The weather here keeps us all on our toes. When the sun’s out and it’s warm and beautiful I find that I get complacent, and I tend not to bring an umbrella or any protective gear with me. Big mistake. The weather gods, angry at my flippancy perhaps, can make the sky turn from a brilliant blue to stony black at the drop of a hat. And it doesn’t just rain. At any point in the day, and with disturbingly little warning, the heavens will begin to pelt you with every imaginable type of precipitation at once. Huge, blobby raindrops, the kind that make an audible smack on your skin when they impact, combine with snow, sleet, and, worst of all, big, painful hailstones, to create a wholly integrated precipitation experience. Almost every day I find myself running blindly through a Plagues-of-Egypt-like storm, cursing at the top of my lungs because my face and ears sting from the hail, and mentally kicking myself for not bringing my umbrella for the umpteenth time. One of these days, maybe l’ll learn.
This week we started teaching at the “middle” school down the street. I put “middle” in quotation marks because of the fact that more than half the students are in high school. Apparently, the Chinese government recently shut down all “high schools” in the region, except for two big schools in the prefecture capital, two hours away from here. That seems really dumb to me, because it makes education for nomad students who live far away and have little opportunity for transportation very difficult. To say the least, it makes me question to motives of the Chinese government.
So, we started teaching there this week, and so far it’s going well. Corey and I are the only two English teachers for about 100 miles, so we’re in high demand. I find that occasionally during my free periods I end up tutoring other teachers who want to improve their English, and the two of us probably teach upwards of 150 students combined. It certainly makes it difficult to remember everyone’s name, an already difficult task given that most people are named “Tashi Golek Zang Tenzin”, or other such names that stick in your head none too easily.
Now that I have weekends and some afternoons free, I’ve had a little time to explore the area. Last Sunday Corey and I went on a long walk to the outskirts of town. Our original intention was to find out how to get up to a monastery that was up on the side of a cliff, but failing that goal, we just kept walking in one direction until the town petered away, house by house, into a giant empty valley surrounded by massive mountains. It was a bit disorienting, actually. The fact that none of the mountains have trees, and therefore have no foundation by which to judge size and distance, has the interesting effect of making everything look miniature, and shrinking apparent distances. It was like we were walking into a beautiful, but still somewhat unreal-looking painting. We had decided to just walk over to “that bend over there”, (which in the end turned out to be about 10 miles away), and as we walked, besides the sound of our footsteps and the whistling of the wind, the valley was completely silent. No people, no puttering combustion engines. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that was so quiet in my life. Occasionally, a pika would skitter out of its hole, and run across the grass into another one. Looking up, we saw a herd of yaks, tiny little black dots, up at the peak of a mountain, and giant eagles and vultures silently floating above them.
After walking for several hours we came upon a small altar, upon which were three beautiful, multicolored stupas surrounded by prayer flags and stones carved with intricate and beautiful mantras. Even though I know terribly little about Buddhism, the altar, together with the surrounding mountains and the overwhelming silence seemed to carry deep, real meaning. It was as if I suddenly understood what Tibetans are talking about when they chant “Om mane padme om” over and over. It was a real, all-encompassing, sink-your-teeth-into-it sort of peace, of a kind that I’d never really experienced before.
Wednesday was my 21st birthday, and according to the Tibetan lunar calendar it was also the Buddha’s birthday, and it was also a full moon, so Wednesday evening was very special all around. My host family threw me a wonderful party, and invited several teachers from the school along with several of our students as well. Another westerner, a South Afrian woman named Natalie who has been living in this area for the last two years teaching English with an NGO called The English Tibetan Project, and who had come into town to visit for a few days, also was invited. My host family, for some unknown reason, ordered about 15 different heaping meat dishes, even though on the Buddha’s birthday Tibetans are not allowed to eat meat, so I had to make a decision about whether to: A) not eat the meat dishes, respect local custom and possibly offend my hosts who had spent so much money on such wonderful food, or B) chow down on the meat, and possibly offend the several monks that were in attendance. In the end, my stomach won, and I ate the meat, which everyone seemed to understand, because they knew I’m not Buddhist. That didn’t ease the awkwardness on my end, however, because Corey and I were the only two eating the roast lamb, spiced yak tongue, and all the multitudes of other meat dishes, whereas everyone else was just eating birthday cake and cucumber. It makes me feel a little better to see that in the two days afterward everyone has been eating the leftovers.
As we ate, everyone took turns singing traditional Tibetan songs, first each of the high school kids, then our host mother. After each song, Olivia, the only Tibetan here who speaks any semblance of English, would try to translate the lyrics, which mostly went like this: “This song, it is speaking of the very happy, the crops, that very you will have many bounties in your place, and that you all the life have the happy time”. Most of the songs involved similar themes. After the eating and singing, everyone got together in a big circle and started teaching us traditional Tibetan dancing, which was very fun. All in all, it was a great birthday.
This weekend Corey and I are going to spend a night with our host brother, the monk, in his monastery, which I’m very excited about. I’m interested to see what a day in the life of a Tibetan monk is like. I’ll report back.
Best to everyone, I miss you all. –Chofu (this is how my host mother pronounces “Christopher”)