Climbing Trees with My (Incredible, Giggling, Modest) Heroes

I’ve just spent the last week training climbing in the German countryside. Among the student participants were dozens of activists from all across Europe and the world. But because I was the only Tibetan-speaking (*Norbu Flow was also training but he only speaks German hehe) climb trainer, I had the honor of working with former political prisoners including 5 of the 14 Drapchi nuns.

In 1993, these young nuns (one was only 13, the others were in their late teens or early 20’s) gathered for a spontaneous protest in Lhasa. Shouting “Free Tibet” and calling for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the nuns spoke out for the first times in their lives because of repression they experienced in their nunneries. The protest lasted no more than 2 or 3 minutes but they were immediately detained and tortured mercilessly (arms broken, cattle prod electrocution, suspensions, beatings etc.).

Former Drapchi prisoner Gyaltsen Drolkar la and I

Yet even inside one of the worst prisons in the world, the nuns would not be silenced. Instead, their fire grew and grew. Protesting and recording songs of resistance which were smuggled out, they had their 4-9 sentences extended to 8-17 years.

So you can imagine how excited but nervous I was to be their climb trainer – as someone who not only looks up to them with inexpressible awe and gratitude, but as someone who must insure their safety as they learn completely new skills. I was terrified about explaining all the terminology in Tibetan, of making sure they had a positive experience, and most importantly of sending them away from this experience feeling empowered and nothing but.

The happiest climb students I've ever seen.

But I was completely blown away with them as soon as they came to the trees. My respect for their actions had prejudiced me to see them as somber, intimidating people.  Instead, they were just giggling and joking around the entire time (while being naturally good climbers to boot). They tugged at each others’ ropes, kicking each others’ bums lightly and generally being just young happy people. Their bond was so solid that they felt safer as they climbed in unison and more nervous when one was alone. I was still a nervous wreck but I had a grin across my face the entire time.

Lhundrup Zangmo la

I left my sessions each day feeling so fortunate for knowing these women, if only briefly. They are not only courageous, fearless, modest, kick-ass freedom fighters. They are just happy. Crazy happy. Life is light and everything can be handled. Their way through life is happiness, in fact. I want to thank them for teaching me this and showing me that the only way an activist can be effective is through being as happy and light as they have been.

Miserable people aren’t compassionate. They aren’t kind. They think only about themselves and that is fundamentally against the worldview of activists. So this Lhakar, I learned about the importance of being happy from the Drapchi nuns, and I pledge to follow their lead so I can be the most effective life-long advocate for my people.

Clockwise: Gyaltsen Drolkar la, Rinzin Choenyi la and Lundrup Zangmo la.