Well folks, I’m back from my travels in Nepal, and it all seems just a distant blur now. I thought I would share some of my experiences with you, as well as carrying on with the, “Who Am I?” series. In truth I don’t know where to start, as there is so much to relate, however, I thought I would start by writing about my experiences on the Tibetan refugee camps in and around Pokhara.
There are three Tibetan camps in and around Pokhara; all completely different, both location wise and in terms of ambiance. The first one I visited was quite open plan and situated at Chorepatan. I was taken inside and dropped off by transport I’d organised through my hotel. The next day I visited again, this time I walked. There was a building with loads of photos and information about the Tibetan plight and the history etc. There was a building that was dedicated to the sale of carpets and rugs, which I avoided as I’m not a carpet and rug man, gift and souvenir shops and a few very basic cafes that sold Tibetan and Nepali cuisine. Apart from that there was the accommodation buildings, and the jewel in the crown; the monastery.
First of all the gift shops. I was greeted by Gorkan who informed me that all his wares were made by Tibetans. When I returned on the second day and had a closer look, I found that to be very debatable. The smaller items especially seemed mass-produced and had that tacky look about them, but I don’t doubt that some of the goods were made by the refugees themselves. I did make a few purchases, and I’m sure he overcharged me, but what I paid was pennies by UK standards.
On the first day I went and sat in the monastery while the young monks were reciting their scriptures. I found it fascinating and there was such a feeling of love in there. So much so that I went back again the next day for more of the same. However, on this occasion I arrived at around 2.00 pm in the afternoon. The monastery was actually closed as the monks were in their lessons, but a lovely monk asked one of the youngsters to open up for me so that I could sit inside. The photos below are from this wonderful monastery.
The next day I decided to find another of the camps. The local tourist map did not show this particular camp, but in a little handbook that I obtained from tourist information, it stated that there was a camp at Prithvi Chowk, which seemed to be a similar distance and quite central. I set off, and in anticipation of not being able to find it, I had a piece of paper with “Prithvi Chowk” written on it, so that I could thrust it under people’s noses if I needed directions. Although Pokhara is not as congested and polluted as Kathmandu, outside of the tourist Lakeside area, it must run Kathmandu to a close second. My route was extremely busy; the area was teeming with people and traffic. Also, the pavements were pretty much non-existent and full of lumps and bumps and holes that you could just disappear down if you were not careful. It was time to utilise my piece of paper!
I learned a few Nepali words but it is such a difficult language that I didn’t have any delusions about becoming fluent during my time there. A lot of Nepalese speak some English at least but I learned that the average Nepali is quite indifferent to foreigners, probably because the cultures are so different and we must seem extremely strange to them. So, I chose my “direction giver” very carefully. I saw what appeared to be a kitchen show room, and inside the shop there was a rather smartly dressed man; a prime candidate for my piece of paper I thought. I went inside and thrust the piece of paper in front of his nose and spluttered, “Tibetan refugee camp”. He gave me a big beaming smile and informed me that it was just a ten minute WALTZ in the direction I was already going. That really did put a smile on my face. I’m sure if everybody went about waltzing instead of walking, the world would be a much better place.
I nearly missed the entrance to the camp. I saw a Western woman enter in through a gap in some corrugated iron fencing and decided to have a peek. To my amazement it turned out to be the entrance to the camp. It was small and very compact. I spied the monastery straight away and noted that it was smaller than the first one. I saw the little monks scurrying around and wanted my photo taken with them. Also, a Tibetan lady made a bee-line for me, and I just knew that when the small talk had finished she would want to sell me something. It somehow didn’t seem appropriate to take photos and the monks were busy anyway. The lady invited me into her dwelling. It was extremely basic, but not a hovel. There was an older man, who I presumed was her husband, and a younger man who I would put in his mid twenties. I got the impression that they did everything in that one room. She got out what looked like an old biscuit tin, which contained a number of necklaces and bracelets that she informed me she’d made herself. I wanted to take a bracelet back for a friend and managed to haggle her down from Rs300 to Rs150. She offered me some food from the communal kitchen, which seemed to be where all the residents went for their meals, but I’d already eaten lunch so declined.
I arranged hotel transport a couple of days later to take me to the viewpoint at Sarangot, and also to the third Tibetan camp at Hemja. Unfortunately, the monsoon causes havoc with landslides so I wasn’t able to get to Sarangot due to the road being closed. The Jeep dropped me off at the camp and I went in for a wander. I again wanted my photo taken with the monks, but decided again that it was not appropriate. How would I like it if I was going about my daily business in the UK, and tourists from some far-flung land pestered me to have their photo taken with me? I feel that there is a tendency for foreigners to look on these people as some sort of novelty, and it somehow seemed so disrespectful for me to ask for photos, so I didn’t. However, I learned a lot from this visit.
I learned that monks are human too. After my experience in the first monastery, I was only really interested in the monasteries during these visits. The one at Prithvi Chowk had not felt very inspiring, so I was full of anticipation as I entered the monastery grounds and saw that it was by far and away the biggest of the three. There was a sign at the entrance saying you could enter with permission.There was another building further down where there seemed to be some activity going on. I entered the building and realised that these monasteries are not just places where monks do their “monking”, but they are also schools. It stands to reason, that these young Lamas are just kids really and they need their schooling. There was a lot of monks in a hall and two Nepali ladies who I presumed were school teachers brought in from outside to teach the kids. I asked if I could enter the monastery and one of the teachers got one of the monks to escort me. Having got my permission I entered inside. There was already two young Westerners in there, being given the grand tour by another monk.
It was a truly spectacular building and I was particularly impressed by the huge drums. I’d heard that the monks do Pooja in the afternoon. I suppose the easiest way to explain pooja (or puja), is to say that it is the Buddhist equivalent of a Western church service. I was keen to experience this, but I had an hour wait. I went outside again and observed what was going on. It was in those moments that I realised that the monks are no different from all of us. I saw the youngsters larking around, just as I did when I was at school. I even saw a little monk bullying another little monk. I also observed the monk who had been showing the young Westerners around spit as he walked across the courtyard (everyone in Nepal is constantly spitting, young, old, male and female); it never occurred to me that a monk would spit; how naive of me!
The time came for pooja to begin; and what an amazing experience it was. The chanting, the young monks banging those huge drums and the crazy sounding brass instruments that blasted out every time one sequence came to an end, paving way for another. Eventually I felt it was time to go. I was collared by a lady on the way out who sold me a bracelet; this time I got it for Rs100. My experiences on the Tibetan refugee camps now seem to be nothing more than distant memories, but they are memories that will remain with me forever. Enjoy the photos!