Monday, September 25, 2006

Summer Tibet trip pictures

Some photos from the trip I led in central Tibet this summer with five American college students. We flew from Kathmandu Nepal to Lhasa Tibet and took a Landcruiser back through the plateau, over a Himalayan pass, and back down to Kathmandu.
Some yaks with their herders, next to the road that leads to the stunningly located Ganden monastery (in the background), where Tsongkhapa started the monastic reform in tibet that lead to the creation of the gelugpa tradition, the school of the Dalai Lama.
Here is a black nomad tent, made from woven yak wool. Some yaks are grazing nearby. I took this photo on the road to Namtso, Sky Lake, one of the biggest lakes in China, and also one of the highest lake in the world. It is at about 19,000 feet above sea level, over 4000 feet above the highest peak in Colorado!
Some kind Tibetan ladies we made friends with near Namtso, the Sky Lake. They had traveled from Derge, Kham, Tibet in order to make pilgrimage around central Tibet. They sold bracelets and necklaces to make ends meet. They had the students and I over to their tiny dirt floored tent (really just a tarp strung over a central wooden pole) for salty buttery Tibetan tea and tsampa (roasted barley flour prepared as porridge or a dough). They gave me some prayerbeads, as they noticed my inclination for such things.

The breathtaking Sky Lake during a clear morning. The stars the previous night were amazing, I've only seen them clearer camping in the boulder field below Long's peak in Rocky Mountain Park in Colorado. It is as if the whole sky is awash in silvery threads.
A cave near the banks of Namtso, with two entrances and a great high ceiling. Good for bouldering or rock climbing, better for meditation! Stinging nettles grow in abundance at the entrance, which were the favorite food of the great eleventh century Tibetan yogi poet Milarepa. He lived on them alone for many years as he practiced in seclusion in the mountains. What a great cave, plenty of water, sunshine and food!

GO SAINTS!!! The Saints tickets are sold out for the season, something that has never happened before. Maybe God has taken the whole "when the saints come marching in" after the apocalypse to heart this year.

Some of you may have read today about a tragic plane crash in Nepal, that left no survivors. The plane had a handful of extremely talented and affective World Wildlife Federation and USAID, etc. workers. A huge loss for conservation and sustainable development efforts in Nepal. I had the opportunity to meet the US Ambassador to Nepal last night at a reception for this year's Fulbrighters. He lost some friends in the crash, it was a somber mood. I did, however, meet some nice Newar Buddhists who invited me over to their houses, I can talk to them about my project and gain insight and perspective, yay!


I also moved into the monastery in Chapagaon on Thursday and am continuously amazed at this amazing opportunity I've been given for quiet study, meditation and reflection. The 30 young monks there are quickly warming up to my presence, and hopefully soon my new camera will come in the mail so I can post pictures of the village and my new robed friends.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My Nepali friends Shyam with his guitar and Santoshi.

The front of Ram's DVD rental shop. I stayed upstairs with Shuchin last summer and a while this summer, but due to overbooking, I've been crashing in Ram's room the last few weeks. I'm completing my move out, though, and am excited to finally get to Chapagaon. Still waiting on the motorbike repairs to be finished at the shop.

The inside of the best DVD rental shop in Kathmandu, with a suprising selection of French New Wave, Kirasawa, Buddhist films, Hollywood and Indie pictures.

A rather pretentious photo of me during morning mental calistenics. Daily practice makes all the difference.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

social lubrication

Last night, after a great dinner with the fellow Fulbright scholars and researchers at the Russian-Newari restaurant in Naxal, I accompanied five of my colleagues to the palacial Shankar Hotel in Kathmandu for a "Bollywood Party." We were suprised to find that it was basically an expat only party, at least 90% of the people there were white. One of the great things about the restaurant we ate at is the unlimited rakshi, Nepali rice liquor. Since I quit the bottle for this year, I abstained, and realized that the dance party was the first I'd been to stone cold sober since I was in highschool. My friends thought the scene was quite strange, a completely western style party in the heart of Kathmandu, and I could only agree, but I wasn't really thrown off by it as they seemed. Which is also kind of ironic, considering they were the ones well lubricated by the rakshi.

I spent about an hour dancing to various Hindi songs, with about the same rhythmic imagination as your average pop. I was amazed to find that after so much boogying in New Orleans after this year, that my self-consciousness about dancing has much declined, and that I didn't need a few before I could shake my ass; it came naturally.

Phakchok Rinpoche says that calm-abiding meditation on a cushion is easy and unimpressive, he'd like to see real one-pointed concentration while in the danceclubs and bars. I feel like there is a connection between that sentiment and being able to enjoy a danceparty sober, I had a good time, although the temptation to imbibe was there at times. Good dancing takes a certain amount of release of ego fixation (self conscious rattle in the brain, limiting the feet from moving in time), concentration and total relaxation. The less you think about the moves the better.

"Tighten with tightness, then loosen with looseness." Relax into the concentrated state, just be yourself, right?

This week off to Chapagaon. Tomorrow morning I'm driving Ian (the other Buddhist studies fulbright scholar from Rice in Nepal) and myself on the motorcycle to the Fulbright office in town. My first real driving challenge! Should be difficult...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

status symbol check

yesterday, with the help of ram-dai (big bro ram) i was able to attain the first of three crucial status symbols i am collecting before finishing my move south of town. my new cell phone number is (00977) 98510-03819, I recieve all calls free, including international calls, so feel free to call me, although i don't know how much calls to kathmandu mobile phones will be from whatever plan you have in the states...

also, if people want to send me packages or mail, this can be done like so:

michael smith
fulbright commission
po box 380
gyaneshwar, kathmandu, nepal

my other status symbols, an official visa and a motorcycle, are on the way. Motorcycles lessons are fun, but a little frustrating, as the bike is so heavy and i'm such a weakling.

tomorrow i will be going back across town with a few friends to restart a course in Tibetan grammar, taught according to indigenous Tibetan grammatical theory. I'm quite excited because we only got through subtleties of pronunciation with our teacher the translator Tony Duff last week. Hopefully with about a month of daily class my ability to read and translate will greatly improve.

here is a photo taken of kantipath, one of the biggest roads in kathmandu, from a pedestrian bridge that crosses the road. as you can see, the nayanepal (new nepal) is on that faces many of the same problems as any rapidly expanding urban center. kathmandu is in a valley, so, like mexico city, the air pollution gets trapped, so it can get quite bad. the white and green three-wheelers are actually electric public vehicles that hold about ten people at a time and drive regular routes through the city. i use these "tempos," that are hand-me-downs from Thailand, quite a lot.

this is the saraswati mandir (temple) located at the end of Lelegaon, about a half an hour up from Chapagaon on the road away from Kathmandu. Saraswati is the goddess of learning and music, depicted with a book and a lina, an ancient Indian prototype of the sitar.

a closeup of the mandir, you can see a Newari Hindu priest at the door there. the temple itself is dedicated to shiva, i think, and the saraswati shrine is actually under the roots of a peripheral tree, with a natural pool below. for a few rupees the priest gladly gave a blessing to me and anyone else who happened to be around and willing. many temples in nepal are overgrown with plants, set amongst an amazing natural scene. this one is quite old, as are many other temples in the kathmandu valley, and has likely been in regular use for possibly up to a millineum. the mirror on the right side of the door is practically for checking the tika blessing you will recieve (the little dot at the spot of the third eye); symbolically it is for the devotee to make obeisance to the divine nature within themselves.

in boudha, the tamang and tibetan cultural neighborhood i've been staying in on and off the last few years, the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan buddhism, Sakya Kuma Rinpoche, conducted a few empowerments. at this long life empowerment, in which he transmitted the blessings of Amitayus (Tsepagme, the long life Buddha) to thousands of local Nepalis and Tibetans, it was quite hot during the midday, so many people brought umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. It made for a colorful sea of fabric stretching out from the monastery, where Rinpoche is sitting on a throne in the front center.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Ah, finally some more photos

Dorje Tsering the tibetan tailor, my homestay father in 2003-04 in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal, who remains one of my best friends in the eastside neighborhood. I have dinner with him and his wife and daughter at least once a week, and often come by his modest shop to drink tea and chat. We usually talk about politics or local news. He is not a particularly educated man, and his serious thoughtful demeanor in this photo belies his goofy nature.

Ram and Santoshi Ballav in their dvd shop in Boudha, Kathmandu. I have been staying with them on and off this summer and last summer, as they manage the flats above their shop. It is a good deal for me since I can pay by the day for a room that shares a kitchen and bathroom with other students and travelers, so it has the feel of an apartment but the convenience of a guest house. I also have a near unlimited access to their dvd's, so i've watched some good ones lately, namely "spring, summer, fall, winter, and spring," "everything is illuminated," and "travellers and magicians," which is Dzongtsar Khyentse Rinpoche's new Bhutanese film.

Looking southwest at sunset across the sacred Bagmati River in east Kathmandu towards the Kirateshwar hill, which is topped by an old sangeetashram, a community space for devotional musicians. Every purnima (full moon evening) they hold a free public concert showcasing local Hindustani classical artists, I've probably attended six in the last three years. It is my favorite venue in the world, as it oozes with authenticity and sacrality; the only problem are the monkeys swinging around overhead during the evening music, which borders on devotional service.

On August 7, 2006, the day before I left on a plane from Kathmandu to Delhi, India, to meet Neil Guidry and the Tulane Social Work Masters students to tour Himachal Pradesh, I hiked around in Nagarjun forest preserve in northwest Kathmandu with some friends. This is a view to the southeast of Kathmandu, on the hill in the center of the photo is Swayambu Stupa, an ancient Buddhist reliquary monument that looks out over the valley; said to have arisen spontaneously as a lotus out of the dried lake that is the Kathmandu Valley. Swayambhu literally means "self arisen" in Sanskrit.

On that same hike, I was amazed at how quickly we were in the jungle, away from any city noise. Jungle is the word to use, considering it is actually a loan word from the Hindi/Nepali Sanskritic languages to English. When the British were in India, all the locals called the forest "jungle," and they adopted it as a term to describe the thick sub-tropical mess of shrub and tree, filled with tigers and rhinos and other fierce beasts the British and Indian Raj's loved to tromp around the jungle to shoot in mass quantity. That day the only wildlife we saw were leeches, spiders, and birds.

The village that I will complete my move to in about a week, once I get my visa back from the foreign ministry, a mobile phone, and a motorcylce. I've paid the first half down for the bike, and am going to have daily lessons in the evenings with ram for the rest of the week.

motorcycle lessons

daniel and i caught a ride to chapagaon this morning with my friend samten, a real cool french/american young buddhist guy that has been living in kdu for some time with his parents. there is mad construction work going on at the monastery, today was an important day as the slab for the first floor (second floor in american english) was laid for the new public health clinic that adjoins the monastery.

building technique is quite different in south asia than in the west; here everything is done with a combination of iron rebar, concrete and local brick, which comes in an amazing array of quality and durability. first a rebar grid is laid on the flattened area where the building shall be raised, and old battered boards are used to build little walls creating channels surrounding the rebar; concrete is poured to create a solid network of uniform rows and columns of cement. the pillars will be built on top of these, using rebar and concrete as well, poured into boxes built around vertical fagots of rebar. bricks are set between these concrete pillars for the non-loadbearing walls. the floor is filled with concrete. once the pillars are up and some walls built, wooden planks are laid horizontally where the ceiling of the first level will be, covered with sheets of plastic. concrete is literally poured right on top of this to create the slab for the next level, carried up from the mixer on the ground by an assembly line of workers, who pass dishes of concrete between them. they are actually a specialized crew, who does this for a living, passing dishes of concrete all day long. the only power tools in use today, possibly the only ones on the whole site, were the cement mixer and a cement agitator, which is a gas powered machine with a tube that functions to shake the cement in place, sending the airbubbles to the surface. the rest is done by hand.

i also had my first motorcycle lesson the other day, and will have more this week. i like the feeling of riding the bike, a royal enfield 500cc. i'm going to likely buy my friend ram's 350cc royal enfield, which will be great not only for getting out to chapagaon and back to kathmandu, but is also suitable to make road trips outside the valley, even through india. hehehehehehheh!

daniel leaves tomorrow morning for china, he's got a year long gig with the bridge fund to teach english in the old border town between kham (tibet) and sichuan, china. now it is a part of sichuan, called kangding in chinese and dartsedo in tibetan. he'll be getting paid, but not a whole lot i expect because it is a nonprofit NGO. it is a good deal in many ways though, and he'll actually be working with tibetan (khampa and amdopa) kids who had to test into the program. godspeed, goodluck to him!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

grammar and pronunciation classes

i have been commuting to swayambhu side of kathmandu (west) from my east side boudha dwelling to attend a tibetan class with the translator tony duff, an australian who has been studying tibetan intensely for more than 30 years, who is the translator of tsoknyi rinpoche among other great lamas, and a student of the infamous chogyam trungpa rinpoche, who was based in boulder colorado and founded the naropa university there.

in our first few classes we've only laid out the proper foundations for correct pronunciation of the language, which has opened my eyes to some misconceptions that have been taught to me by western teachers, namely that there are actually no homonyms in the tibetan language (every word that is spelled differently has a distinct pronunciation, however subtle. this is lost on the vast majority of western translators/scholars as well as many tibetans. i feel like we've set the foundation for further sensitivity for my spoken tibetan, hopefully it will help me be able to hear exactly what people say and to speak more like a tibetan does.

about to eat the creole style redbeans and rice daniel and i have made for us, ian mccormick (fellow rice grad/fulbrighter nepal/buddhist philosphical studies), the housemanager ram and his wife, and zangmo, the housegirl.

daniel and i may take some buses down to chapagaon to visit the monastery i'll move into in about a week. i'd like him to see where i'm going to be located and it will be a good chance for me to drop some stuff off. the monsoon has continued strong, it rained all night last night, and manohari, the former director of the wisconsin program (who dined with daniel and i last night on durbar marg) said it should last another three weeks or so.

a lush green trip into the countryside, however wet, awaits!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

bouncin' around KDU

A fun morning indeed, my Nepali friend Ram let me borrow his motorscooter and I drove Daniel west from narrow lane to wide road to narrow lane, and after some confusion (it had been 2 years since I navigated some of the roads in northeast Kathmandu we found the Chinese embassy. Daniel applied for his work visa to go and teach English in the Tibetan part of Sichuan province, in China (Kham), for the Bridge Fund, a New York nonprofit that says they will actually pay him and hook him up with a nice little house to stay in as well. He may be able to extend his work visa up to a year, which is a pretty good deal, as visas of that length for China are hard to come by. He'll even be in the mountains working with ethnic minorities - Khampa Tibetans - My jealousy, er, my joyfulness is mounting. Since today is Indra Jatra, a very important Nepali/Newari holiday, the airline offices are closed, so tomorrow he'll book his flight to Bangkok, and I'll be alone to actually start getting something done regarding my fulbright.

Indra Jatra is important because it is the holiday in which the king of Nepal (this has been going on for about 600 years, at least since the early Malla dynasty, I believe) recieves tika (red dot on the forehead) blessing from the Kumari, the young girl who is the incarnation of the Kumari goddess, a protectoress for the Hindu dynasty. She normally lives in relative seclusion in Patan (south Kdu) but is carried north through the streets in lively festivity to the central parade grounds, where the ceremonies take place. It is said that in 1769, when Prithi Narayan Shah sacked Kathmandu and established the modern nation state of Nepal ruled by the Shah kings, he was able to circumvent the Malla king from getting the blessing and took it himself, ritually making him the legitimate king for the year.

Today the Maoists are staging a huge rally in the park just north of the parade grounds, which is public space and legal now that the ban on public assembly has been lifted, and what I've heard is that they are going to try to prevent the current King Gyanendra Shah from actually recieving tika. I guess they plan on doing this by jamming the road with so many people no one can get through. I would have gone to observe the ceremony but a tussle (or a riot) could very easily break out there today, it'll be really crowded at least, and there aren't any buses or taxis running today anyway, because it is a general strike on top of it being a holiday. That's why we had to take the scooter in the morning, which was really fun actually, more so because of the lack of traffic on the roads.

Soon Ram will begin to give me motorcycle driving lessons, and I think I may buy a bike soon, in order to get from Chapagaon to Boudha and around the city and back quickly.

I've been reading and making notes of David Gellner's classic examination of Newar Buddhism: Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest; providing a foundational understanding for more this year's more in depth research.

Also reading Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, a masterpiece of spiritual writing, and a great inspiration. Anyone with any interest in Hinduism or personal meditative/devotional practice will find this an indespensible resource. My recent trip to India, meeting great masters and visiting amazing sacred sites has made his words a bit more accessible to my imagination, to say the least.

I've also begun a self-study course with the "teach yourself nepali" textbook. the "teach yourself" series has many faults, and i wouldn't recommend it for anyone to try to use in lue of a real class. However, since I have a good basis in spoken Nepali already, it is proving useful in filling in gaps I have in grammatical understanding, due to the fact I've never formally studied the language, I've only just picked it up though practice.

I'm reading now on BBC that the owner of Ford automobiles in the USA has said they need a new direction; it seems that sales of their cars/trucks/suv's has dropped 12% this August, resulting in layoffs of about 30,000 employees. It's unfortunate, because it seems obvious to me at least (as well as the reporter) that a big reason they've lost profitability is the attachment to gas guzzling SUVs and trucks, as gas prices have continued to climb, and consumers are becoming at least slightly conscious of the global environmental impact of emissions. They haven't made an effort to reduce emmissions of their cars, or to increase their efficiency, which will continue to hurt them, especially as California and other states are becoming serious on picking up the slack of the Federal Goverment by enacting real legislation aimed at reducing emissions in all sectors.
He's even talking about maybe hiring Lebanon born Renault and Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn to take over for him to turn the company around.

In other news, oil companies are trumpeting the discovery of a new oil field in the gulf of mexico, 270 miles southwest of New Orleans. I hope that discoveries like these won't help perpetrate the myth that oil prices will go down significantly in the ong-term future (I don't think many have that same hope about the short-term anymore), leading to poor decision making like that of Ford Motor, which in the end hurts the US economy (that's a lot of jobs), besides the environment, global security, etc.

Monday, September 04, 2006

success narrowly averted

been a while since i posted, haven't had much internet access over the last few days and was also procrastinating in admitting that my camera got lost/stolen on the busride from the nepali border to kathmandu the other day so the photos i had of the india trip won't be seen. also the shift keys on this keyboard don't really work so this one is all lowercase...

the loss of a camera, a mere impermanent thing, aside, the three weeks i spent in india with the tulane group and daniel truly changed my opinion of that country and made me so happy that i still have 9 years left on my 10 year tourist visa, so i can go back hassle free anytime. himachal pradesh and uttaranchal pradesh (two northern indian mountain states below kashmir) are unbelievably gorgeous, the people are very friendly (reminded me of nepalis, not indians, but here i am making racist generalizations), and i can see myself returning to himachal for study and retreat in the future. hopefully some work as well, perhaps with the emory program in dharamsala after my fulbright studies and maybe a masters. who knows, but suffice it to say HP is a cakewalk compared to uttar pradesh/bihar, although as is said, "bihar is in the eyes of the beholder," and these eyes cried at the sight of the bodh gaya mahavihara and stupa.

from mccleod ganj daniel and i rode a 14 hour night bus to dehradun, where we jumped off at the road intersection north to rajpur, to the tibetan colony (refugee camp) where my (kathmandu) homestay mother's family lives. it was very easy to meet them (as everything was on the trip), and they fed us graciously, also letting us sleep in an adjoining staff quarters for free. we gave them a present of a few hundred rupees when we left, how much better of a feeling when you meet people who are expecting you, you have nice conversation, free meals and beds; only to give a gift to a friend when you leave. definately a meritorious way to travel.
south of dehradun is another tibetan colony where the mindroling monastery in india is located, daniel and i were able to get a blessing from the mindroling throneholder, who has been asleep for over a year, and his wife actually picked up his limp hand and patted us on the heads with it. that was unique, to say the least.

after one night with the fam we hopped an evening bus to haridwar, a holy hindu city on the mother ganga (ganges) river, the source of blessings in the land of india, which starts around kailash and carries departed souls to heaven and cleanses sins. daniel and i danced with some crazed sindhi devotees (a unique tolerant blend of sikhism and hinduism), banging drums and "doing disco" down the main road to the ghats on the river. they were happy to grab some dirty looking westerners to dance with, and were impressed with our boogying skills, perfected in new orleans clubs in the middle of the night, although unremembered the body knows, the body knows, the body knows.

as it was august 28 daniel and i sent some little candles on leaves with flower petals down the river in rememberance of the katrina victims, had some spicy indian food and went to bed. early on the 29th we wandered back to the river, i was wearing my white kurta/lungi combination making me look like a good hindu, and were met by an eager brahmin ready to perform an offering ritual for us for a sum. i took a full dip in the river, followed by daniel, we offered coconuts and flower petals to the brisk flow, thinking of the destruction in our homeland one year before, praying that it may not happen again, that although tragedy is part of life that people may be divorced from suffering.
it is hard to say how much we can change of the external world through prayer but the internal world of the mind and body (soul if you will) is always affected through our thoughts and environment; prayer is merely a cleaning of the temple of the body/mind complex.
from haridwar we embarked on a 10 hour sitting session through the indian plains to the border, where we experienced the hassle of what i had remembered of india in bambassa, the little town on the western nepali border, if i ever go back there it will not be to stay the night, i would rather lick a goat's asshole than give money to one of their hoteliers. no hitches in crossing the border the next morning, actually quite scenic as we rode bicycle rickshaws from the indian immigration office through the woods, over the mahakali river bridge to the nepali immigration office. we then caught a little tempo (3 weeled public transport) 5km to the mahendranagar public bus park, and easily procured sameday tickets, 18 hours to kathmandu!
during the night tired and trusting idiot american travelers lost sight of the digital camera, and never saw it again. i had a feeling something bad was going to happen, i'm happy that it was only the loss of a thing, and nothing more. afterall, we are still alive and didn't even get sick (which really suprised me). so much for shitting in our pants on the bus, one of my alltime favorite activities in india.