Susan Stephenson’s emails to friends and family, from Dharamsala, India, 2002

(at left, the front of one of the Montessori schools for children from 3-6, at the Tibetan Children's Village in Gobalpur, India)

Above is one of the children's homes build by wonderful sponsors from around the world.

The "Amala" or housemother is showing Susan around the home. Each cubbie represents the entire belongings of one of the children.

It is against the law to have a picture of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, but they are visible everywhere in the exile communities—clinics, cybercafes, restaurants, and the above Montessori classroom.

The path from Tibet, over the Himalayas, to Dharamsala and the other exile communities, is fraught with danger. Children do not always make it in good health, if they make it at all. Here is a new child in the Dharamsala Montessori class.


Below are the emails sent home by Susan Stephenson on her 2002 trip to visit TCV:

9/21/2002 - Hello, When I arrived in India all flights to Dharamsala from Delhi had been canceled until further notice. That means I get to see 14 hours of India—the Punjab plains and the Himalayan foothills—up close! I learned to "post" in the back seat of a tiny car with no seat belts, driving and passing cars at mostly one fast speed, over bumpy roads that reminded me very much of our own potted driveway at home, plus landslides, washouts (the monsoons have just ended) and of course lovely slow silent religiously-protected cattle taking precedence over anyone else.

We started out in Delhi with air conditioning as the temperature was over 110 degrees, but I could see that it was making the driver ill -- his eyes were turning red in the mirror and he was starting to cough so I told him it was cold and asked if he could turn it off. He was SO happy. And then we could see, and smell and feel India - instead of watching it through a television screen car window. It is a good thing that it was dark for the last two hours in the mountains where many of the landslides were - I won't say anything more about that. You can imagine that after a very full day of travel I have a lot more to say, but I would like to get out and explore. The main point I would like to make is that the trip by car yesterday was really wonderful! You can look "McLeod Ganj" up on google.com if you like - and I will write more later.

9/23/2002
– Did I tell you about the dream I had about the Dalai Lama a few weeks ago? I dreamed I was walking down a country road and I saw him coming toward me. As we got close to each other I took an IMAGINARY kata (you know, the white scarf of greeting) from around my neck and held it out to him. He smiled, pretended to see it, held out his hands for it, took it and pretended to place it around his neck, all with his calm twinkling smile. Well, guess what? This morning I was walking down a country road (a mile long one, downhill, on the edge of a ravine) to go to a lecture on Tibetan philosophy at the library in lower Dharamsala. On the way I saw many crowds of people, small and larger groups, with flowers, incense, waiting for something. After awhile I asked and was told that the Dalai Lama was coming -- on his way to the government building for a meeting about women's rights. So I sat down on a rock by the side of the road and waited. Soon I heard those amazing haunting Tibetan horns from the bottom of the hill, and the sound of a car coming. First came a whole car of soldiers, then a lovely light yellow car. It was the Dalai Lama. He was in the front seat on my side, they drove slowly. As they came up to me, he smiled and I smiled back. Can you imagine? I was so happy.

At the break of the lecture I helped a 30-year-old monk with his English. He had escaped from Tibet when he was 19 and he traveled in the USA for 8 months with 12 other monks, visiting, among other places, some "save Tibet" student organizations and universities. I am having a wonderful time.

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9/26/2002 - Each day I leave at 8 am to walk the 2-3 miles to the library of Tibetan Works and Archives for philosophy classes from 9-12, with a break for spinach momos (little dumplings) and chai at a stand outside the library. Then at night I must get back before dark because I am exhausted from not taking a break all day. And I want to be able to avoid the cow pies and other garbage that is difficult to detect in the failing dark.

A few days ago I met two nuns trying to learn email in a cyber cafe so now am teaching them email and English. I went today,, with a new friend from Switzerland, a woman who has been coming here helping the TCV (Tibetan Children's Village) for 13 years, to the nunnery, which is a double row of shacks up the mountain. Two nuns live in a room a little smaller than a dorm room. It is their kitchen, living, bed, everything space. The ceiling is plastic stuffed with something to keep out the cold and we can hear mice running around while we drink tea and laugh and practice English. There is a 2-inch gap below the door where the wind howls in. But they are so happy and joyful. Today there were three in the class, the head nuns of the nunnery, one Ladakh, one from Sri Lanka, one from southern India -- all from large Tibetan refugee families. I asked them what they want to be able to talk about most in English. They began with these questions that they get asked a lot: "Why did you become a nun?" "What is your goal or aim in life?" We discussed it and they came up with these answers: I became a nun so I could get an education and because I believe in helping people. And: My aim is to become enlightened, a wiser and better person, and to return to my village to teach English, computers, and Tibetan philosophy to others. I gave them an assignment, a list of other things to write about.

Yesterday I went to the Tibetan Children's Village. I took pictures and slides of the Montessori classes -- which are among the best I have seen in a long time. One class had 90 children, 90% of them concentrating on work, completely oblivious of my walking around and taking pictures. Some of the children with bruises; some refugee children have had amputations because of frostbite from escaping China. One had been abandoned by his Indian soldier father after his mother disappeared. (They take non-Tibetan children who need help.) The Tibetans in now China-occupied old Tibet cannot leave, but they can smuggle out their children who travel over snow-covered mountains to get to a place where they can live in freedom and not be in fear of imprisonment and torture if they say the wrong thing.

The head of the Montessori section had just finished reading Michael Olaf's Joyful Child (Montessori for birth to three) and is interested in taking the training, the 0-3 Montessori training outlined in it. I shall try to help him with this. He was very happy with the books, tapes, etc. I brought them -- and the boxes resent -- they have all arrived!! (NOTE: since I returned, Judi Orion, of the Assistants to Infancy training course in Denver Colorado, has donated a full tuition scholarship for a Tibetan teacher. Thank you Judi!!!!!!!)

On Saturday all of the teachers are watching the Wonderful Two's video I brought them (of the Montessori 0-3 classes in Japan and Denver) and reading our printout of the 3-hour work period. Then the next Saturday I will meet with them and give a little talk.

9/29/2002 – Tonight when I was coming home with a bag of bananas in one hand, and a purse/bag in the other, a large monkey came at me with his eyes burning with excitement focused intently on the bag of bananas (How did he know?) and licking his lips in anticipation (most disturbing). I yelled and swung the bag at him and ran (can't you just picture me running from a monkey!!!). On the trip from Delhi I saw monkeys a few times and was afraid I was never going to get a photograph of them -- ha! Yesterday I took pictures of them grabbing the garbage on my road into town and jumping into the trees with bags, looking to see if there is anything good to eat, then tossing tiny bits to the babies. It is so nice to see them free; they look so much like us that it has been terrible to see them in cages.

Yesterday morning our hostess knocked on my door to say that he was in Puja (prayer) at the temple with his monks from 6-9 am, so Helen, my next-door neighbor in the guest house, and I rushed down. It was wonderful to be sitting there, welcome and surrounded by hundreds of old and young Tibetans, chanting prayers for the world, using their rosaries and prayer wheels, occasionally joined by horns, drums and bells from inside the temple. We were all seated on the patio surrounding the main room, which was open to us so we could see everything. Later people lined up to meet the Dalai Lama, first those people in wheel chairs, crutches, and old people who might not get another chance. I was about number 40 in line and was so happy to get a chance to meet and shake the hand of a man who is such a loving leader of his people.

10/02/2002 - What a place to be on Gandhi's birthday! I went to the TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) for an Indian-Tibetan dance performance of children from many of the local schools. The Tibetans and Indians alternated with their performances, from beautiful classical Nepali and Indian costumed dances, to a group of little boys being "Tibetan Horseman" showing that they could gallop around the stage to horse drumbeats while eating, drinking, and reading the newspaper! Yes, I took pictures.

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Tibetan Children's village to about 15 teachers. It seems to have been well received because afterwards everyone asked questions, even the headmaster, and we discussed many things, laughed a lot (my specialty) and had our picture taken together.

Also yesterday I went to the Men Tse Khang, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, to see a doctor, just to see what it was like. I was diagnosed as having arthritis (hmmm – I thought this pain in getting out of bed in the morning and walking down the stairs was just normal for my age!!!). This is one of the chronic conditions that Tibetan medicine is famous for helping. First I waited on white benches with about 20 Tibetans. The "number" window opened (numbers are passed out to see the 3 doctors). When it was my turn, the doctor, a bright young woman in her 30’s, felt my pulse and told me exactly where my back hurt. Then she took my blood pressure, and then a resident felt my pulse, maybe to see if he felt the same thing. (Medical school is ten years here) I am taking giant "dirt" pills (they must be chewed up and swallowed with hot water and taste really bitter) before breakfast and after lunch and dinner and have an appointment in 7 days to see if it is making a difference. The consultation and medicine for a week cost less than two dollars US (70 rupees). (NOTE - now, in January, 2003, I am completely out of pain.)

Last night I saw the movie Monsoon Wedding in a theater that has two seats on either side of the aisle, and about 10 rows (like the plane to Arcata from San Francisco). Coming out of the theatre was a bit confusing as I felt that I was still inside. It was a very good movie.

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10/03/2002 – Here are the answers to questions that I have been asked by email:

"What about water Susan?" The water comes from even higher in the Himalayas. Every morning it is turned on and all the tanks in town are filled. There are a lot of leaks, little fountains and streamlets. I fill a liter container with water from the tap, add 2 drops of iodine and let it sit, later filtering it through another 1/2 liter container with a 1-micron filter. I use this for brushing teeth, heating a glass at a time with a little immersion coil to take medicine. I keep my mouth closed while bathing to keep water out. And drink mostly tea and hot ginger or lemon water in restaurants.

"How do you spend a typical day?" Wake, sit up, meditate/pray, heat water (coil for medicine, turn on heater in bathroom for bathing). Make bed, shower, dress, meditate/pray again. Either have milk tea on the terrace with my neighbor Helen or leave for class if there is a 9:00 class, which there usually is. Between classes teach English at the little coffee shop next to the library. At noon explore, take pictures, maybe eat, do special stuff, have fascinating conversations with the foreigners who come here, or the local people, teach, have clothing made at the Kotwali Bazaar of Hindu tailors (I prefer to be not so conspicuous in Western dress), do email. Buy fresh fruit for breakfast (bananas or apples which I wash later in iodine water). Look at stuff to buy to sell through Michael Olaf (to help pay for my trip, and to pay for the many things we send to the Tibetan Children's Village from Michael Olaf.) I am checking to see WHO makes the things I buy -- good quality and no slave labor.

"What are you studying at the library?" The book we are using now is Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. I earned a degree in philosophy years ago and this is similar but different; everything we study has practical applications for a good life in today's world. A Bodhisattva is someone who has such incredible compassion for mankind that he/she has decided to help all others before him or herself, to help them to become happy and free from suffering. We study things like anger, patience, effort, enthusiasm, and wisdom in detail. For example, three types of laziness (1) being attached to activities that waste our time and energies and life, (2) putting off spiritual practice, worship "for later"", (3) being negative and hopeless about the whole idea of becoming a better person.

10/04/2002 - Last night I was in a tiny, dark Italian restaurant, next table a man who looked exactly like Richard Gere (who has done a LOT for the Tibetans), then this afternoon in the paper (referring to a 5-day conference here on "Science and the Mind") I read:

At Mcleodganj, (where I am staying), Stars Twinkle for Compassion The subject was the stars, the stars mere participants. But then, when the dialogue centers on the Nature of Matter, the Nature of Life, and the presiding deity, none other than the Dalai Lama, the celeb quotient does cease to exist. So Hollywood heartthrobs Richard Gere, dashing in an olive T-shirt, and Goldie Hawn, floating around in a sheer golden cape, occupied the humble seat of mere observers, as did Dan Goleman, author of "The Emotional Intelligence," while Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in Physics, and Eric Lander, a leading genome expert, were pegged a rung higher as participants here today. A gathering with enough star power to generate mass hysteria elsewhere, but here at Mcleodganj, life flowed at its placid pace. No heads turned when Gere and Hawn decided to leg it to Chonor Guesthouse (where Susan has twice eaten lunch), a good 10-minute walk from His Holiness’ residence, after the morning session on Day 3.. .

Sorry, I'm not going to type the whole article. You can look it up on the internet at The Indian Express, Thursday, October 3rd, if it doesn’t open to the right page you can still search by date: http://www.indianexpress.com/archive_frame.php, and here is the website for the Mind and Life Institute (Boulder, Colorado), which sponsored this conference: http://www.mindandlife.org

10/?/2002 - I mentioned the very interesting people who come here. Well, Helen Strunc has been my guide and friend since the first day. She is Australian by upbringing, US by citizenship, and lives in Switzerland with her husband Vladimir who was a Czech refugee. They have been just about everywhere, especially in Asia, and I love listening to her stories. She is 13 years older than I am and has been coming here annually for years. Ed Douglas was Vice-president of Marketing for Mindspring.com and Earthlink.com and now lives here, helping the Tibetans. He is working with the Tibetan government to devise a program to prepare upper level students for work in the world. Isabel Losada is a writer from London who has published a book that inspired her to do another on how people can help the Tibetan cause. Before she left for home she had a talk with the Dalai Lama on the subject -- and just about everyone else she could corner. Very bright, interesting, kind, young people.

At 7:30 on Friday the Montessori head of the TCV Montessori classes took me to a beautiful school in Golbalpur. Here there are over 1000 students from age 3-18. An "Ama-la" who cares for 26 boys and girls from age 6-13 showed us through her children's house, one dorm room for girls, one for boys, a worship/dinning room, and simple kitchen and the Amala's room, then the garden. I hope I can show you pictures some day. The parents are in Tibet -- having smuggled out their children -- but this is the most loving environment I can imagine for them under the circumstances.

The principal of this school arrived from Tibet when he was five years old, and has studied in the US on two Fulbrights, one to study the teaching of English at the U. of Virginia, and one to visit many Jewish summer camps!!! To learn how to keep a language and culture alive in a world where otherwise it might be stamped out - appropriate for the Tibetans in India now, and hopefully in Tibet in the future. The teachers, and about 60 children, gathered to see "The Wonderful Two's" the video I made of the Montessori Infant communities in Japan and Denver. One never knows where one's little projects will end up. Then we had an interesting discussion and one of the teachers said she hoped I could return. I certainly hope to return if I can really be of help here.

I heard a child cry yesterday. It was shocking, as I have seen only smiles. The street was crowded and apparently he ran into a pipe. He was not hurt, but many people, old and young, stopped what they were doing to look in his direction with concern on their faces until it was clear that he was all right! Such a close and loving community this is.

The monkeys have been crazy the last two nights. I wear earplugs to sleep. A large one is jumping on the giant black plastic water tank because it makes a tremendous noise in the night. I wish I could see the glee on his face.

10/10/2002 - Well Dears, tomorrow I leave here and today is my last internet day here. I'll try to write again from Delhi or SF (am giving a talk to three religion classes, and meeting with religion teachers, at Menlo School near San Francisco on my way home.) I want to thank you for giving me this reason for organizing my thoughts and sharing this amazing trip with people who care.

Yesterday I had the last English lesson with my two Buddhist nun friends. We talked about how they spend their day. They are in prayer for 3-4 hours -- praying for everyone on earth. I thanked them for their prayers. Each night they must defend in debate what they are learning -- rather like the tutor-student practice at Oxford University. They are in school to learn enough to go back to their villages and share Tibetan Buddhist philosophy for 15-20 years. A person who is studying logic takes at least seven years just for that study.

I leave at 6 PM tomorrow night for the overnight bus from here to Delhi. One little story to end this message: The other day I was walking the long country road from my guesthouse to the library for philosophy classes. Two little girls, perhaps four and six years of age, came onto the road from a side path on their way to school. (I could tell because they had on the local school uniform). They casually looked my way and then suddenly the littlest one brightened, smiled, and ran toward me with her arms outstretched calling "amala! amala!" (amala means mother or grandmother). She gave me a hug. Then, the big sister took her hand and they started back to the path on the other side of the road. Once again the little one turned to me, stretched her arms out, called "amala" with the glowingest, happiest smile, and came toward me with her lips puckered for a kiss. We kissed good-bye and went our ways, me with my head shaking in wonderment and my own happy smile.

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October 22, 2002
– HOME. I am in awe of the beautiful home and garden where we live, and struck by the gold and reds of the fall colors which seem all the more vibrant because I did not see them come on gradually (or just maybe because my eyes have been opened a little wider?). I am a little bit ill due to drinking water accidentally as I brushed my teeth in the Bangkok airport on the flight home, and because there is a 12-hour time change between here and Delhi but I will try to recap:

Delhi was amazing. The bus trip, the overnight trip where I was planning to sleep, was fascinating but not conducive to sleep or rest. I have overcome the lemming fear of cliffs; these little slopes into the Pacific are laughable compared to the cliff roads that bus took at full speed, and safely. We drove through tiny villages, passed people full on at living in little cafes in the night, children, moms and dads carrying giant loads of grass home for the winter animal food. I don’t know where they found grass but there must be some fields tucked away between the peaks. At around 10 PM we stopped for dinner. At 6 AM we pulled into Delhi, well the outskirts of Delhi, the Tibetan refugee camp called Majnuka Tilla, a piece of land given to the Tibetans years ago by India, which is now so packed that the guest houses, tiny at the base of the building, are many stories high, and the spaces between them are tiny dark alleys, and the one main street is about 10 feet wide. The parking lot for cars is outside the living area. Yet, people are living the same happy, peaceful life that saw in the mountains.

On the first day I had arranged a driver that took me around Delhi. Pulling into the main road in NEW Delhi the first thing I saw was an elephant and a camel! I had to roll down the window to eliminate the feeling that I was watching this on a TV screen. We drove down wide tree and flower-lined boulevards to the place where Gandhi was cremated, the “Raj Ghat”, a large black marble slab with an eternal flame surrounded by acres and acres of lawn and garden and enormous black Brahma bulls pulling lawnmowers to keep this very special place beautiful. There was a constant stream of visitors even this early n the morning, removing shoes and silently walking past the flame, placing marigolds on the marble, taking pictures, showing respect for this great person. It was very moving.

As we entered OLD Delhi the main feeling was a steam of humanity: families of four—dad with youngster in front, baby between him and mom on back—of motorcycles (I’m sure they could not afford cars), bicycle rickshaws, little doorless 3-wheeled green vehicles, and people! It is in the middle of the Hindu celebration of Dewali so there were stands of red and gold holy fabric and religious objects everywhere, singing, trucks with a huge display of the goddess Kali full of young men yelling, laughing, singing, and people, crowds of women in luscious brightly-colored saris and men in long white pajamas, children running everywhere, fruit stands, tables of clothing, sounds, smells—India. The rest of the day was fascinating, but not so much because of the beautiful places we went to see (like the Lotus Temple of the Bahai, the India Gate – and nearby modern art museum of course, the Jama Masjid Mosque) but the people. We couldn’t get close to the Red Fort which is a main attraction because of the Hindu celebration bringing people out in masses to crowd streets already full in song and ceremony. We needed translators often and just asked people in the street. I enjoyed meeting many of the helpful, friendly Indians who helped me communicate with the driver.

POLICE – that night, after going to sleep early because of missing a night’s sleep on the bus from Dharamsala, I was awakened by violent knocking at my door. And opened it to three large Indian policemen with guns and the tiny apologetic Tibetan receptionist. It seems that I should have written “arrived from the USA” instead of “arrived from Bangkok” on the register when I signed in. They demanded my passport (which was not easy to find in my collapsed condition) and to know why I was in India. Finally satisfied with my answers they left and I laughed myself to sleep. I do love experiences out of the ordinary.

At 5 AM the next morning I was met by a different driver, one who I had met briefly at the travel agency in Dharamsala, to drive to Agra. It was still night, and so interesting to see Delhi in the early dark. As we drove through the countryside between these two cities we watch the sun rise over lovely misted fields just a little different from home because of the peaked straw huts outlined in the changing light – from gray to purple, then blue, and finally glorious reds, oranges, and yellows – and then steam through bright blue as the hot sun his the dew. As the light barely began to show we watched the people get up and start their day. As life is in the air instead of the little huts called home, we could see the fires being lit, tea mixed and boiled, bathing at many outside water sources, and everywhere people greeting each other for the day, having breakfast, herding the goats and cattle toward the fields . . . life.

Agra – again beautiful buildings, but I’m sure you can see them in books -- The Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, and the Sikandra or Akbar’s Mausoleum where a large white monkey sat on my shoulder and ate out of my hand. He must have weighed a lot but it didn’t matter. Again, for me the fascination was the people in the street. And I could write a page on so many amazing scenes of this.

One more day in Delhi, then the flight to San Francisco and a talk at Menlo School where I friend of mine is a teacher of religion for ninth graders. I wore the Tibetan woman’s dress “Chuba” and Helen (my old friend, and wife of the religion teacher) wore one of the Indian outfits that I wore often in India, the Salwar Kameez (very loose pants with a tunic and shawl.) I showed a videotape of scenes from Dharamsala – monks debating, the Dalai Lama’s home, my neighborhood and the The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, lots of monkeys, and cultural dances by Indian and Tibetan children and adults. I played a CD of Tibetan music, burned incense, and demonstrated and explained the use of the blessing kata (white scarf), mala (prayer beads), singing bowl, traditional “Chod” drum, prayer flags, Tibetan flag, and ended the session with a lesson on prostrations, which are a way of concentrating during prayer but also prescribed to help heal physical ailments. Some of the students really enjoyed joining me in performing the prostrations. It is like a dream. But I am still helping three Tibetans with their English via email and Jim says our home smells like an Indian grocery store, so I know it is real.

Thank you for your prayers, and support.

Tashi Delek, Susan Stephenson

P.S. As a result of this web page, at least three teachers have visited Dharamsala, one has become a sponsor of a TCV child and another is there now teaching English to Indian students. Montessori materials, and many boxes of clothing, have been gathered and shipped. Several students have become penpals and are getting to know each other across the globe. Thank you so much for your past, present, and future help.

Return to The Michael Olaf TCV Project: motcvproject

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www.michaelolaf.net - Montessori Overview - Birth to Twelve+

Susan with the TCV 3-6 Montessori teachers in Dharamsala, India. 2002