Kelsang and I were walking down the busy, bustling streets of Thamel one day, trying not to get hit by a bicycle rickshaw, a taxi or hawkers playing their violins trying to lure a tourist into a big sale. We had to find a Western Union so I could pick up a money wire. For those not in the NGO business, the transferring of money in a country like Nepal can be complicated. I don't want to get into a big essay on why we don't bank in Nepal, but just imagine how it is in a country that has changed governments many times, and has been without a constitution for years. Money changers on the streets and cash houses are more plentiful than banks-and wiring money to myself before leaving the USA became an easy way to "bank" in Nepal when I needed funds for one of our projects. It's easy to find a Western Union in Nepal-anywhere in Nepal. The familiar yellow signs with black lettering are scattered on any busy street, and often adjoined with a money change kiosk or around any busy "chowk" or area of commerce.
Kelsang was in the lead, as usual, finding our way up and down the maze of tiny, narrow streets, stepping over sleeping dogs, and pointing hazards out to me so I didn't fall into a street hole or impale myself on a random piece of rebar or pipe sticking up or out from somewhere. Or strangling on electrical wires sagging down from the rat's nest of other wires looped around buildings or rickety poles. "Here is one, Mom" he called, pointing to a sign for a Chinese restaurant. It had the yellow background and black lettering but it did not say Western Union-it said "Mantang Hot Pot". I told Kelsang it was not Western Union. He looked surprised. We continued on, surveying signs with our heads up still needing to glance down at where we walked at the same time. "I think this is it," he said. Nope. It was also yellow with black letters for the "Dent Inn". Umm, I thought, either a place to fix teeth or dents. Or maybe an Inn. Or all three. But not Western Union.
Finally, I found a weathered Western Union sign on the front of a small grocery store-called, Sulabhbasket. "There's Western Union here," I told him- "No, Mom, that is grocery store," Kelsang said, pointing to photos of food deals stuck on the windows. "Look", I said, "I am sure there is Western Union inside, it says so here." I knew he could not read and that he had been trying to compensate through symbols. I've seen him do this before and marveled at how good he was at it. We went in. There was the Western Union, in the back. Kelsang nodded, and seemed to make a mental note for future reference.
Welcome to the world of not reading. Reading is such a key to making it in the world. We in the West, and especially in America, where our education is free, take so much of that for granted. Yes, reading is fundamental. It is crucial to having a life where you can succeed and soar. It has held back so many I have met in Nepal who have not had the luxury of school and learning to read. You know that bumper sticker, "If you can read this, thank a teacher"? It's true! If you can read, you had someone teach you to do it-whether it was public school, Montessori or how ever you were taught. But someone taught you how to put symbols to sounds and read. And you can learn just about anything once you can read.
Kelsang could speak many languages, because he was a good listener. He would sit and listen to many people as we yammered away about all kinds of things. He would imitate sounds and did some great impressions of people we'd meet on the road-he knew so many things about the casts, culture and heritage of Nepali's but he learned it from the street, from talking to people and listening, not reading about it. There tended to be big gaps in his knowledge from lack of reading, We often had arguments about Nepal's politics because while I read about things in The Kathmandu Post, he was getting information from talk on the streets. I still don't know which was more accurate. But if it was conflicting, I had the upper hand of Googling things and reading about it.
I remember when I first met him, he went by a Tibetan name that basically was the word for swastika. In Nepal, you see swastikas everywhere-usually painted on people's homes, gates or on their foreheads. The swastika is a symbol of luck, literally "conducive to well-being." He was proud of his name, and surprised when I told him that to paint the symbol of the swastika on your head and call yourself "Swastika" would not fly in America. "But why, Mom? It is for good luck." Enter World History 101. I told him some things about World War II, most of which he had never heard or known of before. Part of not going to school, part illiteracy, part being in a world where World Wars were not fought.
There was another group I met in Nepal who didn't have the luxury to attend school-poor children. Poor children often have to work for a living. At a very young age. At an age you would not believe, but it's true. A 3- or 4-year old can be taught to wash dishes and clean, and they do. They can also be sold, not legally, but it still happens. Overburdened poor families, unable to earn enough money, and usually always illiterate, will reluctantly sell a child to feed the family. Sometimes it is in desperation of not having jobs and making a choice-earning enough money by hiring out a child to be an indentured servant or everyone starving.
There is also a lot of begging on the streets by children who are not able to afford school. The free, public education law we have here in our USA is not everywhere in the world. Ironically it seems the poorest countries usually do not have free education. In Nepal, to attend school can cost anywhere from $10 a month for a village school, to $20 a month for most city schools and $30, to $40 a month for "private" schools. Private schools are preferred if a family can afford it because teachers are more likely to receive a steady salary. In some government schools, as public schools are known, if a teacher's salary is not paid consistently, then that teacher needs to look for other work. It is not unusual for children to come to a school and find no teacher. In addition, as child may not attend school without a uniform; yet another expense.
Parents struggle with any extra money to pay for the monthly school bill. Imagine if you are a laborer and earn the average $2 or $5 a day wage, and then you have 4 children who need to attend school. You have rent, food charge and maybe other expenses, and you have a $40 a month fee you need to spend for your children's education. When test time comes, it's an additional $5 per child to take exams- 4 times a year. It adds up quickly. A poor family cannot afford that. Children instead work to add to the family incomes. As in Kelsang's case, with no family, it was always "try to find work," where you did not need to know to read, to support himself.
You begin to learn what a difficult thing this education business is when you start to work in poor developing countries where a majority of low income and marginalized people cannot afford to be educated and in turn, cannot afford for their children to be educated. How do you solve that problem?
We began HANDS (Humanitarian Acts in Nepal Developing Schools) as a part of the solution-to offer remote, rural areas of Nepal's poor and most needy people access for themselves and their children for an education.
Libraries became a vital part of the puzzle. For the villages where we created schools, we created libraries, a "house for books"; it was a novel concept. The first library we built, next to a school we built in a remote village in the Ganesh Himals, was excitedly welcomed by the villagers. It was like Christmas Day the day we pulled in with our jeep full of boxes of books for the completed building. Children had stood waiting for hours for us to arrive, and as Kelsang helped me open box after box, we placed the precious books into the hands of the chattering children. To my heart's delight, they began to read aloud, turning pages with great care and sharing pictures with each other. I clicked away on my camera and then I noticed the ladies in red-they were hanging on to the bars of the library windows, looking with so much longing from the outside in, their lined faces serious and eyes penetrating, their red sari's and shawls wrapped over their heads. I waved to them to come in and join us. they stared back at me. I called Kelsang over and asked him to tell them in Nepali to come inside, a library is for everyone. He did, then came back to me. "Mom, they say they cannot read, so they cannot come into this place." I begged him to try again, they could come in to this place-this place was a home for the whole community and I had specifically bought some books with photos of people, food and dress from other lands. They could enjoy books without reading if they would just come in!
They could not be persuaded. I wanted to take a photo and bring it back home and show everyone-here is what happens when illiteracy is not stamped out. You are keeping a segment of the population in the dark. They feel they are not able to come "into this place of learning." They are not able to enjoy the many parts of life reading brings us. Teaching literacy, you can come into this place, of helping others learn to read, and to enjoy learning.
My experiences in Nepal, with Kelsang and others who could not read, kept expanding my view and belief that literacy is what makes the world go round-and perhaps we can even go so far as to say can make Peace go round. I spent so many 'tea time breaks' telling Kelsang about the world. As I'd read him a menu of choices since he could only look at photos to pick out a recognizable meal, I'd read the menu aloud to him and encourage him to try other things there were no pictures of-a cheese sandwich, a pizza, a chicken salad.
Hard, physical labor requires no words or needing to read. These types of jobs are often filled by those who could not go to school in places like Nepal. It is heart-breaking to see children and women doing hard manual labor on the streets-but these are usually the ones where education was not an option on their life path.
I am proud our organization HANDS in Nepal as it helps so many with so little. We aren't a big NGO, but we have believers in education on our Board. Many of us were or are teachers. We know the value of teaching someone to read. We will continue to work where we can in Nepal, with what we have, to help the future Kelsang's, women and children, to be literate. It is something we truly believe in.
Kelsang was always there. When I first went to visit my son in 2009, Kelsang was somewhere in the background. I try to recall the first time I met him, and it was like a shadow was behind my tall son, this shorter Tibetan who called himself Danny's "Cho Cho"- Tibetan for brother. My first impression was that he was nice. Nice in the way polite people are considerate and kind. Danny and I would make plans to walk to the orphanage or walk to Boudha, and Kelsang would be along with us. He made sure we made the right turns and got across the chaotic Kathmandu streets safely. He helped us find things. We'd tell him he didn't have to come with us, but he liked to hang out with his American brother and before I knew it, I somehow became "Mom" to him. "Am I your Mom now?" I asked him once, "Yes, Mom." he'd say with a smile.
When my husband Don went to Nepal to help Danny build the first school, Kelsang went everywhere with him and Danny. Don came back and said, "Karma's brother Kelsang kept calling me Dad." I said, "that's right-it appears we've been adopted by a Tibetan."
No taller than 5'8" with close cropped black hair and high cheekbones, Kelsang often said he had a "Mongolian" face, and later I saw photos of Mongolians and thought he was right. His face was very round and he had small, jet black eyes. He could look at you with an expression on his face of deep wisdom or sly humor. He had the tough, square stance of someone from that region of Asia as well, with both feet firmly planted on the ground, not one to be easily toppled. He was strong as a yak and quiet, steady, assured in things of the street, even if not educated. He felt shy about his lack of education and despite my and my husband's many attempts to pay for tutoring, he wasn't keen on starting school at what he called a "too late age" and he didn't seem to think he needed to study English formally, feeling he spoke it well enough.
His broken English was always a challenge for me in communicating with him, but it also became like a 3rd language between he and I-I'd have to guess at words he was using and he'd have to guess at words I was using. It might take 2 or 3 times to get the message understood between the two of us. One of his most frustrating qualities and yet also one that endeared me to him was his always giving me answers that would make me happy. Can we go to the school I need to see tomorrow? "Yes Mom," but once we were there, I'd find it was a holiday, school closed and no children. But he took me to the school, and that was what I asked. This scenario was repeated often enough that I had to explain my intention of going somewhere very carefully to Kelsang. And that it was OK to say "no"-I could handle it. But one thing I could not handle was getting around Kathmandu or even Nepal in the early days of my travel there. I needed a guide and there was no better street smart, verbally articulate negotiator than Kelsang.
After all, Kelsang had found his way from Tibet over the Himalayas to Nepal and then India. How does one do that? And yet thousands of Tibetan refugees have done that, all in order to escape the oppression of Chinese invaders to their land. He walked out with a small group of other Tibetans to seek freedom in Nepal and he ended up in India, a young man, a young teenager, who was illiterate and did not speak Hindi, but quickly learned. He found a job at a noodle factory in Delhi and shared a room with many other noodle factory workers-all young men and all covered in white flour all the time, he told me. The flour dust was unavoidable and the heat in the factory oppressive and sucked the energy and life from you daily, he told me. They were locked inside at night and not let out until it was time for work. He slept on the floor and lived hand to mouth, dreaming of coming to America some day.
Somehow he made it not to America, but Nepal. I am not sure the reason why or how, but having taken the bus from Nepal to India, I can imagine that hot, long trip and the endless ride on a class 3 public bus that stops once every 8 hours for a bathroom break. He found a job in Kathmandu at a carpet factory, making hand knotted Tibetan rugs, and it was there he met Karma Thubten Lama. Karma was older, the Dai, or older brother, and Kelsang was Bai, or the little brother. From then on they were Dai and Bai and it took me several years of visiting Karma before I realized Kelsang Bai was not Karma's blood relation, but in the Tibetan way, they were attached by a heritage and birthplace-Kham, a district of Tibet. So they were Tibetan brothers.
From the carpet factory, Kelsang Bai followed Karma Dai to his house and was soon a part of Karma's large family. Karma had 4 sons, and a daughter; he had a daughter in law and his wife, who was Nepali, plus he had a house that was seeped in Tibetan paintings and covered with Tibetan carpets-with prayer flags rambling down from the rooftop to the artist studio outside-Kelsang had a home. For the first time since he left Tibet, he had a family and soon became Karma's number one assistant when Karma opened his art school, The Land of Snow Traditional Thangka Art.
Each year I came to Nepal to work with my son, who lived with Karma, and then later to continue our work with our now fully operational NGO-HANDS in Nepal. Each time I landed at Kathmandu's chaotic airport and stepped out on the dusty curb, horns honking and the clamor of people looking and pushing to find their loved ones, there was Kelsang. He met me with white kata scarves and a big smile, he'd clasp my shoulders with both his hands and pull me in for a Tibetan hug and say "Tashi Delek, Mom".
Then off we'd go, with Kelsang handling all the luggage, parting a way through crowds to a waiting taxi that he had negotiated down to the bottom dollar for a cut-rate price.
Once on a late arrival, where the plane didn't land until 4 hours after the arrival time, Kelsang stood wearily in the early morning dew. It was 2 a.m. I was bone tired of travel and hadn't slept in days, barely able to think straight, but around my neck went the white kata scarf, his hands pulled me in for a "Tashi Delek" hug, and we were off in one of the last taxis of the night, to my hotel. At this late hour, the desk was closed, but Kelsang had somehow made arrangements by phone to pick up a hidden key to my room, and I was able to drop exhausted into bed and say good night to my Tibetan son, who would walk back to Karma's house, about 4 miles away, and then back to the hotel in the morning to have "milk tea" with me.
I think having Kelsang there at the end of the long journey from America to Nepal was what kept me going. Danny had returned home to finish school, get married and have a family. He had started this wonderful NGO, but I wasn't ready to let go of it. I knew Kelsang would carry on with me. He could translate for me, make phone calls for me and he often picked up the money wires I'd send for our projects and distribute it for us.
He took me up to Dharka, to Dhading, to Fulkarka and Pokhara, to the Astam area of the Annapurna Himalayas. All around the neighborhoods of Kathmandu-out to Bhaktupur, up to Patan. I only had to tell Kelsang where I needed to go and we'd set off- "jam jam" as he'd say, laughing, telling me to hide so he could get a better price on a taxi then if they saw me, a "western" person. I knew he cherished his time working for us and he loved us all. Once, he invited me to see his altar in his small bedroom at Karma's house. Buddha statues, lights, incense holders and candles, and photographs of his American family: Dad, Mom and Danny, balanced in places around the offerings to Buddha. He did puja for us each day, he told me. I felt so humbled to see us all there-on Kelsang's altar, among all his worldly possessions.
Once, after completing our second library project in Astam, I found out we also needed shelves, bookcases, table and chairs. "Could you take care of this, Kelsang?" I asked him in an email, not wanting an additional trip over to Nepal to locate a furniture maker and how to deliver everything up the mountainous road to the HANDS library. He tackled the job with pleasure, riding the bus all day from Pokhara, going up to the village, taking the measurements, finding the carpenter, and then, when everything was finished, getting a truck and riding in the back with the furniture to ensure everything stayed on board during the bumpy ride up the hill.
Another time, in an effort to try and improve the diet for the orphans who lived at Buddhist Child Home, one of our earlier projects, we decided to build a chicken coop and teach the children how to care for the hens and collect the eggs. Kelsang took charge of finding someone to make the coop for us and located some of the meanest looking, scraggly, long-legged chickens I had ever seen. Looking at the chickens on our next visit, I said to Danny, "everything has to be tough to survive in Nepal-even chickens." The list was long on the projects Kelsang helped us with.
It wasn't always work for Kelsang and I. Once, hearing his tales of traveling by bus from India to Nepal, I asked him if he'd take me from Nepal to India. I had a strong desire to go back to Dharamasala, where His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama lived, where once I had taught English to Tibetan refugees and walked Kora around the great Dalai Lama temple there. Kelsang had never been up to McCloud Ganj, the official name of the mountainous village above Dharamsala, that now housed the refugee leader of Tibetan people and perhaps the most well-known of all Buddhist. "Yes, I can take you," he told me with his usual calm, "and we can meet His Holiness once there." I explained no one can just ring the bell and meet the Dalia Lama. It was a complicated system of applications and selection committees. Kelsang stood firm in his belief that we would be able to meet the Dalai Lama, because he, Kelsang, was a Tibetan, and the Dalai Lama met every Tibetan who came to McCloud Ganj. Unable to dissuade him of his firm belief that he would be able to have an audience with the Dalai Lama for the simple reason that he was Tibetan, we left with me saying "Let's hope so," and so began our 2 day journey by bus to Deli, and then up to Dharamsala and finally the last leg by taxi to McCloud Ganj.
Our first morning we walked to the temple grounds, with many tourists, backpackers, Buddhist monks and Tibetan people. We walked up to the large wrought iron fence that surrounds the headquarters for the Dalai Lama, where an Indian Guard stood with a long rifle balanced on his shoulder. "Namaste Dai" Kelsang called out in familiar terms, addressing the guard as "older brother."
"The Dalai Lama is in America," the guard told us. Ah, too bad! Now we would never find out if it was true, that Kelsang would have gotten an audience with the most famous Buddhist monk in the world. But then I saw a typed sheet of paper taped to the gate. It said, "Tibetan people who wish an audience with HH14thDL please go to information window to sign in. You will be called in first come first serve.
Anyone else, please write a reason you need audience with HH14thDL, present your letter and contact information at the information window.
Kelsang, once again, was right.
I was proud of him. Proud as any "Mom" would be of a son who had to overcome so many barriers to having a decent life. He didn't have parents handing him money, he never had the chance to go to school, he had no financial means of any kind other than jobs he could pick up, help from my family and the money HANDS in Nepal would pay him as my guide and translator while I was in Nepal.
His dream was America. He had a plan he told me about many times-if he could get a Visa, he would come live with us, Mom and Dad-and his Cho Cho Danny. He'd help Dad, he'd clean the house, he'd learn English. It broke my heart to tell him how difficult it was going to be to get the visa to America. I went to the American Embassy with him. I filled out countless visa applications for him, paying the $200 fee that was not refundable even if the application was rejected. Finally, on a day we tried to fill out an application one more time, because Kelsang had heard a rumor that America was letting refugees in, we could not find his country, Tibet, on the pulldown menu. Now there was only China, and this man, who only had a "Dalia Lama" passport, had no country he belonged to. That's it, I told him. We are wasting our money. You are not going to get a visa Kelsang. I was so sorry, but I told him I would not give up on helping him. He would need to make a life for himself in Nepal, and so he began the process of getting a Nepal passport and becoming a Nepal citizen.
I tried so hard to find ways for Kelsang to earn money. My husband and I paid for him to have English lessons-the instructor often didn't show up, he told us, or one school would close and he couldn't find another. Then there was a computer class we tried. One of my son's professors, who came to Nepal to see Danny's project. met Kelsang and gave him a computer. That didn't last. Nor did the cameras I would give him so he could photograph our HANDS projects, or the phones I'd bring. One thing that came naturally for him was trading. I came up with an idea-let's try to help Tibetan refugees like Kelsang by hiring Kelsang to shop at their stores. I was able to pay him to pick up Tibetan yak hair blankets at the Tibetan camps, to find stores owned by Tibetans and buy products there that I could sell in America. We slowly began a partnership that I called The Compassionate Yak. Kelsang was my buyer, he shipped me things, I"d try to sell them and recycle the money back for him to buy more. Each time, he made some money. Not much, but enough to get by. My dream was someday I could grow the business and Kelsang would earn more money. I brought back his artwork, beautiful Thangka paintings of Buddhas and Taras that he had made and I would try to sell them, wiring money back to him. Every little bit, every rupee was a godsend to him. Over the years, he tried other businesses, but we always continued to work together, he as my guide, as my shopper, as my protector and as my son.
And me, his mom, protective and often his promoter, trying to get others traveling to Nepal to hire him as a guide, to see the worth of helping this good person who needed a hand up.
In the end, Kelsang married a wonderful Sherpa woman who owned a small shop. There, they made noodles, momos, served tea and beer. She had a grown daughter who had a son, who took to Kelsang as his "Pola". Each time I came to Nepal now, I had two Tibetans greeting me at the airport with white kata scarves, Kelsang and his little grandson, "Sumdun." The two were inseparable. Never having children of his own, Sumdun gave Kelsang the chance to be a father-to nurture and love someone in his care. He was a natural at it. His Tibetan practice of loving kindness and belief in all things being connected made Kelsang the perfect father, husband, brother and son.
The last few trips, I'd be met with a sick Kelsang. He was tired, he was weak. He complained of headaches, of fatigue and of blood sugar issues. He would try to go with me as I traveled around to our HANDS projects, but his energy was not there. He had high blood pressure and that was what finally took him down. Despite doctor visits and medicine, Kelsang went to the hospital recently but died while there.
Dear Kelsang, Tashi Deleks to you, son. I am draping a long white kata scarf around your bowed head as I write this. Always in my heart I'll hold you and our wonderful time in Nepal together. You will never be forgotten. I am sorry I was not able to get you to America as we talked about so many times, but I promise you this. Your grandson will have an education, and I will tell him many, many stories about you and your kind heart.
Playing cards was a great way to pass time on the road-Kelsang (in red) always won!
Visiting with a Tibetan family with Board member Heidi Lewin Miller and Kelsang, our translator. He could speak Hindi, Tibetan, English, Japanese and Chinese, but he was illiterate. That did not prevent him from finding where we had to go.
Kelsang was always helping us haul our books and sewing machines to remote, rural areas of Nepal.
Our Tibetan family, on the roof of their house in Kathmandu after a momo dinner: from left, Karma's wife (in apron) with 3 of their children and a grand daughter, Karma, Jan, Kelsang and Kelsang Chokey, Karma's daughter in law.
Kelsang was like a brother to many of us on the HANDS Board who were fortunate enough to be able to visit Nepal with Jan. Kelsang accepted each of us, and helped us in any way he could, because we were part of the HANDS family and, more importantly, because we arrived along with his mom. Kelsang saved me many times from wandering out in front of a motorcycle or taxi on the crowed and chaotic streets of Thamel; he carried heavy bags up and down stairs for me, no matter how many times I begged him not to; he arrived early in the morning with a smile on his face ready for the day's adventures; he shared whatever he had, no matter how little it was (the Tibetan way, I'm sure); and he never once complained no matter how cold, wet, tired, or sick he was feeling. I will be hard pressed to meet another person like you Kelsang. I thank you for the many miles you walked beside me or behind me and I will always carry you in my heart.
L to R: Bree, Danny, Kelsang, Karma, Gurkyap in Boudha.
"I was very sad when I got the news of Kelsang's death, and have been sitting with the news and thinking about him all day. He was truly a genuinely sweet person, and always put others before himself. My first trip to Nepal I was taking Thangka painting lessons with Karma, and Kelsang and another Japanese artist were the main painters that I would spend my days with. It was a lot of quiet time but we got to know each other pretty well through that experience. He did the finishing touches on my painting, which they insisted that an experienced artist do, mainly he handled the final touches on the face of the Chenrezig I was painting. I am honored to have that memory and piece of art from him. The next year I came back and he became a much bigger role in my time in Nepal. He became our liaison for every daily item we would do. At that point I was pretty versed in getting around Kathmandu and felt resistant at first to having someone help me with it. But his ability to get fair prices and take me further into the local style and culture of living in Nepal became quickly invaluable, and it just became the norm to always have him nearby whenever we'd do anything. Even if we felt we didn't need him for an outing and wanted to give him a break, he would insist to come along and help with the basics. We became really good at spending time with each other, got to know how to handle long stretches of down time and silence, as well as fun lively trips around the city, long conversations, and lots of card games. There is a wonderful feeling when you get to a point with someone who you don't share the same language with but can share a clear line of humor with, and he and I got to that point where we could give each other a look or a sound or simple comment in reference to something and just start cracking up. We shared a lot of laughs together. I will miss him deeply and really hope to meet his wife and grandson someday, and introduce them to my family too. I hope to go back to Nepal and see people whenever a good opportunity comes up, and when Kora is a bit older, but I can't help but think how hard it will be to land at the airport and not see Kelsang there, and not start the trip with his help getting a taxi out of the airport.
Kelsang, Cho Cho, you are very loved and I wish you the best in whatever path is next for you, many tashi deleks for your journey, your memory will live on in everyone who you met and shared your love, generosity and kindness with. "