Living with Tibetan Refugees: Tashi Palkhiel

Posted on February 21, 2011

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(In which we sleep poorly and breakfast with monks.)

-The Last Stop-

This is the third and final installment of our experiences living at Tibetan refugee settlements. I don’t want to overburden the reader, so I’m keeping the writing at a minimum—after two previous Tibetan settlement posts, there’s only so much more a person can handle. Consider this post more of a picture book of Tashi Palkhiel, our last stop.

Aerial view of Tashi Palkhiel from a nearby hillside.

-Day and Night-

Our host family at Tashi Pakhiel knew the drill—they had had foreigners do homestays with them several times before. So they didn’t make such a big deal out of us, and it was nice to go about our business unnoticed; no fusses followed our comings and goings.

Tashi Palkhiel, the biggest settlement camp in Nepal, holds a population of about 1,000. Our host home was a modest concrete structure, much like the others we had stayed in before. We ate in the kitchen and did most of our socializing in the front yard.

One of our hosts playing a traditional Chinese instrument in the front yard.

Lucky, one of the cutest members of our host family.

In the daytime, we roved the settlement, watching pick-up basketball tournaments and hiking out to a nearby monastery.

There were more youth living at Tashi Palkhiel than at the other two settlements we visited.

An all but abandoned carpet factory still held one or two Nepali women weaving away. We never did figure out why there were no Tibetans weaving there, since it was on settlement property.

Monks at the nearby monastery also liked to play basketball.

At night, we prepared for the cold again by bundling up in multiple layers. We were given the bedroom of one of the family’s many bachelor brothers. Sadly, we began our night on a bad foot, and things went from bad to worse: First, we found a cockroach in the bed. Then, we heard cockroaches scurry up the wall throughout the night. The memory of that scrambling sound by my ear still makes me shudder. It may have been one of the most restless nights of sleep I ever had.

The next morning we were up at dawn to hike back to the monastery to watch the monks do their morning prayers. I was relieved when the alarm clock went off. I hurried out of bed and dressed in the dark, glad to be away from the night critters.

-Morning at the Monastery-

The oldest monks participating in morning prayers were in their early twenties.

At around 6:30 a.m. we arrived at the hillside monastery. The monks were already well into their prayers when we entered the puja (ritual) room. Roughly 30 young monks lined two walls, sitting opposite each other. The older monks (around college age) led the chanting in deep baritones. All the others chanted along, some swaying back and forth, some bent over prayer books. This lasted over an hour, with a 15-minute breakfast break.

Everything ran like a well-oiled machine. Praying monks continued their chanting while helper monks distributed hot plates of beans, Tibetan bread, and tea to everyone in the room. There was never the slightest pause in the chanting while breakfast was served. Even Taylor and I were given breakfast, and we got to choose between sugary Nepali tea and salty Tibetan tea (we chose the sugary option). The efficiency felt slightly military, and I was amazed that a group of mostly teenage boys could pull off such duties on a daily basis.

The chanting wound down for breakfast, and we ate in silence in the dim morning light. Then, when the last plate had been cleared away, the chanting resumed. Sometimes the monotone hum of chanting was punctuated by drums and conch horns. By the time the morning prayers were done, the sun had fully risen. As the barefoot monks shuffled out of the prayer room, I caught a strong whiff of feet. They are teenage boys after all.

Very young monks start their school day at the daily morning assembly.

All photos by Taylor Weidman. Visit his blog at Nepal Photographer.