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I spent my spring break in an ashram in Kathmandu and this is what I learned

by Alison Berna

How can I explain just how quickly I embraced a country that begins every greeting with ‘namaste’ - prayer hands to the third eye, with a serene look accompanied by a respectful bow?

The two words I would use to describe the many Nepalese people I encountered on my trip to Kathmandu this week are gentle and resilient. It’s a generalization, of course, but I believe it’s an accurate description of the masses. Take a look at its history, one that leaves out any form of colonialism, not without a fight. Take a look at its location on the planet. Like Morocco or Turkey, Nepal sits at a crossroads of cultures. It’s Hinduism meets Buddhism. India meets China. It’s apparent that the Nepalese people have, over centuries, absorbed the influences of these neighboring giants, while sewing their own fabric that includes their deep religious threads.

Visiting Boudhanath with my mother-in-law…the stupa’s massive
mandala makes it one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world.
Add in the fact that Nepal is nestled up against the Himalayas…that breathtaking mountain range that stops a person in their tracks and forces one to remember just how small we are on this great big gorgeous planet. Mountain people tend to be, well, present. Imagine seeing the Himalayas every single day.

I went on this trip for many reasons. I wanted to accompany my 84 year old mother-in-law Maria who, as a member of the Intercultural Association (ICA) was attending a week-long international conference to fight human trafficking, hosted by UFER. UFER is an international group that brings recommendations to the United Nations, gathering various national groups together who collaborate on different global issues.

I also went, admittedly, to see and feel a country I’ve longed to experience since my days working for and with children at UNICEF.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also admit that I took the chance to fly 9000 miles away from my family and work for 10 days so that I could get a glimpse of the Himalayas. Since I can remember setting life goals (playing out my over-ambitious Capricorn, is as long as I can remember), I’ve wanted to climb a mountain. I mean really climb areal mountain. So I figured I’d start with a short trek in between conference sessions and consider this a reconnaissance mission of sorts, with a plan to one day (one day!) satisfy the consummate adventurer in me.

I didn’t plan on meeting so many beautiful, soulful people working to fight human trafficking in countries ranging from Ecuador to Haiti to Italy to Honduras to Belgium. I didn’t plan on meeting so many local Nepalese people, fighting for the rights of their fellow citizens (and non-citizens), relentlessly working to make their country – and the world – a better place, often with little or no money.

I didn’t plan on seeing so many places that would drive deep into my soul, places like the Future Stars Elementary School, where 500 students attend a small 3 story dilapidated building in the center of bustling Kathmandu. We brought the incredibly dynamic principal bags of notebooks and pencils, materials the school did not have. The teachers were grateful and I think they should each have a halo on their heads for the work to which they have committed their lives. One science teacher told me he teaches up to 7 sessions a day, without a break, but he can’t imagine doing anything else. Another social studies teacher told me she has up to 40 kids in a classroom, on her own, without many books or materials to help the students learn. The 500 children greeted us with a virtual uproar of singing and laughing and my heart almost fell out of my chest as these happy children welcomed us, embraced us, and thanked us eagerly for the materials. I wish could bottle their appreciation. I would break it out every now and then in New York City as a reminder of all that I have, and all that we - even without meaning to - take for granted.

Future Stars
Srijana, social studies teacher at Kathmandu's future stars school
I also didn’t plan on meeting Mangu Gurung, the founder of Pourakhi, an organization that works for safer foreign labor migration for women from Nepal. She and her team do this by educating and arming the migrant workers with domestic worker skills and knowledge before they leave the country. She and her team ensure that the children these women often leave behind are in safe spaces, as well as help them return to their husband, children and communities after years living far away. The psychosocial counseling and support her team does is nothing short of remarkable. Mangu is a force of positivity. What’s even more apparent is that Mangu is in love with her country and will do anything to make it safer place for everyone, especially the poorest and most marginalized. I will post a separate blog specifically about Pourakhi next week, but for more information on the good work they do, or to make a donation, please visit: http://pourakhi.org.np/

me and my mother-in-law Maria with our new friend Manju
I didn’t plan on meeting Bishal, the adorable, smart, kind 23 year old graduate from Boston and Bentley Colleges who just returned to his country after 7 years in the U.S. Bishal reminded me of how people treat guests in most other cultures. He picked me up at 5am so that we could trek and I could get my mountain/exercise fix, but he did much more than that. He spent the entire day with me as a guide and after a trek, personal tour of the city and three meals together, we feel like we’ve known each other for years. He told me about the history of his country, the way he sees its future and the entrepreneurial work that lay ahead of him within his father’s very successful medical equipment and supply company. I admire the way he wanted to return to his family, the way he spoke of his mom and dad with utter respect, the way he wanted to carry on his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, his business acumen and the way he sees his own future within Nepal. The words he used to speak of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and family… it was a glimpse into the way that Nepalese people treat their families. They stay together, they live together, they look out for one another. Forever and no matter what.

with Bishal on our trek
view of the Himalayas! For me, a dream
What I DID plan on having was a life experience that I knew would impact me forever. I guess I didn’t realize just how much. I always try to seek reminders of gratitude for all that I have, and I am constantly grateful for the all too rare moments of reality that force me to remember just how adverse I am to entitlement. Living simply in an ashram during my week in Nepal was one way to satisfy that urge. “Living simply” means I had to bring my own towel, sleep on what felt like concrete, shower with a bucket and pitcher, and be patient with (very) intermittent electricity. Wifi? That was a luxury only the nearby hotel had and even then… as long as I had a flashlight.

When I left for Nepal, Allison told me that she knew I would come back with a new mission, wanting to make a difference and help the ones I left behind. Knowing me as well as a sister, she was right. I have a few posts I will soon share that highlight the various stories of people I met along the way and the grueling issues they face every single day. How can I not share them with the world? How can I not ask the people in my life to help them so they can make a change?

Bobby’s support for my independence is, I see now, directly related to how his mom sees the world. Follow your passion, try to make the world a better place and don’t worry taking a break from it all to do it. While I was gone this week he, on his own, brought my three babies to his farm where the four of them shared a week of tractor riding and nature hikes. No babysitter, no distractions. He is the reason I felt strong enough to kiss those three faces and say good bye for 10 days. In my life, I spend every waking minute with at least one of my kids somewhere in my mind – homework, schedules, lunchboxes, play dates, birthdays, too many activities!, drama with friends, making sure they have all they need to learn and love and grow into responsible adults full of gratitude, kindness and wonder. But the constancy of parenting…I realize now that it was not only healthy for me to find some distance, it was just as healthy for them. Distance brings appreciation and perspective. It was also healthy for them to have alone time with their father, without me controlling the pace of the day and grabbing the majority of their attention. I know they bonded with him in a way that all of them will remember, forever. It made my own independence this week that much sweeter.

I want to tell my mommy friends that it’s healthy to take time away from work. It’s healthy to take time away from the kids. It’s healthy to take time to follow something that YOU want to do. For YOU and only you. Maddie, Sydney, Jack and I made the distance easier by recording each other’s voices before leaving, and sending a few emails to each other when the internet connection allowed. The best part is that I will be able to share stories with them, stories I hope will leave a mark in their minds about the world I think they already know is much greater than them.

For that, I’m already planning my next trip. Then when they are old enough, I’ll take them with me!

1 comment:

  1. Michele Wong McSweenApril 29, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    Thank for that beautiful piece, Alison. It was an inspiring, eloquent reminder of what is most important to me. xo