Well. I’ve now been up on the mountain for a couple days, coming down sporadically to catch a hot shower and email before heading back up. It’s been an interesting experience…I don’t speak a word of Tibetan, and this being Losar all the translators are busy with their families, but I have been surprisingly included nonetheless…and I am getting a LOT better at mindreading.
It turns out actually not to be very difficult…70% of human communication is body language and tone of voice, after all. So while I have absolutely no idea what is being said, I know very well what’s going on: storytelling, gossiping, arguing, etc. are all totally distinguishable from tone, rhythm, and body language.
“…..” (expounds, with hand gestures) “!!” (surprised expression) “… (nods head) …” “…!” (shakes head admiringly)
is obviously storytelling:
(tells story, with hand gestures) “No! He didn’t!” “Oh, he absolutely *did*…and *I*…” “Wow. I wish I’d thought of that!”
I haven’t the slightest idea what the story *is*, but I can follow what’s happening pretty well…and can insert the right comments (via tone/facial expression) in the right tone of voice at the right time…which amazes people, but conversation is really 90% emotional communication anyway, not literal discussion, so it sort of works.
At any rate: I have been staying up on the mountain, in the communal kitchen, with eight or nine cave yoginis/nuns. The kitchen is a brick building near the main cave (which contains a giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava (I hope I spelled that right) and a secondary shrine to an Indian princess). It’s also next to another shrine which I don’t know anything about, except that it’s full of beautiful brass goblet-style oil lamps, about half of which are lit at any moment. Every so often, another set of pilgrims comes up and lights a few more lamps. I assume it’s an offering of some sort, but no idea what…my ten-year-old “translator” hasn’t been able to explain.
I have mostly been perched in the kitchen, spinning and knitting on my shawl, watching the conversation go on around me…people have been coming in and out, celebrating Losar, bringing gifts and sharing the ritual pinch of tsampa (roasted barley-flour) mixed with sugar, taken from a bowl with a torma stuck in it.
(A torma–and I hope I’ve got the spelling right–is a Tibetan offering, made (as far as I can tell) of tsampa mixed with butter (and maybe water), and shaped into a roughly pear/phallic form. The basic torma is usually embellished with butter–the butter is kneaded in cold water until pliable, then shaped into rayed disks, teardrops, and moons, and attached to the torma. If I recall correctly, they’re then used as offerings to various spirits, but I don’t know anything about the symbolism.)
At any rate, it’s great to watch the people coming and going, and also quite meditative–rather like a silent retreat, except in company. I’ve been helping out a bit around the kitchen–the language of onion-chopping being quite universal–but mostly sitting and watching, and exchanging smiles etc. every so often. I actually don’t feel at all left out, though–just quiet. (I suspect it probably helps that I’ve spent months in places where I don’t speak the language, so I’m used to missing conversations.)
I have also been spending a lot of time playing with a 10-year-old girl…which is interesting, because normally I don’t much like kids. But she and I get along very well together…I’ve been teaching her origami, and folding a small menagerie for her. I’ve also been showing her my little gadgets, which she finds utterly fascinating–especially the digital camera and drop spindle.
I’m curious about the kid, actually…she speaks a little English (so has been translating for me a bit), so I asked her about herself. It turns out she’s the only one of her entire family in India…her mother, father, and brother are all still in Tibet. She was sent out of Tibet, to Lama Wangdor, when she was six–so she’s been living at boarding-school in India, and spends Losar and other holidays with the nuns. I can’t help wondering what prompted her family to send her, alone, to India–but there’s no way of finding out, until I can get a translator. (The upside of being a deaf-mute is that it encourages you to pay attention, and think things out; the downside is that some things really *will* remain forever mysteries.)
The girl, however, thinks I’m the coolest thing since sliced bread, and has been hanging around me a lot. I like her–full of enthusiasm and energy. 🙂
I’m not quite sure what everyone makes of me. They obviously like me, and are fascinated by my facility for handcraft: the drop spindle and shawl are endlessly fascinating.
I gather they can’t quite slot me as a Westerner, since I don’t behave like a Western traveler; but neither am I Tibetan or other Asian, so I must be something else. I *suspect* I am rapidly becoming the God of Small Yet Curiously Useful Objects, however–my gadgetry collection has been much admired.
(I discovered yesterday, by the way, how one opens a tin can without a can opener. Take a medium-sized knife, put it point-down on the can, and then take a hammer and whack the knife until the point goes in. Reposition the knife, whack again, etc. until the can is open. It is of course useful (and speeds things up) to have a friendly Westerner turn up with a Swiss Army knife/can opener, but it’s not strictly necessary.)
At any rate, top on the list of interesting items is the drop spindle–Tibetans also spin, and have a distinctive Tibetan spindle, but only the older nuns know how to spin on one, and apparently no one spins anymore. But other fascinating objects include contact lenses (I explained to the kid that they were like little glasses that fit on top of the eye), my little coin flashlight, and my mini whetstone (which looks like a thin strip of metal on my keychain). I sharpened all their knives yesterday while looking for something to do, which made them all very happy.
My Leatherman (actually Swiss Army Tool) is also much admired, although I haven’t demoed all the blades yet…I sawed a bit of bamboo off with the saw blade yesterday, then carved myself a crochet hook with the knife, which they thought was pretty cool. (I showed the 10-year-old roughly how to crochet, but couldn’t really show much with thin silk thread. I’m getting some yarn in town today and will show her how to crochet more seriously, if she’s interested.) I was also showing off origami frogs–they’re fun to play with, and everyone was passing it around and jumping it around the table.
So like I said, despite being deaf-mute, I haven’t been left out at all. It’s been lots of fun. 🙂
Ah, the caves. You want to know about the caves?
I’m not really sure. I’ve only seen a few caves–the main cave is indisputably cavelike, although it’s more like a series of largish tunnels/crevices in the rock, than the giant caves I saw in Vietnam or Laos. The other “caves” don’t really look like caves, exactly–more like small concrete rooms with boulders mysteriously embedded in ceilings and walls. (It *does* look sort of odd.) The caves are tiny, about five feet by eight, with just enough space for a small bed, table, and meditation platform. The bigger caves have space for a small cookstove/burner, as well.
Most of the caves have electricity; I think some might also have running water. The kitchen area where I was staying had a toilet, but I gather some cave areas don’t (go outside). Apparently things have been modernized a great deal in the last decade or so, though–one or two people mentioned that cave life was a lot less “simple” than it had been, with luxuries like electricity and running water, and people all over.
For food most people still eat tsampa (roasted barley flour), which everyone else ate for breakfast (they fed me onion omelets and chapati, which were quite tasty). Tsampa is traditionally eaten plain, mixed with tea, or kneaded with butter, and is eaten either with fingers, or licked directly out of the bowl with the tongue.
(Tibetan table manners were a bit startling initially–licking bowls to clean them being a very nonWestern approach–but made complete sense, after I thought about it for a minute. In a context where water isn’t readily available, it’s simply the best way to clean a food dish (or the most sanitary way to eat, if you can’t wash your hands). Hadn’t thought about it before, though, having always lived in areas with lots of water.)
The caves are located high up on a mountain ridge, 1-2 hours’ climb up over Rewalsar. One can take a taxi for 100-150 rupees ($2-3), a daily bus, or walk up a series of rough-set stone steps. This path takes you up the mountain, past a small village with many terraced fields, through the construction site for a statue of Guru Padmasambhava, and eventually up to the main cave.
The steps are made of a rough grey stone, and are less stairs than a series of mostly-flat rocks set at regular intervals: it’s rough going, and easy to twist an ankle. In some places, small rockslides have obliterated the path entirely, and you have to scramble around.
I’ve never climbed *up* the path (yet), but it takes about an hour to climb down. Small children come hurtling by, rushing over the stones to school, apparently ignoring the law of gravity.
The view is *fantastic*. It’s not the most beautiful view I’ve seen in my travels–I think Laos, or Vietnam, are more impressive–but there’s a serenity and a human-ness around it that I haven’t seen before. It’s not at all like looking down a mountain in the Bay Area, where the view is either wilderness or smoggy bustling freeway; it’s like looking down on a village/hamlet cum monastery retreat. Simple and spiritual, but definitely human, not wilderness.
At any rate, I spent the last two days up there, then came down in search of hot shower, vegetables, and email. having acquired all three, I’m heading back up there…Ani Bumchun and I are rapidly becoming fast friends, and I’m thinking I’ll get some wool in town, and try knitting her some socks. 😉
I’m told the Dalai Lama may be teaching a week earlier than I thought, so I may leave Rewalsar for Dharamsala sooner than expected–maybe as early as the end of this week. I’m trying to find out exactly what’s going on…Losar is making things a bit more difficult, though, as most Tibetans have vanished for the holiday.