Monthly Archives: April 2021

Making friends using words in new languages …

I saw them behind Dubdi Monastery in West Sikkim. I’d just visited the monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Sikkim, built in the early 1700s. Dubdi is located around 7,000 feet, about 1,000 feet above the quiet Sikkimese village of Yuksom.

The Tibetan Bhutia laborers near Yaksum

They were doing some road work, digging a ditch or something. The first time I passed them, I was walking to a quiet, mountain spot further down the path and I didn’t want to disturb them.

Inside Dubdi Monastery
Another deity inside Dubdi monastery

On the way back, I was curious as to what they were working on.

“We’re building a rest area for the monks”, they tell me. These Tibetan laborers belong to the Bhutia tribe and live in the Tibetan colony down in Yaksum, a couple of miles below Dubdi monastery.

I ask if I can photograph them and they say, sure. And that’s how we get talking. One of them is more talkative than the others. You’ll have to guess who that is.

We all stand together and say our names – I think it’ll be more fun this way than a plain ol’ 2D photo. Of course, I give myself a Tibetan last name just so I can be part of their gang for just a moment.

The talkative one offers me a white fermented liquid – homegrown alcohol. I’ve been recovering from food poisoning (don’t eat funky-tasting eggs and daal at a roadside stop!) so I told him I’d pass. He tells me in Hindi, “This special drink will take away all the food poisoning, try it.”

Against my better judgment, I take a sip, a tiny sip. It’s STRONG! And bitter. And sharp. I can see why he says it’ll cure my food poisoning. But I decide to pass on swigging another sip – you know, I’d like to get back to my homestay in one piece.

As I leave, they teach me to say Thank You in Tibetan. The teachers are quite good but the student…

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

watch, listen, feel …

This is my mask for today. What about you?

यो आजको लागि मेरो मास्क हो। तिम्रो के छ?

এটি আজকের জন্য আমার মুখোশ। তোমার কী আছে?

To je moje maska ​​pro dnešek. Co o tobě?

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

My parents are as old as you, he says, tongue firmly in cheek…

He has a shy smile. Sushil Kumar, he repeats his name. He can’t be more than 20-22 years old.

It’s Shangarh, a quiet, mountainous and rapidly developing village in the Sainj Valley in Himachal Pradesh, north India, not far from the foothills of the Himalayas.

Sushil Kumar from Bihar

I’m stopped by his warm smile, his bright blazer, the matching vibrant tones of his t-shirt and his skin, and that he’s willing to engage with me – two strangers in a land far away from home. Bihar state in eastern India is where his home is. For me, home is…it isn’t, actually. Depends on the landscape, and the company. Quiet mountains are home. Friendly, meaningful conversations. The smile of a stranger.

The rapid commercial development of Shangarh is depressing for someone like me – I prefer peace and quiet and the absence of noisy tourists with their selfie sticks. For someone like him, rapid development is survival. It means employment for him and food for his family in far away Bihar, among the poorest states in India.

He’s shy but he opens up slowly. His parents live in Bihar, he says and are as old as me, tongue firmly in cheek. All his sisters are happy, he adds. I wonder if that means he’s an only son and must work in order to raise money for his sisters’ marriages? Or whether they are married and therefore happy?

He’s been working in Shangarh for a year now. Will be there for a couple more months before going back to Bihar. The weather here is very enjoyable, he says. It is – Himachal Pradesh is at a higher altitude and enjoys much cooler weather relative to the plains.

Sushil Kumar references how tourists roam around here. He, too, likes to explore the hills of Sainj valley. A little bit. I’d like to talk more, get to know him better but we have to be on our respective ways…two strangers far from home, meeting on somewhat common ground.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

Three amigos, somewhere on the side of the road

One has the greatest belly, one has the largest nose and one sells oranges picked from the hills of nearby Darjeeling, West Bengal.

It’s a drive from Bagdogra in West Bengal to Kalimpong, further north, to lead writing workshops. Vijay Chettri, who picked me up from Bagdogra, is on the left. He used to serve in the Indian army for 26 years. Now he has his own car rental business with 4 cars. He shares great stories on the drive up.

Three amigos , each with their own greatness

On the way, we meet Diwas Thapa, a seller of handpicked oranges Rs 200 for 12. He drives a hard bargain. The oranges are a bit pricey but mostly sweet.

Both Vijay Chettri and Diwas Thapa are from the Gorkha tribe of Nepal but they were born in India. Each a character in his own right.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

Pema … always smiling

Pema, always smiling and ever graceful while she gives me a patient lesson in how her name is pronounced.

Pema runs a fruit and vegetable store in Tibetan Colony, Bir, Himachal Pradesh, near the Dhauladhar mountain range at the foothills of the Himalayas. Bir is home to paragliding as well as a thriving Tibetan community and local handicrafts. Always pleasant, the warmth of Pema’s smile adds a touch of brightness to every interaction – it’s not just a sale and I’m grateful for it. In addition to fruit and veggies, she makes and sells handmade noodles in her shop. 

When I asked her if she ever took vacations, this mother of four laughed out loud. She said that as a member of the working class, it was hard to do but she tries to take a week off once a year, just to rest and to be with her family.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

between earth and sky

Life is often a game of
how, who, when and why
…this is the truth
and that is not a lie.
Why do we have to
always choose between
earth and sky?
Why can we not
fly when we fly
cry when we cry
love when we love
and die when we die?
There’s no reason why
we need to choose
between earth and sky
between earth and sky
between earth and sky

© 2021 Marlon de Souza
for me, for you

A musical exchange…

There are stories everywhere. This one is from the Union Square subway stop in New York City. The life of a working musician is a tough one. Most of the time, it’s an unequal exchange between the value they offer society and what they receive in return.

Music, like art, dance and literature has become a pop commodity – while the stars make a very good living, the working creatives have a hard time making ends meet.

When you next hear a musician play or see a dancer perform, or see a painting or sculpture being created, donate generously, would you? Or sponsor an artist or musician. Or if you like a book, please donate to your local library. It probably may not cost you even as much as a cup of coffee but your support will make a big difference to a struggling artist, musician, dancer or writer.

© 2021 Marlon de Souza

When I stopped to listen…

Sometimes, reminders of what’s important come in surprising places…

It’s just off Herald Square, Manhattan, home to Macy’s, the famous department store – you probably know that. A gruff, tired street musician playing I Wanna Dance With Somebody on the steeldrum. The song was first sung by Whitney Houston – you probably know that, too.

He’s originally from the Caribbean…I don’t get a chance to ask from exactly where. Unlike famous stars and singers, he must work for a living every day of the week. 4-6 hours of playing on the street, in the sun and often, in the cold. Sometimes he has to dodge rude pedestrians, sometimes…crazy cyclists and often, arbitrary orders from the NYPD, New York’s Police Department. This is the life of a street musician in NYC – playing music for food, navigating the elements, navigating stuff.

He doesn’t always have the luxury of depending on the charity of strangers in NYC. The city has an overrated reputation for both kindness and meanness. And so, when I show up, he’s not in a mood to indulge my queries – I’m interrupting his work flow. If I’m interested in filming, he says, put some money in the box.

As he continues playing, I’m reminded that it’s the unknown, everyday people who make NYC real, whatever real means in a big, glamorous city filled with way too glass towers and even more giant egos.

He continues playing, and I, I listen.

Listen to my story-based podcast at http://www.StoriesIKnow.com

© 2021 Marlon de Souza.

Of course, I get tired but I must work

He drives a shared taxi in Sikkim, north east India. Seven days a week. As long as the work is there, he shows up.

As the driver of a shared taxi between Yuksom and Jorethang in Sikkim, he also doubles up as a postman, goods carrier, courier, and occasionally, local tour guide.

Family – his children, and his wife are what’s most important. They are the motivation behind the hard work that he engages in. The work is tough but it has to be done. That’s life, he says with a smile. 

© 2021 Marlon de Souza.