Dawa Drolma (my traveling partner)’s best friend from university works in Shangri-la, and she was thrilled to be able to meet up with her. Abby, a designated American name from school, is a charming young woman and it was a pleasure to have her helpful presence. Also a former student of Michelle’s, she spoke a fair amount of English. She and Dawa Drolma were, indeed, very close and it was quite interesting to observe the sweetness of their reunion. Abby, whose name is Dolma, is quite fashionable, and by the time we parted ways, Dawa’s wardrobe had taken on an air of glitzy chic. They were like sisters…teenage sisters. Annoying and charming at the same time.
Dolma asked if we would like to visit her village, and I, of course, jumped at the chance. A home visit, especially staying a noght or so with a local, beats the tourist path anyday. She told me she had two sisters living with her mother, one of whom was blind. Also, that her father and mother had separated, and as a result, when her eldest sister married, her husband came to live with her in her mother’s home. Usually, a married woman goes to live with her husband’s family. In this case, because the household was lacking a male, it was considered diminished in social stature and perhaps even unstable. ???? The house was now blessed with the indomitable energy of two children, Dolma’s niece, ????, about 4, and her nephew, ????, 8?.
Of course, the significance of these details didn’t register with me. I was pleased that I had purchased some Nivea creme for myself, and as I hadn’t used any, I had a gift for this blind girl. Shallow concern, but innocent.
We had a lovely few days exploring the Kham village of Hongpo. Situated along at the base of a sacred mountain along a few mile stretch of a beautiful tributary, walnut trees grow alongside prickly pear cactus, and the stream bubbles gently down the hillside. The village is well situated, with a culvert-like diversion heading right past most dwellings, so water is easily accessible, altho if one lives downstream, as my friends do, then it behooves one to arrise early so as to get un polluted water. The have devised an interesting way of pputting a stick in water to create a little spout. Then the kettle is positioned so the water goes right in and the pot does not have to be submerged. Clever.
The ride to the village had been breathtaking, both in scenery and in terror. While the main road from ShangriLa was well maintained, even paved with cobblestones for many miles over the pass ( just think of the people laying those stones), the road to Hongpo village was a frightening affair…especially when one looked back across a traverse to see a thin shell of pavement held up by a few sticks. Never mind that the road was simply a narrow shelf zig-zagging up a sheer, rubbly drop-off.
I spent several days photographing the village and meeting Dolma’s neighbors. Oddly, there was no blind sister. Since Dolma had gone out of her way to tell me about her, there was a quiet gaping hole, but something kept me from asking about her.
Finally, the last afternoon of our stay, Dolma asked me if I would like to meet Gyi’an. “Of course,” I said. And I was truly looking forward to the introduction. We, Dolma, Dawa Drolma, and I went out behind the house, past the pig sty to the animals cribs, and a pathetic, thin person emerged, wearing a hat with a very long duck bill. The sight was disturbing and confusing. Then Dolma explained she lived there. Still confused, I caught a glimpse of her face and didn’t believe what I saw. It was a very brief glance, and I imagined that I had been mistaken. But I had not. One of Gyi’an’s eyes protruded out of the socket, a shiny translucent mass about the size of a golf ball. Her other eye was a goopy glob of total blindness. Otherwise a beautiful eighteen year old, Gyi’an was a freak. And one in agony. The bulging eye caused searing pain unless she was perfectly still.
Dolma’s mom asked me to photograph the blind girl, and thinking she wanted to include Gyi’an in the family album, as it were, I worked with the waning light of the last day we were there, positioning her cap just so to make a very nice picture camouflaging her deformity. When I showed it to ________ , Dolma’s mom, she emphatically indicated “no.” She wanted me to photograph Gyi’an’s blind eyes and show the photos to western doctors to see if they could help.
This was quite remarkable, as tradition has it that Western doctors should never be consulted. Had Giy’an had seen an ophthalmologist when she was four, her glaucoma could have been successfully treated. But, for whatever reason, __________ had changed her mind. It was now that Gyi’an’s mom was ready to look outward, for she asked me to bring Gyi’an’s plight to the attention of the western world.