The “chuba” or “chupa” is a Tibetan word for an ankle length robe worn by Tibetans. Slight variations of it are worn by members of the Sherpa community and a number of cultural and language groups across the Himalayan regions.
Even though I had passed by many chuba shops during my visits to Nepal, I took my time about buying one. I didn’t want to treat someone’s actual clothing like a costume or a quaint souvenir.
Apart from its wearability for celebratory occasions in Singapore, I wanted a chuba as a visual reminder of my encounters in Nepal. From the Nepali friends of the Newari, Tamang, Rai, Gorkha and various culture/ language groups, I’ve learnt what it means to be generous and resourceful at ALL times.
So after thinking about it for about 8 years, I finally bought my first chuba from one of the shops at Boudha in December 2019.
Little did I know that a month after that purchase, Covid-19 would affect all human interactions & put a stop to trips abroad. In Singapore the Circuit Breaker measures kept people housebound, affected jobs, schools and gatherings of all sorts.
It looked like my chuba from Boudha wouldn’t be required for a while I figured. But I was wrong.
This May I received my first ZOOM birthday celebration invitation. The birthday celebrant is an avid traveller & photographer. Travel restrictions had affected her birthday plans.
So that night holed up in my little flat with my cats, I put on the chuba as it was purposed for.
And the birthday lady, being the good sport that she is, turned up on ZOOM in lapis lazuli blue and a strand of turquoise around her neck.
As the fireworks went off in her living room, while her parents looked on in amusement, her dogs in puzzlement, and ZOOM guests cheered, I felt that although we were physically “grounded,” our spirit was free.
The chuba from Boudha has also become a pleasant reminder that the darker the times are, the more brightly we can try to shine, and the less we have, the more deeply we may experience abundance.
Today I wore my necklace of turquoise stones from Nepal to an animal shelter in Singapore. My friend had invited me to join her for some volunteering work there.
Turquoise is called the Sky Stone by Tibetans. It has many healing properties. By having turquoise on me, I wanted to remind myself to constantly project vibes of health & vitality, and not pity on the animals that I saw or touched. And of course I also wanted to look good and dress up for the cats and dogs.
Like most animal shelters, this one is located in a fairly remote part of Sg. Volunteering is a commitment that requires planning, time and travelling.
Not one to take such an opportunity lightly, we decided to dedicate today’s work at the shelter to my friend’s late brother. He had set an example of kindness to animals for his younger sister during their growing up years.
When he was studying in JC (Junior College), he rescued a kitten. He was the first in her family to persuade their parents to adopt a dog. And because of him, their home has become a refuge for a number of animals over the years.
Upon our arrival at the shelter we met a young man who was there on his own. Daryl had just completed JC and wanted to spend his time helping animals.
So the morning went by with us unwrapping metal frames, hooking them to each enclosure to increase vertical space for the cats, and slipping pillow cases over the frames to form beddings for the feline occupants to sleep comfortably above ground.
A few were trying to climb onto their midair contraptions even as their “housekeepers” were still making their beds.
When the beddings were secured, the cats took to their mini airmocks with gratitude.
Meanwhile, the rain came, followed by the glorious sun.
Towards tea time, every single cat that was visible to us was acknowledged. Eye contact, smiles, head rubs, cuddles and wishes of healing were given & received.
And the kitties in hiding would have felt our goodwill, for the whole shelter was bathed in a golden afternoon light when our mission was completed.
After the shelter, we stopped by a cafe for some needed hydration & reflection. The cafe was located in a garden nursery with very strong balinese landscape features.
We took pictures with the balinese stone carvings of dancers and frangipani, and the Rainbow showed up to join us. Of course there are scientific and technical explanation for its appearance in the photos. But we were thrilled with the unexpectedness of it all, as if we had been bestowed some divine blessings even as we were simply having fun.
When I got home later in the evening I checked a text that was sent from Nepal during our time at the shelter.
The text came with a picture.
It showed my Nepali host, Reena, holding on her palm, one half of the turquoise earrings that matched the necklace I wore today. I had lost that earring last December in Nepal.
And just this morning I was wondering if I would ever see the missing half of my earrings again.
The surprise emergence of a little turquoise after being lost for months seemed to be showing me that what is spoken or thought of with love can never be completely lost.
And this thought encourages me to dedicate whatever remaining time and energy I have to seemingly “lost” causes.
It also strengthens my habit of performing deeds of relief in the name of people and animals that have left this earthly realm.
Like the Rainbow that arches over us, we are constantly held and supported by the sacred presence of those we love.
This December was our 8th year at the Tribuhvan Airport to catch our flight from Nepal to Singapore.
After a long day of queuing & waiting, we finally made it to the gate where we would be bussed to our plane.
It was evening. It had been drizzling all day. I was looking forward to the comfort of a SilkAir seat when a young woman from the ground staff appeared in our transit area.
She announced nervously that our flight was cancelled. The incoming flight crew had exceeded the stipulated flight time. For safety reasons, the flight had to be rescheduled to the next day, and the timing was still unknown.
Like a movie on rewind, we plodded out of the transit room and trudged back to the counters to have our pass ports stamped “Flight Cancelled” and dragged ourselves to the dreaded check-in counters to return our boarding passes.
Passengers with connecting flights from Singapore were understandably more vocal in expressing their anxieties, but most of us were able to contain our frustrations.
More standing followed as we waited for clearance and further instructions. Some staff were on the phones, some staring at computer screens, and all trying their best to avoid eye contact with irate passengers, and clearly no one was in charge.
In the midst of all the above, a young man, maybe in his late twenties, left the counter where all his colleagues seemed to be milling about and walked among us.
He was a good looking man, but he had an arrogant air about him as he looked at people as if through his nose. But he seemed the only one who was actively managing the queues. When he saw me, he pointed to the chairs & said softly, “You can sit. Sit down.”
For a moment I couldn’t match the kind tone to the cold face. On hindsight, I think appearing detached could just be a defence mechanism when facing a bunch of tired & tense people.
Some time later he came to ask me to sit down again.
When the buses to take us to the Crowne Plaza Hotel where we would spend the night arrived, they were quickly filled up.
A group of us had to wait for the next one.
By now, night had deepened, we hadn’t taken dinner and the winter drizzle seemed to be gathering power.
As I was wondering just how long more we had to stand in the open cold, I saw Cold Man speaking animatedly to his suited superior standing by a hotel van, presumably to ferry business class passengers.
In the stone cold silence I still had no idea what was going on except that Cold Man kept gesticulating at me as he spoke to his mustachioed boss. When his expressions got more earnest, it dawned on my frozen brain that he was trying to get me on the hotel van so that I need not wait a minute longer for the bus!
Thanks to Cold Man’s persistence, some of us had a pleasant ride in comfort to our destination where hot showers and dinner awaited.
I never learnt Cold Man’s name, don’t know his position except that he broke ranks to make things a little easier for someone in need. And I’ll always remember how passionately he persuaded his boss on a cold rainy winter night to care.
On our second day in Nepal (6 Dec) , a little vase on our table at the Third Eye Restaurant in Thamel caught our eye with its simplicity. It stood humbly among all the grander looking cuisine serving utensils.
Holding a single stalk of marigold, the brass vase reminded me of the Velveteen Rabbit which held a sprig of holly between its paws on christmas morning.
As it looked very ordinary we thought we should be able to find it at any of the shops in Thamel or Boudha.
We were wrong.
We also forgot to take a picture of it.
And in the midst of all our activities, we soon stopped looking or asking.
On our final day day in Nepal, it drizzled. After checking out of the hotel, we went back to the Third Eye Restaurant for lunch.
This time we asked a member of the staff where we could get the vase. The young lady was very happy with our interest and quickly gave us the details to the location where we could buy it.
So two hours before we were taken to Tribhuvan Airport for our flight back to Singapore, Ron & El rushed to Ason Market where the locals get their homewares. There they bought 2 pairs of the exact vases like the ones from the restaurant.
It was still drizzling when they returned from the market. I received my pair as if they were archaeological discoveries.
I know there are hundreds of such vases around. But ours will always be special because it took some effort to get them. Furthermore our enquiries had made a Nepali girl happy, seeing that her country’s traditional wares could still be so charming.
With its chaotic traffic, massive swirls of wires hanging above ground, crumbling buildings and air pollution, Kathmandu is not a place that readily comes to mind when one is thinking of retreat and rest.
Yet, in the midst of the valley’s madness, intricately carved and perfectly symmetrical woodworks & stoneworks adorned doorways and windows, creating an air of unmatched serenity and inspiring me to seek alignment from within.
From this valley of unpredictability, where power cuts happen regularly unannounced, craftsmen go about calmly setting semi precious stones against impossibly detailed & highly decorative silver works of filigree.
Perhaps this constant practice of melting, cutting, shaping and welding metals to minerals to create objects of beauty has alchemised in these workers a high tolerance for the ugliness of difficult customers, exploitative employers and other hardships.
Then there are the buddhist arts (tangka) drawn free hand in such breathtaking precision and with such a pleasing balance of colours that the seller has to keep reminding us with great pride, “this not machine made…this MADE BY MAN,” as we stared in mute wonder, at the scroll he unveiled before us while cars honked impatiently behind us.
Like the mangy fur of a dog that holds a clean heart, Kathmandu has shown me that using observable evidence to appraise someone’s inner world or history may be convenient and even natural, but it’s still not the truth.
Kathmandu forces me to cover my nose, slap on sunblock, drink only boiled water and take other safety precautions, while liberating me from prejudices and insularity at the same time.
I’m deeply honoured to have been allowed to visit Nepal year after year since 2011.
I was 10 month old learning to walk on my own by holding onto the wall for support when poliomyelitis found me.
3 months of hospitalization later, I got back my life in exchange for a permanent limp. Considering many afflicted peers with paralysis that bound them to wheel chairs for life and some even needing machines to help them breathe, my crippled leg was just a slight dent on the paintwork.
After surviving polio, maintaining balance became a lifelong preoccupation that took up a lot of my energy. It is a bit like someone training to be a world class gymnast, only in my case, this wasn’t the path I would have chosen if given a choice.
I grew up envying those who could walk effortlessly, dance and skip freely, while I had to and still do, think about every step that I make.
Are there things on the ground to trip me? Pine cones? Satay sticks?
Have I missed a spot of alage on the step of a world heritage site that might cause me to slip?
Will the curb after the zebra crossing be too high for me to get onto?
Will there be steps? If yes, how many? How deep are they? Will there be a railing for me to hold onto? Is the railing sturdy enough to bear my weight or is it there for aesthetics purposes only?
Over the years these questions for self-preservation have trained me not to jump to conclusions, and not to make light of other people’s difficulties. They have also prompted me to listen for the unspoken anxieties and to observe the invisible pain of others.
A couple of months back, I was at an outing to the Esplanade with overseas students studying at a private school in Singapore.
As we were walking towards the open stage facing the Singapore River, a 24 year old student from India asked me, “Ma’am would you like me to hold your hand? You’ll feel more balanced and it’s easier to walk.”
He went on to explain that he came from a village that hosts pilgrims two to three times a year. He’s very familiar with aches and pains. So for the rest of the evening India & Singapore held hands and walked all over Esplanade, exchanging looks of amusement with each other when passers by went all judgy over a handsome Indian man holding hands with a woman of his grandma’s age. 🤣
During our Nepal trip this December, whether it was for worldly reasons such as ascending the stairs of hotels & cafes, or to meet spiritual agendas such as circumambulating the Boudha Stupa and carrying medical supplies, El and Ron took turns to hold my hands and walk with me at my pace.
Boudha pilgrims stopped to look at us but usually to smile and make remarks in Tibetan or Nepali in encouraging tones.
For many of us, having a hand to hold onto in this pilgrimage called Life is a pragmatic necessity. It is beyond romantic as popular culture would have us believed.
So I like to wish for all my friends to study and respect your hands and the hands of others, so that at the right time, they may become gateways to the Divine.
For us in a capitalist economy, properties are more than places to shelter from the elements. Property ownership is used to strengthen our survival chances, secure positions in society and acquire power over others.
In Singapore, a property is measured in terms of its age and location, among other criteria, because these qualities impact its resale value.
I could be lacking in business acumen or short on survival skills, but there’s something a little cold and sad about the practice of buying something with the intention of re-selling it.
I think this practice can also undermine our sincerity with people, animals and environment insidiously in the long run.
Do we make friends with people so that we can trade them for other benefits when it suits us?
Do we judge people’s character and potential based on their residential addresses?
At the Boudha Stupa, the snagged tooth dog toasting in the sun as he marinades in mantras offered by thousands of pilgrims on a daily basis adds another layer to our understanding of survival, power and position.