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In this rich and deeply personal account of life in the highlands of Nepal, Geoff Childs chronicles the daily existence of a range of people, from venerated lamas to humble householders. Offering insights into the complex dynamics of the ethnically Tibetan enclave of Nubri, Childs provides a vivid and compelling portrait of the ebb and flow of life and death, of communal harmony and discord, and of personal conflicts and social resolutions. Part ethnography, part travelogue, and part biography, Tibetan Diary is a one-of-a-kind book that conveys the tangled intricacies of a Tibetan society.
Childs's immensely readable and informative narrative incorporates contemporary observations as well as vignettes culled from first-person testaments including oral histories and autobiographies. Examining the tensions between cultural ideals and individual aspirations, he explores certain junctures in the course of life: how the desire to attain religious knowledge or to secure a caretaker in old age contrasts with social expectations and familial obligation, for example. The result is a vivid and unparalleled view of the quest for both spiritual meaning and mundane survival that typifies life in an unpredictable Himalayan environment.
As usual, the porters lagged behind. Weighted down by large packs bulging with reference books, reams of paper, and other "necessities" for my field research, they made slow and ponderous progress on the mountain trail. The footpath was often precarious, narrow and steep, with sections washed away in landslides caused by the frequent monsoon deluges. It was day nine on the trek from Kathmandu, the day that would bring me to my new home in the ethnically Tibetan village of Sama, a remote Himalayan settlement in northern Nepal's Nubri Valley-a place I had never visited and where I knew not a soul.
In contrast to the physical exertion expended by the two hardy porters, my own burden was more psychological, induced by nagging doubts of an uncertain future. I was an anthropologist entering the field for the first time, embarking on a rite of passage from graduate student to practitioner of the discipline. Until now, the sluggish pace of the trek had afforded a welcome postponement of theinevitable hardships to come, a reprieve from the unavoidable questions that lay ahead. How would I be accepted by the people of Nubri? Would I be embraced or shunned? Would I be able to handle the physical and emotional trials and tribulations that surely awaited me? More to the point, what was I getting myself into?
Eventually I crested a ridge. Stretching before me was a wide plain situated more than two miles above sea level and surrounded by lofty snow-clad peaks. At 26,760 feet, Mt. Manaslu, known to the valley's inhabitants by the Tibetan name Pungyen (Ornamented Heap), commanded the entire scene. A translucent plume of smoke arose from a distant hollow, marking the village of Sama. The moment of truth had arrived.
On reaching the fields bordering the village, I came across a coarse stone wall that served to separate the herds of ravenous bovines from the villagers' life-sustaining crops. I decided to wait for my guide, Karma, who was also my companion and confidant. He knew everybody here; I was a complete stranger. I slung my pack to the ground, happy to be relieved of the encumbrance for the moment, but also knowing that this would be the final respite before having to explain my presence to these isolated mountain people.
While I stood reflecting on my impending entrance to the village, an old man trudged into view. He carried a bamboo basket and a hand-axe, crude implements needed to cut and gather fuel for his hearth. His shoulders were stooped, and his face was creased and wrinkled by years of exposure to the high-altitude sun and perhaps by sufferings that I could only imagine. Ragged, home-spun woolen clothing indicated that he was poor, poorer than anybody I had ever known. Yet there was still a spring to his step and a jauntiness in the way his head swayed back and forth as he hummed a sacred mantra.
The old man spotted me and approached, obviously perplexed by my presence. Although tourists had been coming through the village since 1992, and mountain climbers before them, it was now late August, the monsoon season, when Sama was undisturbed by foreign intrusions. Besides, Westerners were always preceded by an army of Sherpas and porters as if to proclaim their self-importance. I was alone.
"Elder brother, are you well?" I called out in greeting. Immediately the man's face lit up as he heard Tibetan words formed by a foreigner's tongue. A broad smile revealed gaping holes where his teeth used to be. "I am well. Are you going to cross the pass?" he inquired, under the assumption that I was a transient trekker seeking high-altitude adventure. "No," I informed him, "I plan to stay here for a few months." He looked startled. This was a curious prospect to ponder, without precedence indeed, since no foreigner had ever spent more than a few days in the village. Slowly his smile returned as he grasped the situation. "In that case you can stay with me. I have my own house and live alone." I thanked him for the offer, yet assumed this invitation to be no more than a social courtesy. Meanwhile, the withered old man with the stooped gait turned and strolled away to ascend a trail that wound through thorny shrubs to the forested hills above.
Karma arrived with the porters and immediately took me on a whirlwind tour of the village, introducing me to all the movers and shakers of the community. During the barrage of rapid conversation in a dialect that was still unfamiliar, I managed to discern that Karma was arranging for me to stay with the family of a high-ranking married lama. The next morning at the crack of dawn Karma abruptly left to return to his family in Kathmandu. Despite being surrounded by people, I had never felt more alone in my life.
At first the arrangement of living with the lama seemed perfectly suitable, one rationale being that my relationship as his guest would bestow social status by association, a certain legitimacy to my presence in the village that is essential for successful research. However, practical realities rapidly intruded in a most sobering manner. Houses in Nubri are single-room structures wherein privacy is nonexistent. This particular lama seemed more adept at perpetuating his descent lineage than at teaching his progeny fundamental social graces. He had numerous children and a wife stressed by the logistics of keeping the kids in line while providing for a continuous flow of visitors who came seeking audiences with her husband. My days were transformed into a continual struggle to keep research notes from being tattered and scattered by the grubby hands of toddlers. Constant vigilance was needed to thwart children from dispersing my underwear through the house and village, and to prevent my manual typewriter from becoming a keyboard for juvenile amusement. Indeed, the academic rite of passage called fieldwork was quickly transformed into an aggravating series of skirmishes with the children of my host.
The offer of the old man whom I met when first entering Sama kept creeping back to mind. I began to make excuses to visit him, and found his company to be most pleasant. His humble abode and warm hearth offered welcome breathing space from the din of battle in the lama's quarters. Sacrificing proximity to the learned lama was a small price to pay for assuring peace of mind, body, and possessions. I moved in with Tashi Dondrup.
Life with Tashi
Tashi is the illegitimate son of an impoverished mother and of a father who denied all paternal responsibility. He grew up poor and worked his entire life just to keep a roof over his head and food in his stomach. Lacking land and cattle, the critical assets of this rural economy that are generally bestowed through paternal inheritance, he could never marry and raise his own family. Despite such an unfavorable past, Tashi managed to cultivate a sharp intellect and immense capacity for generosity. In addition, he is elderly and respected by his fellow villagers, not because of wealth or any position of prestige that he happened to be born into, but because of his friendly demeanor, solid work ethic, and raucous sense of humor. People enjoy his company.
Tashi became my most important social link in Sama. He was more than a mere friend or companion, for he guided me through the myriad social gaffes and blunders that I was destined to perpetrate in this traditional society. Most important, he became my fictive yet ever so real brother. Rather than referring to each other by our given names, he called me "little brother" ITL([nuwo])ITL and I called him "elder brother" ITL([ajo])ITL.
Once the villagers accepted my presence and heard that Tashi and I called each other by familiar kinship terms, we naturally became the butt of local jibes. Our male neighbors wondered aloud, "How could two able men, guys who call themselves brothers, live as celibate bachelors in their own home?" Friends chided us to take a common wife, an accepted practice for brothers in Sama and in scores of other Tibetan communities where fraternal polyandry is customary. As part of the sexual innuendo so common when men congregate, elderly spinsters were suggested as potential spouses who could bring a semblance of marital bliss to our bachelor quarters. We were content, however, to be alone.
Becoming the target of jokes was gratifying, since it implied a degree of familiarity with fellow villagers-people far too polite and reserved to ridicule a stranger to his face. Yet the villagers' acceptance came by no means automatically. It had to be earned. At first people had no clue what I was doing in their midst, which of course led to rampant speculation about precisely who I was and for whom I was working. The fact that anthropologists tend to poke their noses into all aspects of life and ask scores of inane questions, all the while frantically scribbling cryptic notes in an indecipherable script, only fueled the villagers' suspicions. They began to talk about me.
Within a few weeks of my arrival a funeral procession took place in Sama. In my ignorant naivete, I envisioned tagging along and interviewing the lamas performing the last rites in order to better grasp local conceptions about life and death. Tashi was mortified at this suggestion and reprimanded me with a reminder of how gossip can act as a social regulator within the community. "Don't you dare follow that funeral procession to the cremation grounds!" he admonished. In response I reasoned, "But Tashi, how else can I learn about the customs here?" "Ask the lamas anything you want, but don't follow them to the burning place. If you do, people will wonder why you are obsessed with death. They will talk about you," he warned.
Tibetans believe that gossip can have negative repercussions. At the individual level, becoming the subject of gossip can trigger physical, mental, or economic misfortunes, while at the societal level the unabated spread of gossip can upset social cohesion. Tibetans even have ritual texts at their disposal that are designed to thwart the negative effects of gossip. In my case, social survival in Sama meant that my instincts as an academic voyeur needed to be tempered by a bit more sensitivity. Tashi was there to steer me clear of conflicts and to assure that I refrained from activities that would make me the target of malicious talk. (For the record, he did not always succeed.)
Suspicion that I worked for the Nepali government was a major impediment during the early weeks of fieldwork. Nubri is inhabited by Buddhist highlanders living at the geographical, social, and economic fringe of a Hindu state. Their opinions of outsiders were overwhelmingly prejudiced by negative experiences with government officials, usually high-caste Brahmins and Chetris. Wariness that I was somehow linked to the government did not help matters at all. It took the fortuitous, albeit inadvertent, assistance of an itinerant government official to dispel such a notion.
This government peon, a man whose level of arrogance was inversely proportionate to his menial position, came strutting into the village one day. At the time I was observing a ritual at the gomba (village temple), where most of the male members of Sama had congregated for the day. The official spied me in the crowd (indeed, I did stick out) and jumped to the conclusion that I was an illegal alien who must be dealt with using the full force of his petty rank. Nubri is a restricted area and I was the first outsider to receive permission to live there for an extended period. Naturally I asserted the legitimacy of my credentials and offered to show him the permits that had been issued in the capital and approved by the local police. Yet the numbskull refused to be swayed by facts, or perhaps he was holding out for a bribe. A harsh exchange of words nearly turned to blows as we argued heatedly in a crude admixture of Nepali and English, neither of which local villagers understood well.
As if on cue, the ritual within the temple ended and a throng of lamas and monks spilled outside and formed a circle about us two combatants. One man blurted out, "Hey Gyemi [Foreigner], what's the fighting all about?" I turned to the gathering and explained the nature of our disagreement, at which point an elderly monk stepped forward and enveloped me in his red robes. "Don't worry," he said, "we'll pretend you are a monk and hide you in the temple!" His suggestion was greeted with a burst of laughter from the crowd. Men began to jeer, and finally the official skulked away in defeat. The fight was proof positive that I was not in cahoots with the government. To this day I thank my good fortune for sending an obstinate official to the village just when a social breakthrough was sorely needed.
Later that day my adversary crept sheepishly into my makeshift office at the gomba to extend an olive branch. He turned out to be a nice man, perhaps one who could have become a friend under different circumstances. In his defense, he had been warned by higher officials to be on the lookout for illegal aliens in the valley. Foreign travelers are always seeking ways to enter the most remote and hence most romanticized areas of Nepal. He had just been doing his duty, albeit with minimal tact and far too much zeal.
We chatted for a bit, avoiding any mention of the previous confrontation. He then asked me about my motivations for wanting to live among and study the lifestyle of bhotay, a derogatory Nepali term for Buddhist highlanders of Tibetan extraction. To high-caste Hindus, Tibetans occupy the lowest rungs of the social order, and the government official was truly perplexed. "Why," he asked, "do you want to study these bhotay? Look at the food they eat. They are so dirty, and they smell bad," he said, pinching his nose to emphasize the point.
He had a valid point from the perspective of a lowlander, and in fact from the perspective of anybody who values the occasional scrub. The Tibetans of Sama do exude a very distinct odor, for their bodies are saturated with the combined smells of smoke from the hearth; yak butter, which oils their hair; sweat from their daily toils; and the bovines with which they are in constant contact. People very rarely bathe, in part because of the cold weather and in part because there is no cultural prohibition against having a veneer of grime coating the skin. The perplexed official could not understand why a foreigner would ever volunteer to live with these Tibetans, learn their language, eat their coarse food, and allow his personal hygiene to plummet so drastically. To him these people were the antithesis of civilization, whereas I was supposed to represent all that was modern, progressive, and socially desirable, according to the development discourse that had enveloped Nepali society. He no doubt considered me, with my soiled jeans, tobacco-stained teeth, and tangled locks of hair, as somehow disparate from the squeaky-clean foreigners who came through Nepal in droves, sporting spandex trekking pants and Gore-Tex parkas.
My degeneration from cleanliness did not happen overnight, but was an inevitable result of prolonged existence in a place where showers do not exist and clothing is scrubbed by hand on rocks beside a frigid stream. Tashi and I washed our hair each Saturday morning without fail, yet the rest of the body gradually acquired a layer of filth that would be removed only on my return to the temperate lowlands. Washing clothing was an especially disagreeable task, so I became content to wear an outfit that had a liberal coating of dirt and soot with a discernable tinge of yak droppings.
Eventually the vermin moved in. During my early weeks in Sama I routinely walked through the village each morning, calling out greetings or jokes to my neighbors. To those whom I saw picking lice from each other's hair I would customarily shout, "Save a few for me!" This joke boomeranged when people noticed me battling the first colonies of critters that had germinated within the seams of my underclothing. The women clucked their tongues and shook their heads in sympathy, whereas the men with characteristic lack of subtlety grasped their bellies and stumbled about in fits of mirth.
Providing levity in the village was far preferable to being the object of suspicion. I quickly learned to pick lice from my body and perform the emphatically non-Buddhist act of crushing them on a stone. Through tenacious effort and enhanced dexterity I eventually mastered the art of capturing the ever-elusive fleas from the lining of my sleeping bag. Even the occasional rat running across my legs at night ceased to be a matter for concern. A capacity to adapt to adversity is a prerequisite for an anthropologist. The less I obsessed with a diminishing standard of hygiene, the more I could focus on the work at hand.
Excerpted from Tibetan Diary by Geoff Childs Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
1. Raising the Curtain
2. The Lay of the Land
3. Life Begets Death, Death Begets Life: The Life Course Begins
4. Adolescent Discord: Family Needs versus Spiritual Deeds
5. Growing Through Travel: The Pilgrimage for Knowledge and Prestige
6. The Merits of Matrimony: Commencing the Householder Life
7. High Peaks and Deep Valleys: The Imponderable Nature of Everyday Life
8. Anticipating the End of the Life Course: The Anxieties of Old Age
9. Parting Breaths: Death Is But a Transition
10. Transcending Death: Rising Corpses and Reincarnations