Plateau Ball


“Do the twirl, do the twirl!” shouted five-year-old Tentash. Baby D steadied herself, spread out her arms and with all her might spun herself into a clumsy twirl, her pink skirt fluttering around her. She hobbled to a stop. The two kids beamed up proudly at seven foot tall Bill, from Seattle.


My three-year-old D had refused to leave the atelier courtyard that morning. Word was out that Bill was back and she was adamant that she wait for “her teacher.”

“He is my teacher,” she explained to Tentash.


“How’s he your teacher? He’s the Abas’ (big brothers) teacher,” Tentash argued. “What has he ever taught you?”


“HE IS MY TEACHER!” Baby D scowled from her perch on a little ledge, her dress piled over a skirt, worn over a pair of leggings. She was wearing snow boots, and mud caked off them as she beat them emphatically against the wall.


“Ok, Deyang, we will wait for our teacher then,” Tentash conceded as if matters were really in his hands. He climbed up to join her on the wall. Their babysitter sighed and looked at me helplessly.


I pointed in the direction of my office. “ I need to go,” I said not about to get involved with Tentash and Baby D. The son of one of my employees and best friends, Tentash looked out for Baby D but he was also a bit of a bulldozer. Over the summer, when the breeze was gentle and the air warm, he’d discovered that pooping could be turned into quite a fun activity. Crouched on the ground, he would shuffle around trying to direct his poop into a large circle, a small pile or a long line. Needless to say, the runnier his droppings, the happier he was.


“Look! I did it in the shape of a gun this time!” he hollered happily. Baby D giggled, cupping her little hand over her mouth.


“We’ve got ourselves a 3D printer,” I mumbled.


“You try it D, maybe you can do a house,” Tentash offered. Baby D giggled again and shook her head.


Around ten that morning Bill had finally emerged from the guesthouse, walking through the back gate and into the main courtyard of the atelier. He waved and gave a thumbs up to everyone he passed, his jeans, sneakers and fleece given an elegant touch by the Norlha scarf swung around his neck. With his height, he was hard to miss.


Everyone was whispering, “He’s back! He’s back! It must be the tournament.” From my office window I saw Baby D and Tentash run up to him and then turn shyly away once faced with their long awaited celebrity. With no words for communication, they were searching for ways to impress their teacher.


“Do the twirl!” Tentash had instructed Baby D. I hoped one of his creative poops wouldn’t be next.


The Basketball court had been requested by my husband and sponsored by my mother. We built it almost eight years ago, next to the workshop, and nestled up against a hill that worked perfectly as stands for the spectators. Bill had first applied as a tutor for my older daughter. His email went on to talk about basketball and I was a little skeptical. I answered that the position had been filled and a few months later he wrote again expressing his wish to visit anyway and help in any capacity. I wrote back saying we couldn’t afford to pay for his trip. He would pay his own way he answered. I shrugged, why not then? The Norlha guys were crazy about throwing the ball around and a little team play and discipline could go a long way. Maybe we could all enjoy a well-played game.


Bill arrived in mid August, and for the next two months, each evening was filled with activity and bustle. Almost thirty people from our atelier signed up for practice. The workshop closed at five thirty and the sun didn’t set till eight. My sister and I climbed the hill after work and then walked back along the ridge, following Bill’s booming voice as it rose and fell from the valley below. We watched as a thin string of blue jogged through the village and out into the pasture. They even stopped on top of an awkward stump of a hill for quiet time and meditation, broken, we assumed, by the giggles of the nomad men as they followed Bill in closing their eyes and sitting cross-legged.


“Wandi kept bursting out laughing, but I think we did great for the first time,” the ever optimistic Bill told us later.


As the team jogged back to the court, Noryang and I slowly made our way along the ridge and to the hill directly above the court. Below us there were others waiting for practice to begin. Old men, with their thermoses of hot water, loved watching practice. They’d call the office asking if there was practice that day and at what time. It was an excuse to meet each other, gossip and laugh at the younger men trying to play basketball. Children hung around with their backpacks, lingering on their way home from school. Some evenings even small pick up trucks, driven by savvy Han or Hui merchants would be parked by the court. The owners would sit idly in the grass waiting to catch a glimpse of the tallest man they had ever seen. Their wares, a random selection of rice cookers, quilts or sometimes just fruit and vegetables, spilled out from the back of the trucks. The trucks usually blasted music to alert the villagers of their presence. The women would stroll over to inspect the goods, collect their kids and laugh at the men stumbling and bumbling around the court. Bill’s voice rose above the chatter, the music and the bursts of laughter to take charge of his thirty trainees and direct them in warm-ups and drills. Push-ups were handed out as punishment for those who lagged behind in their drills. The crowd laughed as chubby Lumko once again missed the finish line by five seconds and needed to do ten push-ups.


At dinner we would discuss the day’s practice. “But why does Dhundup wear mittens to practice?” Bill asked one day as he lay down his fork. The minute Bill began talking at dinner, he stopped eating. We all watched him with concern. We needed him to eat properly to keep his weight at altitude. The locals were constantly asking him to put on a show of slam-dunks and he would always satisfy them. Everyone was so excited that Norlha had a professional basketball player and coach. Locals were calling in and coming from as far as 20 km away to catch our practice and watch Bill play.


“Eat, Bill,” I said between mouthfuls.


“Oh yes, yes.” He picked up his fork and then stopped again, “But why does he wear mittens?”


“I’ll ask him, now eat.”


The next day I was in the stock room checking on some scarves when I turned to Dhundup, “Why do you wear mittens to practice?”


“Oh, ummm …. I scratched my hands on a fall from my motorbike so the mittens help.”


“Ahhh. Bill was wondering. I’ll let him know,” I said as we got back to talking about scarves and orders.


Gendun, from the dyeing room, was one of Bill’s favorites. A burly man who grunted more than he talked, he was a man of action rather than words, which proved to be a perfect way of communicating with Bill. Gendun’s entire body was a block of muscle and he was a good defensive player. He was in his late twenties and loved horses. Before basketball got serious, in the evenings I would settle into my window seat to watch him, a small silhouette of man and horse on the plateau. There was a gentleness to this rough man when he was with his horse. I watched as man and horse merged into one, a beautifully choreographed dance set against the vastness of the unending plateau.


Bill didn’t tolerate tardiness and one day, as everyone started assembling a few minutes before practice, Gendun was missing from the group. There was a roar and suddenly a motorbike came full speed off the road, up the path and screeched to a halt in the middle of the court. Gendun had made it just on time. He grinned broadly as he got off, his hair hanging over his face in wavy clumps.


In November, Bill surprised us all by making a short visit back to the plateau. A basketball tournament had been organized by the village. Hundreds came to watch from as far as the Tibetan areas in Sichuan province. The crowd formed a dense circle around the court and tapered off up the hill. Despite people’s passion for the game, plateau tournaments are surprisingly quiet. Once in awhile a large hum of laughter rose from the direction of the crowd and swam out into the plateau before drowning in its vastness. The crowd clapped if someone scored and laughed if they missed. There was no cheering otherwise.


As I clicked pictures from the sidelines, there were hushed whispers from the women.


“Oh, no. Let’s hope Norlha at least gets third place!”


“Pass it to Nanglo, pass it to Nanglo! Oh no! How did he miss that! Poor boy!”


On the second day of the tournament, vultures circled high above us. As we quietly cheered our team on, I thought of the passing of old Apa Jolo. Today was his sky burial. He was one of the first men I had worked with in Ritoma. After months of illness, he had finally been spared. A chapter had ended in the lives of many with his passing. Untold stories of the past would be buried with his death.


A guest gazed up at the vultures, “Something must have died,” she mumbled.


“Someone,” I corrected. “Someone died.”


Norlha came in third place. It was a disappointment to us all, but then again there had been thirty five teams playing at the tournament.

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