Spectacle of Flowers

Here in ‘loose down’ Kathmandu in the spring of 2020, I wonder when spring plans for a trip back to Khumbu might materialize.

The monsoon has arrived lush and humid with the spring rush of flowers fading into numerous shades of green.

The monsoon rains create a sudden rush of plant growth in Nepal’s Himalaya, with different species coming into flower each week. Spring and summer in the mountains offer glorious floral displays.

Spring in the Everest area brings out purple irises and primroses in open sunny places. The large solitary flower of the iris appears first, days before the leaves come out of the soil. New leaves on the birch trees give the forests a faint sheen of green.

Nepal is of course famous for the spring blooming of its rhododendrons, the national flower. Whole forests may be in flower at this time. These trees that are usually only waist-high in other parts of the world, may grow ten metres high in the forests of Nepal.

Starting in March, rhododendrons at the relatively lower elevations bring forth bright red clusters of flowers covering the tree. Through April and May, trees at higher elevations come into bloom. The colour of the rhododendron blooms varies depending on which of the thirty species of rhododendron trees is growing at each location.

On the higher ridge tops at about 3200 meters, the flowers are pink, or white edged with red. Higher still, the trees are shorter and in June, loaded with soft yellow blossoms.

It’s not until July that the short, shrubby rhododendrons in the high meadows flower. Their pale purples color the dwarf, knee high forests of rhododendron, juniper, willow and cotoneaster at 4500 meters.

Sheltered beneath these miniature forests are species of geraniums, anemones, forget-me-nots and more primroses. Tall, yellow Sikkimese Primroses abound in wet areas beside streams.

   Higher up on the ridge are dwarfed versions of familiar flowers such as gentians, vetches and saxifrages. The saxifrages specialize in filling in the rocky niches that are uninhabitable for other plants. The name comes from the Greek “sax” for rock and “frage”, to break; saxifrages are rock-breakers despite their delicate appearance in this harsh environment.

Many plants flourish in these demanding conditions through adaptations such as leathery leaves, hairiness, compact mat or cushion shapes, and an ability to blossom and form seeds quickly in the short growing season.

Some fleabanes grow tall and are cut for hay in the yak pastures but 800 m higher, at the edge of glaciers, closely related plants grow as tight, compact cushions.

The harshness of dry winds and temperature extremes is softened by the fuzz covering the edelweiss and pussy-toes that lay low among the rocks. Several kinds of edelweiss thrive in the Everest area, from the villages at 3500 meters right up to the edge of the Khumbu Glacier.

The bright blue of one of the most beautiful Himalayan plants is only found up high, close to the blue ice of the glaciers. The Blue Poppy is armed on its leaves and stems with stiff spikes that would discourage any hungry yak from devouring it.

From the hills vibrant with color to the mountains sparkling with fresh snow, the monsoon months offer a spectacle for those braving the mists and the rain.

What do we really want from International Women's Day?

A few lines from International Women’s Day in Nepal.

I’m seeing several images posted on social media with classic looking women pumping their biceps and lots of raving.

But, I am asking myself, is this what Women’s Day is really all about?

Is Women’s Day about using brute strength like some men (certainly not all)? Do we women really want to imitate men and how they do things?

Or is it really to celebrate the perseverance, equanimity, subtle strength, and love with which women go about their daily lives?  

Do we really want to celebrate our masculine sides or strengthen our divine feminine? Bring that feminine power and way of doing things to a chaotic world?

Do we try to fight force with more force or try to return to more harmonious ways of being?

How do we create the conditions for women to be ensured of their rights to dignity and freedom from fear and servitude? Conditions so that women can voice their concerns and aspirations and have the agency to conduct their lives and livelihoods in a dignified and happy manner?

How do we ensure that some women never have to return to bonded labour (basically slaves) or en denture their children?

I hope that International Women’s Day also reminds women to follow their dreams and aspirations – whether to be a professional, climb a mountain, or raise happy and thoughtful children.

Samayak: Walking with the Buddhas among us

Again after four years, it is time for the Samayak when all the households with special Buddhist statues in Patan bring them to the big squares in the middle of the old city. The last Samayak was in 2016, just months after the earthquake. A couple of the temples damaged then have since been rebuilt.

First each household brings their ‘deity’ out to the front of their home on the street, where they offer prayers for the journey and gathering. The statues might be any size from six inches tall to huge heads over four feet tall that are worn by a man carrying them. Needless to say, many other family members help guide him on the journey through the streets.

Then, the Buddhas assemble in Patan Durbar Square before moving over to the Nag Bahal Square where tens of thousands of people come the next day to offer their prayers and devotion. The queues to enter the the courtyard stretch for blocks along the nearby road.

Come twilight on the second day, after a procession by the elders of the community, the Buddhas head home with crowds lining the lanes and reaching out to touch the statues as they pass. After a brief rest outside the home or temple, the statues are returned to their secluded homes. Portions of the offerings are shared with community members sitting and waiting in rows

Getting out of the ‘now’

For four years since the earthquake in Nepal, I have had writer’s block like a noose halting the connection from mind to paper or computer. I would start and almost immediately stop. It has been a struggle to keep work deadlines, to get writing done without a deadline.

While writer’s block is a common challenge for most writers, it seemed to have had deeper roots within. something had shifted with the earthquake and its hundreds of aftershocks.

That afternoon as I knelt under a table and the shakes grew and grew, it was as it there was no past and no future. It was as if I was totally in the ‘now, the present moment.’ It was a moment of being glad that right then I was alive. Thoughts crossed through my mind that there must be horrendous destruction and death happening with each shake.

Over the next 48 hours especially, the ground kept on moving. We later counted on the government seismic website that there had been 108 aftershocks in 48 hours that were over 4 in magnitude, earthquakes in their own right if it had not been for the big one.

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the immediacy of connecting people and places and groups… always in the moment.

It has hung with me until tonight when I realized that to write, I needed to step outside of the now, to look at past and future and still appreciate the present.

MUSTANG – trees to temples

Dust and blowing sand

Standing in the middle of the sandy trail with the wind howling, the sun blazing, no shade and not a tree or shrub in sight.

“From right here, 700 years ago, the Lo kings cut trees for the gompas in Lo,” says Chimi, our guide.

The only trees we’ve seen in four days of walking are those planted near irrigated fields in villages, oases of green in this rocky, barren, desolate landscape. Eroded bones of the  earth. Canyons out through the layers of rocks lay down over the millennia as sediments on the floor of an ancient sea. Rocks in reds, rocks of beige, a few striped rocks with  green argallite. Rocks, sand, canyons, and sky.

“For those huge pillars? ”

“Yeah, this all used to be a forest of big trees. It’s in Khampo Tashi’s book.”

Those pillars, those huge pillars at least 3-4 feet in diameter and 25ft high are so magnificent. Many came from a single piece of wood …  That would have come from this desolate place. Huge timbers that must have been cut from even larger trees.

Larger trees that grew until 700 years ago in this now barren high desert.

A forest where it is now high altitude desert. What happened?

Mustang is an old place for the Nepal Himalaya. People have perhaps lived here for 6,000 years – at first in caves  cut into the sandstone cliffs. Gradually, Lo became the walled capital of the Lo kings.

A walked city like none other in the Himalaya. More and more building with growing affluence from the salt trade, more gompas and monasteries. At the pinnacle of the Lo dynasty and culture, three huge gompas were built of stone, rammed earth and wooden windows, doors, and pillars. Huge pillars to hold the heavy building. And they came from a forested valley that is now this desert place.

The speed of the change both intrigues and depresses me. I no longer find Mustang a fascinating desert landscape but a denuded land.

A traumatized land where demons and saviours (Guru Rinpoche) fought over bringing Buddhism to Tibet and the Himalaya. Where the slain demons blood is believed to colour the red rocks of the region.

Later talking to the forestry professor stranded in Jomsom, I learn that when trees are cut, their roots no longer have the capacity to hold up the water table so the water drops deeper. Only those trees and shrubs close to irrigation canals or streams can survive.

Why do we keep cutting so many trees?

Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places

Revering by walking, prostrating, chanting, offering…

Offerings – of objects or one’s presence –  affirms the Tibetan’s reverence of sacred places and objects.

 

jokhang threshold

Thresholds can be the shift into a physical structure or rituals for new events in a lifetime. Thresholds are the crossing into another existence whether physical, emotional, or spiritual… or as in these sacred places, the combination of all three.

Jokhang – the heart of Tibetan pilgrimage

Tibetans think of the Jokhang as the “spiritual heart of Lhasa” and it does sit in the middle of the Barkhor, the market square of old Lhasa. More importantly, it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet.

King Songtsen Gampo (traditionally the 33rd king of Tibet) began to build the temple in 652 AD to house the many Buddhist statues brought as dowry by his two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, who both helped him establish Buddhism in Tibet. The most important statue is the Jowo, an image of the twelve-year-old Buddha. The Jokhang was enlarged many times and the scene of many important events in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.

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In the morning there were thousands of Tibetans in a long queue to visit the inside of the Jokhang while others did prostrations and circled this most important temple.

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Spiritual and social… taking a break from prostrations

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Starting young… her mom showed her how to do the prostrations

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The police managing entry to the Jokhang let tourists in by another door without the long queue. Most of the other tourists were Chinese… everywhere we went.

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The queue was long but people were patient.  Many people carried large thermoses full of melted butter to add to the huge butterlamps by the main Jowo statue.

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The murals on the walls were fantastic, but no photos were allowed past this doorway.

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This old carving on a stone block seemed old. Some of the temple is about 1,300 years old and some has been refurbished, like on the roof.

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We could not see signs of the fire on Feb 17, the day after Losar this year. But, barriers and security guards limited how far we could wander on the rooftop.

 

 

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Most tourists were Chinese. An elderly Tibetan man I knew from past visits said that recently published statistics on visitors to the Potala in the previous month were 34 Tibetans, 5,000 Chinese, and 17 foreigners.  We did not visit the Potala on this trip. While I waited for the group, a young Chinese woman started talking to me here on the Jokhang roof. I asked her what attracted her to visit here… “pure, clean land and very faithful people”  It seemed that she had not heard much else about what has happened in Tibet.

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Shigatse and Tashilunpo

Tashilunpo is a relatively newer monastery in Shigastse to the west of Lhasa. It was founded in 1447 and sacked by the Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in 1791.  The Nepalis were eventually driven back almost to Kathmandu. The monastery once had over 4,000 monks but we could not find our how many are there now.

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The worn flagstones… what history has passed over them.

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The monks gathering for evening prayers

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The threshold into the main prayer hall.

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Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig in Tibetan embodies the infinite compassion of all the Buddhas and completely devoted to helping others until all being achieve liberation.

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There are four main gompas (temples) in the monastery.

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The representation of the spiritual character of a previous lama.

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We were visiting in Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment. Local people filled the area around the three stupas at Tashilungpo as they walked the kora, rested, ate, and visited.

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The kora path was like a river of devotion.

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Toddler sleeping on a bench.

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Many of the entry ways just before the thresholds at Tashlungpo had diagrams of inset turpqoise and other stones perhaps as extra symbols of one’s entry into sacred spaces.

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This is an ancient symbol represents continuity and good fortune. Unfortunately, its reverse was stolen for use by the Nazis in the 1930s.

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Photos on the roof of the Jokhang 1990s

Arriving in ultra modern Lhasa

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Arriving in Lhasa, May 2018, I’ve not been here since 1998 … new airport, three security counters, meet our guide, out into the parking lot, and a glimpse of the reality here.

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The old road meant a three hour trip, but one of the highlights was this beautiful Buddha seen along the way.  This photo is from my last trip in 1998.

 

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There is now a long, long tunnel that takes about two hours off the trip from the airport to the western edge of Lhasa. The tourist van is equipped with a camera (purple ball to right of centre) to record all that goes on inside and the speed of the van is monitored remotely. If a driver is going too fast, he is likely to get a phone call to say to slow down. The speed limit is 80 km/hr.

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The first glimpse of Lhasa is now of high rise buildings at the west end of the city. Next is a security check stop then driving past more mostly empty high rise apartment buildings where Tibetans working in remote areas buy flats as an investment and for their retirement. If they are working and living in a remote area, as our guide said, “everyone wants to live in Lhasa”  (this is just like all Nepalis wanting to live in Kathmandu and 50% of all Georgians now living in Tbilisi) Eventually we got to our hotel in an area of … wide streets, new modern buildings. This photo is actually in Shigastse as I was too flabbergasted to take photos of the journey into Lhasa.

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From the hotel, we walked along the wide sidewalks of the main street and then into the narrow lanes in the old city around the Barkor and Jokhang (main temple). Many of the buildings have been rebuilt but this area seemed to have mostly Tibetans going about their daily lives.

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As we approached the Barkor, the wide walking street to circumambulate the Jokhang, we were blocked by a booth with an electronic reader for all Chinese ID cards and an x-ray machine. Everyone had to put our bags through the x-ray to continue on to the Barkor.

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In late May it was Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (death) of the Buddha. Thousands of Tibetans were circumambulating the Jokhang and hundreds were doing so by prostrating, measuring the length of their body with each prostration.

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Most prostraters began their circuit with prostrations to the four directions in the large square in front of the Jokhang.

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There were dozens of Tibetans doing prostrations in place at the front entrance to the Jokhang on the new looking squared flagstones.

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This was a change from the 1990s, when it was still the patchwork of uncut stones. As well, we were not allowed up onto this part of the roof of the Jokhang.

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Gone were the women from Kham wearing Khampa jewelry with tables to sell souvenirs in the 1990s. Affectionately called the “lookie lookie ladies” as they chanted ‘lookie, lookie’ at the tourists. The souvenirs were all for sale in shops.

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The devotees walking the sacred route or doing prostrations were still there but the street life has changed. Gone are the street vendors selling snacks or trinkets.

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The juxtaposition continues. (1990s photo)

Monsoon Summer in Khumbu

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A chapter from Gaiety of Spirit about a visit so long ago… 35 years. Now, fewer and fewer Sherpas keep yaks.

Heavy mist obscures the mountainside where I wander along an overgrown trail among fences of stone. The mist and thick, damp grass muffle all sound as I search for the stone hut where I have been invited to spend the night. The tiny settlement appears deserted except for a few shaggy yaks.

An elderly lady appears in the fading light, wading through a field of wildflowers and grass. It is a relief to see my friend’s mother, Ama Yangin. In the Sherpa language, ama means mother, and everyone calls her that out of respect and affection.

Entering the tiny door of her hut, I bend double and leave my damp pack in the anteroom where supplies and the remnants of last year’s hay were stored. In the main room, benches that doubled as beds line the walls around the hearth.

Ama Yangin poured milk from the wooden barrels into a large metal pot and quickly set about preparing us tea. Sitting quietly by the hearth, warm and dry after being damp outside, we watched flames lick the tea kettle and each seemed absorbed by our own thoughts. Despite the rain that started outside, we are warm and dry by the hearth.

In the eastern Himalaya, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During this quiet but productive season people carry out the chores of herding and farming with calm dignity and quiet purpose. Farming is not easy on these mountains, but almost everyone, including businessmen, owns plots of land on which to grow potatoes, buckwheat, or barley to feed their families.

Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevations of about 3300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cold winter, herds of yaks are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks are taken up to high valleys where the rains have changed the dry mountainsides to rich, green pastures.

I marvelled at the contrast seen in this valley between the summer monsoon months and the rest of the year. Surrounded by snow and ice mantled mountain peaks, the Sherpas’ valleys transform with the seasons. In autumn and winter, when almost all tourists visit, the land is dry and barren with not a blade of green grass to be found. Snow often blankets the valleys after winter storms.

Summer rains color these valleys unimagined hues of green. Hillsides become carpeted with lush, green plants and wild flowers. Monsoon is a gentle season in the mountains; the rain and humidity are less intense than in the lowlands and colors are muted by the misty skies. Though there may be several days of clinging mist, the sun does sometimes shine in the monsoon.

Many days dawn clear. The hills vibrate with color and the mountain peaks sparkle with fresh snow. Clouds form rapidly in the lowlands. Rising, they first envelope the peaks and then fill in the valleys by noon. Mist becomes drizzle and then rain by late afternoon and evening. People time their activities to the daily weather patterns, retreating indoors as the afternoon rain begins.

Despite the weather, this is a favorite time of the year for the Sherpas. Those who have moved to Kathmandu wistfully compare the cool, green mountain monsoon to the hot, muggy summers in the lowlands. Since most visitors avoid traveling in Nepal in the monsoon, many Sherpas who work as guides and porters return to their homes in the high country.

Ama Yangin offers a plate of hot potato pancakes. After we eat, Ama Yangin talks about two of her sons. Both are far away from Khumbu; one works on climbing expeditions and the other, a graduate of a foreign university, works for the national park. From Ama Yangin’s questions, I realize she cannot imagine how they spent their days on expeditions or in offices.

The pace of her days in the summer pasture is steady and predictable — fetching her animals, milking the females, heating the milk and making it into yogurt and butter. Between her herding chores, she fetches water, cooks, and looks after her grandchildren.

This maze of fields, stone walls, and huts was an oasis of habitation amidst isolated, sprawling valleys at 4300 meters. Sherpa families use these valleys as summer pastures for their yak herds. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products, wool, transportation, and perhaps an excuse to spend three months in these mountain meadows.

From her main house in the village far below, Ama Yangin has brought just enough to meet her simplest needs. Only essential kitchen utensils line the shelves on the far wall. Though she stays here alone, her eldest son with his wife and children are in another hut just across the hay field. They help Ama Yangin with her heavier chores and she keeps an eye on the younger children. They visit in their huts several times a day. Sharing a few moments together seems just as important as tending the herds.

Slide05 copyHer hands were busy even as she sits. Those who spin wool, work at it continuously during the monsoon. Wool is plucked from the yaks in the spring, then beaten and rolled by hand into loops, which are coarsely spun by the men. Women do the final, fine spinning. Eventually the yarn is woven into long narrow panels that are sewn together to make striped brown-and-gray blankets for sleeping.

The next morning Ama Yangin rises before dawn to start the fire and brew the traditional butter-salt tea. After three quick cups of tea, we ventured out to the corral where her female animals and their young are tethered for the night. She deftly binds the rear legs of a slightly perturbed nak. Talking gently, she squats beside it and coaxes the milk from its udders into the wooden bucket.

“How much milk does a yak give each day?”
Ama Yangin laughed and giggled. I mentally reviewed my Nepali phrasing to make sure I hadn’t just embarrassed myself.
“Yaks don’t give milk,” she chuckled, “yaks are the males, we call the females NAKS. …That’s why we Sherpas laugh so hard at foreigners asking for Yak Cheese.”

She describes the sex and parentage of her animals: three yaks, seven naks, ten yakbees (the young of the species) and several dzopchioks — male crossbreeds that are sterile and are used as pack animals, especially on trips down to the warmer elevations which the high-altitude yaks can’t tolerate. Female crosses are called dzooms. They produce milk that is almost as rich as a naks, and in greater amounts.

In the trekking season her male animals, the yaks and dzopchioks, are sometimes hired out to carry loads for trekking groups. Besides being a traditional status symbol, yaks are a good investment of the family’s earnings from trade or tourism.

Ama Yangin explains that she first makes the milk into yoghurt so it will keep for three or four days until she has enough collected to churn it into butter.

“The butter has to be churned enough to squeeze out all the buttermilk. Then it should keep without smelling for a year. In a good summer, I might make enough butter for my family’s needs and have some extra to sell to a tourist hotel in Namche.”

Owning a herd necessitates having pastures away from the main villages.

“Our traditional Sherpa rules prohibit us from keeping livestock at the main villages during the summer while the crops are growing,” explains Ama Yangin. “It’s in everyone’s interest not to have animals breaking into fields and devouring the crops. A hungry yak can quickly destroy a potato field.”

Some families have huts at three or four pastures in the higher valleys where there are grazing areas of rich grass during the monsoon. They move from their spacious homes in the main villages in late June just as the rains begin. “We shift our herds to a new pasture at least twice in the monsoon. It depends on the size of the valley and when the grass is at its prime in each place.”

Slide034 copyBy fall, the herds have thoroughly grazed plants on the high pastures. Some fields are walled to protect grass that will be cut for hay to feed livestock during the winter. The field in front of Ama Yangin’s hut is knee deep with pale blue fleabanes, golden ragwort, and bright yellow cinquefoil.

The morning is clear and bright — good conditions to cut and dry the grass for hay. The eldest son and his wife wield a scythe in each hand, mowing the grass close to the ground. Ama Yangin and her two older grandchildren follow with wooden rakes, gathering the cut grass and piling it into stacks, filling the air with the scent of freshly cut grass.

After two hours, everyone takes a break, sitting cross-legged in the grass, consuming cups of tea and two pots of boiled potatoes dipped in chili sauce.
The grass cutting ends as the late afternoon drizzle began. Ama Yangin went off in the gentle rain to milk her naks and dzooms. Finally retreating indoors as the rain pours down, we repeat last night’s routine of tea, potato pancakes, and conversation.

The next morning, the sun is bright and clear. Except for the vivid green of the near hillsides, this could have been a day in the dry, clear winter. Though I have a long day’s walk ahead of me, I linger.

“Don’t forget,” reminds Ama Yangin, “Walk early in the morning, before it rains.”