My right arm aches a bit as I reflect on our time in Bhutan. Walking clockwise around all the temples and stupas (that is the most auspicious way) means that your right hand is the one to turn all the hundreds of prayer wheels you come across. At first my prayer was for good health (after a couple of us battled ailments) and it worked. We wanted good weather for our treks.... and it happened. We wanted to see the Rhododendron trees in bloom... and we did! Then it was to see the white capped peaks of the Himalayas as we drove through the passes.... and it worked. Then the wheels were spun in hopes that we would all make it up the steep hike to the Tiger's Nest Monastery.... not only did that happen but we had beautiful weather to boot.
On our last full day we set our alarms for 4:45am... ate breakfast at 5am and were at the parking lot by 6:30am where we began our hike to Taktsang (Tiger's Nest). If you are planning to do this trek go early!! We were the first ones on the trail in the cool of the morning. The sun slowly warmed us as we climbed roughly 2000 feet to the highest point (10,300 feet) before descending the narrow steps along the cliff face then climbing again to enter the Monastery. Sitting on the steps, across the gorge from the site, in absolute stillness with no one around was indescribable. You could see the monks preparing for the day while listening to the many birds sing their morning song. The trek took us through a dense forest dripping with reindeer moss that glistened in the morning dew. We were so early we had to wait for the monks and police to open up the gate. Taktsang is sacred pilgrimage site where it is believed a great mystic (Padma Sambhava) flew on the back of a tigress to the site and spent time in a cave meditating. In one of the temples the head monk (with a very kind face and a twinkle in his eye) asked us if we would like some of the offerings that had been left on the alter. Seemed odd to us but Bella was thrilled and picked through till she found a package of Oreo cookies. So there we were at this amazing World Heritage Site, one of the most beautiful temples in the world, munching on Oreo cookies... and blessed ones at that!This site is holy to all Buddhists so we were pretty choked when a group of tourists started shouting and disturbing the serenity. What had been a very peaceful, almost spiritual experience, turned in to a bit of a gong show. Thankfully it didn't happen until we began our return journey. The group showed up just as we were leaving but not before we saw the skinny little policeman with a big stick giving then what for. Way to go! Farther along our return trip a group of men were playing loud music and talking. Joanie told then to respect this holy place and turn off the music. As they walked past me I could hear them muttering, amid the Hindi, "Music Police Woman!!" All the while nodding their heads from side to side.
For our 'last supper' we were driven to a 400 year old farm house on the outskirts of Paro. Greeted by a very jolly woman and her family we were given a quick tour of the kitchen (as she gaily pointed out the vast numbers of flies saying "a very good kitchen is never without flies") before heading out to see the hot stone baths. Jeanne and Joanie and I were thinking of having one of these after our walk today and changed our minds. Good thing too! Bella gaily called out to see if anyone would mind us coming in. A quick no ...then in we were much to the surprise of the two naked Australians sitting in the steam with knees up to their chins. Pretty funny... especially when they joined us for dinner later! Dinner was a traditional meal for festive occasions complete with butter tea and aka (rice wine that tastes like pure alcohol). We were joined by our guide and driver as well as the Australians and a couple from Bali. It was great fun. Bhutan is a country in transition. There is still a great love for tradition, for their country and especially for their Monarchy. Almost a child like trust that the Monarchy will protect them. There is that side but there is also the influence of Hollywood movies, western music and, of course, India.In the Monastery a couple of days ago I spoke with a Monk that was wearing an Eminem T-shirt under his monastic robe. Apparently Michael Jackson, Madonna and a few rap artists are all the rage here among the youth. Hollywood wins out over Bollywood as the Bhutanese try to come to grips with a world that has only been a part of theirs since 1998 when TV and the Internet were slowly introduced. Western clothing used to be available only from trade with India... now they buy what they want on line. I think the only reason we don't see more blue jeans and t-shirts is the fact that they make such low wages. A teacher earns only $400 a month. A meal of rice and chilies costs $3.00 and the junk food they love (chips and flavoured juice) costs more. I have to tell you that Lays Potatoe Chips is a big favourite here judging from the number of packages on the offering plates in the temples and the garbage on the streets.
That is another thing that we found so difficult to come to grips with. This beautiful mountainous nation with such a connection to their faith and nature is covered in garbage. The government tried to ban plastic but it didn't work. I don't understand? They love all living things... will not kill any animal... yet they don't seem to realize that the plastic they throw is going to kill their environment, their animals & their spirits not to mention tourism!!
Still it is the warm, open, smiling faces I will remember most about Bhutan. As we made our way to the airport on our last morning, around 6am, we passed an old stupa. An elderly couple were walking slowly around spinning the wheels and praying. As the woman looked up our eyes met and the smile was magical. These smiles say so much. They speak volumes about the past and about faith in a life not yet lived. They tell us the history of a people who have been isolated for so long, fought off ancient enemies, overcome adversity and still keep the faith.
Can that faith keep India from treating Bhutan as their possession? Time will tell. Certainly the Indian people we saw on vacation seemed to act as if they owned the place. Big hydro dams are being built, paid for by India to generate power and water control for India. Could other natural resources be far behind?. I hope the Monarchy and the democratically elected government can see beyond the dollar signs and keep Bhutan for the Bhutanese. They are truly a unique people with a spirit that should be preserved.