February 22, 2008

Alison Teal Blehert-Koehn's Himalayan Inspiration

Alison Teal Blehert-KoehnAlison Teal Blehert-Koehn

is a University of Southern California film school graduate and an award winning filmmaker, actress, and dancer. Her film, “Rita,” won the Kids’ Choice Award at Mountainfilm in 2007.Until college, Alison’s schooling took place on a raft, on the crowded streets of Delhi, on Mt. Everest, on a camel safari across the Rajasthan desert, or wherever else her happened to be. It could be called ‘home schooling’ if you took into account that the world was her classroom as well as her home. Before the age of seven Alison lived in place such as India, Nepal, Bali, Peru, Jamaica, Thailand, Lombok, Komodo, and across the United States.The experience you are about to read was the foundation for Alison’s film “Rita.”

Rita and Alison

"You ready to go to school with me tomorrow?" Rita asked in a mixture of broken English and Nepalese.Shadows from the yak dung fire danced on the walls of the old teahouse. Rita and I sat on the hardwood floor, sipping warm Duchia tea. I smiled. Formal school was as foreign to me as trekking through the Everest region of Nepal was to many children in The United States. As long as I could remember, my schooling had taken place on a raft, on the crowded streets of Delhi, on a camel safari across the Rajasthan desert, or wherever else my adventure travel guide parents’ job required them to be. I suppose you could call it ‘home schooling’ if you took into account that the world was my home as well as my classroom."How do we get there?" I asked."We walk.”Walk? I knew Rita’s school was in Khumjung village, on the other side of a 16,500-foot pass. Walk? I thought again. Rita sensed my apprehension. "I think is no problem for you," she reassured me.

It took me a long time to fall asleep that night. As I had before, I tried to picture what a public school in United States might be like, and I wondered if I was missing out on anything. What would it be like to jump onto a big yellow school bus with a peanut-butter-and-jelly box lunch and a bag of my own textbooks? The scent of Mo-mos (salty dough cakes) that Rita’s mother was cooking for our adventure to school the next day drifted through the rafters of my bedroom and rubbed out any thoughts of the United States. I snuggled under my yak hide blanket and finally fell asleep.At four o'clock the next morning, I put on every piece of clothing I could find. Rita and I tiptoed down the narrow stairway and slipped out the front door into the crisp mountain air. The rough outline of the Himalayas made me feel small in the eerie moonlight. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the wind snuck through the openings in the hood of my parka and stung the tip of my nose."Tie these ropes around your shoes," Rita said. I later learned that this was a local method of keeping traction on slippery snow.

Rita and I set off across the crunchy snow by the solitary light of the moon. At the edge of Rita's village, we joined another group of school-bound children, and together we began our ascent up the pass. Stopping along the way, we scurried off the path to gather twigs and dry shrubs to make small fires for warmth. Tashi, a small girl with two sleek black pigtails, worked quickly to produce a spark by rubbing a cheap pocketknife against a rock. Crowded around the comforting flames of our miniature fire, we chatted through jittering teeth about the day ahead. This sure was different than going to school on a big yellow school bus.We saved the extra twigs to use later by strapping them to the bundle of school books on our backs; however, the snow eventually rose up around our knees, preventing us from pausing long enough to build more fires. This seemed more like a wilderness adventure with my parents than a trip to school. My parents had taught me that in order to live in another country, I had to learn, think, and act from a local’s perspective. Rita was not only my friend but also my direct connection to a whole new lifestyle.Gradually the first rays of sunlight crested the jagged silhouette of the Himalayas, snuffing out the last stars. Tiny snowflakes gathered on my eyelashes and melted on my tongue. The ropes on my shoes worked surprisingly well as traction devices on the icy terrain.In the distance, a single strip of prayer flags whipped violently in the wind. Rita pointed at the flags. "That is the top," she said. Tashi and Rita grabbed my hand and began to teach me a Nepalese work song…“ukali batoo jandama jadai saili paniko.” I belted it out to the passing yaks as we made our way to the summit.

From the other side of the tattered prayer flags, the village of Khumjung lay in a cluster at the foot of Sagarmatha, more commonly known as Everest. Tashi signaled for us to stop, and we built one last fire to cure our uncontrollable shivers. I watched with curiosity as all the children took a large water jug out of their cloth bundles and cut them in half to use as sleds. Rita handed me a “sled” and showed me how to hold on to the plastic handle. We were off! The scenery blurred, and I shut my eyes tightly and prayed that I would make it to school alive. The thrilling descent through this new environment was similar to my education; it too has been a wild ride. I’ve traveled the world without the structured guidance of a textbook and allowed myself to be swept away by dozens of different cultures, customs and lifestyles. Through the generosity of others, I was fortunate to take part in different brands of education and develop a real joy for learning.The butterflies remained in my stomach even after we stepped inside the musty schoolhouse. A butter lamp cast a golden glow on a dusty picture of the Dalai Lama. "This is my school," Rita said proudly.

Check back next week to read about the making of the film

Check back next Friday to read the conclusion of Alison’s post. She talks about making the film “Rita” and recreating the Himalayas in downtown Los Angeles. Until then, check out Alison’s site: www.alisonteal.com. Also check out the inspiration for her travel and filmmaking: her parents. Their site: www.yogaadventure.com.