Warm Hands and Notepads and Butter tea

By Ben Byrne  /  May 5, 2017;

Volunteer Job at Lha: English teacher and Contact magazine writer

Ben Byrne

I first arrived in McLeod Ganj in February 2017. I’d been tramping about in India since November. I’d stood around in bank queues in the newly demonetized nation, had a few chinwags with other tourists about how spiritual they were, and had a nosy at a few swanky palaces where the old latrines that Maharajas used to do their business in were ‘literally’ still there for me to see.

Needless to say I was feeling pretty enlightened and didn’t think that I needed to see any more Baba’s or have any more conversations about whether I’d read Shantaram. I decided to stay in McLeod and see if there was any volunteer work going.

I stumbled across Lha on my second day in town. It seemed like a legit gig and best of all there was a distinct lack of bureaucratic nonsense to go through before I could start work. ‘Come tomorrow and teach the elementary level class’, Lobsang from the library told me. ‘No CRB check, no blood test, no ten-minute demonstration class?’ I thought. This was too good to be true.

The classes were 90 minutes. I thought that was going to be a bit long. I was used to teaching Korean kindergarten children who could concentrate on English for about 5 minutes before their heads exploded and they became interested in trying to pluck the hairs out my arms whilst telling me I looked like a monkey in their native language. The Tibetan students, mostly monks, in my class at Lha turned out to be a little different, which in hindsight isn’t really surprising.

The students were so attentive. I couldn’t believe it. I was teaching them the alphabet and they were staring at me with such concentration you’d have thought I was sharing with them a foolproof plan for Tibetan independence with no obvious stumbling blocks. I was on a roll; the students even sang some cheesy children’s songs when I asked them too.

Ben with his students

I taught the elementary class for a month. The students would come up and embrace me in the street. ‘Ohhh, my teacher, my teacher’, they would say adoringly. We’d shake hands and they would hang on for longer than I was accustomed too. Their hands were warm though. This always surprised me because it was February and I was freezing. They were elementary students so our passing conversations were limited. ‘Where are you going?’, I would say. ‘I go my home’, they would often respond. Other times they’d look a bit confused at my question and take a stab in the dark with a look at their watch and ‘it’s 11 o’clock’. After that we’d continue shaking hands for an inordinate amount of time and nod and smile at each other until one of us said, ‘ok bye bye, see you tomorrow’.

For the second month, I stopped teaching the class and concentrated on writing for Contact magazine. This was fun. I’d walk around town with a notepad and burst into Tibetan offices in a righteous fervour trying to uncover a breaking story. The community is very accessible. You can easily get quotes from bigwigs. The Dalai Lama, however, remained elusive. I thought of disguising myself as a reincarnation of the wisdom Buddha to see if I could get access to him for a quote on whether he thought Tibetan medicine was ‘intangible culture’ but alas, my passion for journalism wasn’t extensive enough for me to go through all of the rigmarole that would’ve entailed.

All in all I had a great time and I definitely hope to come back in the future. It’s a worthy cause and everybody involved in the Lha organisation, volunteers, staff and students, were very welcoming and fun to work with. The only thing I’d take issue with was the butter tea. Butter’s good, a fridge staple. Put it on bread, hard to spread sometimes and the bread gets all mashed up, but still, jazzes it up. Or it’s good as cooking oil. But butter tea? Not for me.

    Print       Email