When I was about nine years old, I decided to save the whales. I wrote up a petition and collected over 500 signatures from my neighbors (this was before the Internet, when 500 signatures meant a solid two weeks of canvassing). I sent my petition to my senator and got a hand-written response and an invitation to the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute to learn more about conservation. It was thrilling to feel like I’d done something to help the animals I loved the most, and to be recognized for my passion and desire to help. I’ve mentioned this project here before because it was the first time I ever stood up for something I believed in. It was the moment in my life when I realized that activism is possible for anyone, even for nine-year-old girls, and that every one of us needs to stand up for animals because they can’t stand up for themselves.
Elephants are some of the world’s most majestic creatures. They’re the largest living land animals on Earth. Known for their memory and intelligence, Elephants are a symbol of wisdom in Asian cultures. When I was a girl living in Kenya, I spent long days by the game preserve’s salt lick, watching the elephants interacting with each other and caring for their young. Once, three hyenas tried to attack one of the babies and the adults surrounded her in a giant circle, trumpeting their furious sounds and rearing up, thrashing their massive tusks in the air. The hyenas skulked back into the underbrush. The baby was safe. Elephants migrate over huge distances, through deserts, to find watering holes. The matriarchs teach the younger females how to find the water, where to find food, how far to march… elephants are some of the only animals besides humans that have culture. They have history. They have communities. They have no natural predators and yet, elephants all over the world are facing possible extinction.
Just a few short years ago, volunteering with your family may have sounded like a strange, foreign concept. There have always been outgoing families, ready for adventure. But in the mainstream culture, volunteer vacations weren’t something people did very often. Volunteering has traditionally been under the purview of the young and unattached. The stereotype was of the hippie explorer, wide-eyed and idealistic, with his backpack and bare feet. It was the PeaceCorps—more of a commitment than a discreet project—a two-year foray into a career of service, not a two week vacation with family. But today, that has all changed, and in a big way. Mainstream media outlets are touting the benefits of family volunteering, and families are listening. It’s a great time to have kids. Organizations are catering to young families too—families with five and six-year-olds, kids whose lives can be forever altered by experiencing new cultures in new places.
In America, we love the quick fix. We are bombarded by advertising campaigns designed to appeal to our short-term thinking. Lose 14 pounds in 2 weeks! Detoxify your body in 3 days! Take this pill to cure every malady under the sun! It’s natural to want our problems to melt away while we sleep—to disappear as apparitions on the wind because we ate acai berry, took a vitamin, or practiced positive thinking. Of course, deep inside we all know the truth: that real, meaningful, sustained change takes hard work and time. The equation is no different on a larger scale. The world’s problems are maddeningly complex. They’re the product of centuries of conflict, many of which were born of deep-seated philosophical differences. Cultures have developed within the framework of war, suffering, corruption, poverty, and loss. Changing something so vast, something with such a complicated and firm foundation must, of necessity, take great effort.
Boudha, Nepal is a special place. It’s considered one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu. The ancient Buddhist stupa of Bouda (also called Boudhnath) is one of the largest in the world. The region is also home to a growing population of Tibetan refugees who have built over 50 monasteries throughout the region. Boudha is a center of enlightenment, pilgrimage, and prayer, made all the more mystical by its proximity to the mighty Himalayas. According to The Lonely Planet, “this is one of the few places in the world where Tibetan culture is accessible, vibrant, and unfettered.” Interestingly, Boudha and Lhasa have always been linked by trade routes, so today’s intercultural community is no surprise. Boudha is a vibrant and culturally rich city but many of its residents have never had access to formal schooling. Enter: Vajrayana School.