Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blog #27: Not for the Faint of Heart

Everyone said to try to avoid traveling during the rainy season. Well that’s great and all except that our only real vacation falls directly in the middle of rainy season. What’s one to do, remain in the town they have been trapped in for the past five months? I think not. One hikes up their pants (after all, they were probably dragging through puddles), packs their bags, and gets the hell out of Compton…no wait, Khaling.

The break did not get off to an optimistic start. My plans with Keira and Andrea came unraveled after a 48 hour torrential downpour blocked the roads on either side of Khaling. I was literally trapped with no way out. Finally, by the time the sun reemerged and the roads were cleared there seemed little point in going to Lhuntse. Keira and Andrea were supposed to go on a hike two days later, a hike that I didn’t have time for because my parents were coming to visit Bhutan over the vacation and I wanted to meet them on the other side of the country in Paro (where the international airport is located). The two day journey to Lhuntse hardly seemed worthwhile if I was only going to be able to spend one night with my friends. It seemed especially foolish to make the journey after hearing that Lhuntse’s main road was among the most volatile in the country. All it would take is one heavy rainfall and I would be trapped in Lhuntse for days. It was just to risky.

So I commenced Operation Parental Pick-Up, which – little did I know at the time – involved a great deal of strategic planning, not to mention assistance from friends.

All bus tickets to Thimphu had been reserved at least two weeks prior. At that point in time I didn’t even know one could reserve bus tickets weeks in advance. Why would I? Every time I had taken the bus people had laughed at me when I suggested that I reserve a bus ticket. So you can imagine how foolish I felt when the laughter broke, not from me trying to reserve a ticket, but from not having reserved one. There were no seats available for the next week.

I couldn’t face spending my summer vacation alone in Khaling. Besides, I had to get to Paro to meet my parents. So Namgay got on the phone and started making some calls. He asked everyone and their brother if they had an extra ticket to Thimphu or knew anyone who did. Once again I was reminded how lucky I am to have such amazing friends here. I essentially backed off the whole situation, leaving it to the gods…and Namgay. A few days later he came to me and told me that he had resolved the whole situation and that not only did I have bus ticket to Thimphu, but that it was actually the same bus that Choki and he - as well as two other friends of ours, Nima and Pema Wangchen – were taking. I was elated to learn that I had a way out and that I would have company for what was sure to be a painful journey.

I hadn’t been back to Thimphu since we first arrived in February, but I remembered the journey quite vividly. I remembered traveling in a bus that was much too large for the eight teachers on board. I remembered the winding roads that threw some into dizzying fits of nausea. I remembered the peaks and valleys – not just those of the mountains, but also of our emotional states. I remembered that we had taken five days to cross the country and that each leg of our journey had still felt long and exhausting. Well, I was about to make the same five day journey in two days.

This was the plan: Our bus was scheduled to leave Trashigang town at 6:00 a.m.. Trashigang is two hours (55 km) away from Khaling and the reporting time for the bus was 5:30 so we needed to arrange a ride from Khaling to Trashigang. From Trashigang we would travel directly to Bumthang, approximately 14 hours (288 km), where we would spend the night. The next morning our bus was to depart at 6:00 and travel the remaining 12 hours (267 km) to Thimphu. It was not supposed to be fun; it was supposed to get us from one side of the country to the other in two days, one night. Supposed to.

On the morning of our departure I woke up at 3:00 a.m. after only three hours of sleep. We had decided that we would meet on the road at exactly 3:30 and leave as quickly as possible. My friends were only 15 minutes late (see the previous blog on BST), but it didn’t matter. The school driver whom we had hired to drive us to Trashigang was nowhere to be found. In all fairness, we hadn’t hired him as our driver until the night before, when we learned that his predecessor wouldn’t be able to drive us because he was stuck in Samdrup Jongkar, the south-eastern border of India and Bhutan, due to a border strike. So Namgay started pounding on the new driver’s door, yelling “Ata,” a commonly used word which translates to older brother, but which requires no relation whatsoever. It may have seemed unreasonable to bang as loud as possible on someone’s door at such an ungodly hour, but we had little option – our entire two day journey rested on a punctual departure from our home town.

Finally, after about 10 minutes of nervous knocking our driver emerged half asleep, helped us load our bags in his van, and plunked himself behind the wheel. He rolled himself some Doma (beetle nut), popped it into his mouth, and once we were all crammed inside, sped away.

It was completely surreal leaving Khaling so early in the morning. The night’s sky still blanketed us in darkness as we wound our way through the mountains. Thick clouds lurked just below the road, and as dawn began to break across the valleys the clouds glowed a bright baby pink against the dark plum skies. It was painful running on so little sleep. My eye’s burned as if they had been attacked by some noxious gas, and my eyelids drooped as if gravity had become too powerful a force to resist. And looking down at those clouds – those soft, cushiony, cozy, fluffy clouds – I longed to be back in my bed with my face stuffed into my pillow. But I was on the road again, heading back to the “big city”, and as tired as I was, after the complications and confusion surrounding my departure from Khaling, I was relieved to be making progress.

We arrived in Trashigang at about 5:45, fifteen minutes before the bus was supposed to depart. The bus station in Trashigang was bustling so early in the morning. Lined up neatly in a row were six buses, some idling, some still sound asleep. We found our bus – a rather sorry looking piece of machinery – and loaded our bags onto the roof to be tucked away beneath the tarpaulin for the bound-to-be-rainy journey.

Surprisingly, at almost 6:00 precisely our bus’s engine woke from its slumber, first unleashing a stentorian roar and then settling into a mellow purr. We promptly boarded the bus, and as I wriggled and writhed in my seat in an attempt to identify and locate the protruding pieces of metal and worn-away foam cushion, I looked out the window only to see the Tashitse Higher Secondary School bus idling beside us, and several of my students sitting comfortably inside. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of the lustrous benches on which they sat and the vast space in front of them into which they stretched their tiny limbs. But then the bus lurched forward and the sharp pain of my knees colliding with the metal frame of the seat in front of me snapped me out of my jealous stupor.

Desire is a cause of suffering, I told myself.

* * *

I have been reading an amazing book on Buddhism, one I would recommend to anyone interested in the religion, called “The Teaching of the Buddha.” The reason I like it so much is because it tends to focus on the philosophical side of Buddhism rather than the religious side that is more commonly practiced in Bhutan.

I consider myself to be a practicing agnostic; I am extremely interested in organized religion from a philosophical and anthropological perspective, but I find it difficult to align myself with any prescribed system of beliefs. I simply believe what makes sense to me; sometimes that will resemble ideas from organized religion, sometimes it lies directly in the face of it. Religion is didactic in my opinion. Spirituality, on the other hand, allows much more room to breathe and to adopt a system of beliefs and practices that suit the individual. Most of us are searching for some sort of truth in our lives, and that typically means different things for different people. For me, upon my first exposure to Buddhist philosophy I found truth.

After studying philosophy for four years in university I learned to dissect arguments, expose their weaknesses, and essentially shatter them with some sort of counterargument or objection. I consider this to be the most valuable skill I learned in university, and with anthology after anthology of western philosophy to work my way through, I found a common objection to most classical Western philosophy: it mostly examined the world from a religious standpoint. The philosophers are not to blame; it was the world in which they lived. However, there are some questions to which modern science now has the answer, so we can all stop pondering.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not concerned with the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent being to whom we are all subservient underlings, but rather teaches that within each and every one of us there is an enlightened being, a Buddha, that lies dormant, waiting to be awakened. Essentially, that higher power, which most religious folk would call God, exists within the individual. We just have to learn how to access it.

How nice is that?

So what is the first step to awakening the Buddha within each and every one of us? Understanding the Four Noble Truths, the central tenet of Buddhism.

Noble Truth numero uno: Life means suffering. Exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, physical pain, sickness, and ultimately death - sadly, suffering is an unavoidable part of life, one that is likely amplified if we don’t accept it as such.

Noble Truth numero dos: The origin of suffering is attachment. If we accept that nothing in the world is permanent (which is basically impossible to deny) then attaching ourselves to anything can only cause us suffering (either physical or emotional). This includes attaching ourselves to the notion of the “self,” for the “self” is simply a delusion to which we all defer. The fact of the matter is that the “self” exists only in the mind, as each of us exists only in connection with the rest of the universe, which itself is impermanent.

Noble Truth numero tres: The cessation of suffering is attainable (just in case you were feeling like throwing yourself in front of oncoming traffic). We can rid ourselves of all suffering through something called Nirodha, which is the rejection of sensual cravings and attachment. Essentially, we can end our suffering by extinguishing the cause of that very suffering (seems logical enough). Once we have rid ourselves of the cause of our suffering – desires and an attachment to an impermanent world – we can achieve Nirvana (the ultimate goal of Buddhism in which freedom from all troubles, worries and ideas is achieved).

Noble Truth numero cuatro: The path to the cessation of suffering is eightfold. There is a right way to live our lives. Neither hedonism nor asceticism can lead to a happy, healthy life. We must walk the middle path that lies between these two extremes. As we move slowly down this middle path we will find that the causes of our suffering will gradually diminish, and thus our suffering itself will subside until it ceases to exist. The process is a slow one and cannot be expedited; it is something that is believed to take multiple lifetimes to achieve…but most people feel Nirvana and Enlightenment are worth waiting for!

* * *

My lack of religious faith was tested less than two hours into our journey from Trashigang to Bumthang when our bus was barreling down a mountain and came to a 180 degree turn. As we slowed to negotiate the sharp bend I watched the driver spin the steering wheel for at least two full rotations, but much to my surprise – and his – the bus chose to ignore his commands and stubbornly continued down its coarse. After several more rotations (I’m pretty sure more than a wheel should turn without locking) the driver managed to roll the bus to a stop on the side of the road just passed the bend.

Once stopped, he briefly attempted to diagnose the problem, grabbing the wheel and spinning it like a small child would steer in an arcade racing game. The wheel offered no resistance, spinning perpetually. The steering mechanism was clearly shot; we weren’t going anywhere.

It was still quite early in the morning, but already the sun’s heat was hitting us hard. There was no point in sitting on the bus any longer. One by one the passengers abandoned the skeleton of our steel steed and gathered under a tree by the side of the road.

For a while the bus driver and ticket collectors slid back and forth under the bus, jamming arms elbow deep into its bowels. What they were trying to achieve remains a mystery to me still, but I do appreciate their efforts as a symbolic gesture of optimism.

Sadly, optimism waned after three hours in the midday sun. The driver had caught a lift back to Trashigang to find a mechanic or at the very least the spare parts he required to try to resurrect the deceased. We were left to wait on the side of the road. Luckily, our trip had come to an abrupt halt in the small town of Sherichu, not that it was much of a town. There was one small general store and one restaurant. The general shop had little more than the standard beverages, chips, and instant noodles. The restaurant didn’t even have that.

The “restaurant” housed us for a little while and provided us with an escape from the heat. After eating a bowl of Maggi instant noodle soup (the only thing being offered on the “menu”) I followed a few others’ lead and lay down on a bench underneath the cool breeze of a ceiling fan. I dozed in and out of consciousness for what must have been thirty to forty five minutes, at which point in time I was told that we were very subtly being asked to leave unless we were going to buy anything else (a bogus offer considering the lack of options).

We waited on the side of the road for a few more hours before the idea of abandoning the bus and hiring a car became too attractive to ignore. The only problem was there were literally no vehicles passing by in the right direction. We had one of the ticket collectors call the bus driver to receive a status update, but the news was grim. The driver was still in Trashigang and was having a difficult time tracking down the people who had the part we needed (and may or may not have been taking an extended lunch break). Not to worry, though, we were told. We would still reach Thimphu on schedule. We’ll just drive all through the night until we reach Bumthang, then sleep for two or three hours, and then drive the remaining twelve hours to Thimphu.

Not to worry?!?!? Not only did that sound incredibly unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it also sounded incredibly unsafe. Let me get this straight; the driver is going to drive the bus, which has a major mechanical deficiency, for twelve hours straight after being awake for – at the very least – twenty four hours, then sleep for two hours, and then drive the remaining twelve hours the next day on little to no sleep? Great. Sign me up.

Huddle: What should we do? It’s already five o’clock. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen. Let’s just hire a taxi to Mongar, stay there for the night and then hire a taxi to take us from Mongar straight to Thimphu early the next morning. Agreed? Okay, so it’s settled. Now let’s just sit back and hope that a taxi drives by us.

I couldn’t believe our luck when a taxi cruised by in the other direction only a half hour later. We negotiated a ride with the driver, sheepishly requested the ticket guys to unload all of our bags from the carefully bundled tarp on the bus’s roof, and waved goodbye to Sherichu.

We arrived in Mongar at about 8:00 p.m.. Knowing that Mongar is a hub for anyone looking to travel east or west (or north to Lhuntse for that matter), Ann had been kind enough to leave the keys to her house for all of the BCF teachers during the midterm break while she was back in Canada. I felt slightly guilty about showing up at her neighbour, Chundu’s house unannounced with four friends, all of us looking to crash on Ann’s floor, but the situation provided few alternatives. As fate would have it, showing up at Ann’s neighbour’s door ended up being the single most important link in the chain of events leading to our successful arrival in Thimphu.

Chundu is such a nice lady. When I met her for the first time back in May on my way to Lhuntse I instantly liked her. She is very easy to talk to, very kind, and extremely helpful. It also just so happens that her husband is the chief of police in Mongar, and on that fateful night that made all the difference.

I chatted with Chundu for while when we first arrived and explained to her what had happened and what our plan was. The problem, she explained, was that almost no one drives straight from Mongar to Thimphu in one day, especially during the Monsoon when the roads are so unpredictable. I explained to her that my friends needed to arrive the next day to be with their families for some special celebrations and that we would do whatever it took to get there in one day. At that point in time her husband came outside bearing a police walkie talkie. Connections are connections no matter where you are in the world. “Let me see what I can do,” he said with great poise. I thanked him profusely and left to go to town for dinner before the restaurants closed, while he broadcasted our request across the radio waves.

After we finished dinner we wandered through town to a taxi stand, making the same request to each and every driver we came across. No one was willing to take us. It most certainly didn’t help that we were making the request only seven hours before we were hoping to depart. It also didn’t help that there were five of us and only a few taxis would fit five people plus a driver. Finally, we huddled around a taxi where the head of traffic police was standing with two other men. We had stumbled across them randomly, but it was no coincidence that the driver of this taxi was willing to take us; Chundu and her husband had pulled through – the driver wasn’t particularly thrilled about the journey, but when the chief of police asks you to do something, you do it.

So after countless “thank yous” and another shorter-than-necessary sleep we were back on the road at 4:30 a.m.. Leaving Mongar was just like leaving Khaling. The clouds still hung low and glowed a majestic lilac in the early morning sky. We zoomed along the bending road through sleeping towns and villages, up and down lush mountains, above and below thick layers of cloud.

Three hours later our taxi came to an abrupt halt behind a line of cars. This was not an unfamiliar situation, just an unwelcome one. A line of cars waiting on the road means only one thing in this country: road block. I didn’t wait long to get out of the car to examine and assess the cause of our delay. About ten metres beyond the lead car was a muddy landslide, with trees and other debris lodged in its powerful grip. By this time it had started raining and the tiny trickle of water that slid through the drain along the side of the road began to increase in volume and pick up momentum. So too did the landslide seem to increase in volume as mud continued to slowly ooze from the mountain’s side like puss from a wound. To make matters worse it was Sunday and the bulldozer operator doesn’t work on Sundays, so for the time being a few men futilely cleared away some of the less significant debris and I returned to the car. There was nowhere else to go.

I probably slept for over an hour while we waited. When I awoke not much had changed. We were still lined up, mud and rocks were still blocking the road, and a few people continued to busy themselves by trudging through the landslide, clearing one rock at a time.

Finally, at about 11:00 a.m. my ears stiffened to the sweet sound of a bulldozer’s growling engine. Help had come and I was extremely grateful, but it had taken its time and the thought of the still-fifteen-hour-drive was making me feel a little anxious.

Once the bulldozer had cleared the road we encountered another surprise. I actually never would have considered the implications, but luckily the Bhutanese are quite accustomed to landslides. There was no oncoming traffic, no cars waiting on the other side of the landslide. What did that mean? It meant that there were other landslides ahead blocking traffic from the other direction. So we got back in the taxi and crept down the road behind the bulldozer at a snail’s pace. With the bulldozer’s final dump of debris down the side of the mountain, we and the other cars spilled past the metal monster like a dam had burst. The obstacles were behind us for at least the time being and the road ahead was looking smooth.

Actually, it wasn’t just looking smooth. It was smooth. Clouds clung to the mountains below us as we made our way through Thrumshingla National Park, but then, just as we were leaving the park, the clouds parted ever so slightly and allowed for just a tiny glimpse of the bluest sky imaginable.

The drive through Bumthang was beautiful. Many people here consider Bumthang to be the most beautiful part of the country. Its rolling hills and lush valleys have a very Swiss feel to them and in my experience its sky is always blue and its sun is always shining. It also happens to have a few stretches of relatively straight road, something that one comes to appreciate after countless hours of twists and turns (both on the roads and in one’s stomach). Our driver certainly seemed to appreciate it. He hit the gas hard, reaching speeds somewhere around 100 km/hr (remember that on average we would normally travel at around 25 km/hr if we were lucky). We zoomed by cows lying in the middle of the road, children walking or cycling along the side of the road, and other cars driving at more reasonable speeds. I couldn’t blame the driver; he knew we needed to make up for lost time if we wanted to reach Thimphu in one day.

It was strange driving back along the roads that had led me to Khaling six months prior. So much has changed since then. We were all just nervous foreigners back then, jaws dropped and eyes wide to this fascinating country and the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayas. As I retraced our steps, I no longer felt foreign. The scenery was even more beautiful than it had been in February, but it wasn’t nearly as shocking. Places we had casually passed through on the way out east became recognizable towns and passes this time around. I felt connected to this country in a way that – for obvious reasons – I hadn’t the first time around.

And scenarios that may have shocked me in the first few months of being here were now incapable of doing so. There’s no gas in Trongsa, the only gas station for hours in either direction? No problem, we’ll just keep driving and hope we don’t run out of gas in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain in the Himalayas. All the restaurants on the side of the road are mysteriously closed for no apparent reason? No big deal, we’ll just eat packet after packet of uncooked instant noodles. Who needs real meals anyway? What’s that? Our driver is too tired to drive? Not to worry, Namgay – who hasn’t driven in years and has had just as little sleep as the driver – will drive.

This was when things got interesting. I in no way blame Namgay. I actually think he did an exceptional job keeping us alive. The driving conditions, however, we doing their best to really challenge him in doing so. It was at about 10:00 when I realized just how dangerous the drive had become and for the first time felt a little scared. Namgay was trucking along, our taxi puttering up and down narrow roads, weaving left and right, following the contours of the mountain, when the fog moved in. In reality, the “fog” we were driving through was actually the thick, lazy clouds that hadn’t quite had the energy to make it over the mountains, so they decided to just go through them instead; and in rainy season the clouds are plentiful and particularly lazy. Combine this with the pitch-black conditions of an isolated mountain road and visibility became a luxury we weren’t afforded.

Zai! Where’s the road?” became on all-too-familiar question to which no one had an answer. But we pushed on, guiding ourselves by the inside edge of the mountain (we figured that was probably a better idea than using the outside edge). Then the rain came: from 50% visibility to 25% just like that. So what do you do when it starts to rain torrentially? You close your windows. And what happens when you close the windows? It’s just like in the movies when a couple is making-out in the backseat of a car at “Look-out Point”; the car gets steamier than a Turkish bathhouse. So from 25% visibility we dropped to 10% at the most. There were times when we actually had to slow to a stop, just waiting for the fog to dissipate to the extent that we could at least see the road immediately in front of us. And then, just when we thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, Namgay skidded to a stop just in front of a fresh landslide.

This wasn’t the first landslide that we encountered on our long journey, nor was it particularly large, but it did pose a unique problem at that particular juncture. It was late at night and we were nowhere near anything that even resembled civilization. Our options, it seemed, were to turn around and drive to the nearest town and either find help or seek shelter for the night, or get out and clear the landslide ourselves. We chose the latter.

So Nima, the taxi driver and I got out of the car and started lifting basketball sized rocks out of the middle of the road, throwing them over the side of the mountain.

We had only cleared a few of the bigger rocks when we were startled by what sounded like a firework crackling up above us. And then, out of nowhere, a rock a little bigger than my head (insert small or big head joke here) came flying out of the sky and landed no more than two or three metres from where I stood. At first I chuckled, not fully absorbing what had just happened in the stupor that immediately followed the near death experience. But I was awoken from that stupor by the next set of crackling boulders shooting down the side of the mountain in our direction. We ran back to the taxi as fast as we could, leaving the road only partially cleared. Namgay reversed the taxi as quickly as possible, and it was only once we all felt that we were a safe distance from the crumbling mountainside that I took a deep breath.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet! We were still in the middle of nowhere, it was still dark and rainy, there was still a small portion of mountain lying directly in our path. What to do? …Vrrm. What to do? …Vvrrmm…vvrrmm! What to do? …Vvrrmm…vvrrmm…vvrrmm!! And then, with no other viable options, Namgay hit the gas hard and the taxi jolted forward.

At first we hydroplaned over the slick muddy surface that was the road, but that smooth, frictionless ride came to a bumpy halt when we felt the crunch of rocks hitting the underside of the taxi. It was like running full speed into quicksand as we entered the quagmire, but Namgay never took his foot of the gas, and the rest of us kept our eyes glued to the mountain above us, which was still spewing rocks like a bulimic purging after an all-you-can eat buffet. And then…traction and one massive, collective sigh of relief.

I don’t think any of us even looked back. I didn’t want to see it. It was behind us where it belonged. It had already been such a long, dramatic day that the only thing to do was keep our eyes on the prize. That is, if we could keep our eyes open. We had been awake for almost eighteen hours by this point and the previous day’s fatigue was beginning to carry over and take its toll.

The remaining five hours of our drive was relatively uneventful. The fog continued to deprive us of any sort of visibility, but the perfectly paved roads of western Bhutan made the journey much smoother than before. The disparity between east and west became even more glaring as we neared Thimphu. The road became considerably wider, and retaining walls and drains became more prevalent in what I can only assume were high risk areas for landslides. While it frustrated me to see the western part of the country get such preferential treatment in terms of basic infrastructure, I have to admit that it was incredibly welcome at the time. The final three or so hours of our drive were an absolute breeze. The fog and exhaustion still challenged us every eye-stinging blink of the way, but our destination was near and the hum of the our taxi soaring over the smooth road was enough to lull me back into a blissful state of serenity. Quite frankly, I had doubted whether I was going to make it to Thimphu on several occasions, starting with my numerous failed attempts to get out of Khaling the week prior, and then with all the obstacles we faced on our journey.

We pulled into Thimphu at about 3:30 a.m., 23 hours after departing from Mongar. The city was fast asleep and unrecognizable. It had been more than six months since I had left the nation’s capital, but even in the dead of night, in my semi-conscious state, I knew that I was re-entering the city in a completely different state of mind than when I had left. I remember feeling like I had landed on a different planet when I first arrived in Thimphu back in February, and now, returning there after six months in Khaling I was overcome with waves of déjà vu. This wasn’t Khaling: there wasn’t just one row of shops, there were city blocks worth of them; there wasn’t cow dung lining the streets, there were cars; and I didn’t know everyone there was to know – I was once again draped in the anonymity that only a city can offer. This city-boy had become de-urbanized.

But for the time being none of that mattered. All that mattered was closing my eyes and drifting into a long awaited, much deserved slumber. 610 km of mountainous madness had come close to defeating me, but I had persevered, and as I lay awake on the springy hotel mattress, I couldn’t help but laugh at the whole experience. From Khaling to Thimphu in 48 hours: Not for the faint of heart.

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