This is Chapter 29 from my memoir about hustling for work in Tibet in which I describe my American friends, some of whom you might not approve of…
The next morning I hung around the Cheese Factory and kept a sharp eye on proceedings. I put a reservation in with the management and when someone left I was on their bed like a shot, and I stayed on the bed for most of that day to make sure I didn’t lose it. A sense of exhaustion came over me and I realised that all the hustling, optimism and hope that I had put into finding a job was more tiring than my exertions up on the plateau. I decided some down time was needed and for the next two weeks I hung out with a crowd of New Yorkers who had taken up residence in the Cheese Factory. I became good friends with a skinny couple called Frenchy and Diane, the best conversationalists I had come across in Asia. There was also Larry who said he spoke better Spanish than English and looked like a character from New York in the 1920s. Larry’s travelling companion was Adrian, with whom he had shared a flat in the Bronx. Adrian was loud and annoying, but entertaining in a twisted kind of way.
Diane and her boyfriend Frenchy were the first travellers with whom I formed a real friendship. We spent lots of time talking, walking and eating together. They both enjoyed hanging out with Tibetans in the daytime and drinking with the Chinese at night, and neither of them were judgemental about the politics, poverty and other heavy issues that travellers tended to know so much about. They entered into the spirit of things, joined in, rather than observing from the sidelines.
I related to Frenchy and Diane so well because they were living on their wits – rather than executing a carefully worked out travel plan. They appreciated spontaneity. They only had five hundred dollars each and they knew that if they didn’t find a job soon they would be stuck. They were more realistic about working in Tibet than me; they knew it was impossible and had set their sights on teaching English in Hong Kong or Taiwan, where people like us could get hired relatively easily. I told them that my destination had been Shanghai but now I’d seen Lhasa I wanted to stay, and I was doing all I could to find a job. If not, it was Shanghai and if that didn’t work out I would probably head for Hong Kong or Taiwan. Maybe we’d meet up there? For the next few weeks I felt like taking it easy, hanging out with Diane and Frenchy and seeing the town from a different perspective. It was a period of indulgence, topped off by a joint birthday party that Isabella, the woman at the Traveller’s Co-op had organised for Roger, her boyfriend, and me. Our birthdays were only two days apart.
I was surprised that Isabella had arranged this party as she saw so many people in her Co-op that I wondered how she even remembered me, but there was something else going on: she was using this party as a means of introducing me to her students and the boss of their English language school. She really did want me to get a job with them! With a bunch of people from the Cheese Factory, I entered a big whitewashed room with carved pillars that had been painted red. It was the classroom, located in a curious old building that surrounded a yard.
– Oh, it’s Rupert, shouted Isabella when we came into the room,
– Say hello everyone.
I felt a rush of embarrassment and almost turned tail and fled, but a group of smiling young monks were approaching and it would have been disrespectful to run out on them. The monks were each carrying a white cotton scarf and they laid these over my neck, saying some kind words that I didn’t understand. There were other Tibetans in the room, some Chinese as well as some of the more intellectual looking travellers. Isabella took my arm and led me round the group, introducing me to them individually. Some of the Tibetan students couldn’t stop themselves from giggling:
– This is Rupert. Injee teacher. Very good teacher.
We approached an older man with sallow cheeks, sunglasses and pockmarked skin. He had probably been handsome once but now he had a haunted look.
– He was in prison for 20 years, Isabella whispered into my ear, and it was him who set up this language school for 40 people. He’s with the Tibetan Peoples’ Consultative Conference. It’s important you meet him in case a job comes up here. We approached him and shook hands sincerely. He smiled and said in old fashioned English:
– Thank you for coming here, my very good fellow. Here is a present for you.
He handed me a small package that was wrapped in newspaper. I thanked him profusely, unwrapped it and found a modern Chinese tea strainer. A bit later the monks all trooped out and went back to their monastery, some alcohol was produced and Roger put on some funk. By midnight I was dancing with a crowd of young students, all of whom were scrutinising my every move, sharing jokes and squealing with laughter. They were good dancers and I got into the spirit of it. The only bores were the foreigners, especially the bearded guidebook author. They sat around the edges of the room, observing, smoking and making wise comments to each other.
Over the next few weeks I developed a routine with Diane and Frenchy. We would get up late, savouring the warm beds and waiting for the sunlight to heat up the frozen room. Diane would take ages to get ready while I would hustle them impatiently so we could get breakfast, usually consisting of cold rolls and yoghurt from the market, with Chinese jam, all eaten sitting on a wall or doorstep with plastic spoons and penknives. The main attraction of the afternoon was sunshine and once settled in comfortably on the balcony at the Cheese Factory it was hard to go anywhere else.
We had a stunning view of the Eastern mountains from this spot and as evening approached the sun would throw strange shapes onto the mountains. By this time the cold was back and so were our appetites and it was time to go and find dinner. We would go to the shacks that functioned as little restaurants, sit around miniature tables or on dirt floors, within a lively buzz of multi-lingual chatter. The food was greasy, delicious and always took ages to arrive. I would get impatient and harass the cooks to speed things up a bit. I preferred to eat in the Chinese places, with their finely sliced meat and veg, plus a bowl of rice – ten yuan in total – while they preferred the Muslim noodle house where we’d pay just two or three yuan for a plate of boiled noodles mixed in with fresh garlic, and sit with a local crowd on tightly packed benches. After dinner, when the cold had descended, we would search out somewhere warm to drink Chinese beer, which the Tibetans call Pee Jew, and chat late into the night.
One of the things that kept reminding me how great it was to travel alone was that almost every couple I saw travelling together through Asia seemed to get on badly with each other. Diane and Frenchy were different; they didn’t get on with each other better than other couples I had met, if anything they got on worse, but they let me in to their disputes. I found myself becoming their mediator, a role I enjoyed, and worked out ways of defusing the insults and barbed comments they would hurl at each other. They hardly spoke to each other but both of them talked profusely with me. Frenchy shared his frustration about sleeping with her:
– Whenever I show any affection she calls me a pervert.
Frenchy was running low on cash and Diane would continually mock him for not saving more when he was earning good money in Boston. He was always on the lookout for ways to earn a few bucks and he would haggle with the Khampa tribesmen in the marketplace, buy their hand-made trinkets and sell them to gullible American travellers as antiques. There were plenty of other Americans haggling in the marketplace, buying up old silver antiques, for prices well out of Frenchy’s league, and I disapproved of the trade as I knew these valuable objects would end up being sold in the USA for twenty times the price.
One day Frenchy took me to the sky burial site on the outside of town. I could see the bloodstains on the big rock that was used to smash up the bodies, and hundreds of vultures flapping around expectantly, but there was no activity that day. The body-cutters were having a day off. The best antiques that Frenchy had found were in the huge mound of clothes that lay by the sky burial site; I didn’t want to join in his business but I did think that anyone bold enough to rob the dead deserves whatever they get.
It was October and Frenchy’s birthday was approaching. With Diane and some disco-crazed Tibetans from India we organised a big party for him in the restaurant at the Snowlands Hotel. There was no charge as long as we promised to bring a crowd and consume lots of beer, an easy problem to solve with my new-found friends. The problem with organising parties is the anxiety one feels at the beginning – will anyone come? – and it took about a gallon of beer for me to feel sufficiently relaxed to join in the frenzied dancing. I got so drunk that night that I ended up taking a blonde German woman to bed in her room at the Snowlands. The next morning I had a vague memory of frantic undressing but no recollection of the actual act, but one look at her the following morning – tight-lipped, cold, disappointed – made me squirm in shame and get out as quickly as possible. I scurried back to the Cheese Factory and guiltily confessed all to Diane and Frenchy. They mocked me about it for weeks.
I became friendly with some of the Tibetan exiles; young, well-dressed and handsome men from India who had returned to the land that their fathers had escaped from. They didn’t share our appreciation of Lhasa’s backwardness; they saw it as provincial, boring and desperately in need of some good nightlife. I doubted their trading activities were legal but the Chinese authorities seemed to tolerate them. The exiles were despised by the local Tibetan men as lechers who were corrupting their women, and neither the local Chinese nor the foreign travellers trusted them. I was keen to learn Tibetan from them and enjoyed their company.
Their priority was having a good time and their passion was organising big discos, in large modern halls, where they could show off their superb disco dancing skills – making the locals and the travellers look like ridiculous puppets in comparison. My best friend among the exiles was called Pemba and he could break-dance so well that he would bring the whole dance floor to a halt as we watched on in amazement. Diane and Frenchy would smuggle in beer and watch from the sidelines, never dancing. Some of Isabella’s English students would come to the disco and one of them, the sexiest mover in the place, was known as the Disco Queen. One night she asked me to dance and although I failed miserably to perform to her high standards, I was honoured to have been asked. I got lots of jealous looks that night.
Elliot was another New Yorker who lived by his wits and slipped into our scene. He hunted deals by day, was a boozing socialite by night and spoke with a drawl. There was something fascinating about his contemptuous manner and I appreciated the honesty of his behaviour: he made no attempt to be pleasant. His main scam was to buy cheap bus tickets from Lhasa to the Nepalese border and sell them to fresh travellers at twice the price. He had a stash of slide film which he would also sell at a huge profit. I would berate him for his rapaciousness but he would dismiss my observations as if to say who gives a shit? Elliot was the only one of us who could afford a decent hotel room; he stayed in the newly-built Plateau Hotel where a single room cost ten yuan (₤1) – four times what we paid.
One night some Tibetans had accosted Elliot and Diane and begged them to teach English. Apparently the last English teaching volunteer had disappeared without trace and these young folk were desperate for someone, anyone, to teach them basic English. The group had organised itself spontaneously and everyone chipped in for the teacher’s fee – but there was no contract. In fact the whole thing was illegal. I thought it ridiculous that untrained half-wits like Elliot could be invited to teach English when he could hardly string a sentence together. Some days later Elliot announced that he had a headache and asked me to teach for him that evening. I wasn’t quite sure and he took advantage of my hesitation and said:
– Nine thirty. Friday. Disco Hall. Be there! And then he was gone.
At nine thirty on the Friday night I approached the disco hall and realised that all my struggles with conquering fear had been in vain. I was terrified. The memory of the terror I had felt when I first taught English came flooding back: Norwich 1986, the final test in the most intensive educational experience I had ever endured, a one-month course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL); a group of adults looking at me expectantly and the tutor lurking at the back marking me down for being a nervous wreck.
As I made my way through the dark, deserted hall I could see light coming from under a door and heard voices. I wanted to run, hard, in the opposite direction. I can’t teach English I told myself, I’m a phoney. All I’ve ever done is help one girl in Vienna correct her essays. I’ve forgotten everything I learned on that TEFL course and I never understood grammar anyway. I looked through the door into the room and saw row upon row of bored faces staring at Elliot. Before I had time to flee they spotted me and I knew there was no escape. Elliot was already heading for the door and before he disappeared into the night he handed me a children’s book and said commandingly:
– Make ’em repeat.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or post a short comment under this article). To see feedback to the paperback edition, click here.