Thwap goes my hand, as I smack it down hard on the table, leaving one mortally wounded fruit fly. A remaining undamaged silvery wing twitches a bit before I flick my fingers and send the fly sailing over the table’s edge to its demise.
Big Papa shakes his head. “I guess you haven’t completed your transformation to Buddhism.” He follows with, “There goes my grandmother.” I hang my head. “Yes, you’re right.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes waiting for our meal to arrive at St. Clouds, one of our favorite Seattle neighborhood restaurants. Soon Big Papa is reveling in ribs swathed in barbecue sauce while I savor mussels bathing in coconut milk. Twenty or so mussels nestle inside my bowl. By Buddhist interpretation I am devouring a small village.
Steamy broth sends tendrils of heavenly spiced aroma to tickle my nostrils. I close my eyes, remembering. Mere days ago we sat at a café in Lhasa, Tibet.
The memory seems surreal, yet I can almost see the soft afternoon light filtering through the window of the café as I hold a warm cup of Masala tea in my hands. Its milky spicy fragrance surrounds me.
Outside the window, earnest merchants in the Barkhor haggle with persistent tourists over the price of prayer wheels. Weathered pilgrims chant while circumambulating clockwise around Jokang Temple. Smoke rises from branches of juniper placed on outdoor incense furnaces and mingles with the intense sweetness of yak butter candles.
As the sun slowly lowers itself to the horizon, the light becomes warmer and shadows are more pronounced. Magic hour is nearly upon Lhasa. Soon the walls of Jokang will be set ablaze in glorious hues of gold. Brilliant purples will creep into the turquoise blues of the sky.
I draw in a final sip from my cup, long and slow, letting hints of pepper and cinnamon dance on my tongue. Big Papa and I head outside, through the Barkhor, to the marketplace with our guide, Tenpa. We move alongside the throngs, cobblestones underfoot. Though there is no urgency in our steps, I feel as though I’m being swept through a canyon, one buffalo in a herd of many.
Legend tells that in 647 A.D. the first Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, built the Jokhang Temple. Its magnificence quickly attracted thousands of Buddhist pilgrims. As a result, a trodden path appeared which grew into Barkhor Street.
Turning to the right, we amble along Zang Yuan Road, passing Jokang Plaza and then a Tibetan prayer flag shop. Sewing machines whir and nimble fingers connect the blue, white, red, green, yellow flags, which will soon adorn buildings, streams and mountain passes. Each color, arranged from left to right in specific order, symbolizes one of earth’s elements, blue for sky, white for air and wind, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth.
A short distance in front of us, a monk swathed in a vibrant burgundy robe squats on a corner step. A bucket of fish, nervously swimming figure eights in their tight quarters, sits at his feet. The monk watches the fish intently, glancing up on occasion. He is slim of stature with ruddy bronzed skin and broad cheekbones. Wizened eyes peer upwards in our direction as he tilts his head. “Just a moment,” Tenpa tells us as he scurries over to the monk. We watch him press a few coins into the monk’s hand.
Tenpa rejoins us but says nothing. Walking a bit further down the street we ask, “What just happened?” He tells us, “That monk purchased those fish from Chinese Muslim merchants who sell them to be eaten. Tonight, on his way back to the monastery, he will stop and release the fish back into a stream.” Tenpa pauses for a moment and takes in a deep breath. “I gave him a bit of money to help with the cost of the fish.”
Big Papa and I think carefully about what we’ve just heard. We have seen Tenpa and other Tibetans eat meat, yak mostly, but occasionally chicken or pork. However, it has not escaped our notice that none of the cafés or restaurants we’ve visited list fish on the menu.
Later, during dinner, we ask Tenpa to help us understand why Tibetans eat yak, but not fish. He looks straight at us and says quite matter-of-factly, “Taking a life for such a small amount of meat is a waste.” His voice is tinged with slight annoyance. I’d venture he’s been asked questions like this innumerable times by countless travelers. It must puzzle and frustrate him that Westerners don’t comprehend this distinction.
A moment passes and I catch Big Papa’s gaze. I know exactly what he is thinking. With us, we’ve brought several items which we intend to give as gifts to our guide Tenpa and our driver Chimmi, at the end of our trip. A box containing smoked salmon was selected with Tenpa in mind. Although we’d heard Tibetans did not eat meat, we somehow rationalized that fish would be acceptable. In the U.S. there are many who identify themselves as “vegetarians,” and will not touch meat from a cow, chicken or pig, but will happily dine on seafood. For many years, I was one of these vegetarians.
What a rare treat, we thought. Smoked salmon transported all the way from Seattle. Certainly not something you would find in mountainous central Tibet. Little did we imagine that our carefully chosen gift might be received as an enormous insult by our gracious guide.
That night, back at the Shangri-la Hotel, we tuck the smoked salmon deeper into our suitcase, and our innocent ignorance along with it. By the time we’ve returned home, it is one well-traveled smoked fish, having flown 13,442 miles, the distance from Seattle to Lhasa and back again, not to mention the multi-day side trip all the way to base camp at Mt. Everest. This fish has been from below sea level to the top of the world.
I blink and open my eyes, returning to the moment. Big Papa is elbow deep in his luscious ribs. Outside the window, rain is pouring down fiercely. I see green and trees. I know the mountains behind the clouds are not the Himalayas. At tables on all sides of me, people are speaking English. I take a long, slow sip from my glass of northwest Pinot Noir just as I’d sipped Masala tea in Lhasa. A second glass, filled to the brim with tap water and ice, is right in front of me. It is the first time in nearly a month that I’ve been able to safely drink water that is not bottled. Discarded mussel shells lace the rim of my pure white bowl, like a necklace.
Om Mani Padme Hum. The words reverberate just below the surface of my conscious mind. I contemplate the meaning of this chant I heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times during our trip. According to Buddhists, this six syllable mantra means, “in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.” After a journey of many thousands of miles in this life, I still have many miles and many lives left to travel.
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