Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Night in Bhutan

"Look, cranes!" I shout as the car coasts down from the mountains into the Phoebijika valley. We have passed our first yaks on the snow patched summit after hours of hairpin turns through the mountains of Eastern Bhutan. Mark and Ugyen, our driver, squint through the windshield at the large flat expanse. The Black Neck Cranes come to the Phoebijika Valley to winter. In the spring they return to the Tibetan Plataea. "No wait, those are prayer flags!" They laugh, but the flapping white things seem to rise a bit. "Nope, those are cranes." We all squint across the expanse of marshland to see the large white birds take flight.

Ugyen tells us that there are no local hotels in the valley and most of the tourist hotels will cost more than we are used to. In the high tourist season, sometimes tourists have to stay with local families. Mark and I exchange glances, some discussion ensues, a phone call is made, then we are on our way to stay the night with a potato farming family. Tourist hotel be damned!

Ugyen negotiates the car across the dried marshland until the road disappears in the middle valley outside a small monastery. The wind whips across the plain making the bunches of white prayer flags on poles snap back and forth. The sun has begun to set over the far hills and the shadow across the valley is growing.

Ugyen approaches the monks to ask if we can leave the car there. It turns out the monk's car is broken. We help the monks push the car across the tundra as Ugyen gets in the drivers seat to make it start. "This is the reason I bought all that special clothing before we left" I think back smugly on the hours of agonizing decisions in REI and Paragon sporting good stores back in the US. It was so exciting to think of what we might encounter and what gear would prepare me for it. Then I look down and saw that all the clothing I had on today I had bought in a market in Cambodia. The minivan putters 50 yards and Ugyen emerges triumphantly. The head lama thanks him and drives off towards the sun now rapidly setting behind the mountains.

We grab our bags from the trunk and start walking up the hill. "I think its that house" Ugyen gestures to a mud house half way up the hill still golden in sunlight." We march up the hill through the scrub bamboo and over a small muddy stream with muddy rocks. The wind howls and whips up sheer cold as muddy temple dogs pad past me, nearly knocking me over as I battle between warming my hands in my pockets and keeping them out for balance.

Soon a young woman in an olive kira and a grey north face fleece appears on the hill side. She cocks her head and smiles and offers to take a bag. Then she leads us the rest of the way to her 70 year old mud farm house near the potato fields. She and Ugyen stomp their feet and yell at the three temple dogs who have come up the hill and encourage them to go home. "Leopards" she explains. If the dogs don't go home, they will be eaten by leopards. With that, she ushers us into the house. I notice that this is one of the few homes I have been to that has no dogs.

The mother and father appear at the door of the house and usher us in. We take off our shoes and come in to a small dark wooden room. In once corner is a propane stove and some pots and pans on a shelf above. In the other corner sits a neatly folded stack of blankets. In the center of the room is a pot belly stove with some small seating mats encircling it. Behind this room are two more. We put our bags in the corner and sit down.

We spend the evening drinking milky sweet tea around the stove, a cat curled under our knees (proof, I think, that the family had offered us the warmest seat in the house). With Ugyen as an interpreter they ask us where we are from and how long we have been in Bhutan. Then they chat amongst themselves and with Ugyen, who, as it turns out, is only shy in English.

Dinner is local red rice, home grown potatoes cooked with chili homemade cheese and dried beef cooked with more potatoes. The father urges us to eat more and more, refilling our cups from a seemingly endless pot of dahl until we feel drowsy. Then the daughters get up and make our bed in the alter room. "Are you happy here?" asks the 80 year old grandma sitting on the floor across the stove from us. Yes, yes, we say emphatically. Happy and warm. The family laughs. I am afraid you think we are dirty" says the older daughter in English. No, no. We insist.

One of the daughters escorts me to the outhouse with a flashlight before bed. We brush our teeth together on the porch and I ask her about her schooling. She is studying to be a teacher in Paro. Then we are ushered into the Alter room, one wall completely full with calendar pictures of gods and Buddhas and a burning butter lamp beneath them. Large pieces of bacon hang from a rack on the ceiling. Our bed is a series of mats and blankets carefully arranged on the floor. We put on all our clothing on and arrange blankets strategically before going to bed and shiver beneath the bacon.


Mark and Juliah

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