Monastic Life

Hello. It has been one year since I started the McdonaTravels blog. This amazes me. My year of travels is almost up and I will be returning home in mid-July. For the past couple of weeks since we got done with trekking, we have been relatively settled down. We are living in Khawalung Tashi Choeling Monastery, a monastery built in 2005 for the children the Buddhist monastery takes in to training. We wake up around five AM to the sounds of puja or prayers of the monks (almost forty of them ranging in age six to eighteen). Around 8:30, after breakfast, we start teaching the ‘level one’ monks who range in education from barely knows ABCs to being able to do complex subtraction. They are a crazy bunch. At 10:00 AM we start with the level ones who can speak at least a good two sentences of English and range in ability from 2+2 to long division.

We spend our morning tripping over language barriers, ability gaps, mental and physical health issues of our students, and general boy-drama (you know… fighting with monk robs, throwing rocks, fist fights, etc. – monks are not exempt from boyish childhood, we’ll have you know.) My favorite student, call him Sumit, is the smallest of them all. He can barely speak a word of English, is bullied for his size, and is cautiously proceeding with his knowledge of the English alphabet (three letter average per day). The other day while Sumit and I were outside singing the ABCs, I noticed a large gash under his chin. I asked the boys to take him to the lama or head of the monastery where he was gently patted on the head and given some water, but no medical attention.

It’s not that the quality of living for the boys is bad. In Nepal, 25% of the population lives below the poverty line (World Bank 2011) and 50,000 children are reported to die every year with 60% of those suffering from malnutrition (UNICEF 2012). With numbers like these, the Buddhist monks provide a crucial service by taking in many orphans, street children, and others who otherwise would not receive an education. All the boys are well-taken care of, fed healthy meals, and semi-watched over.

For the most part, the boys run not only the monastery, but us. They are self-policing with the older ones taking care of the younger and seem to have their own elaborate system of punishment and rewards for dissenters. There is one head lama in our monastery, but the guy we report to is just an eighteen year old who has, like the others, spent most of his life there. So for the last couple weeks, this has been our life. I like to look after the small and run-over kids, while Michael has taken a special admiration for several extremely fast students who, despite not speaking English, have gone from addition to long division in a couple of weeks with his help (by the way, can you do long division? We had to google it in order to teach it).

Other than that, most of the kids are honestly ‘troublemakers’ – aren’t most? And Michael and I don’t really want to become teachers. It’s hard though. There are no expectations, no tests, no lesson plans, no worksheets, and barely pencils/paper – we bought some at a local store for the kids and white board markers. I also believe unequivocally that if you want to volunteer or teach English in a place long term, it is absolutely necessary for you to learn the language, and it’s inhibiting our ability to do anything right here. Especially with kids, they don’t trust strange sounding/looking people anyway, speaking the language helps them build a trusting relationship and more importantly, respect you. Alas, we are not here long-term and are just doing what we can in the time we have. Long division, I think, is an ambitious goal.

In the afternoons, we go over to Padma Nepal House (padmanepal.org) where about twelve kids live so that they have a secure place to stay while they go to school. The kids are amazing. We have conversation hour with them so that they can practice English and they continue to teach us many things. Some of the boys have gone from failing to being top of their class in the last year. The girls are all equally ambitious, if not doubly quiet. They are all children from unstable homes and it is remarkable to look at street children (way too abundant in Nepal) and the Padma kids and imagine them in those types of conditions. Poverty makes it almost impossible to be a good student, and the opportunity to have meals, security, and study time means these kids are on the right track to become nurses, doctors, teachers, and work for a better future in Nepal. If you feel so inclined, please think about sponsoring the kids with a donation at padmanepal.org

Other than that, we have been eating dal bhat (rice and dal) every night at Padma, playing chess with some older students, and enjoying the abundant coffee shop scene in Bouddhanath. The interesting thing about Nepal is that though it is ‘technically’ poorer (if we define poverty by GDP/capita for this example) than say, Nigeria, it has a huge tourist infrastructure and thus a huge import economy supporting free trade mochas, free-wifi cafés, and all other white-people treasures. Go to any of these cafes and you’re sure to overhear INGO workers, USAID employees, Buddhist fanatics, and mountain climbers having discussions about the mishandled political situation, free Tibet, and their newest poverty-alleviating work in such and such rural area. Where in Nigeria you had to fight to the death for a Snickers or Lays Chips that expired three years ago, all US and European products you could dream of sell for cheaper in Kathmandu. This leads to a ridiculous surplus of “German Bakeries” (what is that anyway?) and “Mexican Food” likely to attract westerners. This is because no one goes to Nigeria, whereas everyone wants to go to Nepal.

This phenomena, supported by government ineptitude and mismanagement results in a weird culture of white dwellers in the cafes, and street-dwellers living in immense poverty directly outside them. Whereas our neighborhood is not so dramatic, the Bouddha Stupa, the heart of Tibetan stupas outside Tibet itself (which is currently occupied by China) fully displays these visceral images. No time was in more apparent than yesterday, which happened to be Buddhajayanti, or Buddha’s birthday celebrated every May on the full moon since 567 BCE. Buddhists believe that on this day karma is multiplied by ten million. Ten million! This means every kind gesture, charitable donation, and prayer as well as every fight, mean glance, and dishonesty is multiplied to its fullest. For Tibetans, Bouddha Stupa is the most holy place outside of Tibet. So on Buddha’s birthday, thousands of people made kora (pilgrimage) to the stupas all around Kathmandu to gain the most karma they could. What you have to realize is that this means people walk around with wads and wads of cash looking for someone to make charity upon. This resulted in the largest gathering of the poor, disabled, outcasted, and orphaned group of people I have ever seen. Through allies leading to the stupas, throngs of sick and poor crowded as karma-hungry pilgrims handed food, water, and money one by one. INGOs lined up to do everything from HIV testing to lessons about clean water. All this happened while pilgrims walked hurriedly around the large stupa (takes about five minutes). They had to walk 108 times (this is a holy number, not sure why, we were also told if you can’t do 108 it’s best to do an odd number so we settled on five) before attaining the full karma. Loud Buddhist chants echoed from the stupa and incense burned constantly throughout the day and night.

Michael and I laughed about some of the traditions – some people believe you have to prostrate yourself every step around the stupa, lying down every couple of steps, blocking the way for everyone to walk. The number of times you had to go around seemed somewhat arbitrary and the customs odd. What is beautiful about this is that it really makes you reflect on your own traditions and religion. Raised Catholic, I would never ask why everything was in sevens and forties (traditionally holy numbers for Christians). That whole wine-is-actually-Christ’s-blood thing sometimes freaks people out. Similarly to the Buddha’s birthday, Jesus’ birthday was probably not in December and unless you know about pagan culture under the Romans, the date seems truly bizarre but we still celebrate it on that day without a question.

I remember when we were in India with a friend; we went to the VaranasiUniversity temple with some students. Every time you enter or exit a temple, Hindus hit a bell above the entrance with their hand. I asked our friend Ari why they did that and his friend thought for a minute and said “I don’t know. Big sound. It’s nice.” They are both devout Hindus. It makes us realize that we have a lot of stories from a very long time ago (Hebrew traditions, admittedly) that we still do, but have no idea why or where they came from. We never think, “woah this would look so weird to a Buddhist” when you carry out the traditions in a church or in a different country. That’s one of the largest values of traveling. To come home again as a foreigner and see some of the absurdity they might see.

Despite the poverty and truly depressing pollution in Kathmandu, I love my situation. We are both sad Michael is leaving in only three days (AAHHHH) but I’m glad I’m staying another month and feel energized by actually working with people (are children people?) everyday.

Some colorful quotes from our couple weeks entering the world of teaching:

Michael: What is the name of this one [points at map]?
Kid 1: Brazil!
Michael: Don’t read off of it. Anyway, I want a continent, that’s a country.
Kid 2: *stares* Country!

Michael: You want a beard when you grow up?
Kid: No.
Michael: Why?
Kid: I like but, gets in the way of mouth.

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