A chapter about Bhutan, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:
Only about thirty of us were flying to Bhutan, so the back of the plane held cargo: a couple of computers strapped to the seats, a boom box, a crock pot, several unmarked boxes, a quilt. And in the back seat a flight attendant drank in sleep – I mean, she snored. She, Mirja and one more were the only women.
The river Brahmaputra wound out toward the Ganges near Dhaka. Sunlight glinted and skipped across tens of thousands of acres of flooded rice paddies, miles and miles north of the Bay of Bengal. Sometimes the clouds lifted over northern Burma and Bangladesh.
Four hundred miles north of Rangoon a bend in the river ate half a town. It was July 4th. Americans celebrated independence while South Asia grappled with the monsoon.
When time came to drop through the clouds into Bhutan, the pilot announced, “We will maneuver the aircraft in the valley. This is a little different from large commercial aircraft. It is standard procedure. You will see the houses and trees a little closer than you are used to. The scenery is beautiful. Please enjoy the ride.”
He just picked a hole in the clouds and dove through. He did a 180 into the Paro valley. The automatic sensors called out, “too low,” and for the record he kept repeating, “acknowledge, override,” into the cockpit recorder.
This was George, bluff, barrel-chested, a real dude with a wide gray mustache, and one of just fourteen people ever to fly for Royal Bhutan Airlines, aka Druk Air. We said we’d buy him a beer if we saw him in town and he told us he’d drink it.
The only airport in Bhutan is in Paro, an old west one-horse town spread three hundred feet, and no more, across the valley floor, hardly movin’ in the midday sun. Uniformed Indian soldiers lolled about drinking “Thums Up” brand cola.
Phruba and Jigme, our guide and driver for the week, gathered us up for the trip to Thimpu, the capital and main city. Irrigated rice grew just about before your eyes, and every river was a tumult.
We crept and powered around corners (all week) in a Toyota Yokohama van. Jigme and Phruba both wore traditional skirt-like wraps called ghos, a lot like Burmese longyis (chapter six). Phruba’s legs stuck out below the knee. All week long he sat in the passenger seat, the picture of Buddhism, calm, legs hairy and hands clasped.
Tall and 28, he used to play basketball with the young King.
“We would stay outside and pick teams,” Phruba told us. “When he was in a good mood the King would invite us in to play. When he was in a bad mood he would play with his bodyguards. He is very good at the three point shot.”
Being taller than the King sets up a sensitive question: Does one shoot over the King’s head? Yes. The King’s bodyguards are some of the biggest men in the country, Phruba said, so he reckoned the King was used to it.
“Phruba, is the King married?” Mirja wanted to know.
“Yes, he has four Queens” Phruba replied, and seeing an eyebrow cock, he tried to put that right by adding what must have seemed the obvious: “But they are all sisters.”
With only one newspaper in the country, Keunsel, a weekly that comes out on Saturdays, how does Phruba keep up with the world? His answer was simple, disarming and direct.
Phruba’s eyes twinkled. He laughed, “We don’t. We don’t read much.”
The national dish is called Ema Datse, literally chillies and cheese (It’s those long not-too-hot green chillies we call “finger hot” in a bowl of melted cheese, eaten with a spoon). Discovering our common love of chillies, Phruba’s face fairly radiated. “Whenever people travel outside of Bhutan they carry chilli powder. To Bangladesh, India, Bengal – anywhere!”
Whether they travel to India or Bengal, Bhutanese bring back a lot of India. Everything not Bhutanese was Indian: The uniformed soldiers in Paro, those horrid polluting Tata buses and the big cement-truck look-alikes used for general transport, all of them spewing the same ghastly black smoke that’s already spoiled, say, the Kathmandu valley.
There’s Mysore Rose Brand soap. Dansberg beers. Indian videos – there were posters for Suraj! and Insaaf – The Final Justice! and Border! All with exclamation marks!
The Ngultrum (Bhutanese money) is pegged to the Indian Rupee and you can spend either of them. Bhutanese share Indian punctiliousness and an inclination to paperwork. Pads of every kind of paperwork are done in triplicate with carbons – even restaurant orders.
They’re trying to keep Bhutan pure. I think intellectually everybody knows it’s a losing long-term proposition, but good for them just the same. In a lot of ways it’s working.
Most men wear traditional ghos. Guys walk together with an arm around their buddy’s waist. You get benevolent, open stares. So few people have stuck Nikons in their faces that they still smile back.
An hour and a half from the airport the Toyota rattled up the driveway of the Indigenous Art School. Trying to keep traditional ways alive, the government brings children who show talent here from all over the country to learn to create religious thangkas, or paintings, and to learn carving and sculpting.
Here they all sat, at wooden benches, windows wide open – no electricity in the building – working in natural light. We stopped methodically at year 1 year 2 year 3 year 4 year 5 and so on up to eight. Smiling boys in robes at dusty wood benches. A fairy tale.
There was a football match that afternoon. You could hear the stadium cheer from every corner of Thimpu. Phruba boasted (or did he rue?) that it was up to 27,000 or 28,000 now, Thimpu was. No stoplights yet, but there were two traffic cops. A sign on the road between them advised, “Dumping Strongly Prohibited.”
I treaded mud down toward the sound of the crowd, down by the river, the Wang Chhu, admission fee 5 Ngultrums (14 cents), and sat with four monks from India, each contributing to the betel-juice-stain emergency in Thimpu.
A delicate, clean rain began as the football match let out, and for a little while the streets of Thimpu (only a few streets), teemed. At the Phuntsho Meat Shop a man stood under naked light bulbs on a table high above the buying public wielding an ancient scale, weighing skinned chickens and fish.
I walked into the bar at the Hotel Taksang, directly opposite Pelwang’s Mini Mart and below the billboard explaining the “Sewerage Construction Project – for better health.” They already knew I lived in room 325 and they told me my wife was asleep upstairs. I was the only one there and they made french fries to go with my beer. In this bar one beer cost 54 ngultrums and two cost 104.
Stray dogs (I think about eight billion) gave a free, full-throated concert most nights. Strays are the bane of Bhutan, just like in Kathmandu and Rangoon and Tahiti.
Being Buddhist, the Bhutanese have a little problem. They can’t kill the strays, can’t even spay them. That would be taking a life. But they can appoint Indian Hindus as dog catchers, and have them kill dogs on the pretense of rabies or rash.
The Phuntsho Meat Shop, Thimpu
Neither tumultuous, chaotic nor edgy, the polite weekend market sold no disgusting pounded meats or goats’ heads or bowls full of crawling bugs. Everybody wore their traditional clothes and chewed betel.
One guy sat sorting fat green chillies. He’d pause and turn, spit betel juice in his right hand, shake it behind him, and dig right back into the chillies.