From Chico to Nepal
in a Tibetan
refugee village changed my life.
By Joslyn Carroll
Pashupatinath, in Kathmandu, is the largest pilgrimage center for Hindu
worship in the world. Here, the dead are burned on funeral pyres and their
ashes scattered into the Bagmati River, which runs through the center.
sitting on a dusty quilt in a small, pale-yellow room. A cool breeze blows
through the screen door. An old woman is perched in the corner gently
spinning her prayer wheel and smiling as she whispers a mantra beneath
her breath. The gentle radiance from outside filters through the window
and cuts through the musty smoke of incense.
Outside, I hear the sound of chanting, deep, steady and strong, as if
it were the beating of a drum. Elderly men and women sit on small carpets
under the orange glow of the sun as it vanishes behind the towering horizon.
They are spinning, chanting and smoothing over prayer beads with their
fingers. On the crumbling cement walls that make up a small courtyard
hangs a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It's surrounded by flowers,
prayer scarves and candles.
An old man is speaking. His skin is dark and weathered, and his eyes are
a cloudy blue. He is speaking of his journey across the Himalayas from
Tibet to Mustang and beyond. He is speaking of suffering, exile and survival.
I am in Jampaling, a Tibetan refugee settlement in northeastern Nepal.
I have traveled here with a group of four other Westerners. We were strangers
until our arrival in Nepal, and we have all made the journey here for
different reasons. I was drawn to the kingdom that houses the highest
point on earth, subtropical jungles, terraced hills and lush green valleys
because I wanted to mingle with the gods and goddesses and challenge my
spiritual beliefs. And I wanted to lend a hand where it is needed and
to learn about and experience another culture.
was an opportunity to have the experience I was seeking, to see the sights
and go behind the scenes. I didn't see the point in traveling across the
world just to seek the comforts of home. An unexplainable curiosity moved
me, along with the need to leave what is familiar and comfortable and
put myself into a situation knowing that there would be a certain degree
I'd recently graduated from Chico State University, in California, and
I wanted to break out of the little bubble that I call home. I was tired
of walking around Chico and seeing people who looked and acted just like
me. I wanted to turn my world upside down.
My motives, I now realize, were both idealistic and selfish. I wanted
to help, but I also wanted an adventure. I didn't go to Jampaling because
I had a strong interest in the political situation between Tibet and China.
I was drawn to the idealized mysticism that surrounds Tibet. I was fortunate
to return with a better awareness of what is happening in China and how
the Tibetans are surviving, as well as a better understand of myself.
Reality hits with a jolt when I take the first step onto the streets of
Kathmandu, the capital and largest city of Nepal. My heart is pounding
and my mind racing. I clinch my money belt with sticky palms. I gasp for
a breath of fresh air through the black, smoky clouds of exhaust. Buses,
bikes, rickshaws, cows and people all fight for space on the narrow streets.
There is a constant din of high-pitched horns, shopkeepers shouting at
each other and the hypnotic melodies of the sitar and flute. As I wander,
a man follows me like a shadow, whispering, "Miss, miss, hashish?"
I want to run back to the safety of my hotel, but I resist the impulse.
Trying to find a money exchange, I drift through the crowds, tripping
over my own feet as I keep my eyes fixed on what surrounds me. I can hear
"Riders on the Storm" blaring out of one of the small shops
selling custom embroidered T-shirts and other souvenirs that, before long,
I will realize are everywhere.
are lined with cement buildings squeezed and stacked together, painted
in fading colors from pink to yellow. Most of the buildings house a number
of small businesses, almost all providing Internet access. My stomach
drops as I pass a market selling some type of meat butchered and displayed
on a stone slab. Flies swarm over it in the warm sun.
After finding the exchange, I wait outside while some of my companions
enter. A young boy approaches me. He looks to be about 7 or 8 years old.
He wears ragged clothes and is barefoot. He is followed by a man whose
arms and legs are so badly mangled from disease he has to push himself
around on a board with wheels. They are soon joined by a Hindu "holy
man," a sadhu, who wants to paint a tika on my forehead with the
bright-red paste he holds in a bucket.
The child asks me if this is my first day in Nepal. He says that he can
tell by my shoes--they are still clean. He asks for money, saying that
he has not eaten in days and his stomach is empty and he wants milk. I
walk away, trying to convince myself that the reason I should not give
him money is because it will only encourage him to beg again, but far
from sure that's the right choice.
After the initial shock of being plopped into Thamel, one of the busiest
districts in Kathmandu, a giddy excitement sets in, and I am able to take
in the sights sounds and smells of this medieval city. Moving at a slow
running pace in an attempt to keep up with the bustling crowds, I am carried
through streets and down alleys and spit out into large open squares housing
Over the next few days I find myself standing atop the Boudanath Stupa,
one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world. I watch monkeys swarm
around Buddhist monks dressed in brilliantly colored maroon-and-gold robes
as they toss out grain at the temple of Swayambhunath. Of all the religious
sites, the experience I have at Pashupatinath, the largest Hindu place
of worship in the world, is one I will not be revisiting in my photos
but in my mind.
After being let off on the top of a dirt road, I am directed down a path
leading to a cluster of massive temples. The road is dusty, overrun and
crowded with local women selling their handicrafts, fruit vendors and
stacks of wooden boxes holding vibrantly colored dyes. Looking down through
the acrid smoke, I can see a waterfront crowded with people.
When I reach the river, I stand on a stone bridge among tourists, pilgrims,
sadhus and other worshippers and watch as flames envelope bodies covered
in brush on funeral pyres. Their ashes are being scattered into the Bagmati
River, which flows into the sacred Ganges. I watch the bodies burning
while family members look on, feeling like an intruder, unsure whether
I am welcome. Some tourists take pictures, while others cover their mouths
and walk away.
After weighing my luggage on a small scale and waiting a couple of hours
for fog to clear, I board a small plane. The pilot scribbles some notes
on a napkin, sticks it to the dashboard and then takes us on a jostling
45-minute plane ride alongside the towering, snow-covered Himalayas. We
arrive in Pokhara, our last stop before heading on to the village of Jampaling.
organization Global Citizens Network had been invited to work with the
people of Jampaling following an exploratory visit in 1999. The volunteers
visited four Tibetan refugee camps in and around the Pokhara Valley: Tashi
Palkhiel, Paljorling, Tashiling and Jampaling. The settlements were established
around 1960 with the help of the International Red Cross and the Swiss
Development Corporation in cooperation with His Majesty's Government of
Nepal. Following its visit, GCN was invited to return to Jampaling to
The villages are home to several thousand Tibetans who have fled their
country following its occupation, beginning in 1959, by the Chinese. Led
by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan community
in exile, they are attempting to keep their ancient Buddhist culture alive
while waiting for the time when they will be able to return to Tibet.
Jampaling is located about an hour's drive outside the popular tourist
destination of Pokhara. Easy-going and much less crowded than Kathmandu,
Pokhara accommodates travelers from all over the world. The streets are
lined with modern-looking cafés, some boasting that they have Nepal's
best pizza. I pass a Baskin-Robbins glowing in all of its pink-and-blue
glory. I wonder how far I will have to go to get away from things like
Driving out of the city, we pass through tiny towns occupying small pieces
of the countryside. Every few miles we have to stop to accommodate a cow
or water buffalo in the road. People sit outside their homes and watch
as we drove by. It's hard to say who is more fascinated, we by them or
they by us. The countryside is tranquil, the crisp air refreshing.
From the road above Jampaling we get a breathtaking view of the valley
carved out by a river that has left massive pieces of earth free standing.
On the walk down to the village, a group of Nepalese children passes us
by as they run to school. Dressed in blue slacks, white blouses and red
neck bandannas, the children wiggle with excitement, shouting "Namaste,"
the Nepali phrase meaning "I honor the divinity in you," as
we walk by.
Once in Jampaling, which is surrounded by a fence of stones and barbed
wire, our group tries to lay low and keep our cameras put away for the
first couple of days. We want to introduce ourselves slowly to the community,
to become friends first. This is difficult, because as much as I want
to be a friend, I am also a tourist.
Hard Work on Irrigation System
Jampaling is home to about 700 Tibetans. The men and women weave, dye
and roll yarn to make carpets. The carpet market has been on a decline
over the past six years, so the villagers now make their livings by cultivating
coffee and wheat as well as raising pigs. The settlement has a small health
clinic where residents can go once or twice a month to see a doctor who
travels in from Kathmandu.
Tomorrow will be our first day of work on a local irrigation system. Our
job is to help dig and carry out the mud and silt that filled the trenches
during the monsoon season. This is a task that has to be done each year
so the village can receive water from the river. The canals are packed
with soft gray mud and overgrown with vegetation. The organization helped
supply the village with shovels and cement for the project.
Waking up that morning, I am eager to get started. Even after a week of
being in Nepal, my surroundings still feel surreal to me. Arriving at
the site, I grab a shovel and jump in. I want to show them that I can
work hard. My good intentions soon butt up against hard reality, however:
I can barely lift a shovelful of the waterlogged mud.
The villagers then proceed to give me a lesson in the art of working.
They go slowly and steadily, taking many short breaks, and in that way
keep their strength through the long day. For them, work is not something
that has to be finished as soon as possible. The women, dressed in colorful
aprons and adorned with turquoise and coral, work gracefully. A strong
bond unites them, and they work as a team without ever complaining. Laughing,
resting and teasing each other are just as important as the duties of
shoveling and throwing.
One day, one of the women takes my hand and holds it next to hers--mine
pale, with one or two small pink cuts from that day of work, next to hers
dark with deep wrinkles and cracks from many years of hard labor. I don't
speak Tibetan and she doesn't speak English, but looking into her eyes
and holding her hand, I realize we do not need words to communicate. I
will later find that most conversations, though simple and short, will
result in an honest exchange. Utilizing the most basic words makes us
unable to mask true feelings or opinions.
As the days pass, digging becomes natural and the hard work rewarding.
Long breaks in the afternoon mean posting up on a rock in the middle of
the rushing river and soaking in the warm sunshine. I begin to appreciate
rising and resting in synch with the sun. My body feels strong, and my
mind is clear of worries.
After a long day of shoveling and carrying silt dumped onto tearing rice
sacks, I keep trying to come up with ways to make the task less painful
and more efficient. I forget that just because a method is faster or more
effective where I'm from doesn't mean it will be good for this place.
It's a struggle to keep my own ideas of what is right or wrong, better
or more effective, to myself.
Blanket of Garbage
Working on the project won't be the only time that I am be forced to question
my preconceived notions of right and wrong. It happens every day. I bite
my tongue, for example, as I watch villagers discard their trash without
thinking twice. This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and
it is being covered in a blanket of garbage.
I begin to have mixed emotions about being in Jampaling. I feel so fortunate
to have the opportunity to learn from such a unique culture, but I also
realize that by sharing parts of my culture with the Tibetans I am passing
on my own values and morals, which don't always represent what my culture
I think about the balance of the exchange, the experience for the volunteer
weighed against the benefit to the community. Who, I often wonder, is
gaining most, me or the people of Jampaling? I begin to question my motives
A lunch break near the river that runs through the village of Jampaling.
Lunch consists of bread and Tibetan tea, which is mixed with salt, butter
and sugar. The author, fourth from the left, volunteered to help remove
silt that collects each year in the river. The woman fourth from the right
is another volunteer. The others are all Jampaling residents.
travel allows people the opportunity both to give and receive as a traveler.
I left the U.S. wanting to see a different part of the world and go behind
the scenes. I didn't want to hang out in the American restaurants with
other tourists. I wanted to help by volunteering, but I also wanted something--a
great deal--for myself. Now I wonder if my contribution in Jampaling is
actually undermining the very cultural uniqueness I am coming to admire.
Working together on the canal is a way for the two groups, volunteers
and villagers, to mingle. The Tibetan children and teenagers are eager
to talk about such things as American music and pro wrestling. Adults
ask about what it is like to live in America, some expressing frustration
in their attempt to obtain sponsorship so that they can live there.
|HOW TO DO IT
There are many different types of volunteer opportunities available around the world. Different organizations can very dramatically in cost, and most have flexible time frames. Global Citizens Network is a nonprofit organization out of St. Paul, Minn. It is designed to unite people from all parts of the globe who share the goal of promoting peace, tolerance, global cooperation and a cross-cultural understanding as well as the preservation of indigenous cultures. The organization has projects in New Mexico, Arizona, Guatemala, Mexico,Nepal and Africa. More nformation on GCN can be found at www.globalcitizens.org or by calling (800) 644-9292.
One day, taking a break from work on the canal, I join one of the Tibetans
to rest in the tall grass. His name is Tenzin, and he is one of the project
leaders. Stretched out on the ground, relaxing, we talk about our different
Tenzin asks me why I am in Jampaling. He wants to know why I want to help
them dig out their water canal. Why do you care? He asks. How much are
you getting paid by the government?
I reply that I am fascinated by his culture and that I hope to leave with
a genuine understanding of it. I tell him that the government is not in
any way affiliated with what I am doing and that I paid my own way to
be there. He stares at me with a puzzled expression.
He then proceeds to give me a short lecture on the subject of foreign
volunteers working in maturing countries. The help is appreciated and
well received, he says, but too much of it can be harmful. Advanced technology,
teaching and building techniques are often effective when first introduced,
but later they can become a problem. In some situations, after the volunteers
have returned home, the local villagers are not able to maintain the new
and improved but more complicated project sites.
Tenzin makes me question whether I should even be in Nepal and what kind
of effect volunteers have on developing countries across the world. Assuming
that giving time and lending a hand when it is possible is always for
the best, I presumed that any type of interaction between different cultures
would be welcome.
I leave Jampaling with a greater understanding and respect for the Tibetan
people, along with a new outlook on the effects that people can have on
each other globally. It scares me to think about the way I pitied people
whom I considered to be poor. Traveling to Nepal and working in Jampaling
has helped me realize that these deeply spiritual people are not less
fortunate than we are, and that they are rich in culture and livelihood.
Is it more important to be able to acquire the things I "need," not to have to worry about my health and know that I will never go hungry
for a day? Or would it be better to live each day devoting myself to my
family and religion, honoring a spiritual devotion in almost everything
I do, from the food I eat and the clothes I wear to the way I treat others
and my environment?
Leaving Nepal and returning to my life in Chico, CA, I feel different
inside. This small taste of a different walk of life has tapped into a
curiosity that is constant. I have embarked on a journey of self-discovery
and exploration that is far from over.
information on GCN can be found at www.globalcitizens.org or by calling (800) 644-9292.
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