Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Great "Free Tibet" T-Shirt Caper

As most capers go it started with a harebrain idea. From here, could I just walk to Tibet? I had this notion that a local merchant could draw me a treasure map to the imaginary border somewhere in the hills, past the tree that looks like a fork, up the road that ascends into snow, and there it would be waiting just for me, Shangri La.
I knew from Darjeeling I was close, and I’ve been close before. On the road westward through China, in the city of Leh in Ladka at the Tibetan basin, even now visiting all these refugee camps and being surrounded with exiled monks in scarlet robes in all of these northern Indian cities. I’m so close I can taste it… close but no Potella.
So today, my last day in Darjeeling before catching a flight tomorrow to Calcutta (Kolkata) I was bent for adventure and exploration. My goal. Get to Tibet before I catch a ride out of town.
Why…? You ask. Because Tibetans are a people that everybody loves, except the Chinese, all the more reason to love them. They don’t do any damage to anybody, just follow this philosophy, although it’s a bit dodgy, and they look cool with shaved heads, even the women, and those maroon robes. I want to be a Tibetan just for the robes. So I started out today having no idea which way to go and no idea what would happen, I only knew it was Tibet or Bust.
The first thing I did was head to the temple. Above the Windamere, the little British bed and breakfast with all the stiff Brits doing their best cadaver impersonation, I followed the prayer flags assuming, I know, dangerous, that this would lead me to Buddhists. But boy was I wrong.
Instead, all I met were Hindus pretending to be Buddhists by dressing up their temple in Buddhist stuff. I think that’s illegal, or morally confusing, something.
Anyway, I get up to the top of the hill, I ring the little temple bell, and all these orange robed Hindus come out chanting and putting flowers in my hair. It was a little like being bum rushed by Hare Krishnas at the airport except they were much dirtier and makes a person want to renounce pacifism very quickly.
Instead I explained, more mimed, that I was looking for Tibet. They pointed me in the direction east.
“Follow the sun,” one voice said. Bowing and doing my best Hare Krishna mumble, I thanked the group, didn’t look like they had eaten in weeks, they were more ragged than me, and headed into the forest. Little did I know, I was about to be accosted by sex-starved monkeys.
I’ve learned a couple of things on my trip so far:
1. Never ask street directions to the soldier in riot gear crouching behind the sandbags carrying a loaded assault weapon. They are grumpy!
2. If you see a man in the market carrying a flute and a small basket, chances are he has a cobra inside. Avoid!
3. Lepers make a pretty good living… you wouldn’t think so but it’s not bad. I don’t think they are unionized though. It’s the straw vote. Tricky.
AND 4…
Don’t mess with Indian Monkeys!
They rule the temples. They stroll the parks taking the mango right out of your hand. They terrorize little children with their mad monkey screeching… they enter your hotel rooms, grab the remote and sit around smoking in their boxers like uncouth Puerto Ricans.
They’re bad monkeys.
So when you are trekking through the dense forest and you come upon an orgy of monkeys all hot and sweating doing it in the trees and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by all these hot and sweaty horny monkeys, you’ve got really one choice. No… that’s not it, you’re sick. Don’t ever think that again, the rules of Rome do not apply when faced with beasts in heat.
You run! And that’s exactly what I did. Turned around, screamed for my mother, and ran like a scared white boy whose found himself in the Red Light District of Monkey Amsterdam.
I’m sure they were just as happy to see me go.
Of course, I ran so hard and fast I didn’t realize until it actually happened. But I had been kidnapped by a gaggle of middle aged Brits, my demographic completely, and taken against my will to the Darjeeling Zoo. One of them, the obvious ring leader, a rather chinless fellow with enormous bucked teeth, was making American jokes. I know, out of the tea kettle and into the… The joke went something like this, “How many Yanks does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
I rub my eyes.
“We’ve been over this…” he paused. “The answer is one Mexican.”
The jeep erupted in laughter. Ha. Ha. Ha. I’m the last one to stop. Ha.
At the Darjeeling Zoo we stop for tea. It was ten a.m. after all and apparently even Jesus, who I’ve been told on this trip was born both in India, where he returned after his crucifixion to lay low, who wouldn’t, and in England, where he learned his manners by nuns, takes his tea in the morning.
I left my western compatriots there and entered by myself. Taking a side tour of course, but animals know things and this zoo had a red panda, which I’ve been told are magical. I thought maybe, just maybe, this red panda might know the way to Tibet. So… in I went.
One thing about living in Asia is that the people here have rarely ever gotten over the color of my skin. I’m a guy that likes to blend in until it’s time to shine, but here, I’m pretty much a walking talking billboard for other people’s whimsy. Whatever an Asian person is feeling at the moment, I am a cure-all. “Hmmm… I’ve been thinking about starting a business. Oh, white person, excuse me, would you like to invest in my company…” Another I get very often is, “Ohhh, I’m a student looking to improve my life, could I make English conversation with you, hey buddy… buddy?” Of course, nothing beats the guy down on his luck, “Tiger Balm? You want to buy some Tiger Balm? How about a rickshaw? Taxi? Marry my sister? How ‘bout these beads? You want mari-jew-wanna? Good price. Good for me, good for you?”
I was surprised then, when the animals started talking to me too.
“Hey whitey, I’ve got a good price on some yak milk?” I passed a mountain deer cage. “ You into that stuff? I’ve got the hookup.” He nodded his horns at me.
The next was a snow leopard, “Hey, you an American? I’ll give you the pick of my next litter for half a carton of Salem Lights,” he paced back and forth in front of me. “I’m jonesing here, pal. Help a brother out.”
I wasn’t really sure what to make of the Darjeeling Zoo. The animals here seemed a bit desperate. Maybe I was just hallucinating. Really unclear. But I did find the Red Panda, and this is what he said.
“Friend, you cannot make it to Tibet because you must go to Calcutta tomorrow, but you can do the next best thing. You can buy a Free Tibet T-shirt in the market.” His accent suddenly changed from David Niven to Apu from the Simpsons. “The t-shirts are hand-stitched. Good quality. Very good price, indeed.”
“You seem pretty wise for a Panda?”
He stroked his red beard, returned to David Niven, “I get that a lot. Go back into town, find the India Bank, stores on the left.”
“Thanks, Red Panda.”
“S’all right.”
So I hitched back into town, feeling good, and began strolling with my camera in hand into the dark market area to find my t-shirt. But where is the India Bank? I scower about an hour asking everyone I meet, finally getting directions from a West Bengali with an enormous mustache pointing and grinning like the Cheshire Cat. He points up. He points down. He snakes his hands through the dark streets and down stair cases. Then voila!
Now I am excited. I am feeling wonderful. An electricity has taken over me. I am on a caper for real. Of course, this just makes me want to share it with others. I stop at the post office and begin writing postcards. Just giddy stuff. Very nice and sweet words on my hotel’s stationary, and then proceed up the hill stopping to ask directions from police officers and store owners and anyone who looked like they had a clue.
Finally I came to India Bank. But… you guessed it, nothing. I went into all the stores, but nothing. Total dejection.
I make the long walk back to the Windamere to load my pictures onto the computer and see what I had. I was calling the caper quits. I had been walking for three hours and I was at my limit.
At the top of the market square, right across from my hotel I saw this mask that I had wanted to buy. It is of Ganeesh, the elephant Hindi god whose story is very cute. Shiva and Pavarti were married and soon after Shiva went into the mountains to pray for several years. (You’re welcome, wife, jeez!) Yet little did he know he had a son. When he returned he found this boy guarding the house as his mother was inside bathing. Hot and ready to be with his wife again, Shiva lopped off the boy’s head with his sword and entered to find not a beautiful wanton woman, but a half-naked scalding furious mother. Determined to make things right, Shiva killed the first beast he saw, a baby elephant, and stuck the head on his son. This only enraged Pavarti more, but Shiva convinced her that the son would be beloved, and that he would always receive the first blessing in any prayer.
Thus, a legend was born.
And I knew Rebekah, whose birthday was fast arriving, would giggle her little backside off over it. So I went into the shop and haggled and made my offer and walked out the proud owner of a Hindu tribute, but leaving, I asked the man about my t-shirt and low and behold he said, “I know the place exactly.”
Totally overjoyed, I followed his instructions back down another side street to the end, turned left, went down a dark set of scary stairs with scary eyeballs on both sides eyeballing me, and then up a flight and there it was, the embroidery store. The guy had everything. All this wonderful stitching. And he had exactly what I wanted. He was a Tibetan and he sat in the back at a broken old sewing machine making the patterns and placing them on colorful t-shirts. And there it was, with the Tibetan flag waving, a cool “Free Tibet” t-shirt. I felt like I had gone to … I’m wasn’t going to say Shangri La or Nirvana, more like Wall Mart without the creepy customers in spandex and fanny packs. I just smiled. I bought two. One for me, and one for the only person in the world I thought might like it, and returned to the hotel, proud, satisfied, and spent. I had cracked the case. My perseverance paid off. I had survived starving Hindus masquerading as Buddhists, screaming sex-starved horny monkeys, jingoistic tea-swilling Brits, talking animals, scary dark alley eyeballs, sword wielding Shiva and his elephant headed son, and came up smiling. It wasn't Tibet, but it was the next best thing. I was… free at last.

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