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A practiced hand paints a thanka. Photo by Cara Starnbach, North India Program.

Amala and Pala

Walking into the common room of the hotel, I felt an overwhelming mixture of excitement, curiosity, and nervousness. In just a few minutes we would be saying goodbye to the group and the instructors we had come to know so well, and say hello to our host families. As for prior knowledge on who our new family might be, all we knew is that they were Tibetans practicing the Buddhist religion. As we entered the hotel we were greeted by a room full of warm smiling faces, who seemed to be just as curious as we were. Slowly, one by one, our names were called off a list and we were introduced to one of our host parents. I was directed to an older woman, who gently grabbed my hand and started leading me down the winding streets of DharamShala towards my home for the next six nights.

The walk through the busy streets was awkward to say the least. I was trying my best to hide the fact that I was still very nervous, and she was zigzagging through the crowded streets. When we arrived at the small house I was surprised, it sat atop a winding staircase, it’s balcony jutting out over the main street. At this point not much had been said between the two of us. She showed me my bed, located in the one of the three rooms of the house and right next to the balcony. She sat me down, and then told me she liked to sit on the other bed in the room during the day while she knits, because of the big windows. We finally got to talking and she told me about her family, she knits and her husband drives a taxi, and I told her about myself. She also told me about how she arrived in DharamShala, she was born in Tibet and when she was very young her family decided to flee from China’s cruelty there, and follow the Dalai Lama to India. Her family walked at night and hid during the day until finally they found their way into India and DharamShala.

After this I felt very comfortable in the small hot room with her, we continued chatting waiting for the power to come back on and waiting for her husband to return from work. It was a that point I realized I still didn’t know her name, so I asked. Instead of responding, she refused to tell me her name insisting instead that I call her Amala and her husband Pala, mother and father in the Tibetan language.
Most nights if you were to walk up the stairs to the small house, you would find me sitting on my bed reading a book, amala on the other bed knitting a scarf or a hat, and pala in the kitchen cooking up a delicous Tibetan specialty. Every minute I spend in the peaceful house, as the noise from the street floats up to the balcony, my homestay feels more like home.

P.S. mom, amala would like to tell you that she is taking good care of me and that you shouldn’t worry because she wants you to know she is like my second mother.