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.


geraldine said...

This sounds so wonderful. What a fabulous experience!! See any spinners??? And how was the betel nut? I've always wondered, but not enough to actually try it out.

I love the photos here. Please put them all on photobucket!! 8^)


Katie said...

The betel nut went a long way towards curing my cold... And just for you I took this photo:

Drop Spindle

Should I wait till you get to DC to mail you the yak hair? It's taking up a lot of room in my freezer!

Geraldine said...

Awesome! A top whorl drop spindle. I feel so connected to women worldwide. Do you REALLY have yak hair in the freezer? Why in the freezer? I'm thinking you might need to keep it til I get to DC. The agriculture police might confiscate it at customs. That would be tragic. But I think you can take it out of the freezer!
And you still didn't tell me what betel nut tastes like and how it made you feel....

melanie said...

i am not even joking when i say that the reason i bid so highly on bangladesh was its close proximity to bhutan.

i wrote my master's thesis on bhutan and cannot wait to go. come october, we'll be there for 10 days!

Katie said...

Really? I wish I'd known! We were looking for a third person to go with us... When you get back, I'd really like to hear your impressions of the country.

I'll post some photos on the A-100 site...

pat said...

Your descriptions and photos suffice to make me want to Go to Bhutan... If you ever get tired of the FS you could be a National Geographic photojournalist.

Paula Zhang said...

I know this is such an old post, but I love the way you talk about the scenery, politics, people, and attitudes of Bhutan. This was so beautiful in so many ways, though I suppose I can say the same for all of your blog posts. I've been binge reading your blog from its very first post, and I have a lot more to go... Which is good. I don't want to stop reading.

Katie said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed it, and thanks for your patience with the older photo links not working. I'm likely removing my blog in the near future, but it has been a real source of joy for me -- that you are getting a positive benefit from it as well means a lot to me. Good luck to you.