In 1990, my painter friend Jane Vance made her first visit to Nepal, where she saw Tibetan art for the first time. Over time, she made many subsequent trips to both India and Nepal, and became fascinated with Tibetan culture and iconography, mastering its symbols and incorporating its imagery into her paintings. Jane considers herself a catalyst for what she calls "a kind of suturing" between East and West. Her paintings are a heady cross-cultural mix of images that flow together without boundaries, woven and looped like psychedelic lichen. Uncanny correspondences bristle and refract, categories overlap, unusual juxtapositions are invited in. Jane thinks of her paintings more like fireworks exploding in many places simultaneously rather than as linear narratives. I want to write like that.
On June 15th, Jane left Blacksburg for western Nepal, on the Tibetan border, to deliver a sublime portrait she made several years ago of her Tibetan friend, Amchi Tsampa, who presides over a small Himalayan village called Jomson. She painted the portrait while Tsampa was teaching Tibetan language and Tantric Buddhism for a semester at Virginia Tech, and living at her house. She and a friend, Jenna Swan, plus a group of other special friends, brought the painting to Jomson and are making a documentary film about the all-day-and-night ceremony performed in the village to celebrate its arrival there. While in Kathmandu, they had craftsmen sew the painting onto a traditional Tibetan brocade frame, transforming it into a hanging thangka. (Unfortunately my computer skills are insufficient for me to add an illustration here, but you can view the painting-thankgka in its finished state on their website blog: www.agiftforthevillage.blogspot.com .)
I've been receiving their blogs by email, and their adventure synchronistically insinuated itself into my ongoing alligator-wrestle with Western civilization: are we headed for higher consciousness or extinction? Jomson became part of my narrative because it offered me a firsthand glimpse into a world that is not based in technology, consumption, and the triumph of materialism. It shows a way of life virtually free of fossil fuels, television, computers, cell phones, cars, and taxes. It shows a society that seems to fit its niche in the Himalayan environment perfectly, raising the question of whether or not the civilizational advancements provided by science. technology, and the military-industrial complex really have provided us with the best of all possible worlds.The answer to this will undoubtedly lie very much in the eye of the beholder, but what follows are extracts from various emails, sent by Jane, Jenna, and their friend Reba, chosen at random and lightly edited by me.
"Shops in Jomsom town are closet-sized, displaying a few imported tubes of toothpaste, post cards, bottled water, practical hardware for kerosene lamps and gas cookers, and kitchenware, a few covered pans and a few drinking glasses. Then there is the tailor, the barber, the launderer, the airline ticket office for confirming tickets on the tiny planes that come in when the winds are not too harsh, and the little stone rooms constituting the schools, where we have been fortunate to visit and film and meet wonderful teachers. A few motorcycles now beep down the cobbled street each day--Tsampa's is the newest and most handsome, flown in a few months ago, a gorgeous candy-apple red concoction. Jenna noted that the last time we were here, at dusk, just outside the windows of The Dancing Yak, Tsampa would be curry-combing his horse, but today, he is mostly wiping off his red cycle."
"In the afternoons, especially if it rains, our group sometimes sits in a glassed-in rooftop room here [in the Dancing Yak], overlooking part of the village of Jomsom. We order roasted peanuts and masala chai, and write and read and watch this one-street town. From this vantage point, I can see nine trees, some of them junipers and the others, short willows. I see a bare-footed, bow-legged, short sadhu, a wandering Hindu pilgrim, walking alone down the street, with his right hand holding his gleaming brass cooking pot out from the plastic, possibly to gather rain for his evening drink. I see two Nepali women in plastic sandals, dressed in salwar khameezes, pants with calf-length shirts, drenched in their cotton head-scarves, clutching themselves against the rain. One wears mango and teal; the other , sky-blue and tobacco-brown. On the cobblestone street, half-yaks and mules and an occasional dog or horse wander by, seeming to go nowhere, but going somewhere, unsupervised. Puddles collect on the crooked grey pieces of inset slate. Here come twenty monks, in saffron and red, or burgundy and red, one of them in royal purple socks. This delegation is leading one plastic-swaddled monk on a white horse... We wonder, Who?"
"[During the ceremony] there was a lot of dancing-- traditional Tibetan dancers, and Nepali dancers and Indian dancers all in traditional costumes (they danced their hearts out to crackly tape cassette music) Tsampa presented Jane with a gift of a Lama table he had carved and painted. He presented the rest of our team with blessing scarves. Then FOOD was served to all the people in attendance (hundreds maybe??) Rice, curried veggies, Tibetan bread, and chai tea... Jane and Tsampa had on so many blessing scarves that their faces were getting covered up. The painting was taken down and carried like a banner, Tsampa, Jane and about 30 other riders on horseback led a parade down the street....We had singers, dancers, a member of parliament, the captain of the Mountain Warfare Royal Nepal Army, the District and Village chiefs, the big old lamas who were Tsampa's father's friends, and horses with riders racing down the main street at a gallop, the riders hanging off to one side trying to pick up prayer flags from the cobblestones. And then a procession to carry the thangka back to the Dancing Yak Hotel....We now have our documentary. We had the festival of festivals, and the painting is finally home, and it looks great."
On her way back home, Reba (who left early) writes: "We are back in Kathmandu and are enjoying the cushy life of real mattresses with sheets, hot showers and TOILET PAPER! Woohoo! My last night at the Dancing Yak in Jomsom, Jane and Jenna demanded that I only use 3 (single-ply) sheets of our shared toilet paper (You have to supply your own). Don't tell, but I used 5! (haha)
I am closer to getting back home where I want to be, but I desperately miss the rest of our crew and feel just a little twinge of jealousy that they are going into upper Mustang. Only a few permits per year are given to those who want to go into that region where it is even more untouched by change than the places we have visited.
I came here fully expecting to land into this totally foreign world, where nobody looks like me, talks like me, dresses or thinks like me, and everthing around me looks nothing like I have ever seen before. Part of that has proved to be true. I have never seen the likes of chaos like here in Kathmandu. I have never seen this much poverty. I have never seen landscapes like this, from the terraced crop fields to the gigantic mountains that are so huge, grey and snow-covered, that they cannot be real even though you are right there staring at them...The women offer you tea several times a day. They ask if you are hungry. As we walked these very long, dusty and rocky trails between villages, every person we would meet, whether they were in a group or carrying some obscenely large basket full of who-knows-what strapped to their heads, EVERY single person would meet your eye and say, "Namaste". Greeted warmly by every stranger you meet, that's Nepal."
"Wow!" says Virgil, who loves any ample opportunity for fish-out-of-water jokes. "Sure wish I'd been there, done that. But it's been fun just hitchhiking on other people's thoughts. I've never been fixated on toilet paper myself, or unisex cologne either, for that matter. But now that I'm older and sliding into home base, it really does seem like the infinite quantum field organizes every event in the universe that happens--and, if left to its own devices, the story will simply generate itself. All we have to do is leaf through the extracts as they appear."