It was an adventure reaching Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community.
Our journey began on the first day of Losar – the Tibetan New Year. Leaving the bustling and warm Indian City of Tezpur behind, we packed up the jeep and headed for the foothills of the Himalayas. We slowed for the families of monkeys in the roads and I noted the yellow “Elephant Crossing” signs along the roadway. The USA was officially far behind! As we ascended, the roads became ever more perilous and the views ever more breathtaking.
Despite the skull and cross-bone signs posted along the roadways, I felt safe in the hands of Kailash, our Monpa driver, who navigated every hairpin turn with caution and experience. We spent the first night in Dirang, one of the old administrative headquarters of Tibet, its majestic monastery covered in frost on the hill above. Travelers heading back down to the plains warned us that it had snowed on the Sela Pass that day. The Sela Pass is the second highest roadway in the world and has been described as ‘Heaven on Earth’. I was looking forward to the snowy crossing but was secretly relieved to hear that we had chains for the tires should we need them.
The next day dawned cold but sunny.
We headed out at dawn, determined to make it to Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community for a late Welcome Lunch. We drove higher and higher into the mountains. The landscape was dotted by ice covered pines and the occasional woven bamboo tea stalls selling hot chai, instant noodles and simple egg omelets for hungry and cold travelers. Crossing the Sela Pass is not for the faint of heart. I marveled at the snowcapped peaks and incredible remoteness of my destination. Hours later we could spot the red roofs and prayer flags of JG on the hill below us. My heart leapt with emotion as we were welcomed by a smiling line of staff and children wearing traditional dress and offering us “khatas” – white scarfs that are placed around the neck of an honored guest. After the emotional introductions, we ate a delicious picnic lunch of ‘mo-mo’s ‘ a celebratory dish of steamed vegetable dumplings. I took in the startling beauty of this Himalayan mountain ridge and the bright campus buildings. The joyful energy held in this space was palpable from the moment of arrival.
Living for three weeks in the community I was able to observe the kids gardening, playing sports, dancing and breaking out into song as they help prepare dinner…I watched them studying for exams, holding the younger children on their laps, taking turns washing the piles of breakfast plates and sweeping the floors as they chatted and joked. As the mother of an American teenager, I marveled at the older children’s ability to be truly be present in each moment. It was heartening to watch them alternate between reverence during meditation and giggling silliness walking to lunch. I looked forward to their greetings -which were either politely called across the lawn “Good Morning, Madam!” or in the form of bear hugs when I least expected it.
As I engaged in deep conversations with the teenagers about their life experiences and their dreams for the future, my wonder and admiration for them only increased. How much wisdom they already held, how much I to learn from the adults that had guided them from a place of suffering into these vibrant and loving beings! It dawned on me that Jhamtse Gatsal wasn’t just a place for children to heal but rather a place from which much healing springs forth.
I believe this is what Jhamtse Gatsals’ founder, Lobsang Phunsok, had always intended -each child radiating out the love and compassion that this world so desperately needs. I said my goodbyes feeling so grateful to be one tiny spark in the shining light that is the Jhamtse family. How lucky we are to be connected through the laughter from the children on this Himalayan mountain ridge and to be held in their daily prayers and mediations. On one of our afternoon walks, Lobsang told me that even a smile can be an act of compassion. Now, even on my busiest day, I am able to evoke the joyful energy of Jhamste Gatsal through the simple gift of a genuine smile…