Monday, January 6, 2014

At Home in the Other Corner of the World, by Mishel Mussali

A Home in the Other Corner of the World

The clock is ticking. The hours are going by firmly, elongating the past and moving away the future. There is a thing called time that is intimately linked to our memories. Clocks measure time, but they fall short when measuring memories. 

My memories have become a kind of fuel that burns to keep me alive. Those memories might lie in the simplest things, yet they intertwine in such impossible ways that make existence itself a complex yet exciting path to walk on.  

Clocks were merely the tools we used to go to class, to meet at Gu Chu Sum, or to have tea time at the celestial palace. Those clocks were delayed by three different times, and failed to measure our memories second by second. So, what is left of so many hours in the Eastern latitude?

What has stayed with me since the day we left is a tiny voice on the back of my head that keeps reminding me that things are not what they seem. 

Time flows in strange ways when one is away from home, and little by little what not long ago was our daily life, today it has become memories of mountains and foreign smiles. Memories that have captured far-away places and that have taught us things we had never imagined.

Our steps were outside the traveled lanes, with curious eyes and dancing winds. Prayer flags accompanied our steps. Those memories are brightened by the way the sunset colors the sky: blue at heart, pink, subtle orange, light blue and clouds, deep blue clouds. Some shiny stars dying in the far distance reminding us that we are too made of star dust.

 That’s how Dharamsala colors its days: red, pink and orange for the sunsets and a bit of turquoise for the early sunrise. That’s how I remember the faces, streets, words and smiles that have ticked in my clock, impregnating the seconds with time and the time with stories. 

It is well known that mountains keep secrets. Secrets that combined with distance have the ability to transform the mind and the heart wisely.  Little by little, the smell of incense, red robes monks and those surreal highlands became a continuous story.

I used to wake up early to a cup of chai and if I was quiet enough I could listen to chants in the distance and also monkey fights not so far.  Later on, dodging cows, motorcycles and eating momos after class were tracing my day to day. Walking up and down by Temple Rd I would sing along Om Ma Ni Ped Me Hum with that catchy melody that just the ones that have listened to it can understand.
Suddenly we stopped being spectators, and we became characters. We started to sound out some Tibetan words just like little children do, and that opened a new world of understanding. We were not there just to consume culture or passing by with our backpacks. We were there to listen deeply to all those untold stories that wanted to be listened. 

At the beginning it seemed like the cause was not ours. But then, as we walked together with our Tibetan friends, their cause became also our own.  
It was then when I would come back to my host family for dinner to listen the crazy stories of my –Pa la- or the laugh of my –Ama la – while trying to understand each other through mimicry. 

An unknown street, in a remote town, in the other corner of the world became a street of memories, in which we would walk on our way to class or to a café in Jogiwara Rd. Crossing cultural borders just required to fill my stomach with as much chai as my Pa la could fit in my cup. And then without realizing we were weirdly belonging to a place that wasn’t ours, crossing borders that we didn’t even know existed. 

I could go on, trying to extract the essence out of moments, but I have always believed that there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words. 

Time seemed to pass by very fast, and suddenly the time to leave home to go to another home ticked on our clocks. 

On one of our last days in Dharamsala, another very tragic event occurred in Tibet. And it touched me deeply. In a late evening of that last week, I found myself with so many other people, holding a candle for a vigil of a nomad that self-immolated back in Tibet. It was such a painful, yet powerful moment, Tibetans chanting for their brother and some foreign eyes witnessing the horror of our time. A picture of the nomad hanged in the front made me recognize the look of a dear friend, and the struggle that little by little became also mine. 

In between the obscurity and sadness of the moment, there was something tingling in the freezing air. There is something that lives in each Tibetan, and that I myself have also learnt to live with. There is hope in our hearts, burning as a vital flame that warms the freezing air in the cold vigil nights. 

It’s hard to believe that so much suffering and dispossession can occur over soil. People are being displaced by something called borders. Those borders of nation states are not so different from borders between people. 

Suddenly everything became a matter of borders, borders created by language, by nationality, by way of living, borders constructed upon the illusion of difference. With every second passed, and smile shared, those differences fell apart, leaving behind a strange sensation in the chest. This semester in Dharamsala taught me that it is possible to cross those cultural borders by opening our hearts and ears, and understanding that all those cultural differences are mere illusions that we exercise through a thing called identity.  

There is so much resemblance between nation states and people. And to break free from borders, we also need to break from our illusion of self. That thing called self, changes while it moves. I move, therefore I am.

This is the way in which that corner in the Indian Himalayas became home, while I realized that I am not so different from snails, always carrying home with me.
The most important thing I learn at school is the fact that the most important things can't be learned at school.

Those days in Dharamsala have found a deep rooted place in my memory. A place where they will age old and sprinkle sunset colors before going to sleep. As of today, the images of a not so distant past swell and shrink inside me, shaking up my thoughts, making me believe that I’m capable of reaching true understanding.
Today, I have this strange feeling that I am not myself anymore. And it is a good thing, although it’s hard to put into words, I have been disassembled and now I’m capable of experiencing metamorphic changes through space and time.That sort of feeling. Hopefully these dear memories will live in my words and thoughts, making my life worth living.

Monday, December 16, 2013

These Friends of Mine by Allison Sturm

Rogpa Charitable Trust was established in 2004 and it means “Trusted Friend and Helper” in Tibetan. Rogpa is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture and empowering low-income Tibetan refugees to become self-sufficient.

Before our program incorporated a volunteering aspect to it, I decided ahead of time that I wanted to work at Rogpa Baby Care Center for my Bonner hours. Having been a camp counselor for three years, I was very excited to get involved with the children. Upon arriving at Rogpa, I was given a tiny sheet of Tibetan phrases that I was expected to use with the children. A few phrases that became ingrained in my Tibetan vocabulary were: “Come here” “Sit down” “Don’t do that” “Sorry” and “Clean up”.
On my very first day, I arrived at Rogpa around 12:30pm. As I walked into the Baby Care Center an immediate “awwww!” escaped my mouth upon seeing a little more than 20 napping babies perfectly lined up on mats on the floor. My boss Kalsang, led me to the locker room and helped me put on a green smock over my clothes and introduced me to 5 lovely Tibetan women who work as teachers at the center. However, within minutes, as the babies awoke from their naps, chaos began to ensue. Sitting on the floor, watching the babies interact, I was a bit timid. I kept thinking, “Will these babies like me? I must look like some weird “Inji” (foreigner) to them.  No more than five minutes had passed and my worried mind was put to rest, as three children came jumping at me for a full embrace. I was surprised by how friendly these children were; because I thought it would take them much longer to warm up to me.
After a week of working the afternoon shift, I decided to switch up my schedule and work in the mornings. My day started at 8:30am and ended at 12:30pm. Even though it was an early shift, there was never a dull moment in between. One of my favorite parts of the day was roll call. During this time, the children would sit in a line according to their group. As the teachers called out names, each child would raise their hand and shout “La yod!” I must have laughed every time they did this, because nearly every child, especially Pema Dorje in particular, jumped up with such excitement and shouted “La yod” with such passion, to make it known that they were fully present. My second favorite time of the day was singing and music time. One song I will never forget is the Rolly Poly song which goes like this:

“Rolly poly, rolly poly
Out out out, out out out.
Rolly rolly poly, rolly rolly, poly
In in in, in in, in
Rolly poly, rolly poly
Up up up, up up up
Rolly rolly poly, rolly rolly poly
Down down down, down down down
Rolly poly, rolly poly
Loud loud loud, loud loud loud
Rolly rolly poly, rolly rolly poly
Quiet quiet quiet, quiet quiet quiet”

Music time was great especially when the teachers would play Tibetan music. The children loved being picked up and spun around the room. I adore picking up and holding children, but after you pick up one child, you can forget about having a chance to rest, because then all of the children want to be picked up by you, which can be exhausting. But as for “first times” I am now able to say that I can successfully change a child’s diaper. Being the youngest in my family, I have never done such a thing, until working at Rogpa.
Feeding time is probably the most hectic time of the day. There were some days where I would be feeding two children at once. Lunches consist of either green or white porridge. Even though they don’t look very appetizing, the children gobble it up; and some even go up for seconds.
As for special days, Wednesdays and Fridays are the best days of the week. Wednesdays are known in McLeod Ganj as “White Wednesdays” which is a day in which Tibetans dress up in their cultural attire and speak pure Tibetan for the whole day. I love seeing the children all dressed up. I even wear my chuba on Wednesdays to show my support. On Fridays, Rogpa organizes a field trip to the Dalai Lama’s Temple! The children are so happy when they are allowed to go. At the temple, volunteers walk around with a child, picking them up so they can spin the prayer wheels as they recite the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. The whole day is filled with running, laughter, and of course smiling faces.
Overall, Rogpa has been a great place to get involved with the Tibetan community. On my very last day, all five of the teachers gave me a hug, thanked me, and told me to take care of myself. Before I left, one of the teachers put a white kata around my neck, and that’s when I truly realized that I would be leaving India fairly soon. I’m very sad that I’m not able to work at Rogpa anymore, but I made a promise to myself, and that promise is to return back to Earlham and raise awareness and funds for Rogpa Charitable Trust. Even if I can’t be physically present within the Tibetan community in exile, I will still be ever present for the cause.
Sending all my love to the Rogpa babies
<3 Allison 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Independent Travel Week - Getting Personal by Seijiro Takahashi

During the period from 1 November to 10 November, the participants of the Tibetan Studies Program were given the opportunity to travel to any location in India. Almost all of the members went their separate ways: on a vision quest in the deserts of Rajasthan whilst riding on the backs of camels, to a holiday partying on the beaches and clubs of Goa and Mumbai, to a romantic getaway in Udaipur, or on a snowy trek across the local mountains. That is, the members except for Forrest, Lynnell, and me. I decided to spend my entire Independent Travel Week in McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala, not venturing beyond these towns’ limits for the entire period. Some may say that I was not brave enough to set out on an adventure, and thus decided to opt out of one that involved frostbite and a lack of showers for ten days. This statement probably does have a fair amount of truth behind it, and the reason to remain in McLeod was especially convincing given that I wanted to extend home stay with my Tibetan host family, who had been so welcoming thus far. Moreover, though, my decision to stay in McLeod was also prompted by an urge to become further immersed within the local community. I wanted to learn from, and hopefully contribute to, the Tibetan community on a personal level.
Thus, after classes were out for Independent Travel Week, I began volunteering at Kunphen Centre for Substance Dependence and at the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet, and also received Tibetan conversation lessons. Kunphen is a registered non-governmental organization in India that provides Tibetans with treatment programs for alcohol and drug dependence, and is the first to address HIV/AIDS issues within the exile Tibetan community. Substance abuse is a severe and common issue within the Tibetan community, and is often a result of the burden placed on the psyche of refugees as well as the deteriorating forces working against Tibetan culture. On the first Tuesday evening of the week, I attended Kunphen’s Open Session – a discussion meeting for local Tibetans suffering or recovering from drug addiction. There, I met several Tibetan refugees who, after fleeing Tibet, had become caught up in substance abuse, some out of curiosity or boredom, others out of stress generated from missing their homeland or adapting to a new environment by themselves, without their families. Out of the numerous substance abuse clients in and around town, these individuals at the meeting sought out help from the director, Gen Dawa Tsering-la, who gave them places to live and jobs, including work in the beads factory located underneath the local kindergarten. By meeting these clients, all of who have made the conscious effort to regain control of their lives, I was presented with the efforts of a community in exile, which strives to reclaim its identity and dictate its own future despite detrimental losses.
Besides the Open Sessions, volunteering at Kunphen has brought about other opportunities for me to become involved with the community on a personal level. One such opportunity was in planning for and celebrating Universal Children’s Day on 20 November at Yongling Crèche and Kindergarten. On this day, Class I students from nearby TCV Day School and students from Heeru School were invited to Yongling School to celebrate children’s rights and solidarity amongst each other. The students were given a presentation on the negative aspects of substance abuse and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which was followed by games such as relay races and a drawing activity. Several Earlhamites attended the event, volunteering to help run the activities. In this way, involvement with Kunphen has offered us a chance, beyond the classroom setting, to observe and learn about the exile community.
            Established in 1991, the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet is an organization that provides food, shelter, education, and medical, financial, and psychological support to former political prisoners from Tibet. I have been attending the English conversation classes at Gu-Chu-Sum, and during Independent Travel Week, I would go there after I got out of Kunphen. Volunteering at Gu-Chu-Sum offered direct human contact, and allowed me to talk with the same students everyday, and to get to know them better. All of the students I have met are relatively young (in their twenties) and have been political prisoners of some sort in Tibet. Despite having suffered direct persecution under the Communist Chinese regime in Tibet, and having endured the hardships of having their friends perish, of escaping into exile, and of leaving their families and homes, the students at Gu-Chu-Sum laugh often and seem to appreciate, enjoy, and make the most out of their new situation as refugees. I was impressed by the studiousness of the students and their desire to improve their English. One of the students begins self-study early in the morning, attends English and computing classes at Gu-Chu-Sum before lunch, and then walks to Tibet Charity quite a distance away in the afternoon for additional English classes. The class ends at 4:10 pm, at which time he walks back to Gu-Chu-Sum to participate in the English conversation class from 4:30 – 6:00 pm. In the evening, he teaches another hard-working student Buddhist philosophy (he has been a monk since before escaping from Tibet) and then receives English lessons from her. He explains that since he only has one more year left at Gu-Chu-Sum before joining a monastery in southern India, he must make the most of his English studies. On separate occasions, these two students, when asked whom they would like to meet if they could meet anyone in the world, said that they would like to meet the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, in order to convey the suffering that Tibetans have been persevering. All of the students seem to agree that the adversary does not necessarily consist of the Chinese citizens, but rather, the oppressive Chinese government.
Another student escaped from Tibet into exile ten years ago, and became a monk in India. He explained that his family in Tibet (two brothers and two sisters) tells him that they miss him and want him to return. He hopes to do so after finishing a year at Gu-Chu-Sum, although he acknowledges the difficulties of returning to Tibet. He shared with me his dream, which is to return to his hometown to build a library, so as to make Tibetan texts available to the locals. He plans to name the library after the town’s old name. Being a former semi-nomad who was not educated whilst in Tibet, he believes that making education available to the ordinary population of Tibet would benefit the nation and its people, in that Tibet would be able to support itself in a modern world. He hopes to contribute to the education of ordinary Tibetans by teaching English and Buddhist philosophy to the residents of his hometown. Like him, many of the students at Gu-Chu-Sum are diligent in their studies and determined to use their education for the benefit of the Tibetan community. Volunteering here has been a very enjoyable experience, leading to some of the Earlhamites going out to dinner or festivals with them, or having a momo (Tibetan dumplings) party in their dining hall. Again, it is in the direct interactions with the Tibetans on a personal level that has provided the most joy and education about their culture and current situation. We have heard direct accounts of the struggles of Tibetan refugees, with whom we now interact as friends as a result of volunteering at Gu-Chu-Sum.
My decision to continue taking conversational Tibetan classes with Gen Namdrol-la during Independent Travel Week expresses a change that has taken place in my mind concerning the study of Tibetan culture. Before beginning the program, I did not expect to enjoy or become interested in studying the Tibetan language to the extent that I do now. Given the oppression Tibetans have and are facing, in which aspects of their unique culture have been systematically eradicated under the Communist Chinese regime, Tibetan cultural education in exile is especially crucial and valuable. Whilst on this program, I have been reminded that I am in an extremely lucky position to be able to study Tibetan language amongst other aspects of Tibetan culture, especially given that many Tibetans are struggling to preserve their own identity. A thorough understanding of the Tibetan language is a key advantage in achieving a deeper insight into the teachings of Buddhism, which are so central to Tibetan culture. In my case, despite the minute degree of my Tibetan language abilities, studying the language has provided a medium in which I can relate to Tibetans on a closer level.
In spite the personal interactions I have encountered via volunteering and studying the Tibetan language, I must say, the closest connections that I have made with members of the Tibetan community have come from my home stay. Living with my Tibetan host family was a thoroughly delightful experience, of which I have many fond memories – walking the children to their school, going to Bhagsunag waterfall, walking the khora around His Holiness’s temple, attending concerts, spending weekends on the roof enjoying the sun, celebrating my host nephew’s, Pa-la’s, and my birthday, to name some examples. It is difficult to express the amount of gratitude I have for my Ama-la, Pa-la, and younger sister and brother, who have welcomed me into their household, as if I were actually akin to them. Through their hospitality, my host family has shown me the noble human qualities of loving kindness and compassion, which Tibetans value so highly within their culture. Although it has been more than two weeks since I have left their house, we still try to spend time with each other.
Thus, although I did not set off on an adventure beyond the limits of McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala, by spending my Independent Travel Week here, I was able to explore the opportunities that can be found in the close interactions with the individuals of the Tibetan community. Learning to appreciate the value of behaving as a good human being has been one of the most significant lessons for me whilst participating in this Tibetan Studies Program.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sonder by Lydia Miller-Jewett

There is a certain word that has been cropping up more and more recently. It's origins are debatable, and perhaps therefore, so is its actually validity. It can't seem to be found in a formal English Dictionary, located instead among the numerous creations of language that have grown from internet mediums. The possibility of slipping into overuse and cliche is surely looming closer and a place in the company of many an overly romanticized travel notions such as 'wanderlust' is potentially approaching. But if we define a word as a unit of sound which somehow becomes a link to an idea for everyone that hears it, then 'Sonder', this new kid on the block, might just have its place in the magnificent system of expression that is language... Expressing the inexpressible.

n. "the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

If for no other reason, then because considering the truth and beauty in this concept is staggering. But perhaps what is even more remarkable is when this concept is suddenly surpassed. Someone of this "ant hill" is no longer just an momentary extra in your life but suddenly a legitimate part of it - someone you could not have even imagined existed just months before.
 As we approach around six weeks truly here in the community of Mcleod Ganj both the word sonder and that which surpasses it have become so starkly present.
When we first arrived, this place was a living, breathing tangle of unfamiliar. Dogs and shops and cows and cars... So few streets and yet a maze; A truly awe inspiring maze, perched gazing down into a sprawling valley and out at those impossible mountains...
And of course, within this buzzing chaos are people. So many people that have been existing simultaneously to you, their lives and your life equally complex and entwined with just as many other complex, entwined lives, just thousands of miles apart.
Like all communities, this community is a web of connections. The moment we moved through it with our host families, walking from the room at IBD where we met for the first time over a cup of tea, to their respective homes, we suddenly saw this web unfold before us in a way it never could with our previous, more touristy lens. People we had walked past countless times suddenly had a name and a relationship to our momentary moms and dads... Cafes were rendered a little less necessary because we now had a home in which we would eat our meals.
Even though on this program we are moving with a group of people we have previously known, voming into a new city, a new community, has the potential to highlight one's dependence and comfort on their normal community (or one of their normal communities) in a way more moving than anything else. A type of mutual 'ownership' shared between you and your previous community exists, and this relationship is brought into focus more than it could ever be while you are still living with it everyday.
You 'own' your community and it 'owns' you. We don't realize how flawlessly we function within the lives we lead, focusing too much on minor inconveniences. Every relationship, place, responsibility, fit seamlessly together with everything else to make up our lives.
But suddenly you land in a world where everyone has these seamless existences with each other and you must try to wriggle between the seemingly absent stitches.
​Soon not only your life, but also the lives of those around you have loosened their impossibly tight seams just enough to let you stitch yourself in. You can be a part of a community again. Living with a host family for only three weeks isn't nearly enough time to  experience this incredible feeling to the fullest extent. But something does change. You have an irrevocable addition to your life and no matter how brief the time was, it is an incomparable experience. Just trying to wriggle yourself into the 'stitches' of a family's existence for such a brief period of time highlights how beautifully complex every life is. There are traditions and quirks, and jokes and stories... And you get the incomparable opportunity to share in them, if only for the blink of an eye.

The stitches of a whole city are much looser, and it is a different feeling to find your place in between them. It doesn't take too long for you feet to take each turn on the way to your favorite restaurant or to the NGO where you volunteer with out much conscious direction from you. Faces begin to become familiar, names and experiences begin to be associated with those faces. A brand new place has become familiar, a brand new way of life has become habitual. This place can never again just be a name or a dot on a map. Now even though we no longer live with our families, we have a home of sorts - we can be walking down the street and hear our name called out... Turn around to see the beaming face of our Ama la (Tibetan for mother)  and tiny brother inviting you to come share a cup of chai.