What Nuns Want

December 11, 2010

in Nepal


Each time I make the trek to Everest Base Camp, I stop in to visit the Buddhist nuns in Debuche, making a small donation and sharing their story with my group.

In 1959, a nun named Ani Ngawang Pemba escaped the persecution in Tibet and came to the Everest Region where she asked the head lama of the area’s most prominent monastery for some land. He set aside an area amidst rhododendrons and pine, and the land has been home to a nunnery ever since.

Ani Ngawang Pemba is now over 70 and has been in meditative retreat for the last 50+ years. She is something of a legend, and many climbers come to take her blessing before they attempt the Everest summit. The other 10 or so nuns (~age 25-45) have escaped over the mountains from Tibet in the last decade for the sanctuary of the Everest Valley.

Each time I come to visit, I bring some fresh pears or some spicy chutney, knowing that such foods are not generally available to them in this cold valley. Each time, the nuns chat happily with me (though usually through one of my staff since the nuns speak Tibetan or Sherpa, but not much Nepali), but each time they also set aside the food without much notice. I wasn’t sure if this ambivalence was culturally polite or if they didn’t like the food.

Last spring, I stopped in and found one of the monks from the nearby monastery visiting the nunnery. I knew him, and it made conversation fluid since he could translate easily into Tibetan. I’m always curious about the women who have left Tibet to live in this peaceful spot. We talked a little about life in the nunnery, and before I left, I asked one final question…

Me (to the monk): “I think the nuns don’t like fruit and chutney—they don’t eat much of these?”
The answer: “No, they don’t each much sweet or spicy things.”
Me, one more question: “What would they like me to bring from Kathmandu?”
The typical Nepali polite answer: “Whatever you want.”
Me: “No, really, what would they like? I’m happy to bring something but I’m not sure what they’d like.”
The monk, after consultaion with the nuns: “Whatever you want.”

Okay. I let it go, I’m not going to get any hints. It’s not really culturally appropriate for them to ask for anything from someone they don’t know well. We exchange goodbyes and smiles, and I walk outside.

As I’m standing in front of the nunnery, the kitchen window opens. One of the nuns pokes her head out, “Would you like some tea?”

I suspect immediately this has nothing to do with tea. Tea is just what we do in Nepal. “Sure,” I reply, and I retrace my steps inside wondering, “What do nuns want?”

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