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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What does it take to depress me? An hour in the departure terminal.

I

It’s the brown cartons that grab my attention. Cling wrapped and tied many times over with a nylon rope.  How many meals of only kuboose and pickle, how many hours of boredom, how many weeks of hard work, how many days of self-deprivation… what did it take to buy that flat screen TV to win your kids’ favour? What did it take to buy the dozens of scented soaps and powder that your family is so used to now? In response to your wife’s whispered long-distance request, how many pairs of coarse, cheap lacy underwear have you hidden right at the bottom? At what cost could you afford the many tins of Tang and Nido milk powder?

Your collar is frayed, your slippers are worn out, and yet there is that gold rope around your neck and a gemstone-set ring on your pinkie. What will that buy you back home? A plot of land? Maybe a car that you can rent out?

How many weeks will your welcome last? Until the gifts fade into new needs, maybe? Or after the wife has been impregnated? Then into one small briefcase you will pack a bottle of pickle and a packet of chips, a new shirt, and a fresh list of wants that you will tick off over the next two years, as you countdown for another flight home.

II

Then there you are, still in the trademark jellebiya that distinguishes your kind from the rest of us. Did you not have the time to change into travel clothes? What do you have hidden in that one tiny shoulder bag? Who will welcome you home? Are there children, aging parents or maybe even a lover who will make-up for your months and years of abstinence? Or did you manage to hoodwink the system to find a few clandestine joys.

Do tell, what’s in that small bag that seems to weigh you down so much? Have you shipped a few cartons home already? Tricycles, microwave, a set of non-stick kitchenware, boxes of Nivea and cartons of Yardley soap. Yes? Oh, that’s good then. No? Oh…

III

And you over there, with that tiny baby in your arms. Why do you weep so? Yes, your parents are leaving. But do you have any idea how lucky you are to have managed a visa for them to visit you? Even if it were just for 4 weeks… Do you know that my children go home 2-3 times a year, because their grandparents don’t get a visa to visit them? It’s an impossible situation, because they are old and Asian. So stop crying, and hold up that baby. This is not such a bad place to bring up your kid, even if their grandparents might not be able to visit them again.

IV

You are going on a holiday right? Business class, it seems. Why do you look so sad, then. Because the minute you enter the airport, the countdown to the end of your vacation begins, is that why? Or the thought of going to your ‘home country’ which with every passing year becomes more foreign and strange to you? The concerns of the privileged bore me. Yawn!

V

Hey you, the one with two big Rawnaq bags and the bottle of ZamZam water. That’s all? Aren’t you my old taxi driver bhai, when the rattly orange ones still plied the Doha roads?  Didn’t you have a beaten up Datsun, the one with beaded trinkets covering every inch of the dashboard? See, I remember, because you had a story for every trinket. Daughters No.1 to No.5 made a few, but the majority was made by your wife and mother.

Is there now a picture in the very first page of your photo album, a space you saved for your heir? Did you finally have the son you so wanted? The singular purpose for the flight you took home every two years, a flight you could ill afford. You look old bhai. More wrinkled and tired than I remember. Your once-white shalwar khameez has browned with wear, but I know you will return with a couple of fresh white sets and one black for the winter.

Do you run an illegal taxi service now? Or have you joined your brothers in Souq Haraj as a coolie? Two years you drove me around Doha, and I don’t know your name still.

What’s in that Rawnaq bag bhai? Could anything be prettier than what the women in your family weave for you? Will you remember me if I came up to you to say salaam?

VI

I am distracted. There is a child crying. A very cute curly-topped pre-schooler dressed in a spotless white thobe. He is clinging to his nanny. The nanny hugs him tight. Her mudhir, the sponsor, watches over them. The little fellow says something in Arabic, that could only mean “don’t leave me Annie.” The father tries to console his son, but looks quite worried himself. Annie, kisses the little boy, and hands him over to the father. She looks a little sad, but she looks happy too. She pats her fake-LV bag, yes the passport is in there, so is the exit permit and flight ticket. She is wearing a Bebe tee. Maybe a hand-me-down from curly-topped’s mother. She gives one last wave and walks away to join the immigration queue.

The father waits, distraught child in his arm. His phone beeps. He checks his SMS–the Metrash service confirms that his ward has cleared immigration. He heads out, hugging his wailing son.

VII

I hear another child cry. Ha! She’s mine.

“I go Indiyah awso.”

I stop gaping at the people around me, to give you attention, to respond to your plaintive cry.

Yes, akka is off for three weeks of exclusive attention, before we join her. No, you can’t go ‘awso’. You are too little.

Akka leaves, only a little sad to bid adieu.

I carry you though the milling crowd, as you cry and scream. I trip on an open suitcase.

VIII

I glimpse your worried face, before you go back to sorting your luggage. It’s your suitcase, is it? What do you leave behind and what’s worth paying excess baggage for? Thirty kilos is a piddly allowance when you go home only once a year, or worse two.

How can you fit in the proof of your affluence and your love into so little a provision? Do you disappoint your son (the remote controlled chopper) or your daughter (the fake Barbie set) or your sisters (bottles and bottles of Enchanteur powder). You should probably leave behind the packets of cashews and spice. Are you aware it comes not far from your native village?

IX

You are the last passenger (or a hopeful one) I see before exiting the terminal. Don’t you know that the polite gentlemen has no power over your expired passport. That how much ever you plead, he can’t let you board the flight. You have to go to your embassy and get a paper, I hear the official explain to you. Do you register that? Or are you too stricken to understand what’s happening. How did you get your exit permit with an expired passport? How come your sponsor failed to notice the expiry date? Could I have been of any help to you? I guess not.

I am more of a talker than a doer…

…Just like the rest of you, right?

India Ink

A week after the holiday ended, as always, it seems like there never was one. 6 weeks should keep me happy, right? Wrong. I am greedy…

So in a nutshell:

First on agenda was a nadi visit along with a friend. A decision I regret in hindsight. Not because bad things were said or not said… simply because it seems like an unwarranted worry. What if by some freaky chance he was dead on?
One of the things he told me was ‘abdominal ladies problem at 46’ after which I will have ‘nerve, head, mental problem at 48’. Thank you, but no thank you. I could have lived without that prediction.
But he said a couple of things bang on from my recent past — meaning the last 6 months. He also described two women — eerily familiary — whom I need to beware of. Hmmph!

Then the big event of the vacation took place — my parents’ golden jubilee bash.

Also…

In between all that I spent a long day at the parlor to get my shine on. That's how my face contour looks. How pretty, no?

Madras is looking greener, cleaner… some of those flyovers are a real blessing. But somethings never change… unfortunately. The metre continues to be a mere decoration for the autorickshaws.

But the real fun was the week following where we weathered 40+ hairpin bends for girls' getaway. More on that on another post.

For now, let me just say Vaalpaarai is beautiful. I am loving it…

Did the Delhi-Gurgaon-Simla circuit. Delhi I don’t love. I feel more foreign there than I do in Doha. And can people get any ruder? The place is filthy. Shamefully filthy — it’s the bleeding capital, can’t they take a little more effort in the parts that VIPs don’t frequent?

 

The monuments however are mindblowingly brilliant. Like the Qutb Minar complex for instance. Now, pray tell me who recruits these jerks to man the entrance and ticket counters? Rude idiots, refusing to converse in anything but Hindi. For goodness sake, these are international tourist sites, you've gotta be friendlier than that.

Brought back memories when I saw the wire sculpting outside Raj Ghat (where there were pan stains too). I bought a cycle 27 years ago. Picked up some pieces this time around too.

The Delhi metro is convenient. But people can't follow instructions obviously. Right below the sign is pan stain at the 1-day old Rajiv Gandhi Chowk station.

The words on the vehicle in combination with his ass tickled me. Jobless!

Managed to get time for some reading too. These are the four I read –actually 5, but the 5th is a different post.

 
 

Loved it. The man can tell a story. Take basic human cruelty, add an anthill and some gaming — voila! Didn’t like the ending though.

 

A surprise. Worth a read for sure.

What was the point?

Skip it!

Both brats had a blast…

 

For O it was the usual fooling around.

And N, seen using my nephew’s prized camera lens cap as a snack plate, was spoilt beyond belief.
  

Sigh! And that, my dears, was 6 weeks that disappeared before I could say ‘I hate Hindi chauvinism’.

  

 
 
ps: In case you wonder if I had anything but a blast, let me tell you — the return was horrible! I fell really sick hours before leaving Chennai and puked and crapped my way to Doha, and took a good week to recover with a dose of emergency IV aid and all. Ha! so evil eye already kapput.

 

 

What’s the solution to our filth?

Was in Argentina last week… and again that dreary feeling.

Every time I visit a new place my heart sinks. Why are we (Indians) so comfortable with the filth we live in?

In the more prosperous parts of Buenos Aires and in the slums, in the rural areas bordering Brazil and in the settlements of the indigenous folks in the rain forests I couldn’t find mounds of garbage or people pissing/shitting on the streets.

In the bleakest localities, garbage was packed away in bags and placed on the pavement for pick-up; and no one was pissing and shitting on the streets.

Even in places far poorer than India, with less literacy and a lot more problems — rural Botswana, shanties of South Africa, bombed-out districts of Lebanon (you can add your tripadvisor list to this) — it would be difficult to find the filth to match what our cities/towns can throw up.

Let’s not blame the civic bodies, and let’s not blame the poor, the homeless, the migrants — it’s OUR problem.

How many of us care enough to clear garbage that is not ours? And how many of us care enough to pull up someone who litters?

Last winter at the Aspire park, I got O and her friend to pick up empty wafer packets, juice bottles, cans etc and drop it in the bin — so that their play area is cleaner. A passer-by said: “Why bother. They (the official cleaners) will clear up in the afternoon.”

Yep, let’s wait for someone else to clear the crap we are responsible for!

In Chennai, R & I used to hang out at the Besant Nagar beach almost every night, and we would spend a good portion of our (date) time just picking up garbage (that was safe to handle with bare hands) or ticking off people who were littering. Well, he did more of the former, and I took care of the other task (of what use is a loud voice, if it can’t be used to shout at idiots?).

Let me tell you, it was neither satisfying nor gratifying a task. No one cared. We were just the idiots who had nothing better to do.

End of this session of my self-righteous vent.