Susan Stephenson’s emails to friends and family, from Kathmandu, Nepal, 2003

(at left, the front of one of the reception center for the newly arrived Tibetan refugee children)

Two pots of thin soup- that's it for the kitchen for 200+ children.

The malnourished Tibetan baby you will read about in the October 20 and 23 emails below.

OCTOBER 12, 2003 - NEPAL
Hello All,
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 of help.

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 - just go to the Tibet project link at that site.
Blessings, Susan

OCTOBER 14, 2003 - NEPAL
Greetings Friends,
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, and talk.

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 them.


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.

Mother Teresa
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.
Blessings, Susan


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 missed this!

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 report said.
Velusamy was thought to have died of old age after his sister-in-law tried to wake him up for supper.

Mt. Everest
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 news.
Blessings, Susan

Dear All,
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 read more.
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

Added notes:
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 Jim’s 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:

Our family’s 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 day.

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 of you.
Love, Susan

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