A guest post by Jessica O.
Before visiting the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, I knew very little about Tibet, other than the Beastie Boys wanted to ‘free it’. That changed the moment I started wandering the streets of McLeod Ganj, the backpacker enclave 8 kilometres away from Dharamsala, India.
While retaining its Indian flavour, the city was filled with Tibetan refugees hawking thangkas, prayer wheels, and Buddhist literature as well as all kinds of woolly knitted things to keep the chill of the Himalayas at bay. Steaming plates of momos, bowls of hot thukpa soup and warm yak butter tea were available at every restaurant and the streets were decorated with colourful prayer flags. It was very different than the rest of the subcontinent.
I complained every day that I was in India – most travelers do. We complain for a few minutes that the open sewers smell. The next day we get served something that bears little resemblance to what we ordered and we sigh and shake our heads. I moaned about the constant staring. But imagine how small I felt when Sangye, the Tibetan man who taught me how to make momos (Tibetan dumplings) in a private cooking class, said to me “You have no fighting in Canada. You are very lucky.” That was all it took to make me realize that we are unimaginably lucky in the West. We won a giant lottery.
In India I saw people daily who were deformed by polio. Old women begging in the street who fell down at my feet to ask for 10 rupees. I witnessed entire families who literally lived on the sidewalk and saw a babies first steps as she toddled along naked in the street. But at least they were free – they had a voice. They may not have clean water every day, life can be dirty and difficult and tiresome, but they can worship any religion they choose. They can speak out, even if no one will listen. They can have hope for their children and expect that things will be better for them.
In Tibet they don’t even have any of those things.
Sangye walked to Nepal from Lhasa – over the Himalayas as the crow flies. It took him 28 days and when he arrived he was starving and had severe frostbite – he left behind his entire family and has not spoken to them since. Two years ago a Canadian couple took a photo of him and a letter to Lhasa and searched for his uncle – it was through them that he found out that his father had died. He told me of how as a child he was responsible for collecting Dalai Lama photos and prayer wheels and beads from his family’s small house – spiriting them away to a cave in the forest when word got out that the Chinese government officials were raiding homes to search for the forbidden items.
He wanted no pity from me, just to have an intelligent conversation and to tell me that he dreams of moving to Canada, specifically to the Tibetan community in Toronto. He praised Canada in a way that I almost felt embarrassed about – I wanted to say “no – we have problems too!” But of course I didn’t – because we don’t – not compared to Sangye. It would have been cruel to suggest to him that we do when in comparison we are, like I said, unimaginably lucky.
If you go to Dharamsala, take a cooking class with Sangye. Talk to him about his experiences, tell him about yours and learn to make one mean momo.
Sangye’s Kitchen Traditional Tibetan Cooking Classes
Location: near Post Office, Jogibara Rd.
Phone: 94180 66184
Hours: Classes from 11am-1pm & 5pm-7pm
About the guest writer
Jessica O is a witty pop culture/travel blogger and history buff who publishes 3-4 times weekly at Madness & Beauty as she drags her backpack and boyfriend across Asia.
Follow Jessica on Twitter.