***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.
Fortunately, I knocked a whole lot of sense into me. I said, “Listen, Hanna. You have been planning and dreaming and preparing for this adventure for months. Toughen up. You didn’t cross the seven seas and spend an arm an a leg just to curl up and cry. You are a strong woman. Before you know it, these precious days will be gone and you’ll never have the chance to re-live them. So be here now and live the experience that you want.” And so I listened.
The monastery is a beautiful community of women and children working together like a well-oiled machine, all the while with dazzling smiles painted on the faces of everyone that lives here. The sun shines all day, but the air is crisp, so everyone is wrapped neatly in wool. Our days begin with the rising sun, and end beneath the most beautiful blanket of stars that I’ve ever witnessed. It is truly a peaceful kingdom, far away from the grime of the world that I am so used to.
The school is a one-room clay structure at the bottom of the mountain. I have been teaching the children every day for two hours before lunchtime. Their enthusiasm knocks the wind out of me. I have never before witnessed children who want to learn as desperately as these children do. For as long as I live, I’ll never be able to wipe their little shouting voices saying, “Good morning, madame! How are you?” They love to sing. Fortunately, so do I. We’ve been working on the five senses and the body parts. The Hokey Pokey and Head & Shoulders are deeply ingrained into my daily lesson plans. Their joy bubbles out of them like rivers — great and never-ending. Whenever the missing starts to afflict my spirit, their sweet smiles pull me out of my funk. This morning as I said good-bye, we didn’t stop blowing kisses to each other until I was out of sight. These children are bundles of love and light, and are truly my saving grace.
The nuns have been magnificent to me, and are starting to feel like real family. They’ve even taken to calling me “nomo” which means “little sister.” “Nomo, more salt tea?” they’ll ask. “Yes, please!” I say. I never thought I’d say this, and please don’t tell my past self, but I’ve actually started to like salt tea!
The nuns have extremely basic English skills. So far the only words we exchange are: hello, good morning, how are you, I’m good, breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, and toilet. But the smiles are endless. The nuns never fail to greet me with the biggest smiles they can offer. The oldest nun, whom we refer to as grandmother, has the brightest smile in the world, despite her complete lack of teeth. I help her to polish silver, copper, and brass bowls every day in the light of the setting sun. She wears black sunglasses that make her look like a true gangster, and a crooked grin that never fails to lift my spirits.
I’m beginning English lessons with the nuns this week, which I admit, I’m quite nervous for. I don’t feel like it’s my place to be a teacher to women who are so much older and wiser than myself. But it’s just something I’ll have to get over. I am here to help in any way that I can, and if English lessons are what the nuns want, then English lessons are what the nuns shall get! I just have to remember that we are all teachers in different ways. The nuns can cook, sew, and build cottages like I’d never be able to. What I teach them will be returned to me a million times over.
Dinner time is always a riot. We all pile into the only room at the monastery with electricity — the kitchen. It’s a small room, raised above all the other structures, with cement floors and a constant buzz of flies clouding around the chimney. The room has raised carpets lining two walls of the perimeter. The other two walls are occupied by an impressive wall of bowls and cups, a tiny TV, and two giant wood-burning stoves. At night, the nuns love to watch their favorite Indian soap opera. If I understood what the characters were saying, it would probably be even more hilarious than it looks. From what I can gather, it’s a set of very attractive Indian royalty, always swept up in some drama. I kid you not, the camera does about six double takes of every surprised reaction. It’s hilariously bad, but the nuns love it.
Fortunately I’m not a picky-eater, because I’ve had to consume some strange meals thus far. Breakfast usually consists of chapati and sour yogurt. The chapati tastes like old pizza dough crust, but it fills me up. Lunch and dinner could be any combination of rice and sauce, sometimes speckled with hard cheese that looks like crusty play-dough, or, harmfully powerful Kashmiri pickles. I think I’ll start to make a food log. Tea is the one constant, though — morning, noon, and night, the nuns are pouring tea down my throat. Definitely another aspect of life here that I’ve had to adjust to! I think at this point, I have tea running through my veins instead of blood.
My spare time is spent playing with the children, reading, helping grandmother polish bowls, and writing long journal entries. I feel imbued with a deep sense of peace and simplicity in these mountains, it’s a very healing environment and I’m sincerely grateful to be here.
So with all that said, it is time I leave my precious internet post. Though I hope the internet centers begin to work properly in the coming weeks, what with the usual flow of summer tourists, I no longer trust the network capabilities of the Himalayas. I will resume my place at the monastery with a renewed sense of hope and strength after this first sign of my safe arrival has reached the states.
Best wishes, dear ones! Hope to be in touch soon!