Instant Karma

Take three travelers, a nation of Buddhists, and one unfortunate rodent. Add a forbidden journey and a dark childhood secret, and you could have the time of your lives.

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I killed the rat. Even though the woman who swept the courtyard told me I would bring bad karma upon myself. The rat was menacing the bunk room. It was a big, oily sewer rat. Every night it crept into the room after we were asleep and clawed into our backpacks, gorging itself. One night it leaped onto the face of a Danish girl and got its claws tangled in her long blond hair. She woke up screaming. Enough is enough.

The woman who swept the stone courtyard wore a traditional Tibetan gown, trim and dark, and had plaited her raven hair into a thick braid. She came from a remote village and was a devout Buddhist. She looked into my face and told me no one sold rattraps in Lhasa. In the market I found almost everyone sold heavy, serrated, spring-loaded metal rattraps. I bought one and baited it with a cube of yak meat and placed it under my bunk. I heard the loud snap around midnight, the desperate thumping, a final jerk. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and slept soundly.

In the morning the woman was solemn and anxious, but the travelers staying in the bunk room were relieved. Killing the rat is how I became friends with Maury and Brigitte.

"Thanks," Brigitte said. "No one else would have done it."

"I know I wouldn't have," Maury said.

Brigitte was a Canadian physics student, a climber with blue, round doll's eyes. She was traveling alone. She carried her Tibetan phrase book everywhere she went, and despite all the laughter she provoked she was actually learning Tibetan. She would eventually be invited to Geneva to earn her Ph.D.

Maury was a tall, beach-blond Aussie, a former lifeguard who became an itinerant carpenter in Vancouver, building decks half the year and traveling the other half. He loved to dive and knew every brilliant blue-water lagoon from Honduras to Hong Kong.

That evening, with a ratless night to look forward to, Maury and Brigitte and I went out together to celebrate. On the way to the restaurant Maury bought a case of bottled beer and carried it lightly on his shoulder. We laughed so hard and stayed out so late that we were locked out and had to pound on the great wooden gate to get in.

The next day, hanging out in the courtyard in the cold sunshine, I asked each of them if they were up for something illegal.

"What do you think, mate?" said Maury, breaking into his habitual smile.

"Always," said Brigitte. I didn't know if this was true or not.

I wanted to go to Lhamo Latso, the holiest lake in Tibet. I'd been hearing about the lake since my first journey to Tibet, in 1984. One day in the slums of Delhi, where the beggar children with limbs broken backward by their parents peer up from the ground, I had found a book titled The Power-Places of Central Tibet for sale between an Indian tome on sexual positions and a photo-biography of the Beatles. In it there was a description of Lhamo Latso: "It is Tibetan belief older than Buddhism that every individual, every family, and an entire country, possesses a 'life-spirit' called la. This la is embodied in natural phenomena, such as mountains, lakes, trees, and so on. When the place of residence of the la is damaged, the individual, family, or nation suffers directly. Thus when a lake that is the home of the la dries up, this omen of death and disaster can inflict the terrible result that is presaged. The 'life-spirit' of Tibet is identified with Lhamo Latso."

Lhamo Latso is also the geographical life-spirit for all Dalai Lamas. It is a surprisingly small lake, a tiny oval barely recognizable on a map, located a hundred miles southeast of Lhasa near the head of the Metoktang Valley. Over the centuries, most Dalai Lamas made a pilgrimage to this oracle. By staring into its cold, lapping waters, each Dalai Lama could divine essential clues to who his reincarnation would be. When the 13th Dalai Lama died suddenly in 1933, the Regent of Tibet made a pilgrimage to Lhamo Latso, where, transfixed by the turquoise water, he had a vision that gave exact details for finding his spiritual leader's reincarnation, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama—until then an unknown two-year-old boy living in a lost yak-dung village in central Tibet.

I had food, tents, and camping gear left over from an aborted expedition, but neither Maury nor Brigitte had come to Tibet prepared to live out in the cold, so we went shopping. In lieu of a cheap Chinese army slicker that Maury thought too expensive, he bought himself an enormous white plastic gunnysack. We cut out holes for his head and arms, and he pulled it on and tied a rope around his waist.

"You look like a priest from the Middle Ages," Brigitte said.

"You know it gets cold above 15,000 feet," I told him.

"No drama," said Maury—Aussie for "don't worry"—and donned a green felt fedora he'd purchased instead of a Tibetan sheepskin cap.

Brigitte borrowed my fleece pants and bought herself a Tibetan scarf and a floppy wool cap. She would stay bundled in them for the next two weeks.

The Chinese were requiring foreigners to hire a guide, a driver, and a jeep and to obtain (i.e., buy) three or four permits for any travel outside Lhasa. We couldn't have received permission to go to Lhamo Latso in any case; it was deep inside an off-limits chunk of Tibet the size of Texas, and four days of hard mountain hiking from the nearest road.

We sneaked out of town before dawn, catching a lift on a local bus overloaded with Tibetans bundled up like Inuits, the bus driver eyeing us in a shard of mirror. We hid under the seats at security checkpoints. Where the bus U-turned we jumped out and started walking away fast, not looking back, not turning around, expecting to be stopped and questioned and perhaps jailed, but it didn't happen. We negotiated a ride with a well-connected local, sardined into the back of his jeep, and he drove us straight past every dusty roadblock with a grin and a wave.

At dusk the jeep dropped us near the head of the Metoktang Valley. We slipped across the Tsangpo River on a tank-wide suspension bridge that was inexplicably unguarded, hiked up into the mouth of the canyon, and pitched camp in a muddy field encircled by apricot trees. I couldn't believe how lucky we'd been. Lying in my bag, I must have said so out loud.

"No such thing, mate," whispered Maury from the other tent. Brigitte was already curled up asleep beside me.

"What's that?"

"No such thing as luck."


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