Never Stop Asking

Lynn Hoberg shares what it’s like to volunteer behind the scenes of a historic event when emotions are running high and so much is at stake.

Lynn Hoberg shares what it’s like to volunteer behind the scenes of a historic event when emotions are running high and so much is at stake.

It’s early August of 2008 and I’m speeding through Vancouver in my rental car. I’m late, and I’m beginning to realize that, after dropping a friend in Yaletown, I’ve misjudged the distance back to the University of British Columbia campus and I’m going to be more than 20 minutes late for my lunch meeting. As I drive, I’m thinking about my reluctance to commit to this next project. I’ve been volunteering for Khyentse Foundation for several years, and Cangioli Che (the executive director of the Foundation) has asked me to consider taking on some work for the upcoming translation conference.

I’ve been to India before and I understand some basic things about travel in the region, so my main position would be travel coordinator. There will be buses to hire, airport transfers to arrange, hotels to book, itineraries to plan, and overland routes to map out, and there will be many Rinpoches and special guests to consider. My responsibilities won’t end there—I will be expected to oversee the production and printing of conference materials and provide administrative support, as well as assist with on-site volunteer coordination.

I have yet to agree to volunteer for the project (although from the beginning I knew I would say yes) because I need to be sure that I can take the time to travel to India, be confident that my finances can bear the time off, and be clear about what the team will need. I have to be sure that I can actually do what is being asked of me!

But as I careen through the Vancouver streets, I’m also thinking about how I pray to be asked to do things like this, and how I’m amazed and honored that people think I can do these jobs well. So I race through the university campus, hoping the conference team won’t reconsider just because I’m grossly tardy to our meeting.

Seven months later I’m sitting in Delhi International airport, waiting for Cangioli’s plane to arrive from San Francisco, just 45 minutes after my flight from New York. Already Delhi looks different from the way I remember it. The airport seems brighter, cleaner, and far less chaotic than it did the last time I was here. I think about the first time I came to India, in 1994, and how emerging into the heat and aroma of the arrivals hall felt like an assault. Tonight it seems quiet and light. From across the room I hear Pema Wangchuk yell “Lynn!” and I look up to see him waving. I feel unbelievably joyful and relieved to see him; he is not only a wonderful and generous person but also the master of all travel on the Indian subcontinent. Everything I will need to know as travel coordinator, Pema Wangchuk already knows.

It’s about midnight, and we wait in the airport café. Pema buys me a bottle of water and himself a coffee. Pema has been one of Rinpoche’s secretaries forever and has lived in Delhi for over 15 years. He speaks fluent English and Hindi, as well as his native eastern Bhutanese dialect. He is unflappable. As we catch up over beverages I laugh and feel happy to be back in this foreign land that I love so inexplicably much. But I have only just arrived, and I have no idea of the obstacles that will arise in the coming weeks.

For example, I’m unaware that in a few days I will need to book last-minute flights for a group of Rinpoches and only Pema will know how to arrange them. I don’t yet know that I need special cars to meet translators in Delhi, Chandigar, and Dharamsala, and he will know whom to call at a moment’s notice. And I certainly don’t yet know that, even though I tell him not to, he will get out of bed at 4 AM to greet some late-arriving translators. But what I do know now, as we sit at the airport, is that his response to all of my queries is, “don’t worry, no problem.” And as always, he will be right.

Ten days later the translators begin to arrive at Deer Park. In the past week I have been busy finalizing the details of how everyone will travel and where each person will stay. The workload has been well beyond what I had expected. At first it seemed like we had plenty of volunteers, but after a week of preparing on site, it seems like everyone is doing double or even triple duty. The list of tasks seems endless. Every room has to be cleaned. Menus have to be revised and enhanced. One person is making a to-do checklist for the conference chair, while at the same time meticulously cleaning all the windows of the halls. Another person is moving chairs and cushions from place to place because we haven’t yet decided which rooms to use for the break-out groups.

The technical staff is testing all the audio-visual and recording equipment, or running to neighboring town to try to find a certain camera or part or battery. Other people are digging holes in the field to bury waste paper. The press team is making phone calls and arranging news coverage. From the kitchen comes the aroma of sample cakes and scones, all being tested until they’re just right for the high tea we’re planning for the next night. The maintenance staff is painting walls, fixing broken windows, hanging lights, and even filled a ditch with concrete so our guests won’t accidentally trip and fall. The amount of things that have been done since I arrived is actually kind of… crazy.

Most of our volunteer team arrived well before the conference, many coming from great distances to participate in this event. Most of our guests and translators, however, will arrive tonight on three chartered buses that have made the full-day trip from Delhi. For this mass arrival we have gathered every possible volunteer to help greet, carry bags, and direct our translators to their rooms at Deer Park.

The expected arrival time is late, so many people have had to get out of bed to come and help. The press team is here, the kitchen staff is here, the hole-diggers are here. Everyone is here. But even after many long full days of work, at just before 11 PM, the energy is high and everyone is out on the temple steps, talking and laughing, waiting for the coaches.

I can’t help thinking that in order to be here, in such a light mood, everyone must feel like I did on that summer day in Vancouver so long ago. At some level, even though we’re tired and already overworked, people feel lucky to be here. Once again, all I can think is, please, may they never stop asking for my help. When the headlights of the buses appear in the distance, the volunteers all cheer and applaud. A few days later, the conference is underway and everyone is busy attending to the work at hand. The weather is off and on cooperating, alternating between pleasant sunny days and raucous thunderstorms that take the power out. The figures of our inspiration—the Rinpoches, the translators, the patrons—are hidden away in closed-door conferences, discussing the business of translation. When they aren’t assembled, they are networking, discussing projects, and being interviewed by reporters. From its inception, people referred to this conference as potentially “historic.” This is why we all agreed to be here: to support this event and Rinpoche’s vision to further the work of translation in the West. What is decided here affects us students because it could greatly influence how the dharma is available to us.

Because the program hall can barely accommodate the participants and guests, most volunteers can’t attend the conference. Some huddle around open windows to listen to the proceedings; others are still too busy to have even a moment to eavesdrop. Despite the fact that many volunteers have been working constantly on site for weeks and are fatigued and often cranky, they are still interested in this unfolding story.

On this particular day I’m sitting on a wicker stool in the back of Manjushri Hall, contemplating the logistics of making copies and collating them during the upcoming tea break. I’m relieved, however, when I look behind me and see superhuman transcriber Alex Trisoglio typing away in the back of the room. I think, at least I’ll be able to read this later. But perhaps even more sweet, I ponder, is that beyond being able to read about all that is being accomplished here, we volunteers will always remember what it was like to actually be here.

I have a clipboard that has a marvelous baby-faced image of” Shree Krishna” on it that I bought in Palampur, the closest shopping town to Bir, just before the conference began. Trying to look official, I’m now standing in the courtyard with my clipboard and attempting to herd translators into their buses and cars. The conference is over, but my job won’t be complete until the participants reach Delhi, a few days from now.

Today the group will travel to Dharamsala for a fortuitous last-minute audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Late last night, after the rain poured down on our closing banquet, after our weary staff had crept off to bed, I once again consulted my two local aces, Pema Wangchuk and Prashant Varma, the Deer Park director.

My trust in Prashant ranks with my trust in Pema. Prashant has arranged this meeting; he has driven to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness’ secretary to advocate on the translators’ behalf. He knows all the details about what we will need, how we will arrive, and all the necessary protocol. Prashant is more than charming, he is incredibly experienced in these matters. Feeling confident in what should be an easy journey, Pema and I have devised a sound plan for the 60 or so travelers. But now, here in the courtyard, it’s chaos. People are talking and milling around, without any urgency at all. I’m gesturing with my clipboard and people are mostly ignoring me or giving me a polite smile. To others, it seems that I have become invisible; my requests to load the bus arouse no reaction at all. People don’t want to go in the car I have for them, or there is a last-minute addition to the list, or someone had to run off to the toilet. Finally, quite behind schedule, our caravan is leaving. Tashi Colman, chair of the Conference Organizing Committee, is in my car and he’s waving his hands around because he realizes he has left his phone in the Deer Park office. I lend him mine.

While he makes calls I muse that we have been granted a meeting with the highest lama of Tibetan Buddhism and I may actually fail to get everyone there in time. As my vehicle eases down the Bir Road, I think, Wow, this could be a profound failure of organization. I’m laughing, but only because that seems like the only option I have left. Tashi is making calls, laughing and mocking his own absentmindedness, and I’m feeling simultaneously worried and happy.

What I don’t know yet is that everyone will arrive for the audience in time. I also don’t know that afterward the rain will be pelting down, causing everyone to run off in different directions and, despite my concern, that will be fine. I’m thinking that working on this conference has been one of the most difficult and most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Tashi is still talking and laughing and gesturing in the front seat.

What I do know now, at that moment, is that I pray that this is not my last volunteer job for Khyentse Foundation.