How I Spent my Summer Vacation, Part Three

And here’s the last update I sent around to friends, family, and donors. As many of you have noted, privately and otherwise, it was a transformative experience for me. Indeed, some folks have asked if it’s been difficult to be back; to deal with the daily lives of traffic jams and spilled milk. The answer is yes and no. I find no difficulty in dealing with the challenges of daily life. Anguish is anguish; pain is simply pain. And dealing with it, coming up with strategies to create a little relief, well that’s noble work regardless of who’s in pain or why.

No. The harder part has been dealing with the cleanliness, the brightness of America in this day and age. It’s hard to describe fully how the vividness of a society that “functions” well on a material and physical level can be off-putting, dislocating.

I’m sure that sensation will fade over time. And that certainty saddens me.

Sept. 13, 2010

Hi folks…I’m safe and healthy and in Xining right now. The power went out in most of the district of Yushu where we were staying and hence no Internet. I wrote this update yesterday before I flew from Yushu to Xining today.

It’s Sunday afternoon, around 3 p.m. It’s hot and I’m sitting in the kitchen a.k.a bar tent of the camp. I’m writing this off-line because the Internet has been down for three days (power has been on and off and I think this may have finally killed the local wifi antenna).

Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the dust. Maybe it’s the dumplings I had for lunch but I’m feeling reflective, quiet today. Tomorrow we leave for Xining and earlier today two of our group hit the road for the long road trip back to Chengdu so things are winding down a bit. It’s been an extraordinary few days.

Friday night, after dinner, we went to the old man’s tent. This is the fellow I wrote to you all about…the one caring for the paralyzed girl. [see video clip called Yushu Today for a scene with the man and the girl]  Earlier in the day we’d managed to find him a new tent, some blankets and warm clothes. We also bought a few kitchen items (Thermos’ etc. No self-respecting Tibetan is without at least one thermos for storing the ubiquitous hot water.)

We’d also made arrangements for a local family to check in with him weekly; earlier, when we’d set up his tent, we’d discovered he’d not eaten that day.

Friday night, I went with Tenpa and Jamphel to visit them.  They called him Abu, “father,” and talked warmly with him in Tibetan. They hugged him. Told him to be positive. They also spoke with the girl (who, it turns out, is also deaf and mute) by making funny hand gestures and stroking her cheek, making her smile.

When we walked back to the car, I told the guys that they’ve taught me so much about what it really means to see another human. I told them how hard it’s been for me, how my initial reaction is a fear-based recoiling, how I want to pull away every time.  Jamphel looked at me and simply said, “Yes. Well. But His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] says we should treat everyone like our parents.”

Of course. It’s that simple.

Saturday morning and my migraine lifted. Our first stop that morning was the Horse Park refugee camp. Driving there from the relief camp, I noticed that I wasn’t noticing the destruction quite so much. I’d begun recognizing shops (“They are the Muslim butchers’ tents.”) and landmarks of broken buildings. We pulled into the Horse Park and made our way to a segmented area. The difference in this area was astonishing. This little section is run by an NGO  whose focus is the health and well-being of the Tibetan nomads. Before the earthquake they were running a school, a boarding school, for young nomadic women, teaching them to be midwives.

And now they’re still running a boarding school training midwives. Aside rows of neat, clean, tents, was a large green tent…one of our tents…we stepped in, removed our muddy shoes. Inside the tent were 35 young women, aged 12 to 20 all training to be, among other things, the primary health care providers to their clans and tribes.

The teacher stopped. The class turned to watch us and we walked to the front of the class. Katas offered. Palms folded. Thanks given.

Later we stepped outside to take the requisite photo…all the TVP staff and I in front of the young women. After the photos, they surprised us with solos and duets of traditional songs. Katas offered. Palms folded. Tears flowed.

We then hit the road. Got out of town. Gave ourselves a gift. We went hiking. We drove to a valley only a few kilometers from the city. Down a dirt road, past a new ugly brick-making factory, we drove deep into a valley. We parked and started hiking up the mountain trails. The land was a tonic. We walked and laughed and splashed each other in the rapid stream at the base of the valley. We walked past a tiny “village” of two families and then past another, larger village of ten families.

As we walked, I was struck by the incredible number of mani carvings. Everywhere you turned, nearly every available rock surface was turned into a prayer, an offering. We walked past meditation caves and carvings of various Buddhas. Finally we stopped at a little island made by the stream forking. At its tip was a boulder formation that looked like a naturally-occurring stupa.

Streaming off the top were hundreds of prayer flags. We ate a picnic lunch and some of us (i.e., the weakling white guy in the group) took a nap while others hiked on.

As I lay there I watched vultures soar and dive, huge cloud formations and the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.

After two hours, the whole group came back and we took out a set of prayer flags we’d brought. Earlier I’d mentioned that it was the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and that I’d felt a little sad. So the group surprised me by writing special prayers for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families on the flags. We scrambled up the boulders and hung the flags.

Hiking back, we stopped at the larger of the two villages. This village had received three tents from us. One was housing four families. It replaced a mud-brick home that had also housed four families before the roof caved in.

Another had become a new shrine room. This little village has a tiny monastery supporting pilgrims who come to circumambulate a trio of holy mountains (a six hour task if you’re walking; a tad longer if you’re prostrating all the way around).

Katas offered. Butter tea offered (and declined by the white guy). Hot water offer (and accepted by the white guy). Dried yak meat. Yogurt. Fried bread.

Seeing our work take hold and help even in this tiny village outpost was as much a tonic as watching the vultures and counting the mani carvings.

This morning some of the group headed back to Chengdu…they’re aiming to make it in three days and have a good chance as the rains have stopped.

After they left, Jamphel and I interviewed a restaurant owner (and recipient of a tent). TVP’s core service offering is assisting small businesses with loans. This restaurant owner also owns a tailor shop and both places were packed. His is the only operating Tibetan restaurant in the area (in a town that used to be 98% Tibetan). He’s interested in a loan for 25,000 Yuan. With it, he thinks he can expand (even as he continues to operate from our tent) and hire 8 people with an average salary of 1000 to 1500 Yuan a month.

The government announced last week that it will be distributing 50,000 winterized tents in the coming weeks. I hope that’s true. Despite today’s warmth, it could snow tomorrow.

The real work of recovery though goes beyond tents. Giving these people back their lives will take years. TVP will likely increase it’s efforts at helping small businesses. Get the economy going and people can, once again, take care of themselves (assuming they’ve blankets and warm clothes).

My part of this effort is ending—at least for now. Tomorrow night I should be in Xining. The next day Beijing. And finally back to New York on Wednesday the 15th. I’ll post photos and videos and will send you all links when I’m done editing and such.

It’s so hard to fully describe what this experience has done. I’ve seen first hand the lives we’ve all helped. I know we’ve made a difference.  But I think it’s going to take me a long time to fully appreciate the ways in which these lovely, wild heart-breaking people have changed me.

Tashi Delek,


Hiking the Valley -Large from Jerry Colonna on Vimeo.

Remembering 9-11-Large from Jerry Colonna on Vimeo.

  • Peter Cranstone

    “of a society that “functions” well on a material and physical level can be off-putting, dislocating”… that about sums things up perfectly. Our wants are so far displaced from our needs that we operate in a different world. It’s sad but true.

    Well said.

  • panterosa,

    It strikes me on the hike, the pictures of all the prayers in the rocks and the prayer flags. In the US we have our national flag and grafitti instead, a sort of vague nationalism and then individual recognition seeking. The prayers/prayer flags seem to seek outward connections, our flag/grafitti seems so inward looking, like we are seeking connection with ourselves.

  • Charlie Crystle

    looking forward to more posts–really love this blog!

  • Cbekkedahl

    Jerry, I know I’m late, but still want to donate to TVP. Your page isn’t accepting any more. What do you suggest? Carolyn

  • jerrycolonna

    Thanks Carolyn…you can always donate directly to TVP at this link:

  • Madhuri Yedlapati

    During my visit to India, while traveling by bus, I noticed one young man who had no limbs. I watched him crawl on his belly, somehow, shirtless. I don’t know where he was going, or what he was doing on the street, but my imagination tells me that he wasn’t going to let his disability stop him from doing what he intend to do. I will never forget that sight.

    On a lighter note, I can somewhat relate to the burning yak dung experience.. if you replace yak dung with buffalo/cow dung. Growing up, on my visits to grandma’s, I’ve experienced using stone and dung cakes and twigs for stove. It was certainly not easy to use it since we had no blowers. We used a hollow metal pipe, and we blew into it to get the fire going with smoke blowing back into my face. I look at my life in America now, and I feel ashamed to admit to taking what I have for granted.