We are on the backside of the Potala Palace, the one thousand room edifice that sits atop a huge natural rock pedestal in the middle of otherwise perfectly level Lhasa, Tibet. It makes for dramatic scenery, as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.

It is dark. Lhasa is on Beijing time even though it is located far to the west of it so everything seems off; sunrise and sunset happen later than we expect. We got up for a morning walk at the usual time but it might as well be midnight. The few Tibetan pilgrims walking with us are mere shadows moving through the night. We pass one who is slowly prostrating his way down the stone walkway. Another is working the long line of prayer wheels, a clockwise spin to each one, softly murmuring a mantra to himself.

We are circambulating (a Kora) the Potala Palace and it is immense; begun in the 7th century and consisting of two main sections, the lower white section that was used for government and the upper white section that was the Dalai Lama’s residence. The white palace is an imposing expanse spanning our entire range of view. Off to the left I see the morning star, all alone, glimmering in the dark sky, and on the opposite side the last sliver of crescent moon, like a Tibetan singing bowl suspended from above by invisible strings.

I see another solitary light shining from a window of the white palace, a small but conspicuous illumination against the otherwise dim wall of stone, like a searchlight on a distant hilltop. Somebody probably forgot to turn off a light after the tours yesterday were complete, but I like to imagine a monk who had trouble sleeping sitting by the window reading.

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Rubi’s Story

Rubi at preschool, 2009

Rubi and Nissa first encounter

Reading “The Hungry Caterpillar”

In 2008 Caroline and I stepped out of the relative tranquility of the Kathmandu Guest House and into the pandemonium of Thamel, the famous expatriate neighborhood that is the traditional haunt of mountain climbers, trekkers, hippies, and counterculturists of all stripes.

Thamel in early morning, before it all begins

As soon as we hit the pavement, we encountered Rubi, a four-year-old wearing a red dress and an attitude that belied her small size. She was little, but her energy level was a fair match for her environs. Rubi was in constant motion, darting about like a mosquito, seemingly everywhere at once. Just by noticing her we attracted her attention and she latched onto us. We fell into a conversation, or what might pass for one between two people who spoke only English and a three year old who didn’t. Despite the language barrier, Rubi talked incessantly and led us to her mother, Nissa, who made a living selling souvenirs to tourists. Nissa’s place of business was the sidewalk and her wares were spread out on the ground, just out of the way of the street traffic. One thing led to another and we soon established a routine of spending a little time with Rubi and Nissa before we left Thamel for the day and when we returned in the afternoon.

Anyone who wanders through Thamel can’t help but notice that there are a lot of unaccompanied children. At that time, only half the children of Nepal went to school, the rest were left to their own devices and the expectation of future life of poverty and hardship.

One day I was working at the hospital and got a call from Caroline. She had decided to approach Nissa and offer some money so that Rubi could start preschool. As it turned out, Nissa had already enrolled her daughter in school and was spending half her monthly income to pay for it.

Caroline went with Nissa to Everest School, spoke with the principal, and arranged for us to sponsor Rubi’s schooling for that year. We have stayed in touch with Nissa ever since that day have sponsored Rubi’s education.

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(Caroline photo)

Nepal is colorful in the same way that Mt. Everest is tall.

The Nepali Crayola Crayon box:

Sari Red

Incense White

Street Market Green

Lapis Blue

Flame Gold

Roof Tile Brick

Wood Carving Brown

Cauliflower Yellow

Temple Grey

Marigold Orange


The Butterfly

I’m walking down the street in the photo above. It is a typical Kathmandu street, though not every thoroughfare is as frantic with activity or so chock full of stuff. I could find anything here; anything a Nepali would ever need. It’s a riot of commerce and a bee hive of human activity. Thrown into the mix are the usual animals: stray dogs, chickens, an occasional goat, a meandering cow.

What I don’t expect to see, but do, is a butterfly. I look up and meet an intrepid little insect fluttering about, making her way up the street on four black wings and a prayer.

What is she doing here? It’s not a very hospitable environment for a butterfly. Is she lost? Does anyone else notice her? Doubtful, but I’m so mesmerized that I stop dead in my tracks to watch. I completely lose track of Caroline and her friend, Prashna, who keep on walking.

In this moment there must be some life lesson. What is it, I wonder? I think it would have something to do with courage, or determination, or optimism, or “high hopes”, like with that ant from the song about moving the rubber tree plant. There is also probably a dash of foolishness in the story somewhere. Whatever, I just know that it is lovely to see a butterfly in this place, of all places.

“Hello, butterfly. Thank you for showing yourself to me. Good travels!”


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    I step into the rock circle and look down the canyon into the valley below. I’m on a small platform that is the only place on this steep mountainside level enough for me to arrange my stones in the formation I was told to construct. This will be my “Purpose Circle,” and its purpose is ceremony.  I am on a vision quest. It is the second day of my solo in the wilderness; the third day of my four-day fast. Ceremony is what we do here. Ritual is more or less a part of everything.


  I am in the desert, and it is a fierce environment; a stark landscape that is beautiful in its barrenness, where plants and animals cling to life as they wait for the next rain to fall on the sand and the stones. Yet it does rain. At least in January it does. And it’s colorful, not painted only in tones of brown. The stones lying about are so varied in shade and pattern that I could be walking through a child’s box of marbles rather than the high desert of Southern California. In this, the wet season, the desert springs to life and blossoms like an English garden. I couldn’t be surrounded by more colors if I were dropped into the inner workings of a giant kaleidoscope.

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