I would like to share my final journal entry from my last day at the nunnery, because I think it reveals the true ways in which I've been touched by this experience. Or at least the feeling.
"It is my last day here at the nunnery. I woke up with the same feeling in my stomach as I have when I’m about to take an exam or perform on stage. Tight, anxious, anticipating. I can’t believe I’ve been here for two months. It really feels like just yesterday that I was slapping myself for wanting to go home because I knew that my time here would be over in a heartbeat. And now it is. Time is always moving forward, and it is amazing how quickly it does so.
The sadness is descending. Slowly and steadily. I am realizing how far away this place is from the rest of the world – nearly unreachable. I’m smiling because I’m an intrinsically happy person, and it’s almost impossible to be visibly upset in the presence of these sweet children and amazing women, but my heart is throbbing with a sentimental ache. I feel ready to leave, but readiness doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt to part with this place and these people. My new family, my new home.
I keep getting caught up in special little moments and my eyes fill with tears. I will miss the endless laughter, the jokes, the defined peaks that hug the valley, the girls running to embrace me, the constant flow of tea, and waking up alongside the breaking of sunrays over the valley. I will miss never having to worry about the state of my hair or the style of my clothes, the peace and quiet of a phone disconnected and untouched, folding dough for dinner, joking with the nuns about the holes in our socks (or windows, as we like to call them), and being warmed by Abi’s toothless grin. I will miss my girls welcoming me to class with a loud “Good morning, m’am!” I will miss the harmonic rhythm of the nuns’ chanting voices, and the damp wooden smell of the temple. I will miss it all.
Just as the nuns have been building new clay cottages on the hillside, so too has the spirit of the nunnery been building a home for the memories of this special place in the vast, open territories of my heart. All the beautiful moments I’ve experienced here exist in every beat – reverberating out into the universe. This place and the love that it fosters is now an undeniable part of me. A part that can never be washed away or burned, lost or borrowed, buried or destroyed. With the passing of time the memories might slip deeper into my subconscious, but they will never leave. They will never die.
This place has grown slowly and twistingly, like an ivy rope, through the blood in my veins, along the curve of my smile, and around the cage of ribs in my chest. I feel the spirit in me and around me, and when I’m gone I will carry it with me. I will spread the love I’ve known here with each footstep, handshake, and smile. When I first got to the nunnery, I doubted if this place would change me. I was closed off, and I thought I’d remain that way – resistant to the essential soul of the people and of the place because I was scared to be touched by something unfamiliar. But slowly slowly I’ve opened up like, the wild roses that bloom here in the summer, and I’ve let the sunshine inside me. I will never forget these moments and the way they’ve strengthened my heart. Although this physical space, this sacred place, is as far away as the moon, I can always return just by listening to the steady rhythm of my heart. There lies the spirit. There lies the love."
I have about a million more – but here are a few pictures to paint some sort of visual of my Himalayan adventure…
Abi-lay (grandmother) and I became best friends over the summer. I told her I wanted to send her photos of us together, but she told me that she doesn’t like looking at herself in pictures. Last summer, she threw all her photos over the bridge into the river!
This photo was taken in Karsha village where I spent a week attending a holy festival. Here you can see the traditional dress for Ladakhi women.
Atop a mountain, next to the ruins of the old Zangla palace.
Making the hike to the monk monastery in Karsha. I followed these nuns around like a lost puppy…
Yangdol (3) washing her hands.
It's proving to be a summer of firsts. My first time traveling alone, first time in India, first time being in the mountains, first time experiencing Buddhist culture, first time teaching, first time doing research of any kind.
Just as I questioned my ability to teach, I wondered why I was ever selected to perform research. I have no qualifications and I've never done an interview in my life. Okay I interviewed a 90 year old war veteran for my 8th grade history class, but that experience didn't exactly help me to feel more confident about this project.
So I came here with no teaching experience, no research experience, AND very limited information about the area I'd be working in because many aspects of Zanskar have not yet reached the World Wide Web aaaas you might have guessed based on my trying experiences with the Internet here thus far. I was, for the most part, blind. The question, "What the hell am I doing here?
" passed through my mind more times that I'd like to admit.
But nevertheless, I always finish what I start, or I die trying. (Except for running. Running doesn't count). I would attack this research project with the spirit and vigor of an utterly passionate, totally unqualified college student.
So let's set the groundwork...
In 2013 I went to Malawi, Africa with buildOn -- an organization that galvanizes students to volunteer in their local communities, and also sends these same students to build schools overseas. This experience deserves more than a meager paragraph, but for the sake of brevity, I'll stick to the important details. The trip changed everything for me. It showed me the true direction of my life, and inspired a blazing sense of purpose within me. Though I vaguely sensed my raison d'être before the journey, my time in Kachere helped me to become intimately familiar with it. I knew that I was to dedicate my life to helping our global community of children to have equal access to quality education. I realize that this all sounds extremely romantic. Almost too romantic, even for my taste. But these words come from the truest place my heart knows.
1. Patience is the mother of all virtues
It is a lesson I keep on learning. In Zanskar, things happen on their own time, at their own pace. Need to send an important email? Well first you have to wait a few weeks for tourist season to actually begin. When it finally begins, then you have to wait full weeks at a time before getting to use twenty expensive minutes of slow WiFi. Then you have to wait in Padum all day for the jeep-taxi at 4 o'clock
. Theeeeen you have to wait an hour and half to get back to Zangla as you bump jarringly along the stone littered road. At meal times and tea times you have to wait patiently through two hour long conversations in Ladakhi. Need to buy something from the one shop in Zangla? You'll just have to do a bit more waiting because it's only open from 5 PM to 6 PM
, and some days not at all because the shopkeeper is tired. If a nun says we're milking the cow at 3 o'clock
, she was just kidding. She actually meant 7 o'clock
. And if you really need to get to the closest city center? It's a nineteen hour off-roading expedition with ten other people and no leg room. You learn to become okay with the waiting because it's the only thing you can
do. Being upset would make the waiting unbearable, so instead you just transform into this extremely patient, highly observant superhuman.
2. Happiness is best when shared.
The Ladakhi culture is one of sharing and total generosity. They say you can live in Zanskar forever without any money or a place to stay because you can just walk into any home and you'll be greeted with tea, biscuits, rice, and a place to sleep. Even if you're a complete stranger, "what's mine is yours
" applies to all. If you have food in your hand, the first thing you do is offer it to those around you. One day in class, the girls were given sweets, and my little Datsal offered her chocolates to everyone and was only left a single one for herself. The generosity that exists here is utter instinct -- no one thinks twice before offering what they have to others. You simply do not keep things to yourself; if it's yours, it's everyone's. I have long recognized that one of my biggest inner projects is to work on the selfish parts of my character. I strive to be so giving that I'd give away my last piece of bread if I was starving on the street. In the spirit of Ladakhi generosity, every week when I'd go to Padum, I would buy eggs and cookies for the nunnery, some treats for the kids, and caramels to pass out in the jeep-taxi for my car-mates traveling back to Zangla. I have come to realize that you only deserve what you are willing to give. We may exist in autonomous bodies, but we live in a global community. As members of this community, it is our duty to think not only ourselves, but more importantly, to be concerned with the well-being of our brothers, sisters, aunties, and uncles. And how do we do this? By giving.
The nunnery is literally transforming before my eyes. Well I suppose I'm the one who is transforming, really. The place hasn't changed at all, merely the way I'm experiencing it.
When I first got here, I felt like I was drowning in titanic waves of unfamiliarity. Everything was too different. Too foreign. I claimed to be a lover of all things new, but Zanskar was out of my league. I counted the hours until I could go to sleep and crossed the days of my calendar with relief. Each day felt more like a century. Although I wasn't proud of my feelings, I was ready to go home the moment I got here.
Now I avoid my calendar at all costs because it only serves to remind me of the dwindling time I have to spend in this community. My days pass by before I can even blink an eye -- like the sun is rising and setting in the very same breath. My time here is rushing by so quickly, it almost feels as though I'm trying to hold onto a curl of smoke.
Every single day begins with laughter. (Mainly because my room is attached to the children's room and they rise at 6 AM with the specific purpose of squeezing in some early morning playtime). Their joyful yelps and giggles, unsuccessfully stifled by the early hour, are my faithful alarm clock.
Teaching English as a second language is definitely not as easy as I thought it would be. Actually, that's not true. I knew exactly how hard it would be. I was anxious about having to teach for months before coming to India, because the fact of the matter is (and it's no big surprise) -- I've never taught English before. Okay yes Mom, I've tutored before, but it's not the same thing. I've never been THE teacher in a classroom. Never Madame Hanna. Never the omniscient authority whose job it is to bestow knowledge upon a group of wide-eyed six year olds waiting patiently for instruction. Although they're young, it's still intimidating being the one in charge. Especially since I know I'm only a 19 year-old college sophomore. "I'm not qualified to do this," I think to myself. "These kids deserve better than a lousy college student. What can I do? I'm not even a real teacher."
But I'm getting more confident everyday. Not only are the kids quickly soaking up what I have to offer, but I'm learning too. About what it actually means to be a teacher and all the subtle intricacies that you don't pick up on until you're the one standing at the front of the class. Each day I enter the classroom with more experience and more wisdom than I had the day before. And so do they! Each subsequent day becomes easier because I can build off what we worked on the day prior. It's so gratifying to hear them say, "Today is Monday June 13th!" when just a few days ago they were struggling with the days of the week. However I still have this small voice that whispers in my ear from time to time that says, "You're not the right person for this job." But I've come to two conclusions...
1) I think it's a good thing to acknowledge that there is room for major improvement in terms of foreign aid. Most ESL teachers are young and untrained, including myself. Although enthusiastic and good-intentioned, they are simply not qualified, and usually only stay in a given school for one to two months at a time. Yes, something may be better than nothing, but we should be working towards more solid and lasting forms of educational support. At present, ESL teachers are bandages at best. They patch up the holes for a short period of time, and then fall off. It's important that I acknowledge that I'm playing a role in the system that I want to see improved, else I'm playing a role in upholding its weaknesses.
And 2) I may feel inadequate and inappropriately named as a teacher because I, myself, have gone through an educational system led by professionals who've trained intensely just to carry the title of "teacher." However that doesn't mean I can't serve my time here in a meaningful way. What little knowledge I do impart on these children holds value, even if it is in a small degree. And moreover, they're getting just as much cross-cultural experience as I am. They're learning from and interacting with an individual from an entirely distinct culture who knows a language far different from their own. It is a unique opportunity that I'm so happy to share with them. We are learning from each other everyday, and there is supreme value in knowledge gained through this sort of personal, intimately connected, experiential vein.
***Originally from May 31, 2016***
So this is exactly my third time in Padum trying to access the internet. The first, second and third time, the internet was down at both internet centers in town. But a friend in need is a friend indeed, or so they say. One of Lobzang's friends, Soodan, made it his mission to help me get in touch with home. His father, a pharmacist at the local hospital, is good friends with the president of the Zanskar school district. Soodan and I drove to the president's house, explained my sad situation, and we were given permission to use the single computer at the high school. When Google's colorful letters appeared on my screen, I almost cried. You have no idea how special it is to be able to communicate with loved ones until you've experienced complete and utter disconnection. Seriously. It is physically impossible to get in touch with the outside world in these mountains. It took me three 3-hour round-trips to Padum just to be able to send a few emails. It's something I'm getting used to, but it is undoubtedly the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my entire life. I only have an hour to write about a novel's worth of experiences at the monastery, so please excuse my lack of literary flair. But here I go!
The monastery feels as though it is at the end of the Earth. The village of Zangla is situated as far as the road dares to go, and the monastery is at the tail of it. Beyond it lies completely uncharted territory -- gorgeous valleys untouched by human hands. I've never felt so far away from the world. The monastery is a cluster of white, clay cottages on the side of the mountain. There's a main courtyard with a tall steeple of prayer flags, a large room for puja ceremonies, two latrines, a library, several small cottages for the nuns to sleep, and a kitchen/dining room raised above it all. I am staying in the library, a beautifully colorful room covered in tapestries and oriental rugs. I have a thin mattress in the corner, next to which I've placed all my earthly belongings into neat little rows.
I've been here for about a week now, and it feels as though I've been here for months. A second wave of culture shock knocked me down when I first stepped into the monastery. Knowing that I couldn't reach my loved ones, no matter how hard I cried, shocked my body and mind like nothing I've ever experienced. Although the nuns and children were to become a new family, I felt incredibly alone. The missing was too great. It plagued my spirit like the black death, and I wanted nothing more than to go home, curl up in my own bed, and smell my mom's cooking from downstairs.
My time in Leh was difficult. Going from the Gupta family's extremely warm welcome to complete isolation from even a single familiar face was jarring and harder than I ever could have imagined. I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was so utterly alone, overwhelmed by the choking dust that swirls through the unpaved streets, by the intense and unwanted stares from the local men, and I hate to say it, by the painfully slow hotel WiFi tipped me past breaking point. I was doubly distressed because I've always had this romanticized image of myself -- a capable, brave, and unabashedly confident solo female traveler. But there I was, alone and teary-eyed in the confines of my guesthouse bedroom -- the total opposite of everything I had dreamed myself to be.
I left for Padum yesterday morning. The driver picked me up from the Jigmet Guesthouse at 6 AM sharp, and to my surprise, there was another woman in the car who was also headed to Zanskar. Her name is Lobzang Karmo, and as you soon shall see, she became my first and closest friend in the lonely Himalayas.
So we were off! The three of us, luggage strapped to the roof, headed to the valleys of Zanskar...or so I thought. Five minutes into the drive, we stopped by a row of shops. "Two ladies are coming," Lobzang said. Before I knew it we were off again, this time with a total of eight bodies in the car -- our faithful driver, three beautiful mothers, two toddlers, a baby, and me. I admit, I was actually very comforted to be joined by three women, and even though it was a tight fit in that dusty, old jeep of ours, I felt cozy and safe. And so, with a giant plume of white dust on our tails, our journey to Zanskar began.
Let me first preface this story by saying that I thought this was going to be an easy nine-hour drive. That was not the case. We left Leh at 6 AM and reached Padum at 1 AM. So if my math is not mistaken, and it usually is, that's a nineteen hour jeep trek. Nineteen hours of what I can only describe as pure off-roading in the middle of the Himalayan mountains. Bumpy, perilous, and absolutely unforgettable.
The first leg of the trek was admittedly quite smooth. The Border Roads Organization, or as they like to refer to themselves, BRO, has done an impressive job of paving the otherwise rocky mountain path between Leh and Kargil. That said, the road still breathed a distinct air of danger. The road was a single stream of thin, twisty lanes that overlook unimaginable heights. One wrong turn and our little jeep would be smashed and rotting thousands of feet below in one of the deep cracks of the Earth. Every mile or so there was a new sign with a clever reminder about the fragile state of human mortality. "Life is short, don't make it shorter, Bro," or "Better late than never, Bro!" And so on. I felt a special, almost familial camaraderie with these warning signs.
Almost three months ago today, I was sitting in Hill Auditorium with some friends, about to watch the University Choir perform. I'd been waiting all day for notice about the fellowship, frantically checking my email every other minute, praying for an acceptance letter. It was 8pm, and my heart was sinking deeper and deeper into my body. "I knew I wouldn't get it..." I thought to myself, sinking low into my velvet seat.
I began my application for the Summer in South Asia fellowship last October. I had poured inordinate amounts of time, energy, passion, and hope into this opportunity. Summer in India became almost a memory of some future time -- there was no doubt in my mind that I would be living out this dream that I had so fiercely committed myself to. But there I was. Eight o'clock on acceptance day, and still no email.
The show was just beginning. The orchestra members waited patiently on stage arranged in fine swooping arcs, their gold instruments glittering beneath the stage lights. I had been waiting for this performance for weeks, yet I couldn't pick myself up. My heart was broken, my spirit crushed. I thought I had failed. As the first violinist glided on stage, the audience of five-hundred began to applaud. Mindlessly, I swiped open my email. "Congratulations! I'm excited to notify you that you have been selected as a 2016 Summer in South Asia Fellow!" The applause was thundering loudly around me, as if this assemblage of five hundred strangers had gathered here simply to congratulate me. I started to cry and turned my phone screen to my friends sitting next to me. Their eyes grew wide in realization and they threw their arms around me. The choir started to sing, and it was all just too much. I had truly never been happier in my life.
(Yes, I swear this happened).