Thursday, October 12, 2006

Bhutan: Dancing on the Top of the World

"Welcome to the Hotel California, Such a lovely place, Such and lovely face..." Yes, that is the song that was playing out of the car windows as I danced at Thrumshing La, the highest mountain pass I traveled through in Bhutan. I was at 3750 meters above the sea and doing another small ritual to purify my soul and bring me good luck.

Hotel California is a song that everyone in the world seems to know. I remember being in the USSR in 1986 and sitting in a hotel room with a bunch of young Russians as they strummed on a guitar. They hardly spoke a word of English, but knew every word of that song.

And so, once again, music connected me to the rest of the world...

Dancing in the mountain tops is a pretty great way to purify my soul. Bhutan's Mahayana Buddhism has many rituals... pushing this wheel, ringing that bell, rolling this rock, always walking clockwise around temples or how about wearing an ancient iron battle robe around the inside of a temple? Lastly my favorite one was to run between two towering piles of burning straw and logs with all the locals at a local festival. Not only was it scary and exciting, but it’s also supposed to guarantee a year of good luck, which assures me the perfect new job when I return.

Yes, I guess I should take a minute to explain why I am lucky enough to be traveling again for those of you that don't know the whole story. I know you are scratching your heads as you read my second straight travel email from yet another continent and wondering how I get so much vacation.

In short, the story is that sadly that my wonderful job at the NYC Flower Market ended after we ran out of money and possible new locations to move the market. I was sad to leave but I made wonderful friendships that I will continue and learned so much that helps me see the world differently now. The Flower Market imported flowers from everywhere so I feel that the world is even more connected and I understand trade at a different level. I never saw a Blue Poppy, Bhutan's national flower, in the market though???

So anyway, there I was without a job when there was a whole world out there to see, so here I am now seeing another piece of it. First I went to London to spend time with my beautiful niece and wonderfully hospitable sister. Then to Tunisia to visit a friend and see Islam and the desert. And then to Bhutan. Next stop... two months in India.

Bhutan, a kingdom in the clouds, is located in the Himalayan’s north of India and just south of Tibet (now China). It’s a small country of about 700,000 people, still ruled by a monarchy, that is doing its best to preserve traditional culture. The majority of the people (80%) live far of the motor road separated by mountains and mostly unaffected by the modern world. 50% of the population survives on subsistence farming. The rest of the population is beginning to modernize slowly. TV was just introduced in 1997 and the internet is available in a few of the cities.

Tourism has been growing since the country opened up to it in 1974. To avoid the onslaught of backpackers, the government charges a daily minimum fee to travel here. For $200 a day a driver and guide escort you around the country for a worry-free educational adventure.

The idea is that then they will only get the "best" tourists that will do all they can to preserve the culture. In practice tourists change the culture no matter what we do, but change is good and the Bhutanese are eager to learn about the world through our eyes. (My driver had a great time listening to my Ipod for two weeks.)

While there is no quota system, as has been widely misreported, the high cost keeps numbers low, as well as, the availability of hotel rooms which is monitored by government when they grant permits to visit different parts of the country. About 18,000 tourists will come this year which is double that of last year since they are rapidly expanding the tourism infrastructure. We headed to the East though, which has been virtually closed to tourists till now and were able to get way off the beaten path and experience traditional Bhutan. It was estimated that only about 400-500 tourists go there.

Although the per capita GDP is only $696, people here don't seem so poor. With 50% of the people being subsistence farmers the numbers are artificially low. Bhutan has a vast natural resource that provides much of its wealth. Water fuels hydroelectric plants and much of their output is sold to India. This gives the government money to provide for its people. They provide free health care and schools and have raised the literacy rate to 85%, well on its way to the 95% target for 2008 in their king's “Gross National Happiness” longterm plan. (That is a real plan.) Also the king has even announced the formation of a democratically elected government in 2008.

Driving in Bhutan is a real adventure. The cars wind on narrow roads that cling to the sheer mountain sides. Passing other vehicles is precarious and the horn must be blown at every blind curve, which there are many! Harder to move are the cows, who like the warm pavement and seem unfazed by cars. We went up and down through the mountains taking me to a higher altitude then I have ever been before and showing me the glimmering snowy peaks of the Himalayas in the distance.

Perched by the side of the road are an occasional house or village but mostly Bhutan is sparsely populated and there are extensive views of mountains, forests and sweeping hillsides of terraced rice fields at every turn. We were there at harvest season so everything looked especially lush and green and the hills looked like they were covered in thick fur that looked so soft that I just wanted to roll in it. In reality they were wet rice paddies, so I sat in the car and kept dreaming. And there is something about the Bhutan countryside that really lets one dream with full contentment...

Grace and I chose festival season to visit, which meant that we got to go to learn about their history through elaborate mask dances and folk dances. The Bhutanese people have been performing the same dances with the same masks and costumes throughout their entire history. The dances tell their fantasy filled stories about the roots of Buddhism and Bhutan is filled with fantasy filled stories that one has to suspend logic to believe. The people there really do believe and one just can't help but get carried away.

Buddhism is a huge part of every day life in Bhutan. Prayer flags flutter in the wind in every direction you look. Monasteries cling to the mountains high above towns, temples are one of the major ornate sites in every location and stupas honor their past throughout the country. Oh hikes up to the high monasteries, we were joined by students and religious pilgrims, who visit to show their faith.

Everything in Bhutan is ornate. The Bhutanese people still wear traditional dress. For women this means wearing a Kira, which is hand woven strip of fabric wrapped around their body to form an ankle length dress, clipped on by silver pins and a waist length jacket over it. Often the weavings have been passed down through the generations and virtually all Bhutanese women know how to weave to create fabrics for their families. Men wear a Gho, which is a knee length robe tightly wrapped at the waist and knee high socks with beautifully polished leather shoes. Something about it reminded me of the days of the royal courts. What is most wonderful about both of these outfits was the colors. The men are ornate in beautiful patterns of stripes and plaids and the women wear weaving with detailed patterns. While modern clothes are creeping into Bhutan, it seemed like over 50% of the people still wore this dress every day in the cities and for others, the people are still required to wear these clothes at festivals, in temples, in school and in government buildings so they will keep the dress alive in their culture.

The architecture is what is most striking about Bhutan. Somehow they have been able to preserve one similar architectural style. Dzongs, their impressive powerful forts from as early as the 7th century, share striking similarity to the buildings built there today. A few features make the country's architecture stand out. Each building is painted with intricate designs. The windows frames are decorated, as are the walls of the buildings, even on the inside. Also people paint various symbols and pictures of incarnations and lucky animals on their outside walls. Similarity is maintained because people are not allowed to improvise on these designs and instead have to follow strict sizing and color guidelines so that the pictures are exactly the same everywhere. We went to a national arts school where students are trained in the fine arts of painting, sculpting and weaving. Wood carving is another fine art and many buildings have intricate designs which are then painted. The buildings are made of stone or mud brick and dark wood. They often are white.

Before I came here I had seen pictures of the buildings and didn't get what the fuss was about but they are truly ornate and magical and say so much about this enduring little culture. When I can send photos I hope I can show you just how beautiful they are.

I'm sure I am forgetting to tell you about something but I must get out of this internet cafe and start seeing India which is very very very different from Bhutan so stay tuned for the next entry!

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