Feb/March blog from project Sonada

Free dental check-up in the sunshineChance meetings and solar power possibilites

Goa in February is absolutely recommendable. I slowly warmed up after the ice cold January in the Himalayas, had surprise meetings with new and old friends and did a 5 day course in Ayurvedic medicine with Anina from Norway. A week later she suddenly got a gall stone attack and was hurried to the hospital in South Goa. I went to be a night with her on my way to the airport, as I was just about to go back to the mountains. Getting her some food in a restaurant I met two German social entrepreneurs working on solar power and humanitarian aid. We clicked. They were looking for a good project. We are looking for a sustainable way to heat food and water for 200 children. Imagine if we could use solar power to heat up showers for them.  The German entrepreneurs promise to come in May to check out the project. – “But maybe it’s not possible because of the fog”, I wondered. The fog likes it in Sonada. – “Fog no problem”, they respond. “All that is needed is light”.

Indian bureaucracy

Back in Germany, one of the entrepreneurs suggested to send some solar equipment and asked me to clear the customs for it. I hurriedly wrote back to say that clearing customs for equipment from abroad is a long and complicated bureaucratic process In India. Shenpen has just been through that process receiving medical equipment donated from a Norwegian hospital. It took two months to cross the ocean, then almost three months to clear. We tried to get exemption from a high import tax, which proved impossible. But we know a lot more about the never ending demands for more documents. In spite of numerous couriers going from Sonada to Calcutta with yet another document and being sent to yet another office, we ended up at square one.

200 children to take care of

Coming back to the Himalayas 60 new children have arrived from remote areas to go to the Tibetan school in Sonada. Now the hostels house 200 children. The newcomers are from remote mountain areas without schools.  12 students from mountains near Assam walked for five days before they even came to the road!  These children don’t have parents with “green cards” that is needed to get free health services from the Tibetan Government in Exile. Shenpen sponsors free medical care for them. The clinic support was Shenpens original plan in Sonada.  Realizing that the poor economy in the Tibetan Settlement makes it impossible for them to provide the basics for the children, we decided to expand our activity.  The hostels look a lot better than before after we donated money to fix all broken windows in the winter break, paint all the rooms, provide 74 colorful curtains and 202 new bed linen. Your donations helped! The hostels have become a little better place to live, even though sanitation is bad. And the children get good care in the clinic. The nurses have that compassionate presence that nurses should have and dr. Sherpa is on call if anything happens and comes to see clients on Fridays. Yet they are not with the children in the evenings, and the parents are very far away.

Happy for Lea – a courageous volunteer

In fact, only one hostel mother Pema looks after 60 children under 8 years of age and the hostel warden Lobsang after the other 140. Pema lives with 30 of the children and has no private room of her own.  The other hostel mother position is vacant. Nobody has applied since the work is demanding and the pay is low. But today Lea from France came with me to Sonada and is volunteering for a month to stay and sleep and eat with the 30 children in the other room. She is 21 years old and has what it takes to have no privacy at all. At least to try it. I am so happy for Lea! She will help them wash and brush their teeth and teach them English with a French accent and paint with them in the evenings to decorate the walls in their room with creative works. She does what I couldn’t do. Live totally without privacy. Luckily the drinking water is now clean, at least boiled on a big stove in the kitchen until we get a water filter. Donations are welcome!

Kind hearted dentist gives free check-up for the children

It’s good timing to follow up on tooth brushing after the dental “event “that happened in Sonada the 8th of March. For the first time in history the children got a preventative dental check-up. I found dentist Vanadis through a local antique dealer at a tea corner in Darjeeling who told me about a German dentist working at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. She kind heartedly said yes when I asked her to come to Sonada, and brought her Tibetan assistant Lhamo and a small box with equipment. I took them down in a proper taxi, hired for the occation with happy driver DJ. The sun was shining after a misty couple of weeks, so they set up a table and a plastic chair in the sunshine outside the clinic, and the children lined up. The dentist starting working, checking, extracting lose or rotten milk teeth. They come out easily with a little anesthetic, some even without. When the other kids saw what was actually happening, their faces turned worried. And I thought it is funny how I, who is so afraid of dentists, actually brought the dentist to the children! By lunch 54 children got checked. Most could happily leave the plastic chair with only a stern brush-your-teeth instruction while some must come to the clinic in Darjeeling for more complicated problems, extractions and fillings. Ambika took notes. Afterwards there was a tooth brushing lesson for everybody. Now the interesting thing to see is how many more children will show up for the second day of check-up in a weeks time. “We can’t force them”, someone said. Imagine living in a world where nobody forces you to the dentist…


I can’t believe the amount of office work there is connected with humanitarian aid. Perhaps especially in India, where things somehow has to be repeated many times. To implement changes takes a lot of work. Everybodys late, for one thing. Even me, having called a meeting, comes too late due to traffic jam. Or the electricity goes off, the telephone doesn’t work, internet connection is slow. Or everything gets delayed because of a spiritual festival, which happens all time in India. Last week was the celebration of Holi, festival of colours, where people throw colored powder on each other and the men drink some kind of special tea and roam about laughing looking far out with rainbow colors all over their faces and clothes. 

Another thing that brings delay is poverty. Nothing moves forward. No money, no movement. Or even more complicated; the systems people live under that they somehow don’t manage to change. Like the cooperative that is Shenpens partner in Sonada where decisions cannot be taken before the Board of Directors gather. The problem is that the persons elected have to go for business outside the settlement for months at a time to make a living. And they have no stand-ins, so if they are gone, no decisions can be taken. Nothing can move. And there I am trying to implement changes.  And there are all my hard working collegues doing a good job but unable to make important decisions when needed. Even following up on ideas that could improve the economy considerably and immediately, like asking a little more money from the 120 sponsors that will cover the costs of enough vegetables and basic needs. Shenpen had many Skype meetings to discuss the situation. We manage to have good cyberspace meetings .It’s vital to have back-up when you are out on your own in a different society. Skype is really a wonderful thing.  So easy to be close, even when far away.

Love and learning

I’ve come to love them, the local Shenpen committee in Sonada; Wangdi, Urgyen, DJ, The Tibetan Settlement Officer and  nurses Ambika and Dolma, dr. Sherpa and cleaner Ganga Maya, that now is happy to be called Ganga Mary since she has come to worship mother Mary. Sometimes when I get impatient they just look at me. Kind of vacantly. And then I see myself. And Ganga Mary Maya is cleaning and serving tea all the time.

 I am learning to give up. Pretending to give up without really giving up. Just taking a break. Look at Indian reality with the other eye, just relax in the now and be happy.  Wiggle my head like the Indians do, have a good chai and a cake and laugh at the funny way the tourists from Calcutta wear their hats and scarves when they come to the mountains for holiday.  They put them on top of each other, the scarf over the hat and often have ear warmers too.  You can spot a Calcuttan family with one glance.  They all look very strange and uncomfortable in warm clothes. Otherwise the local Gorkhas who are born I Darjeeling  are very fashionable, and the women wear high heels in the freezing cold.

Prayers for peace and compassion

It’s been moving to see the Tibetans around here demonstrate in solidarity of their fellow Tibetans in a difficult situation inside Tibet. More than a hundred people did a 24 hour hunger strike in support of all the Tibetans who have died and even put fire to themselves to attract political attention to their situation under the Chinese rule. I joined them in a candle light procession singing mantras all the way down and up the steep hills of Darjeeling. Tibetans really sing their prayers beautifully. You can hear the sound of the mountains, of compassion, of devotion.

A wide view and beautiful orchids

The next day I moved to my little flat on the mountain side in Darjeeling, waving good bye to darling little Chimmy and the family who housed me all winter. My kind Tibetan friend Wangdi called two kullies, husband and wife, who carried all my accumulations to my new home on their backs. I got used to the kullies now, even though it is still painful looking at frail women carrying such heavy loads. So I pay them well. Wangdi and I carried the amazingly big new orchids I bought to give beauty to my new life. Finally my own kitchen and oatmeal porridge with apple in the mornings. Rooms with kitchen are hard to find in Darjeeling. It is full of people everywhere.  I even have an extra room for friends who want to visit. Warning: Indian toilet and cold water, the style around here. But cheap. And  a nice and broad view from the balcony. Mountains, mist, birds, houses and people climbing the hill sides, and as I sit here finishing the blog; devotional music from the loudspeakers in the temples, dogs barking in the night, voices nearby. I like being in India.












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