A Day of Stories

India 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013:

I have never used the appointment calendar on my old Motorola Flip-phone. But with no laptop to help organize my busy day, it's the best I've got. It looks something like this:

10:00 make appointment with Dr. Yeshi Dhonden
11:00 Hope Center conversation circle
12:00 teach grammar class w/Susan
1:00 Damien lesson w/ Chung Den la
2:00 Free time (just like summer camp!)
4:00 Lha Conversation Circle
5:00 Teach guitar to Palden
6:00 Meet the Kays at Hotel Mountview for Karma & Chung Den's concert.

Of course I've expanded it for clarification here. My super hi tech cellular telephone gives me about 4 characters per day.

Dr. Yeshi Dhonden used to be the personal physician to the Dalai Lama. He is a practitioner of Amchi, a traditional Tibetan medicine system. He is quite well known in alternative medicine circles. Sharon's sister, Joyce, is an acupuncturist in the states and has a good friend who studied with Dhonden. He's even written up in the Lonely Planet Guide. So, even though I'm not sick, I get the feeling it would be valuable just to be in his presence. ...Easier said than done.

Walking down into his little office, I have the feeling I might need a secret password to get anywhere near him.

I wait at the desk, a kind of teller's cage type affair, for 15 minutes. The man there tells me to go to the lady at the back door of the Ashoka Hotel next door and she will give me a number. I go to the lady. She too has a lineup - actually more like a small mob - and is yelling something in Hindi. I have to wait until the crowd is mostly dispersed before I can get a translation. Dr. Dhonden is sick. Come back tomorrow. He may be here then.

Oh, well - on to another delightful conversation circle at the Hope Education Centre, followed by team-teaching a grammar class with Susan, the Australian volunteer I met the other day. In the grammar class, the guys want to know about past tenses, so we go through a bit of this vast topic with them. I have the ingenious idea to give them an assignment for the Simple Past tense. Starting with "I was born in _____________ (place) on _____________ (date)," write 1 or two short paragraphs about your life. They will have to use the past tense, plus they'll surely find it more interesting that the history of this or that.

The amazing young volunteer co-ordinator from the Emerald Isle, Pat, has been here six months. He's announcing that "Lou & Susan will be holding an extra grammar class. Everyone's welcome." He is great at making everyone feel just that….completely welcome.

I'm a little late for my music lesson, but Chung Den is waiting patiently. I can play what he taught me yesterday pretty well, except that my guitar habit of alternating upstrokes and downstrokes trips me up a couple of times. Today we get further into out first song, Shiveh Khang Seng (The Snow Lion). The idea is pretty simple. The notes have a name and a number 1 (Do), 2 (Re), 3 (Mi), 4 (Fa), 5 (Sol), 6 (La), 7 (Ti) and that brings us back to Do, as they say where the hills are alive. In this song you can forget 4 (Fa) and 7 (Ti). See if you can follow this video of Chung Den's "notes" (pun intended).

The audio starts at the lesson on the patio at Nick's, then morphs to the upcoming concert at the Mount View.

I grab lunch at Nick's after the lesson, then stop off at my room at the Hotel India House. The owner, Ramesh, stops me at the front desk and matter-of-factly informs me that I will have to check out in the morning. A large party is checking in, he explains. Since I've been so undecided about my plans, I've just been going day by day, and so I have no right to complain. Now I know what today's "free time" will be spent doing: Hotel shopping. I check a few of the quieter places I've noticed around town, but they are all full. Finally, I find a nice room with an incredible view at the Hotel Mount View, the same place where Karma and Chung Den play. I book it from tomorrow morning til the end of my stay. The end of my stay. Yikes. It's getting realer and realer. Is realer a real word? Spell check isn't complaining, so I'll go with it.

At the Lha 4:00 conversation circle, one of my students, Namgyal Tsering, asks me if I can tutor him privately. I've been asked this a couple of times and have said no, not wanting to turn my schedule from busy to downright crazy. But something about Namgyal makes me say yes. We set a date for tomorrow.

Palden meets me on the Lha roof for our 5:00 lesson with her beautiful blue guitar. It was recently given to her by a friend, and it sounds pretty good. She is at that in-between stage where she has learned a few chord shapes, but her left hand just can't form them in time. Palden wants to learn "Stand By Me." Great choice, seeing as how it's a tune I both love and know how to play. It came out when I was 11. It's been recorded by 400 different artists. Let's hope Palden's version will be #401. I tell her I'm very busy, but promise to give her at least one more lesson before I leave. She promises to practice and I believe her.


Tibet Music Trust, Concert #2:

My Kolkata pals, Andrew, Delia and Shayna meet me upstairs at the Mountview bar for the show. There's a better turnout tonight - about 15 - including teaching-mate, Susan, and three of her friends.

I have no more audio from this evening, but if you'd like to see Karma in an interview and singing, here's a youTube video I found from the University of Arkansas. It's basically the same story and song he does in his show. (p.s. I have no idea how, why, or even IF he is associated with the U of A.)

After the show, we all sit around a table with Karma and Chung Den. Turns out one of Susan's Aussie friends had lived in Toronto for two years, about 2 km from where Sharon & I live. Who woulda thunk? (That's Present Perfect Conditional of think, if any of my students are reading this). Then we start joking with Karma and Chung Den about doing a show together. The joke takes on a life of its own and decides to get serious. Next thing I know, there's a jam scheduled for Sunday night. Chung Den on Dranyen, Karma on Jembe, Andrew & Jonathan on saxes, Shayna on flute and I'll borrow Palden's famous blue guitar. (Oh, and Delia on camera. I mean, we'll all be on camera, but Deila will be on camera. You know what I mean.) The Kays leave and I stay on and close the place down with Karma and Chung Den. 9:30!

Thursday, March 21:

This morning is spent juggling the tasks of waiting for Dr. Dhonden, teaching at Hope, checking out of my old room and shuttling luggage to my new room. When I try to book the elusive Dr. Dhonden, I hear the same, "Go to the Ashoka and stand in line." Once there, I'm told to sign my name on a list and come back at 2:00. I'm signature #65. Coming back at 2, I find they're only giving out tokens up to #40 because the aging doctor is still not feeling so great. They tell me to come back again in the morning and wait again, or sign - I'm not really sure - to get a token for Sunday. Do they start over from #1, or does today's list count for anything? Who knows? I'm just glad I'm not really sick. And anyway, maybe I should leave it for people who really need it, but my curiosity has the better of me.

India House has been good, but the Hotel Mount View looks even better. I have a view of the same mountains and valley, but from a different angle. And instead a a little 3' x 8' balcony, I now have wrap-around terrace on three sides, AND it's around $20/night. I could live here for the price of a basement bachelor apartment in Toronto.

Moving into the Hotel Mount View and unashamedly talking to myself while doing so...


At THE H.E.C 11:00 conversation circle, today's topic is "If I had five wishes..." My student's first two are:
1) To be perfect in English
2) so I could teach Buddhism to my out-of-country friends.
This isn't coming from a monk, just a regular guy in his mid-20's.

In grammar class at noon, I'm expecting an excursion into the Simple Past tense via the short autobiographies the students have prepared. Think again, Mr. ESL. You don't even get to write a conjugation of the verb to be on the board today. The stories start to fly like arrows in the air, straight to the heart. Grammar is soon cast to the wind in favour of getting the gist of the tale.

The first story Susan and I hear is about a 30-day trek through the Himalayas, dodging Chinese border police, and finally getting caught. He was sent to prison, got out and tried again, and was caught again. This cycle repeated and repeated until he finally made it on the fifth try.

Another young man tells us his parents were nomads and he only got to go to school until he was about seven. He had to stop because he was needed at home to tend the sheep and yaks. He did that until he was 18, then began planning his escape. He describes a system not unlike the Underground Railroad used in 19th Century U.S. for slaves to get to the North. He hired a guide, went from village to village, house to house, where he received food and shelter, until he eventually got across the mountains into Nepal, and finally India.

A monk student whom I have gotten to know quite well, but asked me not to divulge his name on the internet out of fear, tells a similar story about staying home to help with the animals until his time came to flee, whereupon he too was caught and sent to prison. One day, he was being transferred from one prison to another in the back of a truck. As they rounded a curve, he leapt out of the truck, and made his way through the forest to safety. He spent the next few weeks under cover in Tibet (I can't imagine what that might have looked like) planning his next escape. He, too finally made it across to Nepal on foot. I have spoken to this particular monk several times at both H.E.C. and Lha over that past few days, and whenever he is asked what he would like or what his dreams and goals are, he consistently answers that he would like everybody to be happy and Tibet to be free. That's it. His favourite books are by the Dalai Lama. To be in the same room with such bravery and compassion is daunting, and is an honour to say the least. To think that I'm the teacher in this room, and he's the student feels just a little backwards.


I get a short break before the conversation circle at Lha. Merely walking around this town is a lovely experience.

Fruit business a little slow today, boys?

Out for a walk.

Horses and donkeys carrying loads of brick in burlap bags.


It's 4:00 and time for the Lha conversation circle. Following up on a prior class, we talk a little more about names. Lou does not mean sheep, as they had told me before. That's louk. Lou, it turns out, is a name for a certain kind of traditional a cappella singing. I also notice they all pronounce my name Liu. I like it! Lhamo (or Llamo?) tells me her name means fairy and Kunga (Khunga?) says his means people. More and more it is seeming to me that translating is a crap shoot. As is spelling, when you're translating from one alphabet to another. But it makes for fun conversation.

Speaking of fun conversation, two of the students leave early, and it's just me and the Tsering Lhamos up on the roof of Lha. That's not a band. It's two young women - best friends - who happen to have the exact same name: Tsering Lhamo. Tibetans, as a rule, do not have family names, so there is much more similarity from one person to the next.

One of the Lhamos is 18 and the other, 20. Lhamo 18 tells me she was educated by the Chinese back in Tibet. So she speaks Chinese, English, Tibetan and some Hindi as well. She also thought for a long time that she was Chinese, because that's what she was taught. Lhamo 20 was raised by nomads and so was fundamentally illiterate and spoke only her Tibetan dialect. Going out on a limb, I say "You're lucky not to have been educated by the Chinese." Lhamo 20 just looks back at me, puzzled. So, I repeat. Lhamo 18, the more vocal and gregarious of the two (perhaps because she's more comfortable with the language) jumps right in: "No no no. She is not lucky!" I ask why. "I know Chinese, so now I can tell Chinese people the truth about Tibet. They only know the lies the Chinese government tells them." I stand corrected. Extremely.

L to R: Lhamo 18, Liu, and Lhamo 20.

We say good-bye for now. It's 5:00 and I've promised to tutor young Mr. Namgyal Luc Tsering, 23. Seems I've been showered with stories all day today. Little did I know the tsunami wave was yet to come.

Namgyal comes from the Amdo region of Tibet. In 2001, he was 12. That's when he walked for 23 days across the mountains with a guide and about 20 people from his region. He was the second youngest and none of his family was on the journey. In fact, he hardly knew any of his trek-mates.

He tells me, with a sparkle in his eye, how much he misses his family. FIve sisters and a younger brother, all still living back on the farm in Tibet. They talk on the phone now and then, but that is getting harder because he is forgetting his dialect as he learns Hindi and English. He starts showing me pictures on his phone (a necessity amongst the youth here as much as it is in North America). Are these very old pictures? No. Very recent. His English is clear and fluent, though his accent is still quite pronounced. My uncle is a monk and he has a passport, so he went back for a visit and brought me these pictures. The photos are full of gorgeous faces. Mom, brown, wrinkled and wise. Dad with a big beige Tibetan felt hat, looking surprisingly smooth-skinned and gentle. My father has an open mind, Namgyal tells me.

I have to wonder why on earth he sent his boy to India at 11. "My father had a plan. He cared for me very much and wanted me to have a chance for something more." The silent look Namgyal and I share is all the response I can muster; all the response needed. As I write this and think of my three children, I can well imagine making that kind of sacrifice; entering such a world of calculated risk when the present is so bereft of promise.

Namgyal tells me that his father came to India once. He visited his son and - just about as importantly - got to meet the Dalai Lama. This was very wonderful for my father, he says, putting his hand to his heart. Will he come again, I ask? No. He cannot read or write and only speaks the Amdo dialect, and he is old now, so travel is difficult, and besides, they are having financial problems on the farm.

Namgyal and his phone.

Amongst the photos are nieces and nephews Namgyal had never met. Even the house was a new one since he had left. Other than the odd visit from a distant relative, Namgyal is on his own. The only hope of seeing his family is to wait for a visa or passport of some description (Tibetans in India are not Indian citizens, and they are not citizens of Tibet, since China keeps Tibet from being recognized as a country!), but even then, he will need a lot of money to get one.

When I leave him at 6:00 I ask him what he is doing this evening. "Learning Chinese," he replies.


Walking home, my heart is filled with the lives that have touched mine today.
The sky seems a mirror.


Happy Reading.

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