As I squat behind a rock with my pants down, I admire the scenery. The sun pierces the thin atmosphere bursting into brilliant white clouds and shattering into sparkles on the rocks. Shadows sweep across the ground and up the mountains like disco lights. It looks as if I’ve entered a floor show, “And here we have the deluxe, super-size Himalayan Model.”
After my potty break, I coast alongside the New Zealander, Edwin. Though Edwin is the strongest rider in the group, he always waits for the weakest member, in this case, me, as I am sick. My intestines feel as if I swallowed a boa constrictor and my back end makes noises like a squeeze bottle. In my absence, a Tibetan shepherd has found Edwin. Nearby, the shepherd’s large flock grazes the small plants hiding among the rocks of the desert.
“I’m trying to teach this guy that pens don’t grow on trees,” Edwin says.
On cue, the Tibetan turns to me, waiving his hand horizontally, “Hello. Pen?”
Somewhere in Africa tourists began giving children pens because the children were required to have a pen before they could attend school. This tradition of giving away pens soon spread through Africa, sailed across the Indian Ocean, sped over the plains of India, through the jungles of Nepal, up the switchbacks of the Himalayas and swept into Tibet like the People’s Liberation Army of China.
Long before it reached Tibet, this tradition, initially a humanitarian gesture, began perverting millions of people into panhandlers. For example, I remember riding through the Great Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India where a kid spied my foreign-white skin glinting in the sun. He ran a kilometer barefoot through the thorny desert to the road and then padded alongside me for another kilometer as I struggled against a hill and the wind. “Hellomoneyschoolpen,” he chanted in increasing decibels. He was a muscular lad wearing colorful clothes and large, dangling gold earrings. Clearly he wasn’t in desperate straits and pens were never required for school enrollment in India. He ran with one hand on my panniers as if a threat to overturn me or drag me to a halt. When I escaped his grasp as the hill declined, he hurled insults and rocks after me. He was just like the dirty, mangy, urban monkeys of India that people have cajoled out of the jungles with sweets, when the monkeys don’t get what they want—what they feel the world owes them—they sneak into your room and steal a kilogram of peanut brittle and then sit on your bicycle and snarl at you and threaten to give you a thrashing.
Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed
him for life: This is my philosophy and Edwin’s and soon to be the Tibetan Shepherd’s.
The Tibetan is approximately our age, in his early thirties, though wizened by the sun and tooth decay. Still, he is a handsome fellow with a broad face, strong cheekbones, and golden skin. He has long hair, braided with colored string and wrapped around the back of his head framing his face—the traditional style for men and women. “Hello. Pen?” he parrots.
“Hello. Sheep?” says Edwin.
“Hello. Coca-Cola?” I say, thinking he will know this word.
The shepherd points to Edwin’s pen and then to himself.
Edwin points to a sheep and then himself. “You want a pen. I want a sheep. We all want something but you have to work for it, mate,” Edwin has a lot of one-side conversations that nobody understands but Edwin’s voice is soothing and fills the gaps.
The shepherd looks confused so I point from the sheep to Edwin, then from the pen to the shepherd. Grasping the idea he imitates me and we all nod in agreement. The shepherd walks to his flock and deftly scoops a lamb from her mother.
“What are you going to do with a lamb?” I ask.
“Don’t worry. He’ll never trade a lamb for a pen. I just want to teach him a lesson.”
“How much is a lamb worth?”
“I don’t know but a lot more than one pen.”
What the Tibetan knows is that all the shepherds are selling their spring lambs. Lambs are a common source of food for the locals and, I believe, the desert couldn’t support all the newborns. And, of course, the shepherd knows the value of both lambs and pens in Tibet.
When the shepherd returns, Edwin tries to swap but the shepherd refuses and reopens the negotiations. Now he wants the pen and money. Edwin looks dismayed and jockeys his bicycle around the shepherd pretending to leave. The shepherd holds the lamb in front of Edwin turning her from side to side. Then he shoves her in front of me and turns her from side to side. Her blue eyes shine, she has a thick white fleece adapted to the Himalayan winters and she smells like dung. Edwin offers his pen for exchange again.
This time it’s the shepherd’s turn to act his part in the bartering drama. He gets angry and pantomimes, “This is a tasty lamb. You are stealing the food from my children’s mouths.” (If anything, people should give away condoms. “Hello. Condom?”) The shepherd backpedals toward his flock.
Edwin holds up his pen and flicks the button several times, scribbles on his hand then tucks it into his shirt pocket by the clip. The Tibetan is entranced and, suddenly, he agrees to the exchange, sealing the bargain. So far, the bartering has followed the usual custom and Edwin has to follow through or risk insulting and angering the shepherd. So Edwin follows the consummate travel maxim: When in Tibet do as the Tibetans do.
First the shepherd reaches for the pen but Edwin, still intent on teaching him a lesson, indicates he wants the lamb first. After a couple bungled attempts, they agree to swap simultaneously and I photograph the moment for posterity. The shepherd quickly stuffs the pen behind the silver buckle on his belt and Edwin is left cuddling the lamb.
“I never thought he’d go for it,” Edwin moans.
“What are you going to do with her?”
“Don’t worry,” he brightens, “It’s a bluff. He’ll never let me ride away with his lamb.”
“What if he does?”
“Then, I guess, we’ll have a mascot.”
“We can eat it,” I suggest.
We mount our bicycles and as we pedal away, I think, “Lamb noodle soup. Lamb steamed dumplings. Fried lamb chops,” while Edwin is wondering what to name her, “The Dalai Lamb-a or Bo peep, the bicycling sheep.” Edwin is struggling to hold the lamb in one arm and navigate his bicycle over the dirt road. The lamb bleats pathetically and one-hundred meters down the road, near the edge of the flock, she wins Edwin’s heart and we stop.
The shepherd stares at us with a twinge of curiosity but shows no concern for his lamb. Perhaps, the shepherd has called Edwin’s bluff.
“Dang,” Edwin pouts, “That was my last customized pen.”
“We can still eat it. Jabu and Dongteng