The flimsy aluminum heater glowed red, a taunting hint of warmth in a cold, cold place. “Don’t catch your scarf on fire!” shouted Cassie. Suzi leaped backward from a candle but indignantly insisted she was being very careful and that she was in no danger whatsoever of igniting herself. History apparently was on Cassie’s side, as they told giggling stories about the numerous times Suzi has, in fact, ignited herself.
Dharamsala is a country within a country, the home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. The easy, unperturbed smiles of the Tibetans told us we had left the India we’d come to know so intimately. Conversations like the one we had with the shopkeeper in the Pink City of Jaipur no longer happened:
“Yes, madam, fine Pashmina shawls, yes, you come have a look. Just a look please.”
“No thanks, I’m just looking.”
“Yes, looking! Look! That’s all, just look, look at this fine shawl, only 300 rupees? No? Okay, 100 rupees. Good quality. You want better quality? Another color is it? What country you are from?”
No, instead the girls were permitted to casually browse, and when they didn’t find anything they liked, were wished well with a “No problem, goodbye!” Instead of shahi paneer, on the menus we found veg momos and Tibetan bread. Snow lined the streets from the biggest snowfall in seven years. A craggy, snowbound Himalayan peak dwarfed the tree-lined foothills. Garbage still lined the streets and the occasional stare and photo request reminded us we were still in India. Finicky monkeys zigzagged to step around piles of snow like Westerners avoiding open sewers.
Looking up at the Tibetan temples, my mind wandered back to our first encounter with Tibet, in the Bangalore airport en route to Delhi. I saw camouflage contrast with bright orange as soldiers armed with machine guns escorted Tibetan monks. I felt exhilarated and disoriented as my face recognition neurons fired up and told my speechmaking neurons to fire up and say “Cassie, that’s the Dalai Lama.” I remembered the adrenaline shooting into my veins. “He’s getting on our plane.”
Cassie was dressed in a sari at the time, a traditional Indian dress that never failed to astonish the locals. “Very nice sari, how you learn how to tie it?” Bharath’s mother and aunt deserve the credit for that one. They brought us to a hectic, narrow lane in Bangalore filled with donkeys, oxcarts, rampaging bulls, and every type of merchandise you could ever not want. There they showed us where to buy saris, then spent hours showing her the multitude of ways to tie it.
But I digress. She was wearing a sari, and this combined with her blonde hair and blue eyes to make her very notable. So, as we wondered aloud with Bharath as to whether or not we’d pass the Dalai Lama on our way to our airplane seats, we boarded the plane. Sure enough, he was seated with his monks in economy class a few rows ahead of us.
As we boarded, Cassie blushed, smiled, and brought her hands together to say “Namaste” to him. He smiled and nodded back, then looked at his lama companion in a bemused sort of way. He acknowledged me similarly, and with that simple nod of his head triggered an avalanche of emotions and thoughts in a way no other “celebrity” encounter could have.
All of a sudden, the almost annoying plethora of “Free Tibet” stickers plastered on the bumper of every Subaru in Boulder had meaning. I was staring at a man who was tasked with being both the political and religious leader of a people without a home and without a future. What must it be like for him? He gets far more attention than my blonde-haired blue-eyed sari-wearing partner on a daily basis (by itself overwhelming). That’s not even considering the burden of handling the emotional devastation of the loss of a cherished homeland and the responsibility of being the incarnation of God on Earth and the leader of a disenfranchised people. Yet, he was serene, and quick with a smile, and gracefully handled the attention lavished on him.
The loudspeaker had crackled:
“Good afternoon, it is my great pleasure to tell you that today is the happiest day of my life because I have the privilege of having our holy father, the Dalai Lama, reincarnation of God as my passenger. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to meet him and today after 30 years of flying I have the opportunity to be his pilot.”
That announcement interrupted Bharath’s telling us about the video of a line of over a hundred Tibetan soldiers being shot in the head by the Chinese.
Well, that was the more distant past. More immediately, we had followed him back to his home in Dharamsala. We didn’t have any encounters with him this time, we just sat in a café with no electricity and reputedly good cake, a rarity in India. So, we ordered a slice of chocolate cheesecake and the waitress brought back our order: a bottle of orange Slice and a chocolate cheesecake.