Monday, September 5, 2011

My Last Day in Bhutan

Ugyen Dorji and Tsering Penjor were taking me to the Haa Valley for a picnic on my last day in Bhutan.

I could barely comprehend what a Haa Valley was, because I was tired. Hadn't I just gone across the west coast of Africa only a few months ago? On the BUS? Why did I tire out so easily?

Oh, wait...I was completely exhausted then too.

Non-stop new cultural input is an assault on your senses. Traveling is fascinating but it's sure not relaxing. I wasn't retaining anything I'd learned from the last few days. I was just hoping to store it in my mind for future processing.

Ugyen had helped me digest it all a bit last night. He'd taken me to a tasty little upstairs cafe in Paro for dinner, while Tsering took a break to go home to see his dogs and do his laundry. Ugyen has a foot in Bhutan and another in my world, as he'd attended a Muslim university in southern India and started out as an IT professional. That explained his sleek Bhutan Your Way website and Internet-savviness. He'd known I was a writer before he'd responded to my first web inquiry, when I'd initially approached three operators based on personal testimonies I'd found on and Over dinner, I'd asked him for his opinion on many things, including the way forward for this fledgling democracy and the impact of popular culture on today's kids.

"With all this modernization," Ugyen explained. "Of course Bhutan has some problems with the youths. Even I did it for a while, with my jeans falling down and my underwear showing, a gold chain, and earring. It's embarrassing now but I did it too when I was a teenager." But he'd grown out of it and embraced his heritage. The kids would too, I figured, and anyway, showing your underwear is hardly the worst thing a kid can do. It's not like they were joining gangs and mugging old women. Change is, of course, inevitable, and Bhutan seeks to manage it with a soft landing.

The way forward wasn't clear to me, I thought, as Ugyen drove us up mountain switchbacks towards the Haa Valley after breakfast.  Bhutan isn't the Shangri-La of popular myth, and it sure wasn't the simplistic kingdom in the clouds we read about in most magazine articles. Those make me laugh, because they're so lazily written. Think, people, think, I want to say. But I can see why writing about Bhutan is such a challenge. I barely had a grip on Gross National Happiness, the road in front of us, and didn't even understand the guide I'd just spent all week talking to.

Bhutan doesn't exist without the influence of the outside world—it has Bollywood, MTV, Western porn and violence via Internet and movies, snack foods imported from India and Thailand, easy access to retail therapy in Bangkok, and Bhutan too has diplomatic and human rights challenges. The military routing of the Indian separatists in 2003 had been traumatic for the country (not to mention the Indian separatists), and then there is an ongoing conflict over who is and isn't a bonafide resident of Bhutan, with over 100,000 cultural-Nepalese living in border refugee camps or resettled abroad by the UN. I'd even met a Tibetan in India who had left Bhutan because she wanted to be free to practice her own traditions. And earlier this year, Bhutanese were shocked when its statistics bureau had determined that 70 percent of Bhutanese women believed their husbands had a right to beat them. Gross National Happiness clearly has its share of challenges.

Which I was trying hard to understand, though I realize spending a week in Bhutan is not exactly going to make me an expert. But the key is to learn as much as you can while admitting you're not an expert, same as in other countries. The more you learn about a place, the more you realize there is an awful lot more to know.

Ugyen drove Tsering and me out of Paro and up to a mountain pass covered in fluttering prayer flags, where we pulled over.

"Time for tea!"

I'd noticed that prayer flags weren't everywhere as in Tibet, and asked why tour operators didn't have tourists put up prayer flags for fun.

"To put prayer flags up randomly is actually bad for the environment," explained Tsering.

True. I hadn't thought about that before. People don't litter much in Bhutan either, though the gum I'd gotten on my shoe in Punakha was still on my mind.

We sat on small mats, under the flags on top of the mountain, sipping tea. We were lucky to be graced with a beautiful day.

I drank too much tea. I knew it at the time.

We then moved on to drive down into the Haa Valley for our picnic.

All that tea I drank was bound to catch up with me.

We drove an hour down the mountain. Ugyen asked me if I wanted to see a school.

"No," I said. "But I sure could use a toilet stop. All that tea, you know."

He looked worried. Haa Valley only opened to tourists in 2002 and doesn't have many places catering to them.

"There is a toilet at the school."

Ugyen then drove us 8 kilometers to the school, where we dropped in on a schoolteacher friend of his. The teacher took me into his house to patronize his porcelain squat toilet. It was all a bit embarrassing, but the school was interesting to see, though the kids barely took notice of me.

The students learn in English as part of Bhutan's modernization plan. And there were signs saying "Say no to junk food," which is a good message even though there isn't that much junk food to be purchased in Bhutan to begin with.

We left the school and went to a stupa for our picnic. A monk inhabited a little house behind the stupa, though he didn't come out while we were there.

The picnic food was delicious: homemade pasta, a chicken dish with curry, squash in a slight mustard-y sauce, mixed vegetables, rice, and potatoes. The food here had been simple but outstanding. Once the chilis were taken out of the equation, I mean. Both Tsering and Ugyen had their chilis on the side.

Bhutanese normally eat with their hands, but they use forks in front of tourists. They know we prefer forks and they go out of their way to make us comfortable.

"It's considered better to eat beef than chicken because if you kill a cow, it will feed more people, so its sacrifice is more worth it," explained Tsering, though we were eating chicken rather than beef.

We finished our afternoon picnic and drove on.

"We will go to a monastery and then back to Paro," said Ugyen.

I looked pained. Tsering intervened. "I think she just wants to look at the market in this village and then we'll go back to Paro and do some souvenir shopping. Marie is all dzonged and monasteried out."

We walked through a small town, then headed back up to the pass and down the other side to Paro.

Finally, I could get in some souvenir shopping! I owed a few souvenirs to patrons in my souvenir program.

We browsed some shops, purchasing some prayer beads from Eastern Bhutan. I'd really wanted a Wheel of Life thangka or a painting of the Four Friends, but the costs of souvenirs in Bhutan convinced me that maybe I didn't want either of these after all. I ended up with a hilarious print of Archie and Veronica in traditional Bhutanese dress and a few small masks, replicas of those used in the Marcham festival. I bought a few tigers but for myself, I purchased a mask of the white lion.

Because I love the Bhutanese white lion. He's a complete work of fiction, an imaginary animal that exists only as part of Bhutanese mythology. And he's the source of one of my favorite sayings here, which is "You need a silver bowl to milk a white lion." That is, the impossible is only possible with great commitment, skill, the right tools, and luck.

We walked out of the souvenir shop, me with my white lion and tiger masks ready to send home from Bangkok along with my illicit kama sutra souvenir from Tibet. This was it, my bittersweet final evening in this weird and fascinating country. Tsering wouldn't ditch me for his dogs tonight, but instead took me to a final dinner.

"Tsering?" I was done with yeti jokes but couldn't resist one final smart-ass remark as we headed back to the car.


"I just spent your tip on souvenirs."

He allowed himself just the tiniest smile.

"So long as you have enjoyed Bhutan," said Tsering Penjor, guide extraordinaire and frequent collaborator in silliness.

I had. I had enjoyed Bhutan quite a bit.

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