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Villa Altomont

From 1967: Thubten Yeshe Meets a Russian Princess by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

“After a month of going back and forth to Ghoom, Zina asked the monks if they would come and live with her in Darjeeling. Incredibly, they agreed, transferring themselves and their few belongings to Villa Altomont. They stayed in Zina’s cold, glassed-in summerhouse for nine months. This small outbuilding contained a table, one door, and just enough room on the floor for the monks to sleep, one on either side of the door. Meanwhile, Zina swanned around her sprawling bungalow with a continuous parade of exotic guests. She addressed the monks as “Lama Yeshe” and “Lama Zopa.”

Early every morning a manservant brought tea to the lamas while they did their daily prayers. Zina rose around 8:00 am; the monks were always shocked by how she looked. “When she first came out in her long dressing gown, she looked seventy,” recalled Lama Zopa. “Then she spent two hours in the bathroom. The house only had one bathroom, so we all had to walk through her museum…things to paint and fix her body spread out everywhere. Then at 10:00 am when she came for teachings, she looked twenty, maybe twenty-five. A huge difference!”

Lama Yeshe, the natural clown, would imitate Zina’s face-painting rituals to howls of laughter from Zina and her friends. “Am I okay?” he would say, looking worriedly into an imaginary mirror. Zina had an extensive wardrobe, wonderful jewelry and a collection of wigs. She was fond of dressing up, often changing outfits several times a day.

After breakfast Zina would spend the next hour or two with the monks, who went over texts with her and listened to stories about her remarkable life. After lunch, she would usually go to one of Darjeeling’s two movie houses, while Clive Giboire would help Lama Yeshe with his English. Both monks were absolutely dedicated to learning this language, often breaking out in Americanisms, hippie jargon and modern idioms to the great amusement of their audiences.

Several times a week throughout his nine months at Villa Altomont, Lama Yeshe walked two miles through rain and constant fog to visit two elderly Christian women who were also teaching him English. They had devoted themselves to learning Tibetan in order to teach Tibetans about Christianity. Before class they all sang Christian songs together. Zopa Rinpoche attended these sessions only occasionally. On his feet Lama Yeshe wore thick black rubber sandals made from automobile tires. Most of the Buxa monks wore these as they were very strong and very cheap. There were no cars or buses and the monks had no money, so they walked everywhere.

During this time, Lama Yeshe continued to study grammar and astrology with a well-respected local Sherpa, Ngawang Yonten, who published an astrological calendar every year giving details of planetary movements, the world’s weather and auspicious events through the year. Soon Lama Yeshe was able to build an astrological calendar for a whole year.

Nehnang Pawo Rinpoche, who had first recognized the child Dondrub Dorje as the reincarnation of the abbess, Aché Jampa, was also living in the area, residing at the oldest monastery in Darjeeling. When Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche went to visit him, they took Zina with them. “His manner reminded me of His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche,” said Zopa Rinpoche later. “While he was talking to us, many flies were flying around the room. As he sat there, he’d stretch out his hand and catch one, then blow on it and let it go.”

Delighted with “her” lamas, Zina sent postcard photographs of Lama Yeshe holding baby Rhea to friends in Europe, including an old friend from Mykonos, Olivia de Haulleville, who was then working for the World Health Organization in Paghman, Afghanistan. “How do you like my babysitter!” wrote Zina. Olivia, who had a son the same age as Rhea, thought, “Oh God, what has Zina done now!”

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