I’m Turning Thirty, And I Live In A Monastery

I sliced my thumb this morning with a meat cleaver.

I woke up a little after 5A.M. to peel potatoes and roll momos. A conch shell is my daily alarm, the horn echoing over homes and rice fields below. Sleepy monks file into the main hall of the monastery to begin their first ceremony shortly after.

As they recite Tibetan text, I sweep the cement floor with a hand broom of sticks and pour myself instant coffee.

I’m not Buddhist. I’m not on some spiritual or religious quest. I’m a social worker from New York who quit a bunch of things and fundraised my way to Nepal a year ago.

I’ve learned some basic phrases in Nepali, answers to the most commonly asked questions:

I’m American. I’m a volunteer. I’m unmarried. I have no children.

I’m here by myself.

I’m almost thirty.

According to the American Dream, I’m a complete failure.I don’t own a house or a car. What I do own fits into a duffle bag. I sleep under a mosquito net. My savings account is negligible, and I have student loans I will probably never be able to pay.

In full disclosure, it’s been awhile since I received a regular paycheck.

I’d always imagined monasteries as places of quiet spiritual study and contemplation; however, when I first arrived as an English volunteer, I discovered the monastery more closely resembled a child’s home than religious institution.

Boys were running away, one committed suicide, ex-monks from all over the world messaged me with stories of minimum wage jobs and emotionally-strained relationships.

It was evident English teaching wasn’t the only thing that was needed.

Monks enter monasteries as small children. A few of them have been sent from traditional families as tokens of cultural duty and respect. Others have been enlisted by families hoping their children will receive better shelter and care than what they can provide. I’ve seen some boys arrive with traces of psychological disorders and trauma, coming from homes with little means and absent parents.

A handful of guardians use the monastery as punishment for disobedience at home.

Child monks at a monastery in Kathmandu. The youngest is four.

They are typical kids. Once the mallet signals the end of class, they rush to their rooms to nap on wooden frames and play games on mobile phones. The adventurous sneak down the stairs to the nearest game house and clutch video game controllers. They fight. They cry. They get jealous and talk behind each others backs. They know the lyrics to the latest Hindi songs and look forward to playing in Sunday’s weekly football match.

They miss their mothers.

Eight out of ten will leave once they enter adulthood. With no training or certificate, many ex-monks wind up working labor jobs or worse, sitting around and drinking. Some are ostracized from their families. They’ve been raised in an atypical environment and often find it difficult to enter secular society.

Monks in their late teens and twenties. They been living in the monastery since they were children.

Call it naiveté or blind youth, I began tackling projects with the conviction that one person can benefit a community, can make a difference, can create change. Education provides choice, and everyone deserves the right to choose the course of their own life.

I couldn’t hope someone else came along to fix the problems I uncovered.

In one year’s time, I’ve hired a local English teacher, worked closely with administration to restructure and improve existing academic offerings, organized the first dental clinic, fundraised money to provide solar for classrooms and common areas, hosted birthday parties for kids who have no idea when they were born, lifted boulders to build a new school, and supplemented daily diets of thukpa with pineapple, cucumber salads, and the occasional pizza party.

Not every day is perfect. There are days I wonder if I’m doing good at all. My body is covered in insect bites, I get sick of eating rice and noodles, I’ve been splattered in the face by puss from an abscessed tooth.

There are moments I’m tired and cranky and understand little.

But some days I head to the market for bananas and oatmeal for sick students. When I organize group outings and make plans to develop an in-house volunteer program. When I write to-do lists for our growing school. If the guys want to stay at the monastery, fine, but if they want to leave and find jobs and be contributing members of the community, they can do that, too.

Even high in the Himalayas, I’m faced with questions regarding worth and success.

Birthday number 3-0 carries weight. For many, it’s a benchmark at which to take stock of your life’s accomplishments. It has me wondering if the ways we’ve been taught to measure wealth are distorted. If the scales we use to determine value and impact are skewed, if we’re asking the wrong questions.

As I approach a new decade, I consider:

Are you helping others?

Are you accomplishing set goals?

Do you feel welcomed into a community?

Are there people in your life who support you?

Are you learning, getting just a little bit better, more patient, more compassionate, more understanding, more loving each day?

Father and son in traditional Gurung dress. Photo taken in Lower Pisang, Manang.

I have no idea what the future holds. I never could have imagined I’d end up here, but I can’t imagine my life any other way. I’ve been welcomed into the families and communities of these men — Gurung, Tamang, Manangi.

I chop onions alongside women whose skin is worn like leather. They ask if I’ve eaten dal bhat, if I’ve had tea. I carry their children on my back, fold my hands in Namaste greeting and try my best to speak correct Nepali, placing verbs at the end of sentences.

I’m living a dream, my dream.

Perhaps I’m not a failure after all.

The author (that’s me) in a rural village, Nepal.

You can learn more about my projects at www.khatalife.com. I try to post (when I can!) on facebook and twitter, and my experiences from Nepal creep into my blog posts from time to time.

If you’re thinking about volunteering abroad, I encourage you to do so mindfully. Ask lots of questions — of both yourself and of the organizations you’re considering. Some of my writings on voluntourism may be helpful as you embark on your adventure.

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I promote education and leadership in Nepal (www.learninghousenepal.com) and host dinners in NYC (www.projectexponential.com). More: www.michellewelsch.com.

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I promote education and leadership in Nepal (www.learninghousenepal.com) and host dinners in NYC (www.projectexponential.com). More: www.michellewelsch.com.