Waiting for Vultures

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I hear him before I see him. “Ahhh, Dechen,” he says as if he were expecting me. As if he came to this hill everyday. As if it was perfectly normal that I was venturing up the hill at noon on a workday. I squint up towards the direction of the voice, the sun beating down oppressively. Overhead, dozens of vultures swirl around against the bleached blue sky, their flight casting gliding shadows over the flower-strewn plateau. A monk is sitting on the side of the hill, his back to me. I make my way slowly towards him. In front of us, on the opposite hill, there are over a hundred vultures, squabbling, shoving and pecking as four figures throw chunks of meat at them.

“Dechen, Dechen,” the old monk mumbles as he stares across to the top of the hill opposite us. “I’m on the hill alone today, because I am sad.” He pats his hand against his chest but doesn’t look at me. His legs are stretched out and below us is the deep and narrow valley where the base of our hill meets the foot of the burial hill.

 

I sit down beside him, and nod, staring across at the squabbling vultures. Something startles them and suddenly they are in the air, a swarming army. The four men look exposed and vulnerable without the vultures around them.

 

Agu Choedak is 71 years old this year. I had never spoken to him directly before, out of respect, even though for years he has been coming to Norlha to bless and initiate every building constructed for the atelier. I did seek his help years earlier when Norzin suffered screaming fits in the middle of the night. I would pace back and forth with her in my arms, trying to sooth her, but her writhing body would get too heavy and finally I had to put her back in bed and pull the covers over my head to muffle her howling cries. One day Norzin’s baby sitter suggested that I take her to Agu Choedak for blessings and the three of us went to visit him at the village monastery.

 

He had a simple courtyard house with three rooms that he shared with two disciples. Once in his room, my eyes fell upon his shrine and then to the floor where there were two large dents in the shape of footprints, marks from countless prostrations. Agu Choedak’s day starts at four in the morning with a series of prostrations and recitations. During the rest of the day, nomads and villagers come to him for advice, for help appeasing crying children, for example, to healing ailing limbs and blessing new houses. His carefully chosen words, promoting basic Buddhist principles, sprinkled on the nomads in moments of vulnerability, might not heal their creaking limbs but his use of superstitious belief as a vehicle embeds in them a deeper understanding of Buddhism. The desperate get hope where otherwise there would be none. From the day I took Norzin there, I concentrated on the nights she didn’t cry rather than those that she did.

 

“Do you have binoculars on you?” Agu Choedak asks.

 

I pat my pockets as if binoculars will miraculously materialize and then look around desperately. “Ummm, I have this,” I respond pulling from around my shoulder the camera I carry everywhere I go with its telephoto lens.

 

‘Take some pictures,” he says waving his hand towards the sky burial. I click one or two and pass the camera over for his approval.

 

“I can’t see,” he says handing the camera back with a disappointed sigh. “The sun is too bright. Can you tell an old monk how many vultures there are?”

“Over a hundred,” I answer and he seems pleased.

 

“I was so worried that they wouldn’t come.” He rearranges his robes. “We could go over there but then I will have to cleanse for seven days and with Rinpoche coming it’s just not possible.” His eyes look confused, apologetic, a little bewildered. “I’ve been here since nine this morning,” he finally admits. “There were no vultures early this morning and I got worried. How many vultures do you think?” he asks again, waiting for the reassuring answer from a pair of young eyes.

 

“Well over a hundred. More than I’ve ever seen around here,” I add with authority. After all, I live in the house closest to the sky burial.

 

He laughs at this and for a moment looks happy. “Let’s sit for a little longer.”

 

I nod and we sit in silence for a while, watching the vultures and the men; too far to see the gory details, but close enough to take in the spectacle. I wonder where the vultures live. The closest cliffs are at least 100 miles away. How do they get the vultures to notice a burial? No wonder it is a stressful endeavor.

 

“Dugmo Kyi’s mother?” I ask breaking the silence.

 

“Both of them. Today is an auspicious day so we are doing both of them.”

I nod again. Dugmo Kyi is a weaver of ours. For months her mother suffered a slow death. Finally a few days ago, in the early hours of the morning, she passed away to her family’s relief. It was agony watching her suffer. She was 74 years old and Agu Choedak’s sister-in-law. Similar in age, he must have seen her trudge through a life wrought with suffering. She had buried five children, before finally she herself went in a slow and painful death. Her last months were spent in the monastery, where she eventually died. He must have suffered in her suffering. His last wish for her was that at least her body would make the clean and swift departure that sickness had denied her. It was crucial that the vultures come.

 

I didn’t know much about the other lady. She had died a day earlier and was in her eighties. It was a busy time for the monks.

 

“That’s Jampa’s father,” Agu Choedak says pointing to one of the figures feeding the vultures. “They brought the bodies early this morning by tractor, before sunrise so no one had to see them.”

 

I follow a vulture as it glides above us, the wildflowers quiver in a breeze and I think of the tractor rattling up with the naked bodies, hands and feet bound together.

 

Agu Chodak sighs again. “I was so worried the vultures wouldn’t come,” he repeats. “Sometimes the men have to spend a few nights on the hill if the vultures don’t come on time. I just had to be here to see for myself.”

 

One of my friends once described sneaking to a sky burial. It had been two days and there were no vultures. A monk had been summoned. My friend said he saw him reciting prayers and then doing a wild dance with his hands spread out like a big bird. A few hours later the vultures descended.

 

“They have to sleep there?” I ask.

 

“Yes, of course. The job has to be finished and clean before they can leave, especially on a site as close to the village as this. There can’t be any evidence, not even a hair, not even a bone.” He stops as a loud clanging sound echoes through the valley. “Ahhh,” he seems relieved. “They’re breaking the bones. That’s good. That means the vultures have finished. I think I can go now.” He looks around a little dazed. “You should go on up the hill, the flowers are out in full bloom.” He stops and looks at me as if he’s finally realizing my presence. “Do you like it here? How long have you been here? Ten years now? Are you happy with your new house?”

 

“I am very happy. I am very lucky to have the life I have,” I answer.

 

He laughs and then begins mumbling, “138…” He trails off and then starts again. “138 …” He’s trying to remember a phone number. “Can you call? But I can’t remember the number.”

 

“It’s ok. I’ll call Dunko,” I offer.

 

“Oh, but he must be so busy.”

 

“Don’t worry. Do you want him to pick you up?”

“Yes, yes. But he must be so busy.”

 

Dunko, my production manager and the son-in-law of the deceased woman, is very confused on the phone as to what I am doing on the hill with Agu Choedak during our lunch break. But the motorbike appears a few minutes later. I offer my arm as Agu Choedak makes the steep climb down the grassy hill. He pauses midway.

“What do you recite?” he asks.

 

“I try and go over The Way of the Boddhisatva.”

 

He smiles at this. He starts reciting his favorite verses from The Way of the Boddhisatva as we descend the hill.

 

“There were over a hundred vultures,” he says happily to Dunko who nods and leads him to the motorbike.

A Gift from the Grasslands

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“How many do you want?” our host asked. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle fell upon us. The horses were restless, hoofs slapping through the mud, close to a hundred of them; mares, fouls, stallions gathered into a pen. The herder was riding through them looking far more gallant than he had when we first arrived.

 

Our SUVs had pulled up next to the cattle shed that served as the stable. Everyone averted their eyes from the man squatting near the fence, a surprised expression on his face as his squinting eyes followed our cars. His robes were spread out around him with a view of the rolling hills before him. Pooping in style.

 

A woman came rushing out of the stables to welcome our host. She released the stallion she was leading. It tore out across the wide-open plain to join the rest of the herd. The Pooper had also ridden off into the distance and was trotting through the herd of horses. The woman, who appeared to be in her forties, fluttered around our host.

 

“Everything is fine. Just fine. We are so happy you are here.” Her hair was a tangled mess, her robes gritty and she looked withered. She started rambling on about the year they’d had. Our host must not have visited in a while.

 

“Winter was hard. Mornings, we had to wake up as early as three. But none of the fouls died, and the summer brings plenty of grass. It is warmer, the time of flowers has begun and things are easier.” She went on to make a request. “Could you ask the manager to allow us three dris (female yaks)? I’m not complaining, but our salaries are meager, and there is plenty of grass to go around. Maybe we could be allowed three or four milking animals? Then my husband and I can have some milk and yogurt. Could you help us ask?”

 

Machu horses are known to be a special highland breed and the woman and her husband worked for a horse-breeding cooperative. Our host owned thirty of the horses.

 

In the background, the herdsman had now fully redeemed himself. He was quite the image; galloping across the grassland, lasso whirling above his head, a hundred horses galloping in front of him. We all positioned ourselves strategically, cutting off the grassland as the horses were funneled neatly into the pen.

 

Inside the pen, I kept my distance from the main group of men and stuck to the sides with my high school friend, our Nepali born, Harvard educated, financial advisor, Tenzin. Our host and patron had offered my husband and I horses and we were there to choose them, but we would take what he offered, that was the polite thing to do.

 

“How many would you like?”

 

My husband, Yidam, answered cautiously, “Two will be fine.”

 

“Two!! Have four or five!”

 

I squeezed into the side of the pen as a stallion backed into me. It was the black stallion that had been let out earlier. He was neighing and prancing around excitedly. The foals peeped from around their mothers’ legs. There was much choosing and pointing in the middle of the pen. Finally iPhones were pulled out, pictures taken of the selection and the gates of the pen opened. The horses poured out, at first slowly and then in a steady gallop. Their thundering hoofs got softer and their shapes blurred into wavering dots on the endless expanse of green.

 

“The race horse is for you and I to ride,” our patron said, turning to my husband. “The black two-year-old is for you,” he nodded at me. “You ride very well.” I beamed though I knew I had a long way to go before I was comfortable on a strong, young stallion. “The other two gray geldings can be for your friends and guests to ride.” Nodding to Tenzin, he said, “Too bad we couldn’t get a mare for you.” The group of men roared with laughter. It was all in good humor. They liked him and this was their way of initiating him into their group. If he could take being the brunt of a joke, then he was a true, thick skinned, Tibetan.

 

Tenzin glanced at me warily. “I trusted you to show me the way,” he said jokingly though with a touch of accusation. My face burned. When we had gone riding the other day, there had been three male horses and one mare. “I don’t want to ride the mare,” I said stubbornly, my feet fixed to the ground.

 

“I’ll ride it,” Tenzin, in his good-natured way, offered. The poor guy didn’t know what he was offering, but I wasn’t about to explain the situation to him. So I glanced at him, weighed the offer and considered that maybe he really didn’t care. I reasoned with myself that as a new rider he would be safer on the mare.

 

Yidam glared at me, “Dechen you should ride the mare!”

 

“I really don’t care,” Tenzin insisted. “I’ll ride whichever one you want as long as no one leads me.”

 

Tenzin rode off into the landscape, the foal following happily at their heels, unaware that he had just compromised his manhood, at least for the next couple of weeks.

 

“Tenzin gallops beautifully… On a mare,” the men roared with laughter. No nomad man would ever be caught dead riding a mare. It’s just one of those cultural things.

“No way am I ever riding a mare again,” Tenzin announced to me. “I had no idea I was putting my manhood on the line!”

 

I shuffled my feet regretfully. It really was my fault. At least he was still smiling.

 

That night, Yidam and I carefully calculated the expenses surrounding our beautiful gifts. There were saddles and bridles to buy. A horse pen would be needed, a shelter and fodder for winter. Since we were already employing so many nomads, a tender would not be difficult to find. But the first and foremost issue was where to keep them. Ritoma, where we are primarily based, already has an abundance of horses. The price of horses fell the previous year so everyone bought horses and now some families have up to twenty. A haggle over grassland has ensued and bringing four more horses would just be adding fuel to the fire. The most ideal location would be the camp, spread out on the wide grasslands of Sangkok, where we spend most of our weekends. But there, too, negotiations had to ensue with the landlord.

 

“Even though there’s grass everywhere,” one of my friends remarked, hands spread out across a horizon of rolling hills, an endless ocean of green, “every blade is accounted for and a horse eats a lot!”

 

But how can anyone refuse a gift of horses? And so, for better or for worse, we are the proud owners of four horses, including a gelding for Tenzin to ride.