As I write this, I am mentally forcing myself to not vigorously scratch the red welts that have appeared all over my body since returning from my seventeen day trek to Tsum Valley in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal. Needless to say, it was not a nice surprise to find that it was not only me trekking from Tsum, but a host of tiny, malicious, red bugs hitched a ride as well. Also not so nice was attempting to explain to my homestay family back in Boudha, none of whom speak English well, that I have infested their home with bed bugs, the most annoying and pestilential insects out there. Despite the fact that Tsum has handed me a most formidable foe to tackle, it wasn’t all bed bugs and bothersome bites for the past two and a half weeks.
To say that Tsum is beautiful is a massive understatement. Perhaps either changing the adjective all together or adding a few in front will do the trick. Stunning. Majestic. Unbelievable. Breathtakingly, insanely, magnificently beautiful. Really, though, Nepal in general is all of those things, too, once you escape the polluted, crowded streets of Kathmandu. But in Tsum the beauty is just so in-your-face, you almost want to say “Alright, Tsum, everyone can see that you always look like a postcard, but I’m running out of battery on my camera, so can you maybe stop being so damn pretty for a while?” Alas, the ghang-ri (snow mountains) were perpetually there, begging me to snap a quick pic because what if I forget what they look like in a few months, when I’m back in Florida, the land of flat and flatter? Ghang ri, you’ve outsmarted me again, as I pluck my camera from my pocket and take the same picture I’ve taken ten times already.
But the real beauty in Tsum, I found, isn’t only nestled in the mountains that tower above, harboring the capacity to take life as often as they allow it. Beauty lies in the life that pervades throughout the valley, life that is able to survive the frigid winters and the wrath of the ghang-ri with fierce spirit and profound dignity. The farmers that get no weekends because basic survival decrees no rest, the mother that passes up an extra pair of hands around the house so that her children can have the education she never did, the toothless old woman with the most genuine laugh I’ve ever heard, the countless women who devote their precious time to make their village free of trash, more influential in the community than the police despite the fact that they can’t write their name, the men who take time away from their families to carry provisions like sugar and salt from China or neighboring villages in baskets wrapped around their heads. When I really start to think about the times when I felt an overwhelming respect for the people in Tsum Valley, I could go on for pages.
It’s not only me who feels a respect for life within Tsum, it’s the Tsum residents themselves as well. The region, known in sacred texts as the Hidden Valley of Happiness, follows a unique killing ban, meaning that within the boundaries, killing any living being is strictly prohibited. Villagers follow this rule without question, viewing killing even a tiny insect as a sin (shedding some light on why bed bugs are a major problem in Tsum). Because of the harsh environment, however, it is necessary to eat meat as a dietary supplement, but it has to be killed outside the valley and brought in. In Tibetan Buddhism, every sentient creature deserves compassion because that butterfly or chicken could be a human in their next life. And showing kindness to animals ain’t bad for karma, either.
Before we left for our odyssey, our wise Tibetan language teachers un-wisely taught us all the word “inji,” technically meaning “foreigner” but used colloquially to refer to white people. Let me tell you, if I had a rupee for the number of times the only word I could pick out of a conversation in rapid Tibetan was “inji,” I could buy a yak. I could probably buy a herd of yaks. And if that rupee was for every time the word “inji” was followed by everyone in the room laughing, I could buy a chicken, at least. Granted, I do not begrudge their laughter, seeing how, while we injis appeared to be grown humans, we likely sounded and acted more like drunk four-year-olds.
For instance, on the first morning of my homestay, my ama-la set a bowl of barley flour in front of my homestay buddy, Caroline, and I. I inferred that this flour was tsampa, a staple of rural Tibetan communities that I had heard of, but never eaten or seen. We gazed at our bowls of flour, looked at each other as if to say “here goes nothing” and both navigated huge spoonfuls into our mouths. The flour instantly stuck to the roof of my mouth and my spit glands were working full force to make this substance edible. I wondered how this food made life easier when eating it was so hard. Luckily, our ama-la saved us from this awkward food experience by dropping a big hunk of yak butter in our bowls. Aaah, I thought, you eat it with a bit of butter. Makes much more sense. I got some butter on my spoon then scooped up more flour. The flour-butter combo was still kind of awkward to eat. Laughing, my ama-la came over a third time and poured Tibetan tea into our bowls, mixed it around a bit and I realized our attempts to eat tsampa could not be more wrong. After mixing the tea and butter with the flour, it was much more edible and pretty tasty! We laughed for a long while and I thought how our tsampa confusion was probably akin to a foreigner eating a big spoonful of ketchup.
Cross-cultural exchanges were a definite highlight of the trip and because communication was never easy and usually mutually unintelligible, I came to appreciate how much you can learn without the presence of speech. Observation is an unappreciated skill and miming is surprisingly useful in breaking the ice of extended silences. In Tsum, I was miles away from my comfort zone, both physically and emotionally but, bed bugs aside, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”