July 07, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dalai Lama

I wasn't planning to post today. I just finished an article on deadline and was looking forward to a day or two of writing absolutely nothing. And, OLN's Tour de France broadcast starts in 25 minutes.

But I just heard on the radio that today is the Dalai Lama's 71st birthday, and I couldn't let the day pass without wishing one of the planet's kindest souls and gentlest peacemakers a happy birthday.

Wherever we went in Lhasa and across Tibet, people would whisper, "Dalai Lama pic?" hoping we westerners had tucked a forbidden photo or two of His Holiness in our backpacks. We, the tourists, hadn't. We'd been ardently advised not to in the travel documents provided by our tour company. Attempt to enter China with photos or writings about or by the Dalai Lama and prepare to potentially spend a whole bunch of time in a cold cell was the message.

So we left our Dalai Lama pics at home. But our tour guide hadn't.

He stunned us when, at a monastery outside Lhasa, after a gaunt monk in a crimson robe peered around a painted pillar and uttered a hushed but hopeful "Dalai Lama pic?", he produced one and handed it to the monk. I shot a photo (which I'd inserted in this post then deleted, knowing this blog is read in China) of the guide giving the glorious contraband to the monk, and I held my breath from that moment until we crossed the Nepalese border two weeks later, knowing that if, for some reason, my film were seized and developed, the guide and I might go to jail. And the monk might die.

When we got to Kathmandu, I bought a bright red t-shirt with an embroidered Tibetan flag on its front, under the words, "FREE TIBET." We'd been in Kathmandu two days when I picked up a newspaper and read that, the very day we'd crossed the Tibetan-Nepalese border, two 20-something Americans had been arrested in Lhasa's Barkhor Square and imprisoned.

Their crime? Wearing "FREE TIBET" t-shirts.