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Friday, April 06, 2012

Nepal: Summer 2012

My summer plans have finally been confirmed... In just six weeks I'm moving to Nepal to live in a Buddhist monastery and teach English to the monks for three months!

Pema Chuling Monastery is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the Khumbu region. The monastery is situated on a hill, about 20-30 minutes from Jorsale, which lies on the main trekking route to Namche Bazaar and Everest Base Camp. The monastery is situated at an altitude of 2900 meters (10,000 feet).

From the monastery, you can see spectacular views of Thamserku and Kusum Khangare Himalayas. If you hike 2 hours straight uphill from the monastery, you can enjoy spectacular views of all the Himalayas, including Mount Everest.

The monastery belongs to Nyimgpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and considers Guru Rinpoche as its patron saint. The young monks mostly come from Sherpa communities, while there are few from Tibetan families also. There are at present 25 monks from 20 to 25 years of age, and 20 young ones from 7 to 12 years of age.

A resident Lopon (teacher) is called Lopon la Ngawayng Ladup. Volunteers must address him as Lopon la; la is paying respect to a teacher who has deep knowledge of philosophy and practice of Buddhism. Lopon la also conducts classes and will help volunteers during the class as he can speak English, Nepali and Sherpa languages.

Pema Chuling Monastery

Inside the monastery

This isn't exactly the typical backpacking around Europe kind of trip a lot of students do after graduation, so I've been getting some interesting questions from people who find out about it. Below, I've compiled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about this trip..

What will you do there?
The main job of a volunteer is to teach English to the monks so that they can increase the knowledge of their English. I'll get to be creative with my teaching, using both the book and conversational English. I'm told that initially I'll need to speak very slowly and use simple words as the monks will have to get used to my accent. My responsibilities and activities include:
  • Teach according how Lopon la organizes your schedule
  • You may have to teach up to 3 classes – in the morning, during the day and afternoon
  • Organize debates and discussions and encourage monks to speak
  • Develop additional English manual to foster English teaching.
  • Different age group of monks may require different level of English teaching.
This placement also offers opportunties for volunteers to participate in monastery’s activities like prayer ceremony, meditation and festivals.  

How will you get there?
This is my favorite question to answer, because it's so fun to watch people's reactions.
First, I'll fly to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where I'll spend a week in Nepali language lessons, exploring the city, and learning about Nepali culture. Then I'll take a little plane to Lukla, where I'll have the pleasure of landing on the slope of a Himalayan mountain, in what's been dubbed the "World's Most Dangerous Airport" - intriguing, right?
Lukla is at about 9,400 feet, and there are no motor vehicles that far up in the mountains.  So from Lukla to the monastery, I'll go by yak. I was just at my travel consult at the health clinic this week, and when the nurse heard about the yak, she prescribed a 3-part rabies prophylaxis.  Apparently she's heard of someone who got bitten by a yak...

This photo was taken by another trekker on the way to Pema Chuling!

How often will you work?
Generally volunteers will work 3-4hrs a day (if we want we can teach more). In the remaining time, I can take part in different monastery activities.  I will automatically have a day off (usually a Saturday), but if I'd like 2 days a week off I can ask. 

Will you be able to find gluten-free food?
I'm in luck! The volunteer manual says: Lunch and dinner are mostly dal (lentil soup), bhat (rice) and vegetable curry. Potato is the most ubiquitous vegetable you will find, and the Sherpas often enjoy potato soup, instead of lentil soup with their rice.
However, a diet consisting solely of lentils and rice will leave me lacking all the nutrients I usually get from fruits and other vegetables, so I've been told to bring vitamin supplements.

Hot water - no
Running water - yes
Electricity - yes

Will you be able to blog while you're in Nepal?
Yes! Even though I'll miss out on what some people see as a necessity (e.g. hot water), I will be able to get high-speed internet in my room in the monastery. Hard to believe, right?  The Everest region is so heavily traveled by trekkers aspiring to summit the peak that the infrastructure for good cell service has been developed. I'll be able to get a SIM card in the capital that I can plug into my laptop and get high-speed internet for pretty cheap!

Why do the monks want to learn English?
Nepal's education system is lacking, to say the least. Many boys are brought to the monastery as early as age 5 to live and be educated there. When they finish their education (usually between age 17-20, I think), the young men can choose to stay in monasticism, remaining celibate and living in a monastery, or they can choose to be married and start a family. Those who choose a monastic lifestyle use English to communicate with monasteries in other places. Those who start families are able to provide for their families by starting businesses as guides for the many trekkers who come to Everest from all corners of the globe. The Sherpa people are known as legendary guides in the Himalayas, so knowing English allows them to communicate their vast knowledge of the region and negotiate with trekkers needing guides.

Where can you go on weekends?
The monastery lies about 1 hour away from Everest National Park and in Khumbu region, where the Sherpas have lived for hundreds of years since migrating from Tibet. The whole area is of great natural beauty. From my bedroom window, I'll be able to view Himalayan peaks like Thamserku (6623 meters or 21,700 feet) and Kusum Kunguru (6367 meters or 20,900 feet).
If I climb 2 hours uphill from the monastery, I can enjoy a 250-degree view of the Himalayan peaks, including Mount Everest (8848 meters or 29,000 feet). The charge is Rs. 1000 local currency (about USD 15) to enter Everest National Park. The entry point is 30 minutes from the monastery. If I want to go to  Namche Bazaar (1 day walk), a major trading crossroads, or Everest Base Camp (3 days' walk), I will need to enter the park. It is advisable to take at least a week to travel to this region because there are many things to see there and we will need to walk slowly because of the high altitude.

How far removed will you be from civilization?

The Sherpa village of Thulo Gumela is about 10 minutes downhill from the monastery. In the village, you can chat with local Sherpa villagers. The village is off the tourist trail and you can witness unspoiled Sherpa culture in the village. Namche Bazaar, the largest settlement in the region, is about a 5-6 hour walk from the monastery.
Jorsale, which lies about 20-30 minutes below from the monastery, has lots of nice restaurants and internet cafes. You can enjoy all sorts of cuisines and the internet cafes charge you about Rs. 150 (about USD 2) for 30 minutes of internet. Jorsale is also famous for excellent cafes and bread they make. They are always freshly baked for trekkers.
Ghat, where my program coordinator stays, is about an hour away from the monastery. 
The monastery is about 2 hours from Lukla, where the main airport is located. Keep in mind that all of these distances are given in the time it takes to walk because there are no motorable roads in the region!

What will the weather be like?

From March to June and September to October – the weather is very pleasant with plenty of sunshine. Evenings can get very cold, especially if it rains, so a warm jacket is a must. But bring summer clothes also.
July and August get lots of rain. It will be hot also. Bring an umbrella or a raincoat.

Why Nepal? Why this trip?
My interest in the Himalayan region began with British author James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a fictional novel about a mythical utopia called Shangri-La. Though Shangri-La is a fictional village, Hilton’s detailed descriptions of the Himalayan people, their culture, and their peaceful faith captured my nine-year-old sociological imagination. The Buddhist tradition, on which much of Hilton’s descriptions are based, has since been a subject of fascination for me. Stemming from this interest and other aspirations, I’ve identified the top four reasons I am motivated to pursue this project.
  1. A genuine, life-long dream to live in the Himalayas. Having grown up in valleys, first in central California and then in southern Oregon’s beautiful Rogue Valley, I’m drawn to the sense of security that comes from being surrounded by mountains. I see Nepal as the ideal setting to spend the summer after finishing my undergraduate degree – this is a place where I will have the space and time to breathe, reflect, contemplate, and reconnect with the very basics of life.
  2. My desire to build up others by passing on the skills I gained while abroad. Learning first French, and then Russian truly opened up my horizon to a world of opportunities. In addition to being quite useful, languages have become one of my strengths and I am confident that I can positively impact the monastery and the community through encouraging residents in their linguistic pursuits and effectively communicating proper use of the English language.
  3. Personal reflection on my life goals after graduation has resulted in an acknowledgment of how fast time flies and how imperative it is that I begin now if I am to develop a habit of dedicating my time and resources to projects like this throughout my adult life.
  4.  My interest in personal growth is twofold. Not only do I have goals for my own growth, but I’m drawn to the austere, disciplined lifestyle of the monks because of my interest in the way people grow. I’m currently in the process of launching a business in the travel consulting industry, something which I intend to expand into a personal growth/life coaching/image consultancy firm. The balance that I have been able to achieve in my own life is due in part to the opportunities I have had to witness so many different philosophies and ways of life around the world. In a way, I’ve taken what I see as the “best” of each place I’ve lived and integrated those principles into my own life. I am now intentional about understanding the way that not just I, but others grow and develop, and I’m preparing myself to guide my clients through the process of creating travel opportunities and itineraries that will allow them to maximize their personal growth abroad.
What are your goals for the trip?
Beyond the given objective of teaching the English language to the young Nepali monks with whom I will be working, I also have several personal goals for the growth and understanding I hope to gain from my time in the Himalayas.  
  1. One of my goals for these twelve weeks of cultural immersion in Nepal is to gain a deeper understanding of the issues of education and women’s rights in Nepal. With literacy rates at 48.6 percent in 2001 (CIA World Factbook), providing adequate education is a significant concern.

  2. I will also work towards a deeper understanding of how culture and faith influence business practices. I am currently taking a course called The Entrepreneur: Driver of Social, Political, and Cultural Transformation, which investigates the impact that entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial mindset have on their environment. But I believe that it's a two way street – that cultural and faith environments heavily influence the way business is conducted around the world. Because monasteries such as the one in which I’ll be living and working play such a central role in Sherpa life, and because many monks grow up to become house holders and start businesses, one can expect that the Buddhist tradition will be especially influential to economic activity. I seek to understand how Nepal's Hindu and Buddhist heritage has shaped business transactions, ethics and standards within the Sherpa community.

  3. My third goal for personal growth is to once again accept and learn to be joyous in a place where material goods and the comforts of life in America can hardly be fathomed. Seeking contentedness amidst the inevitable “suffering” associated with human life is a central objective of the Buddhist faith, and so I see an opportunity to learn from the philosophy of an entire culture.Throughout my travels I have had opportunities live a truly minimalist lifestyle, and it is during the times that I have embraced this that I felt the material things so quickly fade from view. As the focus fell onto relationships I felt a deeper connection with the individuals around me and the community as a whole. There are elements of this mindset that I've certainly brought back and tried to integrate into my life in the States as best I can, but life gets busy and it's easy to forget the joy is often found in simplicity. I hope to regain the peace and self-awareness of a simple lifestyle and enjoy learning from the Nepali people I'll be serving.

How can you afford to travel so much as a student?
Well, the truth is, I can't. That's why I'm so thankful for scholarships like the Lumos Student Travel Award which has enabled me to pursue this volunteer opportunity in the Himalayas!


  1. I would love to do this! I look forward to following your blog and hearing about living in Nepal. all the best :)


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