Meetings with remarkable men
I went to Dharamsala to have a meeting with the Health Department in the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), to secure money transfer from Shenpen to our project in Sonada/Darjeeling through them. This to avoid corruption. The meeting was a success. I was introduced to the Health Minister, dr. Tsering Wangchuk, who took great interest in Shenpens work, and called me back for a second meeting with the “Kalon Tripa”. I didn’t know who that was, but dressed up in a proper outfit, and was very surprised to meet the Prime Minister himself, dr. Lobsang Sangay. It turned out he had gone to school in Sonada as a young boy, where we have our main project, and even been to Norway. In fact both of them had been to Norway on different occations. We had a dharma-talk. I felt I was among very kind hearted and intelligent men. The Prime minister was elected in August, just 43 years old, after the Dalai Lama had announced that he wanted the new political leader to be democratically elected. We talked about education and our common aim to improve secondary education. And I remembered a lecture I went to last year, about secondary education as the most important factor in the improvement of global health, along with preventing child pregnancies.
Later on that night I had a long talk with a nice attendant in my guesthouse. His name was Javed. He was from Kashmir, and grew up in a time when the schools were burning due to war and conflict. He was a strange contrast to the highly educated men I had met earlier in the day. He told me had always been working in homes, cleaning and cooking since he was 13. Now he had progressed to a guest house, living in the tiny back room in the basement, always on duty, making less than 100 dollars a month, yet saving everything to send home to his family. “How could I spend it on myself?”, he said. My hotel room cost four times more than he made in a whole day. He was a muslim, and a very philosophical man, full of awe and reflection, so I joyfully showed him my little book of poems by Rumi. Then he told me didn’t know how to read. And he had stopped dreaming of going to school, since he couldn’t find a way to make the money. I was shocked. I noticed I was insisting that he shouldn’t give up that dream. And I tried to imagine how it would be inside my own head never having read a book, never having received that inspiration. Or walking down the street, not being able to read the signposts. Or not being able to write down my thoughts. I couldn’t imagine it. I gave him a big tip when I left, big for him, small for me, a whole days worth, 2 dollars. I said “spend it on yourself”, and he said “of course not, I will share it with the other boy working in the guesthouse”. At least generosity is not something you learn from books. It’s intrinsic. But rarely have I met such a poor man with such abundance in his heart, so totally removed from greed.
Two lovely girls
Before leaving Dharamsala, I spent a lovely day with my little sponsor daughter Migmar living in the Tibetan Children’s village above McLeod Ganj, where 2000 Tibetan refugees get primary education and housing. They live in small homes with 35 children, each with one “mother” or “father” staying with them. Each child has one bed and one metal suitcase. Along with her best girlfriend Passang, we went to buy shoes and clothes in McLeod Ganj, and the two 13 year olds, who have practically nothing and were wearing their school uniforms, took me around to absolutely all the shoeshops in town to find the perfect ones. By the end of the day, having purchased the basic necessities, I asked Migmar “Is it anything else you want?”, and she could hardly say it, such luxury…. A comic book. And Pasang wanted cello tape! And of course school books and pens. We had a nice meal eating momo’s in a small Tibetan restaurant with many tourists, talking across the tables, and the two big eyed little beauties made me smile and feel maternal. Passang’s mother had died early, and Migmar’s mother is stuck in Tibet, without a chance to be with her daughter. We took the tuk-tuk up the mountain before waving goodbye. On the way down I felt so happy to be a woman from the West, so fortunate to be able to give a little material joy in a difficult situation, and so stupid to have smoked a cigarette in front of them. How could I be such a two-sided role model?
Stepping of the plane at Bagdogra airport, arriving from Delhi, nackered after having spent a sleepless night on a bumpy bus from Dharamsala, I was greeted by Wangdi and DJ from our project in Sonada. The planes of India was hot, but we were soon on our way up the mountain on another bumpy road, to a much cooler climate. On the way we saw landslides and cracks in the road, signs of the earthquake that hit the region 18 of September. It was worst in Sikkim, where many people died, buildings collapsed and roads were severely damaged. We talked about the feeling of earth quake. They said the sound is frightening. And that you have to go outside, if you are in a house when it happens. Good to know. This is an area prone to earthquakes.
Talking with the nurse and doctor at the clinic Shenpen sponsors in Sonada, about 45 minute drive from Darjeeling, I learned there was an outbreak of small pox among the children. It was very visible. Of the 150 children in the hostel, over 100 children were itching, some of them showing their purple medicine applied on the spots, smiling and waving and saying hello, hello, hello. They had leave from school to get well. Dr. Sherpa told me how nurse Ambika had washed all of them in groups and applied the medicine, cooling off the worst itch. And there is higher risk of infection in this damp climate. I was moved by the two health professionals employed the last year by Shenpen, so conciencious in their work, so kind. The clinic is very sparse. Almost nothing inside, except for a dispensary with a few medicines, a bench and some simple furniture. There is much skin diseases, and stomach problems that the doctor suspects is due to bad water. The food is simple, and the doctor says some of the children have vitamin deficiencies. There is much to be done. The first thing is to install hot water! Hygiene is a major point. The days and weeks ahead will be used to improve the facilities. And to bring some beauty into the surroundings.
The importance of paperwork.
Paperwork. We look at accounts, money-transer, sending off the last formalities before Shenpen can transfer funds through the Tibetan health department. Then 6 children gather around Wangdi’s desk. He is the settlement secretary, and part of the Shenpen committee in Sonada. He took the chance to to receive some very poor children to come and live in the children’s hostel and thus be able to go to school, unsure if he could find sponsors from them. Shenpen found them in Norway, 20 new sponsors since August. 6 of the sponsors sent a letter with me to India. The children open the letters . Wangdi reads out the messages, and everybody gets to look at the pictures of their sponsors. Starry eyed to be so special to be called in to the office to receive a letter. Wangdi makes them learn their sponsor’s name by heart.
Rooftops in Darjeeling.
I have found my rooftop in Darjeeling. High above the city, with a fabulous view to the distant peaks that appear when the mists lift. The best view is as sunrise. Most people go to Tiger Hill for the experience, but I think the top of Hotel Aliment Is great. We sit on the roof top chatting, ordering food from the restaurant, enjoying the company of travelers who have their tales to tell, and are exploring Darjeeling. Yesterday two young Indian students came. They study in Delhi and Bangalore, and were home for the Durga Festival, when Indians go to see their family. I knew they had to be rich as soon as I saw them, to be able to order food and beer where Westerners go, and wear such fancy clothes. Sagar and Arvind. Very intelligent and bright. I told them they had a shine. They said they owed everything good they were to one man, namely father Kinley, the principal at St. Josephs school in Darjeeling where they had been classmates. It’s a famous school in town, founded by missionaries from Belgium. Father Kinley , who actually grew up as part of the royal family in Bhutan, excelled in sports and business, was according to the young men the essence a good role model, close to Jesus or Buddha in their eyes. He had given up all his riches to become a Jesuit monk, to serve the children with education. Once he had asked all the boys in the class to bring their fathers to a school day, giving a seminar about the father-son relationship. By the end of the day Sagar’s father had cried. From joy over expressing the love to his son that was so seldom expressed in words. I am looking forward to meet father Kinley.
I was surprised to learn that India has the biggest middle class in the world, families who have enough income for the daily bread, paying for their childrens study, and saving up a pension. “But there is a lot of poverty in India, I said, so many people in the dust. Why doesn’t the middle class do something about it, take some social responsibilty?” “Well, that’s the problem”, says the young men. “They don’t. Since there is no social support by the system, people have to care for themselves. The porer class just swirls deeper and deeper into poverty, never getting a chance to rise up. It’s a downward spiral. Their children will not get an education and a chance to thrive. -“But my sister is special”, says Sagar. “She does something I could never do, that we Indians hardly do. She went to the slum in Mumbai to work with the slum children three months ago. She was the most pampered child in the family, so nobody thought she would do something like this. We thought she would come home after two weeks, but she is still living in a small room with eight people with a half wall to the bathroom.” Hearing this, I think about myself in Darjeeling, walking around looking for a very nice place I can call my home while I do some voluntary work. I want a nice place with hot water, a small kitchen, a balcony with a fabulous view. Very far from the dust… So I travel down to Sonada to work, and go back in the evening. I have my limits…
The Tibetan refugees we are supporting have 5 cows to give milk to the smallest children. They work so hard, for so little pay, and have huge responsibilities. I am very happy that Shenpen is here to share some of them. Our small contribution makes such a difference.