There were many more volunteers in the house than I had anticipated. It was Sunday when I had arrived and the other volunteers were just preparing their lesson plans for the week. I had no idea what to expect coming into the house seeing as the only other stories I had heard about volunteering with IVHQ was from Gabi. During her volunteer experience, she lived in a mud hut in the middle of the Kenyan jungle, survive off bread, chai and chocolate and shit on the front lawn; so that’s pretty much the experience I intended to have. I was pleasantly surprised at our accommodation; a three story house with is a TV and multiple couches in the common area, a table with food on it 24/7 and bipolar wifi that decides to work when you need it the least. I was nervous about the first day of teaching; I have never taught kids anything except dance and that consisted of me yelling at them “WHY DON'T YOU GET IT?!”. I knew volunteering and teaching English would be a huge challenge for me, which was part of the reason I wanted to do it. I knew it would test my patience and that also appealed to me. Plus, who wouldn’t want to spend all day in a classroom with little Buddhist monks in maroon robes with shaved heads in the middle of the Himalayan mountains?
There are three monasteries in the village of Bir that the volunteers are distributed between. I was designated to Chokling which is the largest and in my opinion, the most beautiful one of the three. It is also, consequently, the least structured. 5 of us volunteers walked into the monastery for the morning class on the first day, all anticipating to have our own classroom to teach. When we got to the school, all the doors were locked and the youngest monks came up to us saying “ma’am, no class, no class”. We later found out that due to the Tibetan holiday Losar (new year), grades 2-5 had no class for the week because they were spending their days at Puja, which is a prayer ritual where the devotee makes a spiritual connection to the divine. So 5 of us went into the grade 1 class where the hour and a half consisted of us trying to tame the wild monkeys and attempt to see where their skill levels were at, which was impossible. We left the classroom feeling defeated and useless. For the afternoon portion of class, I tagged along with an Aussie named Dominique to a different monastery called Nyingma to see if there was a class for me to teach there. When we walked into the classroom, all the little monks were sitting on the floor patiently awaiting her arrival. The behaviour of these children compared to the morning class was night and day. The kids in the afternoon class were eager to learn and willing to put the work in to succeed. While sticking as a helper in this class would undoubtedly be the easy way to go, I felt like I wouldn’t be making much of a difference if I resorted to that path.
The mini monks are usually pretty rowdy in the afternoon section of class, so we played more educational games before setting them free to run around outside like the wild animals they are. Its safe to say I was the strict teacher out of us three (hands up if this is surprising to you). I kicked one kid out, named Renchin, for the entire class one day because he’s the instigator of the group. When he’s not around, the majority of the kids are focused on the work at hand. When he is there, everyone runs around the classroom hitting each other with sticks and screaming bloody murder. Using my most stern and serious voice, I told him he wasn’t welcome in the classroom if he was going to continue being such a little shit. That is not a direct quote, but whatever I said seemed to work as he only came back into the classroom near the end to sit in the corner by himself and read. He’s extremely smart so we were working on challenging him and giving him more responsibility in the classroom but just like anything, that takes time, effort and being reprimanded with a stick. I had a few personal favourite little monkeys; the first being Phupra. He was new to the monastery and didn't even have a robe, so he always wore the same stripped top and khaki pants. He didn't know the alphabet very well, so I spent a lot of time helping him spell out words while equally benefitting by putting my own patience to the test. His brother Ajay is also adorable, keen to learn and always waits until both him and his brother have completed the work before colouring his worksheet. A close second is none other than the 1/1.2 billion Tenzin’s there are in the world. He’s eager, funny and his raspy voice just kills me. “Ma’am, O? E? A!!?!?!”.
On the weekend six of us did a road trip to Amritsar. We hired a taxi and the drive took around 6 hours from Bir. We only stayed one evening in Amritsar, which was more than enough to see everything we wanted to see. Amritsar is a city in the Northwest that borders Pakistan. The majority of Indians in Amritsar wear turbans, which I’m used to seeing in Vancouver. I won’t lie to you, it felt a lot like a road trip to Surrey, but with less violence and no Mirage in sight. I got my curry fix and had some wonderful butter masala. We spent the first afternoon at the Golden Temple. and went back to watch the sunset and observe the beautiful chanting. It was nice to get one last taste of real india, because Bir is such a small, clean village and we always joke that we are in Tibet and not India. FUNNY RIGHT? I embraced the chaotic traffic, stray cows and invasive stares one last time. We slept in the next morning and then searched high and low for a bar that served alcohol. It was Stephanie’s birthday and being from Ireland, she wanted to spend it in a b-aaaaaarrrrrrr. My kind of lady. We stuffed ourselves with Indian food and beers at the bar below the Grand Hotel called Bottoms Up before heading an hour north to the Pakistan border. Sketchy? Maybe.
My final week of volunteering came to an end right when I was beginning to see progress with my monks. I had begun to develop strong relationships with my class, had established a routine each class and enjoyed the down time outside of the monastery equally as much. It took me a while to settle into the calmness that is Bir. When I arrived, I was miserable and freezing for the first few days. I wondered how I would make it through two weeks without getting frostbite. After finding a hot water bottle that another volunteer had left behind, I could actually sleep through the night. Once we got our classroom more structured and lesson plans organized, teaching became easier and more enjoyable as. The kids came to know us and although they are often naughty, they’re little boys with shaved heads running around in maroon robes. HOW CAN YOU NOT JUST GIVE THEM YOUR ENTIRE HEART? As I walked through the village to get my bananas in the morning and to the monastery for Puja at night, the small Tibetan village became increasingly more charming.