Thursday, March 11, 2010

End of Puja

The puja ended today with the Rinpoche giving a blessing to all present. People came for miles around to be blessed. Starting this morning, there were many extended families walking into town. Then the vehicles started arriving. When I walked in at noon, there were lots of families along the edge of the road, cooking over fires, and sharing picnics.

Late in the afternoon, people started the long trek home. Those in vehicles are tooting their horns as they head out of town, and there is quite a bit of happy hooting and hollering.

Tomorrow will be my first day of school, at last. Since I will be a lot busier after this, I thought I’d better finally fill in (briefly) the three week gap at the beginning of the trip.

We thought we were off to an auspicious beginning when the prime minister of Bhutan was on our Drukair flight from Delhi to Paro. He walked by as we were lined up to get on the plane, and nodded and said hello to me.

The flight was incredible. We were lucky to have perfect visibility to view the Himalayas. They were even more spectacular than I’d imagined. Layers of jagged snowcapped peaks extended as far as the eye could see. The Canadians were all gobsmacked. It was apparently old hat to the rest of the passengers who barely even acknowledged the view. The local beside me was playing on his mp3 the whole time.

The plane’s wings almost clipped the mountains as we entered Paro Valley. The plane basically drops from the sky to the short landing strip. When we arrived we almost got the red carpet treatment, but they rolled up the carpet before we were allowed off the plane.

I’ll be honest about a few misconceptions I had about Bhutan. First of all, I foolishly thought that we would be virtually the only foreign non-tourists. I honestly thought that we would probably be welcomed by the king. Yes, I’m blushing as I’m making this admission. And, no, we haven’t met the king (yet).

As it turns out, there are a few dozen ex-pats in Bhutan, in a wide range of positions: educators, doctors, scientists, researchers, youth workers, and a yoga teacher. Some have been here many years.

The drive from Paro to Thimpu was an exciting twisting, turning, up and downhill rollercoaster ride. It was a test for some of our group, who realized that Gravol will need to be their friend for these drives. Lots of beautiful sights- prayer wheels of all sizes, from handheld, to enormous; row upon row of prayer flags flapping in the wind; ornate carved and painted traditional houses and covered bridges. We passed work crews of Bhutanese women building houses using the traditional method of rammed earth construction. We also saw the remains of deserted homes, roofs gone, wooden embellishments also gone. Only the earth walls remain, making them look like adobe forts. Apparently it is unlucky to move into a deserted house, so they remain empty.

Thimpu is a small city with a lot of Bhutanese character. The buildings are mostly built in traditional style, with the distinctive carved window frames, and other ornamentation. There are no traffic lights – the busiest corner has a traffic cop. None of that surprised me. What did surprise me was the number of cars! Many of the middle class own a small car, such as a Suzuki Alto or a Hyundai Santo.

I was also shocked to see many people in “western” clothing in Thimpu. Many of the young people wear jeans, and you see young guys with chains hanging out of their pockets. I thought it was a law that the Bhutanese must wear the traditional gho for men, or kira for women. It is one of the laws which doesn’t seem to be enforced. Despite that, most people do wear the traditional clothing.

There were also people smoking! When I read that the sale of tobacco was illegal here, I thought that was a great decision on the part of the government. Well, it is another law which is not enforced. Many people smoke, but they have to buy their cigarettes on the black market. It is not a big deal at all.

A bigger problem than smoking is the chewing of pan, or doma as it is called here. I’ve already described that, and the red splotches everywhere. It amazes me that even people in public positions chew the stuff.

I was also surprised to see many masked people in Thimpu, and to a lesser extent here in Mongar. They wear a simple, brightly-coloured cloth mask which hooks over the ears. I asked whether they are worn to prevent sickness, or to prevent spreading sickness, but the answer was not clear. It seems that most people who wear them feel they are protecting themselves.

Our lodging for the two weeks in Thimpu was at the Yeedzin Guest House. It was very quaint, cosey and comfortable. The staff were all very sweet. They went beyond the call of duty to do things like helping us to get dressed in our kiras and ghos.

We had a delicious variety of fooding (they really do use the word ‘fooding’), from traditional Bhutanese fare, such ema datse (chillies and cheese), to Thai and Indian food, to yak burgers, and even pizza! I’m really missing the food choices. I don’t have those options available here in Mongar, only Bhutanese food, with perhaps a bit of an Indian influence.

Our orientation involved sessions on Bhutanese history and government structure, education policy, curriculum, Canadian connections, Dzongka lessons, basics of Buddhism and etiquette in the choesham (altar room). There was also time devoted to signing documents, banking and buying local phones.

We also had a lot of shopping to do. We had to buy most of the things to set up our new homes. This was tricky because none of us knew what to expect in our lodging, or what would be available where we were headed (apparently not much). Our lists included two element gas stove, huge gas cylinder, mattress, pillow, sheets, towels, dishes, cutlery, pots, etc. It was even suggested that we buy some food, because many things would not be available outside Thimpu.

As it turned out, my place was almost fully furnished, which I found out just before we left Thimpu. I was able to resell the gas stove and cylinder, and I hadn’t bought a mattress yet. Most of the other stuff has come in handy.

We also did a few short hikes while we were around Thimpu. We visited a few chortens, dzongs, goembas and lhakangs (religious buildings). The most spectacular was Taktsang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest. This is the goemba which is built into the side of a cliff at an altitude of more than 3000 metres. Hiking up there was a challenge, especially when we were still getting used to the altitude. It was worth it though. We did the hike the day before the king’s birthday, and when we got to the top, the monks told us that the king would be hiking up later to spend the night there. We were instructed on how to greet the king (eyes lowered and mouth covered), but we only encountered his entourage, lugging up food and bedding. We missed him by only an hour or two.

I want to post this before I go to bed, so I shall leave it at that for now.

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