Sunday, July 31, 2011

Of all the things I miss, I miss my friends the most.

I could never have asked to travel halfway around the world with a better group of people.  I am so grateful for the influence each person has had on my experience this summer and my life as a whole.  When I was sick, they comforted me by bringing me juice and pizza to make me feel at home, retold the day's adventures with pictures, brochures, and stories, and tossed numerous medicines at me from a safe distance until I found some that had me back on my feet and not contagious.  They granted me access into their lives as we shared raksi, curd, and side-splitting laughter.  I am honored to have shared in their personal experiences during our journey through Nepal, and delighted that my love for Kathmandu is so closely tied to my love for my new friends. 

May love and peace and joy prevail in each of your lives every day.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Various photos of our group

Here are various photos of our group enjoying our Nepal experience.
(far left, at a Tibetan Medical Clinic; middle, with the Buddhist "brothers" getting a tour of their village after a meditation service; right, enjoying delicious Nepalese food (hint: the Mo-mos are to die for!); and bottom, group member, Pete, with our irreplaceable guide Sakar.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Preserving culture in Nepal

On the 16th of July, our group went to a 7AM Buddhist meditation service in a lovely, small village located on a beautiful hilltop overlooking the expanse of the Kathmandu Valley and breathtaking views of the misty Himalayas. We were invited into the service by one of the Buddhist masters, who welcomed us with honorary stoles and introduced us to the villagers in the service. The people of the village were warm, friendly, kind people who loved to make sure we were doing everything correctly during the service. Several members of our group commented later on how much energy it took to sit completely still, on straw mats over a rocky terrain, while your bum and legs were falling asleep. I believe we all have the tune of "Om mani padme hum" forever engrained in our brains. After the service, everyone got up to go to the front and present an offering to the gods. Many of the ladies in the service shoved rupees (Nepali currency) into our hands in order for us to have an offering to give. I thought that was so kind of them to think of us, showing up with nothing, having nothing but our curiosity to give, and they made sure we had something to offer. The funny thing was, every time we turned around to get out of the tent, someone else would shove money in our hands and we would have to do it all over again. Then, we found that Nepalis love having their photo taken and looking at it on digital cameras, so many of our group have pictures of the lovely villagers who were so kind and welcoming to us. There were about 130 people at the service, which was almost double what it usually is, according to the masters. They told us that they let the villagers know ahead of time that a group from an American university was coming, so they all came out with a strong showing. They were just as curious about us as we were of them. I have so many pictures of beautiful faces and warm hearts--I may not know their names, but somehow they are not strangers.

After the service, we were invited to the office of the Buddhist masters who keep this wonderful program going. They served us masala tea and fresh fried doughnuts (YUM!), and told us all about their mission to keep the 500 year old village vibrant and keep their faith going strong. Then the masters, or "brothers", as the group of friends called themselves, took us on a visit around the village, showing us their wonderful temples and shrines. These "brothers" are an awesome group of men; all had professional jobs in addition to their masters of Buddhism, and took the time every day to hold services for the villagers to keep the faith alive. Some are doctors, some engineers, all are passionate about preserving their faith and their village. The hardest part of the visit was hearing about how many precious icons have been stolen from the village (which is a widely-based problem across Nepal). It was sad to see how the villagers must appreciate their statues and shrines through bars and steel rods that prevent the items from being stolen.

The brothers are amazing people doing great things. I sincerely hope that through writing about the village and sharing our photos, we can find a way to help the brothers raise their village up and continue the tradition and beauty of their ancient faith.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Swayambhu Stupa

July 11 marked our first full day in Nepal. Fittingly, we went to the Swayambhu Stupa, the core monument in Newar Buddhism. This was an AMAZING experience, especially for the first day. The monument itself is stunning, depicting many important Buddhist deities of the Nepalese tradition as well as being central to the story of the creation of the Kathmandu Valley, all in dazzling gold, intricate architecture and statues everywhere.

For being as important to the valley as the Swayambhu Stupa is, it wasn't as crowded as I thought it would be. It was busy, but not insanely so. I was very happy about that. No pushy crowds to deal with. That said, I did feel in the way from time to time. I would stand trying to take a picture or try to get a better look at some part of the stupa, and I felt as though I may be blocking off some of the pilgrims and faithful from taking part in their convictions. Luckily, they were usually able to squeeze past this photo-crazy American and his big backpack.

Another thing that caught me a little off guard about the experience was the aggressive vendors around the monument. I understand the idea of making a living at this religious site is not in itself a bad thing, but to sell spiritually meaningful (when used in the right context and not as souvenirs) items and be really pushy about it rubs me the wrong way. A few shop owners got quite angry at a few of us for not buying anything at there storefronts. Some going so far as telling us not to come back. Here is this site, center to a religion that focuses on the ability to be non-materialistic, and there is this big consumerist air hanging about. I think the tourism in the area is to blame though. I like to think that we are a different kind of visitor to the area, learning and discovering while not contributing to the strengthening of western ideals in the country, but who knows. I did end up buying a pendant.

Anyways, here's some pictures from the stupa.

-Corey M.

On Sickness

By this point, just about everyone has had some type of illness ranging from simple colds and tummy bugs, to serious medical conditions. When someone sneezes we all go diving into our bags for various pills, salves, and tissues. We are a walking pharmacy. Even though my roommate has a pretty nasty case of the flu, I have heroically managed to stay healthy… until now.

Today started off with a bumpy van ride to Pashupati temple. Behind the temple, the Bagmati River winds through sacred cremation grounds. It was there that we visited a hospice and saw the light exiting an old man’s eyes. The attendant said it was t.b., but then she corrected herself and said it was cancer. I held my breath the entire time regardless. Outside of the hospice, the bodies of the recently deceased were laid out on ramps by the river bank and lowered down so that their feet were washed by the rushing water. Then, in the presence of family, offerings were made of flowers, coins, and milk. The river is said to flow to the spirit world. When the cremation fire was lit, a woman in mourning let out a wail that made my skin prickle and move. As soon as the sound subsided, a monsoon began to blow in. Wind and rain mixed with tears as we darted back to the van.

It’s hard to have a normal day after a morning like that. I went back to the hotel to check on sick roommate and get ready for our next outing. We were going to see an Ayurvedic doctor and I was so excited that my stomach was fluttering and I could barely touch my lunch.

We walked through trash and mud to get to the clinic, but the doctor’s courtyard was a well manicured garden of various herbs that I have never seen before. The office was a small room with a few old chairs and couches. The doctor was a serious and unassuming man. He asked us to sit while he brought out some scrolls containing the traditional teachings of Ayurveda. I sat up and leaned in, eager to learn his secrets. That’s when I noticed how hot the office was.

It was so clammy in there. So stagnant. I removed my scarf. I checked to see if anyone else was dripping sweat, but they all seemed focused on deciphering the doctor’s think accent. I fanned myself. He was talking about blood and placenta. I dabbed my face with a paper towel. My head started to vibrate and hum. I was convinced that I was coming down with the ‘roommate flu’ and started to panic. I began looking around for something to puke in, should the need arise. I had pretty much decided on the vase in the corner when it dawned on me that I could just leave. I mumbled to my classmates that I felt lousy and needed to get back to the hotel. They looked horrified. The doctor kept on lecturing. Our guide, Sakar, ushered me out to the street and caught me a rickshaw. He told the driver where to go and let him know, in Nepalese, that I was sick. I owe him one.

As soon as the rickshaw started moving, the sky opened up and began dumping buckets of rain on us. For some reason, probably dramatic effect, I couldn’t will myself to dig in my bag for an umbrella. I convinced myself that the rain would make me feel better. The rickshaw driver made it up to the street that my hotel is on and slowed down. I took this to mean that he was through, so I chucked some money at him and jumped off into a huge puddle. I began to sort of half jog/ half limp down the street and the driver pulled up behind me and began screaming at me in Nepalese. He had the biggest “are you FREAKING NUTS!?” look on his face that I have ever seen. Apparently, he had planned to pull all the way up to the lobby. He insisted that I get back on the rickshaw for the last 100 feet. I argued that I was already drenched, but he either didn’t understand or didn’t care. I climbed back in for all of 10 seconds. The shop owners across the street were cracking up.

When I got up to my room, roommate looked at me with a glazed over expression. I told her I was back early due to illness and she groaned at me in sympathy. I stripped off the sticky salwar I was wearing, turned the shower on cold, and feebly climbed in. I felt revived. By the time I had finished washing, I started to think about how I had already gotten a flu shot. I was probably feeling lousy for other reasons. When I made it to my bed, it dawned on me that I was most likely suffering from a combination of low blood sugar, a bit of exhaustion, and a mild tummy bug. Being horizontal seemed to me the best thing in the world. I ate a packet of Smarties and some crackers and washed it down with a gulp of Pepto. Relief came instantly.

Lesson: Panicking about getting the flu feels a lot like getting the flu.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Biomedicine in Nepal?

While we walked around the grounds of Swyambhu stupa, my back felt tense and achy; I suspect it was caused by the shoulder bag which I insist on schlepping around everywhere we go. We came across a merchant selling a hodgepodge collection of prayer wheels, metal Buddhas and medicine bowls of numerous sizes. He invited us in his shop for a demonstration of the healing powers of these bowls (which appeared rather mundane to me). With my mind on my aches and pains, I decided to volunteer.

I am a Pre-Med student at UAB majoring in molecular biology. I am fascinated by the study of medicine. In other words, I stood by the Medicine-Bowl Man (MBM) and thought: Bowls that can relieve pain? Yeah, right. Everything from my courses of study to my shadowing experience to my undergraduate research position implores me to think in terms of the biomedical model: when the body is "malfunctioning" there is a biological cause. Therefore, there must be a biological solution. Usually this "solution" is a drug. For instance, if the muscles in my back are aching, then I should take ibuprofin. Needless to say, I was skeptical of MBM's methods.

In response to MBM's request, I straightened, put my hands to my side, and cleared my mind. He placed the rim of the bowl close to, but not touching, my forehead. I closed my eyes. With a small wooden mallet, MBM hit the bowl with a loud gong. Vibrations emanated from the bowl and pulsated through me; it felt invigorating and relaxing at the same time. My muscles felt stimulated and, strangely, I felt warm. I wavered, caught off guard by my body's reaction to the vibrations, but then quickly caught myself. MBM moved the bowl down to my chest, stomach, feet, and back again. MBM placed the bowl on the bottom of my chin, and I suddenly felt a surge of energy rocket through me.

I exited MBM's shop with my pain diminished, but not quite relieved. I knew it wouldn't work, a part of me said. But after a few minutes of walking around the stupa, my pain was completely gone. Once I realized this, I instinctively racked my brain, trying to find a biological explanation for this phenomenon. But perhaps there was no biological explanation.

I was then that I truly began to appreciate the powers of traditional medicine. Unlike biomedicine, traditional and folk healing practices usually combine the notions of body and spirit. In Nepal, traditional medicine is intertwined with and based upon the religions which its practictioners follow (mostly Buddhism and Hinduism). To some healers, the practice of medicine is a form of worship.

Western medicine has effectively separated medicine from religion; this is probably a manifestation of the way in which Westerners segment every aspect of their lives. They lead separate lives when in the workplace and in the home. They make use of one drug for their headache, another for their skin, and yet another for their heartburn.

After my experiences as both a volunteer for and a patient of UAB Hospital, I realized that the only times when modern medicine and religion in this institution intersect is (a) when nurses ask a patient what their religious affiliation is when they are admitted to the hospital, and (b) when a patient stumbles across a small, plain chapel which can accommodate any religious identity. A volunteer or an employee of the hospital cannot mention any religious matters until a patient mentions it first. The fact of the matter is, religion is rarely acknowledged in a public hospital, let alone utilized as the foundation of its healing practices.

It is biomedicine's separation of religion and healing that would make most Nepalese unreceptive towards it. An individual cannot walk even a few blocks through Kathmandu without stumbling upon a Hindu shrine, a replica of Swyambhu, or a Buddhist bahal. Religion is intertwined within every aspect of Nepalese life; it permeates the lives of families, is the subject of the merchandise which merchants sell, and influences the practice of traditional medicine. Without religion, the lives of the Nepalese would be drastically altered. Traditional Nepali medicine would have no meaning without the religions which influence it. Perhaps the best illustration of this deep connection between religion and medicine in Nepal is a sign that I saw during our trip today.

Buddha Dental Shop

The beginning

The past few days have been a sweaty, hectic, blur of airports, rickshaws, and temples, but I have somehow earned an afternoon off to process the massive amounts of information that have been thrown at me. There is just not enough time to do justice to all of the amazing things I have seen, so here is a quick recap of the first, and most chaotic, 24 hours of our journey:

The plane ride was about 21 hours long not including connections. We had a 6 hour layover in Bahrain where I fell asleep sitting up in a chair. When I awoke, a kid was taking a picture of me. I hope that doesn't find its way on the internet. Bahrain was strange. I felt oddly dressed in jeans and a tee shirt. That's the first time I can remember feeling that way. By the time we got to Nepal the sun was rising for the second time in under 20 hours and we could see Mt. Everest out the window of the plane. After landing, we lurched off the plane like zombies and made it to the hotel for a nap.

We took a walking tour of the city that evening. It was not an easy task while jet-lagged. Walking in Kathmandu is like running in swim fins. There are rickshaws, beggars, bicycles, mopeds, and huge trucks all trying to get some place really fast with absolutely no traffic signs. There are potholes everywhere and random steps that lead to nowhere. Everyone is selling things. It smells like incense, street food, and dung. Drivers speed down the narrow streets, inches from your elbows, honking their horns or whistling if they are on bikes. The tourists stick out with their visible distress while small, local children bob and weave through the crowds with ease. I felt clumsy and inebriated.

After our walk we went out to a traditional Nepali restaurant with music and dancing. I was so famished from the plane ride that I snarfed down a full 5 course meal. The Nepalese seem to take great pride in their ability to fill up a plate. After downing the massive meal, vainly attempting to refuse second and third helpings while they shoveled it on my plate, I was pulled from my seat by the dancers and taken on stage to join in some traditional Nepali dancing. The combination of the heavy meal, lack of air conditioning, dancing, and 30+ hours without sleep, put me in a trance on the walk back to the hotel. The humble, aged mattress was the most comfortable thing I had ever laid down on. I passed out into a deep, contented sleep.