A Card From The Himalayas
“If we look at the world with a love of life, the world will reveal its beauty to us.” – Daisaku Ikeda
The other day, I was digging through some old files and boxes, and came across a card. I wiped away the dust, held it in my hands, and grazed the textured paper with my finger tips. The card immediately brought back a rush of memories of my time in the Himalayas in 2006, and of the special people I met there.
After my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Toronto, I was accepted into an international development summer program through McMaster University called the Social and Ecological Studies of the Himalayas (SESH). I spent the summer in Northern India working with an NGO, and immersing into the Himalayan culture. I taught at local schools, visited remote villages, and learned about the social and health issues the people there face. I met people with vastly different life experiences and learned much from their life struggles. The people in the local villages were plagued with many problems such as environmental disasters, sanitation, and infant mortality. Although this trip had its challenges, it was also extremely fulfilling. It opened my eyes to the India I had longed to see.
The card I found was from the microcredit project the NGO ran to help women sustain their livelihoods. It was made of recycled paper, had custom embroidery, and had a Himalayan flower pressed into the front cover.
There is a saying in Zen Buddhist teachings, as well as a word in Sanskrit, that means to look at everything around you as whole, perfect, or complete.
It means that if you look at a piece of paper, you marvel at the piece of paper and value it as a gift. You look at the piece of paper and see more than just a blank sheet with spaces and lines. You see the complete story, the whole essence, and the perfect nature of the piece of paper. You see the rain that fell on the trees the paper was made from; you see the forests and earth that supplied these same trees with nutrients to grow; you see the loggers and industry workers that cut the trees and produced the paper.
Looking at the card brought about a similar feeling of marvel and appreciation. I saw the beautiful faces of the people I met in the Himalayas, their smiles, and the amount of effort and care that went into making each card. In particular, I thought of one woman I met.
We called her Didi (sister), and she was a labourer in the garden for the NGO’s school. Her entire day consisted of many tasks, including breaking stones for the garden bed, picking out weeds, turning the soil, planting the seeds, transporting heaps of wheat on her back, bailing wheat for roti for our meals, and carrying cow dung from half a kilometre away from where the cows were.
Although it wasn’t a part of our jobs, a few interns and I decided we were going to join Didi whenever we could to experience “real” Himalayan life. So we sat there with her breaking stones in the sweltering summer sun; we picked out weeds in the mountain-side garden beds which looked like rice paddies; and we carried cow dung in sacks on our backs with her, one bag at a time, from half a kilometre away (Didi would carry 3 times what we could).
All this work was what it took to grow our food, feed the animals, and grow the flowers that paint the Himalayan landscape.
What I loved most about Didi, and still remember to this day, is how she looked at the world with a love of life and gratitude for all that nature provides for us.
Didi led a very simple life, wore the same clothes every day, and was by no means wealthy. But, she was full of joy – always ready to share a smile, or a story, or take interest in others. One time, she even invited me to her home for chai, which in Indian culture, is a sign of hospitality and respect. Her home was the size of a standard first year dorm room in university, and her and her two kids lived there. There was a single bed, one chair, and a small propane camping stove; and that was all. She made me some chai, and it was one of the best cups I’ve ever had.
Despite my Hindi, and her local Garwali dialect, we were able to understand one another. She told me how her life was very difficult, and that I should do something with my life in order to help others. To this day, her words remain forever imprinted on my heart, and I know that someday I will return to the Himalayas to help the villagers there.
Looking at the card in front of me, and the flower from the Himalayan valley pressed into it, brought a smile to my face. Although the card is blank on the inside, I realized how beautiful it is and all that it represents for me. It serves as a reminder of my time in the Himalayas, but more importantly, it reminds me to see things around me as perfectly complete and whole.
It reminds me to stay curious about learning more about someone’s story, or where a product comes from, and most importantly, appreciate the privilege I have of being on the receiving end of so much in my life. It also reminds me to eat more slowly and value my food; stop and smell the flowers in gardens; and appreciate the people who work to bring me these simple pleasures. Most of all, it reminds me of Didi and the promise I kept to her to make a difference with my life and give back to others.
What is a keepsake you have which reminds you of someone, a lesson you learned, or a special time in your life?
P.S. This post is dedicated to the women of the Himalayas, especially Didi.