Monday, May 07, 2007

The Himalayas on $230 a Day

Shortly after my return from APEC, I received an email from Catherine saying how anxious she was to travel somewhere, anywhere... Without thinking too much about it, I replied with the suggestion that we take a trip together sometime. 10 seconds later the phone rang. "Hello..?" "Let's go to Nepal." "Oh, hi Catherine -- I just sent you an email." "I know. Do you want to go to Nepal?" "Nepal? I can't go to Nepal;" (memories of climbing the last 50 feet of Mt. Fuji on my hands and knees, brain batting wildly against my skull...) "I get horrible altitude sickness." "Oh. Then how about Bhutan?" I had some vague sense of Bhutan being in Nepal's general vicinity*, but Catherine's enthusiasm is very persuasive. So, taking advantage of Japan's long string of national holidays, last week we went. Lucky for me, modern medical science has devised an altitude sickness prevention pill.

Since returning, I've tried in vain to write something intelligent about our trip. Every attempt I make comes out sounding hackneyed, though maybe that has something to do with the nature of the place -- being there was like listening to a Loreena McKennitt album: pleasant and moving, but you begin to wonder if you aren't being lulled into a false sense of feeling. Bhutan is careful in its dealings with the outside world. Only 6000 tourists are allowed in a year, and the country's fear of becoming a backpackers' mecca means that you pay dearly for the privilege: minimum $200 a day, more for groups of fewer than four people, with the requirement that you be led by a guide. The restrictions assure that most visitors are well-off retirees traveling in large groups, willing to be bussed to festivals and government-authorized craft shops where they can freely spend their foreign money to Bhutan's best advantage. Our time there was thus carefully circumscribed; the country strives to engineer things so that you have a 'perfect' experience. It's travel without the rough edges. But personally speaking, I like a little chaffing from a place.

Because of this, the times in Bhutan I enjoyed the best were those times I was able to overcome my tourist status to some extent -- when I slipped away from the festival dances to walk idly around a village; when the restaurant was full and we instead ate in the kitchen where the inebriated housekeeper was singing and dancing as she prepared the meal; when a native resident we had met on the plane invited us to sample bhutanese alcohol in the guest room of a home... At those moments, I felt I was making contact. Travel without contact is just a pretty picture show.

Pausing at a bend in the road during a walk through the countryside, children clamored to talk with us. Only one little girl was quiet. Smiling assuredly, warmly, she reached up to put her hand in my hair. The gesture was casual and intimately confident, small fingers smoothing down strands the wind had blown over my shoulder with a level of genuine affection that was disarming: curiosity without guile or defense. So often that sort of action makes you feel like an object, but this was such a human gesture that it managed to be inclusive. It was heart-stopping. I felt so in love with her.

I can understand Bhutan's reticence to fully embrace the foreign element wishing to enter the country; Bhutan wants modernity, but on its own terms. The king -- fourth in a monarchical line elected to power by the country in 1907 -- speaks not of GNP, but rather GNH: 'Gross National Happiness'. Against the wishes of the country, he has decreed that the monarchy will relinquish power in 2008, at which point Bhutan will become a parliamentary democracy. To hear people talk of their discomfort at the change is surprising, more so in that the complaints are reasonable and sincere. Things are working, the country is making progress, and democracy is seen as a sort of Pandora's Box with the potential to ruin it all. But the king is firm, and they have already held practice elections. I hesitate to sing the praises of democratic reform to these people, though I suppose as an American in this line of work it's almost my duty. Instead, I tell them that if handled responsibly -- i.e., coupled with education and involvement -- democracy has great potential for good. Television was only just allowed in Bhutan in 1999; mostly it looks to be the same vacuous entertainment you get in the US. But during our trip one teenage boy stopped Catherine to ask her about a discussion concerning the Iraq War he heard on CNN. His questions were thoughtful and articulate. Maybe democracy will be accepted in the same manner: unimportant to the majority, but allowing a certain few to really make a difference in their way of thinking and acting. Ideally all of us would be philosopher kings.

To describe Bhutan as beautiful is a shocking understatement. It is in some parts actually ethereal. Prayer flags rolling absently in the breeze, strung from tree to tree or hoisted on their own poles, buttressing green and blue vistas of Himalayan landscapes... To face those crisp, inviting mountains without feeling the urge to somehow drink of them, you would have to be soulless. To reach out and take an ice-capped peak, to place it in your mouth and have it melt slowly, sweetly on your tongue... The thinness of the air makes the idea seem almost plausible. It's a notion the labels on bottled water can only tritely hint at.

During some down time, our guide bought me a cut of betel nut from a small general store. There's some really grotesque footage of me dribbling red saliva (which I'm certainly not about to show here).

I'm sure there's more to be said, but I think I've covered enough.

*Bhutan is, in fact, nestled rather snugly between India and Tibet.