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The Tourist and the Tibetan

A local encounter I’ll never forget.

Matt McDonald


I knew meeting the Dalai Lama would be a profound experience. Surrounded by reverent, tearful Tibetans outside his home in McLeod Ganj, India, he clasped my hand and in one look overwhelmed me with compassion, understanding, joy. Humbled in this single silent moment, all I could muster was a mumbled “Thank you.”
What I didn’t know was what to do after meeting the Dalai Lama.
Feeling equal parts inspired, exhausted and dazed, I watched monks bustle around the temple before traipsing off through town. The narrow, sloped streets of McLeod Ganj present a few striking contrasts. Smoke wafts from holy incense at the temple and piles of garbage everywhere else. Honking cars choke the square while surrounding cafes remain quiet and peaceful. Shops and street vendors beckon with endless golden trinkets, scarves, teapots, prayer wheels, jewelry, all sold at the tourist mark-up as beggars hold out their hands and stammer for help.
It was time to act. I bought 10 round loaves of bread for the rupee equivalent of less than a dollar and set out to distribute them to beggars. After meeting His Holiness, helping people made sense, even if something didn’t feel right about my plan.
The first beggar, a hunched woman with a walking stick and a rusty bucket, raised her eyebrows at the bread and brandished the bucket. Then a man replied to my outstretched loaf with a shake of his head and a long “nooo,” as if we were negotiating and my offer wasn’t good enough. Before I could reach the decrepit man on the corner, crouched in the dirt with his limbs splayed at awkward angles, I’d had enough.
Here was this white westerner from northern New York trying to impose on these people what he thought they needed in order to justify himself. They clearly would have preferred the rupees to the bread. I retreated to a quiet vista lined with prayer flags, overpowered.
Four days later, I sat on a roof with Tsultrim Tenzin-Lama, a Tibetan monk I’d been tutoring in English for the past week. I told him I was struggling to figure out what to do for the countless needy. Though not a beggar, as a Tibetan he certainly represented another group in need. I asked him how people could help Tibetans. Was it money? Awareness? Advocacy?
He laughed and patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry so much,” he said, gazing at the towering Himalayan peaks above town. “You teach English. We need English.” He hugged me a few times before I left, thanking me.

What he doesn’t know is how much I needed him.

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