Friday, April 9, 2010

Blog #9: The Bumthang Gang

I think the absurdity of the terrain hit most of us on the drive from Punakha to Bumthang. It became obvious that we were actually covering very little distance and that the constant ascent and descent of the steep Himalayan mountains was tacking countless hours onto our drive. We were not complaining though, quite the opposite in fact. I think that this drive was when most of us fell hopelessly in love with the physical environment of Bhutan.

Our tiny bus puttered up and down the narrow mountain roads like an ant marching up and down an anthill. Sometimes the roads seemed as if they were barely wide enough for all four tires to remain on solid ground, but it was usually in those situations that some massive transport truck would come careening down the mountain in our direction and the road that we doubted could fit our single bus all of a sudden was home to two large, crossing vehicles. I often sat by the window on the valley side of the bus, as the excitement and terror of anticipating when the bus might tumble off the mountains edge was both exhilarating and oddly amusing. I would look out the window and see no road below us, only clouds, trees and the deep trench of this or that valley.

There were also times when I paid little attention to the roads, but they were often brought back to centre stage when Grant, who was usually sitting in the front seat, let out a, “Whoooa-kay!” as a transport truck barreled by us at full speed, leaving only inches between the two vehicles. He would then slowly look back at me with eyes wide and eyebrows upturned in a similar look of terror and amusement. I suppose most of the time we were just in complete disbelief.

The drive was long and we also slept for a significant portion of the drive, or at least most people did. I was sharing a pair of headphones with Keira most of the way. We generally rotated between our iPods in order to save battery life, but also to share some of our favorite songs and artists with each other. There was something about sharing music during that drive that had a particularly profound impact on me. I think that part of it was that I was never fully immersed in music as I usually would be, but was rather experiencing somewhat of a half-reality. The music would sweep me off into the surreal, but Grants gasps or the bus’s horn would pull me back into reality. But I think the other – perhaps more accurate – explanation is that by sharing an iPod and headphones with someone else, I was truly sharing an experience with someone else.

I have always found that listening to music while driving through a foreign country has a profound impact on me and often makes for a memorable moment, but it is usually a moment that no one but myself recognizes or appreciates. I have always been aware of the power of music to influence and manipulate emotion. The most apparent example of this is in movies, where the songs chosen by the filmmakers have a dramatic impact on the viewer’s reaction to a scene. Well, looking out the bus’s window into a vast expanse of misty mountains was better than any Hollywood film, and the music served as the soundtrack to our adventure, but this time there was someone with whom I could share it.

By the time we approached Bumthang the terrain had leveled out considerably. Bumthang is located in a rather large valley and so the undulation of the land was far less drastic than that which we had encountered up until then. The bus picked up speed on the flat road, which, for Grant, meant that we were rapidly approaching his new hometown, Chumey.

Chumey was small. In fact, I’m not exactly sure where Chumey supposedly began and where it ended. There was a small, straight two-lane road running through the centre of “town” and on one side was a relatively small school campus, and on the other were a few homes. We stopped at the school to take a quick look around. Again, as soon as I stepped off the bus I wandered through the school’s campus looking for a bathroom. By the time I returned to the bus we were apparently ready to turn back in the direction we had come from and drop Grant off at his new home.

Grant’s place was quite nice in the sense that it was new and clean, but it did possess a few shortcomings, and I think that he was instantly rattled by the thought of it being his home for the next year. For starters, his apartment consisted of a single bedroom and bathroom, and in true apartment fashion there was a long, narrow hall with several other apartments’ doors lining the walls. Secondly, his kitchen was not inside his apartment, but rather separated by the outdoor entrance to the entire complex. This meant that every time Grant wanted to prepare a meal he would have to go outside to do so, which, for those of us who like to cook in our underwear, might be a cause for concern. This distress surrounding the outdoor kitchen was only compounded by the fact that Chumey, and the greater Bumthang area in general, is notoriously cold. This was one of Grant’s major concerns, and rightfully so I think. It is difficult to feel comfortable somewhere when you are constantly cold.

Unfortunately there was only one alternative housing option, however, and the principal of Grant’s school assured him that it was considerably worse, and so with some reluctance and apprehension Grant accepted the apartment as his new home. We unloaded his things from the bus and piled them into his apartment. Inthu and her husband, Rathan, were going to be living in Jakara, the more central part of Bumthang, so we were going to be spending the night at a guesthouse in Bumthang and say all of our goodbyes in the morning. Jakara is just half an hour away from Chumey, so we left Grant to set up his apartment for the time being and headed to Jakara to meet Inthu’s principal before it got too late.

Inthu and Rathan’s house was enormous. They had the entire second floor of a rickety, old wooden house, which was literally enough space for a large Bhutanese family. In fact, a large Bhutanese family actually lived on the ground floor below them. Their flat consisted of three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a large dining room/living room area with a space for a Bukhari, a wood burning stove. The obvious shortcoming was the house’s lack of a kitchen, as Inthu loves to cook. Three bathrooms also seemed slightly excessive, and I’m quite sure that Inthu would have traded the two extras for one of them being clean enough to use.

The group of us stood in their house for quite a while, brainstorming ways for the two of them to organize the main room and make it work. It seemed as though there was ample space to create a counter along a wall and to put a table and stove. The only inconvenience would be that there was no sink in their makeshift “kitchen”. Still, Inthu was not thrilled with the idea, but when we looked out the window and saw her school directly across the street from her house, the sheer convenience of her the house’s location seemed to tip the scale ever so slightly.

We all spent the night at a guesthouse nearby. We had a delicious dinner accompanied by many drinks. Nancy was always a reliable source of quality wine, an attribute that was welcomed by all. It seemed difficult to find quality alcohol in Bhutan. Inexpensive alcohol was in abundance, however. After polishing off a few bottles of Nancy’s finest white and red, we switched to some stiffer drinks from the bar. Dragon rum was generally the preferred choice among the group, but I actually grew quite fond of the Courier Special whiskey. Both were a mere 30 ngultrum per shot, which works out to about 75 cents. By the time we were on our second glass we were all feeling pretty loose, and Nancy had promised a friend we had made along the way a musical performance, so Keira and I busted out our guitars right then and there in the middle of the guesthouse’s restaurant.

This had actually become quite common practice between the two of us, but what was not quite as common was that the guesthouse staff kept the restaurant open for almost an extra hour and joined in the fun. Keira and I performed a few songs by ourselves and together, and then the staff treated us all to a few performances in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language. The contrast between East and West had never seemed more evident to me than at that moment, and yet the line separating our two cultures had clearly become blurrier in recent years. The Dzongkha songs’ vocals sounded very traditional at their core, but at the same time, hearing them sung with an acoustic guitar gave them a modern vibe. When no one had any more energy left to sing another song, we all decided to call it a night and turn in.

It was quite strange but I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Grant in person the following morning. After breakfast he had gone on a mission to investigate his alternative living arrangement, and he was supposed to return before we all departed, but sadly that never happened. Nancy had warned us the day before that the journey from Bumthang to our next destination, Mongar, was quite far and that we would need to get going early in the morning, so there was really nothing that could be done about our inability to say goodbye face to face. Before we left I gave him a call, sent him my best wishes, and said goodbye. We all wished Inthu and Rathan the best of luck as well, said our goodbyes, boarded our bus once again, and continued on eastward.

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