This week marks the end of 3 months here in Nepal. I know this primarily because I had to renew my VISA yesterday at the Department of Immigration. You would think that this process would be pretty straightforward. They provide a website where you can complete the details of who you are, passport information, and how much longer you wish to stay. Filling it out successfully yields a bar code page that allows them to access this information. Take the barcode form into the Immigration Office, pay the fee and continue to enjoy the people and places of Nepal. Simple right? Not!

As with many things here in Nepal, one must rely on local friends and fellow travelers for advice and help. First of all, the online form requires a current address. Problem is, it’s difficult to determine your address. One person told me, “Just enter some random information. They don’t really care where you live.” That would be easy except for the second point; they don’t just ask for a street and number. There is a whole string of information they require, with no explanation of what the fields represent.

Thankfully, one of our kind administrators at TGL, Dolkar, provided me with a reasonable answer for each box.

Now, I’m no stranger to long forms on the Internet. For 14 years I filled out a 20 or 30 page Federal eRate application for my school district. I’d have to say that this one page Immigration form was more daunting.

I won’t go into specific problems or the technical details of why it sucked so bad but I entered my information 5 or 6 times (I really lost track in the midst of my frustration). Each time I was rejected and required to re-enter the information with very little feedback as to what was wrong. Finally I gave up – or delayed my frustration really (the opposite of delayed gratification) for another day.

Pressed up against a November 22nd deadline, Joni and I began asking people for the secret method for overcoming this hurdle. Fortunately we were at a teaching with Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche (Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s brother) in Boudha where hundreds of “immigrants” just like us were being blessed by his wisdom. The best advice and assistance came from a young lady who had learned that it is best to use a phone rather than a computer for the form. Skeptical but thankful for her help, I used her phone and relied on her advice and persistence to get a positive return – the precious bar code. The end result was a form that didn’t have accurate information but it did have all the required boxes filled in to the satisfaction of the computer database that accepted it.

Guardedly relieved by our success, Joni and I managed to get to the Immigration Office over an hour before their advertized closing but were told they had closed 5 minutes before we got there. After making a sarcastic remark to the guard about “Nepali time”, we exchanged smiles and I went on my way.

The following day, I got another exciting motor scooter ride, from a TGL staff member Kechok, to the Immigration office in Kathmandu where our magic barcodes were accepted – but not without some cajoling in Nepali by Kechok. Following him, I moved from window to window listening to negotiations on the details with various bureaucrats. It was only through his determination and experience with Immigration that I was able to get Joni’s form accepted without her present and get their final stamp of approval. The irony is that Kechok is a 29 year old Tibetan who, because of his heritage and age, has no national identity whatsoever. He can’t vote, isn’t a “citizen”, and has no papers for travel abroad. Despite his national limbo he was my hero for the day.

VISAs in hand, Kechok treated me to a ride back to TGL, with a stop at his home in the Tibetan Refugee Camp. This was my second time at the Camp. Last time he showed me the small school and home for the elderly in the camp.

This time, he gave me a tour of the weaving and spinning business that supports the people and services in the Camp. As you can see from the pictures, there isn’t much room for them to work but this doesn’t prevent them from putting in long hours contributing to their community. All the proceeds of their work support the school, the elderly home and the people and services of the community. The temperature in the weaving building was very pleasant yesterday but, the number of looms and the number of fans on the ceiling indicate that it is probably stifling in the summer.

Our time here in Kathmandu is going fast now. We have spent quite a bit of time in the city lately. We stayed in Thamel in the company of friends from the US  one weekend. This gave us some time to shop, eat good food and relax in the comfort of our hotel. We walked to Kathmandu Durbar Square, one of the largest of the Durbars in Kathmandu. The walk was interesting with scenes of commerce and tourists packed into the narrow streets (that feel like alleys). It was a treat to show our friends where we live as we returned home for work on Monday.

As I mentioned, last weekend we attended the teachings of Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche. He is the oldest of the 4 sons of Tulku Urgyen Rimpoche, one of the greatest meditation masters of our time. His brothers include Tsoknyi Rinpoche (my teacher), Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tsikey Chokling Rimpoche. This coming weekend we will attend a teaching with Mingyur Rimpoche.

In 2 days you will all be enjoying Thankgiving dinner. I hope that you have a wonderful holiday with friends and family. We all have much to be thankful for don’t we.


Caring Community

Many of the stories I have posted describe the difficulties and challenges of living here in Nepal. These aren’t fabrications by any means but they don’t tell the whole story of this place or the people. I share them because they are so out of the ordinary of my experience at home. Nepal (and our home here at TGL) is by no means run “by the book” through planning, schedules or rationale. You could call it “bottom up” rather than “top down” organization.

Challenges aside, I want to convey the caring and the respect that has been extended to Joni and I during our visit. Many people have taken care of us and provided assistance and material support along the way. You might say this is a credit to “bottom up”, spontaneous compassion. Here are a few examples:

Fionnuala Shenpen is the Director of Tsoknyi Gechak School. She “hired” us for the job, manages the operations of the school and oversees instruction for the young Anis. Since we’ve been here she has done everything that she can to provide us with a comfortable room, food, special treats, directions, water, warm blankets and showers (at her house), plus special events that make us feel at home. The list is goes on and on. While she also expects us to be self-reliant (a requirement of the job) she cares for us like a parent would her children. Before we came to Nepal she kept us up-to-date with what was ahead in the schedule, how to reach her and what to bring. She has done everything she can to help us settle into our teaching routine. On top of all this she has help set our teaching schedule and discusses methods that can be beneficial to the children and respectful of the teachers.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Fionnuala while sipping tea at her house or hanging out with her and her mates in Kathmandu. She is an Irish gem and dynamo of energy. Her passion never wanes for the Anis, their education and their welfare.

Anis of Tsoknyi Gechak Ling – The Anis span the age range from 4 years to the 60 something (I’m guessing here). As such they have many different roles and responsibilities. The adult Shedra and Trasang nuns share the “Shedra” building with us. Each of us inhabit a different floor of the building and follow different routines, so we cross paths during different activities.

Both the Trasang and Shedra nuns take turns sweeping and mopping the all the floors of the Shedra building at 6:30am. The Trasang nuns bring us food and other accoutrements for living. The Shedra nuns spend most of their time in study and can be found all over the building studying, memorizing Sutras and chanting into the night. They are in serious preparations to be practitioners and teachers of the Dharma, wherever they may go. We have just begun having Sunday night tea and English Language meetings with them and have shared a few celebration events with them. Our lessons will have to take a back seat as they are prepare for exams that will commence this month. Despite or perhaps because of their serious study, they always greet us with a warm smile. They are eager to know us and learn our language despite their busy schedule.

Most of the nuns are very shy (as are we) so it has taken some time to break the ice and have eye-eye interactions. Add to this the challenge of recognizing their unique faces. Only slowly have I been able to recognize differences and build relationships so that I can address them with true recognition of past encounters. Living in the halo of all the senior Anis is a blessing and helps me through every day.

Regardless of barriers of language and social convention, I always feel respected and watched over by the Anis. From the little Anis at school to the most senior, we are valued. I seldom sit on the floor without being offered a cushion (their cushion) to sit on. The children greet us with smiles and cheerie voice, “How are you sir?”. Recently when I returned to school from a brief illness, they crowded around me to ask how I was feeling. No matter what age, the Anis oooh and aaah over photos of our grandchildren. While the children are not in a position of caring for our physical needs, it is evident that they do care about us.

As I reflect the care and concern shown us, I realize that this behavior is endemic to this place; grounded in the teachings of the Buddha, cooked by the demands of living in a small space of very familiar faces. They eat, work, study, sleep, pray, play and socialize almost exclusively within these walls. There are certainly opportunities for the older nuns to interact with the larger community but by and large they are self contained and dependent on one another. This clearly puts them into a natural awareness of working together.

The last time I experienced this level of cooperation was almost 40 years ago when I worked at Passport for Adventure; taking children into the backcountry. Weathering snowstorms, rain, heat, illness, hunger and physical stress together, in a small group, is a sure fire incentive to cooperation. Greater suffering or death are the alternative. Our program was intentionally designed to foster interdependence and the lessons that naturally flow from it. It was the most impactful therapeutic experience I’ve ever encountered.

While there are countless examples of cooperation and support within our American culture, we are all too aware of the rifts and polarization that exists on the macro level of our society. Without belaboring the point, we are more likely to cooperate within small groups or communities AGAINST other groups within our society, except when some common enemy from outside our borders threatens us. Perhaps this is Democracy at work. While this diversity is the backbone of our society, I hope that we can keep our common goals foremost in our hearts and minds in the knowledge that we are in the same, shrinking, boat. We need to care for the vulnerable and lift up the potential of all. We don’t need outside enemies to make this evident to us.

On a lighter note, please enjoy these photos of our field trip to the zoo. Going outside the gates is a rare opportunity for the school Anis as I said. We had a great time!

Road to Muktinath and Gargon Ling – Photo Albums

As promised I have prepared a collection of the photos from our trip to the Mustang Region; through Tatopani, Jomsom, to Rani Pauwa (where we stayed), hiking up to Muktinath and the trails above it. For the more visual “reader”, feel free to skip to the links of this post to check out photos.

The drive (Road to Muktinath) included sections of roads that would rival the unpaved, high mountain roads through Colorado. The difference is that these welcomed motorcycles, “hikers”, mountain bikes, small vehicles the size of a mini cooper, transport trucks, Landcruisers (and other 4 wheel drive varieties) and many, many buses. The pictures tell most of the story. What may not be evident in the photos is the variety of transport we had to take to get to our destination.

Two thirds of the way, our Landcruiser’s steering came apart. I’m not a mechanic but it appeared to be the front steering arm. One of you gear heads will be able to tell by looking at the picture. This breakdown fortunately happened in a stream bed (mostly dry) that spanned at least 100 yards across the valley. Our driver lost all control of the steering wheel but glided to a stop, almost off the road. With some help of fellow travelers, our vehicle was pushed to the side to clear the jam that was forming in both directions. As you will see in the photos, there are many less hospitable locations where the loss of steering might have been a tragic breakdown. In this case, it only cost us a few hours during which time our driver and wrangler found a alternative vehicle that, though cramped, moved us up the road. We were then transferred to a third vehicle (after dark) and taken up the last incline to our Hotel in Rani Pauwa. Another Nepali adventure!

Muktinath is home to 108 fountains of water, streaming through bull headed spouts streaming down from the Himalayas. It sits higher than Gargon Ling Nunnery where we attended the Puja. I was told that, of the major pilgrimage sites for Hindus, it is the most important for them to visit before they pass away. This became evident to us as we watched a steady stream of elderly people transported by sometimes unruly Mustang horses up the slope from Rani Pauwa to Muktinath. Faithful people (both Hindu and Buddhist) bathe in a pool and make their way around the 3 walls of streaming fountains. It is a festive and joyful place.

Some of the pictures (Gargon Ling Puja) show the Puja and some show our hike with a Tibetan woman, Tsering, from Seattle who joined us at the Puja. She was a very free spirit with an infectious laugh and a good grasp of English, Tibetan and Nepali. I can’t thank her enough for the insight she gave us, not to mention the many laughs. The photos show us hiking above Muktinath to visit Padmasambhava’s kitchen. I don’t know the whole story of this place but know that Padmasambhava (also know as Guru Rimpoche) was a great Indian Mahasiddha who visited this valley on his way to Tibet in the 8th century. There are many places here and in other parts of Nepal where he lived and practiced. He is acknowledged as the man who tamed the wild Tibetan temperament and environment and forged a relationship with King Trisong Deutsen. They, along with other Mahasiddha’s brought Buddhism to from India to Tibet. You can read more in a book, “The Lotus-Born, The Life Story of Padmasambhava, by Yeshe Tsogyal, translated by Eric Pema Kunsang.”

It is over 2 weeks now since we journeyed to Muktinath. While life here is pretty slow and measured with few activities, we seem to keep pretty busy. The crash of my computer certainly required some time. We have been teaching, taking short trips, and helped organize and attended a teaching given by Rinpoche here at the nunnery. On top of this are the daily chores that take more attention than they might at home; gathering water, washing clothes, taking a “shower”, among them. And then there are the interesting mysteries like, “Who took my sheets off the line today?” and “How can I get them back?” Mysteries that are complicated by a lack of common language. More on that in the days to come.

I hope you are all well.