Everybody had warned me about the freezing cold of the Himalayas in the winter months, but December was pleasant in Darjeeling and Sonada. Blue skies, a lot of sunshine and fabulous views to the Kunchendzunga mountain range, with the highest peak towering 8.500 meters above sea level but looking so modest and close by. I have gotten used to the local rhythms of getting up at sunrise on sunny days o do my washing in cold water and letting it dry in the sun. And if you wash your hair on a cloudy day, you are sure to catch a cold.
An update about the project work in December was posted on www.shenpenaid.com with many christmas thanks to our kind sponsors who have contributed to long term sponsorship of 40 school children living in the hostel in Sonada, free medical services, clean drinking water, more vegetables in the diet and warm clothes for the poorest children. I took special delight in providing them with very warm under pants, as the local longjohns in Darjeeling are the warmest on earth. Another joy was giving the first talk on hygiene for the children in school together with nurse Ambika and nurse Dolma, and showing the film about Karius and Baktus, the two trolls living in the teeth of sweet loving children. It’s a preparation for the spring when we will repeat the information and a kind German dentist has promised to come down from Darjeeling and check all the children for free, before they get a toothache.
As Christmas approached and the school children got their results for the end of year exams and went to their remote mountain homes for winter break, everybody who could walk – and didn’t have to work – left for Bodh Gaya and Kalachacra initiation given by the Dalai Lama. Six bus-loads of people left Sonada to join his Holiness and hundreds of thousands participants. Even Richard Gere was there. I can just imagine the dust and the lack of toilets… Tibetans seem to me to be the most spiritually minded people I have ever met, especially as they get older. You see them sitting with their malas or prayer wheels. The 86 year old grandma in the Tibetan family where I live in Darjeeling is one of those who only utter one thing: Om Mani Pedme Hung. You see it constantly on her lips. The mantra of the Buddha of compassion. She seems to have nothing left to say other than that. May compassionate wisdom arise in my heart.
I go for retreat in Sikkim with my teacher Ringu Tulku in his retreat centre near Rumtek overlooking Gangtok. It’s a days travel from Darjeeling. Doing retreat is always an interesting experience. What happens when you take away all distractions and just look at your mind? Don’t worry whatever arises in your mind, says the teacher, just bring it onto the path. How lucky to meet masters who embody both wisdom and compassion and know the path they are talking about. Who walk their talk. Who live for others and no longer worry about themselves at all. Inspiring. And then you look at your own mind, and you see all kinds of things arise! Reaction patterns, strange fears, the monkey of the mind jumping around until it gets caught by the rope of mindfulness. And there it runs off again down another storyline, until you remember to just stay here and now where all good things can flourish. So easy, really. And then again not so easy… Maybe easy and difficult go hand in hand..
Coming back to Darjeeling the cold starts biting, there is “frost smoke” in my room when I breathe. Even applying moisturizing cream in my face in the morning is shockingly cold, and taking a shower is something I contemplate for days since removing the clothes is such a hazardous undertaking. I can perfectly understand why Tibetans in the high plateau of Tibet hardly wash.
While the children in Sonada are on winter break we inspect the hostel buildings. It breaks my heart to see all the broken windows, the ice cold floors and the utterly poor conditions they live in. 40 year old curtains, age old mattrasses, it’s cold and ugly to my western eyes. Our partner in the cooperative has started painting the buildings, and have fixed some of the windows, but their budget has dried up. I write home, can we do something about this? Can we give the medicine of warmth, comfort and beauty before the children come back in February? Shenpen instantly agrees. We decide to donate money to fix all windows, paint all the rooms, provide carpets for the two rooms where the smallest children live, and buy curtains and new blanket covers for their old blankets.
The next days I play the interior designer on the job of getting maximum beauty for minimum cost. I find the best wholesaler in Darjeeling. The smallest children get teddy bears on their curtains, the boys get blue tones to calm them down, the girls get flowers and pinkish tones to make to make them happy. 130 meters curtains, 150 blanket covers. All rooms different. The nurses come along to help me with the final choices. And most important, the smallest children get new carpets on the floor to warm them up.
I blow the budget. Since some kind friends in Norway have sent me a Christmas present to spend as I wish, I donate money from them to cover 100 new colorful duvet covers for the children. What nice friends! Rescued again!
While the laborers paint and fix windows, and Shenpen still is waiting for the used medical equipment from Norway to be cleared by customs in the port of Kolkata, I decide to take a break from the penetrating cold. I admire the locals who can walk in flip-flops in the freeze as I plan my escape from the longest cold in my life. I notice I get impatient with my co-workers and warn them that I will cry if I see another broken window when I come back. Time to go. I take a shared taxi to the Nepali boarder and a bus to Katmandu to visit my friend as a first stop. The promised “luxury Volvo bus” turns out to be an old wreck with “Volvo De Lux” painted up front, completely without springs, painful at every bump, with more broken windows and an ice cold draft the whole night. We get stopped four times by police who checks the bus for weapons. The woman next to me jumps every time we stop, suspicious of “terrorists” who are known to raid buses in the area, but we reach Katmandu all right. The cold morning mist is hanging over the city as we arrive in the bus station where people gather around small fires made from piles of garbage. I take the chance to drink a cup of warm masala tea from a local tea stand, closing my eyes to the dark brown water the cups are washed in, and buying some socks for two very cold children. The sock lady. What smaller gift can one give?
My Dutch friend Ester in Katmandu has worked in “development” in the East for 8 years. She says she doesn’t know if she really was of any benefit. We talk about what really helps. Do socks help? Look how many things we have in the West, and how happy are the people? Over a delicious Katmandu dinner and a visit to see the monks do a powerful puja in the White Gompa in Bouda, we agree that socks do help, along with clean water, better nutrition, primary health care all that. But ultimately happiness can be found anywhere, in any kind of circumstance. Ultimately we have to allow ourselves to be happy. With or without socks. Personally I feel very happy to take my socks off as I arrive in Goa for a little defrosting break. Being warmed up, I am sure I will do a better job when I come back for the Tibetan Lhosar celebrations in February. The heart needs a little sunshine to flourish. So sunshine definitely also helps. I send some warm rays back to all friends in cold winter-lands.