The Road to Haa
(For LOTS of pictures of Haa Valley and Olympic Day in Bhutan go to my Facebook wall!)
On our drive to Haa for Olympic Day, Sonam Tshering the Secretary General (SG) of the Bhutan Olympic Committee shared a story that I told him epitomized a distinct aspect of Bhutanese people. At a meeting abroad with delegates from many nations he was waiting in line to get food from a buffet table and noticed that there were only 6 pieces of chicken left on a tray ahead of him. He really wanted to take 2-3 pieces for himself but noticed that there were still several people in line behind him and thought that they may also want chicken. So he decided he would only take one when it was his turn, or maybe not any if the number dwindled. This choice never came to fruition, as the two African gentleman in line in front of him took all the chicken.
Bhutanese are socialized to be mindful beings. Not just because of their Buddhist upbringing but because they tend to live in small communities and in the same house with lots of family. For the most part, unless you are married and have your own family you live with your parents, grandparents and siblings as it is too expensive for a single Bhutanese to move out of the house. If married couples live in the same area as the parents, the parents will serve as babysitters for the children. As the parents age, the females of the family will become the caretakers. Thats just the way things are in Bhutan. Just in the last week I’ve been in the country I’ve had two separate people comment on how it upsets them when they have traveled abroad to see western family so spread out and separate from each other.
Due to tight social quarters and because Bhutanese work in about 2 degrees of separation (the number is getting smaller the more I spent time here and observe people interacting), news of family, friends, co-workers and people you hang out with at the Chorten in the morning, travels lightning fast. Even I have had information I shared with Karma or another in the BOC office, come back to me within minutes. Nothing here is proprietary unless stated as such.
On the approximately 100K, 3 hour twisty-turny drive through Paro for lunch, then up and over Chilai La (pass) at almost 13,000 feet, Sonam and I perused many topics. Mostly national and world politics and the nuances of America and Bhutan. Like many educated Bhutanese, Sonam went to university abroad a couple times, speaks English fluently, including understanding all American slang, and is just as adept, or more so, at discussing American and world politics than anyone I know in the US. And much more enjoyable to have these discussions with because he is not emotionally involved in what we are up to politically.
We discussed work, the three types of music in Bhutan, Expedition Bhutan, relationships, the war in Afghanistan, women in the Middle East, America’s role in giving aid to nations in need, illegal immigration, the Chinese view of Democracy in China, Russia and America, the Constitution, and the beauty and power of America and the glaring shortcomings of our country as well. He noted that I have a distinctly open and liberal view of my own country, inclusive of the ability to be realistic about and voice our limitations. I reiterated that one of the virtues and challenges of America is our privilege of freedom of speech.
We were traveling with Namgay, the head of finance at the BOC and who is from Haa. Upon arrival in the steep, narrow valley sitting at 9700 feet and brocaded with several stand-alone peaks that served to corset-in the valley floor, we had tea at Namgay’s family home. After checking in with the organization of Olympic Day at the largest school in the valley, we settled into the Royal Guest House and then headed back to Namgay’s family home for dinner.
As I learned while here for Expedition Bhutan there is a particular format for classic Bhutanese village homes and Namgay’s family home was no different. From the road we walked over a rutted cobbled walk way to gain the entrance of this traditional/old style structure. The main living area of 8 rooms, inclusive of a shrine-room, sits on the second floor—the bottom level is reserved for all live stock and animals to hang out—sort of like a built in barn underneath the house. The chicken coop and an extra animal shed stand in the front yard near the road. After climbing a steep, broad, wooden ladder we entered the kitchen/dining room area and were ushered to mats on the floor against the cement and wooden walls. And immediately served tea.
Bhutanese refreshingly have little to no furniture except in the parlor we used for drinking tea earlier in the day. Though the eye is filled with traditional Bhutanese painting inside and out and maybe a few random posters on the walls, they actually have little to no visible extraneous stuff. Moving from room to room you may open a wooden door covered by a Bhutanese style curtain, or just the curtain. In the dining/cooking area there are cupboards against one wall inclusive of a couple of alcoves that house one or two burner hot plates, a small wood stove in the center of the room and mats covering the wooden planks on the floor for sitting. The only item that appeared out of place in this rustic and functional setting was the small TV in the corner of the sitting area. The sleeping room has beds and bedding. Period. There is nothing in the 2-room shrine area except a mat used for performing prostrations and the items in the alter area. Its unclear where the family members keep their clothing or personal items.
Meat is very expensive in Bhutan and it is also Auspicious-No-Meat-Month here (my name for it), so we were served boiled eggs, rice, hot chilies, dried and cured mustard greens and mushrooms. The tea kept coming until it was time for Doma (beetle nut chew) and a type of local warm wine (not Ara). This local wine is prevalent and popular but can not be purchased in stores. It is only hand made and each family has its own self-proposed superior recipe. I am not a fan, but being a guest I feel obliged to sample it when offered (the look from Karma). This evening my appetite was minimal as I was very tired from jet lag that seems to be hanging on, so my local wine sipping was even more anemic than usual. Namgay’s eldest sister kept glancing my way with a look that showed concern I would somehow starve to death in her presence if she wasn’t mindful of my food intake.
Eating in a Bhutanese home reminds me of growing up with the food-pushing prowess of my Italian relatives. The matriarch of the family, or the eldest daughter scurries around barefoot keeping everyones plate and glass full. If you aren’t particularly hungry you need to be keenly aware of putting your hand over your glass or plate at the right time to avoid getting topped off repeatedly by a small, quiet, unsuspecting Bhutanese woman. Even if you show you don’t want any more, she will give it another shot when you pull the hand away to take a bite or sip.
Despite my fatigue it was lovely to see Sonam drop his uber-professional demeanor and take on the role of the mischievous, playful ring leader of conversation. Bhutanese are verbal in how they tend to pass information inclusive of being consistent at teasing each other and noting humorous behavior in others. None of it is malicious in nature, but only derived for a good laugh. Even the one being teased easily takes it in stride.
Very close to the Bhutan/India border, Haa has served as a large Indian military base from the outset. Though the relationship is a positive one, I was disturbed to find out on my early morning walk that the small local Dzong now serves as an office building for the Indian army. The Dzong is surrounded by one of the most unusual and disparate golf courses I’ve seen, inclusive of signage that denotes that the course was founded by a general in the Indian army. The Indians seem to have their names visible to take credit for lot of facilities in this region—which is ironically quite unBhutanese-like. What is Bhutanese-like is that the Bhutanese quite easily let them do it. But the valley is lush-green and picturesque and the people are friendly and vibrant as everywhere here. And if it weren’t for the almost 10K in elevation this could be considered a perfect spot for the first Bhutan International Marathon.
In Haa I am glaringly the token white person and will only meet one other caucasian during my stay—a Hungarian man teaching in a village here. All take note of my presence as the obvious stand out in the crowd but they are adept at not being rude by staring. In these situations I am friendly and inviting in my facial gestures but mindful of giving them space to approach me if they wish. An occasional child and less occasional adult will start conversation.
The first question is always—where am I from? The second is usually—how do I like Bhutan? I have noted consistently that unlike Americans who come across a foreigner in our country, Bhutanese are not very curious about me or my end of the world. They tend to want to know how I find their country. If they do ask a question about the western way of life it is often about how much things cost, or a cultural aspect of the way we are that is perplexing to them. And its often asked in an apologetic manner. As if they are self conscious about asking the question in the first place.
In pondering this, I remembered when Expedition Bhutan visited a nunnery in Punakha. The girls shyness of us matched their uber remote location and after I spent about an hour interviewing them and the Bhutanese woman who helps support the nunneries in Bhutan for the film, I asked them if they had any questions of me. One girl hesitated then raised her hand. “Are you Buddhist?” she inquired.
After my answer—no more questions.
The final touch in preparation for Olympic Day in Haa was a visit to one of the most auspicious monasteries in Haa. Namgay and I set off to purchase butter lamp oil and incense as a gift for the monastery, and in turn they would make an offering for a safe and happy Olympic Day Celebration. Initially I saw these types of nuances of culture quite touching. Now I am privy to them serving several purposes that bind and join people in a village as well a country. Our gift supports the monastery which spiritually supports the community. The offering creates auspicious awareness about this event happening in their region and emotionally polishes preparation for our big event. The entire gesture brings people and peoples hearts together on the same page. This is the way things are in Bhutan.
As we drove up to the monastery the lush green valley narrowed and steepened. Namgay was surprised to find that I knew the layout of the land in this area quite well, which led to a discussion about how we westerners tend to use maps to sort out a route or find our way. The Bhutanese find their way by word of mouth. I shared that I had studied his country extensively on a map before arriving in October and that Haa Valley was one of the areas on our original route option. After explaining our route with him, he was surprised to find that I had seen more of his country than many Bhutanese.
After parking on the road we took a groomed dirt walkway that was hugged by vibrant green buckwheat crops and rustic dwellings. The monastery was one of the smallest I’d seen and he pointed out the cracks in the building from a recent earthquake. Locals were busy building a new structure just behind the old one in the usual clay-mud and wood architecture, and I was pleased to see the inhabitant would have a stunning view of the valley.
Once our offering was made Namgay offered to drive me up valley to the end of the road and a large Bhutanese army base. I guessed that the peaks surrounding us were at about 14-15,000 feet in elevation. But in this part of the world this height was still considered just the “foothills” of the Himalaya. And in this region, an entry way into a sliver of China that hugs up against India and that both create a wedge between Bhutan and Nepal.
Olympic Day is tomorrow. This post is already too long and I have so much more to share…Back at you with more…. In the meantime – enjoy my pictures on Facebook!
(For LOTS of pictures of Haa Valley and Olympic Day in Bhutan go to my Facebook wall!)