Posts Tagged 'Sikkim'

Catching up – 2

We had a late start because we wanted to, and could, sleep in for a change. Once we got on the road we had car troubles and had to wait for a replacement car. Thus we skipped the sightseeing and went straight to the monastery where the American/Sikkimese parents of the headmaster have their simple lodgings, dad being a lama and both needing simple lifestyles to support their school-founding and school-running habit.

Waiting for lunch we walked several times (clockwise) around the large stupa that was built to honor the late rinpoche, listening to M’s stories about her Calvinist upbringing and its intersecting with her husband being a Buddhist and the son of lama himself.

We then followed her through the labyrinthine monastery up their quarters where a simple and delicious lunch was served. Over our meal we talked about the school, theirs and SOLA, living in Afghanistan, the art and science of teaching and the social mission we are all pursuing in our own individual ways.

Monastic living, though simple as I had expected, had some surprises: wireless internet connections, all the monks having Macs with Sikkimese fonts and prayer books digitized, internal phone lines and a gift shop where offerings were resold and various Buddhist paraphernalia for sale. We bought prayer flags and two amulets; one for mental clarity for Axel and an all-purpose one for me as we are now in the female-iron-rabbit year, a risky one for someone turning 60 in 2011. We also wanted to buy the ‘protection against weapons’ amulet that was listed on the 180 item catalogue that offered protection against just about everything including angry gods and water spirits. But they didn’t have the weapon one – it’s not one that is commonly sought in this peaceful little kingdom.

We said our goodbyes with an invitation to come back anytime, something that Axel is already contemplating. On the way down the hill we visited the Institute for Tibetology – housed in a Tibetan style building and filled with various treasures such as a series of Thankas (silk and brocade painted scrolls) describing the life of Buddha and various local deities, statues, old prayer books in Tibetan and other languages and ceremonial implements.

We had ourselves dropped off in downtown Gangtok where crowds were standing here and there in clumps on the pedestrian MG Marg mall watching TVs displayed in shop windows as Sri Lanka and India were vying for the World Cricket Cup. And then the later afternoon showers started again and Axel got drenched again.

We knew that India had won the world cup when all hell broke loose outside our hotel, firecrackers, gongs, drums. We are happy for India but I still don’t understand a thing about cricket.

Catching up in Delhi

The next couple of posts are a little behind the times. Incessant rains in Gangtok had disabled internet access. We are back in Delhi now where it doesn’t rain and the internet connection is very fast.

[April 1]Every morning we look out of the window of our greenhouse hotel room and see clouds (behind the very happy orchids) and every morning we hope for the best. During the day the clouds lift a bit, come down a bit, parts of the cloud cover lights up as if to suggest that the sun is right behind. But it is no more than a tease because in the afternoon the clouds move in with a vengeance, as if the clouds of all of Sikkim congregate in Gangtok, and the rains come, monsoon type rains.

Unperturbed by the cold, in his crimson robe with his arms bared, a monk sat all day at the entrance of the school ringing his prayer bell and reading his prayer books. Attendants at the front and back sides of the school kept two very smoky pine fires going to bless the laying of the second story cement floor of the new wing in back of the school. This was done by hand by 65 workers, male and female, carting heavy bags of cement up and down planks, first in their regular clothes and then, after the rains started, in blue tarps fashioned around them as if they were company-issued raincoats.

When the monk left everyone in the school was coughing from the thick pine smoke that had encircled the school. Axel’s poor lungs, still recovering from Kabul, where particularly affected. We had hoped to send along some prayers for blue sky and, maybe, even a glimpse of the snow covered peaks, to no avail.

We had been invited to open the daily assembly and did so with a slide show about Afghanistan. We tried to show the parts of Afghanistan that don’t make it into the news. But here in this far corner of India such news hardly had reached people. The students knew more more about Alexander the Great, Timurlane and Gengis Khan than about 9/11 and its aftermath. In fact, only two students in the 7th and 8th grades we taught later that afternoon knew what 9/11 referred to.

We showed pictures of traditional music (and played it), handicraft, landscapes, flowers, architecture, woodstoves and city scenes. We had checked out the books about Afghanistan in the well endowed school library and showed the students who wanted to learn more. And then we gave our presents to the headmaster (the woolen wrap I had borrowed yesterday) and a piece of traditional embroidery to put on their wall.

Before our afternoon class we sat in some more classes (math, report writing), we met with teachers to learn how they assess reading levels and had lunch with the math teacher. And then we prepared for our class. We had been given two class periods with the 7th and 8th graders, a mixture of restless and sullen kids (“are you really up to this?” asked the headmaster with a hint of concern in his voice).

We sat in a circle on the carpet and discussed our slideshow, then one essay by one of Axel’s students about the differences between American and Afghan schools which we then turned into a discussion about Taktse International and government schools in Sikkim. One significant difference between the former and the latter was the absence of corporal punishment –still common practice – about which we heard some grim tales later from the adults.

In the second period we studied another essay written by another SOLA student about her mother’s mistreatment by the Taliban and her parents’ underground school. It led to a wonderful conversation about standing up to power, non violent action and the power of education, and then of course to Ghandi.

After our class we were shown around the grounds by one of the visionary trustees who infected us with his inspiring philosophy and plans for the school’s future which at some point merges with Sikkim’s future. His Buddhist outlook on the future was both practical and energizing and made the small muddy steps from here to the next minute, the next day, the next year and the next generation utterly sensible and doable.

He showed us the cows and the cowboys who use half of the cowshed as their primitive living quarter. One was making tea on a traditional mud fireplace that is not that different from those I have seen in other parts of the world. He offered us each a cup of sweet milky tea while we watched the two other cowhands turn straw and cut greens into a mush for the cows. A one week old calf was sitting in the middle of the path through the cowshed and looking at us with bewildered eyes. Slightly older calves were lying down at the other end, wiser and more at ease with their small world. The cows now provide all the milk for the schools. Leftovers go to the poor.

One valley in back of the school was filled in through natural landslides and is now a near full size soccer field. In this hilly country such things are rare. The basketball court has just been completed and a volleyball court is in the works. Further away from the school are terraces where organic vegetables are grown, a new addition, also with the hope and prospect of a self sufficient school kitchen garden. A farming/cooking club for the older children was just introduced (alongside a knitting club, a sport club, a computer club and a cinema club).

After school we went into downtown Gangtok to the shopping area, modern and full of cheap Chinese goods. By then the downpour truly started. We walked the steep streets up the hill in the pouring rain with Axel wheezing behind me. We arrived, totally drenched, at the old house of one of Sikkim’s notables families, now converted into a guesthouse, for a final farewell dinner with family and friends of the American/Sikkimese family that founded and runs the school along with one of their trustees who helped Axel dry his clothes with the help of a hairdryer. It was the first time we observed an actual stove (wood fueled) in Sikkim, a rarity obviously.

We tried the local brew, ‘chang,’ which is served in a wooden beaker with a bamboo straw. It is filled with fermented millet grains over which hot water is poured over and over again. It is a bottomless sake-like treat that, we were told, can either make you very drunk or very sick or both. We loved it and stayed both healthy and sober. We were served yet another wonderful meal that had little to do with the Indian cooking were are familiar with, including the very American chewy browny at the end of the meal.

We are starting our last full day in Sikkim, once again, in the clouds.


I would not recommend Sikkim to people who have a fear of heights or who get easily car sick when there are too many turns. We traveled a mere 75 km in 5 hours, winding our way down from 7000 ft to 1000 ft, then back up to 7000 ft, then repeating the sequence once again, hence the five hours.

We said goodbye to our hosts this morning and were once again festooned with the now familiar cream-colored ‘safe travels’ scarves. Our hosts also gave us a beautiful turned wooden container out of which the traditional beer is sipped through a straw.
They did recommend that we not try this beer as it is not only very strong but also known to make people who are unaccustomed to the brew, very sick.

It was hard to say goodbye. We have every intention to come back. It is the perfect place to hang out for awhile and write a book or sew a quilt or some other big project like that. I can’t think of a more peaceful place in the world; the perfect antidote to Afghanistan.

We drove off in the rain and the clouds which made us happy to travel along paved roads (mostly paved as it turned out). We stopped at the first pass to have a Nescafe cappuccino, then at another to have momos (dumplings) and spicy potatoes before arriving at our destination, Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital city.

Compared to rural West Sikkim East Sikkim is bustling and noisy. There were even noises up in the sky; a helicopter brings people in from Darjeeling; folks who don’t like or have no time for the zigzagging roads that lead to Gangtok.

We drove through a few towns that had large Indian flag banners tied to posts and houses in anticipation of a victory over Pakistan in the World Cricket Cup. It is a bit like the USA hockey team playing the USSR team in the olden days. But things are not looking good. Axel watched a few minutes and found the Indians behind. A message flashed across the screen ‘this is a game, not a war,’ to remind people that losing from Pakistan in cricket is not the same as ceding Kashmir.

We are staying in a hotel that is built in layers against the mountainside (hillside people would say here). In between the rooms are thousands of flowers, orchids, azaleas, primroses, snapdragons. Even the inside spaces are filled with flowers. It is not clear what this place is first, hotel or nursery.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

May 2018
« Apr    


Blog Stats

  • 120,055 hits

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 65 other followers