At the sacred cave we visited outside Labrang, there was one moment when the darkness surrounded us. We had ventured (at least into what felt like) down to the belly of the earth, where the gentle rays of the sun could no longer reach us. Our headlamps guided us through our fears, and our peers alleviated our spirits from the natural ponderings of “what ifs” and our hidden memories of childhood ghost stories. We turned off our headlamps and abruptly ended our relieving chitter chatter to give room for the darkness to sink in. Having our eyes open or closed changed nothing, and we had to learn to see without our eyes. A tender drip of water on my rain jacket became an explosive sound and the calm flow of water in the nearby underground stream roared into my ears. The scent of mildew in the air plunged through my nostrils going deep into my lungs, painstakingly reminding me of my asthmatic, feeble body’s twofold attitude to the air we breathe – as the barer of life but also of tiny particles making it harder for the air to be absorbed. I grabbed the earth underneath me to feel stable, to rely on the only solidity I knew would vanquish my unearthed fears. The aroma of salt arose as I crumbled the limestone through my fingers, allowing the firmness of the rock to ground me. A quiet squeak of rubber rubbing onto that same ground I was seizing, no more than three feet away, quieted my fears and allowed me finally to take in the experience as I had wanted to – with awe and amazement.
I had never been to China before, and I don’t speak the language, and yet I am leading a group of ten teenagers in this foreign and forgiving land. Since I lack the most basic of communication skills I am left to rely on my other senses. I speak with my hands and exaggerate my facial expressions. I hop on every chance I get to show my good intentions to the people here. I look for opportunities to communicate through doing, instead of being, whether it is cooking in the kitchen, or playing soccer with the kids on the street. Similar my conclusions from the cave, I find that only upon losing the sense we rely on the most can we discover and explore the world and ourselves in a different way. The challenges I have been required to overcome would have seemed the most simplistic in a language I control fluidly: paying a taxi driver the correct amount, buying coffee without milk or sugar. But this inability or lack of fluent communication has allowed me to see the very things my eyesight would have so easily skipped over. As my co-staff both speak fluently, I am the one who tends to wonder and wander off during the incomprehensible conversations that fly over my head, and I seek to figure out this unfamiliar land with my over accentuated sense of non-verbal communication. How I have come to value the precious time that comes with the lack of understanding. It allows me to notice the little things that I never would have taken the time to really see: The homes that are built from brick and mud interchangeably; The shelves in the homes haphazardly arranged by string hanging from the ceiling; The electricity sockets sticking out of the wall nonchalantly; The washing machine that needs to moved outside to the central communal space because it’s the only place with running water; The visibly photo shopped center piece in the living room of a traditional Tibetan artist’s house; The shiny color of a spicy red pepper; The delicate stench of grey water coming from the massive water infrastructure the flows freely in the streets. The stark contrast that arises from every vantage point combining sacredness and trash, history and development, a sense of past and future that merges into this newly found modernity that is similar to ours, and yet remains so foreign.