At Drogha's House
Beijing to Yushu
On paper, the flight to Xining is an easy and straight shot westward from Beijing. Surrounded by a cocktail of unfamiliar sights and unknown languages, the 5-hour wait in Xining airport was an eye-opener and gave me a sense that I’d left East Asia behind. I was now in Central Asia. Even though I’ve spent the last 3 years living abroad, I still had the sense of being launched into the unknown, maybe even another planet. A planet with less oxygen.
I had I put my fate entirely into Surmang’s big planning hands. I didn’t even understand where Surmang was in relation to Yushu. So there I was – no paperwork, directions, maps, no contact addresses. And coming from the Negev desert, I definitely was unprepared for the cold.
I was filled with crazy ideas. What if I fell asleep and missed my flight? I wouldn’t be able to reschedule for that day. What if I didn’t get met at the Yushu airport, what then?
Arriving in Yushu
The plane dipped down into the Batang Valley amidst range after range of snow-capped mountains. Departing the terminal, my worries dissolved into the broad smiles of Phuntsok and Drogha, Surmang’s doctors, who were waiting for me at the exit gates with a sign. Actually I didn’t need the sign. Their smiles and shining faces were enough -- Drogha’s two rosy cheeks and big smile, the exact same ones captured in all the photos I’ve seen, and Dr. Phuntsok with his cowboy hat. A wave of excitement and calmness washed over me.
Traveling into town I understood bits and pieces of Phuntsok’s mandarin, and much less of his Khampa Tibetan. Drogha spoke a little English. Between partial sentences and hand gestures, we were able to make some sense of each other and have a few laughs on our drive to Yushu/Jiegu.
My first night: Yushu with Drogha’s family
Drogha and her family were extremely warm and open. At the center of their home stove blazed with heat and I took my place right next to it. I had anticipated the cold. But even with 2 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of socks, and layers of clothes under my winter jacket, I was still shivering.
While I was at their home, I could neither communicate with Drogha’s Khampa Tibetan speaking parents nor her 3 year old daughter. But despite the lack of verbal communication, I understood the language of their, genuineness, their warmth of their hospitality. It was like visiting my own relatives --Drogha and her mother kept giving me food. It started with a cup of hot tea and cookies and slowly progressed to breads, home made yogurt, and more tea. Then came dinner!.
Without language, I relied solely on expression. And with Drogha and her family, I not only felt welcomed, but saw their genuine kindness and concern openly written in their facial expressions, a kind of universal language I understood from my travels.
Day 2: Journey to Surmang
When I awoke, there was snow covering the ground. It was the first snowfall of the year. David Wenbao joined me in Yushu. David worked for the foundation for many years and he knows what to expect. More than an interpreter, he became a guide to Tibet and Tibetan culture. He helped me to build a bridge into a place that was so completely foreign to me.
The road to Surmang was long and bumpy. The roads became more difficult to see, more torturous as the sun slowly set behind the mountains. There were many mountains. Conditions worsened and more and more cars were stuck on the side of the road except for a truck which was stuck in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic. Driving cross country we created our own road.. Each time we reached mountain pass, Phuntsok took off his hat. David and Phuntsok would cry “ki ki, so so” rousing the life force, windhorse. I started to get the idea --with each mountain peak we passed, there was another approaching. In the fading light was nothing but mountains after mountains.
While the trip was long and difficult, Surmang was relaxing and peaceful. Without cellphone reception or internet, I happily disconnected from my familiar world and plug into Surmang’s. Yaks grazed on the grass, freely crossed the dirt road to drink from the rushing streams. The sky seemed like a factor in everything I saw. At 4200 m., (13,800 ft!) I felt like I could reach out and touch the clouds.
At the clinic, I followed Phuntsok and Drogha. We saw patients on a daily basis. Babies with colds, old men with pus-infected broken teeth. A nun suffered from arthritic pain and Phuntsok performed acupuncture. Pregnant women were there for ultrasound. Other women came to make sure their IUDs were still in place. With each patient that walked through the door, Phuntsok had a vast amount of knowledge to share with me – the signs and symptoms he was looking for, why he prescribed the medication he did, the social problems of his patients that he took into consideration when he gave his medical advice.
My first two years of medical school were spent basically learning a foreign language, medical English. I was okay with that, but going from medical English to Tibetan was a reach. Making matters worse, the Tibetan medical lexicon for Western allopathic medicine pales before the Chinese and so David used a Chinese to English medical dictionary in conjunction with translating Phuntsok’s Tibetan. Phuntsok would give the diagnosis, treatment and plan. David would look it up in the dictionary. The good news was Phuntsok would often recognize the English terminology. If that sounds difficult to understand in writing, it was much more difficult in person. When I had medical questions, Between English, Chinese, Tibetan, and a lot of visual observation, I was able to understand the whole clinical picture. The warmth of David and Phuntsok made these difficulties seem trivial and occasionally, fun.
The Baby Patient
We usually met for breakfast at Drogha’s home. One morning there was an old woman rocking slowly back and forth next to the stove. As I approached, I noticed her cradling her infant grandson, inside her winter chuba (winter greatcoat). The 3-month old had a fever for 3 days.
When I listened to his lungs, I could hear rales – the crackling sound of pneumonia. The baby was listless. I peered down at him, and he stared intently back, wheezing with each breath, without cries or tears. The painful antibiotic injection elicited only a momentary whine, and then he continued to stare intently with large, brown eyes.
All day we waited for him to get better. His temperature dropped, and we thought that he was on the home stretch to getting better. But the next day, his temperature went back up. Phuntsok made a decision. The baby needed to go to the hospital in Yushu. We would drive the infant halfway, and a relative would pick up the baby and drive the rest of the way to the hospital.
That morning, we went to the baby’s house to pick up him and his mother, and father. Waiting for the family to leave, his mother began to sob. She was scared. Drogha rushed to her side. Somehow, she was able to calm the her. And away we all went, Phuntsok behind the wheel, mother and infant tucked into the front seat, and Drogha, David, the father and I in the back.
It had been raining. The roads were wet and muddy. Some sections were closed and we were forced find our own way amidst the mud and stones. We drove, fishtailing, the wheels slipping and sliding, mud flying in all directions, caking the windows. Somehow, we managed to keep on moving, passing the smaller half buried cars. We went through this kind of terrain for 3 hours before meeting a relative at the halfway point.
Here, baby, mother, father, and Drogha got into the little car and continued their way back to Yushu.
The car now half empty, we turned around and headed back. Although our thoughts were still with the baby and family, the atmosphere lightened. As we approached Surmang, Phuntsok stopped and chatted with almost every single passerby. Some were friends of the clinic, some were community health workers, others were old patients. Phuntosk knew almost everyone.
One elderly gentleman, riding a horse along the side of the road, carried 2 big bags of barley. We stopped, put the bags of barley in the car, and dropped them at one of the nomadic camps further along the road. Here, we picked up bags of Tibetan cheese and dropped it off at one of the village homes next to the clinic. There was this wonderful sense of effortless community.
When we finally returned, we told Drogha’s 3-year old daughter that her mother had left for Yushu. Without blinking an eye, without crying or any ndication of fear, she said, “Ok. I will go to my uncle’s house for dinner. Will you take me?” And that was it. I was so surprised at this little girl’s maturity. But then again, it should not have surprised me. Here everyone seems confident.
Earlier in my trip, I had seen her be so insistent to “help” out with what other women were doing. She had taken a small table knife and began cutting vegetables. Not in a way that was entirely helpful, but in imitation of the adults around her. I had brought a small stuffed animal for her at the beginning of my trip. She seemed interested in it only because it was new, not because it was a toy.
While at her grandparents’ house, she insisted on playing outside in the cold, “helping” out by moving the wheelbarrow around, which was twice her size. In the States, I babysat kids her age, who toted around their blankies and teddies. But this little girl, with toys and dolls on her bed, merely pushed them aside.
Fending without Drogha
With Drogha gone, the warm motherly environment also slowly dissipated. Phuntsok, David and I had to fend for ourselves, making tea, keeping the little home warm, and cooking meals. And it was hard! Thank goodness for house helpers.
I’ve camped a lot. A lot. You think I would know how to start a fire. Build a little teepee of wood, get some kindling and viola! However, this is all within a fireplace. At Surmang, I didn’t know how to start a fire from yak dung. Especially in a wood burning stove.
Cooking was a huge challenge. I consider myself a decent cook. But in a Tibetan “kitchen”, I was at a loss. There was no high, medium, low heat setting on a yak dung stove. The fire either burned hot or not at all. I didn’t know how to boil rice because I didn’t know which pot to use. Some of them were too small for the open stove tops. It took me some time to realize that there were different ring sizes to place on top of the stove for different sized pots.
And my choice of rice for dinner was peculiar. Tibetans have rice for lunch and noodles for dinner. While I buy noodles at a store and simply boil them, Drogha had made them from scratch out of flour. And when dinner was over, how do you do the dishes? There was no running water. Drogha’s absence not only illuminated the difficulties of living in Tibet, but highlighted her talents. Drogha is successfully juggles her many roles within her community – mother, wife, and doctor.
One week after my arrival, it was time to head back. Surmang was wonderful. I lived in a way that was so completely different from my upbringing. I left behind the material world that formed some part of my identity, and stepped outside of my comfort zone. Surmang, the environment and its people, shed light on what was important. Not fancy clothes, appearances, or money. All those things are worthless in Surmang. But relationships, people, conversation, life itself and how you choose to live it.
Right before the Yushu earthquake in 2010, Dr. Phuntsok decided to go to Yushu to visit his family. He arrived just in time for the earthquake, to be burried in rubble. He was lucky to survive. And he shared his new-found wisdom with me. Life is a gift. How to live it?
The torturous path to Surmang in October
Mother of the sick baby
David, Phuntsok, patient and Rijie elder
Drogha's daughter "working"
Me, at one of the bridges over the Yangtse