četrtek, 28. maj 2015

I WISH PEMA HAD BILLIONS OF DOLLARS

I’m sitting at the computer and looking at photos from Nepal. Most of the photos are from Kathmandu. These photos are bad enough. But theTsum Valley, which I visited in 2013, is even closer than Kathmandu to the epicenter of the earthquake that shook Nepal on 25 April 2015. I was very happy to hear from my Nepalese friend: "So far, people in my village are okay. But the damage is enormous. We’ve lost our homes." My heart aches for them. Nights in the Tsum Valley are infernally cold. Will they be able to manage? The monsoon will be here in another month. How can they fix the worst of the damage if they can only be reached by trail? And even the trail has collapsed. Even in normal circumstances the valley can be reached only on foot, on horseback or by helicopter.
I wish I could be there to help. I think about what I can do from here. I’ve published photos of the valley before the earthquake and asked my friends to contribute to my friends from the Tsum Valley at: 
To help you understand why I care so much for the people there, why to donate and to get an idea of how to help people of Tsum Valley, I am sharing a story that I wrote some time ago, but didn’t finish. Will it be easier to write the conclusion now?

TSUM VALLEY – HIDDEN VALLEY

The greeting "Tashi Delek!” breaks the total silence and rouses me from my reflection. I return a greeting, thinking that it hasn’t been long since I learned the Nepalese greeting "Namaste!" Not the same word as “Namaš’te” in Slovenian slang, as used for example in the sentence: "namaš'te si maslo na kruh!” (spread some butter on the bread). Namaste is pronounced with a very long e at the end of the word. Here, in the roughly 30 kilometer-long Tsum Valley of Nepal, or “Hidden Valley” as the locals call it, they have their own dialect and also many other unique characteristics worth knowing.


 From the Ghum Bridge to Mu Gompa

Trekking through the Tsum Valley begins when the path, before the village of Nyak and the Ghum Bridge, at an elevation of about 2200 m, turns away from the better known tourist trekking path around Manaslu towards the village Lokpa. The path climbs through the villages toward the border with Tibet. In some places the path is so narrow that only one heavily loaded donkey or yak can pass at a time. “Be careful! If we meet any donkeys, keep close to the wall," a local guide, Pema, cautions us. 


After a few days of walking you come to one of the last inhabited settlements in the Tsum Valley, Mu Gompa, at an altitude of 3700 m. Here live fifty Buddhist monks. During the summer they gather there to pray, study, and meditate, and in winter they transfer all their knowledge and insights to younger ones in the valley. In winter only two monks remain in the settlement. They are responsible for the maintenance of the buildings and receiving any visitors.


All of us present there at the time were gathered in the small cell of a monk. It serves him both as bedroom and kitchen. He kindly turned over a newer room to guests for sleeping in. Pema was smiling mischievously from beneath his cap. He agreed to answer a few questions for me. He was worried about the questions I would pose. Locals in the Tsum Valley are not accustomed to foreigners and our curious views. The valley was not opened to foreign visitors until 2008. Previously, foreigners came to these places only as researchers with a special permit and assignment. Even now permission and a local guide are required to visit the valley. The number of foreign visitors each year is supposed to be 800, but every year the number is exceeded. The recommended times to visit the valley are the months from February to April and from September to November.


The Tsum Valley lies between the high peaks of the Ganesh and Sringi Himal ranges. In some places the valley is so narrow that the sun barely reaches into it. The temperature difference between day and night is huge. You can walk around in a T-shirt with short sleeves during the day, but this does not mean that in the evening you will not need a down jacket. "The locals have changed the way they dress," recalls Pema." Some time ago, men and women wore traditional clothing. Women even today wear some kind of striped apron around the waist. The apron is woven out of colorful yarn. During the day, in the fields, this apron protects their backs against the cold. At home they move the apron in front to protect them from the hot fireplace. As children we used to go around dirty and in torn clothes. In the course of our curious explorations we climbed many trees and stumbled on stones. Nowadays the youth wear jeans and clean clothes." As Pema mentioned weaving I was curious as to when women find the time to weave since they are often seen in the fields and they are the ones who prepare the food and generally take care of the home. “This is also one of the traditions that have changed considerably. Women used to meet at one another’s homes and do crafts. They would knit, sew, weave, sing and swap the items they made. Today, this is more the domain of older women. Younger women are no longer familiar with these handicrafts and ancient cultural traditions. It’s a pity." He stares a bit nostalgically ahead. I’d read somewhere that women in this area have several husbands. "It's true," says Pema."Usually it was the case that a woman had two men. One husband was a merchant and was hardly ever home. The other one helped maintain the homestead. However, this tradition is being slowly abandoned. I estimate that nowadays there’s maybe one such family in approximately 15. Most marriages are arranged by the families. I hope that I will not need to keep this tradition," he giggles from below his cap. 


It is good to orientate yourself a bit, as you go through the villages, to get used to the surroundings. All houses are in fact very similar from the outside, as well as inside. They are made of stone with no mortar. The sloping roofs are wooden, covered with stone slabs. The wind blows through the cracks between the stones, It is good to have a really warm sleeping bag. All houses have the same floor plan. They are single-storey with an attic, which they use for storage. Stairs leading to the upper floor are outside. 


The floors on the first floor are wooden. The ground floor is intended for firewood and animals. The upper floor is used for kitchen, prayer room and bedroom for adults. Children sleep on the porch. The family gathers around the wood-burning stove, which stands almost in the center of the room. They have designated seating arrangements. The mother sits in the corner since she prepares the food. She has easy access to the shelves with everything she uses for cooking. The father sits on the other hand of the stove, children and potential guests sit in a semicircle around. After visiting several kitchens and observing women cooking, I had the feeling that in the next kitchen I would be able to cook lunch myself. It seems as though in all homes the metal containers with food on the shelves are arranged in the same way around the room. Foods are stored in hard sealed containers protected from many "domestic creatures." Being in the valley in November, when there are not many tourists and the companions - guide and porters - are natives from this valley, has a big advantage, because you have the opportunity to sit at the table with locals and to sleep in their homesteads.

A person doesn't need to think a lot about what to eat. The most common dish is Dal Bhat. Bhat is cooked rice; Dal is lentil or bean soup. They often add potato curry and among the more affluent, vegetables: spinach, Swiss chard or cabbage. Dal Bhat is eaten three times a day and they say, "Dal Bhat power for 24 hours." "You know, it used to be that all the food we ate was home-grown, organic. Everything we ate had been produced here in the valley. Now you can find a growing amount of "junk food" and "fancy food" that is brought in on donkeys, horses and yaks from other valleys. It is even brought in from several days distant markets in Tibet, accessible via the 5100 m high passes. My favorite food is still a thukpa - vegetable soup with noodles. When I am in Kathmandu, I also miss the polenta of this place," Pema explains to me.


 In the valley carnivores don't have a large choice on the menu. Here the locals do not kill animals. The fresh meat of goats (wild) or cows is eaten only if the animal falls off a cliff to the valley or if it dies of other causes. Locals do not cut an animal’s throat. When we returned down the valley, we noticed some birds of prey circling in the air and observing a spot on the ground. In the village the locals told us that they thought a wild goat had fallen, but then they saw that it was an old horse that had lost its way. "So no meat for dinner," they commented. In response to my astonished look they said: "Legend says that the horses have more teeth than humans. This means that horses are our ancestors. Because we are not cannibals, we do not eat them!"

Pema

Who is Pema? A young man, of an age to be my son, and who replied to my question: "What would you do with a million dollars?" with the following answer: "A million dollars? That's a lot of money! I heard that money corrupts people... (silence) A million dollars? I would pay to study somewhere abroad. I would like to study something connected with the environment, ecology, something like that. Maybe I would come to Slovenia!" he laughs. "I would help my family. For sure I would give part of the money to those who need it more than me."


 Pema was born as the seventh of nine children of one father and two mothers. With the first wife his father had five children, but then the mother died. For his second wife he married the sister of his first wife. Thus, the children are half-brothers and sisters or cousins. Pema was born sick, immediately after the death of his brother. They thought that he would also die. A monk came to the village and invited his mother into the sanctuary, where he "poured" life into Pema's body. Those were hard times for the family. His father was earning money as a merchant, a trader between the Tibetan border and the Tsum Valley and valleys closer to the capital. Pema spent a lot of time with his grandfather on his father's side. He likes remembering those times. "My grandfather had a lot of animals. He taught me about the struggle for survival, about animals, about love. There used to be many more yaks, horses and other animals in the valley. Everything was handmade. Now agriculture is dying out and trade, small businesses, and tourism increasing. Coming back to live with my family was hard. But I had to go to school. I was eight or nine years old and most of my peers already attended school.  It was an awful time. I really missed my grandfather." He attended the school in the village for five years. 

His day began about seven o'clock with thukpa. His mother prepared "popcorn" for the children’s school meals. "You know, this was a time when I had an endless number of friends!" he muses. "Other classmates could not afford such a school meal. We could afford this because of my father's job. Other children brought wheat and ate it." The lessons at school lasted from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. After school lessons he and his friends went to collect firewood. "This was our favorite game!" he says. His father and mother decided to send him to a monastery, so that he would become a monk and take care of them when they were old. But his older brother Sonam was the one who persuaded his parents that Pema was so good in school that it would be a shame if he didn’t continue his education. Sonam took Pema to the lower-lying area of Gorkha District. “I don't like remembering this period. There I went to school for five years, financially one of the most difficult periods for our family. Our father also died during this time. I had to learn how to handle money. With the help of my brother and sister I finished school there. They found a scholarship for me and I went to secondary school in Kathmandu. Now I can earn my living, but I still want further education. I am interested in environmental science, all these ecological problems, global warming ...”, he explains to me in excellent English. I later saw that he also writes well in English.

"I assume that your brother suggested that you become a tourist guide. To guide people to these places is not an easy job. What was your worst experience?" I asked him. "Well ... You women are stubborn," he said, observing me to see how I would react. "On one of the tours I guided a married couple. The wife was training for a marathon: she planned the trekking as high-altitude preparation. She was extremely ambitious. The couple did not want to follow instructions regarding acclimatization. Problems occurred. Vomiting. They didn't want to admit that it was altitude sickness, blaming the food. I was carrying all her baggage. I prayed that there would be no wind on the pass. I was lucky that the gods heard me, otherwise I can’t imagine how we would have finished the trek."


I wasn't able to remember the names of our companions at the beginning, so I used associations. Guide Pema was moving along the stony paths like a wild cat. I imagined him as a puma. So: a puma – Pema. His uncle, who accompanied us as a porter, was introduced to us as Baldžur. My association was “soon it will be the party” (Bald – German “soon”; žur – Slovenian slang for party). I was interested in how children get their names. Pema explained to me: "In the week after the birth the mother and the newborn are visited by a monk or high lama. He gives the child a name. At that time, after one week, other people can also come to congratulate and visit. Parents can decide later whether to add another name to the child. My name comes from the word Padme in prayer "Om, Mani, Padme, Hum" and means lotus flower. Because I was ill at birth, but the monk believed in my cure, it was like a metaphor that I would flourish in spite of illness. Sometimes there were large families here. Nowadays, on average a couple has three children. Because there are few possibilities for medical care during the prenatal period, many children die.”

Where only a path leads instead of paved roads


People in the valley believe in Buddha. Buddha protects them on their routes up and down the valley. When they pass by the walls of prayer - "mani walls", constructed from stones with carved prayers - they stroke them and add some stones. They hang colorful prayer flags to flutter in the wind. "When we pass Buddhist shrines (stupa -"chorten"), we have to go in a clockwise direction around them and then we can continue our way. If you follow this recommendation, the crossing above the highest pass in trekking around Manaslu won't pose a problem for you!” instructs Pema. Of course I followed his advice with pleasure. I learnt the prayer “Om, Mani, Padme, Hum” and I repeat the words for myself as mantra, especially where the route is steeper. I also turn around little prayer mills in larger “chortens” with a crossing.


The entire valley, including Mu Gonpa, enraptured me. I was enchanted by the silence there. The beginning of Slovenian singer Šifrer's song: "I'll go where the day is longer, where the world of the city ends. Where only a path leads instead of paved roads... " is certainly a true description of the valley. Except that a long day should be replaced by a short day, because before 8 a.m. nothing happens. And at around 6 p.m. when the sun goes behind the surrounding peaks, there’s also not much happening. At that time, the temperature drops significantly. You have to put on warmer clothing. When the sun sets, the stars appear. An infinite number of stars. The Milky Way is strikingly clear. You have the feeling that you can reach out your hand, pluck a star, and take it home as a souvenir. Here there are no cars, no motorbikes, not even bicycles. I saw just one bike in the courtyard of the elementary school. If something happens to someone, the others collect money for a helicopter to take them to the valley.

The local residents are very attached to their valley. They are thus worried because the Nepalese government has decided to build a road connecting this beautiful gem with Tibet. The construction was not based on any plans or consultations with the local residents. The government decided to drop a bulldozer from the air and begin building a road that leads from zero to nothing. It was really very unusual in this pristine valley to see a bulldozer. The local community is very active and they also made a film (http://manidoco.vhx.tv/) to present their concerns and efforts so that the government would take a more integrated approach to the project.


According to the plans they have seen, the road will run along the route of the current footpaths. There are numerous cultural monuments alongside footpaths. Monuments are not just for decoration there; the local residents deeply cherish and nurture their cultural heritage. They are confused. "We want the progress that the road would bring. On the other hand, we are afraid that they will destroy cultural monuments. For example, our stupa before the village of Nile protects the valley against natural disasters. Previously there were floods, but since we have had it, all is calm. What will happen to our "mani walls" and "chortens"? In addition people will lose fertile land… Not to mention the pollution generated by the road... I really do not want to make our valley like the places where the trekking routes around Annapurna go. I have seen what it means to destroy nature," sadly explains Pema.


And in conclusion?

The conclusion was missing. I wanted to continue my writing about how the people love the valley, about the road, about friendship and my promise to Pema to return to the valley so that he can make me coffee. During my visit there, we laughed a lot over my photos of instant coffee.
Once again I am viewing photographs from the Tsum Valley. Among them is also a photograph of the stupa in front of the village of Nile. It also suffered damage from the earthquake. I remembered Pema's words, that the stupa had been protecting them from floods and negative impacts from the huge rocky cave above it. I wonder why this stupa did not also have the power to protect them from the earthquake.
I hope the people there are not too cold! That help will come to the Tsum Valley in time to save them! That there will be enough help for everyone forced to spend those frigid Tsum nights outside, because they don't have roof over their heads and because they are afraid of repeat tremors! I hope that the people there can stay healthy in such conditions and that the monsoon will not arrive before the people and their valley are ready! I know that Pema helps others, even if he doesn't have any money, and I just wish that he had billions of dollars, not just the million dollars that we were talking about!I would like people around the world to understand the circumstances of people in this hidden valley, and to help as much as they can!
I know that everybody who has ever been in Nepal knows someone there who needs help—his or her "own" Pema, Sonam, Phunjo, Dhawa... with family and friends. I know that I have huge wishes. Some are not feasible. But you can help me to realize one of them easily. Please donate to people, friends from the Tsum Valley:


And the last wish that I will put on the paper at this moment: I would rather be enjoying the tranquility of the Tsum Valley before the earthquake and drinking coffee that my friend Pema made for me, than writing these words. 

Alja Pregl
Lljubljana, Slovenia


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