Little did we know, as we set out from Pokhara, Nepal, for the nearby Tibetan refugee settlement, Tashi Palkhel, that we would find ourselves so charmed by our encounters there. Travelling by taxi, we arrived in about 15 minutes and, after passing a row of craft stalls, women calling to us to ‘just look’, we began our self tour at the Jangchub Choeling Gompa, the monastery at the centre of the village and home to about 200 monks. As with the many temples we’ve viewed in Asia, the physical presence of Buddhism there is so much more colourful, shiny and decorative than how it is expressed in Western culture. A giant Buddha statue looms in the temple, along with numerous other graphic images. Prayer wheels are a major theme, with an enormous red and gold one being housed in its own room.
Other prayer wheels of various sizes are stationed around temples, used unselfconsciously by local Tibetans in their daily prayer rituals as we walked about. Also ubiquitous in this community were locals walking with strings of prayer beads, chanting prayers as they ambled along. It brought to mind for me the Catholic ritual of reciting the rosary.
We see prayer flags at varying ages and stages of decomposition festooning all corners of the settlement, as we stroll the narrow streets. A young Tibetan woman wearing a t-shirt stating ‘I can’t unlove you’ greeted me with ‘Namaste’. In the conversation that ensued, she shared that she’s Canadian too, home for a one month visit from Toronto.
For me, our visit truly begins when I round the corner of a small prayer wheel temple and come face to face with a tall and toothless elderly man. He greeted me with hands in Wei or prayer position, smiling broadly and asked me where I’m from. When he heard ‘Canada’, he became animated, motioning me to follow him, miming drinking from a glass. I get that I’m being invited home for a drink, and follow, gesturing to my partner down the path to come along. Arriving at a low building with an even lower doorway, we are welcomed into a small spotless room arrayed with raised sleeping beds covered with colourful Tibetan carpets. Buddhist and family photos are arranged on the walls, including a prominently placed photo of the Dalai Lama. As we introduced ourselves, this man held my hands in his, looked into my eyes and leaned his forehead against mine gently, a somehow beautiful honouring gesture. He then disappeared through the doorway for a time.
A much younger man then arrived with glasses of dark, bubbling liquid and placed them in front of us. I panicked a little thinking perhaps this was some local hooch, and since I don’t drink, I dreaded offending these sweet and welcoming people. A surreptitious sniff convinced me that it was nothing more than coca-cola. The next anxiety that niggled at me was whether the glass was clean or would I get yet another round of tourist tummy? However, looking around at this home, humble and tiny as it was, I felt confident about drinking the generous offering. Coca-cola is an expensive drink in Nepal.
We were able to discover through the younger man – who turned out to be the elderly man’s 23 year old grandson – that the excitement about meeting Canadians was about the old man’s daughter who lives in Toronto. He showed us a photo of her and her husband, pointing happily to her and to himself, then to us. He seemed delighted to point to our commonality. He told us that he is 82, smiling warmly with every difficult English word he expressed. He introduced us to his wife who arrived home from visiting the woman next door. A bowl of fruit was placed in front of us. We ate, chatting with our friend’s grandson whose English was excellent. He had completed high school and was looking for a good college. He shared his frustration that employment is difficult for Tibetans living in Nepal. They are not allowed to gain citizenship or work in public service. The Nepali government has entered into trade deals with the Chinese government under which they have agreed not to recognize Tibetan refugees. What kind of future can there be for people in this position, especially youth? Yet they smile cheerfully and welcome us into their community.
As we leave the home of our new friends, Tibetan community life swirled around us. Another toothless gentleman invited us to see his store. When I agreed he, like a magician, whipped a blanket off a few jewellery items and handicrafts that he had arranged on a cement stair, proudly displaying his ‘store’. He had just the copper and brass bracelet that I needed!
A mangy dog displays her pinto-like patterned skin, pink and black, shuffling from sun-bathing spot to shade and back again several times. I suspect she is a community dog, living on whatever scraps come her way. I also suspect she is not the only one, mangy dogs being plentiful here in Nepal.
As we climb into the taxi for the trip back to Pokhara, giggling, joyful chatter of children reaches my ears. This is a sound which spans across all cultures – children gleeful to be out of school for the day. In the small things we find common ground, yet what Westerner can truly understand the landless, oppressed experience of the Tibetan refugee?