June 18, 2012
First of all, you’re missing a whole bunch of days here – what’s going on?? It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve had to choose between actually doing stuff and writing about it for the last two weeks, so I decided to do. Don’t worry, I plan to catch up and fill in the gaps. Some really, really important stuff has happened – so here’s the “trailer” version. The asthma my doctor was pretty sure I didn’t really have? Now we’re pretty sure I have it after all. This has made training…interesting. New Barney purple hiking boots? Awesome. And I bought a boob wallet. Tibet? China closed the border and terrible human rights violations are happening there. This makes my travel planning seem so terribly petty in the grand scheme of world events. It’s a reminder of how very lucky I am to have the life that I do, and of how humbling travel can be.
Now, moving forward…
The Culture and Some Gear
On my way back to the hotel from lunch today, I did some shopping along the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. I stopped in at the GoLite store and looked at a backpack that was on sale, but nothing really struck me as worthy of going home with me today. In fact, I’m doing quite well in the gear department and there’s not much left that I truly need. This is the point where I have to start being careful not to buy too much, knowing that once I start packing and weighing my bags I’ll end up leaving half of it behind anyway.
I passed a store called Potala Imports, and the rack of skirts out front caught my eye. An ankle length skirt! Now that’s something that I still need. I have several long skirts at home from my travels in Guatemala, but most of them are only calf length. Even though that’s probably fine – especially since I’ll likely be wearing long underwear beneath it – I think I’ll still be more comfortable going into monasteries and other sacred sites with my ankles fully covered. This type of cultural sensitivity can be tough for us Western women, but I find that erring on the conservative side is preferable to offending anyone in any way. It’s inevitable that when entering a culture with norms that are very different from your own, you will probably offend someone somewhere along the way. Still, it’s best to at least avoid the land mines that you’re warned about in advance, especially when it’s not that hard to do. Now, eating with only my right hand? That one could be a challenge. So I’m at least going to make sure my ankles stay covered.
I walk into the shop and I am mesmerized. I love little shops like this – full of incense, brightly colored fabrics, and tiny statues of Buddha and Ganesh. A mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism fills the air, and the palm reader in the back only adds to the eclectic mix. I marvel at how Eastern spirituality has become such a commodity here in the United States. Sacred beliefs become just more knick-knacks to sell on a tourist-filled street. I marvel at myself for buying into it all too. But I keep shopping.
I find a couple of skirts to try on, but most of them are made in the United States and they are very expensive. I find that odd, given the name of the shop. Imports? From Illinois? I know that if I wait until I get to Kathmandu, I’ll be able to buy a skirt for a fraction of the price and maybe, if I’m lucky and careful, I can find one made locally. Still, I find myself trying them on. One is too stiff and the fabric is a bit scratchy. I like the way it looks, but I remind myself that comfort will be key out there. Nobody will really care how it looks, but I will be wearing the same skirt for five weeks and I will certainly care how it feels. The second one is perfect. I love it. It’s soft, comfy, and will easily fit over a couple of layers if need be. It’s also a bit lighter, and I’ve learned that matters, a lot. It’s made in India and is “ethically produced,” whatever that means. It is also $60. I feel like a touristy fool, but I decide to fork over the cash.
On the way out, I pick up a small Ganesh pendant. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, and I can certainly use all the help I can get. I look for the perfect tiny Buddha or Ganesh statue to carry with me on my travels, but the offerings here are all too a little too big and too heavy. “Light” is a recurring theme in my travel world. I stick with the pendant and the skirt.
As I wander back to the hotel, I pass another shop on the route that I take to my field site, Tibet Gallery. It’s always closed when I pass, both early in the morning and again late at night when my day is finally done. Today, it’s mid-day and it is open. I wonder if they have tiny Buddhas, so I go in.
This decision changes my whole day.
At first, it looks like just another knick-knack shop catering to people like me who like to spend money on incense and items that make us feel more spiritual while we go about our daily lives selling out to The Man. I could not have been more wrong.
Yes, I found my tiny statues. But I found much more. I overhear the owner, Tenzin Passang, talking with another customer about the Tibetan community. When it’s my turn at the counter, I mention that I’ve been planning a trip to Tibet, but that due to China closing the border it’s probably not going to happen. I ask him if he has family there. He does. For the next 15 minutes, I learn about the people who have chosen to self-immolate in protest. For the first time, I hear their names, ages, and about their families. I learn that they choose self-immolation in order to avoid harming anyone else and that they pray for all sentient beings, as the freedom of Tibet is tied to the freedom of all. This is not just a spiritual belief, it is concrete and real – we talk about how the economy of China impacts the rest of the world, including us, here in the United States. He reminds me that buying products made in China supports the human rights violations of the Chinese elite, as they are not using the profits to uplift their own people but to oppress them.
I remember the movie Mardi Gras: Made in China. I’ve seen it many times, and I used it as a teaching tool in my Social Problems class. Every time I see those girls toiling away in dangerous conditions for the sole purpose of making plastic beads that American women flash body parts to get, I swear off buying Chinese goods. But it strikes me that it’s so easy to forget the message when I’m stressed out, hurrying through a store, trying to find a new microwave or set of coffee mugs or a pair of socks. Today, I’ll think of the people of Tibet and I’ll remember to look for items made in democratic countries with a better human rights record than China. But will I remember to do that tomorrow? I like to think that I will. I will try.
Other customers are in the shop, so I arrange to meet Tenzin another time for more conversation over tea. I am looking forward to hearing more about the beauty of the people and culture of Tibet, and about how we can help. This visit made my day, and I return to the hotel grounded and grateful and more awake and aware than I was when I left.