Thursday, March 17, 2011

Blog #32: Bardow the Beautiful

NOTE: I'm sorry for the long gap in postings. Just so you all know, India was an amazing experience. It didn't really recharge my battery in the way I had hoped it would, but it was one of the most interesting travel experiences I have ever had. I went in with no plan and I think that allowed me to really gain the most from my time there (although I certainly didn't see as much as I would have liked).

Anyway, I have decided not to include stories from my time in India in this blog because, well, it's Bhutanlines, not Indialines. The experience was very different from my life in Bhutan and therefore doesn't really fit in to my Bhutan story. I have been working on a tale of my journey to and from India because that does contain a taste of Bhutan, but the posting has turned epic and I have decided to put it on the back burner for now. It may surface in the future, it may not.

For now, I will include one post that is from my time in India because it too has a taste of Bhutan within it. It is about a gentleman I met in Delhi named Bardow. In a city of millions, what are the chances that a stranger from Bhutan would approach me of all people on the street? I thought it was worth writing about. Enjoy!




Bardow approaches me and asks me where I got my hat. “From Sikkim?” he enquires.

“No, my mom made it,” I tell him.

“Very nice,” he compliments me, “ just like in Sikkim.” He pauses so I keep walking. Strangers approaching you on Delhi’s bustling streets is anything but strange.

“Where are you from?” Bardow finally fires back as I realize he is still keeping pace with me.

“Canada,” I respond to the question, which has become so familiar it seems always to be resting on the tip of my tongue.

“Oh, Canada!” he gasps as his face lights up. “I’m very happy. This is very beautiful. You are the first man I have met from Canada.”

Though I’m in a rush, something about this soft spoken, elderly stranger draws me in, sparks my interest in conversation. His long, tweed coat and fuzzy scarf are cause for envy on this frosty Delhi night. The twinkle in his eyes lures me in.

“Where are you from?” I finally ask, knowing full well I might be getting myself into a conversation I have neither the time nor the patience for. Delhi has lowered my boiling point considerably.

“Bhutan,” he replies. This time it is my face that has become aglow.

We talk for a while about where he lives, what he does, what he’s doing in Delhi. Eventually the conversation shifts from the middle of the street to an empty chai stall after he suggests, “Should we have a cup of chai?”

We talk for nearly an hour. He explains that he was a teacher back in Bhutan and how he was forced into retirement when he turned sixty-five. He speaks of his sixty-forth year as a time of happiness, as the ‘good times,’ but things have become much more complicated with just one added notch on his belt. His grey hands tremble as he sips his chai and tells me of his family – a wife and one daughter, one son, both just finished their high school studies. He speaks of their hopes and dreams – their ambitions and aspirations– as if they are his own, every so often lowering his shaking head into his hands, slicking his long, silver eyebrows with his thumb and forefinger. The topic clearly upsets him, but he never loses his joyful countenance, his glow.

His daughter wants to be a nurse, he explains with great pride. But there are no nursing programs in Bhutan, an outdated piece of information, I inform him, but he retorts that even the programs n Bhutan, though tuition is free, cost more than he has. Hostel fees and meal plans: the unavoidable realities of sending one’s child away from home for studies.

He explains that he came to Delhi for work, that he had hoped there would be greater opportunity to tutor students in the big city, more consistent work. He received no pension from his previous job.

“What to do la?” he mutters.

I smile at this common Bhutanesism, a favourite of theirs and mine.

He doesn’t like Delhi at all. He describes all the same attitudes and behaviours that frustrate me as well; the greed, selfishness, aggression – the ego. There are glaringly apparent differences between the simplicity of Bhutan and the complications of India. “Materialism,” he repeats over and over again throughout the conversation. There is a distinct Buddhist undertone to most of what he says, I realize.

I agree with most of what he says; it has been shockingly apparent to me ever since I arrived. Many shop owners, when asked how much something costs, will respond with dramatically overpriced quotes, as is somewhat expected in this part of the world to make room for haggling. But the negotiations are an exhausting process that have often left me walking away frustrated. Vendors will often refuse to give reasonable prices, preferring to hold out for one sucker whose purchase will yield an absurd profit rather than move quantity at a smaller, but still respectable return. “Always wanting more,” is how Bardow describes it. A recent experience of mine reaffirms this.

I took an auto-rickshaw from the airport to my guesthouse in Delhi. I had already made the journey several times and was well aware of both the distance and the correct fare, so when I approached a group of rickshaw drivers and was asked, “How much you want to pay?” and one driver quickly agreed to my response of “150” I was both pleased and shocked. No negotiations? No hassle?

I loaded my bags into the mobile pod, rocking it slightly with the added weight, and plopped myself in my seat, happy to get going so quickly.

About five minutes into my journey, just far enough that I had lost sight of the other rickshaws, my driver turned to me and said, “So you pay 150 plus 120 parking fee.”

Okay, here goes, I thought to myself. I had watched him pay a parking attendant when we left and it certainly hadn’t been 120. And anyway, the agreed upon price ha been 150, not 150 plus some.

“No, no,” I stood firm, “we said 150. I don’t pay for your parking.”

He fought with me for a little while saying parking was very expensive, then shifting strategies and arguing that my destination was very far.

“No, not very far,” I defended. “15 to 20 minutes.”

He argued with me for a few more minutes before trailing off in some mumbled Hindi.

Always wanting more. How true Bardow’s words rang out sometimes.

There are few pauses in conversation between the two of us, and the discomfort that arises when they do happen is quickly dissolved by that majestic twinkle in his eyes.

Bardow picks up again, explaining to me his current situation. He is having a difficult time finding students. Several teachers at the colleges are trying to help him, he assures me, but once again there are complications. Students all want to be able to phone Bardow, and he is unable to afford a phone. He does have an email address, but he says that the 10 rupees for 15 minutes of internet usage is too expensive to use more than once or twice a week. It is only with this that I really begin to understand the gravity of his financial situation. I understand it even better when he goes on to explain his living situation – sharing a room with three other people for 85 rupees a day, eating from street vendors for 10 to 15 rupees if he can even afford that.

“Why not rent a room by the month?” I ask him, knowing well that it would be cheaper.

“Landlords all want security deposit up front,” he explains. “4000 rupees. Too much,” he adds, again diving his face into his hands, slicking back his silver brows. He has only been able to procure three students so far in the six months he has been living in Delhi, Bangladeshis whom he says can’t pay him much.

“How much do you charge?” I ask.

“150 rupees per lesson.”

“Okay, that’s not bad. How long are lessons? One hour?”

“Three hours. And only a few lessons a week.” His head falls, silver flashes.

“It’s no good,” he says with a tone of slight resignation.

“No, no. It’s okay. But I think you could do better if you advertised a bit around the colleges, maybe put up posters,” I suggest, trying to re-inflate his optimism, reignite his glow.

“Yes, but problem is they all want a phone number, and phones are very expensive.”

“How much are phones?” I ask.

“1200 new. Maybe six or seven hundred used.”

We talk a little longer, mostly about my family this time. I describe them fondly, though somewhat embarrassedly, realizing the extent of my position of privilege.

Being here has provided me with a profound realization that our society affords us privileges others can’t even begin to comprehend. This is not to say that everyone in Canadian society is better off than Bardow, but that simply being from Canada affords us with at least a basic system of support, a safety net of sorts.

I worked in a shelter predominantly comprised of refugees from all over the world, some of whom didn’t have a single possession to call their own. They were the lucky ones who had made it out of their countries and had landed in a good situation. And they mostly had good reasons for leaving their motherlands.

I remember helping one man fill out some government forms claiming refugee status. He was confused by a question which asked, “How did you leave your native country?”

He asked me, I think half-jokingly, “Can I say by running for my life?”

I told him it probably wasn’t a good idea, but asked myself, why the hell not? What could better describe the reality of his situation?

And what could better describe Bardow’s situation than that gentle utterance, “It’s no good.” The truth – the reality – is, no, no it isn’t.

Conversation ceases again for just a moment, a topic draws to a close. As he stirs his tea, Bardow’s spoon clinks against his glass, reminding me of the prayer bells back at school. Living in a Buddhist country has left its mark on me. I have not yet given into Buddhism as a religion, nor do I think I ever will entirely, but the philosophy has certainly increased my sensitivity to the issues of the ego and altruism, strengthened my sense of responsibility for others. I ask Bardow if he would feel comfortable allowing me to buy a phone for him to help him improve his chances of getting more students. He never really accepts, nor does he decline. He just keeps shaking his head, muttering, “It’s too much,” I assume talking about the price, not my gesture. He doesn’t want a new one, there’s no need. But maybe an old one, and maybe one or two hundred rupees of talking time. This seems like the most sensible idea to me as well.

It’s late and nothing remains at the bottom of our glasses but a few soggy spices. There’s no way we can get the phone tonight, but I leave for Rishikesh tomorrow. What to do la?

I arrange to email him one or two days before I return to Delhi and we will meet at the same chai stall again. Then I ask him where he is going now, and has he eaten dinner. He tells me he hasn’t but he will walk and get some cheap street food, find something for 5 or 10 rupees.

I reach into my pocket and pull out a crumpled 100 rupee note. Gandhi stares up at me approvingly.

“Will you take this and buy yourself a nice dinner tonight?” I ask my new friend.

“Thank you,” he accepts with poise and humility.

His hands tremble as they hover over the table and receive the money. We get up out of our seats and move towards the street where the entire fateful encounter began.

“So we’ll meet again,” I say as I extend my hand.

“Yes,” he says with a smile and a twinkle. “I do hope so.”

1 comment:

  1. A puzzling experience. It is not common or expected for strangers to speak to one another in Delhi. The only exception are train journeys. More so than many other places in India, people are very reserved with those they don't know or don't have a legitimate reason to speak to. Generally only criminals and con artists approach strangers, but it is not something "nice" people do. You may have made a legitimate connection, or you may have simply been had. Most con artists will attempt to bond with you over something shared--if you are Christian, they are Christian. If they see you have come via Bhutan, they will tell you they are from there. I wouldn't be surprised if your elderly friend were not from Bhutan at all, but saw that you were and perhaps knew a few of the habits from there and imitated them for your benefit. He may have told you the absolute truth, but he may not have. You are fortunate you were not drugged and robbed, or worse.

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