What I learned in the slush with His Holiness.
In the mid ’80s, I was living in Santa Fe, N.M., making a shabby living writing magazine articles, when a peculiar assignment came my way. I had become friendly with a group of Tibetan exiles who lived in a compound on Canyon Road, where they ran a business selling Tibetan rugs, jewelry, and religious items. The Tibetans had settled in Santa Fe because its mountains, adobe buildings, and high-altitude environment reminded them of home.
The founder of the Tibetan community was a man named Paljor Thondup. Thondup had escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet as a kid, crossing the Himalayas with his family in an epic, multiyear journey by yak and horseback. Thondup made it to Nepal and from there to India, where he enrolled in a school in the southeastern city of Pondicherry with other Tibetan refugees. One day, the Dalai Lama visited his class. Many years later, in Dharamsala, India, Thondup talked his way into a private audience with the Dalai Lama, who told Thondup that he had never forgotten the bright teenager in the back of the Pondicherry classroom, waving his hand and answering every question, while the other students sat dumbstruck with awe. They established a connection. And Thondup eventually made his way to Santa Fe.
The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Thondup, who had heard that he was planning a tour of the United States, invited him to visit Santa Fe. The Dalai Lama accepted and said he would be happy to come for a week. At the time, he wasn’t the international celebrity he is today. He traveled with only a half-dozen monks, most of whom spoke no English. He had no handlers, advance men, interpreters, press people, or travel coordinators. Nor did he have any money. As the date of the visit approached, Thondup went into a panic. He had no money to pay for the visit and no idea how to organize it. He called the only person he knew in government, a young man named James Rutherford, who ran the governor’s art gallery in the state capitol building. Rutherford was not exactly a power broker in the state of New Mexico, but he had a rare gift for organization. He undertook to arrange the Dalai Lama’s visit.
Rutherford began making phone calls. He borrowed a stretch limousine from a wealthy art dealer, and he asked his brother, Rusty, to drive it. He persuaded the proprietors of Rancho Encantado, a luxury resort outside Santa Fe, to provide the Dalai Lama and his monks with free food and lodging. He called the state police and arranged for a security detail.
Among the many phone calls Rutherford made, one was to me. He asked me to act as the Dalai Lama’s press secretary. I explained to Rutherford that he had the wrong person, that I had no experience in that line, and that it would surely be a disaster. Rutherford said that he didn’t have time to argue. The Dalai Lama, he explained, was a person who would stop and talk to anyone who asked him a question. He treated all people the same, from the president of the United States to a bum on the street, giving every person his full time and attention. Someone had to manage the press and keep the Dalai Lama from being buttonholed. And that person was going to be me.
mai mult, AICI: