Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns

to support tibetan-buddhist nuns in Ladakh, India

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Only days after returning home from Ladakh, I decided that I should get a nursing degree as soon as possible after graduation. This was a quite abrupt departure from all my previous ideas for post-Wesleyan life (farming, learning Spanish, etc). And just as quickly, I realized that this sudden determination had little to do with any newfound interest in health services, and was solely because my longing to go back is coupled with an uncertainty about what I have to contribute.


This summer was delightful precisely because I had the privilege of living amongst the lovely Ladakhis of Thiksey. Though I know I could return in the next couple years and continue to volunteer on construction work, at some point I'd like to develop more specialized skills to contribute to the lives of my friends there. So, nursing? Perhaps.

I'm not exactly sure what my expectations for the summer were initially, as my memories of anticipation have been entirely overshadowed by what actually transpired. Perhaps things as simple as spending a good chunk of time away from the U.S., immersing myself into a Buddhist community, and giving whatever I had to offer to a friendly looking group of nuns. But Ladakh ended up feeling like a home, and I look back at those three months as the most content of my life thusfar. A grand claim! But one that may actually be appropriate.

19DINNER
19DINNER
19DINNER
14BUILDING
14BUILDING
14BUILDING
22JENNY DAN NUN
22JENNY DAN NUN
22JENNY DAN NUN
Foto's Ben Fash

Benjamin, Daniel and I flew first from New York City to Russia, for a week-long visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, planning to rendezvous with Stefanie and Clayton later on in Leh. Our Russian adventure was expensive and hilarious, with our lack of any Russian speaking skills seeming to preclude any warm interactions with people we encountered. We found most of them to be unfriendly as well as unsympathetic to our frequent confusion. Insofar as we had a splendid time just being together 'on the loose', it was a great time, but I left feeling a little dazed and relieved to be headed toward a more welcoming arrangement.

Flying through the night from Moscow to Delhi was quite a thrill, knowing that we were cruising over vast areas of central Asia. I saw the lit sprawl of a couple large towns, but mostly just tiny traces of light scattered infrequently. Arriving at Delhi in the early hours of the morning, we eventually boarded our flight up to Leh. I sat across the aisle from a large and smiley monk, and we giggled together in excitement, watching the sun rise to reveal the Himalayas poking through the fluffy clouds down below. At the airport, Marlies had arranged for Abid to pick us up, and he ended up being an invaluable source of good humor and assistance in our first few days. He gave us advice, loaned money, and served tea while we were still spinning around on the more disoriented side of things, and generally became a close friend who was always willing to help.

We wanted to start working as soon as possible, to begin the realization of our purpose there. Though we arrived in Ladakh in early June, the building materials weren't ready until almost four weeks later, mainly because the bricks were still drying. After two weeks in Leh, we moved out to Thiksey to live with Ishey and his family. Before the other workers were hired, we spent about two weeks going to the nunnery site as a foursome, filling in the foundation for one of the rooms. Dolma and Dolkar would frequently join us, so we started to become friends with them and learn more Ladakhi vocabulary. During this first month, I remember sometimes feeling a bit aimless, unsure whether we were actually being helpful. The dirt we were shoveling was almost rock-solid at times, packed down after sitting for the whole winter, so our progress was slow. It was a vital lesson of patience and flexibility, disconcerting only because we'd had expectations. I'd imagined working immediately alongside others besides my traveling companions, and was excited about contributing to the energy of a functioning site in some sort of efficient manner. Which was exactly what happened after the first couple weeks, but initially it was a bit hard to judge what was expected of us. Basically, we just wanted to contribute as much as possible, and balance that effectively with traveling around Ladakh to some of the enticing sights. We had trouble communicating with Ishey sometimes, and so it was hard to tell when our presence would be most worthwhile. Though obviously it's difficult to gage when materials will be available, it would have been helpful to know that we could have done more traveling in the beginning.

Then again, the dynamic of the so-called 'delay' was only a problem insofar as we each allowed it to be, for there was plenty for us to engage in. Especially during the first two weeks, when Palmo arranged for us to teach the older nuns some basic English. The idea was that basic phrases would be particularly useful to them in welcoming visitors to the nunnery. I felt a bit nervous the night before we were supposed to start teaching, worrying that since I didn't know Ladakhi, the lessons would be of little help. I pictured myself sitting unavoidably tongue-tied in front of the twenty nuns, with them staring expectantly back, and no one learning anything whatsoever.

It was set up so that Stefanie and I would teach the nuns in two groups, and Ben and Dan would teach Geshe La together. I assume the gender partnering was to make everyone more comfortable, though it wouldn't have occurred to me to be necessary.

So I sat with my own ten nuns (the older portion of the group) and commenced teaching simple things like, "Hello!" "How are you?" "Please have tea!" "Come in!" "Please sit down!" As with most other situations in Ladakh, I instantly felt comfortable. Something about the initial attentiveness of the elderly nuns I taught was so inherently earnest that it was impossible not to feel at ease. I say "initial" because by the next lesson, they apparently felt comfortable enough to just leave the room whenever they got bored. Through a lovely young nun's translating assistance, I heard that they were saying things like "We're too old to learn English! Why don't you just learn Ladakhi?" A valid point! Another concern of theirs was "We're going to be dead by the time the nunnery is built anyway!" So about half of them would quietly stand up and leave the room throughout the course of our hour long lessons. It seemed less out of boredom with me, specifically, (or at least I'd like to think so) then a general indifference to learning English in the first place. It was easiest to teach vocabulary, such as colors, counting, names, etc. Questions and answers were somewhat more difficult because we often got all tangled up in which was which. (Thus, Dolma and Dolkar's habit, throughout the summer, of asking, "I am hungry???" to me around lunchtime.) Those hours teaching the older nuns were precious, especially when things just devolved into uncontrollable chortling.

Moving in with the Lanu family was a welcome change from Leh, and a treat that I hadn't anticipated. Ishey generously gave the four of us an entire room to live in together, as he had invited us to stay for a few days until the floors were done at the nunnery. Yet those 'few days' stretched into an entire month (mid June-mid July), during which work commenced at the nunnery and the floors were largely pushed to the side in lieu of more immediate projects. I'm not sure what Ishey's intentions were when he first welcomed us into his home, but he continued to make it clear that we could stay there indefinitely. I was often worried that we were imposing, after all, with four of us living there we doubled the normal population of the household. Whenever I tried to thank him for being so generous with his family's space (and food-we contributed as much as possible but it still must have been a bit of a burden) Ishey shook his head and spoke only of how grateful he was for our helpful presence at the nunnery.

His sense of duty and commitment to the nuns is consistently inspiring to me-he repeatedly talked of helping them as his specific purpose for this lifetime. Though Ishey had supposedly retired from the Lamdon School, he still went there most days to continue teaching math. Apparently, his age makes him a rarity among teachers, for the educational system was not as widespread when he was growing up in Ladakh. Consequently, it's unusual for teachers to be older members of the community, and Ishey is a well-respected community leader. He was also, purportedly, the first Ladakhi to have a scooter (proudly bought in Srinagar).

At first, whenever we tried to help with dinner or bring water in the morning, they wouldn't allow us to. But after a few days these sorts of pretenses wore off.

I loved being involved in the household routine, helping Lhamo (Ishey's 16 year-old niece) as she carried buckets of water from the pump and made chapatis every morning. She had a particular liking for Ladakhi pop music, in the form of music videos that she'd play at full blast on the TV from early morning through evening. Those songs still haunt me!!! Stef and I would dance and sing with her in the kitchen while making dinner, or as we walked to the store together for tomatoes or eggs. Ishey's daughter-in-law, Padma, was gone for most of the summer, and it was impressive to see how much Lhamo handled around the house--a level of responsibility that I never had at sixteen. Becoming close with her was a true delight. We'd often sit up on the roof of the house eating mango candies, playing cards and chatting while the sun went down behind the mountains.

Ishey was always willing to tell me about 'traditional' Ladakhi ways, shaking his head ruefully at the habits of youngsters-drinking too much alcohol, eating sweets, preferring white rice over Ladakhi bread. He taught me a large amount of the Ladakhi vocabulary I learned, as his English skills helped in a more specific explanation of words. My favorite lesson occurred while I was walking back with him to the main road from Nyerma one day, pretty early on in mid-June. I was practicing my colors; pleased with myself as I confidently pointed at things and said the color in Ladakhi. When I pointed at a tree and said "Green," Ishey furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head. He pointed at my green bag and said "Green." Then he pointed at the tree again and said "Blue." Then he proceeded to explain to me that although Ladakhis certainly recognize that technically, the tree leaves are in the same general color as my bag, any sort of natural growth is called blue. Something about this really tickled me, a culture-wide kind of linguistic synesthesia.

Though Ishey's dedication to telling us about 'real' Ladakhi culture was steadfast, it was fascinating to feel myself being disconcerted at what I perceived as 'incongruities' with this dedication and his lifestyle. Despite his talk of disappearing culture, disrespectful youngsters being influenced by outside ways, the dangers of greed, and etc, Ishey would watch many hours of television during the week, with the TV on even during dinner. The Indian soap operas on the screen were galling to me in their blatant sexism, violence, and garish displays of wealth. It seemed so inconsistent that Ishey would welcome the flash of such images into his home while only minutes before talking of materialism as a pollutant to Ladakhi culture. But I guess that this also is indicative of how rapid social and cultural change is happening in Ladakh, an influx so sudden that the totality of effects hasn't revealed itself yet. Tourists are increasing by thousands per year, and many of the processes of radical change in lifestyle and foodstuffs have only occurred in the last 30 years.

Work-wise, things were pretty rigorous. Thousands of bricks passed, many piles of mud made for putting in between the bricks, much sand sifted and cement mixed and poured, water buckets carried, etc. Thousands of bricks passed. There's a certain respect for physical labor that only comes through participating in it, and the men from Nepal that we worked with are certainly tops on my list of admirable people. Communication was often spotty, as the we had to figure out how to work together during construction without having a common language. As a result, I know a lot of Hindi and Nepalese construction vocabulary, like numbers and the words for brick, mud, rock, rope, plumb and shovel. There was constant laughter, and a great sense of cooperation. On many days, the amalgamation of people working on the nunnery was hilarious to observe. Several Nepali guys of varying ages, a bunch of older nuns, a few younger nuns, four American students, and a handful of Ladakhi women from the neighborhood. Quite the crew, we were!!!

Working with the oldest nuns was especially awe-inspring. Particularly on the main brick loading days, many of the older nuns would arrive to help out, participating wholeheartedly. Their endurance and dedication to the labor seemed to stem from their bottomless gratitude for the nunnery. I wish I could have spoken more with them about their lives up until I crossed their paths. Yet I'm lucky to be left with the memory of huge grins and joyful giggling. They were always such invigorating people to be around.

At some point I became accustomed to the sideways grins of Ladakhi mothers, who apparently considered me an intriguing option in the department of finding a wife for their sons. During of particular work day at the nunnery in early August, I had picked up enough vocabulary to figure out that a group of mothers was discussing me during a tea break. Saying things I vaguely understood as, "Oh, and she's active! And friendly with the nuns! And pretty dark hair! And probably wealthy!" To which Dolma and Dolkar then proceeded to inform them that my father would be arriving in mid-August. This appeared to tickle them even more, presumably because he'd be able to 'marry me off'. So they laughed uproariously, and I joined in and assumed that they understood it wasn't really a possibility. But twas a funny thing, indeed!

Speaking of, Dolma and Dolkar are the most fantastic ladies I've ever met! The supposed language barrier between us was always a bit frustrating, but had an irrelevant effect on our warm friendship, which was of a different sort than any I've ever had. Not being able to 'get to know eachother' in the manner I'm accustomed to--sharing stories, family facts, anecdotes, and daily conversation-meant that our closeness was built upon other forms of communication. Gradually, from the teaching sessions at the LNA in June, to the days of work at the nunnery before the bricks were ready, to the time in mid-July when we moved, they became my dearest friends. Our shared smiles and cackling laughter (always!) were emblematic of a deep understanding and appreciation for eachother, while entirely separate from any substantial linguistic interaction. Forging such close relationships so differently was undoubtedly the most sweetly satisfying part of the summer. I promised them I'd return to Ladakh soon when they communicated their worry, half-jokingly, that by the time we came back we'd have grown children and gray hair. Ben and Dan left earlier, and when it finally came time for me and Stefanie to leave in mid-August, we were all incredibly sad. Walking away from them that day was heartbreaking, knowing that it might be a long time before I return (though hopefully not).

Living with the nuns, and previously with Ishey's family, felt particularly invaluable in comparison to the types of 'visits' to Ladakh that I saw other tourists having around me. There are many opportunities to pay for home-stays, go trekking, and take buses out to notable village monasteries. But most travelers automatically miss out on forging extended relationships with the people who live in the land they've come to tour. There are only one or two places to have Ladakhi food in Leh, and the handicrafts stores and markets are overwhelming filled with Tibetan and Kashmiri goods, rather than Ladakhi. This helped reinforce what a privilege it was to have Ishey and the nuns open their homes, and their lives, to us. The gratitude of the Ladakhis we came to know was reflected in their incessant generosity and hospitality. This was often difficult for me to accept, considering how thoroughly grateful I was for the opportunity to spend so much time in their company. I guess it was a perfect exchange, in some ways, that enabled a happily reciprocal gratitude. Palmo once mentioned something concerning the impact of our visit on the nuns-that the idea of us coming all the way from America for them was somehow invaluable to their sense of pride and self-worth. I'm so accustomed to people being engaged by Tibetan Buddhist cultures that it would never have occurred to me that they'd be surprised by our desire to help out. I always wanted to protest the deep appreciation people expressed to me, feeling uncomfortable by the dynamic and wanting only to thank them instead.

There are so many things I miss about Ladakh, things were dear to me on a daily basis. Old men with prayer wheels and twinkly eyes on the side of the road. The neverending chorus of "Jullay!!!" The Tibetan woman who owned a small eatery in Leh and called me 'little sister'. The solemn yet tricksy little girl at the guesthouse in Leh, who was constantly trying to drop pebbles down my back. The hundreds of steps up to Shanti Stupa. The sunrises and sunsets and scorchingly hot days that we watched from the top. Countless shopkeepers whispering eagerly "Madam, passshhhminnnna for you???" The way Nyerma looked in the moonlight, still and blue. How marvelous it felt to wake up every morning to Dolma and Dolkar chanting in the next room. My 17-year old friend Stanzin, who lived near the nunnery and had me over for a slumber party one night. The CB family, with two young men Tundup and Namgyal who became close friends. Fresh milk! Fresh yogurt! Apricots! Chamomile growing all over the place. Butter tea, even. The archery festivals. The name 'Kunzes' which replaced 'Jenny' for the entire summer. And big toothy grins from just about everyone.

Learning the Ladakhi language more thoroughly is a goal of mine, as my wealth of vocabulary knowledge never blossomed into proficiency at sentence construction. Any communicative abilities I developed were centered around Dolma and Dolkar, and that had more t do with growing friendship and understanding of eachother's mannerisms and personalities than any sort of linguistic prowess. That I want a continued relationship with the people I met there is a given, though I have no idea what form it will take. I'd like to live there for longer, and perhaps without as many American companions. I really enjoyed the week or so that I spent at Nyerma alone during August, while all the others had left for various sojourns. Even deciding when to use "I" or "we" in this paper was interestingly confusing. My inclination is to represent most things with "we" because the four of us, or some combination of the four, were so much a unit, at least until August. Though I know that our friendships with the people we met varied in closeness, we were still a small group of 'American students,' sharing our experiences in rewarding yet unavoidable ways.
* * *
The landscape of Ladakh is something that haunts me in its difference from where I live now. Everything is expansive-the sky, the desert, the mountains-- and yet the valley is shaped in such a way that it's astonishingly easy to orient yourself to the area. I've thought about those days in Ladakh this summer so often that there are no longer words attached to the conclusions I've come to. Mostly just smiles and affection for the friends I made, along with sadness that my life is so far removed from theirs. Rehashing in written words how this profound fondness came to be was daunting, as in some ways I'd rather just let my unlabeled emotions be, refraining from forcing any kind of thorough consideration. But if I want to maintain close relationships with the people there, I certainly need to think it through, to figure out how Ladakh is going to figure into my life. Though they may feel distant, preserving the friendships that I made in Ladakh is tremendously important to me. Whatever the case, I'm grateful for my months in the company of Ladakh. I take comfort in the smiles of those lovely nuns every day, and hope that one of these days our lives will meet once more.

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Our translators Nicolai and Reena, read more...

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