Little White Pebbles

Compassion is of little value if it remains an idea. It must become our attitude towards others, reflected in all our thoughts and actions. And the mere concept of humility does not diminish our arrogance; it must become our actual state of being.

The Dalai Lama

 

It was not until the end of the trek, after 12 hard days of ascending and descending through the Bhutan Himalaya, that I understood the importance compassion played in the journey. In particular, the compassion of a young man, Tashi Dorji.

"Tell me again, Tashi-la, about the black and white pebbles," I said one day as we levelled out on to a traverse, our hearts and lungs relaxing enough to talk.

"Buddhists believe that throughout our lives our good and bad deeds collect like white and black pebbles. We even collect them unconsciously; stepping on an insect adds a stone to the black pebble pile," he explained, as we make our way through a pungent forest of rhododendrons in full bloom -- pink, yellow, crimson, white -- and cypress and pines heavy with moss and witches' hair. "On our right hand are our white pebbles -- good deeds -- looked after by a god. On the left, our bad deeds are watched over by a demon." I rock hopped through the muddy trail, keeping close so that I could hear him. "When we die, 'Tue' the monkey god weighs our pebbles in a scale. Then the god of judgment decides if we go to heaven or hell."

And in this way, this trek became more than just pencil lines drawn on a map; it was a string of small acts of compassion. A long row of tiny white pebbles punctuated by black ones, soon to be apologized for, soon to be forgotten.

Tashi Dorji, guide and interpreter, is the son of a monk who left the monastery and had a family, who sometimes would forego his daily 4 a.m. meditation to read Buddhist scriptures to his children, who became a High Court judge, who retired and founded a school of religious handicraft arts for under-privileged children. Tashi is also the servant to a Thai Buddhist monk, Khuba Boonchum Rinpoche, who, when in Bhutan, requests Tashi serve him on his meditation retreats and perambulations ministering to followers.

Like many Bhutanese, it seems, Tashi's face belies his age. When they are young they look much younger; when they are old their appearance ages rapidly. At 29, he still has the face of a high school grad: fresh, earnest, hopeful, only a few wisps of whiskers.

Also travelling with us were Dawa, our cook, previously a tailor to the royal family but who prefers mountains to monarchy, and Chencho, the pony man, reminiscent of Tintin with eyes always asking "may I help?" Chencho brought 5 pack ponies; well one was a mule and, the other, everyone's favourite, Keshang, a little donkey with attitude.

We began in western Bhutan, a small Buddhist monarchy that only opened its doors to tourism in 1974 and at its maximum has seen only 9000 foreigners in a year. Our path would curve north somewhat parallel to the Tibetan border. It's a trek usually given 14 days to allow for acclimatization. I had only 12, leaving no contingency, no rest days. I had never had problems with altitude before. But never having problems before does not mean never having them.

For the first two days we slowly gained altitude, following the Pachhu, a stunning, fast moving river littered with huge erratic boulders. We passed ancient farms, weathered stone chortens, bullocks muscling wooden ploughs through impoverished fields, cows grazing at will, fields of rice and wheat and barley. Potatoes. Prayer flags.

Every morning our trek began with Tashi saying a prayer under his breath, a quiet mumble of gratitude and hope. Taught to him by his father, tashi tshega is a prayer for new beginnings. Sometimes, I too spent this time considering the sacred. Sometimes, just the mundane: will the socks I washed ever dry?

To Bhutanese and Tibetans, I introduce myself as 'Pema'. For them, the suffix 'la' is an honorific. Thus my use of 'Pame-la' is embarrassing self-aggrandizement. Pema, I learned when trekking in Nepal two decades ago, means 'lotus', a very common name in these Buddhist regions and an important religious symbol. It was as close a name as I could get to mine and one that would be easily remembered. It's said there's only about 50 names here in Bhutan, all interchanged as first and last, male and female. With my proper middle name of Rose, in Bhutan I am a bouquet of names: Lotus Rose.

"Pema," Dawa quietly called. It was early morning but I'd been awake for hours, listening to the muffled sound of donkeys, ponies and yaks, grazing by my tent, the bucolic sound of their neck bells ringing. Sometimes they were so close that my ear to the ground vibrated with the weight of their walk. And I would hear, on the other side of two thin layers of nylon, the sound of their teeth cutting grass like scissors.

"Bed tea," he whispered and handed me a cup of 'nadjaa', milk tea, through my tent vestibule. Half way through the cup, he was back again. "Pema, washing water," and passed a shallow metal bowl with half a litre of warm water. Like the Monty Python skit, I think "Luxury. Sheer luxury" and begin a piecemeal wash of face, then shirt off/shirt on to do my upper body, leggings off/leggings on for my lower body, socks off/socks on for my feet.

Even at below-zero night temperatures, I've always found the trick to staying warm while sleeping (alone) in a tent is to sleep nude (also the trick when not sleeping alone). Wear socks. Maybe wear a toque if it's really cold, but that's it. In the morning I fetch the long underwear warming in the foot of my sleeping bag and dress for "bed tea."

Meals started out as western fare for me, Bhutanese for the guys. I quickly realized the divide and the extra work it meant for Dawa to prepare both over a two-burner portable propane stove, under a plastic tarp, water fetched from the stream, and inevitably rain or snow falling outside.

"Tashi," I said, "tell Dawa to cook Bhutanese for me too. No more peanut butter." "Confident?" he asked, his way of asking if I was sure.

Early in the trek, we both learned an important lesson in cultural differences. I consider my first reply to a question like "More tea?", "No thank you", as my final decision. He thought it etiquette and would ask me numerous times again, which I, in turn, found frustrating. Finally, after a few such incidences, I asked him why he didn't respect my answers. That's when I learned about 'mouth tea', the offering of something only once because you don't really mean it and the repeated offerings -- insisting-- when you really do. Lip service. From then on, we confirmed our answers: "Bhutanese confident?" "No, Canadian confident."

Once I put a halt to the separate dinners, it was rice and hot chillies at every -- every -- meal together with a curry and later in the trek, yak meat at every meal, including breakfast and sometimes raw with dollops of belly burning 'ezay', a condiment of chillies.

Except for the first couple of days, Tashi and I always straggled in to camp well after Dawa and Chencho. I stopped often to take notes and to stare and wonder at snow capped peaks reaching heights over 7000 metres, dwarf bearded irises no higher than one's ankle, iridescent cobalt blue birds, soaring Himalayan griffons, and a trail where all the pink rhododendron lined up on the right and all the yellow on the left like an English garden. "Tashi," I would ask, in what became a joke between us, "who's the best architect, God or man?" He delighted in getting it wrong.

If it was offered, we stopped for tea. One day we were invited for a cup with two soldiers from the Indian army at their outpost (up-post?) at 4000 meters. It was strong tea, thick with milk and sugar, drunk from metal tumblers.

A few hours later, we were invited into the home of an ancient Tibetan yak herding couple. The old man shuffled on a club foot, large turquoise earrings, eyes watery and thick with cataracts, wandering in their sockets. He was dressed in a gho, the traditional dress for a man, which by law must be worn in official circumstances. It is reminiscent of a smoking jacket: knee length, shawl collar, so much material that an inverted pleat is formed at the back and a huge fold of cloth spills over the waist band; usually it's plaid. A crisp white shirt is worn underneath, hidden under the collar but the very, very long cuffs fold back over the gho sleeves almost to the elbows. Knee high socks -- preferably argyle (yes, together with the plaid) and dress shoes. A scarf, kabney, must be worn in a prescribed way. A seemingly bottomless pit is formed in the fold at the chest, a bit like a kangaroo pouch. With a Napoleonic reach in to the left breast of his gho, a man might extract a pen, cigarettes, doma (betel nut), candy, a bowl, money and, since satellite came to the country a few years ago, a cell phone. Worn properly, a gho gives an elegant, courtly impression.

But the old herder was far from courtly. He wore his tattered gho with a ski vest, neither cleaner than a mechanic's oil rag. He apologized for his humble home. But it was an honour to be there. The common room was no more than three metres square. We sat on the wooden floor by an open pit, perhaps the depth of a hand, lined with heavy flat stones, a covering of ash in the bottom. He added water to a blackened, dented kettle sitting on a rock trivet. He lit a fire of twigs under it, the smoke rising through a hole in the ceiling, through the next floor sleeping quarters and out the roof.

His wife came in. Her body was also twisted, bent over, shaking with palsy. The water boiled. He added leaves to an equally dented tea pot, topped it with the water, added sugar and milk powder for nadjaa. With a 'jaru', a small wooden stick with a cross of sticks at the end like a branding iron, he whisked the tea by rotating the shaft between his palms, as though warming his hands, and poured it into chipped plastic cups. She served toasted rice from an old jar and flattened rice flakes from a plastic bag that smelled of kerosene. I added a bag of dried apples.

There was a paucity of possessions in this little hut they had built after fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet 50 years ago: a small stack of blankets, a few plank shelves, black with years of smoke, a few burlap bags of grain, less kitchenware than our trek had, and decorated only by a Buddhist conch and vase motif chipped in to the wooden wall. Still, they shared.

This is unforgiving topography. We were often, by definition, at Very High Altitude, that is, at 3500-5500 metres. These altitudes can kill. And when we were there they did.

We arrived at Jangothang at the end of the day. It's called the base camp for Jomolhari, but it's neither at its base and, since the mountain is sacred to the Bhutanese, its 7314 meter peak and the two sacred lakes nearby, Jomotsho and Tsheringmatsho, are off limits to trekkers and climbers. There's a monastery near the lakes, Tashi told me. He'd served his master there when Rinpoche retreated to a cave for months of meditation.

A group of Americans was setting camp when we arrived. They were retreating from an aborted trek because one team member had become critically ill after pushing forward over Nyile La, the pass we would cross the next day. They were now waiting for Bhutanese soldiers to porter the 115 kg man back over the pass on a stretcher.

It had been dark for a while when the soldiers passed by my tent in below-zero weather. The next morning the American was said to be better as the team waited for the helicopter to medi-vac him; there was finally a break in the low cloud coverage.

Bhutan has no helicopters of its own but two, by chance, from the Indian Army were in the country that week. Bhutan receives military assistance from India, all having to do with China flanking the tiny kingdom's northern frontier. Our tents were on what became the impromptu helipad, so we quickly packed and the soldiers marked a large 'H' in the dirt with little white pebbles: marking the good deed with good deed markers.

In this environment, the concern of other travellers is your own concern. I thought he'd make it home, eventually to laugh wryly about it at cocktail parties. I've heard the fodder such stories make. But he died in hospital in Thimphu a couple of days later from altitude sickness complicated by dysentery and finally a pulmonary embolism.

When our focus is on others, on a wish to free them from their misery -- this is compassion.

The Dalai Lama

One day, while considering the mountains before me and the heights to be climbed, the Rule of Optimal Ascent was born. The theory is nascent but it goes like this: in front of you is a steep slope. You could walk straight up but it'll be painful. You could take a very gentle uphill angle, switchbacking as needed, but it'll be a yak's age before you crest. The Rule of Optimal Ascent (ROA) determines the correct uphill angle based on mountain height and pitch, other factors remaining neutral: no cliffs, no snow leopards to steer you off course. In sum: maximum ascent, minimum effort.

During the difficult days of seemingly never-ending ascents, ass-dragging at altitudes to just over 5000 meters, compassion was far from my mind. Snow, rain, high winds, iced tents in the morning. My lungs, heart and ears a cereal chorus of snap, crackle and pop, belly problems defecating my energy -- what thoughts could I have then of compassion? But my friend Tashi was there, although usually immoderately and improperly applying the not-fully-formulated ROA: "C'mon Pema, maximum effort; maximum vertical," breathing hard but patiently waiting for me to close the gap.

When it got so that my heart and lungs were ripping at my ribs like caged animals, he would offer to carry some of my gear in his pack, every ounce a pound at altitude. When it was snowing and a bitter wind was scouring the tree-less alpine, he'd check my hands, permanently nerve damaged from Arctic travels and quick to shut down. He gave me his gloves to wear when mine were not enough. I caked the wool with dirt, tears, sweat and snot. He thanked me for returning them with the smell of memories.

Because of his time in Laya with his master, Tashi was quickly recognized by yak herding Layaps, who came out of their tents to greet him. Contrast the old and the new: hand woven yak wool tent and, slung from the peak, a solar panel charging a single light bulb; the 21st century illuminating the 18th.

Tashi is recognizable, but they are really recognizable. The women in particular are extremely striking with Mongolian type features and the colour of their faces a layering of tawny, russet, apple red -- not thin like watercolour, but with the depth and richness of oils.

They wear very distinctive clothing: woven yak wool full length skirts, heavy strands of old coral, turquoise, silver and cat's eye beads, which are particularly prized, and big turquoise earrings.

On their heads, perch impossible hats. Now this is a fashion statement: made from woven bamboo, the base of the hat is about the size of a side plate, so does nothing as far as warmth. It rises in a cone shape to a point, but then out of the point, still all woven bamboo, emerges a four-sided 'antenna', very closely resembling a miniature Washington Monument. Orbiting the obelisk is a disk that looks like a satellite or the observation deck of the CN tower. Not finished yet. Hanging from side to side of the hat, around the back of the head, slung like a hammock, are strings of beads. It appears that wealthy women will have more strands -- up to a couple of dozen -- and more colourful beads. I saw a few young girls with beads that started off white on both sides, followed by sections of yellow, orange, red, and turquoise and a connecting, longer stretch of white right at the back of the head.

I wore gortex.

When we left our camp at Simithang, heading to Laya, we fell in to step with a weary Layap widow named Rinchen and her two sons, Kinley, about 17 years old, and Sonam Thinley, 9, a absolutely wired child who I renamed maneng guru, roughly 'little monster', much to his mother's amusement. They had slept the night before under a plastic tarp that barely kept them dry from the rain and snow that fell every night. She walked with a small satchel on her back and Kinley with their bedroll. They'd been out collecting cordyceps, a caterpillar, never to become a butterfly, which sprouts a worm shaped fungus out of its head.

Cordyceps are prized in Chinese medicine as a tonic cure-all for everything from impotence to building stamina and longevity; apparently the Chinese women's track team, successful at the 1993 Olympics, included cordyceps as part of their diet. It's a money maker for Layaps, who otherwise have only their yak herds. Internet prices, while not to be realized by Layap gatherers, nonetheless indicates North American retail prices up to more than $1000 per 100 grams.

Along the way, we shared our lunch with them and two other young boys who'd joined us, a tiffin tin of sandwiches, a thermos of tea, and some snacks I brought from Canada. Rinchen gave me two cordyceps. Later, just before reaching Laya, our rag tag team was further enlarged by the addition of an old woman with a huge bundle of yak grass slung across her bent back. She invited us for tea.

We climbed the half log ladder, steps chiselled out, to the second floor of her house, which was under expansion. Her son and a hired man were on the roof when we arrived, rushing to complete the work in time for the Chim gi drup, the consecration ceremony, at which the Lama will purify and bless the house with holy water and incense, followed by a feast and celebrations and the hanging of a crossed wooden phallus and sword from the roof to ward off evil spirits. In a large eating and common room, stacked to the ceiling against two walls, were sacks of rice and barley, grown on the family's terraced fields, plots chiselled, like the log ladder, from the mountainside. It was a berm of burlap bags, the bags themselves made in India, with the words 'small family, happy family' stencilled on each, slogans from India's attempts to reduce population growth. There were well over 100 huge sacks, tightly sewn up, displayed like fine art, and waiting for the day the world ends, when Layaps will still be doing what they've done for centuries. Layap survivalists.

There were also stacks of yak and sheep wool blankets and huge brass cauldrons to cook the food of celebrations, and drums to sound the sound of celebrations, painted wooden chests with big padlocks (mama was wearing a large set of keys on a leather thong around her neck together with her corals, cat's eyes and turquoise) and a small Buddhist altar, adorned with mauve plastic flowers, brass icons, and a thangkha painting.

Tea time went like this: She sits us down on Tibetan carpets. She rushes out, rushes back in and serves sudjaa -- oh-oh -- rancid butter salt tea. Rats. The mind still thinks tea, the palate gets soup. Culinary confusion ensues. I pretend sip and smile. The son rushes in, serves up a huge bowl of homemade toasted rice grains and Indian made water crackers, rushes out. She rushes in, serves singcha. Ah, now we're talking: rice wine. Very good. Yes, very good. She rushes out. Rushes back in. Asks if I like the singcha, and through Tashi I say "very much." Says, "No, it's no good." (What do I know?) Pours it out, ladles me a new cup from another big barrel and rushes back out. He rushes back in, tops up my cup to surface tension. Rushes out. This went on for awhile. Tashi wasn't drinking because he was on antibiotics. But I was. And I was some more. They wouldn't let us leave. Shame. This was not the hard part of the trek.

It is also important that we reflect upon the kindness of others. This realization is also a fruit of cultivating empathy. We must recognize how our fortune is really dependent upon the cooperation and contributions of others. Every aspect of our present well-being is due to hard work on the part of others.

The Dalai Lama

The next day we headed south from Laya, not yet descending, no we had many more climbs to go, but in the last quarter leg of the trek. It was hot and buggy. I stopped to scribble a few notes on the square of paper I kept in my pocket. Tashi stood beside me waving away the gnats at my face.

"Pema?" he asked "why are all the bugs flying around your head?"

"Because Tashi-la, I finally smell just perfect to them."

"Or maybe," he smiled, "they're all male insects," and blew them away.

White pebbles.

It was the last day. We were trekking down from Gasa hot springs, where we had spent the night soaking in the communal spring, watching mist rise in the dusk to meet mist descending from the mountains. Again that morning, we went early to the springs to soak side by side with strangers. At 6 am a number of people had already gathered in the small pond. One man chanted prayers in the emerging dawn.

We had climbed for an hour and both of us were already dripping in sweat. We still had many ascents and a long day before us, but, despite the humid heat, we were dressed from head to toe to protect ourselves from leeches. We had seen at camp huge blotches of blood on the ground where leeches, as long as a man's middle finger, had ravaged a collective herd of 35 ponies during the night, leaving the ponies' faces and legs covered in blood. We were following the bloody trail south.

We stopped for water. Tashi pulled out his wallet. "I have a surprise for you," he said and handed me a small foil package. I was a bit taken aback. Perhaps I had misread his intentions and attentions after all. "A condom? Now?" I thought. I hesitated; then took the offering. I turned it over in my hand: "Refreshing moist towelette." And yet another small white pebble for Tashi Dorji.

This was not intended to be a story about Tashi Dorji. I was going on a tough trek. I was going to be tough. I was going to write tough. But, late in the trek, a nine hour day ahead of us of ascents, rocky, muddy trails, an ice-covered tent pitched in a patch of bog that night, the essence of the journey broke through. Like a sun that shines through rain -- a 'metho charp' the Bhutanese call it, a 'flower rain' -- it was the compassion, not the adversity, which was the true nature of this trek.

Making our way down a narrow trail one day, Tashi called back over his shoulder, "The happiness we are having is like dew drops on leaves. It will not last forever," he said, and continued walking.

Indeed. But we had dew drops. We knew dew drops.