Alone in Bhutan

Abeer Hoque

Population: 634,982
# of tourists in 2005: 13,600
Forest cover: 72.5%
% pop. involved in agriculture: 69%
% of land used of agriculture: 7.8%
# of languages: 19
Literacy rate: 69% (male), 51% (female)
Year Bhutan held its first democratic election: 2008
Hottest of the 5 kings of Bhutan (IMHO): Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck
# of monks: 550
# of lay (married) monks: 15,000
% of rural land ownership by women: 60%
% of urban property and business owned by women: 45%
Dry day: Tuesday
Local liquor: ara
Traditional dress: gho (male), kira (women)
% of plant species found in Bhutan: 50%
% of vertebrates: 42%
% of earth's space: 2.5%
% of Bhutanese who declare themselves happy: 96%

Choki is blowing smoke out the window. Her rail thin frame folds and unfolds as she pushes open the painted wooden shutters common to every Bhutanese house. Outside, it's raining as it has been for hours, for days. The monsoons are flooding the rivers here, high up in the Himalayas. I see the waters of the Wang Chhu River rising every day and of course it's only time til it reaches Bangladesh. Only, it's hard to think about Bangladesh while in Bhutan. It's hard to imagine that anywhere else exists when you're in this magic forgotten place. The disconnect starts as soon as the descent. The plane must navigate verdant mountain ranges, crisscrossing, u-turning, diving, swooping, and finally finding that one narrow patch of runway, the only runway in the entire Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Enter Paro and the period-piece feeling intensifies. The men stand around in their ghos, a knee length pleated tunic of sorts, the women in their plain or patterned kiras and short jackets. The main road is flanked by colourfully painted houses and there are oh, about two other streets. No matter where you are, you see mountains looming above you. Not like the occasional glimpses you get in Vancouver. Or like the sea that winks at you only from certain streets in San Francisco or Barcelona. Here, in Paro, you cannot forget where you are. 

And as the young will tell you, where you aren't. In 1999, satellite TV was allowed into Bhutan and everything went to hell. Or at least that's how some people see it. Rinchen manages a hotel in Thimpu which is a swerving two hour drive from Paro. He thinks that kids in Bhutan are somehow more susceptible to the influences of Western media, that the rate of change, or at least the desire for change, since 1999, is out of proportion. I cannot convince him that kids everywhere, not just in Bhutan, are bowing to that blue jeaned cultural overlord, the West. 

Choki is 19 and wants to go to America. She likes her high heeled boots and trendy SoHo-ish wear. She wants to improve her English, add it to the Dzongkha, Nepali, and Hindi that she already knows fluently. Every day after she comes back from work, she eagerly takes off her kira (all government employees must wear traditional Bhutanese wear) and slides into pencil thin jeans and a slinky cardigan. She calls her boyfriend. She has a smoke. She eats 2 plates of red rice and an ulcerally spicy dish of ema datse (chillies with cheese). She has a nap. 

Choki locks the door of her bedroom, like any good teenager would when she's afraid her father might come in and catch her doing something bad. Above her desk is a massive poster of Avril Lavigne. Above her bed is an equally life size one of Britney Spears. Say what you will, but when the topic comes up, I can honestly echo her enthusiasm. Black nail polish and narrow high cheekbones on one hand. Rounded babyface sexuality on the other. What's not to love? I love how cultural (and orientation) divides can be so deep that you can talk about entirely different things at once and no one need stumble. 

It's a different kind of alone in Bhutan. One where there is no chance to pierce it. I have no phone, no regular access to email. I find my $10/night hotels by word of mouth. I walk in with everything I own. I sign nothing. I pay cash. I walk out. No trace. 

In Dhaka, I always have the feeling that I'm being watched, and that I should be doing more. Like finding a husband. Why not then? It's a question I've faced countless times all over Asia. Why aren't you married? It's as if I made a decision about it and that was that. Fit faht. Who wouldn't be lonely if one were constantly reminded about an alternate lifestyle, albeit one I have no interest in participating in (for now). It's gotten so that I almost think they're right. Until I remember how happy I am. 

I'm even happier in Bhutan. I go entire days without having a single conversation. Then I spend entire days with people I meet randomly and listen to their stories, to their dreamings. It makes me think more about writing, about photography, about art, about life. It makes me see things. It makes me go to bed early.

Every morning, I wake up in a strange hotel room and go walking for eight hours. The Tiger’s Nest is a monastery so precariously perched on the side of a mountain, it’s said to be held there by the hair of angels.  As I climb to it, there’s a small station halfway up, a prayer wheel I turn squeakily as the prayer flags flap in the wind.  At the 400 year old Tango Monastery, I get blessed by the youthful incarnation of a Buddhist monk, my throat closing as he touches my head.  

Sometimes I don't eat all day. I almost never sit. There is too much to absorb. I have to do it standing, my camera in one hand, my heart in the other. Bhutan is so utterly simple and gorgeous. Almost no one I've met uses email. They all speak of the villages they've come from. They deeply love their king. They believe in their religion. They know their history. Rinchen has photos of each of the kings saved on his phone. Choki knows how many ngultrum a taxi would charge to go from Paro to her birthplace. Tshering can explain the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy and how his art addresses and adapts it. 

I come back to my hotel every evening exhausted. I momentarily wonder where the lovers are when you need a back massage.  I play music on my laptop. I forget the lovers. I dance. 

Choki doesn't like to dance. The first and only time she's ever been to a dance club, she went with her cousin brothers and was exceedingly uncomfortable. Finally one of them pulled her on the dance floor and she actually had fun. Don't you want to go again, I ask her hopefully. Club K on the main drag in Paro has no cover for ladies on Wednesdays. It's Wednesday. No, Choki says cheerily. 

Rinchen doesn't like clubs either. I ask him about Space 34, a club in Thimpu listed in my Lonely Planet guide as 'cosy and thumping.' He says it's a bad place full of drunk Bhutanese who will harass me. I wonder. It costs up to $250/day for non-South-Asian citizens to visit Bhutan, and they must be part of a tour group.  Naturally, this has limited tourist visits to the well-heeled and brown families from neighbouring countries. But single women? Not so much. South Asian or otherwise. So how have Bhutanese men had the opportunity to build up their molesting skills? 

Still, I decide to skip Space 34 and write instead. It's raining anyway, and I'm dangerously low on money, and maybe it is actually safer this way, though I always hate to give in to that concern. 

In all my wanderings, the Bhutanese have scarcely given me a second glance, despite my sari skirts, kamises, and dhopattas tied over one shoulder. But the Bangali labourers stop and stare open mouthed.  Bangalis are everywhere. In Bhutan, among other things, we are painstakingly carving roads into the mountains. On Sunday, which is their holiday, Thimpu looks like brown town as my people hit the streets, markets, and bars in droves. They even turn around as I pass, like we're in some B movie. The silence is broken only when they whisper torrid and wondering Bangla.

I haven't figured out how best to react. Sometimes I pre-empt their murmurs by greeting them jauntily in Bangla as I walk past. Mostly I ignore them. I should strike up a conversation, because I desperately want to speak to them. But I'm afraid that we will have no common ground, despite the fact that there are very few people with whom I am not able to sustain a conversation. I even have my questions ready. I want to know how they got here, what it looks like to them, how far away the past is, how looms the future. Will it be amidst these mountains? Or back home? Or somewhere else altogether? I'm also afraid that they will write me off before we even begin. Some Western wanderer posing as a Bangladeshi in Bhutan. Or worse, a Bangladeshi posing as a Westerner. Or worst of all, the luckiest alone girl in the world. Because I am.