“Are you looking at that flyer?” A small Asian woman asks looking up from her own notebook as she busily jots down numbers from off the cork-board.
We were in fact looking at that flyer. It was the only one on the board that was looking for a roommate, or had a place to offer. The rest were attempts to find rooms, “Need housing, please contact,” “European looking for housing,” “Neat, tidy woman seeks apartment near Boudah.” And this one flyer, “15,000 a month, spacious apartment, need roommate to split rent with.”
“Yea, we were,” I answer curiously.
“Oh! This is my flyer, I’ve only just posted it.” the woman grins at us. “Do you want to look at the place, it’s just right around the corner.”
Tamara and I look back and forth at each other and shrug.
“Right now? Yeah.” Tamara says.
“OK”, and we hustle out of the hall way down the stairs of the school.
“I’ve just moved from Tibet, maybe a few days ago. My cousin, he lives in Nepal, he find this apartment for me to study at the school. It’s very nice, very nice, but just too big for me and too expensive for just one. I saw it and thought, ‘oh I don’t need such a big space’ but, maybe to share it’s good.”
We nodded anxiously as we walked out of the monastery where these two girls would be going to school. There are monks milling about here and there, some hanging out of windows or lounging in door ways, some just young boys, some old men, they nod as we pass or ignore us.
“Yea that sounds great, for us the cheaper the better,” Tamara says and we pass by the closed doors to the puja room. They’re decorative and painted beautifully bright red and I’m reminded of Tamara earlier that day as we sat on the steps in front of those doors.
“How could you feel bad about going to school when the place is this beautiful.” she had said.
We step back out onto the slate streets and start walking down away from the stupa, bouncing a little in our step.
“I told my cousin I don’t need such a nice place, but he got a good deal and payed already for three months, now I have to pay him back, how could I say no?”
The street is very clean and calm, by Kathmandu standards. There are only a few motorbikes here and there and an occasional truck, hardly any honking, people are sweeping in front of their shop fronts and selling fruit from carts. I love the chaos of Kathmandu, the busy, hungry, craziness of it all, but have to admit a feeling of relief as we gently stroll through this pleasant neighborhood.
Darting to the left down an even smaller street we round the corner and pop through a little gate.
“This is it, brand new building,” she says.
It’s a four story tan building with little balconies and the kind of place that has funny decorative pillars, but has a little yard with grass and bushes and looks simple enough. I’m surprised, in fact, that it’s so nice. Up two flights of stairs we open the door to a gigantic living room. There is funny green carpeting laid down that looks like astroturf.
“See, so much space, I don’t need all this,” the woman says.
She guides us into an equally enormous kitchen with a wrap around counter that is barely higher than my knees. She opens a door that leads onto a tiny little balcony over looking roof tops with prayer flags flapping in the wind. A beautiful Kathmandu scene with gigantic hills rising in the background and a young boy flying a kite from a roof top. I can see cows munching grass in a lot next to another large red monastery with golden roof tops.
We duck back in and she shows us another room. There’s a bed with purple flower sheets and blue carpet with blue curtains. The monastery is out of the window and the cows munching away and over the roof tops I can just see the tip of the stupa. Tamara and I are now nudging each other excitedly.
“So what do you think?” The woman says.
Tamara and I look at each other. We had this fantasy before coming here. We would find the smallest moldy room we could, buy a hot plate and become minimalists. We would eat nothing but rice and lentils and drink black tea. Maybe we would wear all black, read nihilist philosophy and only burn candles at night. But here it was, a beautiful apartment, cheaper than anything we’ve seen and more room than we knew what to do with.
“I don’t know, what do you think Jack?” Tamara asked me smiling from ear to ear, and then in unison, “I think we’ll take it!”
“I mean if that’s ok with you?” Tamara asked politely.
“Of course! Great ok!”
“I’m Jack, by the way,” I interjected and shook the woman’s hand.
“My name is …” she uttered something and I stared blankly at her.
We stared at her blankly for a moment and she smiled and laughed, “In Tibet we have no first and last name just you are given one name. I think that it might be rather long for you, so you can just call me Wang-mo.”
We laughed and nodded.
“Wang-mo,” I repeated. The sound is not like w-A-ng but an ‘ah sound with a soft g, Wh-ah-n-g-moh. It’s a little difficult but after a repeating it a few times we get it and she smiles.
“Which room would you like?” she asks.
She’s already set up all of her things in one room. That room has a it’s own shower and two balconies slightly larger than the one in the kitchen.
“Oh we’ll take the empty one of course,” I say. We explain that our stuff is in Thamel and we’ll move in the next day and blissfully flee down the stairs with pleasant goodbyes.
When we arrive the next day Wang-mo is there. She greets us warmly though we’re a bit late from dragging both or packs, a guitar, an accordion, and two day bags through the hot sun on our way back up. We drop them in the room and lay down pulling all of the curtains shut. The blue curtains light the room with a bright blue color and with the blue carpet we laugh and say call it an underwater room. I take a shower and the water is nice and cold in the hot day. As I’m getting out though I realize that I’m not sure what Wang-mo is comfortable with. Maybe she’ll be shocked if I dart from the shower into our room in just a towel. I hesitate for a moment listening to see if she’s in eye sight and when I feel it’s right take the chance. Luckily I make it back into the room undetected.
Then I laugh a bit. I’m not sure what is expectable for roommates in Tibetan culture. She seems quite modern and lived in an apartment in Beijing, China before this, but she’s still very traditional. I notice Tamara and I being a little more polite than we might necessarily be in our own home. We’re both a little uncertain and test the waters with her. She seems so accommodating, but is that really the way she feels or is she overcompensating for our brash, crude western ways?
Over the next day or two we decide on some household items. We buy the bed and help her pay for some of the wears in the house; the stove, the curtains, the carpet. When she got here it must have been a bare concrete hole. We struggle with the idea of buying things we might not have gotten for ourselves, still trying to hold on to our minimalism, but the place is pleasant and we like living here so we help her with the expenses.
Her cousin’s friend, another Tibetan named Duk-la who’s lived in Nepal a while, comes over and we all go out shopping for a dinning room set. We go from store to store, Wang-mo, Tamara and I discuss different options for tables as we peruse the little shops, mostly filled with the same furniture. They have a little lumber yard and are building these things themselves, but for some reason every store you walk in is selling the same tables with fake laminated wood grain tops. It’s the same with most shops. They all sell the same colored plastic buckets, aluminum pots, pans, steamers, Kwix chips, and individual packets of shampoo. You might walk past 100 stores and not see one thing that wasn’t in the other stores. Wang-mo translates what we talk about to Duk-la, asking, “with a discount please, we’re students,” and then Duk-la translates it all in to Nepali to the store keeper and each one gives us a price, and then we talk it down.
We buy a small coffee table for a few hundred rupees and some cushions to sit around and we’re all very pleased that night when we gather around the tiny little table Sitting on our pillows drinking tea and eating.
It’s still a bit difficult with Wang-mo after a few days. We’re not sure of Tibetan tradition or what would be appropriate and what wouldn’t, and several times we’ve over stepped our boundaries. She doesn’t get upset, but we have philosophical differences that accompany cultural practices that just make things complicated.
Tamara bounces her doubts about Buddhism to Wang-mo who was raised in the religion.
“So if there’s no such thing as a soul, why are people held accountable for their past lives?” Tamara asked one night over dinner. We eat at the same time, but separate meals. Wang-mo insists if she doesn’t eat meat she’ll be ill, but is shocked that we Tamara killed a cockroach.
“Well, there’s no soul, really, they taught us that. And they tell us the story, but I don’t know how. They tell us, that you can make an aspiration for the future and then you really will get it, but maybe just in the next life,” Wang-mo says.
Tamara is uncertain about the whole buddhist philosophy and tries to get answers from Wang-mo, politely, but she wants real answers. When I talk to Tamara about it I can’t hide my skepticism, so I try not to get too involved so she can get an unbiased opinion from a real buddhist.
We explained Couch surfing to Wang-mo and told her we were excited to host people, having been hosted ourselves and never having an opportunity to give back. She said that would be ok, and I was quite excited. Having bizarre worldly faces showing up all the time and going on mini-adventures with them while Tamara was at school sounded like the perfect way to take up my time. But after one eager french man, who spoke mandarin to Wang-mo, and was very polite, and then a couple of Polish girls called ‘the hot toddies’, Wang-mo was done.
She explained that having guest in her culture was overbearing, that they were to be treated as Gods, and she felt uncomfortable with the idea of them just lounging around on the couch (our couch is two single foam mattresses one leaned against the wall) and making their own dinners. We explained that it was ok, they didn’t expect anything from us, but she felt uncomfortable.
A whole mess of events led to ‘the hot toddies’ taking our room for 10 days while Tamara and I escaped Kathmandu, and Wang-mo first said it would be fine, and later told us that she didn’t want to host couch surfers anymore.
We were frustrated. We wanted Wang-mo to be our close friend. We tried to bond with her. Money issues of renting together and for uncertain lengths of time muddled our feelings. Tamara’s confusion and dissatisfaction with buddhism confused her. She doesn’t drink because women don’t do that. She doesn’t play cards because the Dalai Lama said something about an evil symbol on the cards. It’s hard to bond when we just operate differently.
One day Wang-mo had pulled up some Youtube videos of Tradditional Tibetan dancing and was trying to learn them with Rin-chin watching nervously. She has three movies she bought and talks about, Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun (a movie about the Dalai Lama’s life), and the BBC documentary; The Lost World of Tibet. She doesn’t know who Bob Marley is, or the Beatles.
But when we returned we felt relieved, plodding up the stairs, to be home. And though there was palpable discontent with each other when we left, Wang-mo opens the door smiling and laughing, and telling us about how she ran around grabbing anything solid in the streets during an earthquake, and we all three laugh. I feel a bit of relief in our short little talks in the hall way. They can be a bit long and we don’t talk philosophy much anymore, but I’m glad she doesn’t think we’re strange musical, boozing, card playing atheists who let strangers into their home and don’t make them dinner every night.
I am all those things, but also, I’m Wang-mo’s roommate in Kathmandu.
To hear more about our lives check the lovely Tamara’s Blog!