|THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SCARF|
The photographs on this page were taken on 28 april 1998 in Tibet, some 100 kilometers east of Lhasa, in a valley near the town of Lhünzhüb. It was a light brown and green circular plain, strewn with stones and rock, some 15 to 20 kilometers wide. In the distance, set off against the surrounding mountains, low white walls of houses were glistening. At close to 4000 m. altitude, the sun was hard, the air pure and cool, breathing a pleasure. I accompanied a team of Medecins Sans Frontieres on an inspection tour of their sanitation and water projects in that valley, and watched how the Tibetan doctor who had come with us instructed a group of villagers in water hygiene. They had gathered from all around the valley and now, in their stained and torn rags, they crouched in the dust, smiling and giggling whenever we looked. The men in all sorts of hats, the boys in faded Bulls and Lakers caps, the women in brightly checked head-scarves. Purple, brown, green, it was a marvel how these colours could be so bright and diverse and still blend with the monotonous colours of the landscape.
Little creatures in the water, they were told, so small they can't be seen, can make you sick. Wondering what to do with my cup of yakbuttertea, I realised that the whole concept of things too small to be seen, was new to these people. But now that they were told, they were generously ready to accept it.
Their faces were the most striking I'd ever seen. I'm not one of those anti-chauvinists who always think all races and peoples are more beautiful and worthy than their own, but Tibetan faces... I had already seen those faces by the hundreds in Lhasa, especially in the pilgrims who come from their valleys to walk the holy kora around Jokhang monastery, and prostrate themselves in front of it, gymnastically and endlessly. But in that valley, away from the black smoke produced by Lhasa's pathetic little vehicles, these faces seemed even sharper and more striking, as if bringing their own focus.
At the start of that day, my main concern had been: how to politely refuse the yakbuttertea I would be offered? It's repulsive. All tastes are acquired, but the least sip of yakbuttertea leaves you wondering how this taste can be acquired. The problem is that even finishing a cup wouldn't help, because the ritual is that as soon as you put down your cup, they refill it to the brim. Those cups simply never empty. I thought of a famous Dutchman who, when he was received at some Arab sheiks palace, is supposed to have said: 'Goats eye? No thanks, not for me,' earning immortal respect. But I thought I saw a determination in these valley people's innocent smiles not even to take throwing up for an answer, so I left my cup filled and smiled.
We inspected a few wells, and a source up in the mountains. While driving back in our jeep over the roadless plain, we were stopped in a little village where the people wanted to thank MSF for the pure water they had now. I remember a whole row of people standing there, their arms invitingly stretched out, holding thermoses of yakbuttertea. After hasty deliberations, it was decided we couldn't refuse. We got out of the jeep, were immediately surrounded by laughing children, and were led to a little walled and roofless compound, some 4 by 4 metres, apparently the local Hall of Ceremonies. Although we had already been on our way home, and had only accidentally come across this village, they must have known we were coming, because piles of bread and bowls with boiled potatoes and tsampa (a sort of barley flour that has bad reviews in even the most pro-Tibet guidebook) were waiting for us. Soon we were sitting, thermoses were brought in, a million children were peeping around the corner, and while villagers hung ceremonial white scarves around our necks, others handed us cups. 'Nono, not for me,' I smiled, but already I held a cup, filled to the brim - not with yakbuttertea thank God, but with chang. Chang is okay. I had already drunk it, a homebrewn non-foaming beer, sour and strong.
It turned out the chang-ritual was much like the yakbuttertea-ritual, only now I got to know it to the end. You take a sip, they refill, you take a sip again, they refill again - and now you have to go bottoms up. Applause, cheers, and up comes the next thermos. To make a long story short (although I have no idea how long it got to be in the end): the ritual had to be repeated with every villager who was grateful for the pure water and had a thermos of chang - and in two further villages. I think there were two. How grateful they were to MSF for their pure water! They kissed us, they sang for us, they brought us more potatoes and more chang, beautifully decorated bowls of sweets, they pressed their foreheads against ours, hung our necks with ever more white scarves (when I was able to count again, I discovered I had seventeen), they took both our hands in both of theirs, and when I had taken a sip of chang, they refilled my cup. After a while, I was laughing uncontrollably, and when I wanted to ask our interpreter to tell the villagers that no disrespect was meant by that, and that I had nothing to do with the clean water anyway, I saw tears, madly streaming down her face.
I wonder how we ever got out. Our whole jeep was decorated with ceremonial white scarves. Everybody was drunk, but I was the only one who wasn't sick. The jeep stopped several times. The MSF-girl and I fell into each others arms. My mind was incredibly sharp. It was as if I'd leapt forward years and was already remembering that drive, with crystal clearness. It is a pity we ever reached Lhasa.
But the real wonder of that unforgettable day was revealed a week later when, back in Amsterdam, I collected my photographs from the shop. Out of those pictures stepped the most beautiful girl I've ever seen. She was in six of the innumerable pictures I turned out to have made in that valley, and from their order I could tell she had been in a group of children we encountered in one of the chang villages. But I did not remember her at all. I was shocked. How could I have forgotten such a face?
In picture 1, a really aimless picture that only someone on chang would take, JPG reduces her to a green and brown blur. But already, she is in the middle. In picture 2, I have really seen the group, or the children have seen me. I am the monkey in the zoo. All those faces are beautiful, be it with that UNICEF-cuteness exotic children always have. But she is already a moviestar. In picture 3, it seems I want to tear myself loose from them, the chang is calling. In picture 4 she has let herself be pushed to the background, and seems a bit disappointed. But between that picture and picture 5, I must have noticed her and wanted to make a picture of her. She is flattered by the sudden attention, inquisitive and bashful, in a dazzling match of beauty and the slightest apprehension. In picture 6, we finally really meet.
How old would she be? Twelve? Sixteen? Do the other children in the pictures know how beautiful she is? JPG doesn't do her justice. A thousand scarves to her for being in my photographs. May she live a happy life.
(c) Tim Krabbé, 1998
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