There’s a shriek and then a cloud of earth flies by the window. I see a flash of dirty pink. My quiet time is over. She’s back!
“How’d you get home, Norzin?” I ask.
“Motorbikes?” I knew she’d gone to Lhamo’s house, a tiny little place in the government housing project. Built seven years ago to resettle nomads the project looks like some kind of military encampment. With over 140 units lined up in dense rows, it’s not exactly an inviting place, it’s cold and utilitarian, and most of the units remain unoccupied.
“Well, I convinced Apa Lako to take me up to Tanko’s house and from there I caught a ride with Tanko to the workshop. At the workshop I convinced Apa Gompo to give me a ride up the hill…. And here I am!” She spreads her arms out, gives a wide toothless smile, twirls and finishes with a big bear hug. Her nose is running, her hair dusty and the pink of her clothes can hardly be seen from beneath a heavy layer of dirt and soot. I wriggle out of her clasp.
“Ahhh, couldn’t get a direct ride today, huh?” I ask dusting myself off. I’d warned her of this but I knew Lako wouldn’t have left her without a plan.
“No. But it wasn’t too bad. I managed not to walk AT ALL.” She proudly claims and scurries away to bother the cats. I was impressed. She’d managed to go to the far end of the housing project, visit her friend and get back home before dark. The days are sunny and bright but as the shadows lengthen and the sun gives one last golden glimmer in farewell, night arrives with a vengeance. The dark claws at you with a cold, cutting wind that sends all scampering for shelter. Even Norzin doesn’t want to challenge the night and makes sure she bike hops her way home before dark.
Acha Tsering Kyi, D’s sitter, is one of the few who look beyond the cold and the dark. She wakes up at three in the morning. By the time she comes to pick up D at nine, she’s almost half way through her day. After rolling out of bed, she gives her house a quick sweep, refills the offering bowls with fresh water, and empties out the ash from under the kang. She then stokes it with sheep dung, so it’s nice and warm when the kids come to spend the day at her house. She even has a quick bowl of tsampa before setting out at four-thirty for the monastery.
“It’s the dogs that I’m scared of,” she mutters. “Otherwise I can do up to 260 circumambulations when I’m alone. When I need to go with others to scare off the dogs I can finish only 240 because I keep to their pace.” Two months ago she’d managed to recruit Acha Guru, a great big lady, probably the largest in the village, and a knotter in our atelier. Acha Guru Tso lasted a month. I was very impressed but Acha Tsering was disappointed.
“I got Dugmo after that, and now Pagde.” She takes a large bite of the banana I’d offered her as I get Baby D ready. “Wow, I have such an appetite these days!” she exclaims excusing herself for gulfing down the fruit.
“Well, you are very active. I mean you power walk for three hours a day! You must cover at least 25 km each time!” I stop for a second imagining the sixty year old’s muscled legs hidden under her thick robes.
“I feel my flesh falling off,” she says between mouthfuls.
“Did any flesh fall off Acha Guru Tso?” I joke. “Would do her some good.”
“In a month? Pah! She would need a year of walking before she were able to shed any of that stubborn flesh.”
Acha Tsering Kyi’s target was 10,000 rounds. She’d completed 8,000 and was triumphant. As winter set in and the days grew shorter, she found fewer and fewer people willing to accompany her in the dark and she was terrified of being attacked by stray dogs. A few months ago, as summer was tapering off, when Bill our basketball coach was still around and the days were longer, there were many willing dawn walkers circumambulating the monastery. The stray dogs had reached unprecedented numbers, forming gangs and attacking at will, though most of their targets were other, smaller dogs. Old Agu Sangye, my housekeeper, lost his dear little yappy companion.
“He was killed?” I asked not able to believe my ears.
Agu Sangye put down the pot he was cleaning. “Poor thing! I took him to the doctor and got him an IV but he died the next day – attacked by the bigger dogs! He was like a little human. He understood what I said to him! Just like a little human! So loyal,” he chuckled embarrassed at reminiscing over a dog and turned back to the pots. “A bit empty without him,” he muttered.
That evening, the norlha basketball team canceled practice and the team took to the hills. We could hear their yelps and hoots echoing through the valley, tiny specks spread out as they sped up the hills and down, twenty men chasing after ten dogs. As we went up for our evening walk a dog trotted by. We froze as it passed, as if on its own evening stroll. A nomad came running up a few minutes later, pausing to ask if we just saw a dog. We nod and point to the hills the dog was heading for. He trots off, followed by a nomad on a motorbike asking if we just saw a man and a dog.
The evening ended with three dogs caught and secured inside cages. It had taken the team almost three hours of running wildly after the dogs. They seemed triumphant. We were reassured that while one dog had been injured none were killed nor would they be killed.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier if you’d lured them to the cages with pieces of meat?” I ask over lunch. There’s a roar of laughter from the guys. “What? It’s a strategy,” I say defensively. “Did you even have a strategy?”
“Oh, we had a strategy,” they answer and everyone laughs again.
I shrug. “Sounds like a great plan; a man running after a dog and a guy on a motorbike following them.”
With winter setting in, and with less circumambulators, Acha Tsering Kyi is alone and in need of companions to help fend off the dogs. A slingshot might help too.
“Only 2,000 more rounds to go,” she beamed. But I know it won’t end there. Before the circumambulating it was 10,000 prostrations. She did 500 a day until her goal was reached. Before that it was spinning enough thread for the workshop to earn an extra 1,000 yuan a month. And that was to save 10,000 yuan so she could sponsor a day of tea for the monks at the monastery. Maybe all these goals kept her strong as she spent her nights in her little house, a lonely mother of five, trying to squeeze all the meaning she could out of her last years.
I give her a warm jacket and a furry pair of shoes. “These are for you, to accompany you in the morning.” Her words are a tangled jumble of appreciation and gratitude.