Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India is a place few people ever see. It’s part of the least populated district in India. Situated at over twelve thousand feet above sea level, the valley is only accessible a few months out of the year due to the long and harsh winters. The journey there is so difficult that out of the nine million tourists who visit Himachal Pradesh yearly only eight thousand go to Spiti. I went in 2007 to teach English and math to Tibetan Buddhist Nuns.
To get there from my Vermont home it took one three-hour drive to the airport in Boston. Followed by two flights over twenty-four hours to India, and two nights rest in Central Delhi. It took a fourteen-hour hired jeep ride to Manali, a beautifully green town just below the tree line, and two days rest to acclimate to the altitude. Only after another nine-hour jeep ride over rough rutted terrain teetering on deathly high cliffs did I arrive at Yangchen Choling Monastery, the nunnery that was my home for the summer.
Going over my photographs brings back vivid memories, especially one picture in particular. In the photo five-year-old Ajee (meaning sister in the Spiti language of Spiti Valley) Nedan clutches a white and green teacup of hot chai. Her small thumb is reaching over the rim and her thumbnail is bright pink. That’s not a reflection from the light. Sometimes the younger girls used crayons and markers from the library to decorate themselves like the Bollywood stars they ripped from magazines and hung on their walls.
Nedan’s pink shirt riddled with purple and yellow flowers was not nun attire. The nuns wore deep red wrap skirts made from one large piece of cloth. They wrapped it around themselves and tied the many layers in place with a rope. They also wore vests of the same deep color and long shawls. Nedan was seven years short of taking the oath that would have her sporting her own multilayered red clothing.
Nedan is in the foreground of the picture. She was standing in the kitchen with two children from Village Pangmo sitting behind her. Village Pangmo was just across the field from the nunnery. It had a handful of homes and a small store, opened only sometimes, that stocked basic necessities like batteries, crackers and orange soda. My body didn’t seem to like the food I ate in India; I’ve never been so consistently ill my whole life. As a result I’d seen the store several times, to supplement my diet with Maggi (instant ramen noodles), which tasted better than Top-O-Ramen and just as easy to keep down.
The kitchen floor looks dark. It was as smooth as a floor made out of clay could be. The rugs that we sat on, cross-legged around the edges of the room behind low long bench-like tables, were dark. There was a short wood stove, two gas burners and a wall of metal pots and teacups and bowls. If the room’s picture were published in a travel magazine, it would say to the readers, “See our simple way of living. We look exotic, don’t we?”
I can’t deny I felt like that the first day I sat in that kitchen and ate potato momos with grainy white rice and dripping brown lentils. My I-want-to-fit-into-this-exotic-atmosphere attitude led me to say dhanyavaad, the Hindi word for thank you. It was later that I found out Hindi isn’t even their language. It hadn’t been an automatic response. I carefully calculated its release, thinking that dhanyavaad would somehow bring me further away from the United States and closer to India. I should have just said thank you in English, since I was there to teach them that language. I could have asked what the proper thing to do was, they would have gleefully explained. Instead I said, “Dhanyavaad.” I said I am open-minded and culturally aware so I already get it and don’t need to ask. The nun who was serving dinner that night must have known I’d eventually start saying Julay and responded with only a smile as she poured more chai into my cup.
Nedan rocking some shades in the Himalayan sun.
All summer Nedan had short hair, not like the other women in the high Himalayas who had long and thick hair worn in low ponytails and usually covered with a large triangularly folded handkerchief tied under the chin. Her hair was cropped short, just long enough to cover half of her ears and drop onto her forehead, a cowlick pushed it slightly towards the left. In the morning before I took the picture her head was shaved and the photograph shows where her hair used to be. Her face is slightly darker than the newly bald skin. Tibetan Buddhist Nuns shave their heads as homage to their rejection of materialism. Nedan didn’t know nor care why she had no hair, not yet. When I asked Chetan Dolma, a brilliant fifteen year old nun who gracefully transitioned between the local language Spiti and near fluent English, about her own cropped-do she told me, “Because we are nuns.”
I remember coming into the kitchen on the day of the photograph and Nedan was already drinking chai. Shortly after sitting down, I too had a steaming cup of fresh tea in front of me, but it’s out of the frame of the photo.
“Milk tea? Milk tea?” I’d been asked by the older nun who was always laughing.
I nodded my head, face tilted slightly down, perhaps my hands touching, palms and fingers lined up and said thank you, “Julay.”
Before every meal the nuns chanted prayers and then raised their plates up. They let god eat first and then they ate. As a philosophy, they mean to live simply, although simply may not be the right word. Even there, in that kitchen with the short wood stove and gas burners, with a wall of metal pots and teacups and bowls, no one and nothing was ‘simple.’ Tibetan Buddhist Nuns shave their heads as homage to their rejection of materialism; but as Chetan Dolma said, “We do it because we are nuns.” The symbolism that saturates daily rituals in the nunnery may be religiously profound, but they are also just ordinary experiences to the people who live there.
The kitchen at Yangchen Choling, where the magic happens.
Cross-cultural communication is an effective and necessary form of activism that fosters harmony and peace between people who otherwise may completely misunderstand each other. If you get the chance, travel to learn and connect, not just to look around. Each person and society, in all of history, sees the world through their own cultural lens and trying to understand the world without all those perspectives is like seeing out of focus.
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