Final Farewell from Dharamsala

Tashi Delek!

Yesterday, we saw Lobsang Sangay, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile,  give a speech for the 54th Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the 1959 uprising against the Chinese presence in Tibet. The Chinese responded with a violent crackdown of the protests causing the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans to flee to India. During our time in Dharmsala we have met with many organizations that are helping Tibetan refugees and working to spread awareness of the gross human rights abuses in Tibet. We have been inspired by their hope and dedication, particularly against the tremendous obstacles they face.

We finished our time in Dharamsala with a trek into the mighty Himalayas. The group set out on a three-day journey that included trudging through mud and snow to reach Triund Pass, which is roughly the same height as Mt. Baker. Triund offers spectacular views of the Dhauladar Range that jut up over 17,000 feet from the valley floor. The trek, both psychologically and geographically, is a turning point for many students. At Triund we are farther away from Washington than at any other point during the trip. Everyone step down the mountain then becomes a step closer to home.

We will send one more email once the group arrives in Thailand on March 13.

Talk to you soon!

Charlie and the IVS group

Education in Sarnath

Greetings!

The last week we have been working with an education project in Sarnath, India. The project was started by Dr. Abhaya Jain and is targeted towards low-caste and low-class students who do not have opportunities for a quality education. While officially illegal in India, the caste system is still highly prevalent in rural areas and very disenfranchising for individuals from Dalit (low-caste and untouchables) families. Our group primarily worked with preschool students, which mostly consisted of playing games, drawing and the occasional dance party.

Dr. Jain has told us that the most important impact we can bring each year is not to teach lessons in English, math or science. Rather, it is to give affection and show the children that we are all equals. For much of their life they will be told that they are inferior in Indian society. Dr. Jain believes a way to prevent children from internalizing this mindset is to have contact with the international community that does view them this way. And a perfect way to communicate equality through a language barrier is with games and play!

While in Sarnath, we also did homestays with Indian families in the community. We are continually amazed by their graciousness and kindness as hosts for our students. They are incredibly welcoming and work hard to make us feel like we are simply another member of their extended family. Their hospitality has really impacted people in our group and something we hope to adopt in our own lives back in the US.

Hope all is well back home and we will be in touch soon,

Charlie and the IVS group

Varanasi, India

Namaste and greetings from India,

We have arrived safely in India and are currently in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back over 3,000 years. Mark Twain during his travels through India, famously wrote, “Benaras [Varanasi] is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The city is a dazzling maze of tiny stone alleyways and concrete buildings that open up onto massive steps leading into the Ganges River.

Millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to Varanasi every year to bathe in the Ganges, believing that it washes away sins and bad karma accumulated over many lifetimes. And those that are fortunate enough to die and be cremated in this sacred land are believed to attain moksha; transcending the endless cycle of death and rebirth, and merging their soul with the Eternal.  Also scattered among the sacred ceremonies and rituals are unremitting touts and world-class scam artists. It creates a bizarre juxtaposition between the divine and irritatingly mundane.

Our entry into India was a descent into the chaotic and vibrant streets of Kolkata. Indian ambassador taxis carried us from the airport, zooming past rickshaws, bicycles, cows, dogs and pedestrians. If traffic laws exist, they were indiscernible to our Western eyes! Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is known for its literature, philosophers and political movements. It was formerly the British Colonial capital of India, but due to growing uprising and protests, in the early 20th century the British relocated to New Delhi. We spent a day in Kolkata taking in the sights and delicious cuisine, and then hopped on night trains to Varanasi.

Tomorrow we will be heading to Sarnath to work with Dr. Jain on his education projected targeted towards low-caste children.

Hope all is well back home and we will be in touch soon,

Charlie and the IVS group

On the Thai-Burma Border

Hi all,

We have just come back from our first village experience along the Thai-Burma border. The village was named No Boh, and primarily consisted of ethnic Karen, an indigenous group living on both sides of the border. The Karen have been engaged in the world’s longest military conflict with the Burmese military government since the late 40s. They were unhappy with the new Constitution that consolidated power with the Burmese, and very distrustful of a government which had targeted Karen villages during WWII. The Karen declared independence and many other ethnic groups in Burma followed shortly after.

Starting in the 1970s, the Burmese government began targeting civilian populations in effort to drain resources from the ethnic militaries. These included destroying villages, forced relocations to Burmese-controlled areas, forced labor, imprisonment and execution of anyone they deemed not supporting the Burmese government.

These brutal tactics resulted in massive waves of refugees fleeing to the Thai border. Thailand did not want to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, so it allowed the United Nations to set-up camps along the border. On our way to Noh Bo we passed Mae La, the largest camp, with roughly 50,000 refugees.

While in No Boh we were working on a project with Border Green Energy Team (BGET), a local NGO that does sustainable development projects in Thailand. BGET is building a learning resource center where they will provide vocational training for refugees and migrants who are unable to access the formal Thai education system. The classes will include sustainable agriculture, computer technology, language, and green technologies such as solar installation and maintenance.

BGET was also able to obtain temporary work passes for eight refugees from Mae La camp to join the project while we were there. They were of similar age as our group, and were engineering students in classes set up by a local NGO in the camp. For some of them, it was their first time out of Mae La since arriving from Burma. It was very gratifying to see our students connect with them, resulting in I think some lifelong friendships.

Our grouped worked on a number of tasks from hauling sand and rock for the building’s foundation to constructing a chicken coop to revamping a bamboo fence to keep ornery pigs out of the crops. Given the 90+ degree heat and our winter-hibernating bodies not used to long days of manual labor, it was difficult work…but we were quite proud of how the group rose to the occasion.

This experience again reminded us of approaching international service work with a huge dose of humility. We are not here to “help” these communities, but rather to make genuine human connections with people from cultures different, but not too dissimilar, from our own. There is something about shared work that really helps form these bonds. And if we can be a resource in some way to our friends, even the better.

We are going to be out of email range for the next week while we travel to a Thai village in Kanchanaburi. Hope all is well in WA and we will be in touch soon!

Best,

Charlie and the IVS group

Trek from Zanskar to Darcha

Tashi Delek! (Tibetan for hello!) –

We made it – six day trek, indescribably beautiful, up raging river canyons, beneath towering peaks and hanging glaciers, camping amid blue poppies and fields of wildflowers, feasting on great Tibetan food prepared by three cooks – and with the help of ponies which for centuries have been the mode of transporting loads across the trails and passes such as that we used to cross the Himalaya range from Zanskar to Himachal Pradesh. We are now in Manali, such a contrast to the wilderness where we started our final day yesterday: center of tourism, traffic, restaurants – quite a clash, though the hot showers were welcome reminder of modernity! Internet is down (for 400 million yesterday!) but this is from a place with a backup generator.

Tomorrow we leave for Chandigarh, then Delhi for flight out Aug 2 (for most – with arrival in Vancouver 10:30am Aug 3.
it has been an amazing, diverse, and challenging trip for all – with deep learning, personal growth, new friendships & trust. it may take some time to ‘re-enter’ and will be tough to answer simply the question “how was India” or “how were the Himalaya mountains’ so we hope all will be patient as well as inquisitive.

Charlie and I have had the great fortune to accompany 13 other participants in this endeavor, and am grateful to each of them for the wonderful qualities they have brought to our field course – and to all of you who have been the support behind them. we look forward to continuing to learn from them about the “so what” questions and next steps each may take. julley – thanks! james

Zanskar Valley

Julley – from Zanskar!
indescribable is a fitting adjective to describe our journey to, and week (thus far) in, the Zanskar Valley. Inaccessible half the year, except by 7 day trek on the ice of the Zanskar River, Zanskar is connected to the outside by several rugged trails and more recently by a single road from Kargil (the second city in Ladakh, rival to Leh).

Our experiences have ranged the spectrum, reflecting what is likely the most remote place many of us will ever visit.
We had a warm send-off from the lamas & nuns at our “home” outside Leh (complete with being honored with white scarves, katas, placed around our necks). Then with packs piled atop two jeeps, and we packed inside, it was twenty-five hours over two days – down narrow canyons with the raging Indus far below, with a stop at the extraordinary
detailed 11th-century stucco paintings and scenes both phantasmagoric and everyday at Alchi, then up and down hairpin turns past Lamaruyu monastery perked miraculously on the side of the mountain. We moved into Muslim villages as we neared Kargil, and while proceeding up the verdant Suru valley, lower in elevation such that barley and wheat were being harvested collectively, while barely inches high at higher elevations. Our campsite was on the soft grass along the river at Parkachik, the snows of the Zanskar range across, jagged Himalaya peaks behind. The river lulled us to welcome sleep.

Next morning, the vistas were even more magnificent – yaks below, glaciers above, wildflowers in profusion, red marmots sunning on rocks, and rapids that the most expert kayakers could only dream of. Over Pensi-la (Pensi pass), we descended into the Zanskar that has been our home for the past week. Geshe Yonten, whose work to bring
educational opportunities to the poorest Zanskari children, was awaiting us in the only “town” – Padum.

Students have been in homestays with families in the villages of Karsha, Stongde, and Zangla. These have been welcoming, and if not altogether comfortable (by Western standards), we have all adapted and made friends with adults & children, picking up phrases, helping pick
crops, fix meals, drink copious amounts of milk and butter tea. Respiratory and stomache discomforts have visited all of us at some point in the trip, but both modern and traditional remedies have helped.

We congregated on Wednesday at Karsha, for the second day of an amazing festival and the gompa (monastery), with hours of cham mask dancers, folk danders, blessings of animals (yak, horse, sheep, and dog) that are essential to life. It was great for students to catch up with each other, and some are now visiting and staying with each
other, and working on topics of mutual interest – from traditional healing practices, to impacts of rapid change, to daily agricultural and herding activities.

We had not anticipated access to internet, but here it is in Padum – on occasion, at least – so it’s good to send you this update, in case you haven’t heard from individual participants. If possible, we will follow up before Wednesday, when we head out of the Zanskar as people have down for centuries – on foot and with ponies to carry much of our gear. Those six days will be through hamlets, up the Lungnak river and then Kargiakh stream and across Shingo-la, Zanskar’s historic gateway pass across the Himalaya range and to Himachal Pradesh, pavedroad, and a few days until the airport, each with incremental growth in the sights and sounds, pace and “progress” that we have grown up and learned from. Hopefully, that vast contrasts, simplicity, rigors, and impressions we have gained personally and together will remain with us far into our futures.

Julley, julley again from James & Charlie – and Jackie, Andrea, Max, Carter, Sarah, Cory, Che, Frederick, Rachel, Jasmine, Kaela, Mickey, Kristine

Journey from Manali to Leh

Julley!

We have arrived safely in Leh after our rigorous two-day journey through the Himalayas. Our trip began in Manali, in the foothills on the southern side of the Great Himalayan range. We traveled through four mountain passes, each being progressively higher the last. The final pass, Tanglang La, stands at staggering 17,552 ft, the second highest road pass in the world! We arrived in Leh in the evening of the second day, exhausted from the journey, but in awe of what we had just experienced.

The 450 km trip took us from forest-clad mountains to high mountain plateaus to the alpine deserts. I am not sure what was more dramatic – the drastic change in ecosystems or the shear enormity of the Himalayan landscape.

In Leh, we will be meeting with different organizations working on sustainable development issues in the region. Ladakhis are grappling with how to modernize without losing their traditional beliefs and values, while maintaining a balance with their fragile ecosystem. There are many competing visions for how this should be accomplished – from the National Government to the local community organizations – and it is a tremendous place for students of development to explore these complex issues.

On Wednesday, we depart for five days to the remote Changtang region near the border with Tibet. We will be meeting with a community of pastoral nomads and celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday in the village. We return on July 9th and will have one day in town before departing for Zanskar.

Greetings from Dharamsala

Tashi Delek,

Our time in India is quickly coming to a close and we have made the most out of our few remaining days. We are currently in the town of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugee community. Today, we saw the Dalai Lama give a speech for the 52nd Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the 1959 uprising against the Chinese presence in Tibet. The failure of the uprising resulted in a violent crackdown by China causing the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans to flee to India. During our time in Dharmsala we have met with many organizations that are helping Tibetan refugees and working to spread awareness of the gross human rights abuses in Tibet. We have been inspired by their hope and dedication, particularly against the tremendous obstacles they face.

While in Dharmsala we also did a service project with an organization called Tong-Len. Tong-Len was started by a Buddhist monk to help a community of Indian migrants living in slums in the lower section of the town. The migrants had first started coming from Rajasthan due to water shortages and a lack of economic opportunity. Tong-Len began providing education and health services, and basic infrastructure, such as clean water. Our group focused on two projects that Tong-Len had deemed priorities for us to help with. We constructed and painted garbage containers, and cleaned up trash from the areas around the school. Tong-Len staff are going to follow up with the community about why using the containers are important for health and sanitation, especially for the children. The second project we did was to repair and paint furniture for the school, including benches, tables and chalk boards. We completed this work over the Tibetan New Year, and when the Tong-Len staff came back, they called me to say how pleased they were with what we had done.

Another key highlight from Dharmsala was our trek in the Himalayas. The group set out on a three-day journey that included trudging through six feet of snow to reach Triund Pass, which is roughly the same height as Mt. Baker. Triund offers spectacular views of the Dhauladar Range that jut up over 17,000 feet from the valley floor. The trek, both psychologically and geographically, is a turning point for many students. At Triund we are farther away from Washington than at any other point during the trip. Everyone step down the mountain then becomes a step closer to home. Tomorrow we will continue on this path as we head towards Delhi, and then a short stop in Thailand, before returning to the US. Once in Thailand, I will send another update about our flight information and arrival time in Seattle.

A couple of the other many highlights from India include:

Varanasi (also known as Benares): During his travels through India, Mark Twain wrote, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Over 3000 years old, the city is a dazzling maze of concrete buildings and tiny alleys that open up onto the sacred Ganges river. Hindu pilgrims from across India descend upon the massive steps leading into the river. The Ganges is believed to be purify the soul and wash sins from this lifetime and past. If one is lucky enough to be cremated and placed into the river, his or her soul escapes the endless cycle of rebirth and achieves union with the Eternal. Scattered amongst the sacred ceremonies and rituals are endless numbers of touts and world-class scam artists. It creates a bizarre juxtaposition between the divine and irritatingly mundane.

Sarnath: The spot where after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon. Fittingly it is a small oasis of calm from the dizziness and chaos of India. In Sarnath we did a service project with the Save Project, run by Dr. Jain. Dr. Jain set up preschools in the surrounding villages for children of lower castes with little access to quality education. After these were established, he created a primary school for children of these preschool to feed into. He would also like to create an additional primary school and one secondary school. While in Sarnath, the students stayed in homestays and spent time with the preschool children. Dr. Jain said rather than teaching a specific subject like English, he simply wanted us to play with the children. He explained that Indian society will teach these children that because they are from lower castes they are inferior. The simple act of us showing them love and treating them as equals is a much more valuable lesson than any subject we could teach.

Hope all is well back home, I will be in touch soon when we arrive in Thailand.

Charlie