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Cultural Flavors: Sex and Living Alone

When I went to India and Nepal, I travel for a month on my own. Nepal, compared to India, is very used to tourists, and understands they are part of the economy. India, at that time, had many restrictions, as well as poverty, and service or helping tourists was not very near the top of their list. Nepal was almost too much so.

In Kathmandu you can find all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs, and Western food. Well, it’s sort of like Western food. It looks the same and has the same name but sometimes it just tastes different. Chocolate cakes were not quite chocolaty. Cheese bread was a huge favorite. In another Nepalese town I’d ordered a garlic pizza. It came with a full bud of garlic on it, mostly raw. Halfway through I had to pull of the cloves because they were burning my gut.

Still, Nepal tries to cater to the tourists because they make so much money off of them. Many Nepalese therefore can speak English. Kathmandu is beautiful with a myriad of twisting and winding streets, stupas of varying heights and a cornucopia of merchandise and foods. Elsewhere I would run into little children who would speak a couple of words of English and then want to be paid for this.

One young guy latched himself on to me in Kathmandu and told me he was going to learn to be a jeweller in Flin Flon, Manitoba. That’s a pretty obscure place to know of, which lent credence to his statement. Except that there are thousands of people who visit Nepal every year and a savvy guy can pick up all sorts of information about the world. What they do with it, I don’t know. Get a date, have sex, offer a “massage,” make some money, become a tour guide; all of the above possibly. They definitely offered all of these to me.

Still there is an innocence about sex. People of India and Nepal see the movies of North America and presume a promiscuity of Western woman that isn’t quite reality. As I was once asked in India, “In your country, sex is free, isn’t it?” How do you answer that one? Yes, but I don’t have sex with everyone. No, some people pay.

The Flin Flon guy lead me around to various temples (which I could not enter because I wasn’t Hindu) and point out items of interest. At one point outside the Shiva temple he showed me this garden/park that had a area about 6-8 feet square in it. In it were a variety of concrete and stone cylinders varying in height from about two feet to just a few inches and around four inches in diameter.

This young guy asked me if I knew what they were and I said yes. They were representations of Shiva’s phallus, called lingam. I knew what they were but not exactly what they meant. But what was odd was that this man’s breathing grew rapid and deep and then he wanted our picture taken in front of them. It was then that I realized this might be porn for Nepalese or that it meant we were engaged. All I knew was that he was clearly excited and I didn’t know the culture, so I let our picture be taken but not in front of the linga. 

At another point in Kathmandu I was visiting with a merchant who sold masks. He was cute and young and we were attracted to each other. We ended up sharing information about our lives, which ultimately were about our culture. He told me that he lived with his parents and when he married his wife would move in with him and his family. I talked about how in North America, we moved out once we finished school and how it would be thought unusual for a person to stay with their parents, especially into our thirties. He said it would be unusual to live alone.

It was at that point that I realized just how different our cultures must be, where family units are meant to separate and live alone while there were others where the family unit includes generations. I think overall, North America is more the aberration there, where even many European families follow the old nuclear family lifestyle.

But just as some men in India and Nepal thought that a North American woman would kiss or have sex with anyone, I too thought that they understood my culture. It taught me a valuable lesson about assuming and about respecting another culture, especially when you are the stranger in a strange land, because you just don’t know what you could be getting into or who you insulted. In past history, people were often killed for such infractions and it can still happen today. It also taught me that humanity is diverse and that there are many fascinating customs, and more I’d still like to see.

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Musings From Tibet II

This was first posted August 14, 2007 and is the second of three parts.  Angela McDonald wrote this after returning to India. It’s especially apropos after the students who were arrested in Beijing for unveiling a flag that said “Free Tibet” on the Great Wall.

 I was living in a village called Tanauk which is about a 15-minute walk away from Labrang Monastery, and beyond the monastery is the city of Labrang or Xiahe (Chinese name, probably spelled it wrong). Shedhe’sbrothers still live in Senko, the nomad grassland which is about 20 minutes from Tanauk. He grew up there, but his parents moved into the city maybe 10 years ago so that they could take care of their grandkids while they were in school. Labrang monastery is enormous, with nearly 2,000 monks studying there (though the Chinese technically put a 1,000 cap on the admittance…..the people have to come up with interesting tricks to try and hide that one). Though largely destroyed during the cultural revolution, it has been mostly rebuilt and is considered to be one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet. I helped Jinpa write a brief history of the monastery so learned a lot about it, but I will spare all the details. Basically, it is a really huge and important Gelukpa (one of the 4 major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the sect the Dalai Lama also belongs to) monastery which is also the central monastery for the surrounding area.

Most of the houses (including the one this family lived in) were are made out of what appeared to be mud-covered wood. The Tibetans are famous for buildings made out of pounded mud. Some newer buildings are now made out of bricks in the Chinese style, but most were still mud, especially for Tibetan families.

The mud seemed to take fairly constant upkeep, and many mornings I would see Mother or our neighbor dragging a big stone wheel across the roof to further compact the mud (it looked like a primitive steam roller), and take more mud to fill in cracks or damaged spots. When they were doing this, pieces of mud would fall in from the chimney holes in the roof or through the wood planks on the ceiling. Inside, the walls, ceiling and floors were solid wood. It was really beautiful, but I would often worry as the wood didn’t appear to really be treated (with anything other than dirt), and Shedhe explained that often the wood rots and needs to be replaced. Water is constantly poured on the floor to keep down the dust (especially in the winter, homes for the nomads, as the floors were just dirt, so it was constantly wetted to keep the persistent dust down) and the floors were also very uneven, the boards raising up in one spot and flat down in other places. It was easy to stumble when you awoke in the night drowsily stumbling to the toilet.

There were several rooms in our house built around a central courtyard; one was used as a small apartment which another man and his son lived in, one was the room with a hole in the ground serving as a toilet (mostly I used it; usually the others just went outside) and also held all the dried sheep and yak dung (which fueled the cooking stove), one room was for storage, one had a stove especially for roasting tsampa, and then our family lived in three of the rooms.

In the courtyard of every home is at least one ferocious dog, which acts as the doorbell (built in with person recognition, a different bark tone for every call at no extra charge), home security system, compost, and garbage disposal. In all the rooms, which people lived in there is what looks like a standard wood stove but is fed with animal dung, and is used for cooking and heating the house. Sometimes the stoves are also made out of pounded mud, and those are only used for cooking, but others were made of metal and used also for heating, with a tea pot of boiling water or tea constantly on top.

The Tibetan people are incredibly religious, especially the older families such as the nomads. I found it interesting that the lay people actually knew very little about Buddhism, but they know that they have to go by the ceremonies, holidays, and rituals, etc. that were tradition for the religion. Lamas (similar to priests or monks for Christians) are consulted to do mo (a form of divination or fortunetelling) for everything in life from marriages to debating about going to a hospital or not, which business opportunity to take, etc. Every morning some form of prayer and offering is done at home as every home has its own small altar inside (including a picture of the Dalai Lama which surprised me), and during the day at any free moment, the older people have prayer beads in their hands (similar to a rosary) and are chanting mantras or going gorah(circumambulation – prayer by walking clockwise around a monastery, temple, or stupa). Everything in their lives has to do with Buddhism.

I read in My Land My Peopleby H.H., the Dalai Lama that around 10 percent of the Tibetan population are monks or nuns. A large percentage of families have at least one member living in a monastery/nunnery. When a monk comes to your home, special food is made, they are given the highest seat in the house, and every demand is served with care. Some of my friends who were monks avoided going to other peoples’ homes very often because too much of a fuss was made over their presence.

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