June 17, 2009
One of the things we love about Tibet is our addiction to Diamox, the medicine Barb and I are both taking to ward off altitude sickness (I actually first typed attitude sickness, which it may be helping with, too). One of Diamox’s great attributes is that it puts you in a deep sleep at night, and you are REM-MING all night long. For instance, I have dreamed that I was making love with Lapo Elkann (the 30 something heir to the Fiat fortune who wears the greatest suits and shoes), while at a going away party for my dear friend, Angelina Jolie. A few days later I dreamed that Angelina was wrapped up in a blanket, lying in a foetal position, and said to me, “I am your little squirrel.” Yes, I replied, with great affection,“You are my precious little squirrel.” I also dreamed that someone in my family had been through training to be a plastic surgeon, and they said I could have plastic surgery on my nose for free and it would be a great opportunity because the supervisor would also be there. I thought I would go ahead and do that, despite not really thinking I needed a nose job, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw that, indeed, I had a snout on the end of my nose that was just like a pig’s, so surgery was probably in order, after all.
Barb has dreamed that her left arm was a large wing made up of bright orange begonias, and her ex-boyfriend had a complementary wing of bright red begonias. She has also wandered with her grandmother for hours in a hotel looking for her grandmother’s room, and has been unable to culminate making love with somebody (she doesn’t know who—some cute guy) because she is in a room with eight doors and a plethora of people coming in and out serving coffee.
On our way to town one day, we are excited to see Khandro carrying two bags of garbage into Gansi. Yesterday, I had told her not to toss a biscuit wrapper in a field, and she looked at me with total amazement. Waste management hasn’t caught up with the Tibetans—rather like the US in the 1950’s when people would toss a garbage bag out the car window when they were out for a Sunday drive in the countryside. Big fines, recycling and trash pick up at your front door took care of most of that, but those are strategies that have yet to reach us on the Plateau. So, we are thrilled at the environmental breakthrough. As we chug toward Gansi in the taxi, she asks the driver to pull over to the side of the bridge, and lifts the two bags. I assume there is a trash site nearby, but she is about to toss it out the window into the rushing river.
Once again, she is totally taken aback by the screams of protest from Barb and I, and brings it back through the window to be deposited in a barrel in town, with a look of “Whaaaaaat’s the problem?” on her beautiful face.
We know that many of the people on the tours this summer are bringing clothing for the kids in the village. So, one I ask Khandro for a list of all the children in the village so that when the tour guests come, we can distribute those fairly and also buy clothes and toys for the kids in town. Great jackets and dresses abound (being China, everything is a rip off from some manufacturer who sells in the West—you can buy a North Fac jacket that looks like a real North Face or an Ozark Jacket that has a label saying Zarko). They’re a little short on the spelling. On the screen saver at the internet place, it says TES TO LIFE and NO TO DRUGS). Khandro sits down with me after dinner and in one fell swoop rattles off the names of 92 kids and their ages, from 1-18.
I am asleep when she and Nyima Dakpa come in to shake me and wake me up—they are concerned because she has forgotten 6 more kids that live at the edge of the village, so their names go on the list, too. I try to imagine remembering 98 kids’ names and ages, without a falter before I drift back to Diamox Land.
Today we go to town with Nyima Dakpa to buy a small two-burner gas stove for the tour camp site, since we have realized that hauling tons of dried yak dung with us will not work and my plan to have one of the silver paneled solar cookers is dashed when Khandro looks at me with skepticism and has me lift it to see how much it weighs–probably 150 lbs, not so easily hauled along with all the rest of our stuff (I probably could have gotten away without buying microscopes, but I did think the tour guests might want to look at bugs and leaves in Tibet)
Khandro is thrilled about the gas stove, but also scared as it keeps lighting up with a flare. She asks how Americans cook. Do they use an open yak dung fire? Do they use gas? When I tell her many people in the United States have electric stoves, I have to draw her a picture to get the idea across. She keeps looking up at the light and saying luk? (electricity). For someone who lost part of a finger and has 4” round scars all over her body from being electrocuted as a child–unconscious for five days–when she touched a live wire hanging out of a socket, she’s understandably a bit gun shy. By the puzzled look on her face, I can see that I never do bridge the concept between electricity and cooking.
Later on, Khandro shows us who’s boss and gets back at our know-it-all selves by wrestling with us, something that Tibetans love to do—I’ve been in many a wrestling scuffle, trying to hold my own with people who work in fields all day and run up and down the mountainsides—it isn’t easy trying to take down a Tibetan on their home turf, but we give it a go.
In the afternoon, we do the usual and go out to the path in front of the house to wait for our yaks to come home from the hills. Everybody else is out there, too, because that’s what happens at 7:00pm, 365 days a year in Oh Szang Village.
Above: Last of the Yaks Come Home from the Mountains
We open the gate to the courtyard of the home and wander in with our yaks–they don’t need us, they head straight to their stalls under the house. In the courtyard, Khandro starts playing around with her kids, chasing and wrestling with them and pretending to be the Chinese police beating them with truncheons.
Her 14 year old son, Thamdin, laughs and marches around the yard, imitating the rigid form and goose-step of the police and military we have seen in town. It is disconcerting for Barb and I who are on the sidelines, but just part of getting through life for them. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger comes to mind as a maxim that seems to have daily use in Tibet Land.
I have more Letters from Tibet to post from last summer’s tours, but wanted to break that series to let those of you who have asked about our plans for next summer in Tibet in on some great news. We have decided to do two tours in summer, 2010 and here are the details.
Tour #1 (June 19-July 5) will focus on Botanical Illustration, but as usual, everyone who wants the true Tibet experience and isn’t so inclined to learn to sketch and paint is invited along, too. Last summer we had a guest who was completing her 2 year Botanical Illustration Certificate Course and focusing on orchids and poppies of Tibet for her final project and other guests who had never picked up a paint brush before.
I will teach a botanical illustration class in sketching and painting almost every day. Ever wonder how in the world illustrators get leaves to look so realistic–you’ll be doing it in record time! Can’t imagine how you’ll ever be able to ix the colors so that it is true to the plant in front of your eyes? Never fear–that’s what you’ll be learning. We’ll focus on field work, choosing plants we love to look at or those that are strange and mysterious, even dissecting to see the floral reproductive parts (we have microscopes for those who want to get down to a cellular level). While some guests paint, others will be napping in the sun, hanging out with villagers, and who knows what else. The big activities (horseback riding at the glacier lake, spending the night at the restored nunnery, visiting the monasteries, shopping for silver knives with turquoise and coral encrusted handles, soaking in hot springs, and herding yaks) will be part of the painter’s journey, too.
Tour #2 (July 9-July 26) will focus on Photography. People kept asking if we would do a tour with this focus. After all, who is more photogenic than the Tibetans and surely the fantastic landscape on the Tibetan Plateau competes with any locale in the world? We went looking for someone who was not only a top-notch photographer in their own right, but someone who knew how to guide others in foreign lands. We are thrilled because we have just heard from Ron Zak, photography instructor at Napa Valley College (Napa, California), who has led photography trips to such challenging and incredible places as India, Thailand, China, Cuba, Greece, and Vietnam. Ron will give daily instruction and critiques while we visit villages, monastic centers, herd those yaks, go to festivals and meet nomads in the hills and streets of the local towns.
Visit his website at http://www.zakworld.com to read more about him and see what he’s up to these days. And better yet, imagine what it will be like to be traveling in Tibet under the guidance of an adventurer and pro like Ron.
The 2010 Dream of the Turquoise Bee link at www.dianneaigaki.com
The website for the 2010 tours isn’t finished yet, but the itinerary for both tours will be very close to the journey we followed in 2009, so take a look and see if you or someone you know will be joining us in Tibet in Summer, 2010.
June 10, 2009
We’ve settled into village life, haven’t even been here a week and have already had a year’s worth of strange adventures. Things are a bit different than when I was at the house here in 2007. For one thing, the family now has a refrigerator. I was a bit concerned about the electricity that the refrigerator uses; they’ve been using silver folding panels for years to heat water for tea. But now they also have a solar panel that is 12” X 24” and powers two rooms and the refrigerator.
The first day in town, Barb (Barb has now acquired the moniker Bob-boo) and I bought a bunch of vegetables for meals (cauliflower, shallots, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, mushrooms of various kinds, and carrots) and when we looked in the refrigerator later, the only thing in there were bananas in a bowl.
What about the vegetables, we asked—later we would get to the information that bananas don’t go in the refrigerator. Oh, the shang-kee (the refrigerator) isn’t good for them, it’s too cold. We keep them in the root cellar. They’ll spoil in the shang-kee. They had a big chunk of meat in the freezer compartment, but thought this was probably too cold for it, too. Lhamo Choedon rapped on it with a wooden spoon to show me the problem, and sure enough, it was frozen solid.
I looked out over the wall, and sure enough, Ani-La (the sister who is a nun) was climbing into the root cellar like a mouse, and then re-emerged, backing out with the vegetables in her arms.
They also have a new washing machine, which was one of the first things they showed me after we arrived. Despite clothes washing happening in big tubs everyday since we’ve been here (we haul water up from the well in the yard and heat it on the stove with a yak dung fire), we haven’t seen the machine put into action. It sits in the large space below the living quarters, covered with a fitted tarp, making its home mid-way between the yak stalls and the 20’ high neatly-stacked piles of dried yak dung which serve as fuel all year long. These new additions to life in the village have come about because of the generosity of Norbu, their relative who has immigrated to Australia.
But back to yaks. Barb and I have jumped right in with our city slicker ignorance. Years ago when I first came to Tibet I ate the best yogurt in the world that comes from the dri, the female yak. Every time I tasted it, it was slightly different, with faint flavors of meadow or flowers—you could rhapsodize over the thick yogurt just like vintners do over fine wines from the Napa Valley, making up endless descriptions for the subtle flavors and aromas. Recently, after dinner one night, we asked about sho (yogurt)—where was it? I was used to a two litre bowl of it available at all times. It often sat right next to the five pound mound of dri butter that was gobbled up in a few days. Meh song was the word on the sho. It’s gone—there isn’t any. But why? Thus ensued a lengthy discussion about how sho is best in the morning, after the dri is milked at night, and the sho sits and thickens. Sho at night is not so good. Okay, so where’s our morning sho? There isn’t any? But why, there’s two yaks down there. Answer: One yak is too young to produce milk. Okay we get that, but what about the other one? They look at us, puzzled–perhaps we have a communication breakdown. With a stroke of pure genius Barb suggested I ask if the yak was a male and that was why there wasn’t any. Indeed. They looked at us incredulously. It hadn’t even occurred to them as we worked the yogurt conversation from several different directions that we were missing the basic fact that the yak (which by the way is the biggest, stud-liest yak in the village) was a male and wouldn’t be giving milk anytime soon in this lifetime. We told them we were just “de-tsi, de-tsi, khuk-pa”—a little stupid in the head, and they got a laugh out of that.
The fourth day we were here, Uncle Soega came to say that while all the villagers were circumambulating the main prayer wheel, the police came and asked about foreigners in the village. Uncle Soega (who is my plant guide when I am in Tibet during the summers) told them he didn’t know too much about us, but we were Americans and just here looking at wild flowers and would leave soon. They said they would be back at night to check our papers. Photos of the Dalai Lama were taken down and hidden in the temple room (which doesn’t seem like too much of a hiding place to me, but I assume they know what they’re doing). The family also removed several photos of me and their brother/nephew/uncle Rinchen. As a monk who raised a sign for Free Tibet, Rinchen was arrested and put in prison. After three years of being half-starved and tortured, he was released and escaped to Dharamsala where I met him on the street. We became fast friends and I now serve as the living link to his family, who never expect to see him again.
As the world turns, Rinchen was given a visa by the Australian Government in 2007 (something they did for 50 Tibetan high profile ex-political prisoners), so almost every day he calls us from Sydney and checks in. While we eat yak meat momos and sit in our mud house, with a dome of trillions of stars glittering above us in the Milky Way, Rinchen is often on break from his job as an aide at a nursing home, or sitting on Bondi Beach in Sydney with Tibetan friends.
Rinchen has described his low-pay/hard work job to me as, “As the very best job I could ever have. It makes me very happy. I love taking care of these old people. They are often angry at the world and I like to talk to them and make them happy and help them change their dirty clothes.”
With the news of a possible police arrival, I laid out the painting supplies and gave Barb a quick lesson in painting leaves, so we could look like authentic flower painters, but the police never showed up, and we’ve almost forgotten the whole scare even happened.
Yesterday afternoon, unexpectedly a man showed up at the house who looked almost exactly like Uncle Tsering Ngodhup, same nose, mouth and eyes. Yee-Doh is, in fact, a stepbrother—they have the same father and are one year apart in age. He came to thank me for my financial assistance when his brother, a Lama from Gansi Monastery, fell ill. This was several months ago. Rinchen had told me the Lama was ill and in great pain and no one had money for him to go to Chengdu to get proper assessment or medical care. I sent the money so he could go and be taken care of, but he died a month ago, at the age of 55 years. This Lama was the main teacher at the nunnery up the mountain where Rinchen’s sister is a nun. I first met him 4 years ago. Yee-Doh held my hand and wept as he talked about how this was his younger brother, a very kind Lama, always willing to do anything to help the nuns learn. His road had been hard and he should not have been the one to die first. He showed us all photos of the funeral pyre burning on the mountain with monks from Gansi Monastery and nuns from Gedun Choeling Nunnery in attendance, praying for his positive rebirth.
Late in the morning, we went to a hot springs about 45 minutes away. It is owned by a monastery, where (wouldn’t you know it?) the very large natural pool is mostly for men and monks and it is bad form for women to get in there, too. There is another much, much smaller area for the girls. It is a warm pool behind some rocks and the nearby ground is strewn with empty laundry soap packages and shampoo bottles, with the occasional flip flop scattered in among the litter. We scrubbed down and were on our way, stopping briefly on the main road (a two-laner with a car or truck going by every 15 minutes) to buy snacks from a Chinese vendor. He was pushing his cart like a popsicle wagon from village to village, and sliced off some translucent noodles –maybe soy- dowsed them with chili, leaving off the MSG for us foreign types, and we chowed down on the roadside. As we continued to drive toward Oh Szang Village, he was already pushing his cart along the empty road, the next village not even in sight,
As I write this now, Bob-boo is hoeing the potato fields with Lhamo Choedon, the snow of Khowalangri Mountain shining in the distance. Lhamo Choedon takes care of the daily family needs, herds yaks several days a month and is the sole person responsible for bringing in the crops-barley, potatoes and peas. She has several acres to work, no irrigation system–and, as you might guess, is a few years behind on the job. Almost every day she has a major migraine headache (what other kind of migraine is there, after all?)–which we can’t figure out if it is from the sun, from being dehydrated, or just the long view of her life of toil.
I shall take a turn at the potatoes after I haul up buckets of water from the well, and as the sun goes down, we’ll be set for a dinner of thukpa (noodles and vegetables) and another round of mysteries.