Monday, December 24, 2007

Festivals, Transvestites and Goodbyes

The events of Monday, August 27th, brought me back to reality after a relaxing weekend in Pokhara. Michel, an AHF Field Office staff member, and I visited three projects back to back that morning. Childhaven is a school of 159 children, where 99 live at the orphanage. The younger kids were so adorable when they sang traditional Nepali songs, and the older ones, who are used to seeing foreigners, surrounded me and my digital camera during recess. Children throughout Nepal loved seeing themselves on the screen after the picture was taken.

They make soy milk and tofu at Childhaven to follow the vegetarian principles of Gandhi; the first Childhaven is in India. Childhaven has been branching out to the community by offering women’s skills development courses on sewing and regular skills development with computer training. Pokhara has a women’s skill development project where the women weave rough cloth to make bags that are sold in Pokhara and Kathmandu. This smart way of allowing women to earn money is spreading, thankfully.

Out next stop was Kunsang Choling nunnery where we met the head lama and ani (nun), the rest of the ani, and received a tour of the compound. After meeting Lama Gondup and Ani Sonam through the letters they sent to AHF and the pictures we had of them, it was quite rewarding to receive a short Buddhism lesson from Lama Gondup. They are so incredibly nice that it’s hard to not give up my entire bank account to allow the nuns to continue with their Buddhist studies. Lamas and ani live solely on the support of others, especially Buddhists, as they are not allowed to work, and spend their time achieving an in depth academic and spiritual education. Most of there is spent praying, chanting mantras, and studying the sutras (Buddhist scriptures). Like Childhaven, Kunsang Choling was constructing another building to house more nuns.

Friends of Shanta Bhawan (FSB) is a medical clinic for poor families where thousands of babies get immunized a year, hundreds of women are supported with family planning and gynecology help, and medical drugs are sold on a income earning sliding scale. It’s a great deal for the poor who can’t afford medical care. Although Luke Sunde, the head of FSB and a retired Marine, wasn’t there that day, the cordial staff were helpful during the tour Michel and I received.

Please check out my pictures to see the people from these and the other projects that I visited.

Listening to live music is one of my favorite pastimes, so I jumped at the chance to see a sitar (similar to a guitar with more of an Indian twang) and tabla, an Indian drum, concert at a book store in Thamel. Definitely recommend the Pilgrim Bookstore as a great place to hang out and read books in Thamel.

Janai Purnima, the festival of the sacred thread and holy bath was celebrated on Tuesday, August 28th. People from all over Kathmandu came to a temple in Patan. Michel and Raju gave me the name of the temple, which I found in LP, but alas the buildings are not numbered and do not have signs. I followed the long lines to get to the temple and walked past bowls of offerings to the Gods being sold on the sides of the street. A young man caught my eye and he showed me how cut through the lines which were being tended by the Nepalese version of boy and girl scouts. Having an SLR camera with me helped to get into many places as many assumed that I was the press. Once inside the walls of the temple, the entire square was packed at 7:45 in the morning. Many were waiting to see a Brahmin to get a new thread placed around their wrist, as a blessing for the whole year, and others were waiting to bring their offerings to the center of the pool of water where a statue of a god overlooked the lines. Boys in their underwear jumped into the stagnant rain water collector and women soaked their hair in the water to receive an aquatic blessing; everyone wanted to receive a blessing.

After spending hours observing these people give thanks to their gods in the temple square, I started to walk home, using the maps in LP as a guide. Heeding advice from my local advisor, Raju, I thought walking home would only take an hour from Patan to Thamel. Stopping at a grocery store (favorite thing to do in other countries), and a couple of fair trade stores to do some preliminary pashmina shopping along the way until a half hour into the walk, without including the store stops, I started to wonder if I was on the right path. I saw three older women in the street and asked for the direction to Thamel. One woman motioned for me to follow her, and I did for an hour and a half, leaving her friends on the way and mostly over silence as I could speak only a few Nepali words and she, a few English words. It was an interesting trip as we used body language to communicate. Although we said very little, I felt the welcoming hospitality that Norbu and Dorjee had told me that I might experience by complete strangers in Nepal. It was an afternoon to remember as I learned where her son worked (we walked past it) and that he is an accountant along with his picture over a bottle of soda. She eventually left me and I made my way through the spice market to go the even longer way home. The five hour trip back to the hotel from Patan was unforgettable.

Besides watching the same Hindi music videos over again on TV, I eventually watched CNN World and BBC news. One story on CNN described the trials of being Tibetan in China. The Chinese government, in its’ efforts to “integrate” the Tibetan people, have set up settlements in China. Unfortunately, the government has also taken away the nomadic Tibetan herds of yaks and sheep, forcing them to stay on the reservations with nothing to do. This sounds like what America did to Native Americans; what a heartbreaking occurrence.

Another sad story on the news was on the second anniversary of Katrina. After seeing Ferne’s pictures of her Habitat for Humanity build in New Orleans, I would look to go down to build over spring break in March 2008. Please let me know if you are interested in joining.

The next day, Gillian met me at my hotel and we took the bus to Bhaktapur. We walked to a hospital, Siddhi Memorial, named after a boy who was hit by a vehicle and would have survived if a hospital was closer to the accident. Gill used to volunteer there and she knew many of the patients and staff. We met two German med students who we recruited to come with Gillian and I, along with the president of the hospital, on a private tour of Bhaktapur. The Gai Jatra festival celebrating the dead and the cow, who guides the dead to heaven, was going on in the street as we waited for the president at Siddhi. Families had created monuments of pictures and other memorabilia carried on the shoulders of the family members. I didn’t really understand why men dressed as women for this festival, but it was fun to watch them walk by in drag.

The president (now have forgotten his name) took us on a tour of Bhaktapur which is a small town that takes care of its heritage by charging tourists $20 get in. We somehow escaped the charge and went to a beautiful Buddhist temple that was being built in the town with sculptures and materials from Thailand. We walked through the small town to a paper store, a popular tourist good in Nepal. We took a factory tour where the paper is handmade from a Lokta plant that is sustainable and easy to cultivate. The president took the four of us out for a traditional Newari lunch and we watched the festival from the second floor of a restaurant. More families displayed the tribute to their dead family members while brass bands played with the moving procession (think New Orleans). Young men dressed as cows and ethnic groups of young people slammed sticks with each other to the beat of the drums.

I returned to the AHF office on Thursday after three days of constant motion to find Dr. Aruna Uprety getting paperwork from Michel. I was lucky enough to be there as she is the president of AHF’s project partner, Rural Health and Education Service Trust (RHEST). RHEST gives academic scholarships to young girls whose parents are not able to afford to send them to school. Families in Nepal normally send their boys to school first as they see boys as the future family supporters, not the girls. Sometimes men come through the smaller villages, telling families that they will bring their daughters to India to find work for a price. Unfortunately, the families fall prey and hand over their money and innocent girls who end up in brothels in India. AHF supports RHEST strongly and gives scholarships to approximately 3,500 girls every year. Many of these girls make it through school as they work hard knowing they have a great opportunity, and AHF supports a few of them through college. Aruna invited me to meet the girls the following Monday.

That evening I went for dosa (southern Indian pancake made of lentils and rice and eaten similarly to a tortilla) with an American I met while shopping on the way home from Patan, Rexanne. She had just finished six months in India receiving Ayurvedic training and now was in Kathmandu under training from a Swami. We went back to the school where she lived with the Swami and we met in the yoga room. In conversation, the Swami related Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity. I think many in Nepal and Tibet automatically assumed I was Christian considering my name. Some children couldn’t pronounce my name and instead would just say “Christian”. I took a cab back to Thamel that evening and was dropped off on the outskirts of Thamel to walk back to my hotel. I walked behind a group of transvestite prostitutes which I have yet to do in the US, so it was interesting to see men in saris and makeup in Nepal.

Friday, Gillian and I met up again and she took me to the Shanti Sewa Griha clinic for leprosy rehabilitation. The people there make incredible crafts and they have a store where I bought way too much. We took a tour of the building and met few of the patients.

Afterwards we walked to Pashupathinath, one of the more popular temples. Hindi families placed their dead wrapped in woven sheets of fibrous material and flowers on the funeral pyres to cremate them. We looked on as the smoke encircled the entire temple area. Thin Brahmins with dreadlocks and painted in holy colors lounged and waited to collect money from tourists who wanted to take their pictures.

We then walked to Boudhanath, a Buddhist temple in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Gillian and I did a few koras around the temple after taking pictures on the second floor. I ran into Tony, from the Tibetan tour, doing some koras as well and he took me back to the hotel where Jan and he were staying. Kris and Jan weren’t able to go out the previous night because Jan was sick which was sad as Kris left that morning for Germany and we didn’t say goodbye. Jan was napping when Tony and I woke him up. We made plans for the next morning to have breakfast together before Jan left for Germany. That evening, Gillian and I walked to my cousin Will’s filmmaking friend, Tsering’s house for an incredible Tibetan dinner with his wife Tenzin and his daughter Uma.

The next morning, Jan, Tony and I had a great breakfast in Thamel on the rooftop on one of the tallest buildings in Thamel. We took some pictures and said goodbye. Those guys are great and I miss the times we had. I hope to visit Jan and Kris one day in Germany and see Tony again as he travels the world in search of enlightenment.

The next evening, I attended a goodbye dinner to Gillian at my favorite Italian place in Nepal, Fire and Ice. Strangely, Michael, the med student I met in Pokhara, was there as he just returned from his five day stint in the field repairing cleft palates.
We moved to a bar that just opened in Thamel and were served a ton of free appetizers and did its best to recreate the Western night life vibe.

That day, three bombs went off in the area where Gillian and I used the bus to get to Bhaktapur. There are over 50 ethnic groups in Nepal, and every one of them wants to be heard. I don’t remember exactly why the bombs were placed and exploded, but I think it was an anniversary of the Nepalis that were hurt in the Middle East a while ago and the country of Nepal retaliated by trashing all the Gulf airline offices in Kathmandu.

The next morning, I moved back to Bruce’s place. He returned the day before from Mustang after narrowly avoiding landslides and dealing with the heavy rains of monsoon season. I left from his place with the ladies who ran RHEST. They drove me about an hour outside of Kathmandu to see two schools where some of the girls, who are given scholarships, attend. The first school was an elementary school where many of the girls were going to school for the first time. They were incredibly shy and innocent, but seemed to be happy that they were in school. Their parents probably agreed to send their girls to school because it was free, but might have had some hesitation. The second school was of girls who been RHEST scholars for many years. Their confidence level was that of an American girl and possibly even of greater magnitude, as they understood the power of their education and the future that it would allow them to enjoy. Many of them wanted to be business women and I was surprised to find how many wanted to enter the military in Nepal. Their happiness gave me much hope for the girls I met earlier in the morning and great satisfaction with the RHEST project.

Raju, Bruce and I visited the 24 kids Bruce supports by paying for their room and board, their house managers, and their schooling along with two other donors. Bruce’s kids adore him and were very affectionate with him immediately upon his arrival. Not only is Bruce a father-figure to some of the kids that AHF supports, he is also a solid paternal figure to these kids outside of work. Most of them have parents who live very far outside of the city and can’t afford their education.

Afterwards, Bruce took me shopping to his favorite jewelry and scarf shops where he knows the owners. I got some great deals on some of the most beautiful items I have been searching for, for years. Thanks to Bruce and Gillian, Christmas shopping was done in September.

I spent my last Wednesday of the trip with Sarah Dachos’ friend from Monterey, Izumi. She and I walked around most of the touristy areas of Kathmandu in the rain, got some great Japanese food and walked around the spice and food market. (Nothing replaces a good rain coat and Chaco sandals in the monsoon.)

While I stayed at hotels in Thamel, I passed by a paper and lantern shop many times a day. One time I decided to stop by a shop and met a young man named Manoj. He and I became friends as I was intrigued by his lack of an accent when speaking English. He invited me over to his house for a traditional meal of daal bhat his mother made for us. It took an hour to ride in the taxi from the shop to his house, which leads me to believe that commute times are the same in any country.

My last full day in Nepal ended with a wonderful Indian dinner where I said goodbye to Tony, Izumi and Manoj. I was also able to spend a little time with Luigi, Francesca and Davide, the restorative magicians who have spent their past few summers in Mustang, to restore gorgeous murals for AHF. This wonderful project is called Mustang Restoration; I recommend you visit the website or call for more information on this wonderful project as the before and after pictures are amazing.

Bruce had another guest, Jeremy, staying with him while I was there. Bruce knew Jeremy from the small circles of English speaking Ex-Pats in Nepal. Jeremy is retired in Bali and I had a great time talking with him while we were at Bruce’s and our way to Bangkok, as we took a flight together from Kathmandu. Thankfully Jeremy was with me as he knew the protocol of the Kathmandu airport and dealing with Thai Air (again). Thanks, Jeremy, for the great advice.

It was bittersweet leaving both Tibet and Nepal, as the trip was a wonderful way to end my time at AHF but I didn’t want to leave it behind. I look forward to helping out more at AHF in the future, and going back to both countries. While I had a great time, I was looking forward to starting business school.

Thank you to Bruce, Tsedo, Michel and Raju for taking care of me and making the trip so extraordinary. I will forever be grateful.

Please check out my pictures on Picasa for a true taste of the trip as it’s easier to get a sense through pictures rather than words.

Thanks again to all of my friends and family who introduced me to the great people I spent time with in Nepal and Tibet. This trip was an incredible experience that I was able to live through first hand and I will never forget, as I have this blog and my pictures to ignite memories. I’m so grateful to have worked for a non-profit that changes so many lives in such a wonderful way as does AHF. If you are not sure where to give in 2007 to help your tax bill, please consider AHF and some of the projects that I have mentioned in this blog. As always, please feel free to contact AHF if you have any questions about these projects or any others.

Thanks again, for reading this if you have gotten this far. Namaste. KP.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Poking arounding Pokhara

While planning this trip, I was hoping to visit Chitwan which is a national animal reserve in the Terai region. The Terai is about 200 km south of Kathmandu and runs east to west along the border of India. This monsoon season has brought so much rain, that the area flooded in many places. Flooding and the Maoist threat have steered me away a bit to travel without a buddy. Candace and Doug had gone to Chitwan and Pokhara before our Tibet tour. Although Candace enjoyed Chitwan, as she is a huge animal lover, Doug convinced me to go Pokhara with his pictures.

Pokhara is a little bit of a resort town; plenty of things to do by or on the lake with exorbitant prices. While the beautiful hotel I stayed in cost only $7 a night since it wasn’t tourist season yet, however the internet cost 99 rupees ($1.52) per hour whereas in Kathmandu, I was able to find an internet café that charged 20 ($0.31) rupees per hour. Luckily, I found one place in Pokhara for 90 rupees an hour, so I didn’t feel completely ripped off. It probably seems strange that I was feeling taken advantage of at a difference between 31 cents and a dollar and a half. Please remember that although our currency is much stronger, the comparison is all relative. Traveling in Nepal and Tibet makes up for spending $1660 on my flight and officially being a poor student.

After seeing yogis on a Hindi channel on TV, I have wanted to try it in Asia after studying it on and off for 8 years in the states. I ended up going to a random place on the street since the place LP recommended that I could find was closed for that weekend. The man that I went to had studied yoga in India and he taught in a room at the back of his house. I met his wife and his two daughters, one of which is named Annapurna, after one of the biggest mountains of the Himalaya. The class was just what I needed to help me transition back from not working out hard since the accident except for the physical therapy I had been doing on my shoulder and other exercises. There was a large focus on breathing, including exercises such as closing one nostril and breathing in or out of the other in a pattern, which I rarely had in the States.

That afternoon I walked along the road following the lake and took pictures. Kids in Nepal are so used to tourists that they ask to have their pictures taken just to see themselves on the LCD screen of digital cameras. Because many kids love to pose, I was able to get some fun shots while in Pokhara and also of the projects. On my way around the lake, I came across a beautiful girl and I asked to take her picture. She then asked me to look at her brother’s tailor shop across the street. Since I could barely fit in the seats on the Chinese made tour bus in Tibet that we rode the last two days of the tour, I knew that I wouldn’t fit into the ready-to-wear shirts that I wanted to buy so I needed to have them made. To have a shirt tailor made for so cheap was a worthwhile investment, and I decided to have two made. The family was so excited that they invited me over for dinner the following evening.

It felt great to eat Japanese food since most of it falls well into the nutritional experiment I was on, so I found myself at the Pokhara branch of Koto, a Japanese restaurant. When I was there on the Friday night of that weekend, I was reading my LP and a guy at another table started a conversation with me. Michael, a plastic surgery resident from Columbia, and I started talking and we continued late into the evening. He was in Pokhara to trek before he went on a medical trip to a remote portion of Nepal to conduct cleft lip and palate surgeries.

The next morning I met him in the middle of the small town to watch the sunrise and catch the nearby mountains their peaks come out from under their cloud cover early in the morning. It was great way to start the day while we enjoyed the silence and the sky.

I decided to return to the same guy for yoga, since I couldn’t find another recommended place by LP during my walking tour the day before, since I was looking for more of a challenge. The class was the same exact class as the day before which is what I wanted to avoid and try something different. But having a class with just one other girl and the teacher wasn’t too bad. When we were sitting cross legged, he looked at us and said, “Come to a comfortable seated position” as if he had pressed the play button to his recording that he received from India. We already were in a comfortable seated position! The humidity was dramatically higher in Pokhara as compared to Kathmandu because of the decrease in altitude. After class was over, I noticed that every hair, piece of lint and dirt from the rug on his floor was stuck to my skin because of the humidity. I guess by then my slight germaphobia had slowly dwindled so that I would allow myself to do such a thing.

Not being able to turn down a good deal, I signed up for an hour long Ayurvedic massage that cost around $15. Laying naked face down behind a thin sheet for a curtain that was short on both ends was a modesty tester. Repeating to myself, “I’m never going to see these people again” in my mind seemed to work as the table I was lying on was in a room with other tables only separated by curtains. The masseuse used a small towel to cover my behind and then used the same small towel when I turned over to cover my front. She then massaged my chest and my first exposure to Mexico popped in my head. During our venture to Tijuana in high school when my team was rowing at the San Diego Crew Classic, I was offered a free chest massage by many men on the street for free. Although it was tempting, I held out and paid for one eleven years later. Apparently, this is the norm in Ayurvedic massages that I found out later from a student of Ayurvedic medicine. (Ladies, you have been warned.)

For dinner, I was served Daal Bhat with chicken at the tailor’s house. Daal Bhat is a traditional Nepali dish eaten twice a day. Daal means lentil and bhat means rice. Most Nepalis eat this dish, with possibly a few other side vegetable dishes, everyday. Imagine eating the same exact meal twice a day for your entire life. As a Westerner, this can get old fast, but it’s a staple in Nepal, so going out to eat at restaurants is a rare treat, that most can't afford. It was a rather big deal that the family served me chicken, as they only splurge on meat for guests.

The tailor, his sister, his wife and his five kids all lived in a two room shack on a side street off of the main road. They told me that I was their first customer in months. During our conversation, they quickly opened up about their troubles paying rent and paying for food. The two eldest sons spoke English fairly well and made it a point to tell me, “It’s more important to be kind to people than to have money.” When I said that line to ex-Pats, volunteers and others that I met, they rolled their eyes and identified that line as the beginning of free money begging with a twinge of dignity. Talking to more people about their situation made the picture clear that they invited me over with the hope to benefit monetarily.

After leaving Pokhara, I asked the family more questions over e-mail and found out that the two eldest sons had a sponsor sending them to private school. I believe in supporting education not supporting bad business habits, and the family only really wanted to pay their four month rent debt. I even offered a small loan to get the tailor’s sister, who is 20 with a 5th grade education, some training so she could support the family, but they wrote back with "you must be intelligent and rich" to participate in the women's skills development progams. Although they may have been trying to communicate with me, it seemed far fetched to need to be smart and have money to join a women's skills development program. She is waiting to marry a foreigner as she doesn’t want to marry a Nepali and she can barely speak English.

This is where our cultures are so different. The idea of women becoming independent and self-sustainable is slowly growing in Nepal. I am my grandmother’s granddaughter and my mother’s daughter. My grandmother has survived three husbands and my mother, one. I had learned to be extremely independent when young that the thought of waiting to get married for financial stability made me cringe. Listening to this girl talk about getting married as a way out of being a burden to her brother was heart wrenching. Many Nepali girls get married in arranged marriages starting at 16 and divorce isn’t an option.

On the bus home, I sat across from Gillian, a nursing student from Canada. She volunteered for Base Camp International Centres which has its main offices in Toronto and Kathmandu. Base Camp organizes people who want to volunteer and help projects for the long term that need human resources. For example, if you were a nurse or into construction, you could go to Costa Rica or many other countries around the world to help out for a minimum of two months. AHF receives requests all the time from our donors or random people that call in who want to volunteer at the projects and they are consistently turned away. The amount of work, time and money that is needed to organize volunteers is extremely draining. Over the seven hour bus ride, in between naps, we talked about our experiences working for NGOs is Nepal and made plans for the week.

For Your Sanity

Please skim my blog. Reading through the weeds isn't fun, so I hope you find a part that you enjoy.

Stay tuned for a post on the Hindu festivals I attended in Kathmandu.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Back to Kathmandu

On Monday, August 20th, I flew to Kathmandu from Lhasa. In the airport as I was waiting for the flight in the terminal a man came over to me and asked how I was traveling along in Tibet. He is a gem buyer which is a job that has brought him all over the world. I couldn’t help but ask his side of the story when it comes to the cruelty inflicted on diamond finders. He admitted that everything in “Blood Diamond” is correct, except that the movie failed to illustrate the large part that governments have in supporting the industry.

Leaving Tibet after seeing the best and worst of it made the trip incredibly rewarding and disappointing. Many people I talked to during the previous ten days had said that we are lucky to have seen Tibet now, as things will only get worse there in the future with the Chinese occupation. After confirming with several young Tibetan in Lhasa that only Mandarin and English are taught in Chinese government schools, knowing that AHF supports many schools where Tibetan is taught made me proud.

Although children should be taught Mandarin so they can compete with Chinese for jobs, I believe the language is an important part of what will keep the Tibetan culture alive. AHF works hard to preserve the culture of Tibet that is slowly dying. Supporting medical clinics, building bridges to make a five hour trip to the store, one hour, and building schools in remote areas are some of the ways AHF helps people in Tibet. Those who have escaped that are in exile are also supported though projects such as elderly homes, settlements and schools in Nepal and India.

Thankfully, Raju picked me up from the airport where the humidity immediately hit me upon exiting the plane. On the way back, garbage was scattered on the streets and gathered in large piles as the garbage were on strike. They had gathered all the garbage from receptacles and then dumped it back from where they picked it up when they were on strike. Imagine the outrage is that happened in the US!

While settling into a new hotel room, I turned on the TV. Nepal is heavily influenced by India, especially pop culture. Out of 30 channels, most of them were Indian besides BBC World, HBO and local Nepali channels. I had fun watching Indian soap operas in Hindi that I couldn’t understand but it was the facial expression of the actor and the dramatic background music that told everything. Indian music videos seemed to be on every other channel. Most are from current Bollywood films, but some are just from music that is on the market. Many of the videos can be summed up quickly; guy chases girl, girl dances traditional Indian dances away from guy, guy and girl see how close they can get to each other without kissing. India is a conservative country compared to the States, which is deceiving considering what girls were wearing in some videos, so kissing on screen is a big faux pas. Bollywood film actors apparently score high on talent as they have to be able to sing AND dance AND act. Well, maybe not singing as, supposedly, many lip sync.

That evening I had dinner with Simone, Loes and Candace at the infamous Fire and Ice restaurant in Thamel, Kathmandu. The lamas from the Lo Mathang Monastic School in Mustang (remote area of Northwestern Nepal settled by Tibetans hundreds of years ago) wrote in a letter that they go to that pizzeria during the harsh winters when they stay in Kathmandu. I can understand why they wrote praises of the restaurant after enjoying fantastic pizza and ice cream which was a nice change.

My throat began to itch in Lhasa a bit, but Monday night proved difficult for me to stay awake due to the 2 hour and 45 minute time difference. A cold had settled in over night from the oscillating fan over head to downplay the humidity. While it was sometimes challenging to communicate with people in English in Nepal, speaking with a raspy voice was plain hard.

After being spoiled by having Raju drive me around Nepal with Bruce, I walked on the streets on Kathmandu for the first time on Tuesday. Nepal is a largely Hindu country; cows are free to roam the streets and mow grass. They hang out on the side of the road, walk through moving cars and stop traffic. Watching a cow take over the road still amuses me even though I’ve winessed over 20 episodes of bovine interference.

Walking through Thamel, the tourist portion of Kathmandu, takes almost as much skill as driving through Kathmandu. I create play books in my head when coming up to a tight spot to avoid beggars, roaming musicians selling instruments, Tiger Balm pushers, street children, women with babies begging for milk (that they sell back for money) and pot pushers while trying not to get my feet run over by motorcycles, rickshaws and taxis all while ignoring the “Namaste” greeting of shop owners that want to sell their trinkets. Thamel keeps the tourists on their toes, literally, as it’s hard to avoid these people who believe that just because we’re pale skinned that we have tons of money to spend.

On Tuesday, I ventured out of Kathmandu to visit Loes at the monastic school she had been teaching at for the past several months. The lamas were adorable and very serious about their education both in secular and religious subjects. It was refreshing to see pictures of HHDL in the meeting rooms and David Beckham on the walls of the lamas sleeping quarters. HHDL loves to learn about many different subjects and invites scholars from all over the world to teach him. Last May, AHF had a small event at a board members condo where I met a Nobel Laureate from Berkeley who had given HHDL lessons on the latest in physics. Apparently, the little lamas followed HHDLs example by learning, Tibetan, English and the human heart, among other subjects.

The donors of this monastic school had hired Swiss engineers to aid in the construction of the school. There were three or four cows in the “cows house” whose manure was collected for the formation of Methane (I think) to provide gas for the fire. At every corner of Asia where NGOs or smart donations were involved, a sustainable method was created to make the lives easier of those in need. Not only was this beneficial for the recipients, but also for the environment.

Not knowing enough about the political situation of Nepal, I can't go into great detail about what’s going on, but last year the king was kicked out of power by the people. Between the unrest without a parliament or constitution and the Maoists and other groups causing trouble, there is some tension in Nepal. Elections are scheduled for November 22nd but many have said that they are hopeful for change with a bit of hesitation as the elections will probably be postponed. Bundhs are strikes that could be potentially dangerous for locals who have been threatened by gun point by different groups. These strikes cause most to stay in doors, but Candace and I ventured out on the evening of August 22nd, a Bundh. Thamel was pretty much back to normal.

Notes from Tibet - Part V

After half of the group left that morning, Tom and I had an interesting conversation about his travels. He said that the worst country he and his friends biked through was Ethiopia as many of the people walking on the streets would throw rocks, not stones, at them. Luckily, he was able to get through unhurt, but his bike frame was damaged. I watched him pack up his things and prep his bike for the next part of his journey to Beijing. The tour of Tibet was the longest period of time that he didn't ride his bike and I think he was smart to avoid riding through the rough roads of the Himalaya.

After we sent off Tom, I moved hotels with Kris and Jan. Kris, Tony, and I met up with Lola and Yolanda (sisters from Barcelona) for lunch. The sisters had just heard about it from other Spanish tourists who had raved about this new place. When I walked in the door to Cafe Nomad, I was immediately brought back to California by the calm ambiance with a Tibetan twist. I feasted on fresh carrot juice, seaweed soup, and fried rice chocked with jalapeno which was so comforting as it was safe and delicious. Nick from the Bay Area opened Cafe Nomad only two weeks before and his place was already receiving much attention from tourists. I recommend this place to even the Lhasa regulars as it was quite a nice change from the other restuarants.

After lunch, Lola, Kris and I visited the Lhasa School for the Blind. Braille Without Borders was made famous a few years ago when Sabirye was on Oprah.

Here is the website where you can read a shorter version of the 90 minute story that we received from Paul:

BWOB is doing so much for blind children all over the world; teaching vocational skills while in an environmentally friendly manner. Sabirye learned Tibetan, and created a Braille system specifically for Tibetan. The school has a printing press that can create books of Tibetan Braille for its students and, I think, for publication.

I planned to meet up with Peter and Helena, my cousin Will’s friend, and his girlfriend, that evening. Shopping in Helena’s boutique, Lumbini, was a delight as I perused the high quality and high style items. They took me out to the best Chinese cuisine dinner I ever had as Helena ordered in Mandarin which ensured there wouldn’t be MSG present for Peter and I to get sick on. Thick and incredibly slippery rice noodles, unusual Asian mushrooms, the freshest sweet and sour chicken, fish that could only be properly eaten by Helena with her agile mouth that could remove the delicate bones, vegetables including the longest string beans on this side of the world, and the best vegetable dumplings made Helena’s menu cut.

After dinner, Peter and Helena treated me to a much needed message. The three of us were given a room with lounging chairs and a flat screen TV. I was very much looking forward to this since Peter mentioned it upon my arrival in Lhasa as the week was tough on my back; not working out combined with injuries from the accident, the hard mattresses and folding my legs into the back seat of the rodeo ride through Tibet. If there was ever a question over the torture techniques used by Asians, this “spa treatment” confirmed the POW reports from Vietnam. Hot water was poured into a wooden basin lined with plastic. After my masseuse held my feet down during the initial shock of the hot water, she rubbed them and I immediately knew what a Lobster felt like as it was boiled in water. But that wasn’t the end of the torture as this was done four more times intermittently with messaging on other parts of my body. Feeling like a weakling, I purposely held my feet out of the basin to allow the water to cool for 30 seconds before I put them into the lava temperature liquid.

Helena was smiling during the entire message as she apparently loved the burning feeling since Chinese believe that the “hotter temperature, the better” as it is hygienic and healthy to use superheated water. Peter was used to the hot temperature and gave me some sympathy as he remembered his first time. During the tortuous hot water rub, we watched TV. Chinese TV is hilarious as many shows are based on American Idol with talent shows of dancing and singing. Being an expert in Asian culture, Helena would blurt, “Korean” or “Taiwanese” or “Japanese” with every new act or new show when Peter would change the channel. We were eventually directed to turn onto our stomachs while they rubbed us over our clothes. I slept the hardest I had in weeks that evening.

TV watching from the night before intrigued me to watch it in my room the next morning. China is really working hard to get the Chinese people ready for the Olympics as every commercial on the sports channel was about the games for next summer. One commercial flashed a picture of a baby and then an athlete, and then another baby and then another athlete, over and over again to the song, “We Will Rock You” by Queen. The Chinese Olympic athlete ego is slowly building; I hope the Chinese athletes are able to get their heads through the stadium and arena doors so we can beat them.

Peter, Helena, Helena’s friend’s daughter and I went to lunch at Café Nomad as I wanted to introduce Helena and Nick as local business owners. I confirmed with Nick that I gave Paul from BWOB his number as Nick was interested in offering dishes on his menu with the cheese from the farm in Shigatse where the blind children learn animal husbandry besides cheese making (I know many of you are laughing as I couldn’t help my usual self by networking in Tibet!)

Peter is currently working on an eco-tourism project in Tibet. He and his partners are planning on creating stone kitchens and placing gers or yurts (circular tents with cone roofs) around it that are moved every season to prevent wear on the flora growth in the area. He described the same waste separating latrines that Paul from BWOB mentioned and solar heated showers among other environmentally friendly accommodations. Between Peter’s eco-hospitality and Tsedo’s private tour company, please let me know if you want to see the real Tibet, not the Chinese Tibet.

While talking to Peter about good and bad Tibetans and Chinese, I had a second déjà vu session within 24 hours. That was the first time in my life that I’ve had two so close together. I still don’t know why I had one immediately following the other, but it seemed as though it was written in the cards for me to be on this trip. If you didn’t know, my mother has premonitions of when people are going to die when she smells flowers without being in the presence of flowers. Although we both smell cigarette smoke when we think my dad is sending us a signal, I only smelled flowers once, in 2005. I smelled cigarette smoke on my way home from spin class the Thursday before my bicycle accident, but of course, I didn’t as much pay attention to it as I should have.

Helena took me to her wholesalers after lunch so she could look for more rings and pendants for her shop and I looked for more Tibetan and Indian jewelry. It felt great to go through the market mall with a local as I wasn’t bothered for the first time to buy things from vendors. Being tall, broad shouldered and pale skinned, I felt like a large walking target with dimples to these Tibetans who preyed on tourists.

Kris, Jan, Tony and I met one more time in Lhasa before I was leaving the next morning for Kathmandu, Kris and Jan were leaving for a trek to Ganden and Tony was continuing his monastery visits and Koras. Before we met at Café Nomad (of course!), I was taking some pictures of lamas and Buddhist devotees in Barkhor square to capture the last bits of Lhasa and Tibet on my camera. Tony is a magnet for good people as he started a conversation with some lamas who were soon affectionately playing with him and I was able to get some great shots. Although Tony wrote the address to the store in Mandarin that is going to deliver the hard copies of the pictures to the lamas that I am going to send them when I return, I wonder if the pictures are going to arrive. These lamas reinstated my warm feeling for Tibetans they smiled and interacted so genuinely without ulterior motives.

During dinner Tony, Jan, Kris and I talked about the military, licorice, and cultural sensitivities. I had no idea that Germans were greatly sensitive when talking about Hitler. Apparently, Jan’s 97 year young grandmother still tells him stories of what is was like to suffer during the war. While the Jews were persecuted and executed, the other Germans who weren’t killed were starving while bombs exploded near their houses by the allies. It’s so amazing how history books can paint a specific picture in our minds of how the Jews were exterminated, the French were taken over and other small countries in Europe suffered during the war, but I never really stopped to think about the regular Germans who might not have agreed with Hitler. Even movies like “The Pianist” failed to bring this to my attention. Kris described how much tension there was in Germany, even after the Nuremberg trials as many officers in the Hitler regime were still powerful in government. Now I know not to make jokes about political sensitivities until I ask questions first. Jan said he was quite offended when people from other countries immediately make fun of Hitler without really understanding how sensitive the issue is with Germans.

Notes from Tibet - Part IV

Day Six : Gyantse (3950m) to Lhasa (3595m)

After five long days, our last day on the road came upon us as were finally heading to Lhasa. It was rewarding to know that we were going to see the capital of Tibet, but bittersweet as the tour was ending and Lhasa has suffered the hardest effects since the Chinese violent occupation.

Tashi took us on the road and as usual, we left everyone in the dust to take a short cut through very rural land. Off-roading ensued as we trudged over a roadless area to find interesting landscape view points, fields of wild flowers, a man with a cart attached to a pony, and girls playing in the mud with shovels. We were able to observe rural Tibetans first hand who were ushering their sheep as we went through their small towns and made our way through the herds. Photography lessons occurred often as I was trying to absorb as much as possible from our last day on the range from my resident professors.

When we arrived in Lhasa, our tour guide mentioned that we were getting a new tour guide for the two day Lhasa portion of the tour. It was obvious that he felt bad for his lack of knowledge and ability to communicate with us in English. While Tony was helpful in translating his Mandarin into English, he probably didn't know enough about the sites we were visiting for a proper history and culture lesson.

Walking from our hotel to the Tibetan quarter of Barkhor, I counted three "sexy shops", as Simone put it, on our block. We got a little lost as the maps in LP weren't too helpful outside of Barkhor and we didn't know where to look for road names. Tom and I were stopped by a "lama" begging for money on the street. I had heard about these people who dress up like monks, but don't have anything holy about them. After Tom and I denied him money, Tom told me that he would rather give to a school anytime over giving to someone on the street. His thought is that it's better to teach some one skills that they can use for a life time in school rather than to reward them when they beg. This gave me a warm feeling as thoughts of the many projects AHF supports bounced around in my head that teach skills or provide a platform for skills to be taught: day care center operational costs, building schools, monastic school operational costs, and scholarships for girls are among a few.

Crossing the streets in Lhasa required attention. The smaller towns that we had been staying in up to this point were spread out with little vehicular traffic so it was easy to cross the roads. In Lhasa like Kathmandu, although there are cross walks, unless traffic is stopped at a traffic light, which isn't too often, the only way to get across is to walk in front of moving traffic. I learned to find some locals and cross the street as I walked behind them. Although bicycle rickshaws and bicycles have their own lanes, it was still a risk to get sandaled feet run over.

Day Seven: Lhasa

On our first outing with our new tour guide, we went to Drepung Monastery where many of us got lost in the labyrinth. It was great to get information on what we were looking at for once. She answered one of our questions with, "I'm sorry, but I can not talk about politics" which I can only imagine how frustrating it is for her to not be able to give the real story.

We went to a popular western restaurant in Lhasa for lunch where I order the best ratatouille that I've ever had. My opinion could have been slightly skewed considering the food choices I was privy to during the week. Never has eating vegetables been so welcoming; my body loved the vegetables of that day and the previous day when I ate spinach for the first time since leaving the States. It's always great to get perspective when traveling as I take the amount of good quality vegetables we have available to us at home for granted.

That afternoon we went to Jokhang Monastery in the heart of Barkhor, the Tibetan quarter. When we entered, there was some chanting through a sound system over a floor seated crowd that listened and chanted while they fingered prayer beads and spun prayer wheels. Tibetan monasteries are entrenched with beautiful art, craftsmanship and architecture, especially when considering that many were built over 500 years ago. Sure, they're not Notre Dame but Tibetans secluded themselves from the West until the late 1800s, so they created these completely on their own.

Upon entering monasteries, a smell of something rancid enters the nose. It's yak butter that fuels candles and also is put into tea to make butter tea, a traditional Tibetan drink. Thankfully, I wasn't offered after hearing that it's hard to swallow considering the taste. However, I was armed with an excuse that Tsering taught me, "Thank you, but my doctor told me to stay away from that." I will use that excuse in every culture I visit as it is the least offending way to say no and it has worked wonderfully on this trip.

After Jokhang, our guide took us shopping in the market, where we ended up splitting into smaller groups. Doug, Candace, Loes, and I walked around as we battled prices over souvenir t-shirts, bead bracelets and khata (traditional Tibetan scarves that are used by lamas in monasteries to bless people). As we walked around, I found two solar panel sellers. I wish solar panels were sold on the street in the US or at least made more readily available for purchase and installation. Right now it's so expensive to get them installed in the States, I'm sure that many people are just waiting for their prices to decrease before they jump on the soul train. Surprised and delighted to see that there were recycle bins next to garbage containers on the street in Lhasa, I was slowly being enchanted by a promising future of China as the second largest creator of greenhouse gases behind the US. Later on, we walked by a sign stating, "The use of plastic bags is prohibited in Lhasa Municipality. Please support this policy by refusing to accept plastic bags." Communist China is chasing after the heart of this used to be San Franciscan!

After making our way through stalls with a TV showing Tibetan music videos (Backstreet Boys in chubas (traditional Tibetan attire) on a field with Elvis sunglasses) we sat in front of Jokhang and watched people prostrating in front of the monastery. Prostrating is a little similar to a sun salutation in yoga; starting with hands in prayer position to be lifted over the head, then bend down to reach out for your hand mats, slide your body to the ground, slide your hands above your head while looking at the ground, slide hands back to push your body back up and repeat. These people said prayers and looked at the sky with hope and intention. Many pilgrims do that motion day in and day out for hundreds of days until they arrive at Mount Kailash, the holiest of all mountains. Once they arrive to their destination, they complete a Kora around the mountain which may take a few weeks or months longer. That's a workout of devotion.

That evening, Doug, Candace, Loes and I went for dinner and were the main attraction as a family of Tibetans sat down at the booth next to us. While the four of us were huddled around our food, I turned around as I felt someone looking at us. A woman and a little girl had their backs to their family and their eyes fixated on us as if they were mesmerized. There were plenty of westerners in Lhasa, so we didn't understand why we were so special. I guess, maybe for once we were up close for staring. After dinner, Loes asked us to see the Potala at night. Upon first sight a little bit of emotion whipped through me. It was beautiful, but seeing the Chinese flag looming overhead checked me back to reality.

Later that night, Loes and I met up with Dorje, Tsedo's friend. It was interesting to listen to him talk about the struggles he has a tour guide and driver in Tibet. Apparently, getting tickets for tour groups to get into the Potala is quite an ordeal and it's not unusual to get denied.

Day Eight: Lhasa

While a few of us wanted to see Sera Monastery, our tour guide pushed the Tibetan museum on us. Our Potala entrance time for that afternoon was set in stone and Sera took too long to navigate through for us to ensure our Potala arrival. Although at first I was disappointed that we didn't go to Sera, I now am happy that we went to the museum.

As we entered the museum, a placard on the wall stated, "Thanks to the cordial concern of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the state council and under the correct leadership of the Party Committee and local government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, marked success has been achieved in the construction of Tibetan economy and culture and important attention has been paid to the preservation of cultural relics." And that was just the foreword.

We were given a tour by a Chinese tour guide who did a great job of answering our questions and regurgitating the museum tour guide manual in English. The tour was interesting as the Chinese government probably added at least one or two more cultural meetings in Tibetan and Chinese history. They tried to make a case that the Chinese government had every right to create that peaceful liberation "agreement." I was so appalled by this, I had to take pictures of these words that have been used to brainwash the Chinese people by the government for decades.

The guide told us that the 14th Dalai Lama (current one) is in India; her tone indicating that it was his decision to be there, as if he was on vacation. HHDL's picture was when he was a child in Tibet and it said in the caption, "Reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama."

As we moved from the history to cultural dress, we came upon Sherpa traditional dress. Unbeknownst to many, including most of retail product ventures in the US that use the word Sherpa in the title of their travel products, Sherpas are an ethnic group who migrated East from Tibet to the foothills of the southern part of the Himalaya. Just because they are acclimated to high altitude and many are porters (hired help who carry luggage, trekking gear, camping gear, climbing gear) which means that the word Sherpa should not be used when meaning porter. When Sherpa is used in the incorrect manner and said to the wrong people, it sounds like "My Jew really made my climb a success as he looked after me and my things." Sherpas (and Tibetans) are too nice to correct you, but they will be the most offended, as I learned at AHF.

Our museum guide made a comment about the Sherpa people, relating them to only climb mountains and carry things. No longer could I hold in my side comments for the small discussions with my fellow tour members and blurted out something along the lines of, "But don't confuse a Sherpa and a porter and don't call one the other name." I don't know if anyone was listening to my outburst, but it felt good to correct the tour guide as the information she told us was probably written by a Chinese government minion without any research, like Al Gore's speechwriter.

Al Gore didn't look too good this past fall at AHF's Annual Dinner to the many audience members of the climbing world whose jaws dropped after he said, "When Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa climbed Mount Everest in 1953..." That Sherpa is Norbu's dad! I do have much more respect for Al Gore since his environmental work has gone full scale, but I can understand how he didn't win in 2000 with a speech writer like that. There are a few more details to the story, which I will post if requested.

My overall disgust with the Chinese government made me wonder how many people in China know that they are being brainwashed about Tibet and what they think about Tibet. I'm excited to meet my future classmates at Merage and to ask a few of the Chinese students about their opinion of the government.

That afternoon, we made it to the Potala. We walked briskly through the security station, got our passports checked and then climbed many flights of stairs to the top to make it at our appointed time. Even though it was our third day in Lhasa many of use were out of breath from the altitude and took it a little slow to get to the top. Out of 999 rooms, we were only allowed to enter around 18 or 20 and had only one hour to get through the Potala.

HHDL's current picture is forbidden in Tibet, so it was a little weird talking about the past Dalai Lamas with little mention of the current one. It was as if Tibetan Buddhism was a religion of the past; a thought that made me sad at first, but knowing how dedicated Tibetans are to their religion, I wouldn't be surprised if it survived in a metamorphosed form beyond the Dalai Lama. HHDL has said he might be the last Dalai Lama as it might be hard to find the reincarnated Dalai Lama with the Chinese governments hands at the throat of Tibet. HHDL is 72.

As Hank put it, the tombs of many of the Dalai Lamas are "decadent". Tons of gold were used to create these monstrosities of respect. Although "Seven Years in Tibet" was filmed in Argentina, the crew did a really good job of creating the Potala which must have been hard considering that little to no filming was done in Tibet. Since traveling to Shangri-la, a sense of oneness in the landscapes across the oceans has become apparent.

The way that the Dalai Lama was is taken care of reminds me of the way the Pope is looked after in the Vatican. Lots of ceremonial decor in a beautiful palace, the best care provided by doting followers and an innate sense of responsibility for his people. The biggest difference however, is the recruitment. While there are countless missionaries for the Christian faith and there has been rivers of bloods spilled over the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths, I have yet to hear about Buddhist recruiters or pro-active wars.

Setting low expectations for the Potala visit, I wasn't too surprised or disappointed when the restricted tour seemed to be a contrived crowd pleaser. The Chinese flag loomed over the palace at the very top and directly in front. Chinese guards were in almost every room and Tsedo's friend told me to look out for men dressed as monks who would ask me for a picture of HHDL. Again, those pictures are illegal, so the smuggler could be arrested.

That evening was our last night together as a group, as many were leaving to depart back to Kathmandu the next day. We went out for a delicious dinner in the Barkhor area (Tibetan quarter) and exchanged e-mails. It was a great farewell but a little sad to say goodbye as we were lucky to have such a wonderful group of people.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Notes from Tibet - Part III

Before continuing with my side of the story, check out Doug's blog and find out about our tour together from his perspective:

After finishing with Tashilunpo, we hopped back into the car for a semi smooth ride to Gyantse. Although most of the route seemed like we were off-roading, the Chinese government probably made road construction in the Himalaya a priority. The 2008 summer Olympics are going to be in Beijing, and a point of contention is the flame route as part of the pre-Olympics festivities. The latest is that the route was going to include a climb up Everest or to the base camp. This has been looked down upon by the Tibetans as a ploy to make China seem as though it has taken Tibet under its wing. What a perfect place to have so many people from around the world come to celebrate international sportsmanship; where an unarmed nun was shot by a Chinese guard last October as she was escaping over the border. Let me know if you want to see the video of the shooting as I might still have it.

Sometimes through my journey I wondered if what was before my eyes was actually real or just another ploy by the government. Case in point, a few of the monks at Tashilunpo were wearing "Beijing 2008" pins on their robes. Were they wearing them because they wanted establish a good relationship with Chinese tourists, because they were excited about the Olympics or were they told to wear them?

Arriving in Gyantse was heaven as our room was so much like a western hotel room, I had to take a picture of it. Clean sheets, clean pillow cases and a clean comforter in a huge room with a wooden floor made Loes break out with some of her Dutch dance moves. We had a few "splash downs" or mini dance parties with our iPods during our 5 night stay together.

Loes works as an English teacher to little monks at the Manjushri Buddhist Learning Center near Pharping which is about 45 minutes away from Kathmandu. She and I discussed our knowledge about the Tibetan culture and tried to figure out how we were going to tell the other group members of their wonderful decision of choosing a Tibetan tour group versus a Chinese one. Most don't realize that Kathmandu is the best place to get such a group while many of the members just wanted the best deal. Not only did we stay in Tibetan run guesthouses and hotels (for the most part) but we were also able to eat at mostly Tibetan run restaurants. We both felt like this was a great way to support the culture that is slowly dwindling.

While some other group members weren't too happy with the outcome of our TG and losing a day in Zhangmu, I would consistently try to remember what was written on my correspondence with Sonam: "Note: Budget trip is required of budget clients, there is no place to complain and refund if trip not happen good as expected of clients." Basically, it's important to stay flexible in Tibet.

Tashi led our car (which always seemed to arrive first) to a great Tibetan restaurant in Gyantse. We were lucky that we only had to wait about 30 minutes for our food to arrive as that was the fastest yet for our large group. The night before, those few who weren't sick went out to eat. Doug ended up waiting for two hours for his food to arrive and saw a rat run across the floor. It seems as though the European mentality of taking the proper amount of time to socialize during a meal and digesting the food was spread by Marco Polo as his fame was through out the land on brightly colored signs for hotels and eating establishments named after him.

Meals were always a great time with this group. Learning about different cultures has always fascinated me and the education continued at every moment. Simone is a younger version of Roberto Bernini but also a Renaissance Man with a talent for writing, photography, and painting. He can now swoon American woman with his new lines that Doug taught him, but I eventually gave him the female perspective about what would actually work in a bar. My advice was to stick to the Italian and say what ever he wanted as most Americans, who aren't immigrants or have lived in another country, only know one language; English. As long as he spoke in Italian or English with an Italian accent, girls would fall at his feet.

It was embarrassing for me to only know one language as these poor people in our group were struggling so hard in English to communicate with me and each other. At least they knew where to start. If I were to go to France or Italy, I would have to be quiet (yes, it’s hard to believe) for a few months while listening to learn. I wished we began foreign languages earlier in our education in America. There are many people in Nepal who know four or five languages, as that was probably necessary to get around. We are so spoiled by having the world know our language.

Doug is a child psychiatrist with a love for gear; kayaking, trekking, cycling, traveling, photography - whatever it was, he has the stuff for it. It was fun to talk to him about cycling, drugs, the FDA, the American education, how foreigners probably perceive American travelers, and the issues previously discussed with other people on the tour. Having two other Americans who feel as similarly as I do about the way we are perceived by the rest of the world was calming as I worried that there would be a obnoxious drunk of a traveler with us chanting "America is the best country in the world and every where else is crap" or something to that effect. That is quite an exaggeration, but I've seen a Navy Master Chief Petty Officer diver pull a stunt on a plane from Florida to San Diego as he asked for more liquor and argued with the flight attendant. Having someone like that representing the US was such a small chance, however, as only 20% of our population has passports and only 10% has traveled outside of the country.

During some point in the week, I told a few of my fellow tour group members about my accident. I've been on a little mission since my accident of telling people the story and finishing with how they should use me an example to their children; of why they should wear a helmet and how lucky I am to be back to normal, alive and not in a coma or paralyzed. Tom mentioned that he was stopped several times in the US on his bike tour by people asking why he wasn't wearing a helmet. At the time, I didn't know Tom that well so I didn't want to be too overbearing but I think I eventually got my point across to him and the others, that would listen. I guess helmets aren't that big of a deal in Europe as so many people ride and don't drive compared to the US so they might not worry about accidents as much.

After lunch, we went to another monastery. Although I was intrigued by monasteries, I'm not a believer of the Buddhist faith. Like all religions, I do respect it for its values and traditions. With every place that we went, I enjoyed meeting the people that were there; from the lamas (monks) to the pilgrims, I always felt welcome. Well, maybe for the most part. The true lamas are too nice to ask for money as Tsedo's friend, Dorje, had told me that there are men who dress up as lamas to regulate the money coming in. From the entry fee to the photography fee for each chapel (there could be up to 30 chapels per monastery) someone was always watching your back to make sure pictures weren't being taken without payment.

The monasteries are a beautiful place to visit where I believe the true Tibet shines. From the beginning through that afternoon in Gyantse, whenever I would make eye contact with a Tibetan and say "Tashi Delek" to them, I would receive a warm smile with eye contact and a greeting back, 99% of the time. Maybe in those areas that we visited, those people were used to foreigners so they were used to it, but it seemed genuine to me every time. From listening to the lamas chant to having children who were ahead of me in a chapel clockwise circle path or Kora show me how to pay respect to the Buddha, I felt a kinship with the values of Buddhism.

While we were waiting for the rest of the group to get through the monastery, Tsedo surprised me in Gyantse as he was giving a private tour. It was so wonderful to see a familiar face in a foreign land. We made plans to hang out later that evening and I met up with him and Dorje in town. I learned that evening that Tibetan guides (Chinese or Tibetan) have to take a tour guide test where they are quizzed about what they can tell their clients and what they can't.

Apparently, tour guides can not talk about anything political and are under continuous scrutiny by undercover Chinese government agents who pose as tourists. Imagine giving a speech with an electric shocking device attached to your face that would activate every time you said the wrong statement. This isn't literally what happens, but that wouldn't be fun. The thought of this made my military time very significant to me as I served for the freedom of speech in our country, among other rights we take for granted. These tour guides are constantly patrolling the area with their eyes for Chinese spies and we don't even blink when we read a blog, newspaper article or internet op-ed piece on how much of a flaming idiot we elected to the Presidency, who supposedly up until the Presidency didn't travel outside of the States. (Also, it feels great to be able to write that knowing I'm permanently free from the military in eight months, where as if I were still active, I would have to curtail my own opinion in a forum such as this.)

The next morning we left for Lhasa, the place I had been waiting to visit for since viewing a picture of the Potala for the first time in January of 2006.