The Himalayas of India:  Ladakh and Dharamsala, Summer 2008
Himachal Pradesh - Tso Pema, Visiting A School for Recent Tibetan Refugees
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The cave, where Padmasambhava meditated, has marble floors that seem perpetually soaked in monsoon rain dripping from the cave ceiling.  There's a large Padmasambhava statue in the cave.  And since I was there alone, it was peaceful and quiet.  Great energy.  I don't meditate.  I'm too undisciplined to get anywhere at present, but admittedly, I've never really tried, either.  But regardless, I tried to still my mind and close my eyes.  And it sort of worked for a while.  Just a few minutes.  I sat there for twenty minutes in total.  And then my curiosity screamed, "What's in the next cave room?" and I was off exploring again.

Here, a nun sits by the front of the cave (enclosed by walls and windows), studying Buddhist manuscripts.

Outside the cave, a smiling nun served chai and collected funds so Lama Wangdor could complete construction of the 122 ft. statue of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche).

After the tea, I walked up some more white marble steps to a small mountain pass with tall pine trees festooned with Tibetan prayer flags.  I mean a huuuuuuge amount of flags.  I smiled.  It looked GREAT. 

And beyond that, I walked up some steps and saw Padmasambhava's footprint on a cliff wall.  It looks like a footprint.  Legend has it that Padmasambhava flew there and hit the mountain with his foot.  You can try and look it up online if you are curious...this is simply what someone told me when I was there. 

This lama had been living in a cave nearby, meditating.  Much of the walls of his place were destroyed by flooding, so he was accepting donations.

I returned down the hill to Tso Pema, taking a bus back to Dharamsala.  This bus trip was not any shorter, also taking about nine hours.

When I returned to McLeod Ganj, it was already dark.  I walked further down Jogibara Road to My Thai Restaurant.  It was dark, lit mostly by candlelight, and no one else was eating there.  I ordered some pad thai noodles, which were okay, and relaxed in the quiet restaurant.

1 August - I awoke the next morning at Ketan Lodge to this gorgeous sunny day.  I thought I might hike to Triund, to go up to the "Hard Rock Cafe Triund" that Lisa and I had gone to before.  I called home to Lisa, but she had other plans for me. She was, after all, the President of  Los Angeles Friends of Tibet and doing fundraising for The Tibet Connection. "Can you go to the Transit School and take photos?  We need photos of students doing things for The Tibet Connection fundraiser so we can show donors what the school does."

That sounded interesting, too, and a good cause.  I called Ronny.  I told him that since I was going as a representative of Los Angeles Friends of Tibet and The Tibet Connection, I needed a proper title.  He agreed that "Grand Wazir" sounded appropriate.

I was to simply show up unannounced and tell whoever I met there that we were looking for projects to fund, and that I was to find out their needs.  And take photos of students engaged in activity.   Sounded quite simple and easy.  But sometimes things don't always work out that simply.


I showed up unannounced, the Grand Wazir of LAFOT.  Someone came out to help me by the front gate of the school.

"Tashi Delek," I said, "I am here to visit the Transit School."

"Terranzin...wheech skoowel?" He kept repeating, "Wheech skoowel?" 

I was confused.  How many transit schools could there be?

"Dair are menny terranzins here," he continued.  "Wheech skoowel?"

I finally got it.  He thought I was saying "Tenzin!" Of course there'd be many Tenzins there!  "No, not a person.  I'm not looking for a person.  May I go to the main office?"  That worked.

I met the newly-anointed Director of Sherab Gatsel Lobling School, Bhutuk Shastri.  I explained that I was with Los Angeles Friends of Tibet - I left out that I was the Grand Wazir - and we were considering funding his school.  I told him that I would like to take photos of the students in classrooms and at work.  I asked him what their greatest needs were.  "I do not know," he replied, "I just start July One."  He recommended that I contact the Education Secretary at the Tibetan Library, and he called someone else to consult briefly. I persisted.  "What are some problems you want to fix?

"Water filling."

"Water filling?"

"Yes, water here no good.  Water dirty."

"A water filter!  You need a water filter! A water filtration system!"  He said yes, that was it!  As difficult as this was due to the language barrier, we were getting somewhere.

Photo:  Director Bhutuk Shastri and Puntsok, the Class Monitor, who is familiar with many of the day-to-day operations.

Bhutuk, before and after our talk about water filters, had asked where I was from.  "USA," I had answered.  But later, he asked, "You Chinese-American?"  Korean-American?" I answered that I was Chinese-American.  But then, during the talk about water filtration needs, he again interjected, "Can you make the Chinese language?"  I replied no.

The Director then explained that many of the 700 students here, after the high altitudes of the Himalayas, had escaped here to the warm, damp climate of Dharamsala, had drank the unfiltered water, and become sick.  I knew that this was a problem, especially with people coming from very high altitudes. Recurring cases of water-borne infections such as dysentery and giardia plagued many students, weakening their immune systems and making them more susceptible to tuberculosis.

Then: "Your parents not teach Chinese language?" 

I asked about other needs.  "Hot water.  We only have hot water in the kitchen.  Three taps.  We need more for boys' hostel, more for girls' hostel."

"Solar panels would help.  Okay, this is another need..." I replied, writing it down.  They only had one solar panel for the kitchen.  They had other issues as well.  The kitchen floor was absurdly slippery, even under the best of conditions.  And carrying large pots of food could be treacherous.  He also mentioned the need for clean water and drainage from the dining hall.

Photo:  The school must wash their dishes outside in the water irrigation canals. 

"Bhutuk, for fundraising, we need to show donors photos.  I would love to take photos of students sewing, working, painting, reading, studying.  Students in classrooms."

Bhutuk replied, "School holiday.  No school today."

I was crestfallen.  I was leaving in just two days and couldn't return.  I explained again that for fundraising, we would love to show these photos to donors.  He began talked about the program, citing important statistics.

I then suggested, "Can we have 3 or 4 students doing things?  They can sew, paint, study, just for a few minutes for photos?  People who are donors would love to see how their money helps the students.  Just 3-4 students."

"Good idea.  Yes, we can do."  He called a young man, Puntsok, the class monitor, over.  They spoke for a bit in Tibetan, with Bhutuk laughing for a bit.  "Go with him," Bhutuk said.  Puntsok and I walked towards the dormitories.

"So you don't speak Chinese?" Puntsok asked.  Damn, this was silly.  This is why Bhutuk had laughed just a minute ago.  I realized that a Chinese person visiting people who had just escaped Tibet because of the Chinese must have been quite a novelty, but this was just silly.

"The Director told you this?"

"Yes.  He says you are Chinese but do not speak Chinese."

Photo:  Sewing class at Sherab Gatsel Lobling School.

Puntsok showed me the dormitories.  He led me to the girls' dormitory room.  They looked uncomfortable.  I felt uncomfortable.  "Here, go in."  Reluctantly, I did.  There were many girls sitting on beds, straightening things, talking.  All heads turned our way. "Take photo."

"Uh, okay. This is okay?"

"Yes." I took a photo. 

We walked upstairs.  Same thing.  "Uh, this looks just like the other dormitory."  I took another photo anyway.  We started for third girls' dormitory.

"Uh, look, Puntsok, I already have two photos of girls' dormitories.  I don't want to take another photo."

"Yes, okay.  Maybe they are not comfortable with photos?"

"Yes, and neither am I."  Puntsok nodded in understanding.

Photo:  Lunch is served at Sherab Gatsel Lobling School

"Puntsok, what we would love to have are photos of students.  Students working, sewing, learning, painting.  Students in classrooms and vocational schools."

"Yes, but today is holiday.  No school."  Apparently, the Director had told him I didn't speak Chinese, but not what I was hoping to photograph. 

"Right.  But can we get 3 or 4 students to work, sew, paint, learn, and sit in class?  We can make it look like school is going today for the camera."

"Oh, yes, we can do this.  No problem!"  My hopes soared again.


Puntsok and I walked back downstairs.  I took some photos of girls cleaning the floor to show the school's vocational activities (photo on left).  Puntsok spoke to several guys, who nodded and ran off.

Photo:  The students at Sherab Gatsel Lobling School are also taught various vocational tasks.

Puntsok indicated we should walk upstairs in another building.  I immediately saw several guys painting thangkas in classrooms!!

"This is great!!"  Puntsok nodded.  I took photos while Puntsok explained to the class that I was with an organization that hoped  to raise money for the school. The students eagerly smiled. Puntsok understood the reason behind the photos and had set everything in motion.

Some of the students held up partially completed thangkas.  They looked good.  I took a photo of them as well.  Some of the students thanked me.


Puntsok and I walked back downstairs and outside.  15-20 students, under Puntsok's guidance, had come from the girls' dormitories.  They were shy, giggly, and grateful as Puntsok explained what we were doing and why.  They all immediately smiled and said "thank you" in Tibetan and English.  I said, "Thank YOU very much!!"  They replied, "Thank YOU very much!!"

One girl produced a key, opened a door, and we burst into the sewing room.  They revved up the sewing machines.  I took photos.  Some were shy and giggly.  Everyone was super nice and grateful.

We walked to another sewing room.  More girls and boys had just begun sewing.  As we entered, several girls stood up and sat back down as they would for a teacher.  Several more rounds of "thank you" and "t'oo je che". 

I said to some who spoke some English, "I'm just taking photos.  I hope it helps to get money, but I don't know." 

This didn't matter.  "Thank you very much!!  Thank you very much!!"

Puntsok was the picture of efficiency.  Next, he gathered several students to gather books and meet us back in the classroom.  They came running back armed with Tibetan textbooks.  We poured into the classroom.  "Puntsok, can you be the teacher?" I asked.  He laughed and replied, "Yes, I will make good teacher."  Everyone else sat down and looked at their books.  Puntsok wrote on the blackboard and pointed.  It looked very authentic. Several more rounds of "thank you" ensued.

We walked back to the Director, who was outside.  I thanked him, saying Puntsok was great, very helpful.  We spoke some more about fundraising.

"So you don't speak your mother tongue?" asked the Director, laughing.

November 2008:  Los Angeles Friends of Tibet/The Tibet Connection fundraiser for water purification system for the Transit School

December 2009:  The reverse osmosis water purification system is installed.

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