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Dharma Blues

A Conversation With a Former Tibetan Political Prisoner

We think of prisoners as violent offenders, exploiting or flouting the law. But what happens when laws intentionally distort life into a mutilating world of oppression and violence?

Tibetan refugees.

Joanie and I arrived in Dharamsala, India yesterday morning after a 13-hour overnight bus ride from Delhi. Home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and around 80,000 Tibetan refugees, Dharamsala is a tranquil mountain town carved into the Himalayan foothills.

After exploring the city and the Kalachakra Temple, where the Dalai Lama resides, we spent a few hours practicing English with former Tibetan political prisoners who escaped China-controlled Tibet.

Jigme ("Like the American name, Jimmy," he said) is a 42-year old monk and below is his story:

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His troubles began with a notebook.

It is illegal in China (which includes Tibet) to talk or write about the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader who fled to India in 1959 under a cloud of Chinese violence.

Since then, China has systematically worked to destroy Tibetan identity through "reeducation" programs, forcing the use of the Chinese language, subjugating Tibetan Buddhism, economic warfare, and many other restrictions on the Tibetan way of life.

Jigme had written an essay in his notebook about the Dalai Lama, and somehow - he does not know who turned him in - the police found out.

They came to his monastery and after convincing them to search only the room he shared with a fellow monk and his library of sacred Tibetan texts (and not the rooms of the 4 young monks he taught) the police found the offending notebook.

He had lent it to a friend who was arrested and sent to prison.

Two months later, the police returned and arrested Jigme for writing about the Dalai Lama. (He assumes his friend, while being tortured, told them Jigme was the notebook's rightful owner).

He was sentenced to a year in prison in deplorable conditions: sharing a drearily small cell with 3 other prisoners (at one point they included a murderer and thief) that had no running water and only a bucket for toilet. They weren't given blankets and struggled to keep warm through Tibet's frigid winter. They were only allowed to leave the cell for 30 minutes - once a month.

They were fed - twice a day - rice soup (he put out his hand and drew a circle with his finger on his palm, illustrating the soup's pittance of rice) and 2 pieces of rice cake. Hardly enough food to keep a man full, let alone keep warm during the winter.

Luckily his family lived nearby and brought him food. But more often than not it was confiscated by the prison guards. Sometimes the guards let him keep the food and Jigme divided what he received evenly with his cell mates.

The prisoners with whom he shared his cell changed every 3 months but all turned to Jigme for advice and council, he said. They respected him since monks are revered in Tibetan culture. At one point, one of his cell mates was a weak Chinese man and Jigme fought another Tibetan prisoner to defend the man from abuse.

After one year and the sentence complete, he returned to his former life. But the police continued to harass him, ordering him to the police station 3-4 times a month to find out what he was doing and ask about other Tibetans.

Unable to endure such treatment, Jigme decided to leave. Leave his family, friends, monastery, homeland, for the chance of a life free of persecution.

But first, he had to get from Tibet to Nepal, the first stop for fleeing Tibetan refugees.

After taking a taxi to the border, he paid 6000 RMB (around $1000) to be smuggled across the mountainous frontier.

For two days the guide shepherded him over snowy mountain passes, avoiding the guard posts of China (whose soldiers are notorious for killing fleeing Tibetans; the arm of a refugee we met was healing from a China's border guard's bullet) and Nepal (who return escaping refugees to China, guaranteeing them a prison sentence; the 8-year old son of the refugee Joanie spoke to was caught and sent to a Chinese prison for 6 months and is now afraid to risk joining his father here).

The Tibetan government maintains a refugee center in Katmandu where fleeing Tibetans (once they arrive) receive paperwork for their next destination: India and Dharamsala.

Jigme arrived here in April 2011 and was fortunate enough to meet and have his photo taken with the Dalai Lama. Bestowed with such an honor, Jigme sent a copy of the photo to his Mother and 6 siblings in Tibet who must keep it hidden.

If the Chinese authorities were to find the photo, it would be confiscated and his family possibly arrested.

Yet despite their freedom here, Tibetans do not feel liberated.

Last weekend was the Tibetan New Year. Unlike their normal new year celebrations, this year's observance was a muted, mournful event. A lamentation of the many deaths at the hands of the Chinese authorities (more one million since 1949) and the recent self immolations many Tibetans are turning to in protest.

It's sad when an notebook's essay can land someone in prison and even sadder when the essay's subject, a revered spiritual leader preaches peace and compassion.

Below are a few links Jigme asked me to share with friends and family to learn more about the plight of Tibetan and the Tibetan people:

www.tibet.net
www.tibetexpress.net

Posted by bucketbath 09:50 Archived in India Tagged india china himalayas buddha refugee tibet free freedom dharmsala liberation Comments (3)

A Breath of Fresh Air

Sun rays broke over the jagged volcanic peaks scattering honey dew light onto the tropical waters and coral beaches.

Joanie and I are on the tiny island Gili Air, a 1.5 km wide island (and 3.1 mile circumference – this I know for a fact – I went for my first run in 6 weeks around the island) situated in the turquoise, coral filled waters between Bali and Lombok.

Today marks the two-month anniversary of our trip – eight weeks of perpetual motion via bus, train, car, shuttle and the occasional moped.

You could say we’re on a break from traveling. Getting some much needed down time before we pick up the pace in Vietnam and mainland South East Asia, where we’re heading on November 10 after – hard to believe – a month in Indonesia.

We’ve experienced the amazing and not so amazing: volcanoes, delicious foods
(snake-skin fruit, Gado Gado), disgusting foods (anything that showed up with meat or shrimp paste), poverty, sand fleas (that left a trail of bites on Joanie), breathtaking sunrises and sunsets (Mount Bromo), indefatigable hustlers and touts (Beijing and everywhere in Indonesia), to name a few.

We’ve watched each other react to our surroundings and the challenges they present. Putting aside spending 24-hours a day with your partner (at times a blessing in disguise), one of the greatest we’ve faced is pollution.

Putting aside spending 24-hours a day with your partner (at times a blessing in disguise), one of the greatest we’ve faced is pollution.

And I am afraid.

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Beijing's Olympic Village and Jakarta, Indonesia

As the cities in the developing world expand and populations become increasingly wealthy, ownership of motorized, pollution spewing vehicles (cars, mopeds, motorcycles) is skyrocketing. In one sense, this is a huge step forward for these countries development. But progress comes at a cost.

The epitome of the pollution (so far) has been Beijing and Jakarta, both sprawling metropolises with unchecked growth and little to no pollution control. At the end of a day of exploring we would return to our guest house covered in grime, light headed and coughing from their polluted air. There is no sky in these cities, only a brown haze hovering overhead like storm clouds on a gloomy day.

I’ve been disconnected from most of the campaign rhetoric flying around in the US right now, but I know for a 15 minute new cycle, the “job killing” EPA was the topic of derision.

Do these presidential candidates want to do what’s best for our country and the American people really think we would be better off without environmental protection? Is the EPA really a job-killing monster as decried?

During America’s balmy summers, who hasn’t experienced an Eco-Action day? I know from living in Bushwick, near cement factories, on a hot day after a run, I’d return home gasping for air – a mixture of pollution and a touch of asthma it likely triggered. And this is with EPA protection.

In other places like West Virginia, with it’s depressed economy and denuded landscape, mountains flatted and water poisoned with the slurry need to process the coal, could it be worse?

An alternative as proposed where anyone can do as they please in the pursuit of profit? Dump chemicals into rivers, spit sulfur into the air or doing nothing to reduce the agricultural and sewage running into the Gulf of Mexico that’s significantly contributing to Red Tide?

I don’t claim to have a panacea, but I do know that our problems need to be addressed through a careful balance of strengthening the EPA and their enforcement abilities and promoting sustainable growth. One could argue that costs will increase (ex. carbon tax) and that business (or the American people) could not afford or stomach any additional price hike.

In the developing world, increasing vehicle efficiency and especially devising a way to make mopeds and scooters less polluting would do wonders to cut back on the noxious haze. No doubt scientists are researching (at least I hope) ways to do this and reproduce the technology cheaply at scale.

One catch phrase often heard is corporate responsibility. If the companies that manufacture these vehicles: Honda and Yamaha, the most common in this part of the world, took full responsibility for the consequences of their product would they remain solvent?

Doubtfully. So it’s a balance that must be sought.

If the candidates with ambition to lead our country and arguably the world (although not in environmental protection even under the status quo) had their way with the EPA, pitting profits against American’s environment and health, who would win?

Actuaries put a value on human life and it seems the candidates have as well.

So much for sunny days.

Posted by bucketbath 06:28 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali beach indonesia travel china air gili lombok pollution fresh epa Comments (2)

The Sweaty Traveler (Joanie)

Staying in shape on the go

The traveling lifestyle has been an adjustment from my physically demanding NYC schedule of dance rehearsals, teaching ballet, Pilates and fitness classes. It amazes me that new blisters are continuously popping up on my beat up, calloused, dancer feet. While 10 hrs of daily walking is great exercise, I haven't yet been able to achieve that glorious, sweaty, post workout high.

I sneak in some pretzel yoga moves whenever and wherever I can. Micah busts out his daily pushups before showering and bends his 6'3'' tower over to touch his toes in the most public displays possible. I prefer to take a more subtle approach and engage my abs and lats (in true Pilates teacher style) while carrying my 30L pack. We're doing everything we can to stay active while on the road.

We got into the athletic spirit while visiting the 2008 Olympic Stadium in Beijing and had the 10 mile hike of our lives at the Great Wall. I've compiled it all into 2 collections of Rocky like footage for your enjoyment.

Bucket Bath Olympics

Great Wall China

Posted by bucketbath 09:26 Archived in China Tagged of china olympics great beijing wall exercise Comments (6)

The Mayor of Luoyang Winds Up In the Hospital (Micah)

The dangers of being friendly (while running).

sunny

Before stepping out for a run this morning, Joanie said to me (as she usually does): be safe.

Fateful words.

It's been too long since my last run. Delayed by a mixture of icy showers and early morning outings, I haven't had the chance to hit the pavement in almost a week.

But today was a perfect day (or so I thought) - blue skies shimmered overhead and a chill crisped the autumn air. Leaving the hostel, I headed west along the main thoroughfare, clothing and eyeglasses shops already open at 8:30am, passing through a pedestrian way buzzing with people and street-food vendors serving dumplings and stewed noodles.

Along the way I’d been smiling and saying "Ni how" (hello) to people I'd passed. Once in a while I’d receive a hello in response, but usually it's a blank stare or look of bemusement. No matter, I’m just trying to be friendly and blend in as much as a 6'3" skinny American running in central China can.

I feel like a cultural ambassador, a roving mayor passing on good will and friendship with every step.

A little further and I was running down a street in an industrial area. Seconds after passing an elderly woman and her daughter sitting outside their ramshackle home my world tumbled.

Literally.

With a smile still on my face, I didn't see the ping-pong sized stone under my left foot and twisted my ankle with a thwacking pop.

"Crap" (and other expletives) surged through my brain as I caught myself before face planting. I stumbled to a cement ledge to inspect the damage. I couldn't put any weight on my ankle and was miles from the hostel.

Luckily, boy scouts taught me more than how to light a cigarette (BS motto: Be Prepared) and I had the hostel's business card with its location written in Chinese and cash for a cab.

I hobbled for two blocks to the nearest busy street and caught a cab back to the hostel. Once there, I hopped up the stairs (no elevator) and talked to the staff about a seeing a doctor.

I’m lucky that my Dad is a podiatrist (not to mention great father) who agreed to a video consultation (he didn’t actually have a choice as I stuck my foot up to the screen before he could say hello.) He didn't think it was broken but I decided to go to the hospital just in case.

Most likely, no one at the Luoyang People's Hospital spoke any English and one of the hostel staff who wasn’t working at the moment offered to come with to translate.

Lifesaver.

I've visited hospitals throughout the world and in a way hospitals represent a country’s benchmark of the population’s health. This hospital was similar to others I’ve visited: bleak white walls stained with dirt, cigarette burns on the floor and lacking that antiseptic cleanliness that makes us squirm.

Step 1: An $0.85 registration fee to see the doctor, in my case an orthopedist whose office was on the 2nd floor.

The elevator was located next to the stairs and an attendant who we’d spoken to earlier, suggested taking them as it was faster than waiting for the elevator. Maybe he suffered from short-term memory loss or nearsightedness and couldn’t see me hopping around on one leg.

Step 2: We met with the doctor, a plump woman in a yellowing lab coat who asked a few questions, scribbled a note in illegible Chinese and directed us to the x-ray room back on the 1st floor.

Good to know doctors everywhere have terrible handwriting.

Step 3: We went to the x-ray area and waited in the hallway learning prepayment (100 Yuan – around $18 USD) was required. After paying, a shiny steel door emblazoned with a yellow nuclear symbol slid open and a balding man in his 50s beckoned me in.

The Hospital's X-Ray room.

The Hospital's X-Ray room.

He directed me to a wood gurney and as I sat it slid away and I nearly fell off. Once situated, he placed my foot, focused the x-ray light and stepped into a steel box. The rest of my body was fully exposed to the sterilizing x-rays.

The tech reappeared and adjusted my foot to take a side view. With no warning, he pushed down on my foot ankle so my arch rested against the table and held it there as he adjusted the x-rays focus. Pain screamed through my leg but as soon as it started it was finished and I returned to the hallway to wait for the processed prints.

Up to this point, despite the unpleasantness of the hospital’s atmosphere, I was impressed by the service. Maybe foreigners are treated better or the hospital wanted to show off their (and China’s) high standard of care, but there was almost no waiting. At an American hospital I would have waited hours for the same services.

The hostel employee came with to translate said that children and the elderly receive care at a discounted rate but everyone else pays the regular price - which while still cheap by American standards had gone up (the cost for an x-ray increased nearly 40% since last year).

After a few minutes the x-ray was ready and then we had to wait around 10 minutes to get a reading. As the doctor was asking questions and reading the prints random people sauntered in and out of the examination room to stare.

Getting my X-ray read.

Getting my X-ray read.

I’m happy to say nothing’s broken, just banged up. The doctor advised a week of rest and prescribed a mild pain killer and an herbal spray that Joanie calls “sore sauce ” (because it smells like soy sauce) that reduces swelling and is used by the dancers in the HT Chen company.

Outside the hotel with the translator (aka super nice girl who works at the hostel).

Outside the hotel with the translator (aka super nice girl who works at the hostel).

Me and a nurse.

Me and a nurse.

Joanie thinks this whole episode might be an act of G-d, a message I need to slow down, let her sleep in and give her blisters time to heal.

Whether it's divine intervention or not I’ve learned my lesson: running and smiling are a dangerous combination not to be practiced casually.

Shabbat shalom and rest well, I know I will.

And if you'd like to check out the sat view of this fated run, Click Me

Posted by bucketbath 06:14 Archived in China Tagged china funny medicine hospital running ankle twist Comments (3)

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