I Can’t Believe it’s Butter Tea | Madeline Chu

I can't believe it's butter tea

The only place to sit was on the grate ventilating the bathrooms below.  The bathrooms consisted of a hole in the ground and Buddha-willing, enough toilet paper left on the roll.  For the first time, I was grateful for the limb-numbing February weather in the Himalayas. I didn’t want to imagine how the smell from the bathroom would multiply if it was summer.

Yes, I was also grateful for this rare opportunity to visit Dharamasala, the home of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans in exile.  His Holiness gives a teaching every Tibetan new year, and Tibetans, Mongolians, Burmese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Europeans, and Americans like me travel to this mountain to hear his enlightened words.  But it was the fifth day of the teachings, and every time one of the bathroom doors swung open to release a waft of stinking molecules into my nostrils, all the spoiled ungrateful thoughts would stomp angrily on the grateful thoughts.

Madeline used to write stories about riding spaceships through outer space and flying to exotic worlds. She’s not sure she’ll be able to do the outer space part in this lifetime, but she still plans to explore the unknown on this planet and see what mysterious lessons await her. In the meantime, home is in Southern California where she lives, laughs, and loves with her husband J. 

I didn’t want to admit it, but I had set myself up.   I’d always been addicted to the euphoria of travel and romanticized the Frommers and Rick Steve ideal.  I still reminisced about the month I backpacked through Europe, riding on overnight trains and subsisting on crusty baguettes and buttery croissants.  What I didn’t understand was that Europe≠India.

When my husband J and I found out we would be able to join a group of students to India, we figured it was perfect timing since we were still young and didn’t have kids yet.  We began packing immediately.  But I also packed along my European croissant fantasies and brought them all the way to Dharmasala, where it was 30 degree Fahrenheit at best and many of the people who lived there only had one sweater for their entire lives.

I needed a cold slap in the face.  His Holiness and Dharmasala knew this because that’s what they gave me.  I guess you could say it was fitting.  Buddha  means “awake” in Sanskrit, and although I’m still far from a fully awakened and enlightened being, when I was huddled under my wool shawl and snarking on my fellow Dharma brothers, I undoubtedly deserved a wakeup call from the selfish cloud of expectations.

Among my luggage was a list of things I wanted to do and try in Dharmasala. Obviously, seeing the Dalai Lama, learning more about the foundations of Buddhism, and all that wonderful karmic stuff, etc. were near the top.  But my remedial mind also veered towards the buttery croissant and crusty baguette venues.  I couldn’t wait for thrilling new experiences overflowing with Tibetan food and culture—i.e. I intended to eat lots of momos and drink gallons of butter tea.

Ah, momos.  The name alone made it extremely desirable even though they were really just dumplings.  Being Chinese, I’d consumed quite a sizable amount of dumplings in my lifetime.  But these Tibetan dumplings were adorably plump packages with a doughy swirl on top. Like most dumplings of the Asian origin, there were steamed momos, pan fried momos, and momos to be put in an assortment of noodle soups.   I imagined piles of crisp, tender, and soupy momos just waiting to visit my stomach. And being able to say momo and eat a momo at the same time was an experience I deemed a high priority when going to Dharmasala.

Then there was Tibetan butter tea.  Butter tea is a staple in the Tibetan diet.  Hot tea mixed with yak butter and salt provides warm nourishment in the cold windy plateaus.  A friend once told me he had butter tea at a Tibetan-style restaurant and he raved about its amazingly deliciousness. “It tastes like salty buttery popcorn.  I had three cups with my dinner!”

I love salt, I love butter, and I love popcorn.  Tibetans make it into a tea and you don’t even have to chew. I couldn’t wait to grab a mug of butter tea between my greedy little hands and slurp away.

My traveling companions and the people I was bound to meet were afterthoughts to me.   Momos and butter tea had taken precedence over real live human interaction.  And then there was receiving wisdom from the Dalai Lama.  Obviously this was a rare and awesome opportunity, but that’s exactly what I thought of it as—a very cool experience to share stories about when we returned home.   I was just begging to be cold-slapped.

So J and I were in Dharmasala.  Our group had arrived the night before after an 18-hour bus ride from New Delhi.  In a nutshell, the 18-hour experience was: entirely packed, passengers vomiting, no bathrooms, no air conditioning, no suspension but lots of unpaved roads with large stones and huge ditches.  Don’t worry though, I was still riding on images of European croissants, so I was able to shake off the bus ride.  I was more focused on my first cup of butter.

J, however, hadn’t been too lucky.  He’d already been hit by what they call “New Delhi Dumps.” This, of course, was to be expected.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Indian bacteria our American stomachs have never met.  There was inevitably going to be a fight over territory.   So J was, shall we say, not very keen on the idea of butter tea.

The teachings weren’t going to start until the next day, so J and I ventured to Dharmasala’s marketplace to prepare.  We wanted to buy soft square cushions to protects our butts while sitting on the cold cement of the monastery, as well as two metal thermoses. Hot tea was supposed be served at both morning and afternoon sessions.  “Oh yeah,” I grinned to myself, “I’m getting my butter tea fix at least twice a day.”

In the market area, people milled around the street hawkers who were selling trinkets and souvenirs.   Monastics mingled together with the laypeople in front of the stores and inside the restaurants.  From the color of their robes, I could tell who was Vietnamese (grey), Tibetan (maroon and gold), and Mongolian (dark burgundy).   A Mongolian monk bumped into me and then only gave me a dark glare as if I were the one who pushed him aside.

“You okay?” J asked with his hand on my side. “Don’t worry, they’re the descendants from Genghis Khan, they’re supposed to be kinda brusque.”

Before I could respond, the heavy scent of cooked beef distracted my attention.  Just a few yards away were steaming baskets crowded with hot momos.  This was the momo moment I’d been waiting for!

From a row of food stalls, meat smoke rose into the Himalayan air.   While J stood back from the smell, I hovered over the hot meat baskets, trying to decide which momo street hawker would introduce me to the wonder of momos.  Oh, the choices! Momos bursting with lamb, momos nestling tender chicken bits, and momos packed with ground beef and chives.

“Which kind do you want?” I asked J.

He shook his head.

I shrugged, “You’re going to miss out.”

Now, the beef and chive momo I selected was delicious.  Not a mind-blowing taste explosion, but how can you go wrong with seasoned beef tucked inside a fresh steamed dumpling?  The wrong is what happened later.

That itty bitty momo opened the floodgates for a intestinal tsunami that evening.  I will leave the rest to your imagination, but suffice to say, diarrhea is not and never will be a pleasant experience.

The next morning I woke up feeling like I hadn’t slept in three days.   I prayed that wherever we sat for the teachings would be near the bathrooms in case of further momo aftermath.

Throngs of monks and hundreds of laypeople filled the monastery.  I followed J through the crowds as he headed toward where our group was sitting.  Leanne, the head of our group, had found a much-coveted spot by the wall of the monastery shaded from the sun.

“Good morning!” Leanne said to us, her face aglow with anticipation for the teachings.   “Good morning,” I smiled back weakly.  We pulled our new cushions from our backpacks and began to arrange them next to the wall.  I plopped my ass down onto my cushion, not paying attention to Leanne as she bustled around us getting our group settled.

But then I noticed Leanne standing over us.   “I know you guys won’t mind giving your seats to Bob and Laura, right?” she smiled expectantly.

We looked over at Bob and Laura, a wizened little couple with hopeful faces and big childlike eyes.

“They’ll be more comfortable here, especially with these cushions!” Leanne gestured to the new cushions under our butts.

What else could aspiring Buddhists do but force a grin, get up, and find another open place to sit?  The only other open spot being where no one else wanted to sit, cushion-less on the grates above the bathrooms.  My prayers had come true.  Because yes, the bathrooms were even closer than I had expected.

Have I mentioned limb-numbing cold in the Himalayas?  Without our cushions to block the cold smelly air from below, I began to shiver even though I was still fighting off my momo-induced fever.  I couldn’t tell if I was pissed because of the smell, the cold, or being shunted for my seat.  Probably all of the above.  I barely noticed when His Holiness arrived and began the Heart Sutra prayer.

But I did break out of my fuming to notice the monks carrying huge buckets through the thousands of seated students.  Whorls of steam rose every time the monks dipped a ladle into a bucket.  When they lifted it up, the ladle’s bowl cradled hot milky butter tea.

“Yes!” my desperate mind cried out.  “Butter tea would redeem this so-far disastrous India experience!”

I clutched my shiny new thermos and held it out as a monk came near.  He poured a river of tea into our bottles until the hot liquid lapped over the rims. I grasped the thermos between my freezing-cold hands.  I blew the surface and watched the ripples of butter fat glisten like a mini sun.  I took a long slow sip.

Remember what my friend said about drinking buttered popcorn?

Lies.  Complete lies!

This tea did not taste like fresh kernels popped in hot shimmering butter, leaving a delicate sheen of salty goodness on your lips.  This tasted like someone took a lump of butter, melted it in hot water with some milk, and added a handful of salt.  That’s not a typo.  I literally mean a handful.  I forced myself to swallow my mouthful of salt butter water.  I felt horrible being repulsed by an ancient tradition that a whole society subsisted on for a big part of their nutrition.  But the truth was that I didn’t grow up drinking Tibetan tea.  Tall glasses of milk filled with half a canister of Nesquik chocolate powder, yes.  Huge mugs of thick melted butter, no.

While it appeared that everyone else guzzled their liquefied butter down to the last slick drop, J and I couldn’t finish our tea so we left it to cool in our thermoses. The first day of teaching ended with me in a foggy stupor of numb fingers and toes, and an empty aching belly.

When we returned to our hotel room that evening, the butter tea had separated into a milk-water liquid sloshing at the bottom and a thick ring of butter congealed on the top and sides.  No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t seem to wash off the butter’s oily residue.

So here I was on the fifth day of the teaching waiting for His Holiness to start the morning session.  I scowled under my woolen shawl and threw dagger thoughts at everything around me. His Holiness was going to continue his discussion on Avalokiteshvara and the essence of being a Bodhisattva, the embodiment of infinite compassion.  Popcorn was to butter tea like my scowl was to compassion.

Commotion rose up next to us.  A group of Mongolian monks had just arrived for the teachings and were trying to squeeze into our “bathroom-grate” section.  J moved our bags aside and I shifted over begrudgingly to allow them to sit down.  They just looked at us with their dark gazes and made no expression when we moved over.

“So much for a thank you,” I thought.

We all huddled together, so close I could feel the rough fabric of one of the monk’s wool robe again my hand.  Neither of us looked at one another.

The monastery monks began their familiar bustle of bringing out the morning tea, but I kept my head down trying to conserve the warmth from my breath.  Cups, bowls, and mugs raised up to be filled as the butter tea buckets wove through the crowd.

As one bucket came near us, the rough wool against my hand began to flap around frantically.  I looked next to me to see the monk searching through his bag.  He had forgotten his cup.  His shoulders drooped and he gazed forlornly at his fellow monks who held out their own cups to be filled.

I quickly rummaged inside my backpack until I found my thermos.  Just as the butter tea was being ladled to everyone around us, I offered it to the monk.

The grin that transformed his face inspired a grin to flood my own face.

He nodded his head up and down thankfully while I nodded my head with mirrored enthusiasm.  The monks, J, and I grinned at one another, all of us nodding gleefully at this interchange. The thermos was filled and I lowered my head back down with a smile as the monk slurped happily at his butter tea.

The next morning, instead of awkwardly avoiding eye contact, we and the Mongolia monks greeted each other with huge toothy grins while nodding vigorous hellos.  We all shifted within our little spots on the grate to make room for one other.  When our previously cupless monk brought out his own bowl, we all laughed heartedly.

The rest of the day consisted of pointing, enthusiastic smiling, questions in English (us) or Mongolian (the monks), to which the opposite party understood nothing, then shoulder shrugging, and more laughing, smiling, and vigorous nodding of heads.  It didn’t matter that we had no clue what the other person was saying, we’d become friends. We shared our orange and strawberry Mentos with our new monk friends, and we sampled their brightly wrapped candies of unknown flavors with little cartoons printed on the wrapping.  They drank butter tea in the mornings while J and I laughed and shook our heads no thank you.

Aside from hanging out with our Mongolian pals, I also began to listen to His Holiness’ words.  Supposedly, even if you don’t absorb or comprehend the teachings, being in the presence of great wisdom still earns you a bit of merit.  Of course I’m not sure how much I was earning with all the negative karma I racked up with my snarking and selfishness.   But the cold slap in my face had woken me up and I began to muse about the idea of being a Bodhisattva and how my actions could benefit others instead of just myself.

The last day of teaching felt bittersweet.   The weather had warmed up so much that we wore short sleeve shirts to the teachings and left our wool shawls back at the hotel.

The morning session finished, and everyone left the monastery for a lunch break.  J and I browsed the souvenirs tables on the side streets until we came to the food stalls.

I turned to J and asked, “Do you want to try a momo?”

“Nope,” he said.

We both laughed.  I would always be able to describe momos as tasty little meat packages.  Eating momos in the middle of a street in India on the other hand–not so tasty an experience afterwards.

Just then, the Mongolian monks came around the corner in front of us.  We all lit up.  Hellos, Hi’s, waving, and enthusiastic head-nodding ensued as we grinned at each other like long lost friends.   Then they started saying, “Bye” and “Goodbye,” while bowing towards me and J.

I didn’t understand why they were saying goodbye now until I realized they were leaving Dharmasala and not attending the afternoon session of teaching.  This was the last time we would see each other.  We bowed back and said goodbye and I wished them a safe journey back to Mongolia.  They didn’t understand what I said but I knew they understood what I meant.

We waved and watched them walk away until they blended into the crowd of other monks and laypeople on the street.

I wasn’t going to adore momos or be able to brag about my awesome Dalai Lama experience.  Nor was I going to savor butter tea like it was delicious nectar.  But like the Buddha, that salty mouthful of tea had woken me up to the present instead of keeping me trapped in my assumptions.  Without my disdain for the tea, I never would have befriended the Mongolians and learned to see people in all their imperfect glory.   I finally dropped my expectations to appreciate the crisp, cold beauty of the Himalayas for what it was.  I would leave Dharmasala with a dose of reality and a seed of possibility — one day, if not in this lifetime, then perhaps the next, maybe I could be a butter-tea-drinking Bodhisattva.  Buddha-willing, of course.

One comment

  1. Fulin Chu

    This is an exceptionally well written article, in which the author describes an inspiring enduring soul search adventure. It was a life worthy experience. A salute to the author and her husband J.


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