Lori Borgman’s recent column about receiving heart-shaped boxes of candy on Valentine’s Day brought back memories of an instance where even an empty heart-shaped candy box became the gift of a lifetime for a small boy. I was traveling in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet when such an empty box became what was probably the most priceless gift the boy had ever received.
We had flown from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet, on a beat-up, nearly 40-year old China West Airlines Boeing 707, which is another story in itself. For some unknown reason, despite it being summertime and far removed from Valentine’s Day — if the Chinese are even aware of the holiday — the airline had given each passenger a small red heart-shaped box of chocolates. Due to the quality of the food somewhat matching the deplorable condition of the airplane, I had eaten most of the candy by the time we arrived in Lhasa.
After a few days in Lhasa, we left on a bus to travel — at an average pace of about 20 mph — the narrow mountain roads, to two other cities in the Himalayas. I finished the candy on the bus and placed the empty box into a seat pocket.
As we approached the Xigaze, we stopped at a small water-powered stone mill situated right beside the road. It was very interesting to see. A swift mountain stream ran parallel to the road, and the mill was where the locals brought their barley to be ground in the process of making tsampa, a soft bread that is the staple of the central Tibetan diet.
Like most everything else in rural Tibet, the mill looked like it dated back at least 150 years and probably beyond that. Most interesting about it was that the mill operator was a woman, probably in her mid-30s, who lived, along with her son, in one small room in the mill. Everything there, including their living quarters, was literally covered with flour.
The boy appeared to be about 6 years old and was very wild-acting, grunted more than he talked, and both his clothing and his skin, including his face, were covered with beige-colored flour. It made me wonder if he had ever been clean.
Someone on the bus gave the boy a piece of candy. I was the first one back on the bus, and I was sitting in the front seat next to the entrance steps when the boy barged up the steps onto the bus, and by grunting, gesturing and speaking his language, which I understood not one word of, informed me in no uncertain terms that he wanted more candy. I tried repeatedly to calm him down, and tried to inform him with shrugs and gestures, that I had none.
Unable to calm him, I had begun to wonder what in the world I could do to placate him, when I thought of the empty candy box. I retrieved it from the seat pocket with the intention of just showing him that I had no candy to offer.
He grabbed it from my hand, and what happened next left me dumbfounded. His eyes suddenly widened, and he broke into a huge smile. It was comparable to an American child receiving at Christmastime the toy he had always wanted. He was overflowing with joy.
He bounded off the bus, mumbling, grunting and caressing the empty box like it was a priceless treasure. I couldn’t understand his joy at first, but then it dawned on me that in all probability that little red cardboard box was possibly the most colorful thing that had ever entered into his world — a world that was almost entirely the color of the barley flour that kept him fed, provided his home and permeated his very existence.
It made me even more thankful to be an American, and I have to admit that I was a little choked up as the bus pulled away and I saw him still admiring that little red box.
Don Stratton is a retired inspector for the Lima Police Department. He writes a guest column for The Lima News, often focusing on police matters.