Boudhanath Prayer Flags - On Halloween Night...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Auspicious Days (...and nights) at Boudhanath

Today was yet another very auspicious day at Boudha... This is the reincarnation day of Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat (Gelukpa) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. There are several sects, such as the Red Hats (Kagyupa), Black Hats, Nyingmapa, etc... The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelukpa, as do many residents of our neighborhood. So tonight many homes, windows, balconies, and the stupa were lit up with thousands of candles, colored lights, and butter lamps. A lovely evening, with so much happening around the great stupa....

We are so thankful to be living here, as opposed to the tourist ghetto of Thamel. In this part of Kathmandu, most of the activity is centered around the monasteries, the stupa, walking the kora in prayer, spiritual study, and improving one's karma. Every morning and evening, and throughout the day, steady streams of pilgrims walk up and down our street, heading for the stupa with their prayer beads... Of course there are typical commercial operations, souvenir shops, cafe's, etc., but all of this shuts down by 6 or 7 pm. Many of the foreigners we meet around here are long-term residents, volunteering, teaching, or studying Buddhism or language. It's quite a different crowd than the bar-hopping dance-party scene in Thamel!

There are MANY auspicious days on the lunar calendar.... Full moons, new moons, and the 8th, 10th, and 25th deserve special attention. Buddha's birthday, enlightenment day, and parinirvana day are major celebrations. A few days ago was another "festival" to honor the Rinpoche of the nearest Monastery... The white dome of the stupa was freshly white-washed, and saffron water was splashed across the dome to make a lotus blossom pattern. Up until a few years ago, thousands of butter lamps were lit all around the base of the stupa, but that was apparently "too messy... too difficult." Now they string up colorful electric lights on special nights instead. It's a bit ironic, as the constant power outages in KTM usually black out the celebratory lights for much of the evening. Butter lamps would be far more dependable than Nepal's Electricity Grid. Many tiny niches around the stupa, each with a tiny buddha image, are filled with candles by devotees, and thousand and thousands of butter lamps are lit on portable carts and tables set up in the surrounding courtyard. Special prayers are chanted by groups of monks seated at the North point of the stupa, and huge mounds of fruit, biscuits, and flowers pile up as worshippers make their offerings.

Living in the neighborhood allows us to experience so many of these special nights! If we just visited once or twice, you'd miss all these incredible moments. We try to do a kora or 2 around the stupa each evening, just in case there is something special happening! It is such a pleasure and a gift to call Boudhanath our neighborhood for these few months.... I will deeply miss this place when we leave in a few weeks.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Our Last School Day... Overwhelmed by Gratitude!

From Karen's journal -- We just wrapped up 6 weeks of volunteer teaching, and leading bird walks in and around Kathmandu. We are feeling the bittersweetness of wrapping up our life here; a sweet set of daily rituals involving people who became our family. We poured our hearts into Manasarovar school! Though we were teaching full-time and putting out all that we had to give, we were re-filled each day with much more than we ever dreamed! We learned so much about being truly, simply alive and getting all that we can out of our time each day. We learned that dal-bhat is the perfect daily meal for 325 Tibetan kids and ours daughters too! We learned about having curiosity for everything in the world and how to ask questions of anyone willing to answer! We saw up close every day the humility that allows the two founding women to welcome us into their office every day, take up their desk space, change things, teach them our ways of doing things, and help them with whatever we could... And they soaked it up, laughed and smiled constantly, and always thanked us for being there. We felt grateful to have learned so many things about the methods of teaching and administrating a school here in Nepal! How much more could we all get done in a day if we were more disciplined! Balance is a thing we are constantly learning about too! Anyway, we were so impressed with the heart and soul of this simple school in Kathmandu, working to provide quality education and also keep Tibet alive and beating in the hearts and spirits of 325 children. And it is working!

There was both sweetness & sadness in completing our fulfilling month and a half at Manasarovar Academy… with its smiling students and brilliant teachers and the cement block building where life is played out each school day. We will miss being a part of the pulse here that is these kids’ existence. Our hearts were so warmed by the students ‘Farewell’ to us which was all, love, compassion, and kindness. We are always impressed with these kids’ thoughtfulness and the fact that it all comes from them. I mean, nobody told them that they can’t go out for recess until they write ‘thank you’ notes to ‘those nice American volunteers’! With their own money the kids from all of our classes chose gifts from the local gift shops for us, and spent their own time writing beautiful, heartfelt sentiments to us in long letters with illustrations. They only ask their own hearts what to write. Their hearts say things like this (enjoy the spelling!): “First of all I want to wish you a happy congrasolation thank you for teaching us science and math.” And “Dearest my lovely Sir Paul and Miss Karen. First of all I would like to say thanks for coming in our class and teaching us new things. It was very fun with you both. I hope you have a long life and save journey. Best of luck for every step you take…” And, “I am very sad that today is the last day with us. But I will never forget your kindness and all the things you have taught us. Though Miss and Sir you only taught us for 5 weeks, I enjoyed your class. I am very thankful to you. I wish Miss and Sir will always be happy and can struggle to every obstacles that can come in life. I will never forget and I hope that we will meet again in the future.” And… “today I am upsed because you are leaving.” And, “Wishing you Sir Paul and Miss Kiran to shine sparkling in sky like stars for long life.”

We all felt tender emotions as we soaked up the big love and appreciation so freely gifted to us…what a surprise it was to receive such an overwhelming wave of gratitude! These will definitely be the best souvenirs we will bring home with us, along with all the memories! Paul and I were also swarmed all day with crowds of students, desperate to get out autographs! We felt a bit like rock stars...

The last day of school also featured a brief singing performance, and then presentations from the storytelling class that Karen taught to the 10-13 year old students. This of course included Eliza Amstutz! We had a storytelling festival where the kids all told stories that they had memorized, or created, or heard from their relatives. The oral tradition here is so potentially rich, and with trilingual kids, can take amazing shape! The students brought a great variety of stories to life in front of the whole school. It was a first at Manasarovar and was a beautiful celebration of culture…

Among many "typical" American songs that we shared with our students, I taught them This Land is Your Land along with the sign language "lyrics." Paul and I also taught them the song Eidelweiss. It might seem like an old cheesy tune to some, but here in Nepal, working with Tibetan refugee kids who were begging us to share songs, it took on a whole new meaning. The little white "blossom of snow" is such a revered symbol of the Alps, but it's rarely, if ever, found there. But here in the high Himalaya, both Nepal and Tibet are blessed with abundant carpets of the fuzzy little flower! Therefore we've always associated Eidelweiss more with the Himalaya, than the Alps...

Most of these kids come from families who had to escape from their high mountain homeland, and dream someday of returning. The spirit and sincerity with which the kids sang out "Bless my homeland forever..." brought us to tears in front of the class every time! It became clear to us that Tibet will always be alive and well in these students’ hearts, as long as there are schools and teachers like the ones here at Manasarovar Academy. We are full of gratitude for the entire experience here, and are already scheming on our return in the not so distant future! That's a sure sign of a successful family trip! (...and we still have a sweeeet month to go!)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Bird-watching with Karen's Kailash Students

Today was yet another grand birding day! Sure I saw one species that was new for me, and had the pleasure of figuring out what it was…in a new place that was rich in bird life and sparse in human presence! But the part that made it exceptional is that I got to spend the day and the experience with my birding students from Kailash Hostel.

These are 14 high school aged birders who not only come birding together early each Saturday (their only day off from school each week), but are always super-excited and look forward to a day of hiking, seeking and learning each week. None of the students had ever been “birding” before or had ever thought about looking closely enough to notice that there are more than the mynas and pigeons and crows they commonly see around the valley. Today we saw 30 species of birds on our walk from the hostel to Gokarna Forest and the students could identify most by themselves! They get so excited about the new birds that they get to add to their lists, but also take pleasure in recognizing their favorite bulbuls and kingfishers. As we walk I hear shouts behind me the whole way – “Karen! Wagtail!” Or, “Black Drongo!” Or, “Loooook!”

The natural passion these nascent birders have for their new hobby is inspiring. They’re taking notes fervently and learning so quickly that I believe they will be able to lead a good bird walk in the next month or two! It is my hope that they will be able to do just that by the time I leave…at least to take their sponsors or donors for a walk if it suits the occasion.

We meet at 7am and usually do a bit of classroom time learning some ornithology basics. During this precious time, often while waiting for fog to lift, we discuss everything from a bird’s unique biology, to conservation of the matchless diversity found in Nepal. We then take off directly from their hostel home to hike through agricultural fields, forests, and sometimes steep terrain, on a literal treasure hunt for new species.

Getting closer looks at the birds they spot is possible because of their beloved binoculars. They are using 8 pairs of Vortex binoculars that were donated by Jim and Alice and by Eagle Optics . One boy said that he feels like he is eavesdropping on the birds’ privacy! I have rarely seen kids so moved by a gift, truly appreciating that it is meant to enable them to discover something valuable. They are all so grateful and seem to be soaking up everything I have to teach them. I love how they pair up, and squeeze together to share the binox so willingly...

About the students. The class consists of 14 high school students who live at the Kailash Hostel. Financial support for this boarding home comes from the Himalayan Children’s Foundation based here in Nepal. The hostel is home to 90 kids from ages 4 years through high school. They are all kids from villages in the high Himalaya; mostly very remote places too far from the nearest school to attend. Nearly all of them have parents but cannot live with them for a variety of heartbreaking reasons. Many are orphans and have spent their lives here at the hostel where every single kid says that they are very happy and feel that this is their home. The staff and residents are their family. The hostel is a joyful place to visit and I really look forward to meeting them there each week.

I'll post more bird photos and lists soon.... Our last weekend will be a walk out to the clear streams & waterfalls of Sudarijial!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Our Last Week Teaching at Manasarovar...

Wow... did I blink? Can it really be our LAST week already? We've been volunteer teaching at Manasarovar Academy for 5 weeks now, and are truly savoring the experience. Editing grant proposals, creating a school blog and website, proof-reading test papers, and typing for the teachers has kept us in front of a computer screen much more than we imagined... but we also get to teach plenty of classes. Karen has taught mostly English and "GK" (general knowledge), and initiated a story-telling workshop for the oldest students (class 5; 10-13 yr. olds). They'll present their personally created stories and legends to the younger students on Friday. Paul has been covering several classes each day, primarily Science, Math & English... This last week he's been cramming the students into a tiny sweaty "television room" to share power-point presentations on the USA, California, Yosemite, etc... The students have also begging for more information and discussion on a wide range of topics, from great white sharks & volcanic eruptions, to the origin of the universe, giant squid, and World War 2. When I say begging, I mean literally begging... pulling on my arm as I walk down the hall crying "please Sir Paul, please can you tell me how is formed the planet Earth!?" ...or physically blocking me in the doorway as I try to leave, hands folded & shaking over their hearts in the "namaste position," saying "oh Sir Paul don't go to other class, don't go! Take our next class please, we need you tell us how did human come from monkey is it true? Also tell me what is Berlin Wall?!"

Their genuine hunger for knowledge, and the earnest intensity of their desire to learn, is both heart-warming and inspiring! Of course some classrooms are loud and chaotic, certain students are really disruptive, and it's difficult not to lose my voice every day... but some of these kids, WOW... If I could just take 10 or 15 them, and find a quiet space, they would be super focused sponges, asking great questions & soaking up every morsel of information that I could possibly share! What do you say to a kid who follows you down the hall asking "Oh Paul sir, can you quickly answer me this question of what means by Theory of Evolution?" How can I give them complete and reasonable answers in just minutes, when what I really need is a nice quiet hour with a whiteboard and a fast internet connection? Anyway, I am loving these students! It will be really sad to say goodbye in a few days...
Our girls are feeling a huge mix of emotions for the "end" of school. They have been stressed out at times with the workload of Tibetan, Nepali, math, science, GK, etc., while also trying to keep up with home-school assignments from California. They were very shy at first, dreading school some days and watching the clock... But as new friendships have blossomed, and they have settled into the routines and expectations of a radically different school system, every day is better than the last. They are excited and relieved for the end of this school experience (and the start of trekking & rafting), but also quite sad and depressed that their daily contact with friends will suddenly come to a close...
I'm also a huge bag of emotions right now. I hope to write more on this soon! For now, I'll post a bunch of photos...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Best Birthday Present EVER!!!

We've had multiple celebrations in honor of Sylvie's birth... A week or 2 ago, the Canapary's were here for the first round of cards and muffins, etc. Then on her "real" birthday, we had more candles and breakfast goodies, and followed up after school by blowing out our forearms on Kathmandu's one climbing wall. The girls were thrilled to be on the "rock" after so many months away, and we got blisters from belaying them... A fine meal at Fire & Ice, her favorite pizza place in Nepal, rounded out the evening.

But the best event by far occurred just this morning... (We always try to do something extra special for the girl, as her Fall birthday has found us overseas several times, and climbing in Joshua Tree several others.... She's had more birthdays away from home than not. Lucky! ...or unlucky, as she sometimes complains.) Well this year we found an extra special "gift" for her. She's rarely wanted a lot of "things," preferring adventures or experiences over more "stuff" to clutter up her room.

This gift involves the "bird sellers" that we see most weekends hanging around Boudhanath. They wander the neighborhood with 10 or 15 small cages, filled to the gills with birds. Usually they have several green parakeets; "Rose-ringed, Plum-headed, and Alexandrine's" for all you birders out there. There are also handfuls of Munias (scaly-breasted) and other finch-like birds, crammed into the tiny spaces. A few always look unnaturally colored, as if the 'boring' brown females have been dipped or dusted with bright green and yellow dye to improve their looks. These birds are for sale as caged pets, but also are marketed as a way to boost your "karma points" by buying their freedom & releasing them... It's a twisted industry. The bird dealers will sell their prisoners, then head back down to the Terai (flatlands) to trap more birds. Bring 'em to Kathmandu, sell them to Buddhists to release, go back to the forest and trap some more...

Our girls were always fascinated by the caged birds, spending lots of time talking to them, and begging to buy them all and set them free. We had endless discussions about releasing non-native birds in the wrong habitat, and the concerns that these caged birds might not survive in the wild. We considered if buying these birds would only encourage more trapping of wild birds. We thought about the morality of spending a large chunk of money to free a bird, when there are starving and disfigured human beggars right down the street... But in the end, I had to put away my logical thinking, and listen to and learn from my daughter. She said, "so what if they don't live such a long time, or if they might get trapped again. If they die in just a day or two, at least they'll die free, living in a tree somewhere. Any amount of life flying free has to be better than suffering in those tiny cages!" She was right.... So we decided to surprise her on her birthday with a few caged birds to set free.... but suddenly, just when you need one, we couldn't find any bird sellers!

A couple of days later, as we were in a big hurry, rushing to grab a taxi across town, the bird-man was back. We quickly shifted gears, took a deep breath, and granted Sylvie her only big wish for the year... She carefully inspected & spoke with all the birds in the many cages, and decided to release a pair of parakeets. The bird man assumed, of course, that we'd want the prettiest healthy ones, and began to unwire those cages.... No thanks, she chose instead the two with the most ratty tails, and the painful looking bare spots on their heads.... the two that looked the most in need of their freedom! We brought them back to our monastery's garden, spent some time with them, then opened the doors. It took quite awhile for one to emerge, but then she flew straightaway to some nearby trees. Skreeching and squawking, the other one joined her, and they explored their new perch together... Watching those emerald green birds flying free was a wonderful joyful moment for all of our girls! Sylvie exclaimed, "Thanks Mom & Dad!!! That was the Best BEST Birthday Present EVER!!!"

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Around Annapurna #6 – “The Pass” - Crossing Thorung La!

The next 3 days would be the crux of our trek… The long (and spectacular) push over 17,500’ high Thorung La! We’ve been anticipating this section with both excitement and caution for months. How would the kids handle the altitude? How would we parents manage coaxing them up and over such a challenging hike? Would the weather hold out? Did we have adequate clothing and gear? Would we all be healthy?

We felt that we’d planned well for the challenge; ascending slowly and steadily, spending extra acclimatization days in Manang, being prepared to turn back if AMS kicked in, and, most importantly, raising our girls from the start to be strong hikers who earn their views! We hired a great porter, Prem, to carry the kids backpacks, so they could better enjoy these toughest days. And we planned for a 3 day crossing, with overnights in Yak Kharka and Thorung Phedi… We’d already met several trekkers who had to turn back. These were all young, very fit, male hikers who had hiked double our pace, covering in 3 or 4 days what had taken us a week and a half. They fortunately recognized the AMS signs of severe headache, dizziness, fatigue and appetite loss, and didn’t try to ascend any higher. There were 2 great Dutch guys who had been at Thorung Phedi for 3 days, and 2 tries at the Pass, but their symptoms never diminished…. The bummer (for them) is that they might have been just fine if they had ascended slower from the start. Everyone has the same guidebook with all the AMS warnings, but some ignore, or choose not to take seriously, the recommendations on rate of ascent!

We headed up from Manang with stellar weather, and luscious views all around… Tea breaks at Gunsang, and photo breaks everywhere, were a welcome pause from the climbing. Lots of folks passing us on the trail today… We’ve heard estimates of 250 trekkers per day trudging up the trail here in the peak season of Oct./Nov. Our great porter Prem pushed ahead to score us beds in Yak Kharka, otherwise we’d have been out in the cold… or on a floor somewhere! This day was only 4 or 5 hours of trail-time, but we only wanted to ascend 500-600m per night, so we stopped in YK. Kharka was a highlight for the girls, as the owner of our lodge saddled up his pony with Tibetan blankets to give them rides around the pasture! The next day was another “half” day of walking, but another 500m or so of altitude, up to Thorung Phedi. We spent the afternoon hunting for, and finding, amazing ammonite fossils down in the riverbed. We went to bed early to prep for the big day tomorrow…. Pretty fun to think that tonight we are sleeping a few hundred feet higher than the summit of Mt.Whitney, and tomorrow we’ll gain 3,000 more feet crossing Thorung La!

As the Pass was such an accomplishment for our daughters, I’ll post their descriptions of the experience:

Sylvie asks... “Why do we have to get up so early,” It was 4 in the morning, and was barely light. I was so tired. It’s hard to wake up so early, but we had to go over the Pass! “Let’s go have some tea,” my Dad whispered. “Yum, it’s so good,” we all said… That’s pretty much all we had for breakfast, then we started out! It was still dark, but just barely see enough not to use our headlamps. The mountain was sooo steep, and my fingers and toes were sooo cold! But the mountains were so pretty with a tiny bit of sun on them. “It’s glowing orange and pink,” said Lupin. After a long hard climb my Dad said, “we’re almost to base camp, where some people sleep instead of Phedi.” We took a rest there, and then went on… It was still steep, but not as bad as the first hour. Up and up and up we went. Finally I said, “Yea! The sun is up!!!” Eliza said, “I can walk much faster now that I’m warmer!” Mom said we were almost half way up to the top, but we had already climbed about 2,500 feet and still had far to go. Every few minutes we stopped for a water break, or for potatoes with salt, or another snack, or to see the view. When we started going again, it was harder and harder to breath, because of the altitude change. After another hard hour or 2, we got to the pass! Right when we turned a corner, I saw all the prayer flags… so many of them it seemed like a huge spider web. I waited for my Dad and sisters, who were behind us, so we could all cross the pass together. I was SOOO happy to have made it to the top! It was windy, so we went into a little tea shack , and had cups of hot lemon. The tea house was really small with a long table inside and a little kitchen. Trekkers were crushed in there to stay warm and have tea. Finally we started down, down down the other side. “My knees hurt,” I said… “That’s why I use these poles,” said my Dad. He let me use one sometimes. Suddenly Eliza said, “I can see the town way below,” but it was still such a long way to go. We finally got to the town of Muktinath and slept there. The Pass was the longest & hardest day of the trek by far for me… But I am so glad that we did it!

Eliza adds… "I was freezing and tired as we hiked up the long winding switchbacks in the dark. I finally caught sight of the High Camp, which was just a few hotels. We took a long rest, and I ate a delicious Snickers Bar! (Kumar, the nice guy who runs the hotel at Phedi, gave us the chocolate in the dark this morning!) It wasn’t as steep now, and the sun finally came up. Then we crossed a bridge which stretched over a creek that was mostly frozen and barely running. From the top of the next hill we could see just about where the Pass should be, but we had no idea how much further it was. I was still really tired, and my stomach started hurting… I also had to stop and rest every 5 or 10 minutes. The problem was that we were getting up to almost 17,000 feet, and it was really hard to breathe! After a few hours, we finally made it to the Pass, which was extremely windy but extremely beautiful. It seemed like we could almost see into Tibet! There were tons of prayer flags, and in one place it was like a huge web. So many prayer flags were piled up, it was as thick as a mattress. I laid down there and looked at the view of glaciers and snowy peaks. Thorung Pass was AWESOME!!!"

I’d have to agree with Eliza, Thorung La was awesome! But more awesome than the hike itself were our kids’ attitudes & effort today… We prepped them well & pushed them pretty hard, but they were fabulously motivated to succeed! Karen, Marcin & I all took turns coaxing, encouraging, feeding, and chatting with the kids… But maintaining the continuous chatter of stories, questions & observations, was challenging at this altitude! I was the most winded and wheezing of the group, bringing up the rear with Eliza… But at every turn, and every false summit, the landscape offered up yet another exquisite view. In addition to the sweet views, the girls received countless compliments and words of encouragement from other impressed trekkers, some of whom were blown away to be passed by a smiling 6-year old singing cute little songs! This sure stoked the girls confidence!

Seeing their pure joy at the first sunlight on the Annapurnas, or when we crossed the frozen creek, or when we first spotted the prayer flags at the pass, was the “all day highlight” for me! We were blessed with perfectly clear weather… blue skies, a bit of wind, and endless visibility. Astounding views paired with the sweet sense of accomplishment made for a perfect & memorable family day in the mountains! Then, of course, we had to descend… a knee-banging 5,500 foot drop down the steep slopes into Mustang district. But the marvelous views of nearby glaciers, distant peaks, and lovely villages in full Fall colors far below, helped to alleviate the joint pain… The ibuprofen helped a bit too!