Thursday, June 15, 2006

Story: Riding the Windhorses

I wrote this story a couple of years ago for an online educational company. The editor asked me to remove any references to the Chinese so as not to offend potential customers (or his Chinese girlfriend, I suspect). I refused and ended up resigning as a writer for that company. I've tried to place the story a couple of other places, but the length has been an issue.

Much of the information in the story is taken from the movies The Salt Men of Tibet and Windhorse.

Riding the Windhorses

I was six years old when the soldiers came to our village. They destroyed the temples and monasteries, and arrested all the monks. They placed radio speakers on the roof of the tallest building. We were told that the soldiers came to set us free from the oppression of the monasteries. Their loud speakers told us religion was nothing but lies. They said they were our brothers and sisters and only wanted what was best for us.

Over the next eight years, our lives became more and more difficult. Our prayers and rituals were forbidden. The adults were forced to work in the vegetable gardens that fed the soldiers. The children were sent to schools where we were taught to speak Chinese, the language of the soldiers, and we were not allowed to speak Tibetan. We were taught that our land had always been a part of China, the country that now ruled us. We were taught that they were not our invaders, but that they had come to liberate us.

During these years, my parents sold whatever they could to raise money. My mother had studied in the nunnery as a young woman and could read and write. She worked as a translator for the soldiers but was paid very little. It would be very expensive to buy our way out of the country, to freedom. Even I helped by knitting hats and scarves that we could sell in the market.
Just after my fourteenth birthday, we left our home in the village of my birth. The tall, snowy mountains that surrounded our village are just a memory. Many people did not survive the journey, and others have died since gaining their freedom.

My name is Pema. I am Tibetan. This is the story of my escape from my home in the rooftop of the world, of my journey to freedom in a new land.

Several days in a row, now, there have been public executions at the edge of our village. Some monks and young men were angry about the presence and oppression by the soldiers. They demanded to be free to practice their religion and live their lives by the old traditions. The soldiers and their bosses do not tolerate these public demonstrations. Rebellion is punished with death.

My brother, Dorjee, was one of the protesters. He has been studying in one of the rebuilt monasteries. He is angry that he and the others cannot own pictures of our religious leader, the Dalai Lama, and cannot speak his name. In his youthful anger, Dorjee has placed all our lives at risk to voice his anger. We can’t hide him, so tonight we must leave our home and make the long journey in search of freedom. There are others planning to leave tonight as well, so we won’t have to travel alone.

Just after midnight, we gather our packs, load the one horse we own, and place several bags on our yak. We used to own many yaks, but we have had to give them to the Chinese to pay taxes. After only a short distance on the road, we meet some other families. My father is not comfortable with the size of our group, fearing we will be spotted too easily.

He is right to be worried. It’s difficult to avoid the patrols, even once we leave the village. Just before the next village, we see some soldiers heading our way, so we scatter up the hill behind the trail. Two older men and a young, pregnant woman are captured. We wait, holding our breath and staying very quiet. We are sure we will be captured, as well.

It is very hard to remain still and quiet for so long. I feel the need to sneeze and pinch myself very hard to make it go away. One small noise and we will all be captured and put in prison. The minutes seem like weeks. After an hour, the soldiers are nowhere to be seen. They must have known we were here, so we can’t understand why they did not come after us. Soon, we are on the trail again, heading west, avoiding any villages or monasteries along the way.

The journey is rough. There is not enough food for all of us, and there is little to scavenge along the way. We live on thick yak butter tea and a few stolen vegetables. A few days ago, one of the yaks died. It had been sick for many days, so its owner ended its suffering. We do not believe in killing any animal unless necessary, but it was in pain and we were all hungry. The meat helped a lot, but there are so many of us that it did not last long. The monks refused the meat so as not to break their vows.

Occasionally, we meet with a tribe of nomads who offer us what little they have. One group of nomads was just returning from the salt lakes. Their yaks and horses were loaded with bags of salt. These men, and others like them, are known as the Salt Men.

There used to be many groups of men who made the difficult journey to the salt lakes each year. It is both a practical and a religious pilgrimage. Salt is a valuable resource for preserving meat in the high plains of Tibet. There is a special language, known only to the Salt Men, which must be spoken near the lakes in order to keep happy the spirits who guard the lake. Since the Chinese occupation, the Salt Men are fading into history, along with many other traditions of our culture.

They were kind enough to give us a bag of salt that we are hoping to use to barter for some food from other nomads. They said blessings for our journey and offered many possible routes that might allow us to travel safely.

The weather is getting worse. This is a hard time of year to travel in the high plateau. The snowy mountains at the border of Tibet and India will be very difficult to cross. I hope we all survive to see those mountains.

It has been two weeks, now, and several members of our group have become sick and given up the journey. They had grown very pale and weak and were unable to carry their own packs. I think that they were starving to death. The cold weather and challenging days of travel are weakening everyone in our group.

My father thinks it will be better if we separate and travel in smaller groups. My brother agrees, but I am not so sure. If we are captured, small groups are punished more harshly because there are fewer witnesses. I have heard stories of how disobedient monks are kept in small boxes for weeks at a time with very little food or water. And I have heard the unspeakable things the soldiers do to women.

Finally, the decision is made among the men to split our large group into smaller groups of families. Now that our traveling group is just our family and three others, I will have to assume more responsibility. I am given the task of making the tea each morning and evening, as well as collecting wood for the fire each night. My mother will cook whatever food we have, and the men will take care of the animals and scout the trail ahead of us.

The nights are very dark. When I was very small, I was afraid of the dark. Being in a dark tent with no light would have caused me to cry for hours. When the new teachers took over the schools, they punished students by confining us to the closet for the remainder of the day. I spent many days in the closet because I refused to speak their language or write their words. I cried a lot, but I wanted to speak and write my own language.

My mother was afraid the teachers would have me imprisoned for breaking the rules and being disobedient. But my father explained to the teachers that I was at a very difficult age and that I would grow out of my rebellion. At home, however, he praised my strength and determination, but he cautioned me that the teachers would only accept so much disobedience before they took serious action against me.

Some of the nuns in our village thought that I was intelligent. My mother persuaded them to allow me to study with them in the evenings. They taught me to read and write Tibetan very well. They also taught me to pray silently, rather than the usual way of speaking our prayers so that the heavens will hear our words. They taught me to pray without beads. Many of them had been punished for their prayers, and at least one had lost her fingers to prevent her from ever fingering the sacred beads again.

The nuns taught me everything they could about our culture and traditions. They also told me the stories of what they had suffered for their faith. They wished that I might one day escape and tell the world of the stories and traditions of our people.

When we reach the mountains, after nearly two months of winding our way through the high plateau, there are only five of us. Two other men have been captured while scouting the trail. We have not seen any of the other groups since we split up, and we can only pray for their safety.

We have only the smallest amount of food remaining, and everyone is hungry. My father believes that if we can cross the mountains safely, we will find food in the next country.

The winds are strong and laden with snow. My father ties a rope around my waist and to Dorjee’s so that we won’t be separated. My father and my mother are also tied together. The remaining man, a young monk, has decided to risk the climb alone. We follow him up the slope since he has the only real information about how to cross these treacherous mountains.

As we reach the ridge of the first mountain, we discover many scraps of paper scattered on the ground. Many of them are wet with snow and stuck to the rocks, but others flutter in the strong winds.

The monk explains: “These are windhorses. In the old days, it was common to find such pieces of paper, each with a written prayer, scattered around hills and mountains. Windhorses are tossed into the wind so that the prayers can be carried to the heavens. Each person who comes to the hill brings his or her own prayers, or collects as many as possible from the ground, and tosses them into the air.”

I like the idea of windhorses carrying prayers to the heavens. I spend a few moments collecting the many prayers, reading some of them out loud. A lot of them are prayers that our country will one day be free again. Others are for the health and safety of the Dalai Lama. There are also many prayers asking for the health and salvation of every living creature, even the Chinese. I toss the pieces of paper into the wind and watch them scatter. They look like giant snowflakes.

The snow falls much heavier now. We can barely see the monk walking in front of us. The slope we are descending is very steep, and in some places the rock is exposed and jagged. The snow on the ground is slick and icy, and all of us are struggling to keep our footing. My father has released the yak and horse so that they may return to the valley below. We all carry as many of our possessions as we can—the rest is left behind.

A sudden gust of wind knocks the monk from his feet and he tumbles down the mountainside. Dorjee insists that we try to find him and see if he is hurt badly. We both get down on our knees and inch ourselves slowly down the bank. The monk is not moving when we find him, and he is stuck in a ravine. Dorjee looks back up the slope to signal our parents, but they are not visible. We are suddenly alone.

Dorjee climbs down the ravine, still attached to me by a rope. When he reaches the monk it is too late -- the fall has broken his neck. I feel hot tears rising to my eyes, but I refuse to let them come out. I must be strong and brave. Dorjee whispers a few prayers for the monk’s soul and then climbs out of the ravine. We must locate our parents.

We both call out for them, but the fierce winds and thick blowing snow drown our voices. It is getting dark, too. We follow the ridge down into a narrow valley and walk into the winds. I suggest that we find a place to stop and raise a signal on a stick so that our parents, or someone, might see it.

We find a small stand of pine trees lower in the valley and dig the snow away from the base of the largest tree. It is a little warmer near the ground, but not much. I take a red, knitted hat from my bag and attach it to a branch from the tree. Dorjee takes it out near the trail and sticks it into a snow bank. I feel very afraid, but I try to hide my fear from Dorjee and pretend I am strong. Hopefully our parents will find us soon.

Lost and Found
The night is cold and long, and my body shakes from the cold and the fear. Dorjee is able to build a small fire to warm our hands, but we are still wet and cold. We are not able to sleep, and we are very hungry. All the food was with our parents, except for a few pieces of dried fish we bartered from some nomads a few days ago. Dorjee knows how to find edible roots, even in the snow, so I wait for him, shivering and afraid.

We are alone in the tallest mountains on the Earth. Dorjee believes we are only a few miles from freedom, but we will have to sneak across the border since we have no money with us to bribe the guards. While Dorjee is looking for food, I recite my prayers repeatedly, desperate for them to be heard.

Dorjee finds only some pine nuts for us to eat, but anything helps. We will need energy to get over the last mountains and reach the border. It is not snowing as hard now, but it is still bitterly cold.

By mid-day we reach the summit of the pass, but we have not found our parents. Exhausted, we both sit on some exposed rock to rest for a few minutes. While we are sitting, three men approach us from the valley in front of us.

“Why are you children alone up here?” one of the men asks, speaking our own language. He is wearing long saffron robes and might be a monk, but we are suspicious and cautious in our answers.

“We are just out for a hike,” Dorjee answers, trying to sound carefree. We are a long way from any village, though, and his joke betrays our fear.

“It’s not safe up here. Come, we will take you to our monastery across the border.” He seems sincere and we are desperate, so we trust him. Dorjee asks if he has any food. “Here, eat this," the monk offers some dried fruit. "It will provide energy.”

I can’t stay quiet anymore. “Have you seen any others? We lost our parents and must find them. They must be very worried about us.”

“We have not seen them, but there are others from our monastery looking for people who may have become lost in the storms. We had word there would be several groups trying to cross the border. Come with us - your parents will turn up.” His voice is very reassuring, but I still feel the fear in my stomach like vultures flying in circles.

When we arrive at the monastery, others from our original group are already there. We ask them about our parents, but no one has seen them. Many people have not survived to experience freedom on this side of the border. Others have been captured and are now imprisoned.

We eat as much food as they offer us. The next day, after our clothes have dried and we have slept a little, we begin the journey to our new home in the valley. When the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans originally fled the Chinese occupation, India gave them a large area of unsettled land to develop as a new home. There is now an actual city there, with monasteries, schools, and shops.

When we arrive in the valley, the first thing we notice is the temperature - it is very hot and humid. There are also many insects and strange animals that we have never seen before. Our homeland is so cold that there are few insects, and our bodies are not accustomed to the bites and stings. Many of our people die in the first months of their freedom from diseases and insect bites. Others become very sick from the heat.

We are taken to a processing area where all new arrivals are recorded. They ask for our name, village of birth, parent’s name, and so on. I am impatient and ask, “We are looking for our parents. Have you seen them?”

“Yes. They checked in yesterday. They have frost bite and are weak, but they are alive and will recover very well.”

I cannot express my gratitude enough. Dorjee and I are extremely relieved that our parents are here and alive. Our family can be together again.

After our family is settled into a small hut and we feel rested, it is time for me to begin school again. My education is already very good, so I sometimes assist the teachers with the lessons. Besides teaching reading, writing, and math, the schools are very focused on teaching our cultural heritage.

We live in such a strange place, very different from where any of us were born. The teachers and leaders believe it is very important to teach us about our heritage, our traditions. The Buddhist monks come to the schools often to teach religious studies for those who want to learn.

One day each of us is asked to tell the class something about our life, something we have learned that will remain with us our entire lives. Many of the students talk about their escapes, of their family’s traditions, or the brother who is now a well-known monk. When it is my turn, I talk about the windhorses.

“When we made the journey to this new land,” I begin, “we found a hillside where people had written their prayers on pieces of paper and sent them fluttering into the wind. It is believed that the papers, called windhorses, will carry the prayers to the heavens where they will be answered.”

“A monk who traveled with us explained that this tradition was very old. Now that we are in a new place, it feels important to keep the old traditions alive. Let us all write a prayer on a scrap of paper and walk to the hills at the far edge of the village. We can release our prayers into the wind, and they will ride the windhorses straight to heaven.”

We release our prayers the next afternoon. It feels very important to honor the old traditions in our new homeland. My prayer is that I will one day share my story with the world.

Image Sources:
1. Runied Monastery near Lhasa.
2. Tibetan plateau looking west.
3. Prayer flags, a type of windhorse.
4. Himalayas from Tibet side.

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