My return flight landed home in Phoenix 9 days ago but my heart remains in Kathmandu.The city has been a chaotic mass for decades--wretched streets with taxis jockeying with motorcycles and rickshaws for passage while pedestrians deftly dodge them all ... spontaneous parades for festivals and election protests ... tightly compressed tourist shops hawking treks and souvenirs. But my head is not spinning over Kathmandu chaos.
Three weeks teaching English at the Dhagpo Sheydrub Ling monastery lead to far more connections than I'd imagined when I signed up for volunteer duty. Teaching Buddhist monks just sounded like fun!
It was infinitely more.
Teaching English for over two decades in Tuba City on the Navajo reservation gave me some experience, so I didn't freak on the first day when the acting principal took me to the first class... turned around...and merely said, "English Conversation."
No observations ... no formal introductions ... just head into the class to teach "English Conversation."
I was lucky. The first group was Class 8 -- the most advanced class, the oldest guys. I learned later that all six of them plan on being lifetime monks, and all certainly have the temperament.
I had brought pictures of my home in Arizona and of the Musical Instrument Museum to give students an idea of my background. The conversation flowed freely with these guys, and I probably learned more about them than they did about me.... but perhaps not. These guys are extremely perceptive, sensitive, and sharp. It was like having one of those late night sessions with your college buddies (if they were mellow).
Time flew by and the bell rang for the next class.
I'm thinking.... wow, if all the monks are like Class 8, I can see why there's no real need for planning and preparation.
I quickly discovered that every class is unique. Just like in the U.S. each class has a distinct personality.
Class 7 was shy. They barely talked in that first "English Conversation" class -- no questions for me.... no comments. We actually ended up doing some of the bookwork (even though their body language told me that they really did NOT want to do book work).
This picture of Class 7 looks nothing like the brothers I met that first day.
But it took me a while to find the key that got them talking with me. I asked for their help to teach me Nepali ... They are REALLY good at Nepali (and could see how hopeless and feeble I was), and amazingly they began to even talk in English more.... and a really cool, caring, and compatible group to work with.
They loved to sing too, so when fellow volunteer Adam brought his guitar for his younger classes, my guys would wind down our lesson and join in with them. That came through the power of English conversation actually; Pema (extreme music lover) approached me before class to request this.
Class 6 was just plain fun. Not the intellectual conversations I would have with Class 8, these guys were engaging, loved people, and most were huge sports fans. Actually nearly all the monks loved sports--primarily REAL football. And this class was filled with a lot of Premier League fans and Christiano Ronaldo fans. That made a natural teasing thing since I am a Barcelona and Messi fan.
This was a large room with a large space devoted for religious prayers. There would be food offerings, so this class frequently had to chase monkeys out of the room.
One incident that will forever remain with me from this class. Monks are courteous and respectful to the extreme; they stand as you enter class saying "Good morning, sir" and will wait... and wait...and wait.... until you tell them "Bas Nus" (Sit down). I could tell that one young man in the back was bothered by a fly at the window as class was beginning, so I just told him to go ahead and take care of it.
He stood, immediately stepped to the window and in a single motion gracefully captured the fly and gently thrust his hand out the window to free the creature. This truly IS a Buddhist monastery. This simply could never take place in America.
I laughed, instantly figuring that THIS would be my challenging class. The least proficient in English and generally younger, these monks seemed more eager to get out of schoolwork than the other classes.
One problem I quickly realized was that these young guys had been cooped up inside the classroom for three consecutive periods. Not a good thing for energetic young souls.... so the first thing I told them was that I was going to stand outside for 2 minutes, and I wanted them to move around the class or go to the restroom while I was there.
That helped. I did a similar routine each day, and these guys proved to be hard working, co-operative, responsive, and had a tremendous sense of humor.
I had predicted correctly that it would be great fun to teach English in a Buddhist monastery. I hadn't prepared any materials beforehand because I had no idea what they world was like, what their skills would be, what would be useful for them. or what their interests would be. I just knew they would improve their English as long as they were actively engaged.
While most of the classes did sessions with commands, newspapers, and sports (including American football and American baseball by request), I primarily worked with Class 8 on refining their active listening skills. I explained that I wanted to share material about the English conversation process that they could use long after I was gone. I also had brought them a Scrabble game that could be a more fun way to increase English vocabulary (and I've got a few messages confirming that this week).
I miss all the classes greatly though, and fellow volunteer Adam and I received some signs that the feeling was mutual. We were both showered with over a dozen khatas--this shocked and moved Adam especially deeply; he had only seen single khatas bestowed on previous volunteers. My one quiet Class 5 guy communicated his attachment, as he clung by my side continually as we were saying "goodbye" (I prefer the Navajo concept of "till next time").
Although I expected to become attached to my classes, I hadn't anticipated that I would feel even greater connections with other people in Nepal. One was Adam, a 19 year old volunteer from Sweden, who had been working with the younger monks for nearly two months before I arrived. Extremely talented and intelligent with a most generous and caring heart, Adam is a true friend that I cherish and will keep in touch with.
Most unexpectedly, the highlight of my visit took place over the second weekend during a modest trek to Nagarkot. The views of the Himalayas were stunning, but my greatest bounty was meeting and getting to know my guide Anish, who is beginning his college studies.
Lonely Planet lists "Nepal's People" as its #15 Nepal Experience, stating that many come to Nepal for the mountains but return for the people. A nice general thing to say, but I now understand this in VERY specific terms. Several hours of hiking enabled Anish and I to form a strong bond that will last a lifetime. He is now among the closest of friends.
Most trips I've taken over the years have been to see historic sights, cultural landmarks, and beautiful landscapes.... and after 2-3 weeks of that, I was always itching to get back home.
The 3 weeks I spent in Nepal were an entirely different story. I had gone to work with Buddhist monks, and now I felt empty when it was time to catch my return flight to Arizona. Three weeks wasn't long enough.... I'm not even sure that lifetime would be long enough. I was now so connected to Nepal that I wasn't just leaving a place -- I was leaving brothers and friends behind.
Facebook helps a bit -- I now have well over 30 new friends from Nepal who are sending updates and messages... and I have already revamped all my future travel plans to include Nepal as a yearly visit (and likely for more than 3 weeks at a time).
One of my Class 8 monks invited me to join them... I explained that I still have some attachments in Arizona... but this morning while hiking up my local mountain in Phoenix, I was continually pondering what I would have to do to re-locate more permanently in Nepal.
The people there do have my head spinning...