Bhutan: An escape on the wing of a milestone excuse

Every time someone asks me how my escape to Bhutan went, I am at a loss to give a true and smart answer.

So I settle for ‘indescribable’… and now, typical of me, I am going to describe it to snoredom in this post.

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There are many reasons why I planned a solo trip…  it’s been a long time since I’ve truly been by myself. A long time since I’ve been still and since I’ve really moved. A long time since I enjoyed doing just one thing, or not doing anything at all. A long time since I’ve challenged myself physically. A long time since I’ve truly ignored and forgotten my rheumatoid arthritis, having allowed myself to be limited by it for 26 years now.

Bhutan bound

So where do I go? What do I do? Ethiopia or Bhutan? Discuss with friends, or just decide on a whim? At the end, I made the decision based on two things. First, I would be going off-season to a place that even otherwise restricts the number of tourists coming in. Which promised me space and time that won’t be overcrowded. Second, religion. Having never really been drawn to organised religion or worship, yet considering myself spiritual, I’ve been curious about Buddhism all my adult life. Its non-theistic and non-ritualistic principles, its shunning of labels (‘good and evil’ and ‘morality’), have all been highly appealing, its rather fatalistic attitude towards life notwithstanding. But the ugly co-mingling of politics and religion has tainted Buddhism too. I was curious. How would a place that gave equal power to the monastic body, elected administration and its King, function?

How does Buddhism thrive in a place that seeks iconic representation at every street corner (photo above) and every tree stump? Stupas and temples scattered all over the landscape. How do they balance deity worship with a Buddhist path that is all about self-realisation outside of it? I am none the wiser now. But it was an interesting week all the same.

Buddhism: The simplicity is confusing

Oh wait, I am probably a teeny bit wiser. At the very first hotel in Thimpu, in the bedside draw instead of a Gideon’s Bible was a book by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. What Makes You not A Buddhist. The book starts off by asking the reader four questions… I was hooked. Those questions and the answers continue to whirl around in my head. It also helped me enjoy my Bhutan experience without being too judgemental.

I visited monasteries and nunneries, and in both saw those too young to be allowed to take on such a commitment. Why would a five-year-old boy be in maroon robes? Why would a pre-pubescent, gum chewing, kite-flying girl find herself in a nunnery? (photo) Yet, it is not my place to question, just to observe.

Inside temples where photography was prohibited — “When you remove your footwear it means you leave behind the camera,” said Chencho, my guide — was a confusing array of pre-Buddhist deities, Bodhisattvas, different incarnations of Buddha, and even rifles, harking back to Bhutan’s warrior past. There were large platters of offerings — packets of biscuits, crisps, instant noodles (of which I will tell you more in a bit), kurkures, soda cans.

This is a Kingdom that has so zealously protected its identity and emphasised the importance of national happiness through sustainable development, controlling who and what comes into its boundaries; Yet, it seems to be struggling with the onslaught of FMCG products. I cautiously hope it’s not a battle it will lose completely.

A losing battle?

Bhutan in winter is still so beautiful, one can only imagine how breathtaking it would be in the full splendour of spring and early summer. How much greener and more colourful would it get?

However, as I walked through its fields and mountains, I tried not to look down. What an eyesore! The path littered with plastic bottles, foil wrappers, discarded plastic packs.

An irony, because there’s a desperation to hold at bay the external influences that might corrupt the Himalayan Kingdom’s tradition and history.  Every construction in Bhutan has to adhere to the ‘authenticity’ standards of architecture. So there are no ugly new-age buildings, even if there were plenty of unkempt traditional ones. Currently there’s a ban on import of cars and housing loans. The national dress (kira for women and gho for men) is mandatory at any official representation.

Its handloom and handicraft heritage is promoted and protected, and yet, the largest Buddha statue in the Kingdom was made in China. The market is flush with cheap Chinese toys. And every TV set I saw was tuned into a Hindi film channel.

China, Bollywood and FMCG marketing respect no boundaries it seems. And then, some corruptions are homegrown… in this cigarettes-free country, betel leaves and chewing tobacco leave a red stain all over.

There were rubbish bins and messages at every turn on the trekking routes, and I take that as a sign that this too will be controlled. Somehow. That when people get used to the novelty of food out of packets, they will learn to dispose of the garbage responsibly. Everywhere I went, I saw children and adults alike opening up packets of instant noodles, sprinkling the seasoning onto the uncooked noodles, and eating it like a pack of crisps. The empty packs then fell to the ground, just as the apple cores and orange peels did (photo).

The pace of working hands

For all that, there was a sense of all pervading calm. Even as people laughed and talked loudly, there was a quietness. There was a pace to their life that irritated me on the first day as being too slow — “yes, ma’am, tea will take 30 minutes”. Then it grew on me. So much so, on the fourth day, when I landed at the hotel in Paro and realised the staff were not expecting me, and that they and I had to go through a big yellow bag full of keys to find one to the room of my choice, it actually seemed like a fun thing to do (photo).

There was an unhurried enjoyment in everything. Food was prepared to perfection, and served with such care… so why rush it? Was it because I was the only guest in two of the three large hotels I stayed in?

Except for the cars and the mobile phones, there was so little by way of mechanisation (photo). This is a land with no traffic lights. “No one understood it, so they removed it,” said Chencho. But there was an easy understanding between motorists moving across the narrow roads and bridges.  A basket on a pulley was used to transport material from base to higher points . Cattle plough the farms. Wizened women worked briskly with their spades in the cabbage patch. Bricks were made next to an orange orchard. Children played seven stones, a bag of pebbles in place of a ball. The wooden phallus available at every store front was handmade. My boarding pass was handwritten.

Everyone seemed to be working with their hands. It was probably why they had no time to hurry.

Fat, unfit and on a hike? Why not!

It was because of that environment of ‘why rush?’ that I didn’t give up on the hikes, despite my poor fitness levels. There was no rush (or need) to complete the treks, you see. As I took longer on every trek than what was suggested in the guide books, Chencho gently encouraged me to just take it one turn, one steep climb, one short path at a time. “You can do it as slow as you want.”  There were routes on which I was overtaken by horses, gorgeous stray dogs, little children, families with babies strapped to their backs and old ladies who gave me a gentle pat as they walked past me.

The destination, invariably a monastery/temple (dzongs), was never referred to till we reached it. It was only about moving. In fact after the second dzong, I felt no compulsion to go into these beautiful structures. What was inside were repetitively similar. Since I neither had offerings nor prayers, it didn’t make sense to intrude into other people’s space of faith.

But every day, I set out in the direction of a dzong high up in the mountains (photo). There were times when I felt my heart beat so hard, like it would pop out from between my shoulder blades. Given my woeful fitness levels, there was a tinge of fear when that happened. Then slowly, as it got quieter all around — no sound of water or birds — the stillness would envelop me, and all I could hear, but not really feel, was the loud thump of my heartbeat.

The more I walked and hiked, fewer the things I carried with and within me. No camera, no headphones, no phone, no anxiety to reach the destination, no anticipation for what was in store at the top, no thought of what next, no talking… just keep moving.

PS: I turned 40 a few days ago. I dread birthdays. Not because I feared ageing, but I feared the expectation of celebration. The same reason I dread most festivals. As I told my friend Teesu there was no major ‘moment’ on the milestone birthday, just a big fat excuse to be self-indulgent and go away, which may not go down as well for the 39th or 42nd, say. And it sounds cool to say, “you know what I did for my 40th…”

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