on travel / nomads

photography by Chelsea Batten


A few weeks ago, through the magical web of social media, I met up with Chelsea Batten for an afternoon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Chelsea is the embodiment of what I value. With few possessions packed in the trunk of her car, she roams around North America as she pleases. When she’s not writing full-time for a magazine, she conducts her own interviews on the side for a project she calls The Connoisseurs. In essence, when Chelsea’s not writing for work, she’s writing to write. This is one of the main reasons I admire her.

Another is that she has lived nomadically for a year now. (I wrote “I’m all about that” in my notebook the day after we met.) And after talking to her, I realized we’re cut from the same cloth. I can’t help but be nomadic, and neither can she. We talked about how we’re both essentially homeless; drifting from one house to another, not paying rent in any official capacity. We talked about how people react when they hear that Chelsea essentially lives out of her car, and about how difficult it is for me to answer the seemingly simple question, “where do you live?”

I’ve resided in New Hampshire since April of 2012, but since August I have been jumping from place to place each night. From houses in the Seacoast region of NH to Cambridge, MA to Portland, ME. That’s what I mean when I say I can’t help but be nomadic; even when I’m settled, I’m on the move. Although living out of a duffel bag in spare bedrooms filled with the leftover possessions of past residents has drawbacks, I would not trade the freedom and ability to move from place to place for anything.

Talking to Chelsea restored the faith I’d lost in my ability and intentions regarding travel. I felt lost, wayward, but now I see this is a powerful and radical choice in a lifestyle that ultimately satisfies me more than a permanent address and a dining room set. I realized that lost, wayward feeling was derived from an unconscious adoption of common cultural and societal misconceptions about traveling and travelers. Contrary to popular belief, we travelers are not lazy, or ungrounded, or escaping reality. Our priorities and values are not skewed just because we’re not fully satisfied with a 12-month lease or a mortgage. I know plenty of people who derive satisfaction from saving for their first home, decorating a new apartment, and working forty hours a week in a cubicle. I’m just not one of those people.

But it bears mentioning that I was born into a white, middle-class American household, endowed with the trappings of privilege, and given opportunities (namely access to a good education and the ability to travel) that I realize are not available to everyone. I also recognize that the socio-economic conditions I was born into lends itself to my nomadic lifestyle.

photo by Chelsea Batten

I flew straight back to Lhasa, Tibet the day after my college graduation to continue studying the language. Yet something about returning to Lhasa with an undergraduate degree under my belt felt wrong. I couldn’t figure out why, exactly, but the situation in Lhasa was tense, so I chalked it up to the heavily-militarized region and returned to the United States. What I didn’t see then—that I clearly realize now—was how I caved under societal expectations, believing that an upstanding US-citizen with a Bachelor’s degree should have a full-time salaried job, instead of aimlessly traveling around the world. I bought into the assumption without knowing I was being sold, returned to the US, and moved to Brooklyn to work like hell. And it was hell.

Even now, I hide my insatiable wanderlust and nomadic spirit under my MFA-in-progress, because that is a more acceptable answer to “what do you do?” than, “I live out of one duffel bag, jump around from house to house and city to city, and work as a freelance writer and editor.”

And to those who brush it off with, “it’s just a phase,” here’s my ten-year plan, characterized not by “things,” but by places and experiences:

  • Bhutan: teach; study Dzongkha, Buddhism, the ethnic cleansing during the 1990s, and the current tourism model.
  • Sikkim: study Tibetan, reach a relative point of fluency
  • Tawang, Arunchal Pradesh, India: visit the historically Tibetan territory and disputed region
  • Burma: history and recent reforms
  • Cambodia: Angkor Wat; genocide of the 1970s; travel overland to Vietnam
  • Vietnam: railroad from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and Halong Bay by boat
  • New Zealand: one year working holiday
  • Italy: study Italian
  • France: study French

Now that you’ve heard my side of the story, go read Chelsea’s account of our meeting in October, and tell me (in the comment section below): what are your views on travel, wanderlust, and ten-year plans?
Read more: on travel / wanderlust

on travel / wanderlust

on travel DFWMy older brother is hopping around Europe, taking breaks from his Italian studies to frequent junkyards for car parts and snowboard in the French Alps under the shadow of Mount Blanc (1). My younger brother is hopping across Australia, playing with kangaroos and koalas, eating vegemite, and learning some rad slang like “sunnies” (instead of “sunglasses”) (2). My father, a pilot, keeps used bicycles locked up in Paris, Barcelona, London, and other international cities so he can cruise around on layovers. At the moment, he is in who-knows-what-province of Thailand for the nation’s new year celebrations—an epic water fight called “Songkran.” A cousin of mine also traveled through Thailand recently, while his brother filmed a documentary for VICE on HBO in the Philippines and North Korea, among other places (3).

Wanderlust runs in my family; we may or may not have gypsy blood. And while everyone else travels around the globe, I’m still stationary, thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going.

on travel SF

My life looks pretty settled lately—working two jobs seven days a week, stashing some cash, carving out time to work on handmade journals, photography, and writing. Deep down, I know that all too familiar & metaphorical itching in (not on) my feet can only be cured by hopping on an airplane to a nation where I know no one, and no one knows me. Travel changes you, but I’m realizing that it’s time to change the way I travel—instead of traveling alone, venture forth with others; instead of running away from one place, run towards the next.

My days in India, Tibet, and Thailand feel decades behind me now, and I find myself walking over the cobblestone and brick of my hometown, wondering if I should find a hermitage in the woods and stay put instead. Then, I strike up a conversation with a woman from Cambodia who left in 1981, watch an episode of VICE that completely shatters my reality, and read about the fatal landslide in Tibet, 40 miles from where I lived in Lhasa (4). It makes me realize how much I’ve seen and experienced, but more importantly: how much I don’t know, and how much remains to be seen.

1. http://jakeitalia.tumblr.com/
2. http://wannagotothelanddownunder.tumblr.com/
3. http://hbo.vice.com/
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/world/asia/deadly-tibetan-landslide-draws-attention-to-mining.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Tibetan self-immolations reach Lhasa

On Sunday two young Tibetan men self-immolated in Lhasa, one of whom died at the scene before police swiftly erased any trace of the incident (BBC). I called a friend in the city, and we discussed everything other than the incident. It went unmentioned, as these things do in Lhasa, where talk is dangerous.

At least 37 Tibetans have self-immolated since March of 2011, with most of the incidents taking place in eastern Tibet, an area the Chinese government considers a part of China. Sunday’s self-immolations were the first to spread to central Tibet and its capital, and the two young men chose one of the city’s most pivotal landmarks as the backdrop to their protest against China’s repressive rule—the Jokhang Temple. Built in the 7th century, the temple is one of Lhasa’s most important Buddhist sites, and it lies at the center of the Barkor, a devotional circuit where pilgrims circumambulate and a neighborhood of sorts where many Tibetans reside. A police station is located close to the entrance, and tents are set up along the route around the temple, under which a handful of policemen sit drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Any sign of dissidence would surely be quelled instantly, but knowing this did not deter the two young men. Neither did the possibility of their death.

Up until Sunday the self-immolations occurred in places I had never before seen, and thereby could not fathom. The mind has a hard time comprehending disasters, especially in places it has never seen. Maybe this is why those who never saw the World Trade Towers standing had a difficult time interpreting the significance of their fall. Maybe this is why we photograph and film and erect museums and memorials–not to remember (because remembering is difficult) but to explain, to portray what once was.

Yet I have seen the Jokhang Temple, I have walked through the plaza countless times, and I still cannot fathom what it would be like to watch two young men light themselves on fire at the base of the enormous temple, the sheer size of which is diminished through a lens. Would they look somehow smaller in the shadow of it, or larger than life? How many would notice, but more importantly, how many would understand? How many would comprehend? How many would remember?

If the Chinese government were to have its way, no one would. In China, online searches for Jokhang Temple “turned up a message saying that according to laws and policies no search results could be shown” (NYTimes blog).

The Jokhang Temple’s main entrance, as viewed from the end of the plaza; 2011.

An image of the self-immolation in front of the Jokhang Temple, from Woeser’s blog: http://woeser.middle-way.net/2012/05/527.html

“This strip of four photos is circulating on Weibo, showing one of the self-immolations in front of the Jokhang in Lhasa on Sunday. The front of the Jokhang is visible in the first photograph, and behind it the Tashi Mandala hotel, and one of the two darchen or prayer flag poles in the square is visible in the last two photos. The pictures show a young man on fire walking across the largely deserted square as two young men run towards him with a cloth; the two young men trying to put out the fire with the cloth; two local policemen putting out the fire with a fire extinguisher and a cloth; and a western tourist taking photos.” Robert Barnett, founder and Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University

Jamphel Yeshi’s Letter

How many Tibetans must light themselves on fire in an act of protest against China’s repressive rule before the world stops to take notice? Thirty.

On Monday, a 27 year-old Tibetan man doused himself in a flammable liquid and struck a match, engulfing his body in flames as he sprinted 50 yards in the midst of an estimated 600 protesters. The method was the same as the 29 who came before him, but unlike those, Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation was set in a democratic nation, in plain view of a massive audience, and plenty of camera lenses and mobile phones captured his protest as soon as it happened. In the next twenty-four hours, the images exploded across the internet, and the story was seemingly everywhere—from news desks in Cambodia to the New York Times.

Since January alone, 18 Tibetans have self-immolated inside Tibet, but the world has seen no videos, merely pixelated cell phone images of a few of the 30 total incidents since 2009; evidence of China’s crackdown in Tibet. Jamphel Yeshi’s protest swept through the media seemingly as quickly as the flames that engulfed him, because he was visible—there was immediate access to images and witnesses, and no need to navigate the Great Firewall of China. On top of this, Jamphel Yeshi left a hand-written letter, penned on the 16th.

The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights. If you have any empathy, stand up for the Tibetan people.

We demand freedom to practice our religion and culture. We demand freedom to use our language. We demand the same right as other people living elsewhere in the world. People of the world, stand up for Tibet. Tibet belongs to Tibetans. Victory to Tibet!

In an NBC news report featuring a clip of Yeshi’s self-immolation, a professor in Hong Kong remarked that, while the Chinese government continues to offer “economic support” in Tibet, the Tibetan people are expressing that they want “more autonomy, better respect for their religion and culture.” This assertion is wrong on two counts.

First of all, many fail to express how the “economic support” hardly helps Tibetans directly, and comes at a devastating cost to freedoms of speech, religion, and movement. Likewise, infrastructure and development are contributing to catastrophic environmental issues that endanger Tibetan livelihoods in the region—these include changes in hydrology, loss of biodiversity, rampant mining and resource extraction, grassland desertification, and permafrost degradation.

Secondly, the Tibetan people are certainly not calling for “more autonomy” and “better respect for their religion and culture” because they possess neither respect nor autonomy from the Chinese government, only superficially. Each of the Tibetans who have self-immolated, along with countless others that have risen up in protest this year alone, have not called for more autonomy or respect; they have demanded freedom and/or independence, and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

On Wednesday, Jamphel Yeshi succumbed to the burns that covered ninety percent of his body, dying in a hospital bed in India. That same day, Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in New Delhi, India for the BRIC Summit, and a 20 year-old monk in eastern Tibet self-immolated and died—an indication that these tragic acts will continue.

Now that we know how many lives it costs for the world to take notice, the question remains, will people act?

More information: 

International Campaign for Tibet, Self-Immolation Fact Sheet:

Stand Up for Tibet, Self-Immolation Fact Sheet:

Stand Up for Tibet, Get Involved: http://standupfortibet.org/

News and resources:

Lhasa Rising, the official blog of Students for a Free Tibet India (contains an alternate translation):

CBC News, Tibetan sets self on fire in New Delhi protest (graphic images):

New York Times Blog, Tibetan Activist Who Self-Immolated Leaves Letter Behind:

New York Times, India Tightens New Delhi’s Tibetan Districts on Eve of Summit:

New York Times, Tibetan Exiles Rally Around Delhi Self-Immolator:

New York Times Blog Tibetan Who Self-Immolated in Delhi Dies:

BBC News, Tibetan self-immolation activist in India dies:

Wikipedia, Immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule:

Feels like Lhasa

Three young Tibetan men sit by the front window, clutching tingmo in hand, conversing in Tibetan as they dip the steamed bread into dishes teeming with meat, vegetables, and dried chillies. At the back of the restaurant, under a panoramic poster of Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, four monks share a massive hot pot with individual bowls of rice, sipping from glass bottles of Mountain Dew between fits of hysterical laughter, wiping tears from their eyes with the edges of their maroon robes. It feels like Lhasa.

Chusum Restaurant’s eight tables are usually occupied by Tibetans feasting family-style on a handful of dishes, reminisce of the back-alley tea houses in Lhasa, where small restaurants are cubby-holed throughout the ancient Barkor district. A curtain hangs over their door, the air is thick with smoke pooling out of the kitchen, and Tibetan pop songs play through tinny speakers, while Tibetans congregate at a few dusty tables with benches to share tea or a steaming bowl of soup.

However, Chusum’s menu is more extensive than the average Lhasa Tea House, with a variety of delectable dishes like stir fried greens and mushrooms, ping (glass noodles) sautéed with green onions and bok choy, shogo khatsa (a signature Tibetan dish of potatoes and spices), mutton stir-fried with vegetables and dried chilies, all accompanied by a bowl of rice or tingmo—steamed Tibetan bread. Likewise, compared to the average Lhasa Tea House altogether devoid of a menu, Chusum’s picture menu offers the comfort of actually knowing what you’re ordering. The only exception is mystery dish #23, which remains nameless on the shiny, laminated menu.

Chusum has one more thing that you won’t find in the average Lhasa Tea House—a large photograph of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, proudly enshrined over the counter. Banned in Tibet, His Holiness’ image is rarely found in Lhasa, and its presence in McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala serves as a reminder of religious freedoms that Tibetans are denied in their homeland.

Chusum Restaurant (Tibetan: ཆོལ་གསུམ་ཟ་ཁང།), located on Jogiwara Rd. (near the main square), McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, HP, India
Prices range from 40-200 Indian Rupees for dishes (USD $1-4)

Late Night Letters: Time to Say “Enough!”

Dear friends,

Thank you to all of you who heeded the call to action and pledged to Stand Up for Tibet. If you haven’t yet, there is still time to add your signature. As I write this, we are on the brink of reaching 21,000, and now that we have hit our initial goal of 20,000 by November 2nd, we are aiming higher and pushing for 30,000 signatures by Thursday, November 3rd—the day that the G20 begins in Cannes, France, and world leaders meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao. It is not too late to Stand Up for Tibet.

Sign the pledge here: http://standupfortibet.org/enough/dk-speakup-petition-1/

Continue reading

Stand Up for Tibet

This morning, I awoke to images of monks engulfed in orange flames. One was walking, the other was sprawled out on the pavement. In another photograph, a monk lay face down on the ground, his maroon robes now blackened and charred. (Warning: graphic images) Continue reading

“Peaceful Liberation” & the Potala Square

On Tuesday morning, 20,000 people gathered in the square in front of the Potala Palace, but not to protest.  They were celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the “Peaceful Liberation” of Tibet that took place when the 17-Point Agreement was signed in May, 1951. The stage was erected weeks in advance, much of Lhasa was under construction during the winter and spring, and government officials arrived on Sunday for one week of ceremonies and celebrations–the details of which were kept under wraps.

One thing was a given, that the Potala would serve as the backdrop.  The Chinese government loves using the Potala Palace as its flagship image for their Tibet propaganda. Completed in the late 1600s, the building sits thirteen stories high atop a hill overlooking Lhasa, holds over 1,000 rooms, exquisite temples, ancient scriptures, and remains of previous Dalai Lamas. No other buildings in the city rival the Potala’s height. It made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994, and the Chinese government has plastered the image of the palace on everything from tourism brochures to beer and barley wine bottles and cans ever since. Not only is the Potala Palace a representation of incredible architectural feats and traditional Tibetan design, to the Chinese government it represents the backbone of a feudal society whose serfs were “liberated” by Mao and the People’s Republic of China 60 years ago.

In the early 1900s, the city of Lhasa was largely undeveloped.

In 2005, the Chinese government cleared the area in front of the Dalai Lama’s winter residence to make way for the new square and the “Tibet Peaceful Liberation Monument” that lay in the center. May 23, 2006 marked 50 years since the signing of the 17-Point Agreement, and the abstract representation of Mt. Everest was unveiled.  In front of the monument, embedded under the concrete, are water fountains synchronized with lights and music, giving the square a Disney-esque look and feel for the tourists who visit each night in the summer. Except for this year.

The Potala Square as viewed from the Potala Palace, December 2010

Lhasa has been banned to foreign travelers since June, and an article published on Saturday by AFP noted that the government is now restricting the number of Chinese tourists to the region. The fact that the number of domestic Chinese tourists traveling to Tibet is restricted is a sure sign that the situation is dire. Lhasa is cut off from the rest of the world, showing that there is fear of potential unrest, and most likely an increased military and security presence in the city–which is not something the government wants foreigners to view.

A China Daily article recounted what the government wanted people to see–Tuesday’s event, which included a speech by Vice President Xi Jinping, who claimed that “speeding up development holds the key to resolving all issues in Tibet”. The article launched into accounts of government aide to Tibetans, noting that Xi’s delegation brought pressure cookers and solar-powered TV sets to villages in Tibet.  Praise was given for the increased number of cars in towns and cities in Tibet, as well as one man’s opportunity to work in a cement factory ten months out of the year, rather than toil at his previous occupation as a farmer.

What the article omitted were the harsh realities of Tibet’s political and cultural oppression, and the continued economic and societal marginalization of Tibetans, despite the government’s attempt to buy Tibetans’ loyalties. It left out the fact that nomadic communities are being forced off of their land to make way for mining operations that destroy the land and poison the waters that flow downstream to 47% of the world’s population; that nomads are forced to slaughter their animals and move into ghetto-style housing blocks, where rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide are on the rise; that the grasslands are turning into deserts because there are no nomads grazing their animals, whose traditional practices aerate and fertilize the soil, keeping the grasslands healthy and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Apparently pots and pans and television sets are more important.

Read more:


Celebration marks peaceful liberation (China Daily)

Beijing curbs China tourism to Tibet: travel agents (AFP)


Read more at Students for a Free Tibet’s blog

Artist or Splittist?

In New York, everyone is an artist.  The city is a melting pot of musicians, writers, painters, poets, printmakers, and the like.  The streets are flooded with guerilla art, words and pictures scrawled onto sidewalks, spray paint dripping off the brick, and posters peeling from the plaster. Museums aplenty. Neighborhood cafes and restaurants, whose walls are lined with the work of local artists, act as second homes to caffeinated writers busily scribbling over cups of coffee, and at nighttime they become meeting places where muses emerge, a cacophony of traffic, chatter, and music filling the air.

Countless invisible artists, some craving international recognition, creating to hearts’ content without having to worry about being imprisoned for a seemingly simple act of self-expression.

In Tibet and China, writers and artists strive for a different kind of recognition—not one bred out of a vain self-interest, but of the innate human desire for freedom.  It is work created under unimaginable stress, work that the artists realize could cost them their very lives, and even the lives of their families.

Pema Rinchen, a 25 year-old writer from Eastern Tibet was arrested on Tuesday, July 5th. Rinchen had been a monk when he was a child.  He began writing, and self-published a Tibetan language book titled Look, which commented on China’s policies in Tibet, the crackdown in 2008, and criticized the government’s reaction to the Yushu earthquake.  Two thousand copies of his book were printed, and Pema Rinchen personally traveled around Tibet to distribute them.  When he was detained on Tuesday, police beat him so severely that he was hospitalized the following day.  His family rushed to see him when they heard, but police blocked their way.  His whereabouts and his fate are currently unknown.

One month prior, another Tibetan writer had been sentenced to four years in jail.  Tashi Rabten was nearly done with university when he was detained over a year ago in April. A writer and editor for a Tibetan-language magazine called Shar Dungri—or Eastern Snow Mountain in English—he also co-authored a series of essays entitled Written in Blood. The magazine had been banned, along with the essays, given that they boldly addressed China’s policies, and the crackdown after the 2008 uprisings. Three other Tibetans who worked on the magazine with Rabten were also detained and given similar sentences.

Dhondup Wangchen was arrested in March of 2008 and is serving a six-year prison sentence in a labor camp.  His crime? Creating a documentary film, Leaving Fear Behind, which recorded Tibetans’ thoughts and views of the Beijing Olympics and the situation inside Tibet.  In prison, he has been tortured and contracted Hepatitis B.  His wife, Lhamo Tso, fled to India with their two young daughters, where she actively campaigns for his release.

In Tibet and China, writers and artists are enemies of the state.  “Splittists,” is what they call them, their only crime being that of free speech and self-expression. Once upon a time, in July in the 1770s, the United States was founded on the pens of writers and artists like Thomas Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin, whose words and ideas sparked a revolution and wrought independence from Great Britain. Over 200 years later, a Tibetan renaissance is exploding across the plateau, with writers and artists emerging through monastery walls and prison bars, pen in hand, producing exquisite and bold works in the face of China’s iron fist–knowing full well of the possible consequences.

Artists and writers are dangerous, their work contagious, and they can only be contained for so long.

Read more:

“Tibetan writer detained, feared savagely beaten” 8 July

Tibetan writer Tashi Rabten sentenced to four years in Ngaba (ICT)

Tibet: Editor Sentenced to Prison (NYTimes)

China jails young Tibetan writer: rights group (AFP)

“Caught in Nepal: Photographs by Tibetan Refugees”

Skip your morning latte and donate a few bucks to this project, which gave cameras to Tibetans trapped in Nepal so that they could document their lives. Your donation will help publish the book.

Read more and watch a video here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/732122400/caught-in-nepal-photographs-by-tibetan-refugees

Tibetans have no legal status in Nepal. They are not allowed to own property or their own businesses and therefore lack the foundation to improve their opportunities. They are not allowed to register the births or marriages that take place within their families. Their children are not allowed to attend Nepali schools…Nepal is a dead end from which the refugees see no escape.


I have no affiliation with this book or the author, I just came across this online and wanted to share it with others.  Thank you.