Road less traveled
Benicia artist Judie Donaldson, living abroad for the last year, ventured to Nepal for a last adventure before returning home
By Donna Beth Weilenman
Nearly a year ago, Benicia artist Judie Donaldson embarked on an adventure to Asia, particularly Thailand and nearby countries.
Soon she’ll be home, he adventure abroad at an end. But before she started packing her bags, she visited Nepal.
“The countries of the world are like a candy shop,” she wrote on her blog that has chronicled her year away from California.
“I’d like to taste most all of them, which, of course, isn’t possible either in terms of my time or my budget.
“But I decided to make at least one trip outside of Southeast Asia while I’m in this part of the world.”
She chose Nepal, eight hours by air from Bangkok, Thailand, stopping by New Delhi in India, on the way.
“Nepal is a small country, slightly larger than Arkansas, sandwiched between India and China,” she wrote. Most associate the country with the Himalayas and Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.
“Thailand, in contrast, is known for its beaches,” she said.
Nepal is about 82 percent Hindu, but it’s also home to many sacred Buddhist sites. Donaldson spent a week at the Buddhist Kopan Monastery that overlooks Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital.
“It is a picture-postcard valley-city surrounded by mountains,” she described the city. “What a feast for the eyes and a peaceful view from the monastery.”
She spent the week learning about Tibetan Buddhism, joining about 100 others, many from the European continent, Scandinavia, Israel and Australia, as well as many other countries.
Not all were Buddhist. One of the students was a Muslim woman from Bahrain. Another was a New Zealand midwife who works with Doctors Without Borders in Pakistan.
“She cannot walk anywhere, because she must be driven in an armored military vehicle,” Donaldson wrote of the midwife. “She is delivering babies that are malformed and malnourished for the most part. Just learning from her was worth the week’s experience.”
The monastery is active, she said, “with 300 monks learning and studying around the complex all of the time.” It also houses an elementary and secondary school, and nearby is a nunnery that houses another 300.
Young boys at the monastery acted like most boys their age, being silly, making noise and playing games with youthful intensity, Donaldson wrote. But they also were up at 6 a.m., chanting, she said.
After her study, she went to the capital, where she decided the traffic is “totally nuts.” But she also observed the buildings — “Skyscrapers were nonexistent,” she said.
More residents used bicycles than motorcycles, she said. Donaldson walked and took taxis.
Much of the work done in Nepal is manual, she said, even construction of a new building. One taxi driver she met had no home address. And watching residents ride bikes or walk, or do the work associated with subsistence farming, got her thinking about the landlocked country and situations that lead to its poverty.
“It sounds absurd to say that I started thinking about how so many people used their feet, their bodies and their own human effort to work, carry an abundance of ‘stuff,’ and accomplish a multitude of tasks,” she said.
“It reminded me of how many things I have taken for granted to run my life — cars, conveniences, stores that deliver, machines that do my work, and on and on. We are so darned privileged.”
Despite the poverty she saw, Donaldson also appreciated Nepal’s historical and cultural treasures.
Many of those sites are destinations for Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims, she said.
One of the buildings she took note of was the “Home of the Living Goddess, that gives the people of Nepal a place to worship a young girl as the source of power and the symbol of the potential divinity of each person.
The girl’s selection is comparable to the choosing of the Dalai Lama. But once the girl matures, she no longer is considered a goddess and becomes a normal mortal person.
The people, she said, are kind. Her taxi driver who had no permanent address responded to her offer to print him some business cards by giving her a white scarf, a symbol of blessing in that country.
Donaldson also watched a cremation, which has different symbolism to those in Nepal than in the West.
“As you may know, both the Hindus and Buddhists view death as a part of life and integrate it into life, in general, more than we Americans.”
She said she tried to learn as much as she could about the culture of Nepal in a few days, and discovered “there isn’t one culture. There are as many as 60 different ethnic groups and 40 different languages spoken.”
She traveled to Pokhara, in the central part of the country, to get her own view of the Himalayas. “It was fabulous,” she said, though she was surrounded by people aiming their cameras and smart phones, clicking away at the mountains.
Once back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she has spent the better part of her year abroad, Donaldson visited with a friend who is one of 20 women building a mud house. “What hard work in what hot weather, but what an experience,” she said.
Donaldson said she expected to return to the United States early next month, and plans to visit the East Coast before journeying back to Benicia.
“I am having a wonderful time winding up my Chiang Mai stay,” she wrote in her blog, judiesjourney.wordpress.com/. “It has been a gift that I have given myself, one that has enriched my life immeasurably and changed my worldview substantially.
“I didn’t come with a lot of expectations. I didn’t know enough to have many expectations. But, my experience has been more than I could have imagined.
“I hope and think that it has helped me get out of my head and my skin, so to speak, to see the world in a new, and hopefully more informed, way.”