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Mayan Village Science

This journal was written in the summer of 2002, when I was traveling around to Mayan villages in the Guatemalan Highlands to present science workshops with an organization called Friendship Bridge.

July 8, 2002

Yesterday, I met with Hilda, an educated young indigenous woman who is head of the children’s education project for Friendship Bridge, in front of the church in the village of San Pablo. She is from San Juan la Laguna, and so wore full "traje" (indigenous dress) that is native to that village. She spoke Tzutijil, the local Mayan language, in addition to very good Spanish. I felt very pale and tall by contrast, sticking out like a sore thumb. We walked across town and got into the back of a pickup with my duffel bag, and it headed up the mountain. The road switched-backed straight up the side of the crater that the lake is formed in. An old Mayan lady sat on my feet and held onto my leg for stability, fingering my shoes curiously. After a couple dozen very sharp switchbacks, we came into the town of Santa Clara, high on the plain over the lake. We carried my duffel bag between the two of and walked into the local high school. Some young girls followed us as we walked into the corridor, giggling, teasing and pushing one another into me. I am used to being laughed at and followed here, and somehow it now delights me. I teased back to them.

The teacher didn’t show up for the class we were scheduled to work with, so after twenty minutes, we called the forty students inside the classroom and started on our own. This was a tenth grade class, but many of the students seemed much older than 16. The girls all wore “traje”--the local dress in colors specific to Santa Clara. The students listened with interest, as I demonstrated the action of the acid base indicator (red cabbage juice), and explained the experimental technique. Though Spanish is their second language, they seemed to understand it well. They were enthusiastic about the experiment, and came up with good conclusions about acids, bases and concentration--though they started squirting each other like children after we finished the experiment!

Walking out of town down the road, the duffel bag in between us, my companion approached a young girl who was carrying a large plastic washtub full of green peaches on her head, asking her something in Tzutijil. She lifted the tub off the girl’s head and started sifting through the peaches, bargaining with her. I later asked her how the girl could understand her, as Kaq’chiquel is the language that is used in this village. She told me they are similar enough that they address one another in their own language, and understand what is said. We sat by the side of the road talking about education ideas and eating green peaches until a bus came by. This young woman spoke a very educated Spanish, not so common for the villages at the lake. The bus was much more comfortable than the pickup truck, but it was so big it had to back up to get around the sharp curves. The lake looked very small below us for a long time. Finally we reached San Pablo on the lakeshore, and my traveling companion kissed me on the cheek and signaled the driver. I got off the bus and headed down the hill to the boat dock, prepared for a long wait.

Several kids in their underwear were washing onions in the muddy lakeshore water. They scattered the onions around them in the water, and cavorted among floating onions, grabbing a handful and scrubbing them, throwing them into a floating plastic tub. Every few minutes their sisters would arrive at the shore, yell something to them in Tzutijil. Then, the onion-washer boys would take aim and throw a few at their sisters on the shore, who would scream in glee, and throw them back. In between their busy onion washing, the kids would splash each other, dive into the water, or do tricks for one another. Not far away, two men came to the shore, stripped to underwear and started shampooing their hair. I watched the kids frolic for about an hour, until the wind came up and the lightning show started across the lake. Their mother came to scold them to finish up and get in. I could see that it was raining hard in Santiago. I saw a boat take off from San Pedro and head my way, and I was sitting inside the boat when the rain hit. Luckily, it was a fancy boat with a splash cover. We rocked and rolled across the water, past four villages until I was home in Santa Cruz.

Since it was pouring, I went into the local backpacker hotel and ended up staying to eat with my friends who own it. After the rain subsided, I shouldered my duffel bag full of chemicals and headed out. My flashlight went out on the way home, but the continuous lightning strikes lit my path.

I am enjoying the simple pleasures of being here. Today, I sat on the dock by my house for half an hour, looking at the volcanoes while two children played in the water nearby, waiting for a boat to town. A boat full of villagers showed. The children and the villagers in the boat started throwing a huge pile of firewood, which had been neatly stacked on the shore, into the boat. One of them recognized me, and told me they were heading to Pana, so I climbed top of the mountain of wood with them. We went slowly with the full load. The little girl pulled out a brightly-colored woven cloth and wrapped it around her, while two young boys teased and punched each other in the corner. I felt content to just be part of the scene.

Lisa Dettloff
Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala
July 8, 2002


Kathmandu Roving Science
September 29, 1999

In 1999, I spent three months teaching in Nepal, supported by a $2,500 grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation to pay for my materials.

Familiarity is coming, even in the strangeness here. The more time I spend here, the more it gets under my skin. I am coming to love this place, even with the trash and poverty. The whole place vibrates with a rhythm that is unseen, but it resonates somehow in my heart.

I am starting to get used to being a stranger, a curiosity. The other day, I walked down yet another Nepali village road towards the school, feeling ready for the classes I was about to teach. This was starting to feel familiar and comfortable, and I felt no nervousness about what I would encounter.  Each school, each day is different, but overall the program has gone so well, and my workshops have been so well received. My pack was heavy on my shoulders, but it felt good. I had stayed up until late the night before preparing my materials and packing it with care with all the things I needed for my workshops today. I was scheduled to teach Astronomy classes at Bhrikhuti High School, and a first grade physical science workshop at Balmandir orphanage after school. My books for my Nepali language class were also there.

Fifteen minutes later, I was stepping down another muddy path back towards home. Things are done differently here, and this wasn't the first time I had stayed up late cutting, labeling, preparing and organizing materials, only to be asked to come back some other day—something unheard of in my work in the U.S.A. But this is a very acceptable way to operate here, so I can do nothing but be sure that the class indeed must be rescheduled, and then accommodate as best I can—and to smile. The people are so kind and friendly here, that I can’t help but smile, even when I get disappointing news.

A few minutes further down the path, I was picking my way through a huge puddle hopping along a line of bricks someone had placed there, when I heard sloshing in my pack and felt drips on the back of my neck. I knew what it was, but was afraid to look. Sure enough, one of the three bottles of colored water (for a color-mixing activity in the orphanage) had broken open. Of course it had to be the yellow one! Just as I was emptying the urine-colored water from my pack, and old man and a young boy came by and stopped to stare in disgust. I still didn't have the words in Nepali that I needed to explain. And even if I did, would they understand a white teacher walking around with colored bottles of liquid? What could I do? I laughed inside and emptied the cracked bottle of yellow water into the bushes. I am getting used to people reacting with suspicion to the things I must buy or carry around for my work here.

It has been very interesting to see the reactions of such a variety of different groups to the same science activities that I have done all over the world. Yesterday I gave magnetism workshops at three different day centers for street children. These are the same science activities I did with children in Mayan Villages in Guatemala and in the US with my private students, the children of Silicon Valley billionaires. It was fascinating to notice their discoveries, observations and intrigues, so similar to children all over the world. This was my first attempt to use my pitiful Nepali language skills to teach a class. There was also a translator, who I used for about 75% of the instructions I gave. My individual interactions with the students, a combination of my rudimentary Nepali and pantomime were delightful fun. The kids, though tougher and dirtier than those I have been teaching, reacted just like kids anywhere, testing ideas, playing, inventing with enthusiasm and joy.

The other day, I gave an electricity workshop to a group of Tibetan refugees in an adult school for English language. They asked very astute questions and were very playful with the things they discovered they could do with the strong magnets, and with the generators. They were extremely respectful and enthusiastic. I would love to spend more time with all of these groups.

There has been a lot going on in Kathmandu lately, and I have preferred to move around the city as little as possible when I am not teaching, as it is crowded and chaotic. Still, I feel very safe here. The South Asian Federation Games are taking place here, a sort of regional Olympics. And, there has been some rebel action against police outposts by the Maoists so there are some roadblocks. And tourist season is going into full swing now, so the tourist section is packed and very annoying to make ones way through. More often I just want to stay in Boddha, the Tibetan community where I have been living.

Religion and spirit is strong in the air here. Perhaps this is because the people here put so much of spirit into their daily lives. There are small temples on every street corner, and alters in most shops. I see a difference even in the way the taxi drivers make their way through the chaos of bicycles and pedestrians. With firmness yet care. Gentle in their aggressive driving. Each evening around 5 pm the Tibetan people turn out in droves for their daily round around the Buddhist “stupa”, prayer beads in hand. One of my favorite things to do here is to join that throng, either alone or with a friend, and remain in silence, just feeling what it is like to be a part of that huge ring of believers moving in a heartfelt way around the circle.

Last week, I gave workshops at three non-school organizations and had a smattering of meetings. Each new contact requires a meeting here, before I can do anything. Each meeting requires a walk or a bus ride somewhere, and often a wait once I arrive. Then, we must have a cup of tea and chat before we begin business. The administrators I have been coming into contact with here have been very kind to me, often inviting me to lunch or dinner with them, and showing much curiosity and enthusiasm for what I am doing. So I spent most of two days last week just going to meetings to make arrangements for the coming classes. I am beginning a new curriculum section this week, on “Observing the Universe.” Since I will give six days in a row of workshops this week, I had to do many hours of preparation and materials purchasing. But now my plastic boxes are lined up inside my duffel bags in my room, full of the materials I will need.

Next week I will go to stay in a monastery about two hours from Kathmandu, and teach in the small school for Tibetan boys (little monks). The monks who run the school have been very kind to me. They will pick me up after school next Monday in the monastery van and take me to their monastery, where a room and motorbike are waiting for me. I plan to put my heart into teaching there, and to spend my free time just reading, walking writing, practicing yoga and meditation and chatting with the monks. They insisted on taking me out to dinner tonight—so there I was, in a van driving through the tourist section with two monks, sitting in a restaurant eating Tibetan food. It is nice to know I can go to a foreign country and do some useful work (or so I like to think…) and be so welcomed by the people.

Lisa Dettloff
September 29, 1999




Teaching Science to Monks in a Monastery
Lhasa, Tibet
October 14, 1999

I arrived in Lhasa, Tibet the evening before last, after the most incredible overland journey I have yet taken. I have been on some rough roads in my travels, but this was the roughest. I had the luxury of making the journey with a group in a Land-cruiser, since foreigners are not allowed to travel individually in that part of Tibet. Still, the ride was very bouncy, dusty and long. Now I am on my own in Tibet, returning to Kathmandu in a week. I am very thankful to have the opportunity to see this place. I have wanted to come here for a very long time.

Most of the 725 kilometers of the Friendship Highway from Nepal's border to Lhasa is unpaved. Parts of the road are quite smooth, but in other place we were driving through muddy fields and across small rivers. I don't know how the trucks and buses that take this road can make it. The immense, stark spaces are very peaceful, and strange. It is so dry and so empty. The sun is very strong at this altitude, and the shadows are sharper than I have ever seen. How can there be this many rocks in the world? We pass small dust-blown villages. The houses are made of mud, and exactly the same color as the surrounding plains. A difficult life it must be. We slowly wind our way up to a 16,000-foot pass, where we can see many white-covered mountains beyond the brown of the surrounding mountains.

In Shigatse, for the night, we come upon shining shopping centers and clean modern hotels. After the miles of open dust-blown starkness, it is shocking to come upon this town. Each town has a Tibetan part and a Chinese part. The contrast is striking. The Chinese section is newly built and glitzy, superficial, modern and developed. Comparatively cleaner. The Tibetan part is earthy and simple, dark and grounded, mysterious and comfortable.

Lhasa is a sprawling city, presided over by the huge Potala Palace. We pass miles of modern Chinese commercial centers. There are shiny clean department centers, fancy cars in the middle of all this emptiness. Where does it all come from? The young Chinese wear fashionable clothing and sunglasses, and very high platform shoes. We come to the Tibetan section, with the old buildings and the women with their sun-hardened faces and typical Tibetan dresses. The men wear their hair in a long braid coiled around the head. Some of the more fashionable ones have an added fake hairpiece to supplement their braid. I spent hours wandering around this city of contrasts. At meat stalls, butchered animals are cut up before one's eyes. Another street has modern shops with fancy clothes and electronic equipment.

I spend yesterday morning and again this morning in the Jokhang, one of the holiest Buddhist temples in Tibet. Pilgrims come from remote villages just to make their religious practices at this temple. The familiar sound of horns, drums and cymbals comforts me. This is the music played early every morning at the monastery next door to where I have been living in Kathmandu. Somehow, the mysterious low sound of the fifteen-foot trumpets sends chills down my spine. The monks are sitting assembled in front of the main temple. The pilgrims make rounds around the temple, which is surrounded by prayer wheels. A large wood and brass kettle is carried out by a young monk, and butter tea is poured for each monk. Small bills are handed out to each of the monks by faithful supporters. Outside, prayer scarves and yak butter are for sale. People walk around with packets of butter and a spoon, making offerings to the butter lamps in the various chapels. Outside, two huge incense burners twenty feet high give off huge plumes of smoke. The forecourt is filled with pilgrims making prostrations. A woman with a jug of water and a dipper moves among them, pouring water into thirsty hands. A long line forms in the inner courtyard, all pilgrims waiting their turn to file through the many chapels in the inner sanctum, making offerings and saying prayers to the many representations of the Buddha inside. The pilgrims range from modern young Tibetans in smart suits to large families who clearly just made a difficult and dusty journey from a faraway village—matted hair, smelling of smoke and sweat and dust, wearing old, torn clothes. I see them outside begging for small bills for their journey back home. A young woman in modern clothes and a purple leather jacket speaks on a cell phone in the smoky inner sanctum. Another modernly dressed woman drags a well-dressed small boy toting a plastic machine gun. Five-gallon buckets of butter walk by me, borne on a stick by two Tibetans with their wound braids, smiling at me sitting by this pillar writing in my book. Faithful supporters making offerings by draping scarves are draped over the drums and horns. A bell is rung, and the low chanting begins again. An old lady with braids to her knees carries a ladle of burning incense among the sitting monks. At the front are tables with three-foot high stands with offerings of fruits. They come and begin chopping up one of the stands and I realize it is "tourma", a mixture made from barley, yak butter and other ingredients, used to make edible offering sculptures. The cut up bricks are handed out to the poor out the back door of the monastery. On a tarp, a huge pile of tsampa (ground barley) is covered by buckets of butter and mixed with shovels. A group of people sits in a ring around the tarp kneading the tourma and packing it into bricks. The bricks are used to build another tiered platform, which is covered by a red substance and decorated with yellow designs, like a frosted cake. The chanting and the drums begin again. I sat for several hours here in this spot, just taking it all in. There is so much to observe in this exotic scene.

The last week I was in Nepal, I taught in a small monastery school for young monks. Most of the 28 monks are orphans, and this is their only home. The school goes from first to fourth grade, but the monks range in age from 9 to 20, They spend over four hours a day studying and practicing Buddhism, in addition to their regular course of study. Many of these Tibetan children were on the street before this school was started three years ago, so they are not very advanced in their studies, though they are very curious and hard-working students. This place gives them a chance at a decent life, clean surroundings, education, and good food. They speak surprisingly good English, considering it is their third language, after Tibetan and Nepali. I really enjoyed my time teaching there, and wished I had weeks or months to work with these kids. They were so responsive to my science workshops, so playful, so curious.

The days here start early. At five-thirty, a gentle bell sounds, and a monk goes through the halls chanting Ooom-dee-dee-dee-dee, like a human alarm clock. By six AM the little ones are chanting their morning prayers, each at his own pace in the beautifully decorated Gompa (Temple). I sit silently in a corner. They rock to and fro as they chant. I noticed the young ones rock faster in their zeal. They poke and make faces at each other just like normal little boys, though their shaved heads and robes give them a different look. After thirty minutes of chanting, butter tea is served, along with bread. I learned the first day that I have to drink the butter tea, or they will go to the trouble to make me regular milk tea.

At lunchtime, we go down to the monastery for adult monks, at the Tara temple to eat rice and potatoes. Here there is a cave with, supposedly, an emanation of Tara (female aspect of Buddha). People come from miles around to see this cave. After lunch, we go back up the hill for more classes. At study hour in the library (a beautiful building, built by sponsors), they rip through the Sky and Telescope magazines I donated, and ask question after question.

At four o'clock, the young monks trade in their robes for shorts and tear down the muddy valley to the soccer field. They look like normal little children except for their shaved heads. I trade in my long blue dress for khaki pants and a t-shirt, and head up the valley for some much needed exercise. It is so good to be out of Kathmandu and to breathe good air! The valley is filled with cornfields and monasteries with waving prayer flags and little clumps of rock and mud huts, inhabited by Hindu villagers. Most people just look at me, but some put their hands together in a Namaste greeting. Five boys climbing a huge tree point at their cheeks and say "cheek, cheek, cheek" over and over again. Who knows why! Two women point at my "men's clothes” and laugh. Women in colorful saris are working in the fields. A man makes his way up the road with two water buffalo, a huge plow over his shoulder. A woman walks on all fours, dragging a paralyzed leg, going from one side of a field to the other, where they were making some sort of preparation with grain. She looks like a typical village housewife in her dress and her manner, except for her extraordinary locomotion. Back at the monastery, the monks are chanting again. Somehow it feels peaceful to me inside this compound, and I think I could enjoy spending a lot more time here.

Lisa Dettloff
October 14, 1999

Lisa in Nepal


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