OCTOBER 12, 2003 - NEPAL
Diptee Acharya is a Nepalese woman who trained at the Montessori 0-3 course
in Denver, Colorado for the last two summers and is starting the first
AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) school in Katmandu. I am helping
her with this project, and she is very kindly taking me everywhere I want
to go here in Katmandu.
Yesterday we finally found the transient camp of the Tibetan refugee children
here. There are 170 children at the moment, age 4-12. They will be there
for up to two months awaiting a place for them in Dharamsala and other
exile communities throughout India. Large yellow building, empty cement
rooms, no furniture except a cot for each child, broken windows. Two cooks.
Breakfast: cooked wheat (sugar is a rare treat so we hope to take some
on Monday); lunch: potatoes, onions, meat; dinner noodles and thin vegetable
soup. Sometimes they get a donation and are able to make little dumplings
called "momos". Nothing to do.
The youngest were out in the grass laughing and running around, dodging
the goat and sheep dropping, happy to have made it over the mountain passes
and to freedom. I gave one a museum ticket with a picture of the Patan
Durbar Square which entertained a whole group of the young for all the
time we were there.
The oldest, dejected, sitting on their cots. One young man had a flute
and was playing it. We hope to get permission to photography on Monday
and find out how further we can help. By "we" I mean Barbara
Rips, the friend photographer from home who is accompanying me, and Diptee
Achayra the Nepalese Montessori teacher who did not know about this place
even though it has existed since the '50's, and is now determined to be
Just in case you do not know the background for this trip, you can read
up on last year's trip to Dharamsala, India at my art web site www.susanart.net
- just go to the Tibet project link at that site.
OCTOBER 14, 2003 - NEPAL
Finally we received permission through the Tibetan consulate here to interview
and photograph at the Transient camp for the Tibetan Refugee children.
On the way I stopped and bought 200 "journals" and pens, and
food. When we arrived things were pretty much the way I described them
in the last email, but once we started videotaping, photographing, talking,
bowing with hands together and greeting with their traditional "Tashi
Delek", and making it clear that we were truly interested in who
they are and what they have to say, the children began to relax, smile,
Diptee was able to ask a lot of questions of the young and the older children
through the director in Nepali-Tibetan and we hope we got it on film (the
camera is not working well so we can't tell till we get home). Barbara
took pictures with her digital camera and everyone loved seeing their
faces on the camera screen. I sort of stood back and did the usual "Montessori
teacher" scanning to be sure as many were included as possible, seeking
out those who were shy or frightened, to help them become comfortable.
Also I made suggestions for the filming, like asking for dance and song
after which a little girl, probably age 5-6, broke out into a long and
intricate classical Chinese dance that was really amazing and drew everyone
in in a surprised audience and big smiles and applause!
It was fulfilling to see what little it took to bring smiles and laughter
to their day. One young man spoke English very well and explained how
very happy all of them were to be safely out of Tibet, even though they
had to leave their families behind. It was very difficult for me to leave
On Sunday we went to Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu Temple in Nepal.
It is on an ancient river with large stone steps leading down to the water
outside the temple walls. A cremation ceremony was just beginning, something
neither of our Nepali friends, nor the young son of Diptee had ever seen.
We think it must have been a road accident only hours before because,
as the body was wrapped in red and gold cloth and covered with flowers
and sprinkled with water, fresh blood was visible on the stone slab.
The wife of the dead man, and friends and family, were huddled far behind
the body, next to the temple walls, and when he was carried from the stone
next to the water where he had been washed and prepared, the dejected
woman was led away by the others. It is not considered auspicious, or
fitting, for a woman to watch a cremation.
A neatly laid pile of large logs about 4 feet long was covered with a
wooden platform and sheaves of straw were piled nearby. As we watched
the body was carried to this platform on a wooden support and the stone
slab where it had been was washed clean with buckets of water and small
brooms by male members of the family or friends. The body was carried
three times around the platform (just like the wedding ceremony) and then
laid on top. Then he was covered with more beautiful fabric and straw
was piled under, around and on his chest and legs. A young man carefully
pulled down the cloth to uncover the head and placed a burning piece of
wood was placed in the mouth - I do not understand the symbolism of this,
but it is always done by the eldest son, and is one of the reasons that
having a son is so important to Hindus.
All during this process one of the men in the family blew a conch shell
and as the ceremony progressed many, many people gathered on the bank
across the river with us, and on a bridge down river - all standing silently
in respect. Gradually the air filled with smoke but, except for the mourning
sound of the conch shell, silent stillness reigned.
After leaving the temple we went to the Biddha Ashram across the road
where Diptee's husband has for many years taken food to the old people
housed there, and now Diptee does the same. This shelter was begun by
Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Most of these elders living here
would be on the street were it not for this project. All of them welcomed
Diptee and us with big smiles, and the Hindu greeting of "Namaste"
and hands held in prayer/blessing mudra as we walked through the dark
hallways and greeted them, providing a little variety with our strange
dress and looks and funny accents. The building is made of four two-story
narrow hallways, accessed by narrow dark ladder/stairways and surrounding
a courtyard of towers and sculptures, and filled with pots of flowers.
This is a community of very old people who are happy to have a place to
sleep, regular meals, protection from the rains during the monsoons, and
a group of other old people with whom to remember life and wait for death.
You may think that this is all very depressing but trust me it is not.
It was a shock to me forty years ago in Bombay, coming as a college student
from a small and isolated town in Indiana, but today I see the beauty
and sense of life filled with raw and honest emotions, laughter, patience,
constant prayer, attention to things of the spirit, of life lived close
to, and so perhaps without so much fear of, other people, birth, death,
and old age. And I cherish standing here in the midst of it.
OCTOBER 17, 2003 - NEPAL
The last 36 hours I have spent suck in bed watching pigeons - my room
is in the lower corner of an ancient stone courtyard with potted plants,
a few small trees and a place to light candles for prayer. It is surrounded
by three stories of many, many little old-white arches. At 6:00 in the
evening several hundred birds return in whoosed flapping groups of 10
- 30 at a time. As they gather the cooing gets louder and louder, reminding
me of the rats in the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, but a lovely sound, rather
like the waves of the ocean at home as they gradually get louder during
a storm. The pigeons land in these arches and on the roof, talking about
their day, where they found the best food, where the tourists are and
what they are doing, and probably things of a much more esoteric matter
that are beyond our understanding. They preen each other and themselves,
fly back and forth across the courtyard, and at times the cooing becomes
synchronized (by accident or an ancient ritual?) and they all hold still
and listen as they sing. By 7:30 they are settled down for the night.
At 6:00 in the morning they leave - they just leave - no singing, no flapping
around, no baths, in two groups of about 300 each and several smaller
groups they fly off for their day. If I had not become sick I would have
From the Himalayan Times: COLD WATER RESTORES LIFE
An 80-year-old man, whose relatives thought he was dead, came 'back
to life' after being doused with cold water as part of the funeral preparations.
Velusamy, who used just one name, "woke up" on Friday when he
was bathed with cold water, as is traditional for Hindus before a body
is burned on a pyre, the United News of India (UNI) news agency quoted
family members as saying.
"It's very cold," Velusamy said as he got up from the ground
at his home in Tamil Nadu, moments before he was to be taken to the funeral
pyre. The initial surprise gave way to joyous scenes as Veluswamy's relatives
rejoiced at having "got back grandpa from the other world" the
Velusamy was thought to have died of old age after his sister-in-law tried
to wake him up for supper.
I realized very soon after arriving that I was not going to have the time
((-:)) to climb Mt. Everest so arranged to take an early morning mountain
flight instead. Up at 6, to the airport by 7, we met with people from
Israel, Holland, and a hilarious group from Yorkshire. A small plane with
a window for each person and a turn to see and photograph from the large
cockpit window. As we flew along the range from west to east, Everest
at the east end, it was still early light - gray clouds at the bottom,
black hills, white snow-covered mountains, blue sky.
But as we flew back with the rising sun astounding beauty was revealed.
The sunlight sparkled on the mountains and the foothills lit up with riotous
jungle colors of brown, rust, and shades of green, like giant pieces of
colored velvet had been draped on them. The lower mountains between these
and the white snow were still black in shadow which intensified the blue
of the sky.
We flew away from the mountains back toward Kathmandu and the lower foothills
became visible, covered with waves of rice paddy terraces dotted with
little clusters of cottages. Soon the giant white domed stupa of Boudanath,
the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet came into view on the
edge of Kathmandu. I will not be able to catch this on canvas so I have
tried to describe it to share it with you.
I cannot write much about this but to say that there are soldiers everywhere
and the cousin of out Nepali friend here (I won't mention a name) who
was connected to the military, was killed in his home in Kathmandu by
the Maoists two nights ago. You can read about the situation on BBC news,
or perhaps Nepal times, but don't expect the truth, as with most reported
OCTOBER 20 - NEPAL
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to gather thoughts about this amazing
trip. Last night I laid awake for hours trying to put yesterday in less
than a book and could not do it. I shall write a bit, perhaps a tenth
of what I would like to share about the refugee camp visit, and add some
history and notes at the bottom for those of you who have the time to
This was our third visit to the Tibetan Refugee camp. Barbara and I, Diptee's
driver and her two children and one niece arrived at the camp where we
were to meet Sylvain, a Belgium street Magician (see below) who I had
arranged through friends to give a performance for the children. As we
had no translator and arrived very early, we sat on cement steps waiting
and trying to communicate with the laughing young children who are starting
to feel like they know us. Suddenly they all jumped up and lead us upstairs
to the single, small classroom (later we found out it was because it is
the only place that has chairs and they didn't want us to have to sit
on the ground.)
This was great being in the classroom with them. Diptee's
children knew "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Row,
Row, Row your boat" in English so, together, we taught the 30-40
children who crowded into the room with us, how to sing it - one line
at a time, then all together. Then they sang several songs for us - some
in Chinese some in Tibetan (we video taped and hopefully will have a tape
put together some day).
When Diptee and Barbara and some of the older children left to wait in
front for Silvain and I was in my element, teaching, with lot of laughter
and gestures, the English of every picture, chart, drawing and list on
the walls of the room. Each child was fully attentive, watching my mouth
carefully, copying gestures when appropriate (like with songs about parts
of the body), eager to learn - probably anything. I could have gone on
with this for a long time and wish I could return and teach them more,
but Silvain had finally arrived and we all gathered on the floor of the
large empty room downstairs for his show.
Silvain is one of the best slight-of-hand artists I have ever seen and
this was one of the most eager audiences you can imagine. On our first
visit the older people, including several old women in long dark Tibetan
dress called "Chubas" stood back and watched us suspiciously,
very protective of the children I believe. And the older children, many
of them at least, stayed in their bunks. The second time the old people
stayed back but many of the teenagers joined us. TODAY THEY ALL CAME -
INCLUDING several Pashmina (cashmere) goats who made their way up the
outside steps and watched the show (or perhaps the wonderful audience)
from the door!!!
The show was great, funny, magical. Silvain invited children one-at-a-time
to join him. Imagine these children, dirty and in torn reject clothing,
many barefoot, with glowing, smiling, intelligent faces and deep, dark
eyes set in golden complexioned, high-cheekboned, beautiful faces. By
the end of the show, which lasted probably 45 minutes, every person young
or old who was within range of the raucous laughter had joined the audience.
It was now easy to make eye-contact, and receive returning smiles and
bows, from every person, of every age. It was really wonderful.
Throughout the performance, there was a young mother seated on the floor
(of course, like everyone else) in the corner of the room, with an 8-month-old
baby asleep in her arms. I was able to talk to her through a translator.
The parents and baby had just arrived from Tibet and were very worried
about the baby's health. Rightly so because many Tibetans have turned
sick and died as a result of the change in altitude, germs, and diet between
the high plateau of Tibet and the lower Nepal and India. She has no money
to give the baby anything but tsampa (roasted, ground, boiled grain -
barley in Tibet, wheat here) and black tea, and of course there is barely
enough at the camp for everyone to eat, so I gave her enough money food
for the infant for probably 6 months. And Diptee, who is Montessori 0-3
trained, told her exactly what to get and I am sure will keep an eye on
her. It was very difficult to tear ourselves away.
This has been a very short and frustrating account of an amazing experience.
I hope you have some idea of what it was like, and I shall try to email
some pictures in November and December.
Take care, Susan
My husband and my birthday: I would like everyone to know that I have
the best husband in he world, and this dream-come-true trip is Jims
birthday gift to me (I turn 60 on October 29 in Lhasa, Tibet), even though
we could not afford the time and money for him to come along! When I turned
50 I remember thinking something like "Okay, now I am grown up and
I can say whatever I want and no longer care if I make a fool of myself.",
so I wonder what will happen when I become 60!
History of the Tibet Situation: Here is one of many sites on the internet
about the position of the Tibetans in China. It is a Tibet perspective,
not a Chinese one of course, and I must see for myself: http://www.tibet.org/Why/march10.html
Our familys interest: Jim and I have been forever interested
in doing the most that we can about understanding and helping to create
world peace. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for
his actions and attitudes toward the Chinese (read from the above "history"
link to understand) he became a model for this goal. We believe that there
will be no peace (in families, small and large communities, and the world)
as long as we blame others without "walking a mile in their shoes",
as long as we focus on winning or losing as individuals or individual
groups instead of as the whole of humanity.
When I help the Tibetans I come away with much more than I bring. Each
morning each person, from the youngest preschooler, to the doctors at
the Men-Tsee-Khan Medical Institutes, spends time praying for the happiness
of every living being on earth, before they begin their day's study or
work, in order to live with the best attitude toward peace and happiness.
All of us are all included in these prayers. They come out of this experience
with glowing smiles and deep, clear, open eyes. What a way to start the
Clowns and Magicians and how we found Silvain: Jim used to be a
clown/mime/actor/musician. One of his best friends and ex-acting partner
(also from Minnesota), Paul Kustermann, has lived and worked in Berlin
for many years. One of Paul's friends is an actor in Belgium, Kevin Brooking.
One of Kevin's friends, Silvain, is a magician and spends several months
a year performing, volunteer of course, for refugees in Nepal and other
places in Asia. Next week he will be playing to the crowds of Nepalese
(200,000) refugees who have been kicked out of Bhutan and are in camps
in eastern Nepal. Yesterday, at my request, he performed for the Tibetan
children, teenagers, and adults. All of these great guys are wonderful,
fun-loving people, who care most about making other people happy. Hmmm,
sort of like the Tibetans.
OCTOBER 23, 2003 - NEPAL
Hello Brothers and Sisters!
The other night I woke up trying to figure out the best thing to do NOW
for the Tibetan refugee children and decided music and games. So in the
morning I emailed 6 friends, they gave some money right away, I shopped
my head off and went back today!
The children at the reception center now have a great German tape/CD player,
6 beautiful Tibetan CD's and one Bob Marley (:-), a good soccer ball,
two cricket bats and balls, a badminton set, two frisbees, balls for inside,
and some cash for food!!! Thank you! (And for those of you who want to
help put another box of stuff together when I get back, like good English
songs and dance CD, etc. which I could not find here - don't worry - you
will be able to - just let me know if you want to help!).
Remember that malnourished baby who could hardly wait, living on tsampa
and black tea? Well, they bought food with the money left last time and
today he was sitting up, crawling, and smiling with his parents!
I had hoped to put more time into this last email in Nepal, but the refugee
camp took all day today and I leave at 6 in the morning for China- driving
over the Himalayas. I don't know when I will be able to email next, or
just how honestly. I do know that the world news I check on the internet
is blocked in China, so please have patience and know that I am thinking
Return to The Michael Olaf TCV Project: motcvproject
www.montessori.edu - The International
www.michaelolaf.net/asiaseries.html - Asia Series" paintings,
Tibet, India, Japan
www.michaelolaf.net - Montessori
Overview - Birth to Twelve+