Home Sweet Himalayas
It seems to human nature to gather where the food is. We cram ourselves into kitchens and gather around snack tables. Tibetans in the remote Himalayas are no different. They gather around the fire, the all-important fire. It's where the tea is brewed and the meals are cooked. It's where cold, overworked muscles come to rest and revive. It's where life happens.
Around the fire, which is the center of Tibetan homes and situated indoors, are pieces of thick carpet strategically placed in a U formation. Just like your dining room perhaps, everyone has their place. But in Tibetan culture, where one sits is much more significant than habit or preference. The father of the household takes his place at the top of the U, a spot reserved for the person of highest prominence. The only time anyone other than the father would sit there would be if a person of higher position or honor were visiting. For example, a prominent monk or leader. On the wall nearest the father's side of the U is typically a shrine for the Buddha and next to it, a portrait of the Dalai Lama -- both necessities for most Tibetan households. Nearby the religious paraphernalia are long, skinny scripture books and a prayer wheel.
Across from the father, nearest the fire, sits the mother and/or the eldest daughter. She cooks dutifully and skillfully, her blistered fingers knowing exactly when the fire is hot enough, preparing meals that have been perfected over the ages. While the food is usually full of unique flavor, the taste is not the most important factor in Tibetan cooking. Every consumable thing is packed with dense nutrients and calories. Even tea, of which there is always plenty, is made with butter from family cows or yaks. It is thick, warm, rich, and full of calories that are vital to sustaining the long, cold days in the fields. With their morning tea, they'll usually have a bit of "tsampa", a doughy ball of wheat, for added sustenance.
The middle section of the U is never empty. Tibetan village homes' doors are always open. Guests are rarely invited but always anticipated. Popping in for a hello ("Tashi delek"), a chat, and some tea or a meal is an important part of the day in village life. In the middle, other family members and guests squeeze in, get close to the fire, and chat while their food or tea is prepared. Their meals are dense with nutrients, too. Some normal meals are "thukpa", a noodle soup full of vegetables and rich broth, and "sen susha", a doughy ball and fermented cheese soup. Above the fire hangs meat to dry. Portions of it are added to meals here and there for yet more nourishment.
The room is big and open. Everything the house holds can be seen in a sweeping glance. Stones are stacked in formation all the way up to the tin roof which is blackened from years of cooking with an open flame indoors. The house is elevated off the ground and held up by tall, thin wooden pillars. Below the creaky wooden floor, underneath the house, is where the cows sleep, whose milk provides many of the vital ingredients to Tibetan meals. Along the walls are shelves lined with utensils, plates, cups, and spices. From the fire, it's not a long way to the sleeping quarters. Small beds line the walls and are stacked high with thick, neatly folded blankets to block the grueling night time cold.
After tea, the day begins. Cows are let out to graze while the family goes to work in their fields or in the forests to collect wood and manure for the fire. In front of the house, is a small yard made of laid stone tiles, and a stone wall surrounds the home. On top of the wall is more wood, and dried branches to keep the fire going throughout the day. If there is free time, women in the villages will work at their pangep benches, where they weave carpets or pangdens (an apron worn by women) and belts or jackets for the men's traditional clothing.
The fire continues throughout the day, working hard to make many cups of tea and to bring life to long days. When the fire dies out, it's time for bed. After a late dinner and a long day's work, they turn to their beds for warmth, to rest before the morning comes. For centuries, days have been live out this way. What we see when we visit these places are homes, families, and communities defined by the strength that has lived for ages. We have also learned a healthy respect for the proper cup of tea and the never-ending fire.