Meg Noble Peterson

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

IT’S OFF WE GO THROUGH BACK ROADS, SMALL TOWNS, AND SILENT FORESTS TO SUJA

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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1 Comment

  1. Ann Norris

    Safe travels, my friend. Maybe I’ll see you in July. Love ya! Ann

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