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Big Hearts in Little Lhasa

Volunteer Teaching English to Exiled Tibetans in Northern India

Lighting butter lamps at the Dalai Lama's temple.
Lighting butter lamps at the Dalai Lama's temple.

Settling back into “normal life” is always difficult after a long trip, so upon returning from a lengthy stint in Asia I decided a rummage through the random knick knacks collected en route might diffuse post-travel blues. A variety of emotions ensued—joy at the sight of cheesy snaps, mild embarrassment at the clothes which looked so good in India, and bewilderment as to why I had kept bus tickets in a language so foreign it could not even be deciphered where the journeys had begun or ended. But it was not until opening long unseen thank you cards from recent English students that I felt truly moved.

The work experience in India had been quite a leap from my previous teaching post—a very long year in rural Korea, where 300 teenage boys often had me close to tears for all the wrong reasons. But while the Korean stint was a little lacking in job satisfaction, the handsome pay packet enabled the realization a long-term dream—to work as a volunteer teacher.

McLeod Ganj

I arrived in McLeod Ganj, a northern Indian hill town, home to the Dalai Lama. I still had to secure a placement, find somewhere to live, and create a few teaching aids from thin air. And I began to wonder what it would really be like to teach Tibetan Buddhist monks. What kind of students would they be? Doubting that they would fall for active classes filled with silly games, I was instead imagining six weeks of teaching rote learning. But such was not the case at all. In fact, the monks turned out to be superlative scholars—endlessly enthusiastic, full of intelligent questions, and with a seemingly insatiable appetite for cheating at games!

Fate directed me to a perfect placement just hours into the search. The staff at Tibet Charity were fretting over a volunteer deserting them a day before the new term began when I wandered in, begging for a job. A jack-of-all-trades kind of place, yet thoroughly professional, Tibet Charity houses a veterinary clinic for stray dogs, a doctor’s surgery offering traditional and western medicine, and upstairs an English and IT school. The largely Tibetan staff is held together by Choegi, who ensures that no one goes without tea or hot water for more than ten minutes, and is presided over by the perpetually cheerful boss, Tsering.

Monks pass by the school.
Monks pass by the school.

On the third day of work a curious thing happened. I awoke an hour before my alarm clock sounded and felt like a child on Christmas morning. So that is what it feels like to have a job you truly love? I simply could not wait to get out of bed and start working. Fortunately, there was something to keep me occupied until it was time for school—a dozen notebooks filled with homework that had not been assigned. The students, mostly Tibetan refugees now calling India home, were so dedicated that they filled their evenings with self-imposed homework tasks. That is, when they could find the time between attending conversation groups and one-on-one classes with the endless stream of travelers passing through.

The Dalai Lama naturally attracts plenty of tourists to McLeod, and the snow-capped mountains are alluring. But while the scenery and spiritual leaders might draw travelers, it is really the Tibetan people who keep tourists and volunteers—which include hordes of bearded backpackers—from leaving. Visitors who sign up to run a conversation club often find the warmth and hospitality they receive turns a weekend stay into a month-long induction into Tibetan culture.

Views from McLeod.
Views from McLeod.

Prayer flags behind the Dalai Lama's temple.
Prayer flags behind the Dalai Lama's temple

Initiation into Tibetan Culture

My initiation began with Tenzin, an advanced student who approached me for extra classes. But as we sat drinking salty Tibetan tea, what was meant to be an English tutorial soon turned into “Tibet 101.” From him I learned about the various lamas (there are four) and how the latest reincarnation is found. He tried to explain the finer points of Buddhism and offered his criticisms of “monk mania,” where parents push their children towards a life with the clergy, even if they lack the piety and dedication. He has two rebel sisters—the eldest was earmarked for marriage when she ran away to become a nun, while the youngest eloped when her father tried to send her to a convent.

Not sure whether I had passed my preliminary training, I nevertheless moved on to the next level of understanding Tibetan traditions three weeks into the stay. Three of my top students, Dolma, Lhamo, and Yeshi were horrified that I planned to go hiking with a pricey guide, instead insisting that they would lead me and two friends to Triund, a 3,000 meter mountain overlooking the town. The students who grew up on 5,000 meter plateaux could jog up steep slopes as nimbly and quickly as mountain goats, and as they raced ahead giggling and chatting endlessly we were left panting at the back. When we eventually caught up, we were delighted to find a picnic feast awaiting us. Dolma and Yeshi had arisen at 5 a.m. to start the mammoth momo steamathon, cooking enough of the doughy, meat filled parcels for a small army. Considering the climate, it is no real shock that Tibetan food is heavy, meaty, and loaded with carbohydrates. After a long walk to the peaceful sunny hill top, such a feast induced a nap. We awoke to the sounds of a touching ballad, and found that it was Lhamo, singing a nostalgic melody from her nomadic days in Tibet.

Relaxing at Triund.
Relaxing at Triund.

In McLeod, there are many options available to those who wish to actively participate and learn more about the native culture. While some opt to learn the language, others try their hand at painting an intricate thangka. Taken with Tibetan flavors, I decided to enroll in one of the many culinary courses open to curious travelers. A neighboring NGO offered a 1-day cooking course. Our teacher, also called Lhamo, thankfully had the patient temperament typical of her people. She watched without laughing as we repeatedly botched her national dishes, including the momo, and even deigned to sample our misshapen momos fresh out of the steamer. It was a testament to how utterly polite Tibetans are that when we offered our wares to passing students they all smiled and ate them enthusiastically, ignoring the thick uncooked base. Such moments summed up the experience in McLeod—you do not have to be perfect, but if you try to learn a few local traditions you will make some friends for life. The culture, like the language, is facing extinction and every traveler who admires a thangka, samples a momo, or tries to fumble through a sentence of their notoriously tricky language is perhaps helping to preserve Tibetan culture for a few more years.

Mammoth momo lunch.
Mammoth momo lunch.

Teaching Tibetan Students

Back in the classroom, everything was faultless. Having spent much of the last five years trying to convince listless teenagers that studying English is useful and fun, the show of respect from the Tibetan students took a little getting used to. Holding teachers in the highest esteem, the students stand as their tutors enter the room. It was a pleasure to receive notes excusing absentees, invariably addressed “Dear Respected Madam.”

Always delighted to study, the students eagerly learned the grammar, shook off their natural shyness to join in debates, and threw themselves into every form of silly activity. I never tired of seeing enrobed monks charging across the room to grab first prize (my standard reward is a box of happiness) or the barrage of giggles that inevitably followed. For a teacher it was the most rewarding job possible—eager students and a home-cooked meal for lunch each day by way of payment. Of course, all jobs have their drawbacks and the downside of volunteering in Little Lhasa was a big one—leaving. As the sixth week drew near I tried to work out a way to stay, but limited funds and onward travel plans forced me to bid farewell to the students.

My final classes were tearful ones. After a brief and choked up thank you I was suddenly showered with khata—white silk scarves, traditionally given as a welcome or parting gift. Overwhelmed by their presents and heartfelt thank you notes, I wondered when (not if) I would be back. Would I tolerate a further year of apathetic teenagers just to earn the money for another stint in McLeod? In an instant.

In the classroom.
In the classroom.

How to Volunteer in Little Lhasa

Getting There: There is no train station in Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj—the closest is Pathankot, a three to four hour drive away. Decrepit buses ply the route or a taxi should cost around Rs1000 ($16).

Getting Set Up: McLeod Ganj has no shortage of NGOs and most welcome volunteers. Many opportunities are for English teachers (no experience required) though you can help in other ways: Provide admin for the charities, IT classes, organizing events, cleaning up the town, etc. The author worked for Tibet Charity. Another recommended option is Lha Social Work. Though you might feel more comfortable setting something up in advance, some of the charities won’t reserve placements. If you arrive empty-handed, grab a copy of Contact magazine to look for opportunities, or just start knocking on doors.

Getting Sleep: Finding somewhere to stay in McLeod is not challenging. Every third building is a hostel or budget hotel. You could find something for around Rs100 ($2) per night, but paying Rs200-400 ($4-8) will guarantee you a better night’s sleep.

Getting Cultured: There are plenty of organizations around town offering classes to passing tourists. One of the best is Lha (see above), which offers short courses or 1-off classes in Tibetan cuisine, language, yoga, and massage.

Related Topics
Volunteer in India: Programs. Articles and Resources

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