Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reckless Endangerment

A lot of people come to me, before traveling to Tibet, asking for advice. I speak Tibetan, I've been to Tibet several times, and I've traveled during politically sensitive times, so they usually come to me not asking so much for tourist advice as safety precautions.

My advice is usually pretty straightforward. As with all travel to sensitive or potentially dangerous areas, register in advance with your country's embassy. I usually give them a list of safety tips as well. But the most important tips that I give to everyone are:

1) Do not distribute anything widely.
2) Do not put yourself in the middle of a crowd.

The second tip is for personal safety measures. If something bad happens, you always want to be towards the edge of the crowd so you don't get swept up into it.

The first tip, however, is for everyone's safety.

A lot of people want to distribute photographs of the Dalai Lama, teachings from Lamas in India and so forth in Tibet. Yes, Tibetans do want these things, but the problem is that in that large group of Tibetans there is likely to be a bare minimum of one spy. In addition, if you are being trailed or watched, spies are likely far more interested in which Tibetans are accepting contraband, rather than the foolish tourist distributing it.

Nonetheless, every year, I see dozens of tourists proudly telling me how they were able to distribute so many photographs of the Dalai Lama and so forth inside of Tibet.

Some people go so far as to arrange video viewings in their hotel rooms of teachings from India. Many of these are from Lamas that are not officially blacklisted, but it's still something from India and arranging for a large group of Tibetans to come to your hotel room is probably not a good idea!

I remember one person proudly boasting how they had managed to destribute so many DVDs of a semi-black listed lama, and how people were so happy, and even Chinese came to take some! I had to wonder if, in all of this person's asking my advice about safety, they ever thought that maybe some of the people coming for the DVD might be just spying to see who was accepting it?

I think the motivation for many of these people, aside from sheer ignorance, is to be a hero. They never stop and think about the consequences that widely, openly, distributing something clearly illegal or dangerous poses to Tibetans around them.

As a tourist, we can go home after your few weeks in Tibet are up. After we are no longer watching, how many people will go to jail?