BW staffer Kate Linthicum left us this semester for the wilds of Tibet and Bhutan, where’s she’s studying abroad and generally being cooler than those of us cloistered on College Walk. In one brief internet cafe session, she updated Bwog on her life.
Dear New York,
It’s been a month and a half since I last strolled your smooth, shining streets, and I long for them now as I tumble across the Bhutanese countryside in a rickety van known by locals as the “vomit comet.” This letter to you, just like the saccharine beats of The Blow pumping out of my ear buds, is a bit of deliberate escapism from these twisting, pockmarked roads. Six weeks of constant stimulation in the Himalayas, I think, warrants a bit of reflection.
I spent my first month of the semester in Dharamasala, India, a colorful, bustling town of Tibetan refugees tucked at the foothills of the Himalayas. I stayed in a 10 X 12 ft. room with a family of five Tibetans who recently fled China. They were sweet and funny people, and I already miss them. Almost immediately upon my arrival, the kids found out one of my most embarrassing childhood secrets, which led them to refer to me forevermore as “Baby Model.” In the middle of the street or a crowded market they would call out to me in perfect British accents, “Baby model, would you like a piece of candy?” I later learned that self-deprecation is a key part of the Tibetan personality, and that any social blunder (and ensuing teasing) actually worked to my advantage. I learned this one evening after my host mother cooked me a plate of momos — luscious little dumplings that are perhaps God’s greatest gift to the Tibetan people. Like most nights, after eating I hugged my belly and said, in terrible Tibetan, “This food will make me fat!” Finally she told me that instead of saying “gyiakpar,” the work for fat, I had all along been saying, “gyiakar,” the word for shit.
Though it ensnarled me, the language barrier didn’t stop most Tibetan men I encountered from running their game. One highlight: a dishwasher at the restaurant I worked at sliced a potato into a heart and then presented it to me while singing, in a cracking falsetto, “I love you more than words can say.” Another man, incredibly intoxicated from too many bottles of Thunderbolt–India’s piss-like “super-strong” beer—offered me his shirt if I would go out with him. It was a black muscle tee with Avril Lavigne’s face emblazoned on the front.
All of Dharamsala’s idiosyncrasies came out during Losar, the three-day period in February when the entire town ushers in the Tibetan new year with an excess of firecrackers, momos and chagn, traditional barley beer. In my Tibetan language class, the festivities started at 9 a.m. when our ancient teachers started pouring us cups of chagn. After about ten rounds, the class was rollicking and a few of us were teaching the merry old women how to moonwalk. That’s when they announced it was time to take our second big test. They laughed and laughed as we tried to make sense of the enigmatic Tibetan alphabet, which is difficult enough when you’re sober, and nearly impossible after chagn and Michael Jackson.
The rest of the academic curriculum was less jovial, because the story of Tibet is grim. Each day we attended lectures by officials in the Tibetan exile government, visited refugee reception centers, or went to hear talks by protestors and artists. Because the exile community knows that the West’s portrayal of the Tibet question is crucial, the circle of intellectuals and officials who rule it gave us virtually unfettered access for interviews. Engaging with these erudite activists was fantastic, but our interactions with Tibet’s spiritual leaders were most fascinating. We went to see the Dalai Lama teach at his temple, and afterward he walked by us and looked, for the briefest moment, right into my eyes. A smile spread across my face and warmth seeped throughout my body, and it felt just like the time I met Bill Clinton. Only this time my feelings felt normal, not creepy and confusing.
I was sad to leave Dharamsala, and even sadder to board a night train back to dirty Delhi. Compared to a few days in that grimy miasma of a city (where I contracted a mean case of Giardia), the trip to Bhutan was sweet relief. The flight from Katmandu to Paro was really just one long gasp of delight. The Himalayas are so high it looked like we were flying even with Everest.
We’ve only been here a few days, but I’m already falling in love with this tiny kingdom. There are fewer than 700,000 people here and I haven’t seen a single tourist (visas cost $200 a day, but we don’t have to pay because we’re studying). Almost every person dresses traditionally—men wear the gho, a snappy little knee-length kimono that has led us to nickname them the Scots of Asia. So far we’ve had discussions with the Chief Justice and the editor of the biggest newspaper (circulation 16,000!), and drinks with the head of the national television channel (who’s also the country’s biggest movie star). We made quite a scene last night parading through the streets of Thimpu with the Bhutanese equivalent of Brad Pitt and Anderson Cooper.
So although I miss you, dear city (especially your museums, lattes and live music), I’ve having the time of my life. I miss the glam of the city, but this make-up less, mirror-less existence is good for my soul. The program doesn’t end for several months, and after that I’m going to travel in Asia for a bit with some friends from the group. Until then, take care of yourself (and especially that lovely little university in Morningside Heights).