Leather Turns into Frogs

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My friend slipped a blade of grass between his teeth, chewed on it, then turned to me nodding slowly and said, “It’s just the way leather turns into frogs.”

 

His companion agreed, “Just like that. You know,” he shrugged, “you leave leather in a corner for a long time and it becomes damp, mushy and turns into frogs. Just like that.”

 

I began to laugh but then stopped. They really meant it; it was just the way leather turned into frogs. No argument.

 

We were talking about caterpillar fungus. My friend’s companion was a nomad in his forties, a cousin of my husband. We were visiting him in the pasture, at his summer camp, where he, his wife, son and daughter-in-law graze over a hundred yaks and two hundred sheep for five months of the year. My friend drove us out to the camp in his small SUV. From the backseat I watched as the landscape bounced by like footage from a handheld camera. The plateau was hardly living up to its magnificence today. I felt let down by the sky, dark and pregnant with clouds. It was a gloomy day. Even the flowers bobbed half-heartedly in the breeze, dull without the brilliance of the sun. Crude fencing sliced up the smooth roll of the plateau. “The beginning of the end,” she had said and the words draped heavily around us. Moving camp, the animals could no longer crisscross the grasslands freely but were flushed out onto the road, their hooves slapping the tar, their expressions bewildered, another beginning to the same end.

 

As the winter grazing area turned to summer pasture, the grass got shorter and specks of black and white dotted the hills; herds of yak and sheep. Nomads were camped along the roadside. Most families no longer use yak wool tents. The new tents are canvas, in white or army green. They are lighter, warmer, waterproof and more practical. We’re living in an age of convenience and nomads are no exception. They’re walking the path of least resistance, easing their way toward extinction.

 

“It’s all about fast money these days,” my husband’s cousin complained. He was sitting cross-legged outside his tent. The rest of us were sprawled around him, chewing on blades of grass, the air heavy with unbroken clouds. Our host was wearing a sleeveless white undershirt bursting at the seams from his substantial roll of belly fat. Around his neck was an amulet, ragged and messy. His feet were bare but for socks, the grass was his carpet. The rest of us layered in jackets and bundled in scarves didn’t make it any less summer for him.

 

“I remember the first time I saw someone dig for caterpillar fungus,” my cousin-in-law continued. “I was fourteen or fifteen.” He looked around as if searching for the exact spot and then pointed to a far off hill. “There were two Chinese men crouched at the top of hill over there. It was the good old days, when we were still allowed to have weapons.” He grinned nostalgically at this and then continued, “My father and I picked up our rifles and set off to see what they were up to. Imagine that! We had no idea then what a source of income caterpillar fungus would later become! There were so many back then you didn’t even have to strain to find one, you just kind of plucked them out of the ground like flowers. The men showed us what they were doing, and we just shrugged and watched them before leaving them alone. The next year a couple of nomad families caught on and starting picking fungus to sell to the Chinese. Now look,” he waved around him. “People are dumping their grazing areas, renting them out, ruining them with all the digging for caterpillar fungus! And now, the price is going down!”

 

I sit up, pluck another blade and wait for him to continue.

 

“A clan in the area lent out their summer grazing lands for 1.7million yuan to dig for caterpillar fungus,” he told me waving his blade of grass. “That was last year. This year, it went for only 0.7 m. The price of caterpillar fungus is going down.”

 

“Is there less, or is the price going down?” I ask coughing, choking a little on my blade of grass. I never have caught on to chewing grass.

 

“Both,” my two friends answer in unison.

 

“So, is it an animal when you pick the caterpillar fungus? Are you killing something?” I ask. I think I know the answer. The caterpillar is already dead, killed by the fungus, but I roll the conversation over to knead out their thoughts.

 

“It’s definitely a life,” they answer.

 

“But if we keep plucking them, how do they reproduce?” I ask.

 

“It’s the same way leather turns into frogs.”

 

Leather turning into frogs . . . I find comfort in the words. For a moment I allow myself to leave my world of logic and reason, and join my two companions in their world of magic and mystery, a world where leather turns into frogs. Questions remain unanswered, hope still exists, and the impossible is possible. Here it’s even possible to dream that maybe it isn’t the beginning of the end.

Nomads and Bathrooms

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“Did you take your shower this week?” I ask Baby D’s babysitter. She’s sitting in the Louis XV chair I inherited from my French grandparents, her favorite, waiting for Baby D to finish her breakfast. Her hair is combed back neatly into two plaits. The sleeves of her heavy Tibetan robes are bundled behind her. Perched on the elegant antique she looks like she’s entered the wrong movie set. The story of our lives; East meets West in a head-on collision. Behind her, through the living room windows, the plateau is laid out, green and lush, a perfect summer scene.

 

“Of course I did. Wouldn’t miss it! I am quite a clean woman,” she adds beaming. Rare for our older female employees she isn’t bothered by the new Norlha rule; once a week mandatory showers for all employees. Once a week might seem like a stretch but for many of these nomads it’s the first time in their lives they’ve taken regular showers. When we introduced the concept of hygiene and the need for personal cleanliness, it was the first time many of our employees had ever had full body showers.

 

“The shower was burning hot though,” she adds, shifting a little in her beautiful chair.

 

“Don’t tell me you still don’t know how to use the faucet?”

 

“Yes, it must be that. The younger kids are all saying that the temperature is perfect, but I just seem to keep getting freezing cold or burning hot.”

 

“Come here,” I say beckoning her towards the kitchen sink. She gets up a little uncertainly and shuffles over. “Ok. Now can you find me warm water here?”

 

“What do you mean ‘find’?” she asks looking a little skeptical. The word find seems to have complicated the task in her mind.

“Ok,” I say calmly and twist the knob to one extreme. “That’s cold. Here, feel it.”

 

She holds out a knobby hand. “Yes,” she says happily.

 

“Now, if you turn the other way, the water gets hotter,” I explain. “Here you try.”

 

She yanks the knob in the other extreme and lets the water stream onto her hands. “This is perfect,” she says as the water heats up. Suddenly she lets out a yelp and her hand jumps from under the tap. “See it always happens. I think it’s perfect but then it just keeps getting hotter!” She snaps accusingly. “Why can’t it just stay at the right temperature?”

 

“Ok, now turn it back slowly until you get the temperature you want.”

 

The sixty-two-year old nomad yanks at the knob again and just when she thinks she’s found the right temperature, it turns freezing cold. “See,” she says accusingly.

 

“You have to turn it slowly and find the right temperature,” I coax her.

 

“You can’t teach us old people these things. They’re too complicated.”

 

I get impatient. “It’s not an airplane you’re learning to fly. Just don’t yank the knob, turn it slowly.”

 

I watch from behind as she practices at the sink. “Too cold, too cold, too cold, ahhh perfect … No … No. Nooooo, it’s burning again! How can I know it’s at the right spot when it keeps changing! With the things they can do now, you would think a push of the button would give you the right temperature! And here we are still having to ‘find’ the right temperature! I’ve had enough.” She stomps back to her Louis XV chair.

 

I am actually quite proud of Acha Tsering. Despite having suffered through freezing showers and burning ones, as well as an episode of locking herself in the bathroom for over an hour, she still insists on taking her once-a-week showers.

 

For one man, at least, it didn’t go so well. It was the first time in his life he’d showered. The week after his first shower he claimed he had diarrhea. The next week, after his second shower, he was met with the same calamity. He indignantly stated that high land people aren’t meant to wash themselves. “It’s like having a layer of protective skin pealed off,” he explained, referring to the years of accumulated dirt. “Without this my pores are exposed to the cold. I just feel naked! And then I get sick!”

 

“Let’s just keep trying for a couple more weeks and then see if your body gets used to it,” he was told by Dunko.

 

Bathrooms literally do not exist in the village. Even outhouses are rare. “But where do you go?” I asked during one of my early visits. There were giggles and then someone thrust out his arms and said with a grin, “Anywhere!”

 

At the workshop we built the first bathrooms with running water in the area. One day I was crossing the courtyard when a group of women called out to me, “Dechen! Dechen! Come here!” Some were laughing as they waved me over. I walked in the direction of the bathroom. Water was gushing out of the taps in the sink. “We just wanted to try it and now we don’t know how to stop the water,” they said in chorus. I twisted the tap and the water went from a gush to a dribble and then stopped. The women roared with laughter. They had been pushing at the knob and hadn’t thought of twisting it. “Well, aren’t we stupid,” they laughed. “But how did you turn it on in the first place?” I asked perplexed. “It was her,” they said pointing to a blushing girl. “And then she didn’t know how she did it!”

 

Later that year, we started construction on our own house. During lunch break, the women would go in herds for a tour of this “modern house.” “What’s that?” they asked pointing to a toilet. Their manager, a more worldly woman, explained that this was where people went to the bathroom. There was a roar of laughter as the women, not being in the presence of men, took turns sitting on the toilet. “Who would’ve ever thought of such a thing! A chair with a hole to do your business! You’re joking, right? I mean who could take themselves seriously seated on such a thing! It’s like a throne! A special seat just for pooping? What will they think of next?”

 

From the very beginning I dreamed of a shower house for the employees. Due to budget constraints it was years until we finally managed to install two showers. We set up a schedule and posted it so every single one of the 120 employees had time to take a shower once a week. Those who failed to show up for their slot would have to pick up garbage on Saturday afternoons. Surprisingly, there was little opposition. Most were happy and thankful for the opportunity even though there were some problems early on. For most women, it was the first full body shower of their lives. They didn’t know how to use the taps or unlock the door. Poor Acha Tsering spent one hour in the shower room, shouting for the guards to help her. She didn’t realize that the latch had a small knob that needed to be clicked in order for the door to open.

 

“I really gave the guards something to talk about this week,” she said laughing. Sure enough, it became the talk of the workshop.

 

But as time wanes, there are fewer stories of freezing, burning or being locked in the bathroom. These days most employees eagerly anticipate their turn. For me, well, nomads are taking showers! My world is the rainbow that shines after a heavy storm, following a long drawn out draught; the perfect summer scene.