My Summer at Sarah

[Guest post by Lobsang Wangkhang]

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about my time at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) Summer School Program for Tibetan students from abroad.  I ended off the post stating that I was planning on returning in 2015.  However in that following year, 2014, Sarah College established a similar program targeting an older age group (17+) than TCV’s program (10-18).  After a long time of thinking, I finally decided to try something new and chose to enrol in the Sarah College Summer Program for Tibetan students from abroad.

I spent my first two weeks in Dharamsala volunteering, while staying in the one and only McLeod Ganj. Throughout those two weeks in McLeod, people told me numerous things about Sarah, but one thing in particular: it’s in the middle of nowhere. Being in McLeod at the time, the hub of Dharamsala, I was dreading the day that I had to go to Sarah.  For those of you who don’t know much about the geography of Dharamsala, Upper TCV sits at the top of the hill, followed by McLeod Ganj, then Lower Dharamsala and then Sarah is at the bottom.  The drive from McLeod to Sarah is about 30 minutes of winding roads and it’s best if you take a Gravol.

My first two weeks in McLeod flew by and it was time to go to Sarah.  When I got there I realized that it really was quite remote, as I had been told.  With three paratha stands just outside of the school, I insisted that I come back to McLeod every weekend to stay with family because I thought I’d be bored out of my mind.  I then met with four other girls in the program.  We were placed in a separate residence from the Sarah students.  With 2 students per room and a private bathroom (no squat toilet!), it was much more comfortable than the bunks at TCV.  Later on in the program, there ended up being a total of 7 girls and 2 guys from the United States, Switzerland, Australia and Canada.

Our typical days would start with a 7:15am meditation class, where the first half hour would be spent teaching the mechanisms of meditation and the last 15 minutes would be spent actually meditating (or trying!).  Following meditation, from 8:00 to 9:00 we’d have breakfast.  The breakfast table would usually have sliced bread, amdo bhaklep or pancakes, muesli, Choco’s, milk, tea, juices, spreads and sometimes eggs and fruits.  You would pretty much take whatever you feel for.  Our meal schedules slightly differ from that of the Sarah students, so we’d eat in a different cafeteria.  Following breakfast, from 9:00 to 10:00 we’d have a Tibetan language class.  This was the part that I was nervous about.  Prior to coming to Sarah, someone told me that you have to be a pro at Tibetan to do this program, but I think they were just mixed up with the actual Sarah School, where one’s Tibetan skills must be… on point, to be accepted.  Like TCV, there were two different classes to suit everyone’s skill level.  The teachers were very thorough and are familiar with teaching foreigners, since they teach the international students that attend this college.  From 10:00 to 10:30, there would be a tea break, where tea is served in our cafeteria, followed by a 10:30 to 12:00 Culture class.  In Culture class, we’d learn about Tibetan history, the current situation in Tibet and various aspects of our unique culture.  At 12:30, we’d have lunch, which would usually be rice, lentils, a vegetable curry, fruit and some type of meat dish.  Shoutout to the majenla (chef) for making that tasty fried chicken! (Ask anyone, it’s better than KFC!)  Once a week, we’d have the chance to eat in the main cafeteria with the Sarah students, in hopes that we’d strike up some sort of conversation.  Three days a week, we’d have Philosophy class from 14:00 to 15:00, where we’d learn about many aspects of Buddhist philosophy and even some prayers.  Two weeks into the program, a daily conversation class was added to our schedule from 15:00 to 16:00.  During this time, we were each paired up with a Teacher Education student and had the opportunity to either revise what we had learned in Language class, read or just have a conversation with them in Tibetan.  Following this class, everyone had free time from 16:00 to 19:00, which could be spent playing basketball, volleyball, badminton or even just resting.  Dinner would be at 19:00, which would usually be a meal similar to lunch, with some desert like yogurt and fruit, fruit salad or even tsampa cake!

For our first two weeks at Sarah, we did not interact with the Sarah students nor did they interact with us.  This wasn’t because they were unfriendly, nor were we.  I think it was really just that we were all somewhat shy.  Us summer program students then decided to break out of our bubble one night.  We were eating cake for a girl’s birthday and had a bit extra, so two of the girls ran out of the cafeteria and brought back the first three random Sarah students that they could find.  That night, everyone introduced themselves and the three students reciprocated.  From thereon, we’d always greet them if they’d pass by around the school.  After that, we began to interact more with the Teacher Education students from our conversation class, those people with whom we played sports with during free time and we even felt comfortable with starting up a conversation with some random person hanging around during free time.

A couple dinners were organized, where 6-10 Sarah students were invited to eat with us, including a Momo making night (best Tibetan icebreaker, eh?).  The dinners did initiate some interaction, however I believe that the afternoon free time was the time where we got to know the other students best.

The program included many field trips, including a visit to the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, the Men-Tsee-Khang, an overnight stay at Tso Pema, swimming in a river, a visit to the Norbulingka Institute, meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and meeting with His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa.  Even though we weren’t in a classroom, we learned a lot during these excursions.

While prior to arriving to Sarah, I wanted to leave at any possible moment due to the remoteness of the school, once I started the program, it didn’t matter where I was, as long as I was with the friends I had made.  Whether we were in McLeod at Kunga’s Guest House eating their (amazing!) chocolate mousse cake or just in the school canteen doing our 9pm ritual (eating Yipee and Agu Chipps), it was always super fun and never a dull moment.  My new group of friends even organized our own mini-trip including a hike up to Triund and an overnight cabin stay.

At the end of the program, we had a pizza gathering and invited some of the Sarah students to bid farewell. It was sad to leave Sarah and I might have shed a tear or two on the way to the Gaggal Airport, having left the people I spent day and night with for the past 6 weeks – but before I knew it, I was back at Sarah a couple hours later due to a cancelled flight… but that’s another story. Until next time Dharamsala!

For more information about the Summer Tibetan Study Program, you can visit:

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