Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia


I interrupt my recounting of our trek in Nepal last December with breaking news….I’m headed for Mongolia on July 3rd! People keep asking me, “Why are you going to Mongolia?” Just open a history book and start reading the fascinating rise of Chingghis Khaan (or as we say, Genghis Khan), the 12th century founder of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history. Some call him the most brutal ruler in history and others call him The Lawgiver. Certainly he was a man of action, uniting numerous tribes and conquering everyone in sight. Then move on to the exploits of his grandson, Kublai Khan, the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. You won’t know where to stop!

I have been fascinated with the recent history of this faraway country, which has evolved into a present-day democracy sandwiched between China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. It has been said that over the past 2000 years, there is possibly no other place on the planet that has exported as much history as Mongolia. And now, at hardly more than three million people it has retained its peaceful nomadic culture twenty years after the Russian occupation, juxtaposed with a new technological insurgence in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. And it is determined to take charge of the development of its own rich resources. All this helped along with a 98% literacy rate and a reputation for unsurpassed hospitality. Pretty amazing.

Four years ago I heard about Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu from my friend, Terri Pedone. They had met while birding at Hawk Mt., PA., on the Kittatinny Ridge, a great migratory path for the raptor birds. She raved about this young man, a superb ornithologist, and put me in touch with him. After several efforts at planning a trip to  the mountains, lakes, and wide-open spaces of this beautiful country, we finally put a trip together. Joining us is another dear friend, Tamara Blesh, whom I met at the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamsala, India, in March, 2007. She’s a librarian from Maine and introduced me to teachers in Ladakh at the various schools to whom she delivers books every year.

I look forward to relating a most unusual trip, spent camping or living in Gers along the way as we explore Mongolia by jeep, camel, and horse…with a little swimming and hiking for good measure. And don’t forget the eagle hunts and racing during the Naadam Festival. We will be starting in Ulaan Baatar and traveling west to the Altai Mountains and Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We are forgoing the Gobi Desert (too hot!) but instead will be going to the Great Mongolian sand dunes. Stay tuned….

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December 13, 2016

It was a strenuous slog to the monastery which, though there were a few monks,  was primarily a nunnery for Anis (nuns) in retreat. We traversed a dusty, circuitous road that was both rutted and wet, rocky and steep. The landscape was filled with fields of barley, metal poles where kiwi fruit is grown, and dry winter wetlands  with watercress still growing.

Looking back on Junbesi, our guesthouse is the building with the red roof in the center left, and the house that Jwalant helped build is above the town in the upper left with the green roof.

Along the way:

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We arrived at the monastery at noon and went into the large temple where low chanting was taking place.

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It was a perfect time to arrive, since lunch was about to be served. We were led to some cushions lining one wall of the elaborate main temple roof and offered lunch as well. What an unexpected treat! After the chanting , the Anis (all with shaved heads and beautiful, sunny faces), took out plastic bags and various-sized bowls. They were served by nuns going up and down the aisles with enormous containers of food.

Before serving the rice, a large panful was put on the altar. Then the Anis ladled the rice into their plastic bags and the dal, veggies, and yogurt into their bowls. Each Ani had one small spoon for eating. Our food, however, was served on metal plates. Everyone ate in silence, making small balls of rice and dipping them into the other food. And all the while the Anis were smiling and gesturing at us in welcoming fashion. It was a lovely experience.

After we had finished eating, cleaners came by, sweeping and mopping the floor between the rows of mats. Then the Anis arose, quietly, filed out, and went about their various activities while we went to the altar to receive strings and necklaces that had been blessed by the Anis.

We made our way around the monastery and down the stone steps. I climbed more steps on this day than in my entire lifetime…or so it seemed. Until I had reached the bottom of the many-tiered monastery I had not realized how steep the climb up had been! I got a kick out of the animals, especially a couple of massive cows, trying to negotiate the steps, as they worked their way to the small patches of grass and garden tucked away on each terrace.

Halfway down we came upon an open field and stopped for tea at what looked like a greenhouse. There were colorful tables filling the room, and benches covered with rugs. The floor was packed dirt, which the owner sprinkled with water to eliminate any dust….an interesting touch. A woman was sitting outside in the sunshine, weaving bamboo baskets. It was a quiet, reflective time.

I was glad when we branched out onto a short cut, which I wish we’d used on the way up. It was a winding, rocky trail and went over a roiling creek by way of several wooden bridges.

The woodland trail ended at the longest mani wall I’d ever seen, not far from the house Jwalant, our trek director, and his friends built for a family whose previous home had been destroyed in the earthquake.

New home for a family

Continuing on to Junbesi, we passed monasteries with brightly painted windows, in various states of repair and disrepair after the earthquake.

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, we decided to hike up the steep hill above the guesthouse to see the other house that Jwalant had helped build for a family who had lost their home in the earthquake. We had a lovely cup of tea with the Mom and her daughter, and Buddhi and Cittra before heading back home.

That night after dinner we talked with another new friend—an Englishman, Maurice Possner. We covered Brexit and Trump, as well as the financial problems in India. Then we started relating our extensive Nepali adventures. Like him, one of our favorite places was Langtang, so we compared notes and realized that we had both been through the charming little town shortly before it was obliterated in the 2015 earthquake. It’s still hard to believe that 600 villagers and 250 trekkers perished in a matter of minutes. Maurice has been back and told us that those who were away at the time of the disaster have returned and are looking to the future and rebuilding higher up. My, I do love this country and its people. They have such courage.

I lay in my bed, a colorful Tibetan curtain behind me, and looked at the same full moon as last night. The events of the day played in my mind. I cannot do justice to the feelings I have as I struggle up the trail each day. I feel so alive and so aware of the natural beauty all around me. And so at peace….


December 12, 2016

The next morning we said farewell to our beautiful hostess and started an intense seven-hour trek to Junbesi. Well, for me it was seven hours… the guidebook time is 3-4 hours, but remember you need to add an hour per decade above 50 years.

Not too long after we left, we crossed a high bridge over a river with spectacularly painted enormous mani stones below, which Lhakpa had told us her family had painted.

We climbed for several hours over trails with scary exposure, deep valleys, icy patches, and steep inclines, where you had to be vigilant every moment.

By midday we had reached a great restaurant recommended by a German couple we had met in Ringmu, The Everest View Lodge at Beni 7, Phurtvang.

There we enjoyed an exquisite curry made from fresh orange squash that looked like pumpkin, and had been picked right out of the garden. It was served by a peripatetic cook, who seemed to be on roller skates as he flew form one task to the next, with three pots going on the open stove.

We chatted with a father and son from Huntington, Long Island. They, like us, were trying to stay off the subject of our recent election, but that wasn’t to be. We would meet them several times down the trail as they forged ahead.

A range of snow-capped mountains followed us all day. Over on the left was Everest, but, as usual, it was so far away that it looked smaller than the rest.

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We knew we were getting close to Junbesi when the road reappeared, and we saw construction work. Chutes for the river water were being built to generate hydroelectricity, and it was definitely tearing up the river and its banks.

Junbesi had been hit hard by the earthquake, which had mostly spared the areas we had been in the previous days. The stupa in the center of town was destroyed, as well as the school. Both were being rebuilt.

It was dinnertime by the time we reached our guesthouse in Jumbesi and I was all excited about writing up my feelings and observations after what, to me, was the best hiking day ever…when in walked Victor, a charming Norwegian gentleman. Two hours later we were still talking. I was struck by something he said that has been true of my travels for the last thirty years. It’s the people you meet along the way that add meaning and depth to the trekking experience. I always had this feeling during my earlier days when I was traveling alone with no contact with the outside world, whatsoever, and had the choice to write about the day’s excursion or interact with those with whom I came in contact. I usually chose the latter.

Something else also struck me during the next six days. This was the first time in all my trekking that I had encountered so many men traveling alone, most of them coming from Lukla and heading for Jiri. They were middle-aged, fit, and many returned every year to be alone in nature, get off the hamster wheel of their busy lives, and recharge their batteries to go back to “the world of restless men.” We met at last eight such men, some in the guesthouses and others on the trail. One fellow said he always starts around ten in the morning, after everyone else has left, and walks until dusk. If he can’t find a place to stay, he simply pitches his small tent in the woods for the night. These are men who love solitude and love being immersed in the wild.

Just before bedtime we were treated to a full moon over the mountains. No wonder we’re all a bit hyper. And I thought it was the clear mountain air!



                                                                                                    December 11, 2016

Although we were headed to Junbesi, we decided to take a day hike in the other direction towards Lukla and go up the mountain to Takshindu with its beautiful views.

By the time we arose the next morning, the temperature in our room had dropped to 41 degrees. We had a delicious breakfast–a veggie/cheese omelet made with the family’s nak cheese–and Lhakpa explained that she used the term nak cheese, since nak is the female yak responsible for the milk. Her family cheese factory, for which the guesthouse is named, is a six-hour trek from Ringmu, because that is the altitude suitable for the naks. Can you imagine such a commute? But there were several family members in the area, who all worked together in the cheese business, as well as providing wood and bricks for the new houses in the Khumbu, so the burden was shared. A very enterprising, closely-knit family.

By the time we started on our day trip it was warm and sunny once more, but our initial uphill climb was treacherous due to lingering ice covering the rocks and cracks in the trail. We noticed a number of roofs being reconstructed, using tin to replace the cedar shingles. The metal roofs are more expensive, but last a lot longer and do not necessitate the cutting down of so many trees. The blue tin roofs were a lovely accent to the white houses with their windows of bright blue trim. Farther up, Sherpa Buddhist monks were replacing an old prayer pole with a new, taller one.

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After a long and peaceful climb up the mountain, we approached the top and crossed the road used by the noisy, heavy tractors to pull supplies to Takshindu, a major transportation hub. There the road ends and donkeys are used to transport the supplies, such as rice and sugar, on to Lukla.

When we arrived at lunchtime there were dozens of donkeys and mules milling around and waiting to be outfitted for the climb to the higher elevations. Buddhi told us that two thousand of these animals are used every year to pack in supplies.

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After a lunch of garlic soup and egg veggie-fried rice, we wandered over to the magnificent view point.

We said goodbye to the donkeys about to head off with heavy loads to Lukla, and headed back down to Ringmu.

On the trail back, carved out between high embankments made by the monsoons and winding its way through a forest of cedar, rhododendron, and deciduous trees, we met a doctor and his family. They were headed for Lukla to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the hospital established by Sir Edmund Hillary. The family included six and eight-year old grandchildren. How well I remember visiting that hospital in 1987.

In the late afternoon we arrived in Ringmu to be greeted by Lhakpa and treated to a sumptuous dinner of Sherpa stew and an evening of jollity in front of the blazing stove.

An uncle came to visit

As the evening went on we all took turns sitting on the bench by the fire, telling stories, and savoring the sunset as it slowly set behind the watchful Himalayas.


                                                                                             December 10, 2016

That was my motto for the next week as we trekked in the wilderness that is the Solukhumbu, one of the Eastern-most districts of Nepal. Yes, it was great to be in the Everest region and away from so much of the recent tourism flooding into the Himalayas. I had not pictured it as so pastoral and quiet, but we were at the end of the trekking season and going in the opposite direction, away from Lukla and the Everest trek, and toward Jiri.

Cittra all loaded up and ready to go!

We headed out from Phaplu accompanied by the occasional sounds of planes flying from Phaplu to Everest. You can see the airport in the distance beyond the prayer flags. This has completely changed the transportation in the region.

Where thousands of porters used to make the trek to Lukla, these days only a few do. The trail from Phaplu to Ringmu is now mostly a road, and seemed to be either dusty or muddy, with the occasional tractor creating more dust or mud.

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We were so delighted when we went off the road onto a trail in the countryside!

Here is a video Cary took on her iPhone… the music was playing in the fields!

During that first day I was amazed at how many new, and large, houses there were, with lush farms nearby, mostly terraced.

I was also surprised at the amount of tree-cutting, which Buddhi, our guide, said was on the rise due to the lucrative business of selling boards to the Everest region, where hotels and guesthouses are proliferating. The boards were airlifted there by helicopter! What a difference from my base camp experience in 1987, when there were only a handful of primitive lodges at the base of Kala Pattar. Not the luxury hotels of recent years. Mine was a real wilderness experience.

The milled wood was stacked in big piles that were then airlifted by helicopter to Lukla… a hazardous journey! In the distance in the mountain view is the helicopter on with its load – impossible to see!


Helicopter with load of lumber swaying below.


Here are some scenes along the way

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After ten kilometers of a steady uphill, we reached the Numbur View Cheese Factory Lodge and Restaurant in Ringmu. Embarrassing as it was, Chittra beat us by two hours! When we arrived, we were treated, immediately, to our favorite garlic soup. Buddhi always spearheaded the making of the soup for he is convinced that it staves off altitude sickness. And so are we!

For two days we stayed in this delightful lodge, run by Lhakpa Sherpa, a beautiful young woman and a fabulous cook. Her husband is a trekking guide on Everest, so she holds down the fort during his absence and cares for their adorable four-month old baby, Kunsang…fat-cheeked, sunny, responsive, and good-natured. What a great time I had “talking,” singing, and playing with him.

Our simple sleeping room was quite chilly, but, fortunately, we all ate together (dal bhat, what else?) in the kitchen kept warm by the earthen stoves fed by shoving sticks of wood into a floor-level opening in the front. We all took turns keeping it “fed.”

Getting ready for bed in the mountains is often quite challenging! First you visit a separate toilet, then move to the adjoining shower to wash your face. Then you can choose any number of places to brush teeth, including the outdoors, if you want to brave the freezing temperatures. But I loved the silence and the peace that surrounded us, and I slept long and well.


It’s a given that being a Gemini is a heavy cross to bear, but when the number hits eighty-nine you start to take stock big time. You receive a plethora of funny cards warning that “the warranty on your life has expired,” or “don’t worry, it’s only a number” or, “hell, you could be ninety, so stop complaining and consider the alternative.” At least by this time I am completely honest…I don’t subtract a year and I certainly don’t add one. It is what it is! And, believe me, I count my blessings, which are many.

We had a magnificent cake from CJ&Y Decadent Desserts, the women who bought JW Desserts. But Mr JW Desserts himself–John Auburn (now of Whidbey Island Bagel Factory fame)–came and gave me a birthday present of a ride on his motorcycle!

Time for a new lifestyle!

It was fun to be joined at the head table by such friends as Irene Christofferson (96!) and Loretta Wilson (a mere 86), along with little ones coming up on six-years-old. So enjoyed the evening with friends at Talking Circle and the hilarious birthday limericks. I couldn’t resist another ride on the zipline! You should try it some day….

Fun on the zipline!

I can’t get enough of all the flowering plants, trees and rhodies that bloom around the time of my birthday.

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Look at the beauty of Whidbey in June as seen from Meerkerk Gardens.


On December 5th we headed for the small airport in Kangra, two hours from Suja, where we boarded a plane instead of taking our usual long taxi ride back to Delhi. I have to admit that it was a lot more comfortable and afforded us quality time to chat with a new-found friend, an anthropologist and her extended family, as we waited four hours for the plane to arrive. Patience is a virtue I am finding indispensable when traveling in Asia. “On time” is not finite. It can mean most anything!

I never tire of the classy new Delhi airport and its elephants who greet us:

Our adventure in Delhi with a prepay taxi driver from the airport was classic. Not only did he not know the destination—a very popular hotel close by—but he refused our meager tip, throwing a fit when we wouldn’t reward him half of the entire fare. We should pay for his mistakes? To our surprise he followed us into the hotel lobby, where nobody had any small change due to the monetary crisis. Even fellow Indians seemed appalled by his aggressive behavior. Fortunately, Cary unearthed a fifty rupee note and thrust it into his outstretched palm. With an ‘haruumph’ he stomped away.

At dinner we met a charming gentleman living with his wife in Shanghai. Their plan is to adopt Chinese children and move to Australia. He then told us about the more than fourteen million “ghost children” living in China…second or third children, mostly girls, who were born after the one-child policy was instituted in 1980. These children are not recognized by the government, have no official identity, cannot get an education, cannot legally marry, and cannot get medical services. They live outside the institutions of a regulated society. It is an horrendous problem known to very few people outside the country, but there is extensive information about it on the internet. Yet, until government policy changes, these children will continue to live in the shadows.

The next day we flew out of Delhi, and it turned out to be a sad one for voters, especially women, in the southernmost state of Tamil Nader, whose capital is Chennai. The much-beloved chief minister, Jayalalithaa, died, triggering mass grief and leaving a political power vacuum in southern India. As I’ve written before, there is much interest in politics and political personalities in India. It’s a young democracy full of problems, but it citizens are intensely vocal and active!

Before boarding Jet Airways for Kathmandu, we met the head steward and one of the stewardesses, both from Sikkim, and started chatting. They showed a great deal of interest in the post-earthquake situation in Nepal and our desire to make a contribution, however small. In a gesture of compassion they gave money for one of the schools in Solukhumbu and asked Cary to light butter lamps at the Boudhanath stupa for those who were still suffering. It’s gratifying to see such generosity from total strangers. These new friends also arranged for us to sit on the side of the plane with the best view of the Himalayan range. Is it any wonder that Jet Airways is our favorite airline?

Here are a few shots of the vast display of natural wonder we observed from 30,000 ft.

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How great it was to get back to Kathmandu and be met by Buddhi, our guide, and Ram Hari, both from Crystal Mountain treks. The director, Jwalant, had returned to  the mountains to help deliver supplies for his ongoing school rebuilding projects. The Kathmandu Valley as we evidenced on our drive to Boudha, was in a constant state of repair, from road widening and resurfacing, to shoring up a crumbling infrastructure, to house building. And traffic had resumed its chaotic spider web after the gas shortage of last year had subsided.

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The Shechen Guest House staff greeted us with open arms and we spent the rest of the day and the next checking out the continued construction around the temple, the refurbished stupa, and our favorite shopkeepers. The stupa had just been consecrated after a year and a half of restoration, and it was magnificent.

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At dusk we walked kora and delighted in the variety of faces and native dress of the people walking alongside us, fingering their malas and murmering their chants. Cary lit butter lamps for the Jet Airways flight attendents, and for many friends who requested prayers from the Boudha stupa.

As we left, the colored lights, strung all around the stupa, had come on and a half-moon hung in the night sky.

I’m glad to relate that, finally, I’m getting used to the roaring motorcycles outside the stupa grounds. I just keep walking slowly and let them dodge me. I’ve been lucky so far! It’s hard, at time, to keep your cool, but easier than trying to second-guess the drivers.

Early the next morning, December 8th, we headed for Phaplu, a ten-hour jeep ride over roads ranging from marvelous (built by the Japanese, and similar to the fly-overs outside Delhi, built by the Chinese)…

…to horrendous (result of monsoons, landslides, and the 2015 earthquake), with a superb driver who seemed clairvoyant as he wound around the narrow mountain roads, unable to see who was coming, but squeaking by buses and maneuvering sans guardrails to keep us from diving over a cliff. I tend to be dramatic, but so would you…had you been sitting in the front seat!

There were times when the road was washed out and we simply went through streams onto higher ground. There were also those drivers not so skilled, who found themselves stuck in the river. Here are some photos of our journey as it unfolded.


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As we made our way into the hills we beheld a panorama of the world’s most famous Himalayan peaks. This is the first time since my Everest Base Camp trek in 1987 that I saw Everest, Lhotse, and the Nuptse Ridge all lined up. It was thrilling! White, crisp, clear with piercing blue skies.

Nearing our destination, we were treated to another array of stunning mountains, Numbur Mt. being the most outstanding. It seemed to follow us for the next few days.

At 6 PM we arrived in Phaplu in the Solukhumbu region, and stayed at The Everest Hotel.

Our traveling companion was a young woman, Passang, who had come to fill out the necessary documents for a student visa to study in the U.S. She was hoping to receive a scholarship to Knox college in Illinois. Passang spoke excellent English and had a knowledge of government and history not unlike so many other young people we’d met in Nepal and India. She also knew a lot about our election and was concerned about our new president and his impact on the world stage. She wondered, also, how she would be accepted in the United States, as a foreigner.

Tomorrow our trek would begin. But tonight it’s a hearty meal and a very comfortable bed!


Before I get back to my adventure last December in Nepal, let me interrupt the story for an important symbolic cry from fellow citizens to call attention to this serious threat to our planet. I think it’s important, and part of our duty as citizens in this time of turmoil, to point out moments of effective citizen action and ways we can speak up for change.

Science is being discounted and industrial profits are riding the wave, while our new president seems bent on upending the Paris accords and eight years of struggle to prevent, or at least slow, the destruction of the planet. Forget people, forget wildlife, forget native habitat. Short-term profit is god.

After all that’s been written about the danger to us and future generations, starting way back with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, to scientists like Neil Degrasse Tyson, to Obama’s fight to lower greenhouse gases and find alternative energy sources, you’d think our politicians would have gotten the message. Seems not to be so, hard as that is to believe. As a result, and in an attempt to dramatize the danger, concerned citizens and scientists are marching, shouting, and taking action. Whidbey Island is no different.

Here in Langley we gathered an enthusiastic and dedicated crowd of people, who marched through town on April 29th, adding our numbers to millions of concerned Americans around the country. The message is loud and clear!

My favorite placard was this:

followed by the one I inadvertently walked off with, thinking it was up for grabs. The owner dashed after me and informed me otherwise.  My upcoming birthday and the message seemed both satirical and humorous.

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Cheryl and Steve

And, I might add with a hint of nostalgia, sunny. If you are from the Northwest, ten days of sun, no matter how high the snow, is a treat that lifts the heart and soothes the soul. New York City was like Christmas on the first day of spring. I treated myself to endless theater, one opera at the Met (Fidelio), and visits with as many friends as were available, from Cheryl Galante at whose elegant Maplewood home I crashed at the beginning and the end of my trip, to James Wilson, whose third floor walkup in Greenwich Village kept me in shape for more Himalayan adventures. Then there was Fidelio at the Metropolitan opera, where my niece, Margaret Magill, plays in the orchestra, an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art preceded by an extensive walk through Central Park, and theater with Phyllis Bitow, Terri Pedone, Paul Sharar, Barry Hamilton, Grandson Adam Bixler and his lovely girlfriend, Allie Francis, and, on my last day, lunch with Gary Shippy and dinner with Allie’s vivacious and interesting family.

Wearing heavy hiking boots and a down jacket to the theater is a first for me, but everybody else was doing it, so I fit right in! Some theater highlights include the new musicals, A Bronx Tale, starring the outstanding Nick Cordero, Ground Hog Day, with its crazy sets, frantic action, and pyrotechnics, War Paint, with Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole bringing down the house, and Spamilton, an hilarious takeoff on the writing of Hamilton that left us laughing for hours and fit in with the city-wide celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. I had heard about this spoof from my friend, Judy Wyman Kelly, who had one of the actors, Juwan Crawley, in class. What fun we had!

Juwan Crawley and me

The Present, the first play of the young Anton Chekov, starring the inimitable Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh (a Sydney Theater company production), The Man From Nebraska, a rather subdued piece from Tracey Letts, C.S. Lewis, the Reluctant Convert, Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, with a sardonic Kate Burton and a droll Kevin Kline, and The Glass Menagerie, with Sally Field and Joe Mantello completed my theater experience for the time being, but there’s always next year….

Unfortunately, because of the delay in my flight due to the big snow storm, I missed several other close friends, including my buddies from the Plainfield Symphony, but I’ll be back. You can’t keep a theater addict away from NYC for long.

Here are a few shots of Central Park in the snow and our visit to the Seurat exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. You’ll recognize the landmarks and the paintings.

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In the museum, we saw a Seurat exhibit, and many other paintings from the French Impressionist era were on display. Everyone you go are beautiful statues and artifacts. Here is just a sampling.

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On the way to the theater we walked through the park again.


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I can’t resist a couple of photos of Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera at dusk, and me with the chandeliers I love so much! Click on photo to start slideshow.

I also can’t resist a few backyard shots of Maplewood. You’ve gathered by now that I love the snow!

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As we descended through the clouds on our approach to Seattle, what should await me but a splendid rainbow. This is what makes all that rain palatable! It was good to get home to peaceful Langley.

Happily, through the raindrops, I was greeted by a few signs of spring, plus a mystical stroll on the shores of Puget Sound, just a five-minute walk from my home. Ain’t it wonderful?

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Dusk on Puget Sound…

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Ashwani squired us once more through the labyrinthian back country to our first stop, another TCV school in the town of Gopalpur, where we visited Tashi Lobsang, the student sponsored by my close friend in New Jersey, Phyllis Bitow.

He is thriving in this beautiful setting in the forested Himalayan foothills, and gave us an exhaustive tour of the grounds, gardens, and his living quarters. Tashi loves the pristine and immaculate ambiance of his environment, he says, and is throwing himself into his academic work with fervor. We left him as he was going for “self study” in a computer class.

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I was taken by these plaques with various sayings painted on them as reminders of the wisdom of the past from all around the world. Some were in English and some were in Tibetan script. It was a beautiful sight.

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Our final stop before reaching Suja was in Palumpur, a major center for commerce in Himanchal Pradesh. It was bustling, despite many stores and small markets being closed because of the financial demonitization.

Ashwani suggested his favorite eatery, The Joy Family Restaurant. Wow! What a great choice…coffee shop, ice cream parlor, hamburger joint, sweet shop, you-name-it…all rolled into a veritable hole in the wall. It was narrow and brightly decorated, and had been run for forty-seven years by the Narang brothers, uncles of Nmang, a charming young man, who helped steer us through the formidable menu.

Their famous specialty, chat patri, worried me, since it was cold and had yogurt and some uncooked vegetables in it. But Cary put on her brave suit and ate every bit of it…to her delight. My loss.

Later I was told its ingredients: fried wheat puff pastry, potatoes, yogurt, green and red sauce, a type of lentils, sweet and spicy, smooth and crunchy. And served cold. The rest of the food was a bit spicy for me, but I indulged in some of the best Indian sweets of my long life. If you’re ever in Palumpur, don’t leave without paying the Narang brothers a visit. Ashwani knows them well, also, because he buys their ice cream for his shop in Bir!

By 3 PM we had arrived at the Suja TCV school, another favorite home away from home. The new sponsorship secretary, Tenpal, was expecting us, and we spent the rest of the evening on a sentimental exploration of the campus, noticing many changes and improvements. As always, the children greeted us warmly.

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We stayed in our usual room, and were treated to colorful sunsets every evening. What a welcome!

The next two days were varied and full of emotion. I missed so many old friends…students as well as teachers whom Cary and I have known and loved over the years. It almost seemed like the end of an era. People graduate, move away, start their lives anew in far away places, and relocate, as several of the teachers have, in other countries. Also, the population of the school has shifted radically over the past few years since the Chinese no longer allow children to leave Tibet, so the school enrollment is down. Even though there are students from the Buddhist enclaves in Ladakh and the Yolmo in Nepal, it’s different. And the offspring of the original group of refugee children are starting to attend, but they have immeasurably more resources and, thus, advantages over those who fled across the border on their own. Nor do they have the same feeling for Tibet as their homeland, for they have never been there. Yes, life is impermanent and we have to adjust to changes in whatever form they take. And educating the children is so vital and important, no matter where they call home.

There are still two students at Suja who have Whidbey Island sponsors that we wanted to visit. As we wound our way through the living quarters we could see that it was washday.

Tsering Phuntsok is now class 10 and in the boy’s hostel. We hadn’t seen him in a couple years and he has grow from a child to a young man in that time.

Lhakpa Dolma is a little younger, and becoming much more confident and less shy than in our previous visits.

Her dorm was next to the girl’s covered basketball court. She shares her simple and cheerful room with over 25 other students.

Cary had fun sharing highlights from a Seahawks game with Tsering and Lhakpa. Tsering’s sponsor had given him a Seahawks hat (foreground) and she was explaining just who they were. Neither had ever seen football before, so it was fun to watch.

In between visits with the students, we visited the town of Bir, heading down the familiar path, enjoying the warm sun as we walked through the yellow fields of winter wheat, over a bubbling brook, and past brightly painted homes where livestock stood tethered and small gardens flourished.

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Ah, but so much had changed. No longer was my favorite café, Buckstars, open, and the lovely monk who ran it when he wasn’t painting sand mandalas had gone back to Sikkim. And our dear friend, Sonam Hara, who was the director of the Tibetan Primary Health Care Centre, was now living in Canada, and his wife, Tsering Somo, had resigned from teaching at Suja and was leaving to join him.

Of course, we had to search for an alternative place to buy the superb Indian cappuccino, and we found a small outdoor restaurant way on the edge of town where we indulged.

We were so happy to see Tsering Somo again before she leaves for Canada. We shared lunch at a different Joy Cafe (that we can also recommend!) in Bir. Even a revered teacher is not immune to the hypnotic power of the cell phone!

Before leaving, we took a casual stroll around town, stopping in Ashwani’s store to reimburse him for the 10,000 rupees he had loaned us upon our arrival in India, and buying papaya from the smiling lady who is our favorite fruit vendor.

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It was with mixed feelings of joy for Tsering’s opportunity to be reunited with her husband and sadness for the end of an era at TCV Suja and our social life in Bir that we strolled back through the fields to the school.

The countryside outside the school is very peaceful and pastoral, unlike any other place I’d been in India, and so we took a long stroll down a country road, past some small shops and through a small Indian village. The houses were large, brightly colored, and interesting, with balconies or shingled slate roofs. Some were new and grand and others more of a farmhouse. Animals were tethered in front, usually, and mounds of hay adorned the fields. Women in colorful saris greeted us. And children clustered around, wanting photographs. The boys played cricket in a large field by the river. We felt very welcomed and very much at home.

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Following a sumptuous dinner of veggies, chicken (bones and all) and fruit, we once again spent a quiet evening watching the sunset from our balcony. The dogs seemed to have calmed down for the moment and we were able to enjoy the singing and chanting at the nearby hostel.

I shall be back with a report on our subsequent adventures as we make our way through Delhi and on to Nepal for a visit to Kathmandu, Boudhanath, and Dhulikhel, and for a ten-day trek in the Solukhumbu district of the Himalayas. This will be the first time I’ve been back to that area since 1987. But, first, it’s off to the East Coast to check on friends in New Jersey, and to devour as much as I can of Broadway’s Great White Way. Seems I’ll be flying into a blizzard, which suits me just fine, since I love snow…unless I have to land in Philadelphia. It was March 12 when I wrote this and it was not supposed to snow in the old haunts on my selected weeks. The best laid plans….

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