From Tibet to Ojai and back again.
They live in a one-bedroom rental, in Ojai, a small town in Southern California. The father, thirty-four, works as supervisor of Inn-room dining at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. The mother, thirty-three, works part time at the Inn and cooks meals on demand in order to help support the family. They have two young boys, one in preschool and the other in the first grade. They have a small dog that they bought for the kids.
The father works in the afternoon and evening and walks the children to school every morning. Sometimes he and his wife walk the children together. When the younger boy wanders too much, the father puts him on his shoulders.
Their house has a small yard. The two children ride a tire-swing laughing with neighborhood friends.
On the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, they hang the American flag in front of their yard. Behind it are rows of Tibetan prayer flags, squares of orange and red with black lettering. . The walls of their house are decorated with Tibetan tanka and with photos of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. At certain times of the day you can walk by their home and hear a recitation of Tibetan prayers.
They are the prayers of Dolkar Tso and Dorjee Tswang, the mother and father of Kangchen and Norbu. “We feel blessed,” Dorjee told me. “We never dreamed that we would one day be living in this beautiful town and have such stability in our lives.” Then he talked about the people in his village in Tibet; how little they had and how uninformed they were about matters regarding personal hygiene and health. TB, rickets, malnutrition and birth complications were quite common. Dorjee and Dolkar started the Tibetan Aid Foundation in order to help the people in rural Tibet live healthier lives.
They shared with me the stories of how they came to this small town from their Tibetan homeland.
In early June in 1992 Dolkar, a young woman twenty years old, set out from Tibet’s Ando Province with eleven other Tibetans and a guide traveling through the snows of the Himalayan Mountains, first stop Katmandu. From there they hoped to go to Dharmsala in India. Young Tibetans (two children around eight and ten years old among them) dressed in warm clothes and walking in sneakers planning a one-month trek through ice, snow and freezing temperatures driven primarily by the hope of a better future.
Dolkar, a small woman, had not been accustomed to vigorous exercise. “I remember climbing the first mountain and praying that it would be the last,” she said. “But as soon as we made it over the peak I could see another mountain, taller than that one; and another after that. It felt as if there were no end.” They had hardly begun the trip when she started to feel desperate.
They slept all twelve of them huddled together to keep warm. The weather changed from snow to rain to sunshine and back throughout the trip. Sometimes there would be several changes during a day. They never knew what to expect. Two weeks into the trip after spending each night sleeping out in the open, the group came across an abandoned compound—no roof just four walls made of yak-dung and bundles of straw on the ground. They piled into the enclosure and went to sleep. Though it was freezing outside and the stars and sky were their roof the warmth of the straw and the yak-dung walls made them feel like they had come upon a palace. “I dreamed that I was home eating my mother’s cooking. I even bit my tongue,” Dolkar recalled. She laughed, “And I never liked my mother’s cooking before.” Nobody wanted to continue on. The guide had to nudge each of them to get up so they could be on their way. It was the first morning that they slept-in. They were normally up with the sun.
They walked through snowdrifts so high that most of them had to step in the guide’s footsteps to keep from being buried. The guide was a great big fellow used to making paths for his groups. They were like little children depending on his size, his knowledge of the way and his fearlessness.
The sun came out and they walked for a day in the sunshine. Though they wore hats to protect them from the sun, its rays bounced off the snow and reflected onto their unprotected faces. The next morning Dolkar and another woman could not open their eyes. Their eyelids were sealed shut. They were victims of snow blindness. Instant panic hit them. The guide told them not to worry. He said that this had happened to others when he led people across this Himalayan wasteland. The lids will open he promised. They should be patient. For two days the two woman walked in the dark holding on to one end of a stick while others in the group took turns holding the other end.
They came to a Sherpa village at the Tibetan border with Nepal. The village headman looked at the women with eyelids shut tight. They didn’t speak the dialect of these villagers but communicated by miming. The headman told them that mother’s milk would speed the recovery and soothe the skin. He found a nursing mother. Dolkar remembers the feeling when the milk was applied—cool relief carrying hope with it. By the next day the eyelids opened.
The group made their way to Katmandu and then to Dharmsala where they were greeted by the Dalai Lama. Seeing and listening to his holiness made all their hardships seem so small. Here was their leader, a god to most of his people, talking to them in all his humbleness and encouraging them to persevere. To this day Dolkar remembers her meeting with the Dalai Lama as the most glorious day of her life.
For three years Dolkar lived in Dharmsala. She went to a Tibetan refugee school for two years, helped out in a Tibetan restaurant and wherever else she was needed. In December 1995, unbeknown to Dolkar, a twenty-four year old man was setting out from the same Ando Province in Tibet with a group of twelve heading for India. Their group consisted of a Tibetan guide and his assistant, three Chinese men and seven other Tibetans including Dorjee. The cold was painful but it was the wind that killed. Dorjee described his first night sleeping under the stars: “My two friends and I used one blanket to cover ourselves. I was in the middle so I was relatively protected. However, when I tried to cover my face from the cold with the blanket, my feet would stick out and freeze. I tried to use both hands to cover my nose, but then my hands froze. My nose felt so prominent on my face, like a sail in the wind; ice formed on my nostrils.”
They had to cross the largest river in Eastern Tibet. The guide threw a rock a few yards ahead and if it didn’t break through the ice they moved on. He repeated this process as the group snaked across the river.
It took everyone a few days to get used to walking at such high altitudes. In the evenings they prepared simple meals of tsampa, a roasted barley ground into flower, and yak butter. They used wood left behind by bands of nomads who had made camp there during warmer weather. The group slept inside the abandoned corrals around a warm fire.
A cold wet wind came off the water from a huge lake. “I used my blanket to protect my head from the cold. Only my eyes were exposed to the wind,” Dorjee said. “For five hours we walked and walked, and still the lake was there… My breath became ice on my blanket. Once or twice I accidentally stepped in the water and immediately my shoes were wrapped in ice.” They had no cover from the wind that night. “Usually the stars look very friendly, but not that night,” Dorjee reflected. “I was cold and could find nothing friendly to relate to. The silver moon was like a sword hanging over our heads, ready to slice the earth in half. I could not see any beauty or peace at that moment.”
When they woke, and in the light of the sun could see the lake, they realized the immensity of it. They came upon deposits of yak dung, informing them that a village was close by. After days sleeping under the stars they would finally have a night of shelter under a roof. The village was in a valley surrounded by mountains and grasslands covered with sheep. The villagers welcomed them in and shared their food. Though their dialect was incomprehensible to the Tibetans and Chinese, these country folk brought tea to their guests and treated them like royalty. These were simple people with little to share, but whatever they did have was offered to their guests. After many days of tsampa and tea the travelers were given ingredients to make a stew, tsampa, vegetables and meat. Dorjee described it as “the most delicious soup in the world.”
The following morning they climbed the face of a rock mountain. When they reached the top it was noon and the sun was high in the sky. They made a fire puja to give thanks for their safe passage. They had prayer flags, tsampa, butter and special paper with religious symbols printed on it; all the ingredients for a puja. The monks traveling with them said the prayers and made the offerings. “We felt a real sense of togetherness,” Dorjee said. “In this isolated place, Chinese and Tibetans had come together and become one group, joined in united purpose.”
From the mountaintop they could see the Kyidong valley below. They zigzagged down the steep narrow path; sometimes losing it and having to pick their way through the rocks until they found it again. If they lost their balance they would fall to their death. When they reached the valley floor they came to a river. The guide told them to take off their shoes and roll up their pants before crossing.
“When I placed my foot in the water, it was like a knife being plunged into my heart,” Dorjee recalls. “I became dizzy. I forced myself further into the river; it was up to my knees. When I reached the other side and stepped onto the shore, my foot stuck to the frozen stones. I picked up my foot and began to moan and shudder. My teeth were hitting against each other so hard I thought that they would break.” Dorjee sat down and brushed off the stones and put on his pants and socks. He looked back and saw the three Chinese standing there afraid to cross. The guide turned back to get them. As he pushed them across the river each holding on to the other, one was in tears. When they finally reached the other shore they stood there shivering. The guide put their shoes and socks on them and rolled down their pants.
They walked for 24 hour stretches seeing nothing but snow. When they were exhausted they dropped like logs in the snow sleeping and somehow managing not freeze. In two days they would reach Nepal. Surviving the last few nights in the snow, they felt that nothing was impossible. The loads even felt lighter as they descended the mountain. They were overjoyed at the warm weather and the green meadow. They washed in the river, the first time in fifteen days, and slept in the soft green grass. “I dreamed I was back home,” Dorjee said, “sleeping in my warm, comfortable bed, with my family all around me.”
Dorjee arrived in Dharmsala in February of 1996. penniless and no prospects for work. He lived from hand to mouth, sometimes staying with a friend, sometimes in the streets, always looking for opportunities to learn English and make a new life for himself. His meeting with his holiness the Dalai Lama upon arrival, the high point of his life, kept him from despairing his present situation. After months of wandering around the small town where so many of his country men were living in a similar manner, he met an American interested in Tibetan language and culture and they exchanged lessons. The fellow gave Dorjee some money and with it Dorjee found a small room in town.
By this time Dolkar too had found a small room to rent on the same street in Dharmsala. They quickly became friends. When Dolkar found a sponsor, an American who helped support her, a year later, her relationship with Dorjee had grown to a love affair. Dorjee often talked to her about a dream he had of building some kind of facility in Tibet to educate his people and to improve their lives and their understanding of health in particular.
Then Dolkar’s sponsor offered her an opportunity to go to the States. A new world was opening up for her; one she’d never dreamed of. She said goodbye to Dorjee believing that they would never see each other again. She moved to the States and lived with the children of her sponsor in Burbank, California. Six months later Dorjee found a sponsor who helped him come to America. He was invited to live in Ojai.
Within a year they were married. Dorjee got a job at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa and the couple’s lives were beginning to improve. They made many friends, and when the children were born they had a neighborhood of godparents.
When Dorjee and Dolkar asked their sponsors how they could repay them for their kindness, the reply was one that surprised and pleased them greatly. “When you become successful, work to help others who are in need as you once were.” That response kindled the flame of Dorjee’s dream. Their lives had improved greatly—Dorjee was promoted at the Inn from server to ‘supervisor of Inn-room dining.’ Dolkar got a job as a server for banquets at the Inn. She works in the mornings and Dorjee works from afternoon to evening.
Dorjee and Dolkar got together with friends in Ojai and told them of their dream to help their people in Tibet. The response was overwhelmingly supportive. The group raised a few thousand dollars of seed money and the Tibetan Aid Foundation was launched. In the year since the birth of the Foundation, its first project, the building of the Chazhu Valley Clinic, a health facility in rural Tibet, had been completed. Its mission is to support the health and well being in this rural Tibetan village. The deep-rooted culture of Buddhist Tibet in which the belief in compassion is most important has been translated through the enterprising spirit of this young Tibetan family of Ojai into the fulfillment of a dream to share their good fortune with others in need.
Other posts by Arthur Braverman