Tango, Toilet Conversion, Tibetan Elders and the National Dish of Bhutan

“For only $85 you are welcome to, but not required to, sponsor a toilet during this event,” read the tri-fold color brochure from the Himalayan Elders Project.

The copy went on to say that the Himalayan community of New York was throwing an unprecedented dinner party featuring cuisine prepared and served by members of the unique cultures that make up the mountainous region. Funds raised from the Himalayan food festival were to benefit the Toilet Conversion Project. The flier was also illustrated with color photos of toilets, lids up, and ready to go. Curious as to what in the heck a toilet fundraiser entailed, and although Himalayan and cuisine are two words I’d never used in the same sentence—at least not above 16,000 feet, I felt this was an event I could get behind.

Earlier that day, my friend, and sometime Argentine tango partner Bruce asked me if I wanted to stop off at a Himalayan food festival in Elmhurst before an evening of tango in Astoria. Even though I prefer dancing tango on an empty stomach, because I don’t want it or the remembrance of garlic and onions past to come between my partners and me, I just couldn’t pass up an evening of interborough-globetrotting. I thought it would be nice to break bread—or roti—with some Sherpa (etymologically speaking: people from the east). Though this time it would be a lot closer to home, east of Manhattan, in the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world; Queens.

The Himalaya has been the stuff of my dreams. I love its sparsely populated, remote, magnificent high places. Ever since I first glimpsed the colossal, snowy-peaked mountain range from the flat, potted-plant safety of the roof garden of my hotel in Gangtok, India—I was hooked. I was captivated from the moment I met our pack animals; a train of shaggy, snorting, bell clanging yaks in the Indian Himalaya. I welcomed the challenge of pin-balling my way through a far-as-the-eye-can-see boulder field in Bhutan, with no real discernable trail—save for a muddy yak print now and then. I was awestruck when at 18,000 feet I first sighted the East Face of Everest from Tibet. It took my breath away—literally.

When I’m home at sea level, I do whatever I can to evoke these adventures. Whether it’s cinching up my backpack and hiking the Hudson Highlands, or whether I’m chatting with an Uber-driving New York City Nepalese Sherpa, I’m brought right back to the Roof of the World.

Looking forward to a banquet of Himalayan fare, and wondering what toilets were being converted to, I invited my adventure-travel trekking buddy Fran. As the event was practically in her neighborhood, she readily accepted. Plans made, Bruce and I hopped on the R Broadway local in Manhattan and popped up in Elmhurst. We joked along the way: Why wasn’t a fundraiser for toilets being held in Flushing?

The benefit took place at the United Sherpa Association’s gonpa, or temple. The gonpa was housed in a modest, deconsecrated red brick church that was built in 1947. With its Gothic pointed arch roof and trefoil window, it looks like your typical neighborhood place of worship. Though now in its new incarnation, with its vermillion carved columns and its vividly painted, handcrafted cornice in the Tibetan style, it’s immediately obvious that this building is no longer a Lutheran church. The outside is adorned with primary-colored Buddhist prayer flags. They spread good will and compassion throughout the Elmhurst neighborhood, as they flutter in the wind.

Bruce and I met up with Fran in the wood paneled basement of the former church. In its six decades, the community rec-room had likely seen its share of raffles, bingo games and AA meetings. But now it hosts the teachings of the Buddha, religious festivals, and Tibetan language and dance classes. That same day, they’d also hosted a dice game competition: The New York Sho Championship. This lively game is played by slamming down a wooden dice cup onto a yak-leather pad that sits in the center of a clockwise spiral of shells. Sho is traditionally a gambling game played by men.

The gathering had the joyous camaraderie of multigenerational families at a rural, mountainside Sherpa grange hall. Kids were running about as wizened elders quietly counted their prayer beads, their faces permanently ruddy and weather beaten from years of cooking over yak-dung fires in windswept mountains. The younger had the smooth skin of a city life spent indoors with gas ranges and central heat. But all of them, and their forbears were connected in some way to the 1500-mile-long Himalayan range.

Even though we were in a 1970’s nondescript brown-paneled cellar, the people in the room evoked the majesty of the Himalaya. Many wore traditional clothing, with layers of vivid hued textiles from their varied homelands. Some women wore a chuba, Tibet’s national dress: an ankle-length robe that’s wrapped and tied with a wide sash, topped by a colorful three-column striped apron, known as a pangden. Originally the apron was utilitarian, worn as an extra layer in the frigid high peaks, used a hot pot mitt when cooking over a fire, or as a handy cloth to wipe a child’s face. The pangden became a sign of marital status; modern Tibetan women now wear this distinctive garment as pure ornament.

I spotted a few young women who were obviously Bhutanese, decked out in the country’s unique, elegant traditional finery: the kira. This brightly colored, intricately handwoven long dress (though some choose the more modern half-kira), and is worn with a wide-cuffed blouse. Putting on a kira takes some skill and dexterity to negotiate its seven steps of draping, wrapping and tucking. The origami-like folded garment is then fastened at the shoulders with ornate silver clasps.

We helped ourselves to steaming cups of butter tea that tasted like a salty broth, and took our seats as we waited for the event to commence. Sonam Sherpa, one of the evening’s hosts, stepped up onstage sporting an embroidered, side-buttoned tunic. With microphone in hand, he thanked us for coming and began to explain in Tibetan and in English the purpose of the fundraiser.

He told us that the Toilet Conversion Project was an initiative to convert squat-style toilets into Western upright ceramic models. It was conceived earlier that year when the founders of the New York Himalayan Elders Project traveled to northern India to meet with older Tibetans. In talking with these seniors, they discovered that many were hesitant to use the ground-level toilets for fear of injury; and so identifying an easily fixable quality-of-life issue. The issue being that a squatting toilet, as the name implies, requires one to squat while using it. Resting on one’s haunches is a natural position for elimination, letting gravity do the work and making the process more complete as it were. Even though many of the toilets have rope handholds to assist, it’s getting up from a crouching position that presents the problem. This is especially difficult for those of advanced age, and those with mobility challenges. As a result, many seniors are hesitant to drink water or countless cups of beloved yak butter tea. While trying to avoid the risk of breaking a hip, they are in danger of becoming dehydrated. Not to mention that a squatting privy is certainly a place where one might like to avoid any I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up situations.

During my treks through the Himalaya, I’d had many opportunities to visit and utilize some of the region’s diverse and challenging WC facilities. Some of which were downright life-threatening, like the one that had me balancing over a dugout pit in a sentry-like canvas toilet-tent teetering on a Nepalese mountainside. One wrong move would have required crevasse rescue. And there was the one in Ladakh, where I had to clamber up a slapdash, bamboo-rung ladder to a two-story-long-drop, reeking open-air outhouse—that had a downward sloping slippery mud floor with a hole big enough to fall into—in the rain!

Although the squatters that were ripe for the Toilet Conversion Project were indoor private privies that mostly sat on level ground, harmless enough for those with good balance and quad strength, they were none-the-less treacherous for the elderly Tibetans.

Sonam explained in more detail that since the water pipes and septic systems were already in place, this simple plumbing job could easily bring relief to many. The cost of replacing the old porcelain floor-level style toilets with gleaming new Western throne models would be $85 each. If we’d like to make the extra contribution, we could sponsor a toilet. Perhaps in the same spirit as commemorating a park bench or adopting a highway—brass plaque included?

Then he announced that dinner was served. He asked that in keeping with their deep respect for elders, please allow those of advanced age to be the first in line at the buffet table. Fran, Bruce and I waited patiently, sipping our butter tea and chatting with the young couple seated near us. We waited for the dozen or so senior guests to help themselves to dinner. We waited for an elderly man to stop working his prayer beads and get in line. We scanned the room and looked toward the food tables to get an idea of when it might be our turn, but hardly anyone had lined up. It suddenly occurred to me that as I was on the downward slope of my 50s, and Fran was at the tail end of her 60s, that we were the elders! The two of us burst out laughing.

We left Bruce seated—he’s just a kid in his 40s—and stepped up to fill our plates. We scanned the row of canned-heat steam trays that were piled high with rice, noodle and meat dishes. The first corrugated aluminum pan was stacked with a mountain of shaphaley (Tibetan beef patties), that’s served with the requisite hot, red chili sauce. We were served a helping of Sikkim satchu, a smoking-hot dried beef curry. Next was a tray of fiery-orange shogo khatsa, a potato dish from Kalimpong; a hill station home to the Indian Army’s 27thMountain Division. We moved along to a chafing dish of a sweat-inducing pork stew with fermented bamboo shoots, a traditional dish from Nagaland; known for its historic rituals of feasting and head hunting.

But the spiciest of them all was ema datshi, the national dish of Bhutan, a concoction of surprising ingredients: a burning mix of red and green chilies floating in a cheesy sauce made from yak or cow’s milk curd. Bhutanese cooking is not for the faint of heart. They consider the chili a vegetable, and not a spice. Making it more Tex-Mex than Indian Subcontinent. The first time I’d tried this comfort food (in Bhutan), I was launched into a desperate panic for a frosty Corona, or its local equivalent, or anything at all that could quench and prevent myself from going into complete shock.

I noticed that one of the event’s other hosts, Thupten Chakrishar was not partaking in the banquet.  When I asked him why, laughing, he said that the food was too spicy and burned just as much on the way out as on the way in. His unselfconscious manner and matter-of-fact way of alluding to a bowel movement (at a buffet dinner no less), was in keeping with the evening. It occurred to me that during the entire toilet-conversion presentation, there was a noticeable absence of nervous laughter—and no potty humor. If this had been a community meeting in my neighborhood, the embarrassed chortling and lavatorial jokes would have been flying.  But a gathering like this would not have happened in my increasingly homogeneous and ever- gentrifying region of the world, Hoboken, New Jersey.

At the end of the evening’s events, we bid farewell to our hosts. “Tashi Delek,” we said, which is Tibetan for may all auspicious signs come to this environment. Bruce and I then said goodbye to Fran and ducked underground again, only to emerge five stops later in Astoria for the dancing portion of our evening. On our walk from the subway to the Centro Español de Queens where the Astoria Tango Club meets, I couldn’t help but marvel at this community’s mix of cultures that lived and worked shoulder-to-shoulder and storefront-to-storefront, home to a United Nation’s worth of peoples, languages and cuisines. The neighborhood was bustling and chockablock with bodegas, trattorias, tavernas, taquerias, tapas bars and shawarma shops.

It made me think about this nation of ours—an America of and built by immigrants. Not that long ago, had I spent the same evening in Queens, I would have had a cheery story to tell of savoring and partaking in so many diverse cultures that are just a stone’s throw, and two river crossings from my home. From a Himalayan feast benefiting Tibetan elders in India to dancing the Argentine tango at a Spanish heritage social-club. I knew none of the languages, knew only small amounts about these cultures, customs and ancestral lands, yet I was welcomed just the same.

But now, in our climate of legislated cruelty, a happy story is becoming harder to tell. As I witness our administration’s assault on immigrants and asylum seekers, I fear for all those who’ve become refugees overnight, and who have to constantly look over their shoulders. I imagine that now, on the walls of the kitchens in the restaurants that line Steinway Street, next to the requisite safety posters on how to aid choking victims, there are public notices with step-by-step instructions on what to do when ICE calls.

As a third-generation Jewish immigrant, whose grandparents left Lithuania fleeing anti-Semitism, I realize how naïve  I have been. It has taken Charlottesville and Squirrel Hill to shake me from my complacency. My parents, born in the 1930’s have never forgotten; and have always known how tenuous assimilation is.

As Bruce and I made our way from the subway to the Astoria Tango Club with the promise of a wonderful night of dancing, I was acutely aware of my freedom to move (and dance) through society—as I please. I walked with my tango shoes in one hand, and my dubious white privilege in the other, unremarkable, undisturbed, un-deported.

I spoke with Thupten Chakrishar a few weeks later and was heartened to learn that the benefit had raised enough money to help 45 families upgrade to upright plumbing.  When I find myself distraught by the deep divide in our country, it helps me to remember that kindness is always number one.  And in the case of the Toilet Conversion Project, it is also number two.


©Nancy Green 2018