Thursday, September 1, 2011

On to Punakha: Day Three

Tobgay, our driver, pulled some professional trekking sticks out of the hatchback and handed them to Tsering Penjor, my guide.

"What're those for?" I asked.

"To help you steady yourself when we walk up to the monastery."

"That monastery?" I pointed to a building on a distant hill. But not too distant. A 20-minute walk over some rice fields and then up a gentle slope.

He nodded.

"I won't use them." I am lazy and I may be in my worst physical shape since I lived in no-walking/lots of junk-eating Kuwait City, but I am certainly not so lame that I can't trek up a gentle slope.

He gave the sticks back to Tobgay and we hiked away from the parking area near a small restaurant, then passed a little building with a large penis painted on its side. The penis had a blue ribbon tied around its base, right above can I put this...hairy balls.

I took a photo, but this wasn't the first hairy-balled penis dressed in a blue ribbon that I'd seen since we'd driven up from the Indian border a few days ago. I'd seen plenty—not in urban (well, sort-of urban) Thimphu but in rural areas.

And yet, I hadn't seen any visuals of scantily clad women.

The penis—or rather, phallus as it's called by those with better manners than me—is intended as a tribute and celebration of the Divine Madman, Bhutan's favorite saint, who could teach entire villages lessons on impermanence with his farts, who could humiliate false lamas by flashing them with a scarf tied around his penis while others were offering scarves in a more traditional manner, and whose sexual exploits were celebrated rather than hidden away. His penis was referred to as his "thunderbolt."

And that was the Divine Madman's temple up there on the gentle slope ahead of us.

The sun was bright, which is great for photos, but not good for hikers in jeans. I was wearing jeans since I'd thought it might be cold in the pass we'd driven down from.

"Rather than walking sticks, you should tell your tourists to wear hiking pants and sunscreen," I groused. Poor Tsering. I don't know if his life experience had prepared him for a whinging, lazy, yeti-obsessed, comedian tourist who provided a steady stream of one-liners when forced to sit in close quarters with others for hours on end.

He did all right, though.

"Why did the chicken cross the road?"

"I don't know, why?" I answered Tsering.

"It didn't, because Uncle Tsering hit it during his driving test!"

He did go back later and get his license. And he'd had to pay many times the chicken's worth to its owner. But best of all, he'd given his family ammunition for jokes for months.

We walked across the fields and started up the hill. After a bit, I stopped complaining about being hot and cowering under the sun and started chatting.

I learned a bit about Tsering's home life, and about how women inherit property in Bhutan but men do not. So men may end up renting or saving money to buy their own property, because the family property was inherited by their sisters. Some sisters share with their brothers, but are not obligated to do so.

Men who marry will move into the family compound of their wives, and their in-laws and wives have the final say in all decisions. Men who divorce will then move out of the property owned by their wives or in-laws and will either return home to their sisters or parents, or will go rent, or save up to buy property of their own.

Tibetans or Nepalese who live in Bhutan (along with the rare expat from somewhere else) but have no family there make up some of the renting population, as well as people who move to the city for work.

It's not unusual for extended families and several generations to live together on a farm, and family ties are important, but not in a way in which there is excessive corruption. Preferential treatment to family members in the workplace is frowned upon.

I also finally learned why Tsering and Tobgay had looked so shocked back at the border when they'd first met me.

They thought there had been a mistake in my age. They were expecting someone who looked a lot older.

I was flattered, but one reason I look to be of a nebulous age is I try my best to keep out of the sun. So I was hurrying along, cowering under my scarf and trying to get to the shade of the prayer wheel enclosure just outside the temple.

When we arrived at the temple, we left our shoes outside as usual and toured the inside. Every temple we'd been to had been a walled compound with at least one central shrine. Inside that one room would be a central statue or sculpture, sometimes surrounded by smaller sculptures, maybe some butter lamps, and assorted offerings. We were never allowed to take photos inside the chapels, unlike in Tibet where we could take photos if we paid a fee.

Which is too bad, because I'd love to have a photo of what happened next.

Tsering spoke to a monk and next thing you know, the monk said a chant and then blessed me on the head with a huge wooden phallus. He then did the same to Tsering. I was a little puzzled over the meaning of this and avoided asking too many questions on account of not having any plans to sound suggestive, but I was sure I was oozing fertility now, nearly ovulating on the spot.

I'm sorry to report this technique was not effective. Apparently, some other action is required.

We headed back to meet Tobgay, then drove on through the countryside to the town of Punakha, where we toured Punakha dzong after I was nearly reduced to wearing socks and sandals. This imposing dzong sits at the meeting point of two rivers and is the second-oldest and second-largest of the Bhutanese forts, and as such, demands a bit of respect.

"Do you have socks?"

"What? Socks? Seriously?"

"There is a man who works at the door here who insists on socks."

Of course.

I was used to covering my knees and shoulders, but this was a first.

Tobgay opened the hatchback and I dug around in my backpack for my socks, which are black and have a hole in the heel. I threw them in my handbag, wondering if socks and sandals would be less offensive to the guard than just plain sandals.

Fortunately, the sock-insisting guard wasn't at the door today, and we were allowed in to tour the fortress with my offensive feet showing.

Tobgay met us with the car on the far side of the river, across a pedestrian bridge. He took us to a monastery in Punakha, then dropped us off nearby, and waited for us on the other side of town.

Tsering walked me through the village, where stray dogs slept safely on sidewalks in the afternoon sun, saving their energy for their active night of story-telling (barking).

I stepped in gum somewhere in Punakha, so see, Bhutan isn't perfect. We watched some young men playing a game similar to pool but with flat disks, and then came out the other side to meet Tobgay to proceed to the hotel.

Ugyen from the travel agency had offered me the option of staying in a farmhouse here, but anyone who has been here a while knows that I have a psychotic aversion to 1) having people in my house and 2) staying in anyone else's house—basically, I need alone time every night and every morning. Plus I imagined I'd have better odds of having wifi in a hotel. So I took the hotel room.

And regretted it, just a little. A massive tour bus pulled up right after we did and the hotel was packed. The tourists were Thai, but that didn't mean the hotel served us mango and sticky rice, nor did it mean anyone walked up to me and admired my zebra T-shirt. It just meant that the hotel was full and the hotel restaurant was too crowded and unmanageable.

I ate my dinner in the corner of the dining room. I couldn't blame the guys for avoiding this scene. They were eating chilis with the staff again. That's all right, they were off the clock.

But they needed to hide better if they didn't want me to see them. I ran into the two of them, looking guilty and concerned, because they'd thought I'd already gone to my room, and were relaxing in T-shirts and jeans.

I grinned at them—caught ya—and told them I'd see them in the morning.

But what I want to know is this.

What are Tsering and Tobgay like when they're not working? If I weren't an esteemed guest in their country, weren't paying to hang out with them, what would a day with them be like? Would we shoot pool, do archery, hang out in a cafe, do some farm work, hang out with Tobgay's kids? Would they chew betelnut and eat chilis while I watched politely? Would they ask why I had grown a MacBook out of one arm and an iPhone out of the other?

I'd never know. At $240 a day, I couldn't afford to hang out and honestly get to know Bhutan or my charming Bhutanese pals.

Which, given Bhutan's quirkiness and the good humor of my guide and driver, is a damn shame.

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