When I found myself in Pokhara in August 2017, about to attempt a trek up to Annapurna Base Camp, I felt at a loss. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, during the acclimatisation days before the trek.
If I were at the seaside, the matter was simple: obviously you would go in the water. I supposed I could have looked for day hikes, or tours. Perhaps I could have checked out the paragliding.
But instead, I walked out of my guesthouse, and by instinct headed to the nearest water body – Lake Phewa.
The seller who did not sell
Although it was the monsoon season (and indeed the weather would soon turn most decidedly), when I arrived in Pokhara the weather was warm and sometimes even sunny. So my walk by Lake Phewa was pleasant.
Before long, I wandered onto the walk that lined the more touristy portion of Pokhara. Here, there were vendors by the footpath, Tibetan style beaded jewelry laid out on cloths on the grass, under the shade of trees, and cooled by the lake breeze. I had heard that there were Tibetan refugees in Pokhara, and wondered if these were them.
I declined the invitation from a few of them to inspect their wares. It was only my third day out of three weeks in Nepal. I didn’t want to spend too much money on souvenirs so soon. Besides, I said to myself, I had too much jewelry already. If anything, I needed to give them away.
And then I walked by her, sitting under a tree, calmly cutting a piece of cucumber with a small knife. She was a large woman, with a weather-beaten face, her hair in a bun, and wearing the traditional Tibetan apron.
She called out to me, asking me where I was from.
Malaysia, I replied. She made an approving sort of hum.
Malaysia people are good people, she said. Of course she would say that, I thought to myself.
She motioned for me to sit down. I began to decline, but she offered to share her lunch – some Tibetan bread.
There was something about the invitation, about her relaxed grandmotherly way, her indifference about promoting her wares – I realised that it was something that travel serendipities are made of. So I came over and sat down.
A Tibetan refugee in Pokhara
She tore off a piece of bread and offered it to me. As I munched on it, she told me about the Malaysians who had come before, who bought jewelry from her, and listened to her chatter about Tibetans in exile with empathy.
Dolma, she said, when I asked her name.
She was from a Tibetan refugee village just over the hills by the lake. She walks to the lake from there every morning, and walks back every evening. Pointing across in the general direction of Sarangkot, she asked if I’d been yet. I shook my head no.
She told me that they were all refugees. There were many Tibetan refugees in Nepal who still remain, forming a stateless nation since they came into exile. She herself came to Nepal a long time ago in the ‘50s, she said, when her country was ‘taken by China’.
Oh, I said. My country was taken too, centuries before. But in the 50s, we were free.
I contemplated the different fortunes of man, simply by an accident of birth in space and time. For when the nations of my archipelago lost our autonomy, Tibet was free. But Dolma did not speak with rancour. She simply spoke in a factual sense, that this had happened.
We chatted on, amiably. She threw over a bit of cloth at me, and told me to sit on it for comfort. She offered some cucumber – apparently the local way of eating it was raw, with some chilli on. I thought I ought to try some, so she sliced a piece off and put the chilli on. It was not bad.
Om mani padme hum
I picked through the necklaces and bracelets of beads and seed and yak bone. There were some curious things, like a kind of brown seed with a surface pitted all over. I don’t remember its name. Only that it was from a tree that is significant somehow. Small pendants of the Tibetan spinning prayer wheel – I liked the one with turquoise columns. Dolma showed my many different styles, pointing out the malachite and turquoise, the coral and silver. She clearly liked jewelry herself.
There were also many bracelets of different kinds – but all carved in the same sigils, over and over again. I asked her if it meant something.
Om mani padme hum, she said. It’s for luck, she added. I asked her to repeat it several times; I couldn’t make out the sounds. She was astonished – but everyone knows om mani padme hum!
It’s mantra, she explained. Om, Mani, Padme, Hum. She pointed at each character in turn.
Wait wait wait. I held the bracelet up so I could observe properly the characters on the flat yak bone discs, and clicked record on my phone. I really won’t be able to remember these words, I told her by way of explanation. So she repeated herself, and explained how the Buddhist monks chant this and that it means a wish for long life, and peace, and good things.
Although I wasn’t sure if it was quite orthodox for a Muslim to own religious items from another religion, I figured I could at least agree with the sentiment.
I fingered the bracelet, and others in the pile. I didn’t yet have yak bone in my collection. And while I didn’t need a bracelet for it’s own sake, I did want something to remember this conversation by. So I chose two yak bone bracelets – and because it was not the bracelets that I was trading for, I did not haggle.
As I put one of the bracelets on, she spied the one I was already wearing. It was one that I had bought from Taman Negara in my home country. Just a tube bracelet with a patterned cloth cover.
Dolma was astonished at the notion of a cloth covered bracelet. So I took it off and let her inspect it.
Now, last year I had worn to the Maldives an aborigine Batek rattan woven bangle, bought from within the rainforests of Malaysia. And when a Maldivian child I was playing with admired it, I had given it to her.
Since then, I’d decided to take pieces of my accessories collection on my travels and give them away in a similar way. Just earlier this year, I had given away a Sarawak bead necklace for a leaf necklace gift when I had returned to the Maldives.
So I asked Dolma if she would like to have the bracelet. Her face bloomed in pleasure, and she rummaged about her for a reciprocal gift. Finally she found a stash of macrame bracelets and asked me to pick one. I picked the only one in blue and pink. I wore it for a long time around my ankle since.
We said our goodbyes, and I promised to come by again and tell her all about my trek to the base camp.
Winter clothing for Tibetan refugees
Later that day I met another refugee, named Tsiring. She is younger than Dolma, but stress marked the hollows of her face. I chatted a little while with her, and disappointed her by not buying anything. But she asked if I might have spare clothes I didn’t want.
I recalled that I wouldn’t need my thermals after the trek. (Yes it was only August, but I get cold easily and I’ll have you know I used all of the clothes I brought by the time I was at the top! God knows how I could have coped had I gone in winter!!)
I wouldn’t need the thermals in India either – the next phase of my travels – so why not let someone else have it, who needed it more? After all, I had more thermals at home, and they are only rarely used. So I promised her I would look for her after the trek.
But I did not see Tsiring by the lakeside when I returned.
On the way back to my guesthouse I passed by Dolma again, under the same tree. And she also asked whether I had spare clothing. So I gave her my thermals and UniQlo cardigan, winter socks and thermal hat, in the drawstring bag that my trekking company had given me. Her face lit up.
She inspected the clothing in turn, chattering over how her daughter who was about my size would be pleased with the fashionable cardigan (with a light complaint over how young people all want fitted clothes these days). She chattered over how useful the bag would be, and smilingly confided that the hat and socks she would take for herself, and it would keep her warm in the winter.
And I knew, that was when I knew, that this was where my things belonged, rather than with me.
A final bracelet trade
Dolma let me choose anything I wanted from her jewelry pile. And I chose a slim bracelet of malachite and turquoise. She seemed to think the value was too small compared to what I gave her.
But it was the one I liked best. There would not be another bracelet from Dolma in response to my gift of winter clothes. And that is what barters are all about – it can be a fairer trade when you skip the intermediary conversion to money.
Come back someday to Pokhara, and see me again, said Dolma to me as we parted. I will be here. I probably will die here, she laughed.
So I left Pokhara gaining three bracelets. Many shopkeepers since have tried – and failed – to sell to me, spying them on my wrists and hoping that I had a partiality for jewelry. But the thing is, I no longer desire to buy things I do not need.
But under the right circumstances, I would give gifts, and I would trade.
This article was first published on the solo female travel website, She Roams Solo. Unfortunately the website is no longer active, so I decided to bring this story home to my own blog.
Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Pokhara via Kathmandu produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,807 lbs CO2e. It costs about $14 to offset this.
If you’re going to Nepal, look up the Tibetan refugees in Pokhara!
I love souvenirs and then when a story is attached to them, it becomes even more amazing!
I think these days I’ve become more picky about souvenirs, but I do particularly favour them if it’s to remember a story.
I love stories like this. I have traded bracelets in other countries too and still remember each person and story when I look at them.
I was afraid I’d forget these stories, and I think that was one of my primary motivations to keep up this blog. I discovered when I travel – not for a ‘business trip’ or a ‘holiday’, but travel (as you do Heather) – I meet more people who feel so individual without seeming to be so on the surface. Either you just meet more people who live more intentionally this way, or people are more inclined to permit themselves to be that part of themselves when they’re with a traveller. But then it seemed more important for me to preserve these stories of theirs, because souls deserve it.