Letter From Bhutan

Posted on July 18, 2017


Last week it rained most days in Thimphu, Bhutan. Once all day, the other days for hours, then punctuated by bright sun, which lasted from minutes to hours, then again rain, then sun. Some days there was what the Bhutanese call blossom rain; rain mixed with sun and rainbows. Bhutanese have many poetic names for common phenomena, adding to the charm of their country.

This week is sunny with skies bluer (or is it just my imagination?) than anywhere else, thick with billowy cumulus clouds. Thimphu sits in a valley and the mountains that rise from every side covered with green forest, which then gives way to the sky and clouds, so the predominant colors are green, blue and white, making a dramatic back drop to everything. My apartment right in the center of town, I don’t think I could enjoy a better location, I can walk everywhere and as Thimphu is small (about 90,000) there is plenty to do and see within minutes of my place. The apartment is expensive by local standards, about $500/month, and as my friends live further afield (cheaper rent) they all gather here prior to going out, which it seems I am doing all the time. While I have a kitchen, it’s a far cry from a western kitchen, has rice cooker, microwave and small hotplate, all of which seem to be adequate for Bhutanese to turn out good food, but seems too restrictive for me, so aside from eating granola here in the morning, and opening bottles of wine in the evening, I go out for all my meals. I most always have a small group with me, I pay for everyone’s meals, which runs about $5 per head, but many would find this a strain on their budget (so usually cook rice at home), but I’ve found some great restaurants, at the price just mentioned and have come to really enjoy Bhutanese food, with a few exceptions: rotten cheese (just as bad as it sounds), egg cooked in local moonshine (also as bad as it sounds, but marginally better than the cheese), tripe, and wind dried pork, which are strips of pork draped over what looks like clotheslines, looks vaguely like bacon, but tastes like rancid fat. I don’t know why it took me all these visits to discover my new favorite, crispy potatoes, sliced potatoes (French fry size) dipped in batter, then deep fried and slathered with orange sauce of tomatoes and chilies, a treat of fat, carbs and flavor, which I’ve decided is Bhutan’s gift the world (along with Gross National Happiness).  Another great dish, marijuana fed pork, then roasted and swimming in delicious gravy.

Last week my café, Champaca Café was asked to make 50 cookies for a birthday party. Yesterday I went to café to experiment with pina colada cookies, pineapple and coconut (no rum, I’d have used rum extract common anywhere in USA, but absent in Bhutan). I mentioned these plans to a friend, he told me the queen loves cooking, both Bhutanese and foreign, and likes pastries (she is so slim and beautiful, she surely does not overindulge) and he offered to deliver some of my cookies to the palace. They turned out to be great, and I selected the 10 most perfect, without a blemish, and packaged them up for her majesty, with a note inserted in the package. I was told today that they have been delivered to her. So I am sitting here awaiting a call from the queen telling me they are the most remarkable cookies she has ever eaten, and she would like to grant me citizenship so that I can regularly bake cookies for her. Maybe I ate too much of that marijuana fed pork and my imagination is running wild.


Each morning, after granola I walk a block to Ambient Café, Thimphu’s cool hang out place for coffee. I carry my laptop with me to take advantage of their fast wifi, instead of the pokey wifi in my apartment, but also to enjoy the cross section of Thimphu who appear there, friends know my schedule, so they drop by, making for a pleasant if not always productive morning. Most days, I do not accomplish all I plan to do, but am pretty well caught up with my writing chores. There’s no other place in Thimphu, or Bhutan like Ambient Cafe, except maybe Champaca Café, in Paro, an hour away. As the owners of Ambient were instrumental in helping us with Champaca Café, we intentionally located Champaca in Paro, so as not to be in competition with them. As Paro not as large as Thimphu, Champaca does not have quite the same buzz that Ambient has, but people like us, we’re number 2 on Tripadvisor and many say we make better coffee. Or rather Sangay makes better coffee, we buy our beans from Ambient, who buy their beans from India then roast them on premises. It really comes down to ones ability to coax a cup of coffee out of the espresso machine, and Sangay does this very well. I go to Paro weekends to visit, bake cookies and enjoy life away from the big city. Thimphu is in no ones book a big city, except in the eyes of some rural Bhutanese who call it too hectic. I fear for these people should they ever really visit an actual big city.

 

Late afternoon I have Dzongkha language class, this year I have new teacher, and she has taught me more in 2 weeks than what I learned in the past 3 years. To be fair the old teacher provided me with a base on which new teacher can build, she does however have the knack the other guy did not have and can explain things in such a way that the idea penetrates and I feel like I am now just spreading my fledging wings and actually using my Dzongkha in public, to almost universal delight and astonishment as there are perhaps only 5 foreigners who can speak Dzongkha, and none of them very well, so my utterings are well received. Dzongkha is similar to Tibetan, and has a series of words that have no English equivalents, but need be inserted in the proper place in sentence for sentence to be complete, but when sentence is translated to English, these words are absent. This concept is interesting, hard to grasp and has no English equivalent. I am alternatively fascinated and frustrated by the proper insertion of these words needed to ‘complete the sentence.’ One might think this really no big deal if they left out, but apparently not, judging by the peals of laughter I invoke when I get them wrong (which is often). I have a pretty good idea how to conjugate verbs and how to construct a sentence, completely unlike in Spanish or English.  There’s no real word for yes, if someone asks if you want to eat, you answer eat, etc. You can also just nod your head. As everyone speaks perfect English (English is the official language, Dzongkha the national language), there is no real need to speak Dzongkha, but I am enjoying my lessons.

 

In this intensely religious country everyone seems devout, even the young kids that look like they’d be too cool for religion elsewhere.  Young kids and my friends discuss religion and Buddhism with the same zeal that people in USA might discuss sports or politics, though they also discuss sport and politics here too. My apartment building the other day had a puja; a purification and blessing ceremony that lasted most of the day. They had chanting red robed monks, blowing sonorous 6’ horns, burned incense and prepared and ate food. Loud and aromatic, sounds and smells pervaded the building.  I was told the ceremony was to bless the building and all the inhabitants, so I now feel honored that they thought to tell me about this. The previous week I had a couple of mice in my apartment which were caught and released as Bhutanese are loath to kill anything, in hotels they even catch and release flies, and as it’s now fly season most restaurants have floor standing fans to position near diners tables that keep the flies from landing on food. There is a 5 star hotel around the corner that employs a person to swat flies, but this is considered bad karma and can relegate the fly killer to a lower incarnation in next life, so finding someone to do this job not easy. An employer cannot reasonably instruct just any staff member to do such a task. I tell you, Bhutan is different.