the Teach for Nepal office, which is located just across the street from Room to Read.
Teach for Nepal office in Kathmandu.
I learned these shocking statistics from a bold sign posted on the front lawn, before I even walked through the Teach for Nepal doorway:

“About 72% of students who attended public schools failed [the national exam last year]. 87% of private school students passed.”

A quick perusal of the bulletin board hanging outside of the office door let me know that Teach for Nepal was actively recruiting for their new cohort of teaching fellows.

I walked into an office lobby full of energy, and happened to get to sit down for a chat with the founder of Teach for Nepal. I learned he started Teach for Nepal in April 2013, after seeing Nepali students attending government schools were failing the exam sections that cover English, Math, and Science. Teach for Nepal has thus far sent two cohorts of 49 teachers into some of Nepal’s neediest government schools to help the students. He said that they cannot meet demand from the communities who would like a Teach for Nepal fellow in their school, and that they have received an extremely large number of applications from Nepalis interested in joining the next cohort. It is so exciting.

The organization is holding a big fundraising event in Kathmandu today. The event culminates in a performance by a student band, and a well known Nepali band. If you are interested in learning more then check out the Teach for Nepal Facebook page, which I was told is the best way to keep abreast of the organization’s work.

I then adventured back to Kopan Monastery via public transit, arriving in time to participate in our celebration of the annual Tibetan Buddhist holiday, Lama Tsongkhapa Day. The monastery’s three gompas were draped in beautiful colored lights that were reminiscent of Christmas light displays. It was beautiful. We joined the monks and Lama Zopa Rinpoche in the main gompa from late afternoon until late into the night, following along as we did the Heruka Lama Choepa. It was beautiful, and so nice to get to sit with Lama Zopa Rinpoche again. The youngest monks – some of whom looked to be about age five – participated, too. They sat in the back of the gompa across the aisle from me. They were very cute to watch.

We ended the night by decorating the front of the gompa and the plaza with candles, and walking in a procession around the monastery grounds, led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The two stupas in the stupa garden were surrounded by candles that the monks and western students placed there during the celebration. It was gorgeous.

Lama Tsongkhapa Day puja in the gompa with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Two of the gompas covered in lights.
I finally got into bed sometime after midnight, which is very late at Kopan. That explains my following morning, this past Wednesday, December 17. I did laundry in the morning, and coordinated some advance logistics for India from the comfort of what was a beautiful, sunny day at the monastery.

I was sitting on the front steps of the gompa plaza, just inside of the monastery’s front gate, when the main teacher in Portland, Oregon, Yangsi Rinpoche, appeared in front of me. I had not seen him since the fall, when I sat in on two of his teachings in Portland. It was amazing to see him all the way here, at Kopan.

I then closed my Kopan Library card account with the very kind and wonderful monk who works in the library as well as the Kopan gift/book shop. I am sure there will be many more books to borrow and read from other libraries in India, but it was sad to close this library account – I really enjoyed perusing the Kopan library shelves, and the books I read while staying here.

That afternoon Alana and I walked back down the hill from Kopan to volunteer at the Street Dog Care center, which is across the street from the Boudha stupa. Alana had not interacted with Street Dog Care before, so it was fun to see her enjoying her conversation with Jasmin, the organization’s Belgian Project Manager, and meeting the dogs. I enjoyed giving the dogs that live at the center some attention, and catching up on the dogs I had not seen since my last visit to the center, before the November course began over a month prior. One dog that had been in my thoughts during the November course is looking significantly better.

I enjoyed meeting three of the center’s newer international volunteers, while helping the volunteers and staff feed the dogs their dinner. After this experience I can confidently say that dogs in Nepal share American dogs’ enthusiasm for a good, home cooked dinner.

Dinner time at Street Dog Care.
The following day, Thursday, December 18 began with a gathering in front of the Reception office, to say goodbye to our November course Discussion Group leader, Nita. Nita was on her way to Malaysia to attend a family wedding before returning to her home in Byron Bay, Australia. It meant a lot to me that Sarah, Alana, and I got to send our fantastic Discussion Group leader off with hugs.

Nita, Alana, me, Sarah, and our teacher Venerable Gyatso.
Sarah then went to a meditation session, while Alana and I began our adventure to the tourist hot spot, Kathmandu Durbar Square. We were joined by another Australian, Peter who had also taken the November course, and had planned to visit Durbar Square that day, too. We took the bus that stops in Kapan Village just below the monastery, and then walked through the old part of Kathmandu until we found Durbar Square.

After paying a hefty westerner tourist fee of 750 Nepali rupees ($7.50) to enter Durbar Square, we began exploring the plaza. The profusion of unusual old buildings was overwhelmingly fantastic and so engaging.

Kathmandu Durbar Square.
My Durbar Square entrance ticket included a visit to the Hanuman Dhoka (Old Royal Palace). I am so glad that I took advantage of that, and went to check it out. The Old Royal Palace’s oldest, eastern wings date from the mid-seventeenth centry, but my Rough Guide to Nepal says that there was probably a palace on this spot even before then. Although only a fraction of the five-acre palace is open to the public, the part that I was able to walk through was fantastic.

One of the courtyards, Mohan Chawk, also known as Mohanakalichowk was only opened to the public within the past six years. It was constructed by King Pratap Malla in 1648. I overheard a Nepali tour guide tell his western tour group that Nepal wants to make sure that the amazing stone and wood carvings in the courtyard remain intact, and in Nepal.

There was a sunken bath in the middle of the courtyard, which was used by the king. It is ornately decorated in gorgeous, ornately carved stone statues. The spout of the bath was a shining gold colored sculpture that was spilling water out of its spout while I was there. Beautiful. Photography was prohibited, unfortunately and for good measure there were signs hanging up saying visitors were being filmed.

I later learned through one of the Mohan Chawk’s three museums that this courtyard was “one of the richest courtyards because of all of the stone, metal, wooden art and paintings. This courtyard is meant to breathe the last for all Kings and his family members during the Malla period. The special portion made for that purpose is in the northern façade of the courtyard that lies behind the water fountain. The courtyard used to be vibrant with religion activities during the Malla period.”

After exploring the three courtyards that are open to the public, including the largest courtyard in the palace complex, the Nasal Chowk. I read in one of the museums that “this was the place for the Malla kings to receive their subjects during all the occasions. After the Gorkha conquest it became the palace of ascending the Throne and coronation as well.” The gorgeous throne is on display in a recessed area, behind glass, inside the courtyard.

I then headed towards the tall dark brown wood building in the far corner of the Nasal Chowk because there was a small sign on the wall next to the door, saying something about a nine-story tower. This was the Basantapur Tower, which is also called Nautele Durbar, or Nine-Storey Palace. Basantapur means “palace of spring” and refers to Kathmandu itself. It was a fairly small building with a fairly steep wooden staircase that takes you up nine floors to an enclosed viewing area on the roof. For all of the traffic this building must see daily, it feels like you are one of the first persons to get to explore this tower.

Basantapur Tower.
There are views, through lattice work and small windows, on many of the floors. My first sighting of one of Nepal’s famous snow covered peaks had an indescribable effect on me. By the time I got to the ninth story and could see out to Durbar Square below, beyond that to Kathmandu, and the mountains beyond, I think my huge smile was in danger of injuring my cheeks. Climbing that tower – and exploring Hanuman Dhoka – was the highlight of the day.

View from Basantapur Tower of the courtyard and mountains.
I stumbled upon Hanuman Dhoka’s three museums while descending the Basantapur Tower steps. The museums are crowded with black and white photographs of Nepali rulers and their families, stunningly gorgeous wedding outfits, military uniforms, certificates and gifts given to the royal family by many countries – including amazing musical instruments from Zambia and Myanmar. A king’s wedding tunic’s cuffs were fixed with beautifully handcrafted buttons that were painted with a lion’s face. A walk through the museums provided a crash course in Nepali royal history. I loved it.

I then wandered about Durbar Square, gazing in amazement at the unique buildings and people watching. The square was teeming with Nepalis and a handful of western tourists who were lounging about, enjoying the beautiful day.

Kathmandu Durbar Square.
I also saw a skinny dog with a missing hair and a skin condition, standing and then lying down in the middle of the square. I later tried but could not find help. Please keep this dog in your thoughts.

I made my way over to Freak Street, where the hippies gathered back in the day, and got a local referral to Kumari’s Restaurant where I enjoyed a lunch of vegetable chow mein. The later part of the meal was enjoyed in semi-darkness because the electricity went out, and Kathmandu’s “old city” streets are narrow and dark, with the sun crowded out by the multi-story buildings. It was all good. After paying to go online in an internet café (paying the “generator power” price because the power was still out and the computer was being powered by a costly generator), I went to see the real Kumari.

Kumari Chowk is a building in Durbar Square, located between Hanuman Dhoka and Freak Street. It is gilded cage of Kathmandu’s Raj Kumari, the pre-eminent living goddess in Kathmandu Valley. The Kumari is a prepubescent girl worshiped as a living incarnation of the goddess Taleju. The practice of identifying a girl and worshiping her as a living goddess until she reaches puberty probably goes back to the Middle Ages. My Rough Guide to Nepal says “Jaya Prakash, the last Malla king of Kathmandu, institutionalized the practice when he built the Kumari Chowk in 1757. According to legend, Jaya Prakash, a particularly paranoid and weak king, offended Taleju by lusting after her, and to atone for his sin she ordered him to select a virgin girl in whom the goddess could dwell.” Kumari is a Hindu goddess, but since she is chosen from the Buddhist Shakya clan of goldsmiths, and the girl is chosen through a selection process in which candidates are examined for 32 auspicious signs, the Kumari is said to be a good example of the adaptable nature of religion in Nepal.

Sadly, the girl chosen as the Kumari is only carried outside of the Kumari Chowk, and on her throne because her feet are never allowed to touch the ground, during a handful of festivals. Taleju’s spirit leaves the girl when she reaches puberty. The current Kumari is approximately nine years old. She can be seen for a few minutes daily, beginning at 4pm, if you stand in the interior courtyard of the Kumari Chowk at that time. She briefly appears in a window on the third story of the Kumari Chowk, and looks out at the courtyard. I got to see the spectacle myself, with about 50 other tourists. Cameras were not allowed but I saw her face on a postcard available for sale in a shop, yesterday. The girl was wearing heavy dark eye makeup, a fancy red top, and had her hair done. But the most striking thing was her expression of boredom.

Perhaps a little disillusioned at this point with my tourism activities, I made my way back to the monastery via another new form of public transit – the minivan converted into a bus. I exited at Bodha stupa, which I visited as often as possible to make prayers, watch the Tibetans circumambulating the stupa, and overall to just enjoy the great energy and environment of the stupa and the Boudha neighborhood. I walked back up the hill the monastery, making it just in time for the 6:45pm dinner.

After dinner, I joined the Silent Meditation Retreat crew in one of the smaller gompas, the Chenrizig Gompa, where the Meditation Retreat is taking place, to watch a movie. We watched a video recording of a teaching Lama Yeshe gave in 1980, somewhere in the west. I have read books by Lama Yeshe, but had never seen him speak on video. It was amazing to have him there, in front of us, giving advice to western students, in this video. Lama Yeshe died in 1984, so I am very grateful for all of the efforts past students made to archive his teachings. Finally getting to watch him speak, and hear his voice, and hear Ani Karin introduce the video by sharing her heartfelt thoughts about Lama Yeshe was the perfect way to wrap up my time at Kopan.

I started off yesterday, Friday December 19 with great focus, making last minute preparations for today’s departure and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s week of teachings in south India. Sarah and I walked down the hill towards the stupa, so that I could introduce her to a street dog that lives about a 10 minute walk from the stupa. Sarah is going to volunteer at the Street Dog Care Saturday clinic at the stupa today, and is going to help get that dog to the clinic so it can receive care. It makes me so happy that Sarah is going to get to experience the clinic today, and that this poor pup is going to receive some medical attention and attention. Big thanks to Sarah and Street Dog Care.

Sarah with our friend.
After visiting with the dog, Sarah and I went to the western audience oriented Flavors Café, which sits on the edge of the stupa. We enjoyed brunch with Gilad, who just finished a week’s worth of exams at the white gompa, and Sumi, a young German woman that Gilad and I both met at the Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India earlier this year. Sumi arrived in Nepal yesterday, and reconnected with Gilad.

The four of us had a great time chatting about meditation courses in Lumbini, Nepal (birthplace of Buddha), Gilad’s solo expedition to Lower Mustang, a region of Nepal that borders Tibet, and other interesting places to visit in Nepal. I am happy for Sarah and Sumi, because they are staying on in Nepal for a while, and have the opportunity to continue exploring. (And, I should add that my $2.70 tofu scramble with toast and tea was delicious.)

Following brunch, Sumi and I stopped off at the Street Dog Care clinic so I could wrap some things up, and we then headed by bus to Swayambhu, also known as Swayambhunath, or “monkey temple”. I visited Swayambhu with the November course, on the afternoon that we went on pilgrimage. However we did not have time to walk up to the top of the hill during the pilgrimage, so did not get to explore the ancient stupa on top of the hill that dates to the fifth century.

My Rough Guide to Nepal says “there’s reason to believe the hill was used for animist rites even before Buddhism arrived in [Kathmandu] Valley 2,000 years ago. Tantric Buddhists consider it the chief ‘power point’ of the Kathmandu Valley; one chronicle states an act of worship here carries 13 billion times more merit than anywhere else.”

According to Buddhism, Swayambhu (“self-created”) formed when Manjusrhi, the bodhisattva of knowledge cut a gorge using his sword, to make a snake-infested lake recede, so humans could worship Swayambhu. The water receded, and a lotus settled on top of the hill. Manjusrhi established a shrine there, to it.

Sumi and I climbed the dramatic stairway – composed of 300 steep, centuries old steps – to reach the top of the hill and the stupa. Statues line the stairway, including a pair of 17th century Buddha statues.

Climbing the steps to the top of the hill and the stupa.
 We were amazed at what we found, when we reached the top of the hill. The stupa and all of the statues around the stupa, as well as the panoramic view of Kathmandu Valley and the snow covered peaks beyond, were gorgeous.
Swayambhu stupa at the top of the hill.
We circumambulated the stupa, particularly admiring the images of Buddha that appear in cave like recesses within the stupa, set at regular intervals around the stupa’s base, at approximately eye level (for a taller person, not for me). We visited the Dongak Chhyoling Monastery’s temple next to the stupa, made offerings, and received cookies and tea from the monks, along with the Tibetans who were also inside of the temple, making offerings. The whole afternoon was fantastic.

Sumi and I in front of the stupa. I am wearing one of my two Invisible Children t-shirts.
After descending the steps, we completed our circumambulation of the base of the hill, spinning the prayer wheels that circle the base of the hill. I loved the varied mediums used to create the Buddhist art that was displayed behind on the walls behind the prayer wheels. Some of the artwork was etched stone, some were paintings, and some sculptures. Some of the prayer wheels were painted bright colors, too.

prayer wheels at the stupa.
We then took two buses back to the Bodha stupa where we had started our day’s adventure, with brunch at Flavor’s café. I said goodbye to Suri, and spent some time at the stupa, circumambulating and making prayers. The stupa was decorated with lights. I caught the end of sunset. It was the perfect way to spend my last night in Nepal.

I then returned to Kopan to pack for India … write this post, and select these photos.

I am traveling from Kathmandu to Bangalore with another American student from the November course, named Laura. My friend, Dee is picking us up at the airport, and the three of us will be traveling together from Bodhgaya to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching in Mundgod together, via a train that departs Bangalore at 6am on Sunday.
5635  - laura at stupa with me

I do not expect to be online again until I return to Bangalore sometime in early January. I will celebrate Christmas during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, which begin on December 23, and will celebrate New Year’s Eve at the monastery after His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings end on December 30. So happy holidays, all and Happy 2015.

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