Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Journey to Manjushree

By Stephanie Carter


In May 2012, THA President Stephanie Carter (co-founder of Wallaroo Hats) embarked on a life-changing journey to Manjushree, an orphanage in a remote Tibetan enclave just outside the border of China.

This is her remarkable story.

Tawang is a land where time stands still. Located in a very remote region of India and accessed only by car after an arduous 24 hour drive, it remains unknown to much of the world.  The town is nestled at the foot of the Himalayas in northeastern India, 16 km from the China border. It is a Tibetan enclave in the restricted region of Arunachal Pradesh. It is situated in India but remains Tibetan in all ways. It is here that I have journeyed to work in the Manjushree orphanage.

Manjushree was the vision of one young Buddhist monk named Lama Thupten Phuntsok.  He built the orphanage in 1998 with money he raised from the local villagers.  When he opened Manjushree he had 17 children. Today there are more than 200 children.  The orphanage sits at 10,000 feet elevation on a hill with a commanding view of the snow capped mountains in the distance and the small towns and valleys below.

Lama Thupten Phuntsok and Stephanie Carter

I was invited to participate on this journey by my good friend, Dr. Mike Carragher, a doctor based in Los Angeles. He is on the board of AD World Health, which is a non-profit organization that is building a sustainable medical clinic at Manjushree. Mike has traveled to Manjushree several times and continues to return to serve this population of Tibetan people.
There are approximately 40,000 Monpa people who live in the region in and around Tawang.  They have no sustainable health care, clinics or regular medical support. The most basic needs of clean, potable water, basic hygiene and medical support simply do not exist in this region. What we so often take for granted our own country is glaringly absent in Tawang.

The children of the Manjushree Orphanage

Our journey began in Delhi on May 6th. Our team consisted of ten people in total. three doctors, Mike Carragher, Chris King, Dan Miulli and his wife Sandy, two film editors, Padmini Bergman and Jen Viola,  our cameraman Ted Coakley, PJ Ransome (an actor from LA), 14 year old Hailey King, and myself. 
We flew from Delhi to Guwahati on May 7th, and when we arrived we were met by our drivers in two large SUVs. It was a bit of a logistical challenge as we had twenty large duffle bags filled with medical supplies and additional items for the orphans. They loaded the luggage on the tops of the cars and we began the 24 hour drive to Tawang.

The countryside in that part of India is beautiful. It is lush and green and filled with palm trees, beautiful flowers and lots of rivers and lakes.

The scenery is similar to other tropical landscapes around the world, but here there is the addition of the free roaming animals and sadly, an abundance of trash. The drive took us through miles of amazing countryside before beginning our journey into the mountains.

After what seemed like days in the car, we finally arrived in Tawang. It was already 9:30 at night and pitch black but there was an official welcoming committee waiting for us. It was cold as we were now at 10,000 feet elevation. Lama Sir was there with Geshe Thupten and the other members of the staff and they presented us each with a white scarf. They placed them around our necks and showed us to our rooms. They had just completed a new living area for their guests and our rooms were very comfortable. Each room had two twin beds and a private bathroom with hot water. It was luxurious compared to what I was expecting.

Stephanie and Lama Sir

I woke early the next morning to join the children in their early morning chanting. They chant with Lama Sir for 30 minutes every morning at 5:30 am. Their voices are heavenly and they sing very well together. I felt myself getting really emotional as I realized the profoundness of this journey and what it would be like to be one of these children. It reminded me once again of how lucky I am and how much abundance I have in my life. The children range in age from 4 -18 and they have all lost parents or been separated from their families by different circumstances. They have formed an amazing collective family unit here and are very close to one another, but they are still lacking the parental component in their lives.

Lama Sir does an incredible job with these kids, and his kindness and compassion is evident in everything he does. The children seem very happy for the most part and they are loving and tender with one another.  They definitely have a system for taking care of each other, which is evident in their daily activities.

Everyday held something different for us. I would always arise early and join Lama Sir and the children for the chanting. When we were done at 6 am I would go for a run up the road to Tawang. I loved running past the local families and saying "good morning" and waving as I ran past. It was very obvious that they had never seen many western people, never mind a white woman running in shorts. It was amazingly beautiful scenery and looks quite similar to Switzerland. The view of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance was a stark reminder of the altitude, as was the burning in my lungs if I tried to run too fast.
After running I would come back to the orphanage and join everyone for breakfast. Geshe Thupten would make all of our meals and he was quite a good cook. He had a few of the older children helping him in the kitchen to prepare the food. Breakfast usually consisted of pancakes, French fries and eggs of some kind. I got in the kitchen a few times and helped him make scrambled eggs and showed him how to make pancakes with less oil. He was very sweet and always loved having me in the kitchen. I enjoyed spending time with him and the other kids and learning more about them.

We spent the third day we were at Manjushree de-licing the entire orphanage. This is no easy feat with little hot water and 200 kids. The staff was wonderful and made the entire day a bit easier for us. They took huge cauldrons of water and boiled them on a fire just outside of the dormitories.

This effort took most of the day and the children were all very good-natured about it. I never heard anyone complain and they never even made a peep while we were combing out their hair. I was most impressed.

The next day we traveled with our medical supplies to a local monastery near the orphanage that is home to 300 monks of varying ages, mostly young boys. The custom in this area is to send the second son to the monastery when he reaches five years of age, so there are a lot of young boys living in the monastery. The families in this region do not have the money to take care of their children, and this is one way to ensure that they have fewer mouths to feed. The children are clothed and fed and educated in the monastery and this is often a better life than if they remained with their families.

The young monks after being treated by Dr. Mike.

We arrived around 10:30 and they had biscuits and tea ready for us. We set up our stations and began the process of collecting names, vital signs and basic information before having them see the doctors. I was surprised to find that many of the people in this area suffer from high blood pressure. It is a bit odd as the monks spend so much time being still and meditating that you would think they would have very low blood pressure.

Stephanie taking a young monk’s blood pressure

Once we were done treating them they presented us each with protection cords and other gifts from the monastery. We received another white blessing scarf too, which they placed around each of our necks.
The next day we went to a local school to treat the kids there. I helped Deb run the pharmacy and we dispensed medications to the people who had seen the doctors and needed medicine. We handed out a lot of antibiotics and salves for various conditions.

In the 17 days that I spent at the orphanage we provided basic medical care to more than 600 men, women and children.

Kids at the orphanage waiting to see the doctor.

The medical treatment we administered was usually of a most basic type, but we saw a lot of very sick people. It seemed that most everyone needed to be treated with some type of antibiotics as there were a lot of upper respiratory infections, coughs, bronchitis, ear infections, eye infections and impetigo. I found this work to be incredibly humbling as the end result of this medical care is ensuring the sustainability of this population of people.

Dr. Mike’s Hygiene Presentation

More than just providing medical care there is the realization that helping the Monpa people will help their customs and culture continue to exist and thrive in this area.

Providing those less fortunate with access basic medical care is very important to me. I left a small part of my heart in that remote but beautiful place and I am certain to return to Tawang and work at this amazing orphanage again.

We should all strive to serve and help those who are less fortunate than we are. It is such an important part of maintaining community and international relations.
This was an experience that I will never forget.

On Top of Sela Pass @ 14,000 feet

Sunrise at the Taj Mahal