Living with Tibetan Refugees: Jampa Ling

Posted on January 26, 2011


(In which I am labeled “tourist,” Taylor runs a relay, and I realize how outrageously privileged Americans are.)

-A Brief Overview-

For months, Taylor and I have been planning to live in the homes of Tibetan refugee families in Nepal. When the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s, Tibetans fled to all parts of Nepal and India. Once there, the crude, temporary refugee camps eventually became permanent settlements for Tibetans. There are four such camps in and around the town of Pokhara in central Nepal, and this month, that’s where we headed. Over the course of three weeks, we spent time living with families at three camps. The experience was moving, maddening, eye-opening, encouraging, and unforgettable all at once. Here’s a sampling of our time at the three camps, the first of which was Jampa Ling.

A Nepali woman carrying a tank of propane down a main street in Jampa Ling.

-The Camp-

We arrived at Duli Gondra, a one-street town about 20 km outside of Pokhara, on a bus around noon. With our backpacks strapped to us, we hiked a short way down a hill and crossed a gorge via footbridge. There, nestled above the gorge in the backwoods of town, was Jampa Ling. At first glance, the place was a ghost town. Rows of what looked like empty barracks squatted in a sprawling plot of scraggly weeds and brush. There were abandoned carpet factories and wool-dying shacks. It was downright eerie and I was glad when we met our host family, who were warm and welcoming. It was a relief to know there was also life in the camp, not just shadows and weeds.

Graffitti in Jampa Ling.


The first people we met were Ngodu and Wangdu, the youngest of eight siblings. Ngodu, 28 and still single, was a bit of a Tibetan anomaly. Wangdu was 25 and married with a 2-year-old daughter. He lives in Kathmandu, like many of his Tibetan peers, but he was visiting his family in Jampa Ling over winter break.

The family lived at the end of a row of apartments, which was a pleasant situation. Four rooms circled a courtyard, and a backyard provided a leafy space off the kitchen. Laundry lines and electricity lines crisscrossed over the courtyard, and children’s clothes and strips of meat hung drying in the sun. Our bedroom where we were to spend the next five days, we found, doubled as the household shrine to the Dalai Lama and tripled as storage space. That’s when I realized the concept of a “bedroom” was alien here, as in many parts of the world. Our host household, which fluctuates between three and eight+ people depending on the time of year, slept mostly in the living room and kitchen, all three generations together.

The entrance to our room.

When Wangdu’s daughter, Norbou, came home from preschool, we got both a language lesson and an attitude readjustment. Norbou had a mischievous friend next door who immediately approached us to investigate. “Inji,” she declared in a tone too precocious for a 3-year-old. “Inji!” Norbou repeated. And from then on it was “inji, inji, inji” every time the children saw us. Laughing a little sheepishly, Wangdu told us it meant “tourist.” I may have blushed at that. Here I was thinking I was an intrepid journalist, embedding with refugees and getting the inside scoop, but in reality, I was summed up quickly and incisively by toddlers that I was just a tourist. A naive outsider. Yep, I thought. I can’t really argue with that.

Norbou (left) with her little friend (right) who labeled us "Inji" upon our first meeting.

-Living Nostalgia-

One night, we attended a school pageant at Jampa Ling school, which spans grades K–8. On stage in the school hall, students performed traditional Tibetan and Nepali songs and dances. The entire community came out to watch the pageant. This was striking to me. Folks who didn’t have children, or whose kids didn’t attend the school, showed up. Even the old timers in the old folks’ home came. Was this simply a rare bit of entertainment in a sleepy community? Or was it a village-wide effort to show the children–regardless of whether they’re your own or your neighbors’–that they are important?

Another striking thing: The children on stage who wore traditional Tibetan clothes, performed Tibetan dances, and sang Tibetan songs have never been to Tibet. Many of their parents, even, have never set foot in their ethnic homeland. Born and raised here, in Nepal, they have never seen the beautiful Tibetan  mountain ranges they sing about. As the kids on stage and the parents in the audience sang along to Tibetan folk songs they knew by heart, I realized these two generations of people only knew their native land through songs, legends, history lessons, and the stories of their grandparents. This was life formed by a second-hand nostalgia.

-Incense Mornings-

Days start early in Jampa Ling. By 7 a.m., everyone is up, even little Norbou. Morning time is distinguished by three things here: grey sky, a damp coldness that seeps through your clothes, and incense smoke. First thing in the morning, every household lights immense piles of incense outside. Dotted around the contiguous courtyards are huge frying pans and clay burners that look like mini-kilns, all billowing smoke from mounds of fragrant twigs. Several mornings into our stay, I find myself looking forward to the heady, earthy smell that marks the beginning of a new day. It feels spiritual and cleansing, as if every new day begins with wishes and offerings for another blessed 24 hours on earth.

Our host family had an incense burner placed in the nook of a tree.

-Stoop Sitting-

In the afternoons, when there is no more housework to be done, most folks in the camp sit on their stoops in the sun. They eat peanuts, play cards, and chat. Some women comb their hair, and some very old women spin sheep’s wool into yarn. In general, there is very little activity. This, I realized, is the reality of a society where paid employment doesn’t exist. What else is there to do?

Coming from a maniacally workaholic environment like the United States, it’s hard to believe that neighborhoods, cities, and, in a looser sense, entire countries of people sit on their stoops everyday. Some might mistakenly take this as a sign of laziness. But that’s simply not true. In Nepal, where a weak economy and lack of industry compels many people to find work in foreign countries as migrant workers, there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. The problem is compounded for refugees (in Nepal they’re mainly Tibetan and Bhutanese), who don’t get employment preference because they aren’t citizens. So if most Nepalis are out of work, logic holds that just as many Tibetans, if not more, have very little choice but to spend their afternoons eating peanuts, playing cards, and chatting.

Kids at the preschool starting their morning with the Tibetan national anthem.

From what I can tell, this is why most people of working age leave the refugee settlements. They scatter in every direction to find work. Many end up in Kathmandu and Pokhara, urban centers where the chance of finding employment is relatively higher, and still more end up on foreign shores, like the U.S., France, and Switzerland. Many who still eke out a living in Nepal depend on NGOs and the Tibetan Government in Exile to employ them, both of which have limited means and resources.

Prayer time at the old folks' home.

When Wangdu gave us a tour of the camp one day, we saw how few people of working age actually live in Jampa Ling. Our long, leisurely stroll revealed that the place was certainly not the ghost town we thought we wandered onto the first day, but we did find that it was a village populated almost entirely by children and the elderly. Although Jampa Ling is a self-reliant community with a large tract of land that includes wheat fields, a clinic, an old folks’ home, a preschool, an elementary school, a grocery store, and a monastery, it offers little opportunity for people who want to build themselves a bigger future.

-Tibetan Tea-

People who know and have had Tibetan tea usually make a face at the recollection of its taste. That’s because an essential ingredient is yak butter. It’s a hard flavor to describe, but it tastes to me like extremely salty butterscotch with a hint of seaweed. Even the Dalai Lama does not like Tibetan tea. Thankfully it grew on me pretty quickly, although after three weeks of near-constant drinking, it’s still hard to down an entire cup.

-Things That Matter-

Nights are frigid in the settlement over the gorge. (This is the dead of winter, after all.) We get ready for bed by layering our clothes so we can keep warm throughout the night. Tay wears his ski cap and I put on my hoodie over my thermals. We close the door and window shutters, although big gaps in the wood still let in the cold. There are no glass panes in the windows, the floor is cement, and the roof is tin. I can see my breath indoors and I realize there is no insulation in this house, let alone a heating system. Then I think of everything else this house lacks according to my American standards: No running water, no toilet, no refrigerator, no carpets, no sofa, no chairs, no closets. And yet, from what I can tell, everyone here seems totally at ease. They have shelter, food, electricity, a communal outhouse and tap, a TV, and each other. Judging by Norbou’s bright smile and the adults’ unrestrained laughter, it seems like that’s all they need.

Taking in a quiet moment in the bedroom/shrine room.

My experience in the communal shower also drove the point home. After three days of not bathing, I could almost feel my skin crawl. Eventually, my life came to a crossroads: it was either take a cold shower or die. I decided I wasn’t ready to give up on life yet. I marched into the cement outhouse that held a faucet—this was the bathing area—grit my teeth, turned on the tap, and hoped that the solar water tank worked at least a little. Not so. What ran from the tap was so cold it made my scalp hurt. There, naked in the crisp January air, I took my cold shower.

This is how many people around the world bathe, not just sometimes but all their lives. Again, I was slapped in the face with how spoiled and coddled I am as an American. Not even the poorest people in the U.S. (except the homeless, I guess) go without heated water. This gave me mixed feelings. I felt an intense jolt of gratitude for my country, as well as a surge of admiration for everyone who goes without these luxuries. Life in a Tibetan camp is certainly humbling.

-Sports Day-

Wangdu and Norbou in the morning mist on Sports Day. (Photo by Nina Wegner)

The last day of our stay happened to be Jampa Ling School’s annual Sports Day. A mini-Olympics of sorts, the entire school prepared for weeks to put on the day-long competitions. A local Rinpoche (spiritual master and head of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery—a totally big deal) was invited, and the games commenced amidst great fanfare.

As “Inji,” Taylor and I were invited to sit with all the dignitaries under a covered pavilion, and we watched the kids give it all they had to win prizes and honor for their school “house.” (Think Harry Potter—Griffindor House, Slitherin House, etc.) Again I was struck by how supportive the community was. The entire village carried their rolled-up mats and thermoses of Tibetan tea onto the edges of the field to watch their (and others’) kids show their athleticism.

Yellow house giving this race all they got.

Toward the end of the day, the teachers joined the competition. They had a sack race, a balloon popping competition, and a teachers vs. students 100-meter men’s relay. During the relay I looked away for two seconds and when I looked back, there was Taylor barefoot and stretching with the men on the teacher’s team. Apparently, he decided to fill in for a teacher who was indisposed. I was flabbergasted but had the presence of mind to scurry to the edge of the field to take some photos. Tay ran a good race (he’s fast!) but the teachers lost to the students by a long shot. Go Jampa Ling youth!

Taylor's surprise performance.


We gathered our things and took our leave after Sports Day. In a touching gesture, the grandfather of our host family—he spoke no English—stopped us. This man was a silent but benign presence throughout our stay. He always inspired my awe because he was not only a refugee but also a guerrilla freedom fighter. During the Chinese invasion, he was a member of the fierce Tibetan militia (Chushi Gundruk) who fought back. Wordlessly, but smiling, he put katas (Tibetan offering scarves of white silk) around our necks. We bowed in thanks. It was the first time I’d ever received a kata. I will probably keep it, along with the lessons and memories from this experience, for the rest of my life.

All photos by Taylor Weidman.