Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Year

This past week was the Nepali festival Tihar, the festival of lights and also a celebration of the Nepali lunar New Year. Kathmandu became decorated with flowers, candles and Christmas-type lights for Tihar, which is often considered the second-most important festival after Dasain. 

Tihar decorations
I had the opportunity to celebrate Tihar with the family of Bhupendra Ghimire, the head of Volunteer Initiatives Nepal (VIN). He openly invited a whole hoard of volunteers to participate in the festivities of his family, watching as he and his siblings exchanged gifts and put tika on each others foreheads. We were then invited to do the same and were spoiled as special guests.

Bhupi and his sister exchanging tika for Tihar. 
Our turn to be spoiled with flowers, tika and food
Even though Tihar is mainly a Hindu festival, the monastery also took a day and a half off and the kids celebrated by watching movies, playing games, and enjoying the fireworks and celebrations taking place in the neighborhood. The school next door held a traditional celebration with music and dance in their courtyard, and so we at the monastery climbed onto the roof to watch. 

The Tihar holiday has inspired a sort of personal "New Years" mentality, meaning that I'm ready and actively working to shift my project into a higher gear. This started for me last Wednesday when I took the day off from the monastery and went to an exhibit on Science and Buddhism. The focus of the exhibit was primarily on neuroscience, and specifically on how both modern science and Buddhism view the five senses. 
Science and Buddhism exhibit
Science texts written for monks
There was also a talk by previous-geneticist, current-monk, and overall famous guy, Matthieu Richard. Sara Taggart sent me a TED talk by him just as I was transitioning from Chile to Nepal, and it was great to hear him speak in person about how meditation physically changes the structure of the brain. 
Matthieu Ricard giving a talk on meditation and the brain.
While the focus of the exhibit wasn't astronomy/physics based, I did get to talk to a few people about the collaborations between astronomy and Buddhism (and science and religion in general). Before going to the exhibit, I was feeling antsy about delving into my project. Afterwards, the antsy-ness turned into actual action to plan out what the rest of my time here is going to be like.

On Friday I met with Sudeep Neupane, who is UNAWE Nepal's main point of contact. (I did an internship at the headquarters of Universe Awareness, or UNAWE, in Leiden, the Netherlands, last summer.) Sudeep just received his masters degree in physics with a focus in astronomy and has been actively involved with astronomy outreach in Nepal for the past few years. He generously offered to help me find schools to visit and children to talk with about astronomy. Through this connection, I went to my first school (or second, if you count the monastery as my first) today, and will be teaching a lesson on astronomy to four classes there tomorrow afternoon. The lessons will be very similar to the ones I gave in Chile -- general overviews of astronomy with a focus on interactivity so I can simultaneously gauge what the students already know. When I met the classes today to introduce myself, the students seemed to know a lot about what astronomy is and how things in the Universe work. I told them that tonight they should go out and look at the stars, as well as think about any stories or legends they know about astronomy so that tomorrow they can share what they know and observed before I share what I know. 

It feels great to be making moves with my project, while still taking time to explore and enjoy Kathmandu. This past weekend, I went with some monks and the regular English teacher at the monastery for a walk (hike? our flip flops would indicate no, but the steep uphill trails would indicate yes) to the Amitabha Monastery. The "White Temple," as it is known by the locals, is a gorgeous and ornate monastery that sits high in the hills above my own neighborhood, giving dramatic views of the Kathmandu valley. The monastery is only open to visitors on Saturdays, and most of the visitors are local Nepali people. For some reason, perhaps its remote location, this is not a main tourist destination, despite its beauty.  
Views form the hike.

The monks I went with are all about my age, and while I sometimes tried to steer the conversation towards science or Buddhism, they would often change the subject to pop culture. They haven't gone on their retreat yet, and so they said their knowledge of Buddhism is basic, even though they've been living in the monastery since childhood. Just like how the kids I teach are like any other kids who like to play and fight and get wild, these monks are just like any other 20ish-year-olds, who enjoy sports and music, joking around, and thinking about the future. 

Only just over a week left in the monastery, and then another two weeks after that in Nepal. I hope to be able to mix school visits with a bit of travel, and also to get the most out of my time at the monastery while I'm here.

Some fun pictures to end with:
Helping to cook at the monastery. LARGEST pots and pans I've every seen -- even at Catoctin.
Swinging after the white temple hike. Probably my last time on a Dasain swing! 

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