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Jul 11

Goodbye To Arya Tara

Posted on Saturday, July 11, 2009 in Wanderlust & Wonder

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I know that I have been putting up a whole lot of posts about my time volunteering with the nuns at Arya Tara, but I just can’t stop. The pictures I have of the girls are just too adorable. So, as excessive as it may be, this last post is really just an excuse to showcase the unbelievable cuteness of two of my favorite younger nuns, Tenpa and Kunchok. They are the youngest of the 56 nuns who live in Arya Tara at seven and eight years old, respectively.

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These girls were so sweet and funny. Their level of English is still pretty basic but they were eager to show me their extensive skill in the game of jacks.

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They were also very intent to perform the special songs and dances and prayers that they learn as part of their curriculum. As the youngest girls in the school, they are the dear younger sisters of all of the older nuns so they have their moments of being spoiled little girls who are used to being doted on by everyone around them, but for the most part, they were absolutely precious.

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As I have said before, this experience working as a volunteer at the monastery with the nuns was probably the true highlight of this entire trip for me so far, and that is saying something. I learned an awful lot from this young nuns and I look forward to being able to return to Arya Tara in the future.

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Jul 7

Silly ≠ Paagal

Posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2009 in Wanderlust & Wonder

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One afternoon at Arya Tara, I spent some time helping two of the older nuns compose a thank you letter to an organization that donated books to their library. I was excited to have the chance to help them with their English, since that was originally what I should have been doing as part of my volunteer program all along. But even though the girls wanted to practice their English with me, I couldn’t resist the urge to try out some of my Nepali words with them.

And boy, did they laugh at me. A lot.

But I took it well and kept on trying. They were giggling and being very silly so I told them the Nepali word for “silly” that my teacher Urmila taught me: paagal. For a brief moment, their cheerful faces clouded over with dismay. They quickly informed me that what I said was not a good word. I told them what my teacher had taught me that it meant. They shook their heads vigorously. No, they explained, it means mad or mentally retarded.

Oh. Whoops!

But luckily they didn’t hold it against me. They told me I have a bad teacher.

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More than anything, my time at Arya Tara was spent getting to know the girls and to try to engage them in some fun, positive activities. With 56 young women living under the same roof, I was amazed at how cooperative and supportive they all were of each other. But there are definitely some strong personalities among the girls and it was so much fun getting familiar with which face matched up with which personality.

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It is a bit tricky to tell the girls apart since they all have shaved heads and they all wear the dark red robes with turmeric-colored shirts underneath. But I am slowly able to remember who is shy, who is very playful, who is kind of a brat, who is a leader.

The nuns’ names are exceedingly difficult for me to remember and keep track of. Each nun has two first names. Some of them go by both of them. Some of them only go by one of them. Some of them switch back and forth. Some of the ones I know are Thupten, Tenpa, Kunchok, Pema Dolma, Tsering, Wangmo, Kunsang and Ngawong.

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When we could pry them away in the afternoons from watching the scandalous Bollywood music videos, we taught them some songs I remember from camp and we played some games I remember from working in Guatemala (dinámicas, anyone?). Their biggest request time and time again was for us to teach them some songs in English so we taught them to sing “Lean On Me” and they loved it. Every day they would request to sing it with us, complete with some off-beat, yet thoroughly committed, clapping. We did relays like three-legged races and wheelbarrow races. I was able to get them to do the most ridiculous and foolish things under the guise of “Simon Says”. That never gets old.

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One of the most exuberant exhibitionists/outright hams among the nuns was Wangmo. She was hysterical. She was super bright and quick to pick up on anything we taught the girls.

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She was a natural performer and would entertain the rest of the nuns with her “guitar-playing” and crazy facial expressions. She was non-stop action and a kick in the pants.

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Jul 5

Partying With The Nuns

Posted on Sunday, July 5, 2009 in Wanderlust & Wonder

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If anyone had asked me years ago where I would like to be for my 29th birthday, I really wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea. Turns out that spending my birthday with a bunch of Buddhist nuns was an absolutely perfect way to ring in another year of life.

The next day after returning to Pharping from our trip to Chitwan was my birthday. Classes were supposed to have resumed by this point in time but the new books that the principal had ordered had yet to arrive so the girls and a few of their teachers were just hanging out down in some of the classrooms when I arrived.

As I walked in through the squeaky lower gate, many of the girls came out of the classrooms and stood on the balconies looking down at me. And then they all serenaded me with “Happy Birthday”. It was a magical moment.

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And as I walked up the steps to greet them, the nuns, one by one approached me giggling and handed me lovely homemade cards. Some of the older girls had even drawn some Thangka images. The younger girls drew colorful portraits of me and wrote adorable little messages inside them.

We wish you all the best for your coming future ad every steps will successful in your life.

Or

Have a long life and a nice day. Smile like sun all the time. I wish your every dream is come true.

And some of them even got a little bit more creative and composed a poem:

King love queen
Queen love child
Child love milk
But I love you

I was so touched. Altogether there were more than forty cards. It was a huge stack of sweet words and beautiful little drawings.

A couple of the younger girls even presented me with a lovely grass crown and pronounced me “Queen of the Jungle”.

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Since they were not in structured classes for the day, I took some of the girls from the older classes and taught them some basic salsa dance steps. It was so much fun.

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They were so eager to practice and get the steps down. One would think that young Buddhist nuns would be somewhat reluctant or reserved, but there was none of that.

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They laughed and obliged with glee when I showed them how to sway their hips in time with the beat. We didn’t actually have music so I just counted out the beat to my favorite Celia Cruz song and that seemed to do the trick.

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Later on at lunchtime, the entire group of nuns sang “Happy Birthday” to me once more and presented me with a pancake with three little candles stuck in it. It was an amazing birthday that I will cherish for a long time.

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Jul 2

The Elegance Of Elephants

Posted on Thursday, July 2, 2009 in Wanderlust & Wonder

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One of the best aspects of our visit to the Chitwam National Park was the interactions we got to have with the elephants. While there are perhaps 20 or so wild elephants that roam the park on their own, there are many other elephants that serve as ambassadors to the park or who live in the nearby elephant breeding center which we had the opportunity to visit on our second day in the park.

The highlight of the entire experience down in Chitwan was after our blistering hot jungle walk on the first day. We took a canoe back to the other side of the river where a group of mahouts were letting people ride on the backs of some of the elephants as they took their baths. We each paid 50 rupees (around six U.S. dollars) and it was the best six dollars I have ever spent.

The mahout helped Cara, Regina (another volunteer from Portugal) and me climb onto the elephant and then he called out commands to the elephant to collect water in her trunk and whip it back and spray it right at us, drenching us in one swift swing of her trunk. Regina, seated at the front, got it the worst as you can tell by this photo.

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I was lucky to have her as a shield! Then the mahout had the elephant walk a little bit deeper into the river and he would get the elephant to sit down in the water, laying down onto one side so that we slipped off and plopped down into the water in the most awkward way possible.

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I tried to hold on each time, and I was proud to say that I lasted longer than Cara and Regina some of the time by clenching in with my inner thigh muscles, but eventually, I could not help but succumb to gravity. Then the mahout would usher us back up onto the elephant, giving us a hand to help us make the awkward climb, only to command the elephant to stand up or sit back down speedily causing us to tumble into the water once more. It was a blast!

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The next day we went for a ride through the forest on top of the elephants and we saw plenty of monkeys and the family of one-horned rhinos. We also saw a crocodile but it was submerged in the water and very far away. But it was still a great experience.

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The jungle is full of an amazing variety of deciduous trees. Most of them are sal, but Laxman also pointed out the cotton trees that carried little puffballs of downy soft cotton on their slender branches.

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In the late afternoon, we hopped into the back of a pick-up/jeep hybrid and made out way over to the nearby elephant breeding center.

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It was incredible. First, we walked through the information center where we learned that elephants are normally pregnant for 22 to 24 months! Yowsers! That is forever. And giving birth to something the size of a baby elephant isn’t very pleasant to think about either…so I will move on.

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We were very fortunate to be there to witness a proud mama elephant walking into the center tailed by her precious three-month-old twins. There is just about nothing cuter than a baby elephant, and twin baby elephants were almost too much!

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We had a lot of fun watching the baby elephants play together, nurse and roll around in the dirt. Having a surviving set of twin elephants is very, very rare and this set is one of the only living set of elephant twins alive in the entire world.

Later that evening back at the guesthouse we were staying at, we were treated to a special dance exhibition of local Tharu male dancers. This was a high-energy performance that was really captivating. They marched and spun and crashed their wooden sticks up against each other’s sticks in rhythm to the beat.

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The dancing style seemed to be a combination of martial arts, elaborate ninja moves, capoeira and also some modern-looking hip-hop styles as well. It was great entertainment.

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Jun 30

The Quiet Jungle

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 in Wanderlust & Wonder

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Right in the middle of our time volunteering at the monasteries, we took a long weekend to travel down to the Terai Valley in southern Nepal to visit Chitwan National Park. We took a bumpy, windy road 200 kilometers south of Kathmandu and the difference in temperature was astonishing. It was a sweltering, oppressive heat, the kind of heat that can strike abject fear into the heart of any redhead. But it was great to take in a different climate and landscape.

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We went through a tour group and stayed in a guesthouse that was just outside of the actual park. We got to walk through what we were told is a traditional Tharu village.

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Tharu are the local people that inhabit the land around Chitwan National Park. They are of Indian origin so they have a look that is quite distinctive from other regions of Nepal. Most of the people in this area work as farmers. One thing interesting about the Tharu people is that they have somehow managed to build up a super strong resistance to malaria. People still do not know how or why they have this resistance, but it is believed that it stems from some mysterious gene they possess.

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Chitwan National Park has a splendid collection of flora and fauna that make this place a national treasure and a must-see for anyone who is visiting Nepal. They have the one-horned Indian Rhino, the Bengal tiger (alas, we did not see one), wild elephants, wild boar, leopards, sloth bears, hyenas, jackals, otters, rhesus monkeys, ganges dolphin, Indian pythons, crocodiles and more.

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I really had my hopes up to see a tiger, a leopard or a mongoose. Heck! I would have been very satisfied with seeing a red giant flying squirrel (and, perhaps a bit terrified).

Our guide for our journeys through the park was a nice Nepali man named Laxman. He had about 20 years working as a guide under his belt so we felt confident in his level of competence.

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In the morning of our first full day in the park, we boarded a long, narrow dugout canoe and Laxman told us about the history of the park and pointed out different species of birds as we made our way down the river.

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Once we reached a good entry point for the park a ways downstream, we disembarked and Laxman led us through some key safety tips JUST IN CASE.

Just in case we come upon a tiger…

Just in case you come upon a leopard…

Just in case you come upon a bear sloth (apparently they have a rather nasty disposition)…

Just in case you come upon a rhinoceros… This was my favorite advice. Since the rhinos have pretty poor vision, all you really have to do to escape them is to run in the opposite direction in a random zig-zag pattern.

But we felt pretty safe all around because Laxman walked with authority and he carried a very big stick.

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Alas, we walked for hours and hours through the dense jungle and, for most of that time, the only creatures we were able to spot were some wild cocks and these huge red bugs.

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Towards the end, we did spot a rhinoceros through the bushes. We crept around very carefully so as not to disturb him and incite a one-rhino stampede, but we never got a clear look at him.

Fortunately, the following day, we came upon a small rhinoceros family. They are very bizarre creatures, something straight out of Jurassic Park, but  they seemed rather docile and easy-going. This may have just been my naive impression though. We were safely removed from their stampede range since we were seated atop an elephant when we spotted them.

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