Morning in Thimphu: Option—Gutter Walker
Part of the enjoyment in early morning training time is to watch a city slowly stretch, yawn and wake up. Kids in uniform gho’s and kira’s heading off to school, neighbors up doing chores, pigeons being fed, wads of sleeping stray dog fur starting to stir, or monks chanting. A morning trot is such an efficient means to explore a new area and get a lay of the land or just get to know a familiar place that much more intimately. So my days have typically been starting with a run or hike (and will now include cycling!) and some cultural exploration.
I’ve never enjoyed executing the same running course each time I go out, even at home. So each day I take a different road, meander down a new trail, or poke around in an unexplored neighborhood. The only challenge is trying to decipher where it isn’t ok for me to go (i.e. the King’s palace) because for the most part Bhutan does not have signs that say No Trespassing, Do Not Enter, or, If You Go This Way You Might Ride Off a Cliff—people tend to sort out what works and what doesn’t work on their own or via word of mouth. Their restrictions of outsiders are solidly in place, but they are presented gracefully and covertly by a guide.
Morning is a time for prayer in Bhutan so the majority of the people out and about early are meandering to the Chorten or monastery in town—mala beads dangling from their wrists and swaying as they walk. They may quietly recite prayers en route, or wait until they arrive at their
chosen spiritual location. The large local Chorten will receive hundreds of visitors on any given morning—old people with canes, joggers out for their morning exercise, parents with small children in tow, or working adults heading to the office. They will complete up to a few hundred laps around the Chorten (always an odd number)—keeping count with their bead strands. Some do stand-in-one-place prostrations, spin the large prayer wheels on the property, or stand still or sit with flat palms touching in front of their chest, lips imperceptibly moving as they silently pray. The monastery downtown has similar activity with the addition of chanting and drumming that is projected widely through a loud speaker. I find these sounds along with the smell of incense from this part of the world instantly soften my mind, so I tend to find my run at some point skirting close to this monastery.
Karma’s mother heads to the Chorten each day at 3:30 AM. She meets up with a friend and they often use lap time to catch up on local news or ‘concerned-gossip’. She then brings these tidbits home to the family breakfast table—enjoying being the informant as to what is up in the neighborhood. All the times I’ve been to the Chorten I have not run into Karma’s mother, so I’ve used my lack of seeing her to tease her about not showing up—and therefore being a Chorten-Slacker. She loves this banter, as do most Bhutanese, and finds ways via Karma, to give it right back at me.
After breakfast, instant coffee (the only kind in the stores and expensive here), a sit-in-the-bathtub-shower and my own chores or work, I head to the BOC office. I try to take a slightly different route for each 10 minute walking commute so I can observe various aspects of Morning-Thimphu. If I b-line toward the main street from my apartment, I walk around the back of the building and through an 80 foot narrow, circuitous alley way which is the confluence of four several story high apartment buildings and inclusive of a few piles of construction debris, scattered food fragments offered to the dogs, and a deep cement gutter. I wave to the women opening their variety store, the man building a brick storage shed behind my building or people hanging their laundry.
A compulsory experience in a city in this part of the world is what I call ‘Asia-Smell’, which seems more apparent in the morning. I can walk through town and opt to take in as much or as little as I wish visually, but its impossible to evade the sharp and concise smells of Asia. In one block my nose may be invaded with the particular type of incense common in Tibet/Nepal/Bhutan and it will shroud my senses like an artist vigorously attending a blank canvas with large swatches of stunning purple paint. Twenty more feet of walking and the incense smell will evaporate as if that same artist took white out to that purple blotched cloth, replacing it with another equally striking color/smell, i.e. open sewage. The sewage smell will take over my walking experience for several seconds until it is replaced by wood smoke, cooking rice, or trash burning, only to be trumped again by incense or a momentary blank in the total experience. And the required Asia-Smell-olfactory-experience continues—not pleasant nor unpleasant, but just a steady reminder that I am in a particular part of the world and that it isn’t home.
Most of the very old building walls are rife with pigeon droppings, cracks or peeling paint but there is always a diligent effort in place to clean and polish ones own designated space. The tireless street cleaners are women with brooms made of tree branches, which resemble the ride of OZ’s Wicked Witch of the West. To sweep they must bend over and push the several foot long stiff broom across the pavement in a sideways fashion. A woman will clean an entire block solo, with one broom that has a three inch diameter brush made of twigs, daily.
Morning seems a popular time for people to do laundry in Bhutan. They may do the washing in their home, in a large round plastic tub in front of their house or building, in the sewage gutter on the side of the street, or in the local river. There are particular gathering places on the river for socializing and laundry time. I can assume from the quantity of clothing being hung publicly to dry that very few if any, have clothes driers. So they are hung from lines in their yards, the railing on their apartment veranda, or in the case of one family near my building—the metal hand railing that is used to walk down a flight of stone stairs on ‘Main Street’.
Most streets in Thimphu don’t have a sidewalk unless they are a well trafficked roadway, but they will have a well worn dirt foot path. If a sidewalk is present, it will be made of stone or cement blocks and you may need to step up double-curb-high to get onto the walk. On ‘Main Street’, rectangular cement blocks parallel the sidewalk to cover the open sewage gutter and in total—stone sidewalk and sewage gutter covers—need to be negotiated with care as there is no consistency to the texture of the walking surface. Stones may move when you step on them, you may hit a patch that is uneven or a gaping crack, or you may have to negotiate a stretch of sidewalk as a brief obstacle course. I usually opt to walk in the few inch wide gutter on the street, which is always swept clean and a smooth walking surface. But mostly because I prefer to walk fast and the Bhutanese like to stroll.
With the one exception of doing laps around a Chorten—which are often done impressively briskly or even jogged—the people seem to be in no hurry to get to their destination. They meander and chat, men with men and women with women often holding hands or arm in arm, maybe stopping intermittently to spit red beetle nut juice on the sidewalk stones, make a purchase from a booth type store front, chant prayers or spin their hand-held prayer wheels (clockwise). They stop, change directions or move sideways frequently, and with no warning or a glance to see if relocating their body in space in a crowded area will work. They indifferently trust that things will work out. Walking on the sidewalk at peak hours on ‘Main Street’ can become a game of pinball for a fast walker. So when alone and with a destination in mind, I opt for the street gutter and jam on it.
My gutter walking will cause an intermittent horn honk from a passing car. Bhutanese drivers thankfully, do NOT resemble the masses of gratuitous horn honkers on the planet, but instead honk only when they are relaying important information. i.e. – ‘I am merging and I suspect you may not see me’; ‘I’m turning into the upcoming hair-pin corner on this super narrow road and its important for both of us that you know I’m here’; or in the case of my gutter walking—‘I’m overtaking you in my car and kindly request that you don’t walk into the road’. The nicety of their horn honking is admirable given they can at times be some of the most clueless drivers I’ve encountered. For example, It is common for someone to stop impromptu, no signal, in the middle of the road and hold up traffic just to chat with a friend walking by or let off a passenger. Even in this case the drivers behind will offer a tap on the horn kindly requesting for them to carry on. In America, the in-city-cyclist needs to look out for the possible opening of the parked car door. In Thimphu while riding, one needs to be aware that not just the door, but an entire car may abruptly impede forward movement.
Despite the dirt or uneven stone walking surfaces the lovely kira-clad women are admirably into wearing fashionable shoes that represent the season. Currently in the hot climate I am seeing high healed sandals, stylish flip flops or open toed mules and often sporting brightly painted toe nails. I haven’t yet figured out how their feet remain looking so well put together. By the end of the day my shoes and feet are filthy from the city construction dust and dirt walk ways (and gutter walking).
There are a plethora of quaint coffee shops in downtown Thimphu but I’ve found out by trial and error that none of them open until 9 AM at the earliest. The other morning while needing to make a Skype call with a client I could not locate an open coffee shop with WiFi. I found myself American-pomorphizing the Bhutanese by getting irritated with their late opening hours. “Don’t these people know coffee is served first thing in the morning!” I complained internally.
Its very unusual for me to have intolerance of other country behavior patterns as I tend to enjoy thriving on the change ups in culture when I’m traveling. So once I acknowledged I was being an ugly-American-asshole, I got a good laugh going, got over it, and did some smooth gutter walking to find another coffee shop I had a password for. I sat in front of the closed shop on the cracked and uneven stone steps near a dried blotch of red beetle nut spit stain and a sleeping stray dog—and happily hooked into their WiFi.
Back at you soon from Bhutan,