Living with Tibetan Refugees: Paljor Ling

Posted on January 31, 2011


(In which we make Tibetan bread and are inducted into the elderly women’s circle.)


Our second camp, Paljor Ling, defies Tibetan camp norms. Instead of being surrounded by trees, hills, or a gorge, it’s surrounded by traffic and a congested, chaotic scene of crowded shops and street vendors. While most other settlements are in rural or remote areas, Paljor sits right in the middle of downtown Pokhara on a prominent chowk, or city intersection. It’s a totally different world from Jampa Ling.

Paljor Ling, which is more urbanized than other settlements, has a fully functioning noodle factory. Sadly, it employs two or three Tibetans.

The first stop when we show up at a refugee camp is always the settlement office. Again, with our backpacks strapped to us, we drop by to see Karma, the Paljor Ling office director.

Karma is a youngish man who always stands completely erect. He has square shoulders, a thick crop of jet-black hair, and a revolutionary fire burning inside him. It doesn’t take an activist to figure out Karma is devoted to the Tibetan cause. Every time he speaks, it’s in a rush and peppered with ideas of Tibetan advancement. He is a torch bearer. Although we’re ready to escape from his intensity after about five minutes, Paljor Ling is lucky to have an unflagging advocate like Karma.

The next day, while Taylor and I are quietly sipping tea with our host family in the kitchen, Karma bursts through the curtain hanging across the door.

“Here, this is for you!” he says breathlessly, extending a DVD towards us. In his rushed way, he explains it’s a documentary made about the Tibetan plight, how things stand for Tibetans in Nepal now, what injustices refugees suffer . . . When Taylor gratefully (and somewhat awkwardly) accepts the DVD, Karma whirls to face Tenzin, the host family’s 8-year-old boy. Karma launches into rapid Tibetan and ends with, “You watch it too, ok?” Tenzin laughs and nods.

“Free Tibet!” Karma cries, stomping his foot and throwing his fist in the air. It’s a joke, but it feels half genuine.

“Free Tibet!” repeats Tenzin, also throwing his fist in the air.

And out rushes Karma through the curtained door.

-Boys Will Be Boys, Even Monks-

Tenzin and Kyausang with their sheet of pro-wrestler trading cards. Tenzin's favorite wrestler is the Undertaker.

Our host family has two little boys, Tenzin, 8, and Kyausang, 4. They were on winter break while we stayed with them and spent most of their time riding bikes, shooting BB guns, cutting out trading cards, and terrorizing other kids in the community courtyards. But in the easygoing way of children, they wasted no time in questioning us and becoming, in some fashion, our friends. Neither showed any fear or discomfort at having two foreign strangers suddenly show up in their tiny kitchen, taking up prime real estate and bumbling around.

Tenzin was a clever boy, quick to pick up on our muddled English-Tibetan. He was also very good at miming animals. But most impressive was his constant tolerance of his little brother, Kyausang, who was a three-foot-tall walking terror. Thankfully, Kyausang laughed at everything and when he wasn’t causing mayhem or stealing Tenzin’s toys, he was a lively and affectionate companion.

Kyausang, 4. His interests are pro wrestlers, BB guns, and fried Tibetan bread.

One afternoon, Tenzin acted as Taylor’s “guide” to the Paljor Ling monastery. Every settlement camp has at least a small temple, and the bigger camps have a monastery with resident monks. Paljor’s monastery is quite large, and Taylor was grateful to have a local (however young) show him around the building. Off the two went to explore and take pictures.

When Taylor came back later in the afternoon, he was wearing a crooked little smile and Kyausang wasn’t with him. When I looked at his pictures, I understood why.

Monks will be boys too.

Tenzin’s “tour” of the monastery had gone like this: As he and Taylor made their way to the monastery, a gaggle of Tenzin’s friends gathered around him. In the monastery, they took Taylor to the room where their buddy, a young monk, lived. Then they forgot all about Taylor and started horsing around.

After photographing child-monks being decidedly un-serious and un-somber, Taylor took his leave, unnoticed and unmissed.

There’s an amazing universality in what it means to be a child. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, where you live, whether you wear a monk’s robes or a Gap hoodie. You love to have fun. You love your friends. You are innocent and bursting with every new life experience. Although you may not know it yet, you have a future, and the people who know you pray that it will be a good one. May it stay that way around the world forever and ever.

-Rolling the Pin-

“Let us help with something,” Taylor declared one evening as our host family made dinner. We “inji” were were sitting and doing nothing, as usual, on a bed in the kitchen.

“Yes!” I chimed in. After days of being waited upon hand and foot, I was sick and tired of my uselessness.

Of course, our hosts refused. But we kept at it. And when they still refused, Taylor just stuck his hand in the pile of spinach they were preparing. Just right in there. Even I was a little taken aback, but I felt proud of him.

“You do it like this?” said Taylor as he mimicked the host wife’s way of separating the leaf from the stem. He got the hang of it, and I joined in. We all crowded around the little counter picking at spinach. Sangmo, the wife, laughed shyly, but I think she was either pleased or amused. And in that moment the delicate barrier between guest and host that the family had tried so politely to uphold crumbled quite a bit. Because the next evening, they were ready for us. Taylor’s chipper question of “So, how can we help tonight?” was met with a big bowl of dough.

Sangmo, a young and diligent wife, kneading the dough for bread.

Many Tibetan households make a batch of Tibetan bread nearly everyday. As far as I could tell, the only ingredients are flour and water, and it’s rolled out into flat circles, like tortillas. First, Sangmo, Taylor, and I made palm-sized balls out of the batch of dough. Then, we dunked the balls into a pile of flour and rolled them out on a cutting board until they were flat. Sangmo’s dough balls always rolled out perfectly round. Taylor and my dough balls turned into odd shapes, not circles. I soon got the hang of it though, and by my tenth ball, Sangmo told me I was doing “very good.”

When all the balls were rolled out, my hands were covered in cracked dough and I watched as Sangmo cooked each flat circle in a frying pan. They fluffed up into completely normal and fine-looking pieces of bread. What a sense of accomplishment!

That night, dinner tasted especially good. We had stewed chicken eaten with bits of Tibetan bread.

“This bread sure is good,” I said. Everyone laughed.

-The Fire Club-

Cliques don’t exist solely in high school—they’re alive and well at Paljor Ling, too. There’s a clique of teenage girls, several cliques of teenage guys, even cliques among the resident monk population. Taylor and I, oddly enough, were inducted into the clique of seventy-year-old women.

As I mentioned before, most people have nothing to do but sit around in the afternoons. At Paljor Ling, there is a group of elderly women who like to sit outside around a little fire. There’s no actual fire pit, so they just use a big frying pan and burn scraps of plywood and other odds and ends in it. Every afternoon around 1 p.m. (after lunch, of course), these venerable old women hobble over to their “spot” right outside our host family’s kitchen window. There’s a permanent circular burn mark in the scraggly patch of grass in the area. They gather around in a circle and talk for hours.

Trying to help one of the ladies up. (Unfortunately, I failed...and then Taylor tried and he failed too.)

One day, as Taylor and I wandered by, we exchanged “tashi deleks” (Tibetan hellos) with the circle of women. Sangmo was one of the clique—by far the youngest member. She offered us a seat around the fire. It seemed cozy, so we sat. There was a moment of silence while the women studied us with their kindly eyes. Then they started talking again and Taylor and I were lost, set adrift on a sea of Tibetan.

The little fire warmed our knees, hands, and faces, but what felt even warmer was the feeling of being a part of a group, of being welcomed without any expectation of contribution. These women knew we couldn’t join in on their conversation—we had nothing to give or say. But they just wanted to share their fire with us. After days and days of being stared at, waited upon, and being called “inji,” it was a moment of relief. I finally felt a little at home, even if I shared nothing in common with the people I was with except the warmth we felt as we held our hands over the fire. 

All photos by Taylor Weidman.