CONTRABANDISTA

Posted on February 08, 2019

I feel like Santa Claus when I go to Bhutan. I come bearing goods for friends of mine. Much of what we take for granted as easy to obtain, and even easier with the advent of Amazon.com in our lives is still beyond the easy reach of most Bhutanese. True Bhutan has come far from the days of 60 years ago when the country had no: roads, cars, electricity, running water, hospitals, schools, currency or postal service. Bhutan has in many ways leapt into the modern world. All of the above are not only known quantities, but common place today. Few other places have progressed so far so fast. My friends who were born into tiny villages, many days walk from a road, who as children never saw electricity or running water, who spend their childhood herding cattle while their parents toiled in rice fields, bathing in rivers and eating only what their parents cultivated are now educated professionals, driving cars, living in buildings with all the modern conveniences, have smart phones and most have traveled by air outside Bhutan.

 

But certain items are hard to come by in Bhutan, or easy to come by but expensive. As I travel there several times a year, and count many of my best friends my Bhutanese friends, several years ago friends began to ask if I might bring them items, to be reimbursed once I’d delivered the goods. I said sure. The Amazon Wish List makes this transaction simple. Friends email the list, I order by credit card, and since I live in Mexico (where Amazon deliveries problematic) I have the loot shipped to my dad in Massachusetts or a friend in California. As there are no direct and no inexpensive flights from Mexico to Asia, I travel to Bhutan via the east coast or the west coast. My dad and my friends always comment at the enormous pile of boxes that accumulate at their doorsteps. Amazon is famous for over packing, though when I arrive and open the boxes, the volume diminishes (though the recycling that week increases dramatically), and what it left fits into my suitcases and bags. I have at times had to buy another suitcase, and pay excess baggage fees, this cost I just divvy up among my Bhutanese friends.

 

Usually I am carrying: shoes (especially for Pema, a bodybuilder and Mr. Bhutan title holder who describes himself as a shoe-holic), iphones (often for Gyempo, who was so poor as a child his parents put him into a monastery as they could not feed him, he has become one of Bhutan’s premier painters, and his paintings now sell in New York for large sums, he buys iphones for himself and friends),  printer ink and cartridges of a very special variety (for Patrizia, who is Italian and 30 years resident in Bhutan, the foreign minister her husband), high heels, (for several women friends), beauty products (for some members of the Royal Family),flower seeds (also for the Royal Family) face and body paint (for Neten, who owns a children’s toy story , and face paint beloved by kids and unknown in Bhutan), under armor shirts (for just about everyone, these a big deal in Bhutan), body building supplements (for Bimal, another bodybuilder and third runner up in Mr. Bhutan competition), replacement parts for espresso machines (for my café and café belonging to friends), decaffeinated coffee (for my café, decaf is virtually unknown in Asia, “the point of coffee is the caffeine, this would be like drinking beer without alcohol.” Upon telling people that we have beer without alcohol in USA, Bhutanese just shake their heads and say “you people are strange.”

 

All of these items arrive via Amazon. They get delivered to Bhutan, I feel like Santa Claus in that my arrival is eagerly awaited, and unlike Santa who gets a glass of milk and a cookie, I get feted and taken out to dinner for days. I also get repaid for my expenditures.

 

I’ve also brought espresso machines for our café. These I buy in Bangkok, Thailand, at a place that supplies cafes. Each machine very heavy, and the airline always makes me sign a waiver that they are not responsible in the event of damage. Thus far, each machine has arrived intact and undamaged, but considering the cost, I’m always a bit nervous.

 

A few months back I was asked to bring a large screen TV from Bangkok, this for some good friends of mine. I said I would do it if: they had the TV delivered to my Bangkok hotel, paid for the van to get me and TV to the airport (this monster would not fit in normal taxi), agreed that if damaged in transport they would not object, and lastly they paid for excess luggage fees. These are some of my closest friends in Bhutan, and they swiftly agreed to all of this. The monster of a TV caused raised eyebrows among all the staff at Tawana Hotel in Bangkok where I stay. It was put in its own room until the morning of my departure to airport. The taxi van successfully accommodated the giant plasma screen. Arriving at the airport, the thing just barely fit on a luggage trolley. I had to have one of my clients guide me around the airport as my field of vision was totally blocked by the TV. As I thought, they airline charge me extra luggage fee and had me sign a damage waiver. But all seemed to be going smoothly.

 

With 4 clients I landed in Bhutan. Immigration went smoothly as always. The agents even take the time to say “welcome to Bhutan, enjoy your stay.” Then I collected the TV, and had one of my guests again act as seeing eye dog, and when we passed through customs, an agent approached me to say, “sir are you a resident of Bhutan?”  No, just a frequent visitor. “It is my duty to inform you that only residents can import TV’s. “OK, I countered and if I tell you I am a resident?” “Well then I will have to ask to see your residence permit,” OK, I’m not a resident, but am bringing this as a favor to my friends Junu and Letho, they own the Ambient Café in Thimphu (Bhutan such a small society that it seems that many know each other). “OK but you do understand that rules are made for legitimate reasons and it’s my job to enforce the rules.” If it can be said that time stood still, that just what happened, as my guests and I looked at the monster TV, the customs official looked at the monster screen and then others arriving passengers gathered that something out of the ordinary was afoot, and they too stopped to see what would happen next. What happened next was pure Bhutanese and just one of the reasons I so love the place. “Well I can see you went to a lot of effort on behalf of your friends who are unaware of the rules, so this time I am going to let you pass with your friends TV, but please be aware that in the future non residents are not permitted to import these articles. Now enjoy your day and enjoy your stay.”

 

This will be the last TV I import into Bhutan.