So this post is going to cover two weeks, because I’ve gotten a little behind. Apologies.
A truly heartbreaking thing happened last week. One of the newborn twins, a daughter of my host mother’s brother, that had been born two months prematurely about a month ago, passed away during the night. The other twin is still in pretty dire condition, but so far he is still hanging in there. So last week was filled with funeral proceedings. Their house, down the street from ours, has been filled with eleven monks praying for the soul of the child all week, and occasionally the monks come over here to eat food in between prayers. The day after the child passed away the Lama came over to pray over the body, and I got to meet him for a moment as he was rushed out of the house and into his waiting car. Seemed like a nice guy. In order for the Lama to enter any residence, a whole host of monks has to come over beforehand and make an intricate sand mandala in front of the entrance, which is very interesting.
Teaching last week was a little tough. On Tuesday, one of my 7th grade classes just couldn’t be bothered to pay attention, and I maybe I wasn’t in the most forgiving of moods; at one point six or seven students had their backs to me, several were doing homework for other classes, and others were listening to music on MP3 players. I lost it. Yelling isn’t really my style, so instead, through clenched teeth I told my students that I had come halfway across the world to give them an opportunity to learn English from a native speaker, and if they didn’t want to learn, I simply didn’t want to teach them. So I left. I was pissed off as all hell, and I sort of let it ruin my day, which I shouldn’t have. You know, there I was working my ass off trying to make possessive adjectives as exciting as humanly possible, and they didn’t even have the decency to face my direction. It was infuriating. Unfortunately I didn’t end up teaching that class again all week due to unforeseeable circumstances (Wednesday was “exercise morning”, Thursday we helped build a house for a neighbor, and Friday I don’t normally have that class). This Monday I had the class for the first time, and they were like little angels. I later found out that my host mother had called the school about how bad that class was, and that the principal had come into the class and literally beat up some kids…corporal punishment is still very legal here. I feel a little bad about it, but luckily no one seems worse for wear.
Last Thursday was an interesting day. A neighbor of my host family is building a new house near the river, a comparatively luxurious-looking brick deal, and Thursday, for one whole day, all the friends, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances of the family came to help build. It had the atmosphere of what I might imagine a barn raising would be like. Cigarette-puffing men in their collared shirts and slacks, elementary-school-aged children, even old women who normally would spend the day on the corner spinning their prayer wheels in the sun, all rolled up their sleeves, grabbed a shovel, and started working.
What got me most were the hats. Hats are very much in fashion here. The place was absolutely crawling with hats, of every shape and size. Most of the women were wearing large, wide-brimmed floral ones, while the men were sporting Indiana-Jones, we-mean-business hats. It was a very strange sight, almost like the entire congregation of an American Southern Baptist church got lost one Palm Sunday and ended up at a construction site in rural Tibet.
Needless to say everyone thought it was hysterically funny that two foreigners would be there to help out, but after a LOT of persuading on my part, they finally agreed that it would be OK if we helped shovel cement. So I spent the day being put to shame by Tibetan women three and four times my age, who shovel cement like bulldozers, and never take breaks. I think they might be cyborgs.
Last weekend was wonderful. My host family decided that it would be nice to go camping out in the grasslands and spend some time with the nomads there. Saturday morning I woke up to the family packing nearly everything they own into the car: pots, pans, seven or eight tents, including one large military-barracks-type one with canvas skin that was about an inch thick and smelled vile, pillows, blankets, an electric generator, light bulbs, a giant iron stove that weighed about 1000 pounds, an aluminum chimney, and a whole host of other equally random items. We drove for about three hours, out of the valley and up onto a huge wide plateau that was entirely flat and green for miles and miles. It was a surreal location – the air was crystal clear, and from where we set up camp the brilliantly green grass stretched out for probably 20 miles in every direction, flat as a chessboard, until way off in the distance a sheer wall of Himalayan rock leapt out of the plains entirely without warning; just grass, grass, grass, grass, mountain. Everything was so wide, and on such an immense scale, it was almost hard to tell where the earth ended and the sky started; it was like they were fused together, way way off. We were in the middle of all this space, tooling about setting up tents and dragging the stove out of the back of the car, all the while looking and feeling immeasurably small.
We set up camp next to a nomad family whose yaks freely roamed the several-mile radius around us munching on grass and grunting occasionally. They invited us into their tent, which was really very nice on the inside, with beds and chairs set up around a central stove that had been built out of earth; after a cup of tea we were allowed to go outside and try our hand at milking the yaks. I did a pretty good job, aka I succeeded in getting milk out of the yak. I did not, however, get said milk into the bucket. Instead I got a lot of milk on my jeans, and very little anywhere else. Good for a first try though, I thought.
Another fun grassland activity, and a very difficult one, was mushroom hunting. Difficult, of course, because if you aren’t very quiet sneaking up on them, they’ll run away. We spent the entire afternoon at it, and although it was tough, we ended up with a good full bag of mushrooms. They turned out to be by far the most delicious mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. The Tibetans have a special way of preparing the mushrooms, which apparently they’ve been doing for thousands of years: first get a nice round mushroom cap, turn it over like a little bowl, put in some salt, some zampa (ground barley meal mixed with yak cheese, a staple food here), and top it off with a nice dollop of yak butter. Then you roast the mushroom cap like you might a marshmallow. It ends up tasting delicious, surprisingly similar to stuffed mushroom appetizers. It made me wonder whether the two ideas had some kind of connection; I was imagining some intrepid French gourmet trekking over the Himalayas in search of the perfect mushroom recipe, and discovering stuffed mushrooms. Probably just a coincidence though.
This week since we’ve been back has been mostly uneventful, teaching as usual. I’m very surprised to find that I only have two weeks left here; the time really flew by. The one interesting thing that happened this week was that Friday was Chinese Children’s Day, and the elementary school had a dance performance. There were probably 600 people there to see the kids, and as much as I enjoyed seeing the dancing, I enjoyed the people-watching most. Tibetans are so beautiful, and just being in a crowd of them was sensory overload, with all the hats and colorful jewelry and weather-beaten faces of the grandparents. Of course it was also interesting to find out that in a crowd of Tibetans I am a celebrity. Everyone wanted to meet me, shake my hand, give me a gift, a fountain pen, or a piece of chocolate, ask me where I’m from, what I’m doing here. It’s going to be a shock when I get back to the States and I’m not an attraction. Ha.
I hope everything is well in everyone’s respective locations. I miss you all. –Chris