Nepal - Monastery Restoration

1 Aug 2014

Every year, for the last 4 years as the days get shorter and summer is slowly dimming, I am reminded of my journey to Nepal. While my experiences are always with me, I feel especially nostalgic around this time of year. I buy more ginger, to hopefully replicate the ginger tea we lived on while at the Malla Treks house or try to make some Dhal Bhat, but it will never be the same, albeit a soothing process. I look at old pictures and remember the amazing group of people I met while I was there, who our group leader, Carl, later described as "points of light in this world" in one of our email catch-ups. I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment.

Experiences like this are, I’m sure, cliché to some, but everyone should have one. At least one cherished experience that permanently alters your view of this world for the better and this was mine. I always hope for more, but I am also reminded of the choices that led me to the decision to go on the trip and I certainly don’t want to be there again. I was in a place of seeking and in need of a break from my life. Even though I went to volunteer to help restore a piece of Nepalis culture (a virtually destroyed Monastery), I feel like I took so much more than I gave. People always say things like, "you should be grateful for what you have, other people have it so much worse" and while I logically understood that (like most things in life though), you don't know it until you experience it first hand. Nepal is one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring places I have ever seen, which is sadly, sharply contrast by its abject poverty. Even more surprising, the Nepalese I encountered, were some of the most genuine and happy people that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I quickly realized, any perceived struggle I thought I endured throughout my life, was really a luxury and it made me feel very ashamed. While I know this today, it isn't to say I don't forget it from time to time, when I get too self-focused, but I am human after all.

The first day of the trip was a blur, I arrived at a very questionable looking airport in Kathmandu and took a bus from the tarmac to the "airport building", fumbled my way through buying a visa and soon after found my contact Durga. He was the little white rabbit of this Wonderland, sent from Malla Treks and quickly whisked me through the sea of Nepalese people that waited outside the airport, into his Honda. I was so overwhelmed, I am not sure I said three words, not that it would have mattered because most people did not speak much English.

As we drove through the streets of Kathmandu, I needed an extra set of senses just to take it all in. The vibrant energy that sustains this city is harsh and loud and in your face. If I were to explain this in terms of music, it would be something like – the Dead Kennedys and the Clash had a punk-off and they both won or at least that’s how it felt at the time. Oh or Noel and Liam Gallagher got into another epic (slap) fight, eh wait never mind. Anyway, I remember being very conscious of my breathing because for the first time in my life, it was hard and not because of the altitude, but the pollution. I later received an upper respiratory infection due to this and it left me in my bed for a day and probably more if I had let myself lie there. I discovered later, it is common for trekkers to get sick due to the air quality, but luckily, once you are out of Kathmandu, this isn’t an issue because most other places in the country are not as populated. We arrived at the UTSE hotel, where I paid $13 for a room and tried to sleep until the rest of my group arrived.

It was arranged that we would all meet for dinner and after refilling my water bottles with clean water from one of the hallway canteens, I made my way down to the lobby area. I felt a wave of panic as I got down there and didn’t see anyone; I went to the front door and peered out onto the crowded street, nothing. I turned to go back in and heard English in a woman’s voice and find Mick and Bob. We did our standard introductions and I got the scoop on the status of the rest of our group. I soon met the other two members, Shirley and Carl and we all went to dinner and started getting to know one another. Everyone was warm and engaging and for the first time I was thinking I might have made a good decision by being here.

In the morning, Mick, Shirley, Bob, Carl and I all checked out of the UTSE and made our way to the regional airport where we would fly to our next location, Pokhara. Durga, of course, met us there to ensure we made our flight and were able to purchase tickets. As we were about to take off though, we heard the horrific news that a plane coming in the same path, but the opposite direction had flown into the ground and everyone on board had perished. The sadness continued as we later learned that Bob's friend's daughter, Kendra (who he did not even know was in the country) had been on that plane and we had to rally around Bob as he dealt with the loss and tried to help his friend with the funeral arrangements. Kendra and two other passengers have since been honored with the building of a school at the site of the crash, something I hope to visit one day.

As we arrived safely in Pokhara, I think we all felt a little extra grateful that day. We were then driven to a gated house that was the home to Malla Treks, the trekking company the non-profit regularly works with. Stan, the owner, greeted us at the door with a smile. I eventually came to learn that he was once an American that fell in love with Nepal through trekking voyages of his own and decided to stay. He is a stoic man but very kind and regularly takes in orphaned boys, gives them a place to stay and has them help out around the house and with the company. This is something that surprised me about Nepal, seeing as there is very little infrastructure, people still regularly and freely chose to do the right thing. Taking in orphaned children seemed to be a common practice and one I would think means even more because everyday necessities are often hard to come by. We settled into our rooms and Stan had a meal prepared for us, along with lots of ginger tea.

Off the dining area was a rooftop deck, that was situated right in view of a good portion of the largest mountain range in the world and is also where a small, but favorite memory occurred. We had to stay in Pokhara an extra day because it was very cloudy (monsoon season) and they say in Nepal, "we don't fly through clouds because there are rocks in them". Well as we are all enjoying our view on the deck and chatting, drinking some Everest beer, all of a sudden the clouds clear and someone exclaims, "Look!" and we all turn to see that the mountains we had been enjoying grew quite significantly higher. The whole time we thought we were seeing the entire range (which to me was already enourmous), but there was so much above, hidden by the clouds and it remains one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

We eventually were cleared to fly to the final destination, Jomson, and also picked up a few more members to our group, all Nepalese. Abhishek, a local architect that was lending his talents to the monastery's reconstruction, Lama Sashi Doj, a world-renowned painter and Buddhist monk that would restore the artwork and eventually run the monastery, and Dawa, our guide and also a trained Sherpa. After another flight on a prop plane, we landed in Jomsom and stopped at Xanadu cafe for tea and cake. The café contained a good supply of books left by trekkers and among them was The Fountainhead, which quickly bonded some of us even more, as it was a favorite.

We then began a day trek to get to our final destination through the lower Mustang valley to a town called Marpha. That's another special thing about Nepal, many places you can only come by on foot. Each little town we passed seemed to be punctuated by a stand of prayer wheels, which by my limited understanding are often inscribed in Sanskrit with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and the spinning sends it out into the world. I also learned you should never spin them with your left hand, as well the left hand is typically unclean, which brings me to another luxury that I was made keenly aware of bathrooms. Anyway, I digress, as we drew near on the trekking path we began to see the lovely town of Marpha, illuminated with the viridity of lush fields of crops and framed by apple orchards. I found that Marpha is actually the apple capital of Nepal and the source of the apple brandy that goes in another beloved treat, the Mustang Coffee (half coffee, half apple brandy).

After finding our next guesthouse, we ate more Dhal Bhat and drank a peculiar beverage called Sea Buckthorn juice, which I learned is a local berry. We decided to then take a walk over to the monastery, Chairro Gompa, that we would help restore. A 300-year-old Buddhist Monastery that had fallen to almost rubble by the unkind conditions of the mountains that held it at their base. I chose to work with this non-profit for many reasons, but one important value was the notion of responsible tourism. Meaning that when you are traveling to other countries, you are adding something to their culture, not helping to commercialize it. A country, whose primary source of income is tourism, will certainly cater to the demands of the tourists. And while tourists are involved in the restoration process, the local Nepalese people make the major decisions and are involved heavily in the labor.

Over the next few days, I learned much more about the local area. We visited a Tibetan refugee camp, tried butter tea (the jury is still out on this one), did more day treks to other surrounding communities and I soon realized the significance of the monastery to the local area. I had to leave the group early to get back for work and graduate classes, but to say any words could really sum up my experience would be untrue. It is one of those transcendent, phenomena that is better felt than said. I took a bus back to Jomsom, the air was cool and the ocher mountains were illuminated in a way that only dusk can provide and I cried the whole way. While I was heading home I realized, maybe home was no longer a place, but perhaps something more and not so far after all.



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