Tseten’s pink-painted house is quite grand by Gangtok standards: three rooms plus kitchen and indoor bathroom, built right into the hillside. The ascents are many and steep, for the remote capital city of Sikkim nestles in the foothills of the Himalayas. Even though it is mid-October and every peak is snow-capped, on these low and temperate slopes cactus and wildflowers are still thriving. Epiphytic orchids bloom white and purple. Together with strings and strings of primary-colored prayer flags fluttering from tree to house to tree, they make for a cheerful sight, in spite of the overcast and chilly day.
After leaving our shoes outside, my friend ushers me in. I’ve been in his tiny home before, but today as soon as the door is cracked, I am assailed by the savory scent of hot chicken broth, no doubt with homemade mo-mos already floating in it. Mola (grandmother) comes to hug me, the top of her head roughly even with my fifth rib. This tiny Tibetan woman and I share only 2 or 3 words of her language, but she has made mo-mos and chicken soup especially for me, for Tseten has told her of my chest infection.
The whitewashed main room blazes with color. Snugged with giant embroidered floor pillows, it serves as both sitting room and sleeping room for the entire family of four. Tseten’s thankgas take up every available foot of wall. As well as being intricate, beautiful art, these are also religious icons. He and I have analyzed the symbolism of every detail of the one I purchased. The canvas is covered with a central mandala, with several dozen lamas, deities, bodhisattvas, and many other stylized figures arrayed around it. The pigments, patiently ground by hand from semi-precious stones, are brilliant, and the silk hangings glow in emerald, scarlet, gold, and sapphire.
As Grandmother prepares our places at the rough wooden table in her diminutive, primitive kitchen, Tseten disappears briefly. He and his two teenage sons, Buddhists all, have been solicitous, fussing over me like Jewish mothers with a sick child. I’m here because the rest of my group has gone on to Lachung, in the Valley of Flowers, for a few days. At 12,000 feet, Lachung is very close to Tibet, and the mountains are not only higher, but colder and more treacherous. I have been forbidden to go along by the doctor, and Tseten has invited me home so that I am not alone in the hotel, eating only parathas and drinking endless cups of tea.
He returns and produces a polished and carved lidded stone bowl, about the size of an egg. It contains small mahogany-colored threads that look a bit like saffron, but have a funky, musty smell. He tells me to take some—it will help me feel better.
I must have looked skeptical, because he points out that this odd herb was blessed by his friend and sometime client, the Dalai Lama. I don’t really believe that will give it any magic powers, but it eliminates my hesitation. I obediently place some under my tongue.
It seems likely that the mo-mo soup will do me more good than the funny red strings, but either way I am willing to believe I am feeling better. And before we leave, Tseten offers me the precious bowl itself, a prize that today sits on the table below the thangka he painted for me.
Janna Walsh is a lifelong learner, world traveler, and writer. Retired from a lengthy career in pharma/biotech, she is also a yoga teacher, personal coach, dedicated volunteer, and political junkie. An enthusiastic OLLI student, she invariably signs up for more classes than she has time for. Recent journeys have included Iceland and study at Cambridge University, as well as Ireland and Patagonia. She is currently working on a multifaceted memoir including her poetry, photographs, recipes, and writing inspired by her family, her schnauzer mix Karma, and her travels.