August 15, 2005
Yesterday in Aba we met a family of Tibetan girls ranging in age from 18 to 35. Both parents had died. They were on their own, and making the best of it. The sisters ran a restaurant, a hotel, and an internet cafe. Each was impressive. The youngest were hard workers and had an almost Japanese manner about them. The oldest had an obvious sense of style (her restaurant, extraordinary for Aba, would not be out of place in New York).
The middle daughter spoke English, one of her five languages. She showed us around town and the monastery. At night she took us to a "Tibet dance party". All the while we had conversations about her life, her future, her boyfriend (a Tibetan man who is living illegally in New York) and so on. The talking continued well into the night and although we were all tired I kept getting the sense she didn't want us to go. After the dancing we returned to her sister's restaurant. It was almost 2 at this point and after some more chatting I said we should be going... She looked at me and with piercing frankness said, "You are lucky. Your world is very big. You can travel where you want and do what you want and you are free. You have friends in many places. Maybe I am just a friend you will forget. My world is small. I am not free. I will not forget this talk or this night. Maybe you will return. But maybe you will never come here again." And then she stopped and looked down.
I promised to look up her boyfriend and to send some English books, but there was a truth to what she said, the traveler collects people and experiences and often forgets them or forgets to look at them as people whose lives they might have touched. But not always....
Today I returned to the small village of Amchok. I had stayed with the headmaster and his wife many years ago (pictures here and here). I returned with a batch of pictures from my first visit in 1994. The town was still recognizable, although much bigger. I stopped the first person I ran into, a monk on a motorcycle, and showed him the pictures. A crowd gathered. Everyone knew the faces in the pictures and in a few minutes I was on the back of a motorcycle on my way to headmaster's house. He was no longer living at the school, retired I think, and was in a small adobe house a bit outside of the town. The monk yelled over the the brush fence announcing a guest and in a few moments there he was. The headmaster. Same sturdy face. Same thick hands. I handed him the pictures. He smiled as he looked at an image of his younger self. Then studying a picture of his wife he started tearing up. His wife had died, as had an 18 year old girl in one of the other pictures, and the English teacher who had brought me to the village in the first place. The English teacher was named Chotar. He had studied in India and traveled with an English Tibetan dictionary and several volumes of Shakespeare. He had learned much of his English from Shakespeare so his conversation was unusually florid. I did not find out how he died, or the girl, or the headmaster's wife. We didn't have language in common and trying to find out the details through pantomime seemed too painful. The headmaster invited us into his house, offered us some yak butter tea and bread. He lived there with his daughter and granddaughter and a nun who might have been another granddaughter. All the while he kept going through his pictures and shaking his head. He separated out the images of his wife and those of himself. There was one picture of the two of us by a river and we took an updated one in the yard. In that moment the weight of the years lifted as we both froze for the click of the camera and smiled in relief afterwards. I hope to return.