Nov 18 2008

Nepal

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12/17/2004 – And two days later…
I just arrived in Kathmandu. What an experience just getting here. I finally figured out why it was 19.5 hours from LA to Bangkok. Apparently my flight went through Osaka, Japan. That’s right, 12.5 hours to Japan and then another 6 hour to Bangkok. Guess the online booking company forgot to list that small little detail.

Suffice to say I took it in stride – after all, not much you can do about it when you discover this fact somewhere over the Pacific. Let me tell you, 18 and a half hours in a plane is definitely a test – although we did get a 45 minute reprieve when we had to get off the plane in Osaka just to get back on it again.

Fortunately I was able to get a room at a nearby hotel in Bangkok, Thailand and was able to get a full night sleep and take advantage of my 10 hour layover. The flight from Bangkok was pretty uneventful, although flying past Mt. Everest was pretty remarkable. I hear you can charter a plane to fly up to Everest from Kathmandu for $100.

The only bright side of taking possibly the longest route from LA to Nepal is that I will earn almost 19k miles on my United mileage plan. Add to that the 500 miles to and from LA and I guess I can’t complain too much, nothing like getting a free plane ticket.

Kathmandu is pretty amazing. The streets are nothing like I have ever experience before. Roads so narrow bustling with pedestrians, bicyclists and cars – all trying to squeeze through.

Well, I am off to wander around a bit more. I have the next two days to myself. We don’t leave for the Monastery until the 20th.

Oh, and here is a piece of strangeness — I guess Nepal feels the need to be different. Get this – the time difference is 13 hours and 15 minutes.

Namaste,

Bryan

12/19/2004 – Cooperative Chaos...
Well, tomorrow I meet up with the Project.  Tuesday we head to Pokhara where we spend the night and then onto Jomson. From Jomson it will be a 2.5 hour trek to Marpha and the monastery.

Kathmandu and the surrounding Valley has been such an amazing experience – and experiment in cooperative chaos. To look at how this city works is mind boggling. Streets are wide enough for a single vehicle yet somehow two cars pass without a scratch while crowds of people, motorcycles, and rikshaws swerve around each other seamlessly navigating without an accident.

I must admit that I was not prepared when I stepped out from the safety of the Kathmandu Guest House court yard on my first day. There are no sidewalks, just what seems like a single lane road towered over by a continuous line of five story brick buildings on each side that look like they might fall down in a
strong breeze. The people. The crowds of people. All trying to sell you something or talk to you. Taxi’s stopping dead in the middle of the flowing Chaos bargaining a price to take you to a special tourist spot in broken English. Kids running along side of you telling that they are hungry, other kids trying to sell you trinkets – two for a hundred rupees. Street vendors, inches apart, selling the same thing as the vendor before – all trying to negotiate a special deal. Young Nepali men asking where you are from, what do you do, friendly conversation leading the request that you need a guide.

How do you say “no thank you” in Nepali? Can’t pull out my phrase book, I will get eaten alive. But wait, I am already being eaten alive.

After a short 10 minutes I have to turn around and get back to the safety of the Guest House. I wander around, back to my room. Trying to look like I forgot something. A bit embarrassed that I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. I don’t even open the door to my room and decide head out again, this time in the other direction.

Back on the streets – the sheer chaos, but no accidents. The kids swarm down on me again – perhaps the camera hanging around my neck is giving me away? Perhaps it’s the look I have on my face – that of a deer caught in some perpetual headlight.

Damn, still don’t know how to say “no thank you”. Don’t want to be rude. Maybe if I don’t look at them they won’t see me. No. Instead they tug at my pants or the vendors resort to saying Namaste – which I think deserves a response. Once again I head back to the safety of the Guest House. For the rest of the day I do this, each time heading out into a new direction, each time heading back. No street signs. No logical organization to the streets, just a meandering collection of streets criss-crossing in several directions.

Later that evening I run into Cheryl. I met her in Bangkok on the way to Kathmandu, an American school teacher living in Japan. A new friend.

Nepal is a remarkable place so far. The poverty is startling and humbling. People living on $50 a year. Trash is everywhere, but when you look closer, you see the best attempt at civilization. Kathmandu, the capital city, has no city dump, no place to put the trash. Instead, it accumulates in piles and then people, whose job it is, walk around and eventually burn the piles – most of the time. So you dispose of your trash by contributing to the nearest pile.

Well, I could write many more pages, but I suspect you are all probably getting a bit weary reading such a long email. So I will sign off for now.

I suspect this will be my last email until we get back to Kathmandu. If it is, then I just want to wish everyone a wonder Holiday and a truly joyous New Year.

Namaste,

Bryan

12/22/2004 – Kissing Father Sky
We arrived into Jomsom this morning, on a small 18-seat twin propeller plane that skims along the ground, narrowly missing the haggered rocky outcrops as it navigates the gorge between two mountain peaks. On our arrival, word has been sent from the Holy Lama at Marpha that today is an inauspicious day for us to travel to the Chhiarro Gompa (the Monastery). So a change in plans and we decide to stay the night in Jomsom. Our guide is a gentle, well-spoken young man who joined us in Kathmandu. He is the Grandson of the recently departed Patriarch of the Takali people, the residents of Marpha for the past 1000 years.

The people that I have joined on this adventure, on surface, are an odd assortment. Curtis, a young man from New York who is advertising executive, Steve, a seemingly quiet man from Massachusetts who is a carpenter by trade, Mark and Jen, the organizers from CRTP, Liz, their assistant, a young woman full of life and joy, and me, the loud one. As we spend time together, I quickly realize how wonderful each person is and we quickly form what will probably be lasting friendships.

After settling into our rooms, Shuba says that we are going to hike to a nearby monastery, one of the older ones in the area. As we set out on our journey, I now realize how much I am unprepared for this trip. The landscape is amazing and open and magnificent. Spirit is here.

As we cross a shaky cable bridge strung across a gorge of raging water, I realize that my life is changing with each step. Struggling through the narrow streets of Kathmandu seems like lifetime ago. Now, as I stop on the bridge as is sways back and forth in the sharp cold wind, I look around me and see nothing but mountains so tall that I have to lean back while looking up to see the tops. White clouds that were quietly making their way across the deep blue sky find themselves caught on the peaks, slowly ripping apart as they try to get free and continue on their passage.

I take a deep breath and air chills my lungs, for a moment I can’t breathe.

We continue alongside the river onto a large open field of small rocks. Two small kids are playing stick and wheel. They see us and quickly run in the other direction. All around, tucked away quietly in the mountains I can see small villages – a continuous set of buildings.

Shuba stops and points up. We have already been trekking for well over 30 minutes. He says, “There, that is where we are going”. In front of us is sheer wall of mountain reaching up well over 1,000 feet. It looks like 2,000 feet, I say, it must be – and then I proceed to try and calculate how many trees it would take end to end to reach the top. Time to stop thinking.

Everyone is smiling at me and I realize that I was talking out loud.

We take off to the left of the sheer wall and start a slow zigzagging assent along well-worn paths. The landscape is amazing; large towering sandstone walls carved by the cold winds blowing up the gorge. This must be the way the monks go. Holy trails. Tibetan Buddhism believes that enlightened souls imbue their environment with their spirit. The longer the holy people occupy a place, the holier the place becomes, and the easier for those less holy to work towards enlightenment.

The wind is sharp, cutting across my face like some ancient spirit reminding me that I am alive. Each breath becoming more noticeable. We are stopping more and more. Beauty surrounds me.

After another 30 minutes we reach the top. The monastery is in sight. God is in sight. I am panting, but between breaths my spirit is swelling. The mountain peaks still tower around us, more clouds trapped innocently from their travels. Lucky cloud – a brief dance with the mountaintop and it is on its way.

I am at the tallest point that I will able to reach for this trip. I am kissing Father Sky while holding the hands of Mother Earth. I thank her for taking me so close. Still I look around and realize the beauty of everything. It is beyond words. All I can do is sit on the rock at the highest point in the middle of prayer flags, tattered by the wind and faded by the sun.

Shuba explains to me in his gentle voice that the prayers are placed inside the mounds of rocks so that the winds will blow them out onto the people living down below. The winds that never stop. I find myself thinking of everyone I love and I add my prayers into the rocks for the winds to carry.

After a while, we head back to Jomsom. It has been a few hours and we are all very hungry and tired. Tibetan Buddhism does not believe in chance, but rather in Karma. I thank Shuba for sharing such a special place with me – and I realize that we were not suppose to be in Marpha today. I have reached the tallest place so far, tucked quietly across a gorge between two mountain peaks that reach up another 18,000 feet. I have kissed Father Sky.

Tomorrow, we head down to Marpha and on to the Gompa in the nearby village of Chhairo.

The people of this area are all family and Shuba tells us there will be a big welcoming when we arrive. Family is important here and persons takes care of each other – it is a ancestral society that reveres the elderly. Through accidental neglect, the Gompa has fallen into disrepair. It is very important to the Takali people that this project gets underway and is successful. In several days, they are planning a ceremony to bless us, the project, and beginning of the restoration. The entire town and the neighboring Tibetan colony will be there. For the first time in my life I am feeling that I belong to more than just what was my life.

I know I have said that this will be the last communication for a while…surprisingly the Internet is pretty pervasive. In the past two years, Jomsom has seen it’s runway paved and a new satellite uplink installed – the Internet is truly everywhere. Shuba tells me that there is no Internet in Marpha, so this really will be my last communication until the 30th.

I only hope my photographs will capture what I am seeing around me. I am tired, but Shuba is insisting on sharing a local beverage with us. Locally brewed Whiskey with Yak Butter. I am going to sleep well tonight.

Namaste,

Bryan

12/26/2004 – The Internet is truly everywhere
One thing that has amazed me on this trip is the pervasiveness of the Internet.

Marpha is a little village about one hour from Jomsom, hot water to take a shower is a luxury and there is no heat in any of the rooms at night, and yet they have the Internet.

We headed out from Jomsom to Marpha the morning of the 22nd. Words really escape how stunning the landscape is – immense and raw and beautiful. We make our way down the path occasionally passing some of the locals hauling some needed material in a basket carried on their back strapped onto their foreheads. Nepali people are probably the hardest working people I have ever encountered. Everything is manual here – there are no vehicles. There are no roads for the vehicles to get here. They work from sun up to sun down, hauling wood or stones or grain.

The frigid wind blows constantly here, ripping across your face. The dust and pebbles make it difficult to see sometimes. Memories of Burningman flash through my mind.

The landscape is stark and beautiful. The river rushes across the valley, sweeping from edge to edge so that there is no valley floor, just riverbed.  From this rises up sandstone walls that have been carved into caves and pillars from the wind that never stops. Behind that, the mountains rise up high into the blueness of the sky – the snow covered peaks towering overhead as if you can reach up and touch them. It is as if we are walking in Middle Earth, on some quest of our own.

Marpha comes into sight as we round the bend. A village made entirely of stone and mud with very little wood – tucked neatly in the mountainside, sheltered from the winds. The streets are paved with large slate tiles, barely wide enough for five people. Two story stone buildings tower over you with walls slanting in different directions. The wind is gone, a temporary reprieve.

The town seems quiet, almost deserted. Shuba tells us that everyone from the surrounding villages is waiting for us at the Gompa, which is still 30 minutes away. We continue past Marpha to a cable bridge that is suspended over the river that has been our constant companion.

Across the bridge we encounter some small children covered in dust with smiles brimming ear to ear. Laughing and yelling at us, urging us forward even faster. They run ahead. As we round the bend, I can begin to see the crowds of people waiting for us, the sound of drumming dances on the wind. The emotions begin to well up inside of me. We reach the people, whose faces are lit with bright smiles and welcoming eyes. The first person in line is the village elder, with hands together and bowing ever slightly saying “Namaste” and then reaching out to shake my hand. Behind and next to him are various other elders and people of position. I am humbled and filled with excitement.

As we make our way through the crowd, we are ushered towards the Gompa, led by the two drummers, playing out a traditional rhythm. At the entrance are the local Monks, preceded by the high Lama. We are greeted with silk scarves that are placed around our necks – blessings. More blessings.

Inside the courtyard of the Gompa is filled with people – it seems that the surrounding local villages have come for the ceremony. We are the guests of honor for a dance ceremony that has not been held for 25 years. We make our way across the court yard to a row of seats.

It is humbling. I lean over to one of my new-found friends Liz and ask her if they realize that it is us who are honored to be here, and it is us who are thankful. I am lost in emotions as the dance begins.

Well, I need to sign off. They are telling me that the Internet connection is going down for the evening in few minutes.

I wish everyone well.

Bryan

12/30/2004 – Christmas cake and a Happy New Year
We just arrived back in Kathmandu this afternoon. My mind is still in a daze from the past couple of weeks. Each day brought amazement, wonder, and humility beyond words. There is no way to explain how fortunate I have been and how amazing it is to not just travel to a place and see the sights, but to be welcomed into a community and culture not as an outsider, but as family.

I am truly in awe of the Nepali people, especially those living so high up in the mountains without any of the comforts and conveniences that we all take for granted. These people are sincere beyond words. They are welcoming and hospitable. They are the hardest working people I have ever seen. And they are the poorest people I have ever known. Yet they welcome you with beautiful, childlike smiles – hands together as in prayer and telling you “Namaste” – “I salute the Almighty within you.”

Even through all this, I must admit that Christmas was one of the loneliest. I found myself dearly missing my family and friends. We quietly celebrated Christmas after breakfast with a special Christmas cake made by a local baker.  After the wonderful surprise, we packed up and hiked for over an hour to the Gompa where we began work finishing up the restoration of the south wall that had collapsed a few months before.

The most amazing thing about this restoration process is that we are using the same materials and building techniques that were originally used: stone, mud, straw and fresh cow dung. The stone is a type of granite that is easily broken into square slabs that actually fit snuggly together like bricks. The mortar is a mixture of mud, straw and water, and everything has to be gathered or made – there is no Home Depot. Even the ground has to be sifted into a finer dirt and hauled in baskets about 10 minutes from the site just to make the mud.

The roof is also being repaired and new Parapet walls are built on the perimeter of the roof to ensure that water drains off instead of leaking into the structure, further damaging it.

We spend the next few days sifting and hauling dirt, gathering fresh cow dung, and making a type of concrete-like plaster that is to be applied to the inside of the new wall. It is so cold that every few minutes we have to soak our hands in water heated over a fire to chase away the numbness. As the blood returns my fingers tingle and begin to move again.

The Gompa is in sad shape. None of the original wall paintings have survived and only some of the main statues are in decent shape.

We are working with several men and women from the nearby village of Chhiaro.  Liz, with her amazing heart, quickly befriends them all and soon we are all friends. They are amazing people who are so poor that the 250 rupees (about $8) they earn each day working with us will ensure their family will have food for the next several months. Shuba asks us if we need our extra clothes and that perhaps we can donate them. Suffice to say there will be plenty of room in my backpack for souvenirs. We are all introduced to Lama Sashi Rinpoche, the 65 year old monk who greeted us on the first day, and who will become the caretaker and leader of the Gompa once it is restored. He has a grand vision of transforming this once beautiful and special place back into the grandeur that it once was – a living monastery where Buddhist monks from all over will come to live and study the dying art of Thangka spiritual paintings. Sashi is a third generation master who learned it from his father who in turned learned it from his father. Next year, after the plaster has fully dried, two more consecutively finer coats will be applied and then Lama Sashi Rinpoche will repaint all the murals. Sadly time is against him as his eye sight has begun failing him.

After several days, we complete the wall. On this day Shuba must leave us and head back to Kathmandu, so the next day Lama Sashi Rinpoche and his loving brother take us along the valley from Tukche to Norencort showing us all of the hidden Gompa’s – all with walls covered in amazingly beautiful murals depicting all the varies deities and those specific to that Gompa – all painted by either him, his father, or his grand father – all in various states of poor condition.

Twice we are graced with blessings and prayers from Lama Sashi Rinpoche.

I am truly blessed. I can only image those trekkers simply passing by each these hidden wonders, and here I am standing with Lama Sashi Rinpoche, seeing and hearing first hand, the history of these works of art, the deities, and learning Buddhism through his broken English.

After wandering a maze of stone enclosed walkways, we enter another Gompa. This time it is full of wooden slots, each filled with wood and clothe bound pages.  We are told that this is one of the three original copies of the Buddhist Sutra’s. There are fewer that eight remaining in the world and the people of Tukche have two complete sets. It is like having an original copy of the Gospels – a treasure beyond price. Sashi tells us that once the Chhiaro Gompa is fully restored, they will be returned. In Tibetan Buddhism, Sutra’s are living and never meant to be stored away in a museum.

We continue on our journey. This time we head up a steep dirt pathway, seemingly hidden to the side of the main road. As we climb up towards the mountain, the steep pathway gives way to stone stairs. I struggle to keep up with this 65 year old monk. Every so often he pauses ahead of me and turns and smiles. So peaceful and so embracing.

We reach the top of a first hill and perched in front of us is the peaceful village of Norencort. It is like stepping into the pages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We continue past this town of continues buildings and stone walkways, climbing still ever higher. The snow cover peak in front of us seems just a few feet away – as if you can just reach up and touch it. In reality it is 27,000 feet.

Finally, in a clearing up ahead, Lama Sashi Rinpoche stops. We are all panting and out of breathe. Past the clearing is a ravine, plunging down several hundred feet. There is a stone and dirt pathway that leads down, disappearing into the trees. Across the ravine, I can the trail emerge from the trees and continuing up the side of the mountain in a zigzag manner alongside a rocky crevice where a beautiful water fall flows down the granite wall.

Lama Sashi Rinpoche explains to us that at the top of the trail, across the ravine is a cave – the beyul Guru Sanphug, a Hidden-Place. In Tibetan Buddhism, Hidden-Places are holy places with outer, inner, secret and ultimately secret levels that correspond to advanced stages of spiritual development. They are not a state of mind, but rather where two realities occupy the same place – they are where nature and man become divine, paradises beyond measure where you never grow sick or old. Shangri-La is a Hidden-Place.

In Tibetan Buddhism, you can be standing in a Hidden-Place, but unless you have achieved a degree of enlightenment, you will never know it.

Written in ancient Tibetan scrolls are accounts of Lama’s who briefly found these Hidden-Places only to loose the way. Here, in front of me, Lama Sashi Rinpoche has taken us to one where, 45 years ago, he spent 10 days meditating in hopes to receive visions and glimpse the inner secrets of this beyul.

All I can do is bow down and humbly thank Sashi. How incredibly fortunate I am, to be standing here on the side of this mountain, being shown something beyond words or expression. I have traveled to the other side of the world with the simple intention of helping restore a monastery and I have been shown something far greater than words can even hope to describe by a Rinpoche – literally “precious.” A title used for highly learned or reincarnate lamas.

So now I am back in Kathmandu awaiting the New Year – funny in that I have lost all concept of time. If any of you ever get the opportunity to travel in the service of others, and become part of the community and culture, even just for a few days, do not let it pass you by.

One thing that I do know — I don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to realize how much I miss my friends and family. I want to wish everyone a wondrous New Year full of every blessing and joy that your heart desires.

Please feel free to write back – I am here until the 4th.

Namaste,

Bryan

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