Balinese Beginnings! Community Healing at Puri Damai

Map pictureI left India the day my courses ended on May 3 and headed straight for Indonesia.  I had been planning to go to Bali at this time since last summer to meet up with my class from NYU that would be doing a program the last week of May in “Global Social Entrepreneurship.”  Working in partnership with the Bali Institute for Global Renewal, the NYU class was also offering 2 week ‘internships’ through Udayana, the local university.  I decided to use my free time to come 2 weeks early and do this internship beforehand.

I was ready to leave Auroville when the time came, but already beginning my travels I felt the tinges of culture shock.  I noticed for the first time how truly unsustainable airports were (not to mention air travel at all!), the herds of seemingly mindless people running around, all the crap that was asking me to buy it, the packaged food on planes that terrified me more than ever—I had officially left paradise.  But different from my return from Nepal, these feelings of shock were less emotionally charged; in Auroville I had actually began to understand how these alarming aspects of the world came to be in the first place, and so now I could begin to take steps towards changing them pragmatically as opposed simply being overwhelmed.

Initially, arriving in Bali brought similar feelings. I spent my first two days with a translator from Udayana University navigating Denpasar, the capital and most industrialized city, looking for a place to stay and something productive to do.  I had nothing planned yet and no idea what to expect.  During my first morning at the International Students Office at Udayana, I found myself in a truly bureaucratic academic system  for the first time since leaving last Spring; I was skeptical if I could find here what I was looking for.  But they were very sweet, and after I told them about my studies over the past year they helped me strike Balinese gold!  Saying I was most interested in studying traditional medicine, they only had two words on their lips:  Puri Damai.

“What is Puri Damai?” I asked.

“A traditional Balinese and herbal healer that lives in a village outside of the city in a rice patty.  Many Balinese and some foreigners go to there.  You may be able to stay there and help somehow,” they elaborate.  I felt very hopeful.

So we drove, out of the still disarming urban chaos, into the real Bali: rural landscapes of palm trees and terraced rice fields; the traditional Balinese homes of open compounds with elaborate statues and abundant flowering trees; elderly men in sarongs and women with colorful sashes around their waists carrying platters of fruit and flowers to temples as offerings.  It felt so comforting to see the simple beauty of the real world again.

Balinese HouseTemple Entrance

We turned off the main road and snaked down a winding path through smaller village homes and their temples, turning finally onto a dirt road through a coconut grove and jungle foliage.  We had arrived at Puri Damai.  We found the healing center in the midst of  this secluded oasis and chatted with the family there over some fresh Rosella tea.   Still not knowing where I was, I asked what kind things I would be able to help out with.  With their answer, I discovered that Puri Damai is much more than herbal healers—it is a family-run traditional Balinese healing center with a small kindergarten, neighborhood yoga classes, and a recycled wood-shop, all situated on an organic rice patty and permaculture medicinal plant gardens!  After walking around to see this description in action, I was in love.  At Puri Damai, it felt like I had rekindled my plot of paradise from Auroville.

Herb Garden

From that moment on, I have been stunned to find myself at a place so similar to what I have been studying and dreaming about:  a truly community-centered project in bioregional herbalism working towards integral sustainability. At Puri Damai, 20 neighbors that were jobless have been employed, local children come for school or to play in gardens or swim in the pool, and the sick come from across the street to all over Bali to be healed by their own people and plants.  So, it has been truly inspiring to stay here and volunteer in all their programs the past two weeks.

Puri Damai HouseRice Patty

Healing Center Herbal Center

Dayu and Wayan, the mother and father of the family, are trained healers in herbalism, reflexology, acupressure, bio-energy, and Balinese massage.  They use these skills to do some valuable healing work on their community, all by donation.  In fact, as soon as my translator left me at Puri Damai and I was truly alone in Bali, reality struck.  I was gleefully staring across the rice field when, all of a sudden, a local family came in carrying their 10-year-old-daughter on a car seat with a tumor on her knee the size of a grapefruit!  Dayu invited me into the consultation room to see her work.  Using a special wooden utensil, she prodded a point on the girls foot to which she let out a yell of pain.  Dayu looked at me and said, “this is cancer.”

A few words on cancer I have noticed since being here.  When Dayu later took me around the herb garden saying the names and uses of the plants, almost every single plant was for general or some specific form of cancer.  This made me realize: 1) there really is no ‘traditional’ cure for cancer, but 2) it is a total imbalance of the system which many many herbs can naturally help restore.  Unfortunately, as I saw, an overwhelming number of the local people that come to Puri Damai is for cancer treatment.  Seeing the enormous extent to which the toxic side-effects of our industrial achievements are deteriorating the health of the poorest and most remote people in particular made our Western ‘cancer culture’ of pink ribbons, breast cancer walks, and expensive research grants seem so out of touch.

But all those healthcare criticisms aside, I am happy to say that the best part of being here has been having a rewarding homestay experience!  I am the first foreigner that has ever stayed here, but the family that runs Puri Damai—mother, father, three children ages 18, 20, 26, and all the staff—have totally taken me in.  No one speaks more that just a bit of English, but we have gotten by on laughter and having a lot in common.  Experiencing and practicing personal health care differently between cultures has been one of the biggest challenges in my year of homestays.  In new environments with different foods and schedules, it has been a daily endeavor to keep my energy level up.  But here the emphasis is already on health, and there are plenty of outlets for maintaining and enhancing it.  Dayu in particular has been really excited to share her knowledge and has been teaching me reflexology, traditional massage, and all about her herbs.

Herbal Signage Herbal MedicinesKindergarten GardeningNeighborhood Yoga

Furthermore, I have been exploring the culture by following them around in their daily routine.  We have already been to two weddings, one cremation ceremony, a family picnic at the botanical gardens, to dinner at my older host brother’s house in Denpasar, accompanied my host mom to her day job at the environmental department in the government office of the local municipality, and been out and about with my 20-year-old host sister.

I have honestly say that I am thoroughly obsessed with Balinese culture.  It has an underlying similarity to the South-Asianness I have seen this whole year, but at a higher octave.  The landscape is like no other and the people are so genuinely friendly, honest,  pure-hearted, and compassionate.  The culture is everywhere (you don’t have to go looking for it) and has maintained itself alongside development and widespread tourism like no where else I have seen.  There remains a strong respect and reverence for one’s ancestors, fellow man, and the whole of nature here that is desperately needed all around the world.  Locally, they refer to this as Tri Hata Karana, which is the philosophy of an equilateral relationship between our fellow humans, nature, and spirit.

The Bride and GroomWedding OfferingsCremation

While I learned so much from every positive and negative experience this past year, being here makes me see Nepal and India in a somewhat dimmer light: where is the people’s honesty towards creating a just and uncorrupt government?  Where is their personal health standard to keep everything from being filthy? If Bali can do it, why not elsewhere?  But in the end, the magic of Bali is that it reminds me that the whole world and everything living on it are all magical.

RiverAncestor AltarWaterTemple 2

Time has flown by so fast that I cannot believe I am in my final days at Puri Damai.  Soon, I will no longer be alone with the Balinese as a week of classes  in nearby Ubud brings a migration of 20 other American students.  But I have fostered strong relationships here and feel my work at Puri Damai has only began.  I had a really inspiring conversation last week with the eldest son, Vin, who is a 26-year-old lawyer in Denpasar.  He shared his next-generation vision for the future of Puri Damai:

I think Puri Damai can become the real center for herbal medicine in Bali.  Everyone in Bali looking for herbal medicine already knows us, comes to us; my parents are already training everyone to do it themselves and people from other islands in Indonesia want to come here and teach.  We just need to fix this place up more: expanding the gardens, maybe building a larger treatment center, a place for classes, and a guesthouse for teachers and visitors. For now we need to deal more with this, our finances, and improve the medicine’s packaging.  Then we will be in a place to look for some partnership to  help us with marketing and gain more connections in Indonesia and abroad.  I hope you can help somehow.

Absolutely I wanted to help!  I felt so energized by his passions and excited to help in whatever way I could.  But I was equally apprehensive.  I saw his vision going to routes: 1) a wholesome growth in which the local community is even more uplifted and Puri Damai’s reach extends to heal a large circle, or 2) this kind of development spoils the heart of this place by being oversaturated in capitalism, globalization’s influence, and tourism (the village I research in Nepal was at a parallel crossroads.)  Thus, I felt equally enthused about helping Puri Damai’s growth as I felt a call of duty to protect the purity of this small place along the way.

In that moment something clicked inside; the purpose of this whole year abroad made sense and a clearer line of continuity was drawn between each place.  I want to start an organization that will connect, support, and protect healers around the world, their indigenous knowledge, and their local communities and projects in whatever way they need.  To start, this will be a way of giving back to healers whom I have learned and continue their projects: Chhyamtang in Nepal needs most of all to raise money to build a temple, Parvathy from Pitchandikulam in Auroville will soon start an herbalism project in her village from scratch, and Puri Damai can use better packaging, marketing, and more students.  In the future, this organization would include many other such community healing projects, giving without expectation while guiding each along holisitic, community-based, and integrally sustainable model.  Furthermore, these could dually become outlets for my own and others future research in these ancient healing systems, community development, and ecopsychology as I have began to do this year.

But what is most exciting is that this dream will quickly begin to manifest as reality through my classes in non-profit management and social entrepreneurship in the fall.  So while I am sad to say goodbye to Puri Damai this week, I am excited to plug back into the group of social entrepreneurs coming to Bali to gain their insights and support on creating this project.

Poolside Palms Water Temple


Ending India: Integral Sustainability & Bioregional Herbalism

The second half of my program in Auroville flew by so fast, that I am only now finding time to  write about it that it is over. (In the future, my intention is to blog periodically like a normal person instead of throwing up my life-story every 2 months, but here it goes.) 

Finishing the Medicinal Plant Garden!

The five-week community stay at Forecomers that I last posted about—with my peaceful capsule of solitude and herbal gardening work—ended too soon.  Nevertheless, during my time there, I was able to construct the garden beds, plant the seedlings, beautify it with signage, and begin making the herbal remedies for myself and fellow community members.  Below are some pictures of the full progression:

But just when I really got to start making some lovely medicines that I had been learning in classes at the Pitchandikulam ethnomedicinal forest, our stay ended.  In the beginning of April, my group set out for two-and-a-half weeks of travel around Southern India. 

The Sacred Solo: Insights into Ecopsychology

For our travel, we split into two groups of nine and ventured Southwest through the Karnataka state to Mysore (the capital of Sandalwood!), Bylakuppe (the largest Tibetan refugee settlement in the world!), Hamsah farm outside Bangalore, and Honey Valley. 

The most profound part of our journey was Honey Valley, a lush area of coffee plantations in the tropical hills and dry mountains.  My group stopped there first to begin one of the most interesting activities of our curriculum: the sacred solo.  Stemming from various shamanic traditions, particular Native American rituals, the sacred solo or vision quest is a right of passage, possibly the oldest human ceremony there is.  Often doubling as a shaman’s initiation, this experience involves an adolescent going out alone into nature for a number of days with little sustenance and then returning to share his/her teachings to the wider community.  While the shamanic intentions of this practice may seem lost in our ancestors’ mystical pasts, the insights that come out of communing with nature is something our society needs now more desperately than ever before. 

Honey Valley

Elaborating on this notion is ecopsychology, one of the most important topics I studied this semester.  Ecopsychology expands the notion of self from out our minds to embrace the Whole we called world or universe.  That is to say, humans do not exist within an internal vacuum and so the languages of ecology (the study of natural interconnections) and psychology (the study of the self) need each other.  Thus, one’s relationship to the natural world is inserted into the conception of mental health and healing—the destruction of the environment will necessarily be experienced as self-destruction.  This theory brings are radically different perspective to the force behind the pu-pu platter of mental illness and neuroses we are faced with today—the overwhelming majority of which have appeared in the past centuries of  increased urbanization and recent decades of our lives becoming more technologically detached.

And while all that may sound a bit esoteric, it is downright scientific when you take into account our current  cosmology (the Big Bang) in which everything was originally condensed into one point before expansion.  So, while we don’t realize it day-to-day, it is popular ‘fact’ that the whole planet is our very literal ancestor and even the most distant galaxies are made of the same stuff as us and.  In any case, psychology is inherently the most subjective of the sciences and can do no more ‘proving’ than to persuade us of where we should delineate the self and cognize its health.  So, if ecopsychology can persuade us that destroying nature is harmful to ourselves, (and, down the road, make it clinically insane and illegal to do so) I think it absolutely should.

Learning about this emerging field made a great deal of sense to me and has somewhat settled my love-hate relationship with psychology.  And right away, like a good theory should, my perspective shifted a little: some of the conditioned thinking of myself as inside my head dissolved and I felt more expansive, connected. 

During the sacred solo, when I was completely immersed in nature, this unfolding process furthered.  In seeing the enormously hidden egocentrism (and anthropocentrism) of psychology, I also realized how egocentric my own understanding and practice of spirituality had been over the past years.  When ‘I’ came to encompass the world, my own transformation became equally that of transforming the world.  This link is something I have read about in religious and philosophical texts before and had already been studying indirectly.  But it wasn’t until this experience that it really clicked, integrated, and I could fully commit to being in service to the infinite web of interconnections that is me/Whole. 

Discovering Maps for Spaceship Earth

Returning from travel, we had a blissful 3 weeks left to soak up the last of Auroville and conclude all of our courses (i.e. final papers.)  In culminating our curriculum from the whole semester, I truly saw how much I had learned.  It was more useful and life changing knowledge than I have ever come across before; teachings I was hoping to receive in line with the larger intention of this blog. 

The title of this blog comes from a quotation from the visionary Buckminster Fuller that says, “earth is like a spaceship that didn’t come with an operating manual.”  More than metaphor, our world truly is a spaceship: a craft hurdling through space with many crew members and limited resources.  And we don’t have a flying manual (or at least those in the driver’s seat have forgotten it) hence our current global crises and threats to planetary extinction.  So, I have been wondering for as long as I can remember: how do we set a proper course?

Out of many, the most useful map I learned towards better understanding our existence was four quadrants from Integral Theory.  This perspective sees reality as an interplay of four lenses: 1) individual subjectivity, 2) individual objectivity, 3) group subjectivity, and 4) group objectivity.  This is only a hypothesis and a guide, but I found that when you analyze a situation through these four quadrants, you have a chance at covering pretty much everything.

four-quadrants-of-sustainability Using this model explicitly in terms of personal and planetary health was the focus of my program in India entitled “Integral Sustainability in Auroville.”  That is to say, an initiative being called sustainable because it has a low environmental impact doesn’t really cut it—it is probably just appropriating the buzz word, and, even if genuine, it will be short-lived.  For something to be truly sustainable, integrally sustainable, these four components need to be addressed: 1) the sustainability of those involved (i.e. their body/mind/emotions/spirit), 2) the sustainability of the actions of those involved, 3) the sustainability of the culture or community involved, 4) the sustainability of the larger structures and systems within which the project exists.  By incorporating each of these bases, projects become downright foolproof.

Bioregional Herbalism: a Case Study in Global & Local Sustainability

Corresponding to this model, each of our courses in Auroville  addressed each of these four quadrants: 1) “Body, Mind, and Spirit: Cultivating Personal Sustainability”; 2) “Applications of Sustainable Living” (i.e. Service Learning Project in herbal gardening); 3) “Group Dynamics”; and 4) “Global & Local Sustainability.”

The last few weeks being back from travel focused almost exclusively on the Global & Local Sustainability (GLS) aspect.  Our final assignment was to research a global problem and make a proposal for a local solution.  I decided to extend my work in the medicinal plant arena and focus on the unsustainability of the global medical system and the benefits of bioregional herbalism.  My research on this topic in Nepal was enlivening, but it was as an observer from a distance.  And so in Auroville, actually planting and making medicines myself gave it all enormous personal relevance.  But at the same time, I was not satisfied with the herb garden project until I could bring it full circle by finding ways it could interact with the larger community in Auroville.

In the end, I found a lot of undiscovered purpose to what I had been doing all year. Bioregional herbalism—using plants found in one’s own community—is naturally sustainable (I also found that sustainability can be equated with health): 1) it heals our ecopsychological wounds by creating a relationship with nature; 2) it heals our physical bodies as medicine and makes our actions more ecologically conscious because nature is given personal value; 3) it integrates the community by relying on a common resource and body of knowledge; 4) and, its application has an impact on the larger systems of health care (from pharmaceutical market to the environmental preservation).

For my local research, I interviewed community members in Auroville already involved in these efforts.  The first was Snehan Trivedi, who’s project called Heal the Soil gathers volunteers ever Sunday to plant permaculture gardens in the empty land in a local village households.  The project only started three months ago, but he already has a waitlist of 10 households wanting gardens and another village has invited him to give a presentation and replicate Heal the Soil there. 

Secondly, I interview Parvathy Nagarajan, my herbalism teacher throughout the semester at Pitchandikulam forest.  She is the Director of Medicinal Plant Awareness Programs at Pitchandikulam and does amazing work such as, monthly health camps with free consultations and medicines for hundred of locals, and creating schools in villages that have herbal gardening, medicine making, and environmental conservation.  Also, in the past five years she has began teaching weekly herbalism classes, not for locals, but for foreign guests and residents in Auroville who she had noticed taking a more active interest in natural medicines.

“From what I have observed, people in the villages are avoiding natural medicine. Actually, it‟s the people in the cities, who have gotten used to more sophisticated systems and now realize all the chemicals and problems, that now want more natural medicines. But in the villages they have forgotten their traditional medicines and want allopathy because it seems better and more developed.”

—Parvathy Nagarajan

Early on in these classes, she asked me to document everything she was teaching—photos of the plants, their identification information, and the recipes of the herbal remedies.  When I asked her more about this, she explained that while Pitchandikulam already had a wealth of herbalism awareness resources in the local language (Tamil), they needed something in English for the class of foreigners.  She hopes that these people will bring their knowledge home with them, integrate it in their lives, and begin to change the cultures that are behind the wheel of modern medicine towards a more sustainable, and healthy, course.  Thus, as part of my final paper, this rough Medicinal Plant Resource Guide was the large part of my local solution for sustainable change: targeting the awareness of the foreigners as leverage points in the larger system.

But more so, my solution is to further integrate what I have learned in myself.  When I return to Chicago, I plan to involve myself in the bioregional herbalism of my own home.  First, I can start with my most immediate community and living space—even living on the tenth floor can’t stop me from making a windowsill herbal garden and putting plants permaculture style in the small square of afternoon sunlight that comes out of the window in my corner bedroom.  Then, looking at what community projects are already going on that I can plug myself into: perhaps empty-lot and rooftop gardens, or projects in school and summer camps.  And finally, I wonder what traditional medicine there is to the bioregion of Northern Illinois.  Is anyone reinvigorating this Native American heritage and, if not, is there space to do so?

Most of all, my hope is that these anecdotes over the past 10 months will inspire and guide you to take small steps towards further health and sustainability in your own communities, because that is the most profound change this journey can offer.

Love & Thanks,




Living My Roots Auroville!

I have been in Auroville, India since the end of Januray–the full moon a few days before arriving a month ago has just again past again.  The first 3 weeks here was the orientation period with tfor my 17 other classmates and me.  The first task for my academic program here, called “Integral Sustainability in Auroville” through UMass’s Living Routes,  first task was to present the Life Map we had created before arrival, a psychological and physical diagram of what led us to this program.


Mulling this assignment over with my parents while travelling in northern India the week before, my mother revealed an old memory.  When I was about three year old–while staring out the window at the lake 10 floors below, as I often did—I turned to my mother and said:

         “When can we live on the ground?”

          “Never,” she responded, having always wanted to live in an apartment.

          “That’s okay,” I replied.  “At least we live in front of a lake and botanical gardens,” I reflected, staring again at the lakefront park.

Hearing this story for the first time over 17 years later, I felt as though I was listening to my inner self speaking through.  When can we live on the ground??  I still wonder this, more than ever, and now with all sorts of experiential and intellectual layers into the ways we can live more appropriately for ourselves and the earth.  Leaving for Auroville, I realized I was about to be living more on the ground than ever before, and decided to name my Life Map after this inquiry.

Life Map

Following our group introductions based these maps, we began our weeks of  bike tours of the new environment.  Auroville was inaugurated in 1968 as a universal community for the purposes of experimentin human unity and elaborating the philosophical-spiritual writings of the 20th century sage Sri Aurobindo, a practice he assimilated known as Integral Yoga.

Considered an ‘ecovillage’ by many, the Auroville I toured last month certainly seemed like a dream: a lush and green landscape, tropical creatures, individual communities where imaginations are manifested, social projects and green technology have become status quo, along with its ample share of modern luxuries such as shops and international restaurants.  Auroville is, as the Mother–the spiritual counterpart of Aurobindo who led Auroville’s construction after his death–has written, “a place where one thinks only of the future.”

Matrimandir canyon

But in no way has this the way it has always been.  When the first ‘pioneers’ arrived in Auroville in the late 60s, they found themselves in completely barren landscape of dry, red clay.  Seeing photos from this period are striking: only a handful of lonely palm trees sprinkle the horizon stretching all the way to the Bay of Bengal.  Thus, the first years of planning for this futuristic city began at the most basic level—the soil.  Beginning with exotic plants from Africa and Australia that could handle theses conditions and later incorporating only indigenous species, Auroville may be one of the single greatest examples of reforestation and ecological design.  It is dumbfounding to think that everything I am seeing has been created within the past 40 years.  While it is in no way void of problems and  contradictions, Auroville is by far the most ‘perfect’ place I have ever been or could have imagined.  And if progress continues in the same way it has, there is no limit to what can be created here. 

At this moment, a quarter into my program, I have found myself feeling very settled here—grounded in my living situation, schedule, and activities.  Last Sunday, our group split up into 3 groups of 6 students and began our 5-week stays in different communities around Auroville.  I am staying in a community called Forecomers, so called because it was one of the first communities created and did most of the reforestation work.  It is situated in what is called the ‘green-belt’, the external ring of Auroville comprised of forests and farms, and so, to my liking, it is the most secluded, quiet, lush, and least populated of any of the communities we can stay in.  Having a living space to myself at Forecomers has given me much more balance than my other peers have, mostly living in one room all together.  All together I am very happy with a little family and routine here: waking up at 7 to garden for an hour before breakfast, setting up meals together, having fires, etc.

hut front hut altar 

We also recently began our service learning projects (SLPs), which we do ever morning from 9-12pm before having classes and yoga practice in the afternoon.  I decided to dove tail my work with medicinal plants from Nepal to Auroville and so I am starting an herbal garden at Forecomers.  Until now, I have only been working to build the planting beds, prepare the soil, and order the plants from the nursery.  But this week the herbs will actually be here and I will learn more about how to use them by supplementing my gardening with 1 day a week doing herbal medicine workshops at the local ethnomedical center and another day a week at a healing center in a nearby village. 

garden sidejoy hall

After a long morning of work, I have lunch somewhere and head over for afternoon class from 2-4.  We have 4 courses: 1) Global and Local Sustainability, 2) Group Dynamics, 3) Applications for Sustainability (SLP), 4) Body, Mind Spirit: Cultivating Personal Sustainability.  I am so happy focusing on these topics and so far the interconnected lectures have been very enlightening.  Finally, from 4:30-6pm, we have a yoga class as part of the Body, Mind, Spirit courses’ curriculum.  Much more to come in the next two months of work and expansion here. 




Going Far & Coming Home

Dear All,

It has been almost two months since my last post, but in that time I have been moving endlessly: I travelled to a remote village in Nepal for research, returned to Kathmandu, and come back home to US for the holidays.

In the beginning of November time had come for our Independent Study Projects (ISPs).  Since first arriving in Nepal (and after writing various proposals), I have been interested in ethnobotany and indigenous healing systems.  In October, I made a connection with the Karma Bhotia, the Medicinal Plant Officer at The Mountain Institue (TMI), an American INGO that does development work with vulnerable mountain communities.  After our second meeting, he invited me to come Chyamtang, his home village where a development project using medicinal plants had started in 2008.

I left Kathmandu on the afternoon of Tuesday November 9th and didn’t reach Chyamtang until the night of Sunday November 14th.  (Bear in mind that this trip was from the central mid-eastern to the north-eastern corner of a country that is roughly the size and shape of Tennessee.)  This is merely to demonstrate how slow travel is Nepal and the extreme remoteness, more than I could have imagined, of where I went.  The trip started with 2 days of bus rides along semi-paved roads from Kathmandu because the local airport was closed for repairs.  These bus rides were true to the kind of third-world cliché one would see in a movie: jam-packed with people, children sitting on top of me, people throwing up everywhere, women nursing left and right.  Upon reaching Khandbari, the capital of the Sankhuwasabha district, we continued in a jeep for five hours on an unpaved road upwards into the hills.  From this point on, the “road” stops and my guide Jyabu and I had to rely on our feet: trekking hours through the Upper Arun Valley was the only way to reach our destination.

After 3 and a half days on foot, we finally reached Chyamtang.  I had entered the Bhotkhola area (the home of the Tibetanoid Bhotia peoples) a day and a half before and observed the topographical and cultural similarities: yellow terraced millet fields above the river, stone and wooden houses, identical dress and jewelry, yak cheese…  In most ways, Chyamtang was no different than these other villages sprinkled around the area, but for the next two weeks it became my home.

While strikingly “Tibetan” in every way compared to the “Indian-ness” of Kathmandu, local people still fulfilled the Nepali characteristic of overwhelming hospitality and kindness.  And despite deeply confused looks during the first days of my arrival, I was welcomed into every home to be given drinks and force fed (it’s how they show love.)  Being foreign (and American) both made people uneasy from afar, and interested up close.  I was often treated with a great deal of respect, sometimes even superiority, especially because the academic context of my visit.

I greatly enjoyed the task of researching independently, but it was a little bit of a farce to do a 3-week research project, especially when I could only spend 12 days at my site (after spending 11 getting there and back) and I had an entire new culture and development project to study.

But fortunately, my guides Jyabu and his friend Pala, who are both Social Mobilizers for TMI, literally led me by the hand to houses and fields to conduct interviews: “today we go to lama’s house, then amchi’s (Tibetan doctor) house, then farmer’s house.” Most of my interviews were with the religious figures and healers, such as lamas, bjuwas (Bön-Po shamans), and amchis because they were the knowledge bearers of the whole community.  Everyone in Chyamtang is a farmer, so that general knowledge could be gathered from any and everyone.  But to my surprise, the day to day person didn’t really know anything philosophically or practically about Buddhism.  Before going, I had idealized a whole community of pious Buddhists humming om mani padme hum as they sowed their millet, and talking my ear off about the life of the Buddha in their free time.  But when I began to ask people about the Buddha, and their personal connection to their religion, they almost all said that they are Bön and later became Buddhists, that their religion is for when they are sick, and that this discussion was really a matter for the lama.  And it was in fact only the lamas and other healers that knew anything of substance because their heritage is passed down orally through the paternal lineage and hardly ebbs outwards.

Originally for my research, I proposed studying the agency of something sacred (such as a medicinal plant) in development projects.  Was this good or bad for the community?  Could it succeed in development?  My interviewees in Chyamtang all agreed that chiraito (the plant they began the project with) was sacred because of its healing abilities and cultural significance.  And, all in all I observed that the project was a huge success, mostly because the high level of community participation and the use of something so culturally relevant.  But my research became more about the relationship between culture and development—called bikas in Nepali, which everyone expressed was good and helpful.  For example, take the case of the religious lineages I mentioned before.  10 years ago there were twice as many healers than there are now.  I found that the main contributing factor to this was the Nepali government school system.  While an undoubtably noble necessity, these schools that have popped up in remote villages over the past decades teach a national curriculum that is often quite foreign to the local communities that have their own language, history, religion, etc.  Also, in providing the opportunity of education, the side-effects push and pull young people from their cultures and homes to urban areas or abroad.  This “youth migration” in Nepal was a phenomenon we had learned about throughout my semester.  But far from rich Kathmandu Brahmins getting shipped off to boarding school in London, in Chyamtang I witnessed that if a lamas only son wants to pursue academic schooling, then centuries of spiritual traditions are lost in a second—completely gone.  So while the Bhotia people were very culturally rich, I discovered they are more vulnerable than they have ever been to extinction.  This is just one example of the many development projects (schools, roads, hospitals, consumerism) they I observed in relation to how it will affect their culture.  If you are interested in reading further, here is the link for the final research paper I wrote upon arrival in Kathmandu:

Personally, I experienced the biggest culture shock and deepest transformation of my life while in Chyamtang: I trekked for days in the forests,  watched animal sacrifices and had to eat them after, had to drink pints of millet beer a day, slept in a freezing bamboo house with rats in the walls that kept me up all night.

Every night I was there I had vivid dreams of being luxuriously dressed at a fabulous mansion party or touching all the furniture in apartment in Chicago.  During the day I would fantasize about fast food and pop music–I had pushed myself to the edge, the other side in which I craved the very things that I came to the other side of the world to get away from.  It was really hard, but musch more interesting.  In the end, I left the village happy, covered in flower garlands, being asked by everyone to come back, and with a Bhotia Tibetan name: Pasang Chhedar (meaning “Friday Buddha”, Friday being the day of material sustenance and wealth, and Buddha referring to the dharma, rather apt.)

After all the “poverty” I lived in and the loneliness I felt, I left the village feeling rich and loved.  If you subtract all the material possessions, I saw how these people really have so much more than us.  They maintain such inner peace and joy as they work harder than I thought humans could all day, every day.  But, no one is telling them that they are perfect just as they are and that their way of life is respectable.  Instead, Nepal’s development agenda and the entire outside world is like an endless advertisement saying: “you are poor, you never thought you were poor before but look at all this other stuff everyone else has, you are clearly not good enough, you need to be better.”  I constantly observed this insecurity of Nepali towards my developed Americanness.  But in Chyamtang, it hit me in the gut because people were choosing between their culture or development, and something like a road that they thought was the answer to all the problems could ruin them.  This is something that is true all around world, as many communities are changing more than they ever have.  I think it must be our responsibility to watch these places especially closely to learn what succeeds and what fails.

Next Adventure: Indigenous Knowledge Conservation in Upper Arun

Yesterday was my last day of classes and today is the first day of our month-long Independent Study Project.

This afternoon I am taking a night bus to Tumlingtar, a jeep ride to Num, and trekking for two days to get to Chyamtang village in the Upper Arun valley. The area is the deepest valley in the world and has remarkable biodiversity because it remains remote.

I am partnering with an organization called The Mountain Institute (

who do development and conservation projects in mountain communities. A few years ago, they set up a medicinal plant project in Chyamtang and I am going there to observe it. My independent study project is about medicinal plant conservation and indigenous knowledge participation in community and forestry development project. That is to say, how people are effected by their environments and the practical exchange that can go on between indigenous and modern resource conservation methods.

The people in Chyamtang are Bhutia, a Tibetanoid indigenous group that are Bon and Buddhist. I will be spending ten days there then trekking south and staying in village there. The people in these villages are from the Rai group and believe that they are decedents from the Giant Stinging Nettle plant in Nepal. They use this plant in all their rituals and ceremonies but it also is used to make fibers and fabrics, now being used by development organizations for livelihood and economic growth. So the question here is, how can the sanctity of indigenous knowledge be preserved while is used for money-making in a global market?

At this point, all my research is theoretical, but it is all waiting to be discovered in the field. I will return on December 3rd and share my findings. Until then, I will be safe and I love you.

Local or Tourists? Village Life & Trekking in Annapurna

Hello All,

Long time no blog post.  For the past two weeks I have been in the Mustang region of western Nepal away from computer and communication.  More so than fun, it was very intense and interesting.  I was exposed to so many different environments and new experiences.

First we flew due West from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal.  Pokhara is situated along a lake in a warm and green valley with the distant snowy Himalayas poking into view over the hills.  We rented bikes and rode along the lakefront and took some breaths of fresh air away from the musk of Kathmandu.  But the next morning to took another plane North to Jomsom, a town situated in the high plains on the other side of the Himalayas.  Jomsom is in what is called the “rain shadow” meaning it is blocked by the mountains and has a desert-like landscape as opposed the greenery to the South.  Starring at the very Tibetan scenery it felt for that first time that I was really really in Nepal.

We then trekked for 2 hours along flat gravel beside a river into the town of Marpha, an apple-growing region inhabited by mainly Tibetan Refugees.  After spending the night, we trekked another 2 hours to Tukuche, the village we would be spending the next week in with families.

Tukuche was a very special village.  While the smallest place I have ever been, it was very cosmopolitan in its own right.  Situated on the ancient salt trade routes, international influences have always passed through Tukuche, most recently taking the form of trekkers.  It was hypnotic to observe these foreigners as a foreigner from within a village house with my village family.  In my host family was a mother, 17 and 14 year-old brothers, and a 10 year-old sister.  We got closer and closer as my Nepali improved and by the end my host mother asked me everyday when I would come back to marry her niece and be part of their family.  Anthropological success?

All in all, I really took to village life: walking across the whole town in 5 minutes, strolling into strangers’ houses and getting tea as if you’re family, watching a Tibetan lama dance ceremony, seeing the Himalayas to every direction on my way to class.  Unfortunately, the last days of the trip were not nearly as peaceful.  Leaving Tukuche, we took a 5 hour cramped and bumpy jeep ride South, followed by a terrifying bus ride along a cliff.  The following two days we trekked 9 hours a day uphill, which could have been fun if we hadn’t all been in pain.  The trip ened with a 9 hour bus ride back to Kathmandu…this is travel in Nepal.

Unfortunately upon returning to Kathmandu, we did not have time for bedrest but 4 days of final exams!  Now I am completely done with classes, have time to write a blog post, and am preparing for my month-long Independent Study Project which I leave for tomorrow!!

More to come…

Darjeeling: Land of Tea & Nepali Identity in Diaspora

Last week we traveled just over the border to Darjeeling.  Why did I go to India with my Nepal program?  Because as we found, Darjeeling is any many ways more Nepali than the country itself.

The northern portion of India stretching to Bhutan was within the Nepali border until 1816 when in was won in a battle with the British.  When the English overtook it they, they established it as their central trade post in the summer months to get out of the heat in Calcutta.  Over the 19th century they deforested the hills in Darjeeling and brought in tea bushes from China (that’s right, even though Darjeeling is a great atmosphere to make tea, it is far from an indigenous plant to the area.)   To undeertake this massive tea-planting project, thousands of Nepalis–individuals as well as families–crossed the border as laborers.  The result over time was a society of almost entirely migrant workers lacking the socio-culutral infrasture of the homeland.  To compensate for this, community centers called samaj that acted like cultural governments providing their people with funding for funeral rites and marriages. 

Over time, the result was a place and people that was Nepali-speaking, Nepali heritage, Indian nationality, and distinct different from both.  I talk to many locals about their identity: most just said that they thought of themselves as “from Darjeeling” and others said “Gorkhaland”, a term coined to push for the Darjeeling district’s battle for independence, which one can see spraypainted on nooks and corners throughout town.  I found people very approachable, and when all else failed, a little Nepali made their hearts melt.  They affectionately refer to Nepali as “mother language”, a refreshing difference to Nepal itself where hardly anyone speaks Nepali as their first language and it is, if any thing, a politically-enforced lingua franca that was the enemy to everyone else’s mother tongue.  While it was nice to be somewhere where Nepal was appreciated and idealized, upon returning to Kathmandu–“home”–I had a new foundation for the reality it presented, however harsh it may be. 

3rd Tallest Mountain in the World!