28 September 2014

A letter from Kalpana


That went quick.

Time passes quickly in Kathmandu. I was there but three days but they were long ones.

I am now back on the Island.





The day starts early in Nepal. In the mountain villages farmers are up and about before the sun rises and in the city there is also a lot of hustle and bustle before dawn.

My brother and I stayed where we normally stay - in Lalitpur. It is is where the Guru Rinpoche resides and it is a casual five-minute stroll from Patan Durba. There are two very nice English filmmakers with us who have come to Nepal with us before.

To film.

Their names are Marcus and Zara.

Patan Durba is one of our favourite Nepalese ancient places. It is a complex of more than fifty temples and the same number of gardens.

Most of the big temples in Patan were built in the early 1600’s but there are a few that have survived more than a thousand years.

They are all spectacular.

They really are.

Patan was built as a palace for a Nepali Prince a thousand years ago and it is constructed around three huge courtyards the Nepalese call ‘Chowks’.  The most spectacular and famous of temples in Patan is the Krishna Mandir. It stands three stories tall on twenty-one golden pillars. It was re-built and added on to by a very visionary King named Siddhinarasimh Malla in 1637. King Malla was a cashed up royal who loved to build temples and monasteries and much of what remains in Patan was done under his rule.

In his lifetime King malla went on a devotional building frenzy.

The Hindu Nepalese teach that one night the King saw two of the major gods - Krishna and Radha - standing in front of a royal palace on an empty piece of land.  The next day he ordered the Krishna Mandir temple to be built on the same spot.

Hinduism is said to arguably be the oldest religion still in existence.

So I have been told.

I wouldn’t argue about it though.

I don’t really know

There are allegedly more than 33 million Hindu gods and goddesses – including all the demi-gods.

They have them for everything.

However Krishna and Radha are very high on the pecking order.

Look it up yourself if you doubt me or just look it up for the crack.

The stories of the Hindu deities are fascinating.

There are thousands of carvings on stone and wooden panels and pillars throughout the three stories of the temple. They are simply breathtaking in their intricacy and artisanship. Monks - who were also seriously talented master craftsmen and artists - did the carvings and it took some decades.

It was their life’s work.

My brother and I love the Krishna Mandir temple for its architectural splendor and its story and the fact that is held so sacred to both Hindu and Buddhist Nepali. It is a serene and peaceful place. Even though it is dedicated to two of the big Hindu deities, the third level was constructed to Lokeshwor – which is the Hindu name for the Lord Buddha.

There is a strange interweaving of the Hindu and Buddhist faith – in India - but moreso in Nepal.

Many temples accommodate both.

Buddhism emerged from Hindu at some point long ago.

The Lord Buddha is recorded as being born in Nepal and dying in India. He was born in a village called Lumbini. There is an ancient and splendid Bodhi tree where Buddha is said to have sat. It is taught that he was born as a full grown child and in the first seven steps that he took lotus flower instantly bloomed.

I find that vision quite beautiful.

The number seven and the lotus flower are important in the Buddhist faith. Lots of numbers are actually significant in Buddhism.

My favourite is six.

There are six Paramitas or Perfections in Buddhism. These are generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation and insight.

Nice huh?

Six also refers to the “Six Realms of Rebirth” which refers to reincarnation and the path to enlightenment - ranging from gods to hell denizens.

The history of the faiths and the teachings of Buddha and many of the stories of the Hindu deities are amazing and blazing and colorful stories.

They are wonderful reading.

I will delve no deeper into them nor discuss them any further here and now though.

Read them yourself.

See them yourself.

I am not fucking Wikipedia.

Suffice to say - when we are in Kathmandu - my brother Richard and I like to walk down to Patan Durba before day breaks. We sit in a small street stall café in the Mul Chowk at a table nestled under cover of a cluster of frangipani trees. The street café is adjacent to the Krishna Mandir temple.

The delicious perfume scent of the flowers hangs heavy in the air.

We drink sweet hot syrupy masala tea bought from the tea dude for a few rupees. He pours the cups for us from a huge battered antique pot and he serves us with great extravagance and class and ceremony.

He pours with flair.

We sip our tea as we hear the clangs of ancient temple bells and monks from one of the monasteries chanting the hypnotic mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”.

We sit there and listen and take in all the serenity and tranquility and pleasantry of the place and the moment until the sun full rises.

Life doesn’t serve up such moments very often and we need to seek them out then snatch them up.

We need to immerse ourselves and relish in them.

It is also not a bad way to start the day.

It is brilliant.

Most of the three days that I was in Kathmandu was spent at the Snowland School. It is the school we support that accommodates children from the very remote Upper Dolpo region of Nepal. The upper Dolpo is one of the most remote places on earth and it borders Tibet in the far west of the Himalaya ranges. Some of villages are very high in the mountains on the border with Tibet and it can take three weeks of hard travel to get down to Kathmandu.

Yes three weeks.

I am serious.

Travel in the upper Dolpo is mostly walking. Steep walking and climbing in some parts. There are no roads. There is no electricity or Internet or much of anything. Little grows in the rocky soil. Opportunity is drowned in the upper Dolpo by the daily struggle just to survive.

The people are sustenance farmers.

Most are refugees from Tibet who were forced to flee for their lives when the Chinese invaded Tibet.

They occupy it still.


A holy lama named Guru Rinpoche - who is the fifth reincarnation of a very revered Buddhist Master - sponsors the Snowland School. He is a healer and a holy man and a now old friend of mine. He set up the Snowland School about twelve years ago solely to provide opportunity through education to the children of the upper Dolpo.

The Guru’s Monastery in the upper Dolpo is in a place called Shey Gompa. Monks carved the Monastery into the side of a mountain more than a thousand years ago and it is very far away from anywhere. Westerners call Shey Gompa the Crystal Mountain. There are a few very old Tibetan Buddhist temples up there.

I haven’t been there yet.

I have only seen pictures and film.

But I will.

Go there.

Guru Rinpoche believes that building more schools up in the upper Dolpo would be ideal as there are so very few at present. However he also believes that until more schools and infrastructure is built - bringing the children of the region to Kathmandu for an education is the best thing to do at the moment. He in fact he believes it is the children of the upper Dolpa’s only hope.

So too do I.

Rinpoche believes he has a spiritual responsibility to provide such an opportunity to the children of the Upper Dolpo.

He is their guru.

They are his people.

The village elders and the parents and the Guru choose these kids - and they come down to the Snowland School when they are five or six years old. Very few return for at least ten years.

Some never return.

For the past couple of years we have sent kids that finish year 10 back to their villages for the three-month break they have when they complete their final exams and before they start year 11.

Ten years away from home.

Can you imagine it?

When they go home, most of the kids have new siblings they have never met. Many have had a parent and many aunts and uncles and cousins that have died. Life is very harsh and mortality rates are high in the Upper Dolpo. Diseases like TB and pneumonia are common.

Yes Tuberculosis. TB. So long ago made preventable though global vaccination but it remains prevalent and deadly in Nepal.

Many communities are so remote that the preventative medicine programs taken for granted in first and even most third world countries simply do not exist.

I am not making any of this up.

It is serious shit and has been publically reported many times.

Google it.

The reunions between Snowland child and their home villages and families are highly emotional and poignant. We have been doing the ‘Going Home’ program for three years now and we have now seen this first hand and have talked to the kids and their families about it. It is a beautiful and harrowing and hopeful story.

We think it is one worth telling and is best seen rather than be just written about.

So we are telling it.

Though film.

Which is why I was in Nepal for such a quick trip. My brother and the English filmmakers were there longer than me and they were in a filming frenzy. They did fifteen or sixteen hours of filming every day with a legion of enthusiastic volunteers holding booms and taking stills and doing other technical stuff.

They loved it.

A couple of the older girls Googled the film dudes Marcus and Zara and discovered they were award winning and famous. Word spread quickly and they were idolized the entire stay.

It was very funny.

A lot of current Snowland kids were interviewed on and off camera - as well as some of the kids who went home to their villages earlier this year. My brother went with six of them. A lot of their stories were told. They were asked what villages they had come from and how far and hard was the journey, and what it was like being back after ten years.

What were their plans for the future?

That sort of stuff.

Some of them were quite shy on camera but others were like any other teenager in the world. They were cheeky and funny and had different personalities.

Some were hysterical.

The filmmakers were helped out by a couple of past Snowland students but mostly by a boy named Gylatsen. He graduated from Snowland three years ago and since went on to get his A levels in year 11 and 12. He passed all the examinations and qualified to study medicine in Kathmandu University a couple of weeks ago and he will be the first doctor to have come from the upper Dolpo region.

We are very proud of him.

I had several formal and informal meetings with the guru Rinpoche. He only speaks a little English and I speak no Nepali but we seem to communicate all right even when we don’t have an interpreter present. Guru is a master of Tummo healing. It is a form of Buddhist meditation breathing force stuff – and literally means ‘inner fire’.

I have had chronic migraine headaches for years and the Guru gave me a couple of treatments of Tummo. It was very painful and intense pressure on my neck and shoulder and the pain has diminished.

I have taken much less of the strong western medicine I usually have to take for the pain since my treatments.

We will see if the pain returns.

There are currently one hundred and thirty six children at the Snowland School ranging in age from seven to seventeen.

They are all brilliant.

Whenever I return to Snowland there are always new children and despite what the majority of people would consider squalor – they are the fortunate ones. Their parents sacrificed them for a crack at an education in what must have been an agonizing decision. Recent returnees told us that despite the joy of reunion with their families and their villages in the mountains there was difficulty in coping with the return home.

A few did not recognise their parents.

Most of the kids who returned had forgotten the mountain dialect that was spoken and all were shocked at the conditions they had been born into. There was no Internet or plumbing or in some instances food in their villages. There was no electricity and no-one bathed or changed clothes for months and they often slept under the same roof with the animals in the winter.

The upper Dolpo was as it has been for the past one thousand years.



Their villages were a long way from anything.

Some of the kids told us they remembered snippets of their very young lives in the village. Aged five or six. Before they went to Snowland. All remembered the very long journey they made when they were little. They told us that they mostly remembered that they were very scared.

They must have been terrified.

The walk home was physically exceptionally difficult for the Year ten kids that went home in April as well. Living in the city had softened all of the Year 10 kids and some suffered altitude sickness on the journey home. A tiny but beautiful girl named Karma told us how she walked for two days through thigh deep snow on the last leg of her journey to her village - and she thought she might have suffered frostbite.

But she didn’t.

Thank goodness.

This is real “Lost Horizons” shit but without the paradise in the hidden valley.

Just a lot of snow and ice where the air is thin and there are clusters of wooden huts in tiny isolated little valleys. The kids told us that dung was burnt as fuel for cooking and heating and the smoke from the fires were heavy acrid.

They told us that the odour hung on them.

One of the boys told us his older brother and his friends laughed at him and hit him with a stick for not being able to keep up the pace when walking between villages.

Most of the kids told us that they could tell that their parents were satisfied with the sacrifice they had made - and they themselves appreciated the lives they had a greater appreciation of Kathmandu after their visit home. They seemed more determined than ever to finish school and go on to university if they could.

The question of pride and the worth of the sacrifice was a difficult one for us to ask of the children  - and I think more difficult and possibly awkward for the kids to answer. “Going Home” was not necessarily a happy story but it was an enlightening one.

For parents and children.

It is something of a learning that the Lord Buddha would have likely approved.

My brother said he saw evidence of enormous pride of the mothers and fathers that he met. The Nepal mountain people are not visibly emotional people but my brother and Sylar said they saw twinkles in a few eyes.

The Dolpo parents saw that their children were educated and well-fed and they had been looked after as promised by the Guru Rinpoche.

Richard thought that the twinkle he saw in the parent’s eye was definitely pride but it was also an acknowledgement and relief that their kids now had an opportunity.

They had a future and a way out.

All the young children from surrounding villages came to visit the Snowland children. They wanted to hear the wondrous tales of life in the faraway city of temples with their guru - and to see for themselves the phones with cameras and the pictures of their lives in the school.

We weren’t really surprised that most of the kids who returned spent time in the home village schools.


They are all good kids who know the importance of learning and teaching.

These village schools are one-room buildings manned by local volunteers to teach very small children the beginnings of reading and writing and the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Beyond the age of six or seven though there are no schools or teachers in the upper Dolpo region.

There are none at all.

Other relatives visited too.

The Snowland kids were paraded.

I left my brother and the filmmakers mostly to it for I know little of such things. I had some good long discussions with the Guru and the teachers and the kids of Snowland and I went with the Lama to look at a potential new facility he is apparently in negotiations to lease or buy. One of Rinpoche’s advisors told me that we had to look at it in secret though for if the owners saw me they would demand more money.

So we went before dawn.

The School has been looking for bigger and better premises for years now – ever since I first met them in fact. The current buildings are falling apart and it is very crowded and has poor sewage and limited water.

I have looked at quite a few other options.

Things move very slowly though in Nepal.

There is a lot of red tape involved.

Things move very slowly indeed.

As is usual I wished I had spent more time with the children for they are the Snowland School and the most precious aspect of the whole program. I love to sit and yack with the older kids who are preparing for exams and are making plans for what they want to do when they grow up. I also love to play with the little ones who have only been away from their villages for a short while.

- And all the ones in between.

They are delightful.

Time flies.

When I leave I bring home beautiful letters and drawings and email addresses which I treasure and display in my home. When my kids were little they both drew lots of pictures and we always stuck them up on walls with blue tack and under colourful little magnets that stuck things to the fridge. I do this with my Nepalese pictures from the kids.

You know what I mean.

Some of the letters I receive are as heart breaking as they are touching. My brother Richard gets them too. On this visit I received a gorgeously coloured and neatly written note from a little girl called Kalpana Budha. She is in year six and is a girl scout and she is eleven years old.

Here it is:

 It says:

For my respected godfather Peter


It is me the student of scout class Kalpana Budha. I really really feel good to see you. You are so kind hearted person I ever met before. Do you know scout. You like scout? I will introduce myself.

My name is Kalpana Budha. I study in class 6. I am the first student in class 6. I have 6 family members including you as my father. My best color is blue. My aim is to be a helpful doctor. But you know in Nepal its very difficult to become doctor because we have to pay many and many money to become doctor but I should try my best for it. I like to read science books. I would ask some questions to you on father?

1.     When is your birthday?
2.     Which is your best colour?
3.     Are you come from Australia and can me give you your email address?
4.     Do you like to visit Nepal?
5.     Do you feel nice to meet me and can you give me your photo?
6.     Do you want to make me your daughter and can you be my father?

I had a very special place for you in my heart

Kalpana Budha J

Nice but sad huh?

There is hope and happiness in Kalpana’s words and the brightness of these children dazzle me.

It really does.

I am about to write back to Kalpana now. I will tell her that to study medicine in Nepal or in neighboring India or Bangladesh she has to study very hard and pass special qualifying examinations but I wont tell her that to medical degree costs about US$30,000 over five years.

That is a lot of money to anyone but it is beyond comprehension to most Nepalese.

According to the World Bank the annual average income is US$780.  

It is however very cheap for a medical degree by world standards though and it is loose change to big international companies and collectives of middle class westerners.

I will tell Kalpana she should try and live her dreams and to look at Gylatsen – a young man from a village not too far from her own. He also dreamed of being a doctor when he was Kalpana’s age – and he has now done the all the hard work and has qualified for medicine and the kindness of others who have plenty will ensure that all his fees are paid.
I will also tell Kalpana as I have told some other kids that I consider myself to be a godfather or uncle to all of the children of the Snowland and my friends and I will help look after her and to get an education so she can do whatever she dreams. I will tell her my son Tom will be back in December and my daughter Charlotte will go to Snowland in the New Year and they are like the like big brothers and sisters to all of the children at Snowland. She will meet for herself all the volunteers my friend Jessie organizes to go over to the school several times a year. There are nearly twenty going over in a few weeks.

I will also tell Kalpana that she has a very special place in my heart too.

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