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.
Mornings are fresh and quiet. The air is cool, and the mountains are dripping in dawn’s pale paint. I usually eat breakfast with the kids. We sit side-by-side in the kitchen, and dine on chapati (local bread) which we dip in our tea. The kitten that lives here joins us too. He quietly naps in the pocket of warmth beneath the wood burning stove. After breakfast, I wash the tea cups in the stream.
Sometimes I attend puja with the nuns in the temple around 8 o’clock. The temple is a cool, dark room filled with colorful fabrics, offerings, ancient books, and a giant golden Buddha at the center. The nuns then go into an hour-long chanting session. Their voices become one — a hypnotic hum, dipping in and out of crisp harmony. I don’t know the words to the chants, so I just meditate for the hour that they’re praying. The chanting makes it so easy to meditate. I pretend that I’m an empty nought of bamboo, and the richness of their voices is summoning the spirit of the Earth to fill me up. After puja, I’m ready to start the day with a clear head.
I make my way down the hill to the school around 10:45. There’s a faint path worn into the gray dirt which I try unsuccessfully not to slip on. The soles of my TOMS are completely smooth from intense daily use, and provide no traction whatsoever. I’ve also worn holes into the toes, and the fabric is covered in white specks from churning butter — two facts I’m strangely proud of. I think there’s something important about using something for so long that it has a chance to meet its end.
I teach between 11 and 1 everyday. Two hours doesn’t sound like much, but maaan who knew this job could be so tiring? When I enter the classroom, my nine little kiddies all scramble to stand up and then scream in a chorus, “GOOD MORNING MADAME! How are you?” “I’m great!” I say. “And how are you?” “I’m fine!” They all shout with as much power as their tiny voices can punch out. Their energy literally knocks you over.
In class we color, we sing, we dance. I try to make it as fun and creative as possible, just to break up the normal routine. During my two hours, the teacher nun will help to translate bits of my lessons that might be unclear, and she also makes sure that the children are behaving. The kids are never mean or rude, they’re just so full of giggles and wiggles that sometimes it’s hard for them to sit still and pay attention.
I’m always so impressed by the way they interact with one another. There’s not a drop of animosity between them. No one teases, no one makes fun. They are incredibly patient, and never complain. When I hand out stickers at the end of my lesson, there’s never any fighting or pushing over who gets to be first, and no one whines about what sticker they got. I didn’t even know it was possible for kids to be so nice to each other. The experience I’m having with the kids here is so vastly different from my experience with children last summer (when I was a camp counselor in upstate New York), that I’m starting to think my munchkins are secretly professional actresses.
We have lunch at one o’clock. I lead the little nuns up the hill, and we meet the elder nuns in the kitchen. By this time everyone is starving; few words are exchanged as we scarf down our rice and vegetables. The children scurry out once they finish, and I’ll rest in the kitchen and spend time with the elder nuns. It’s so powerful to be surrounded by these strong women — truly the essence of girl power. I feel like I have a team of mothers and aunties behind me at all times. In a society where women are viewed as less-than, I feel safe and valuable living in a community of ladies.
After lunch, I collect all the dishes and get to washing. I make sure to do the dishes every day because it’s the only chore I’m actually good at. My cow-milking skills are evidently poor, and apparently I’m not a good judge of which cow dung is good for kindling. Sometimes I help with cooking — cutting vegetables and rolling dough for dinner — but I’m mainly the go-to dishwasher. The nuns say “Nomo tampa!” which means “Little sister active!” because I’m always eager to help and get my hands dirty.
My friend Nurboo (who is here from Leh to help the nuns with building new cottages) says that it’s the reason I’m having such a positive experience here. Sometimes Western volunteers feel that since they’re teaching they don’t have any further responsibilities, and expect to be waited on. This didn’t even cross my mind when I first arrived here. I thought I wasn’t doing nearly enough to help, and I felt useless and lazy as a result. So I dove into helping with chores, and it turned out to be the best decision I could have made. I earned the nuns respect, and I also strengthened the part within myself that felt weak for not contributing enough. Doing chores makes me feel valuable. Like I really belong here.
I realized that if you truly want to experience a new culture, you have to immerse yourself completely. You can’t dip your toes in just to see if the temperature is up to your standards; you must submerge yourself fully, despite the strange or uncomfortable aspects. If you start to modify parts of the culture that you don’t like, for example, rejecting certain unfamiliar foods, refusing to get your hands dirty, and making unreasonable special requests to suit your personal preferences — the experience will be watered down and fake. The experience you live will not capture the true essence of the culture, rather, it will be your version of it. You must live exactly as the locals do — salt tea, fly-filled latrines, and butter churning included. When entering into a new culture, it is vital that you avoid treating it like a buffet — picking only what you like and then avoiding what you don’t. There’s only one thing on the menu, friends. And you eat everything, or none of it at all. Only then will you come to know the culture and the people in the genuine and intimate way that you seek.
After lunch I have some free time. I usually fill these hours with journaling, reading, or exploring the mountains that surround Zangla valley.
I’ve read four books since I’ve been here: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Be Here Now by Ram Dass, The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, and Into the Wild by John Krakauer. Each book has helped me to adjust to my new life here, and each has taught me important lessons that I needed to learn in the moment that I was reading them. Books are funny like that. Whichever book you’re reading magically seems to apply to your life at that very moment. It’s the universality of experiences and emotions, I suppose. My journey here has shown me the important role books play in healing. Books become like friends that you can hold onto when you feel like you have no one else.
My afternoon explorations have taken me to the Old Zangla Palace — a fortress that oversees the valley, the top of a mountain that sits behind the monastery, the raging Zanskar River and its clay river beds speckled in stones, the monk monastery in Karsha that’s built into a cliff, and the healing springs of Padum. (Pictures to come when my journey comes to close; the net capabilities are not equipped to download photos).
At night, everyone piles into the kitchen. We watch Indian soap operas as dinner is prepared. I can only guess what’s going on because the shows are in Hindi, but my favorite program is between 8 and 8:30. I thiiiink it’s about a princess who has some sort of dark secret that she’s hiding from her family and her boyfriend. I have no idea, but I love it anyway! Dinner is usually some variation of dough and boiled lettuce. I’ve been having quite a few food dreams while I’ve been here…hahaha.
I don’t have a light in my room, so it’s basically bedtime once I leave the kitchen. I’m not bothered, though, because by the end of the day I’m exhausted. I slip into my sleeping bag and drift immediately into a lively dream cinema.
Each day I spend here holds different treasures that are buried in the tiny moments. I find them in the sunlight that streams through the kitchen windows at breakfast, the sound of the children laughing, the sweetness of hot tea, the leathery texture of grandmother’s hand in mine, and the subtle waxing and waning of the moon. I’m learning to see the beauty in each and every moment. Who knew these mountains would become my greatest teachers?