"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." E. B. White

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Day Full of Firsts

Today has been a day of firsts for me.

Sadly, Anna is suffering today from the same thing I had last week, so she took the morning to rest and recover. Without my travel buddy, I set out for the monastery this morning for the first time completely alone. Safety has never been much of a concern here, but it is easy to get overwhelmed by the foot and car traffic, so I braced myself before walking out of the house.


Today actually turned out to be very fun and interesting. As usual, everyone stares when a western-looking woman walks by - men, women, even children calling out to say hello and then giggling uncontrollably. When I’m with Anna or a group, I notice it less, probably because I’m distracted by their company. But walking the city alone today, I became unusually aware of myself. I started looking around and realized that, from the minute I left my house to the minute I returned, I didn’t see a single western man or woman. Not one.

Having dozens of pairs of eyes on you at any given time makes you very conscious of yourself. But today I realized that it does make some sense, as most of the local people in these neighborhoods are not used to seeing white American women walking around. Its kind of a novelty. Tourists seem to stick to Thamel or head to Everest, so it is a rare occasion to see them in other parts of the city.

The fact that I’m so different here was particularly noticeable today. It went so far as to have an old, toothless woman playing with my hair on the bus! She was sitting one row behind me, and I felt my hair move. I assumed it was caught on the seat or someone’s purse, so I turned around to free it. Instead, I discovered this little woman touching it and considering the texture (no one has curls here!). She was so embarrassed when I looked at her that she covered her face with both hands and turned bright red, so I simply smiled and left it alone. I suppose its flattering, in a way.

The other thing that happened much more than usual today on my hour and half commute was being greeted by children. They always stare - Anna and I make a point to smile at all of them as we pass. But today, every kid I passed said hello. “Hello! Namaste!” They all felt compelled to say something, and then giggled with their friends or looked proud of their use of an English word. It is very cute to see how much joy they get out of such a little act, but again, its a novelty.

I navigated the buses today without incident and even made it 20 minutes early to the monastery, so I took some time to sit quietly in the garden and enjoy the sun, fresh air, and quiet. This is the first time I’ve really done that, and I intend to do it every day for the rest of my time here. Its amazing what a few minutes of clean air and calm can do for my energy and enthusiasm.

As usual, the little monks were great. It was my first time teaching alone, and they didn’t try for even a minute to take advantage of the fact that there was one less teacher in the room. Such sweet boys!

There is one other non-monk teacher at the monastery, and he is a Tibetan man who lives at the monastery full time. He approached me during the morning tea break, and I ended up having such a lovely conversation with him.

He told me that he was born in Tibet and was monk for many years, fleeing from Tibet in the mid-90s due to oppression from the Chinese government. He moved to India and spent several years in a monastery there before moving to Nepal. He eventually decided that he could no longer maintain the vows required of monks, but still practiced Buddhism and decided to become a teacher of monks instead of a monk himself. He worked at one other monastery before moving to this one, and teaches daily Tibetan language lessons. All of the monks in the orphanage speak Tibetan, Nepali, and various levels of English.

We briefly discussed religion, and he was very surprised by some of the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Christianity (which he self-admittedly knew very little about). I told him that both are similar in that they believe in the power of prayer, that praying in concert or communion with others is special and powerful, and that Catholics use prayer beads in the same way as Buddhists. There are significant differences, obviously, not the least of which being that Buddhists believe in rebirths on earth, and Christians believe that there is only one life and an afterlife. It appeared that this may have been the first time he heard this, as he was very surprised to hear that we only get one shot at life. I very much enjoyed speaking with him and hope to see him again during tomorrow’s tea break.

As I walked home down the mountain after class and joining the monks for lunch, I had an “I can’t believe this is real” moment. I had just left a beautiful, serene Buddhist monastery and was now walking alone down a mountain in Nepal. Seriously?! I stopped for a minute to take it all in - the cool air, the bright green mountains around me, the city down below - which was unusually visible through the smog, the villagers squatting in front of their homes watching me curiously, children stopping their soccer game to smile and wave, and a very aggressive rooster that I’m convinced tried to run me off the road. When did this become my life? In that moment, I felt so awake and alert and alive.

I came to Nepal to be refreshed, and I finally feel like I am.

Before departing for the orphanage this afternoon, I had one more “first.” My sister sent a package from the US, which apparently is held at the local Kathmandu post office instead of delivered to my house. Knowing that the post office is not for amateurs, staff member Santos took me to pick up the package this afternoon.

We rode all the way there (a good 30 minute drive because of traffic) on his motorbike. Fortunately, there was so much traffic that we never moved very fast. Unfortunately, there was so much traffic that we never moved very fast.

I am so glad I didn’t attempt the post office alone.  It is a huge building with various rooms, and there is no visible rhyme or reason to why mail is sorted into the various rooms. We were sent from place to place, everyone directing us to a different area with the belief that the package might be there.

We ultimately ended up, literally, in a mail room. I was standing in the middle of boxes and letters that were not organized in any particular fashion - they were just randomly placed on the ground with the assumption that the owner would eventually find it. After much talk (in Nepali...I mostly just stood there), we finally located our box, only to be told that they wouldn’t release it to us.  I had asked Leah to address the package to our program director, Anish, on the advice of another staff member, but the post office wouldn’t let us take the package without Anish present (understandably). So after all of that, we left empty handed and Anish has to return tomorrow and repeat the whole process.

On the ride home, we were again stuck in traffic, but this time next to a giant, open air truck filled with dozens of young army soldiers. We sat in full-stop gridlock traffic for several minutes next to this truck as the soldiers smiled, waved, and took pictures. It was cute for about 30 seconds, and then severely uncomfortable for the next several minutes. There was nowhere to go and nowhere to look!

Again, its hard not to be overly aware of oneself when faced with a truckload of teenage soldiers taking your picture while you’re uncomfortably stuck on the back of a motorbike.

That is most definitely a first.

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