How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part Two

Continuing the journey to Yushu…more excerpts from the updates I sent two weeks ago. Following the except, I’ve got some “video” slideshows. They may be a bit long but I think they’re quite compelling…look especially at the second slideshow, Yushu Today.

September 9, 2010
I’m writing midday on Thursday the 9th. The last 36 hours have been some of the most difficult of my life. I’m also writing this offline as gmail and power and internet connections tend to be a little shaky in Yushu.

Yesterday morning, the 8th, broke cold, rainy…just miserable. Winter seems to be coming early. The previous night was terribly cold—even the locals said so. I thought of that as we started that morning’s distribution. The first group were some six monks who arrived with a huge truck to take the 32 (not 35 as I said in my last update) tents. 30 were destined for families in a village outside Yushu city while two large tents were going to the monastery. We loaded the trucks and began the hour-long drive to the village.

We pulled into the town in a driving rain. Mud everywhere. Piles of barley everywhere. Yaks and yak dung everywhere (this place is growing on me, btw, as I’m getting to enjoy, even the welcome the smell of burning yak dung. It’s actually sort of sweet, like incense.).

We were showed into a store the monks run for the local village and were welcomed with yak butter tea, hot water, black tea, and Sprite. Yes, Sprite. They also pulled out mounds of cookies and candies.

We then met two of the village elders who greeted us traditionally, Tashi Delek. And we stepped outside to help with the distribution.

We visited some of the families’ tent sites. Tamdin remarked that some of the tents looked wonderful…neat and warm…and a village elder explained that those are the tents for the construction workers sent to help. Of course.

We visited a site where four families are sharing one “tent”…blankets and plastic tarp over tree branches. We took pictures and a little girl climbed into my lap.
Heart-warming. But my anger and the difficult conditions is rising and it’s hard to be here.

Later, in journaling about it, I also recognize my all-too human feelings of being overwhelmed and wanting to bolt in the face of what feels like hopeless devastation and pain.

It’s too much, I thought to myself, not for the first time. Nor the last.

Later we visited the monastery.

Perched high on a hillside overlooking a valley and surrounded by a number of villages, the monastery also suffered. They lost all of the books, all of their dharma texts in the 700-plus year old library. The second story of their two story central shrine room was completely destroyed.

We visited the first floor and we all prostrated and admired the amazing thankgas and photos and paintings of important lamas. Including you all know who.

Then we circumambulated their main stupa housing a gorgeous Buddha and I touched as many mani stones as I could, taking in the view while gasping for air.

Heading back to Yushu, we drove again through the rain and lunched at the same “restaurant” in the camp. I was scared. My head had begun to ache and I was weak. Again I thought it was from the altitude and, truth is I didn’t drink enough water. But really it was also from holding back the tears, the anger, the frustration.

Earlier the villagers again presented us with katas and the monks gave us hand-carved mani stones as well as katas. But as my brother John wrote to me, it is me who should be thanking them for the blessings they give in being able to help. Amen.

Back at the restaurant, feeling terribly sick and tired, I was driven back to the relief camp. I crawled into my sleeping back around 7 p.m. with a migraine.

I awoke about 12 hours later; the emotional toll and the altitude must be exhausting me. We breakfasted and I was able to check email a bit (I’m sorry I can’t respond to each of you individually—the connection is very hard to maintain.).

We then headed out to visit some townspeople who had received tents and were setting them up.
That had to be the hardest three hours of my life. Staggering pain. We walked amongst the tents and make shift shelters that are everywhere in town. These were no orderly refugee camp type places…but shelters in garbage filled lots.

We visited one townsman…his “tent” currently shelters five families…15 people…in what had to be 10 x 10 space. And the leaks were obvious from the puddles everywhere. We proudly took pictures next to his new tent.

As moved through this area, we quickly gathered a following. Folks who were not on the list for tents. The TVP volunteers quietly and with great compassion took down their names and their stories. Sometimes among the things these folks need most is someone to hear their story. Even months after the earthquake, the need to know that people just know.

We met a man who was weeping as he came to see us. He pulled us into his shelter (I can’t even call it a tent) to show us his paralyzed niece. She’s all that’s left of his family. His wife died circumambulating a nearby stupa. It was destroyed as was the monastery next to it. He wept as he told us how hard it’s been to care for his niece and himself. How he thought of often of killing himself. After listening we resolved to do what we could for them today…buy what they might need for a short term help.
We left with him praying that no other sentient being should ever suffer as his family did.

We finished the morning rounds by visiting the site where 800 bodies were cremated. In Tibetan tradition, those who’ve passed go through what is known as sky burial and they receive traditional Buddhist blessing so their journey through the bardo will be painless and joyful.

Most painful for folks here is that so many people left without these traditional blessings.

Painful beyond words is the only way I can describe seeing the site of the actual cremation and how the fires were so hot as to have twisted steel rebar. The sacredness of the site was made more so but the hand built memorials to those whose bodies were burned here. Mani stones, flowers, pictures in neat little piles. And some with cans of their favorite foods or drinks.

As I noted, it’s midday. I’ve decided to stay in the camp for today. I can’t take another round of visiting. Not today at least. We have three more days to go before I start making my way home. Of course, the people of Yushu will be staying.

One thought struck me as we made our way around town today…I have never ever fully appreciated the everyday work of true relief workers around the world. Bless you guys. We’ve all seen what devastation looks like through CNN and the New York Times. But to be amongst it, even for a few days is life-altering.

And to dedicate your life to running into the fire, so to speak, when every instinct says to flee…well that’s a true bodhisattva.
Tashi Delek to you all,

Village and Monastery Slideshow-Large from Jerry Colonna on Vimeo.

Yushu today -Large from Jerry Colonna on Vimeo.

Distributing Tents-Large from Jerry Colonna on Vimeo.

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  • jonna clark

    I love that you did this. Jonna

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Jonna. It was an intense, powerful experience. One more post coming tomorrow with more photos.

  • jodyreale

    This summer I met Raphael Smith, who founded Uber Shelter, a ship-able dwelling intended for people left homeless after natural catastrophe. After reading about the people of Yushu, I thought of Raphael and his product. What do you think?

    • jerrycolonna

      Possibly. I’ll be seeing Tamdin from TVP in a few weeks and will discuss it with him. The government had promised 50,000 winterized tents; I don’t know where that stands. The real work now, though, involves rebuilding the community and I may be headed back in early spring to do some more work.

      • jodyreale

        Wow, it’s mind-boggling. I know that Raphael is off to Haiti with shelters. If you think that the next trip could benefit from CU students in the social responsibility program, email me. (

        • jerrycolonna

          will do.