I’ve gone and done something dumb. I mean it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was looking at photos of the royal wedding between the king and queen of Bhutan (like you do) on the Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor blog and there was discussion about the lovely textiles and textile tours.
A trip alone to Bhutan. To a place that looks like a movie set. Where they measure Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product (Not sure how. Must research) And until recently, it’s been terribly hard to visit. I can’t really remember why alone seemed like a good idea though. I think I thought thought going alone somewhere exotic would make me seem free-spirited and adventurous.
Things I know about Bhutan:
- It is a small country between China and India.
- It is neither Nepal nor Tibet, but is kind of like them both.
- What I know about Nepal and/or Tibet
- Brad Pitt was in Seven Years in Tibet
- And the Dalai Lama comes from Tibet
- And we should be wanting to free Tibet
- And Mount Everest is in Nepal
- What I know about Bhutan
- There might be yaks?
- It has the best looking royal family in the world
- You have to have a guide in order to get a visa
- It is going to be visited by Their Royal H’ses Will and Kate. But I booked my trip before I knew they were going. They are such copy cats.
Things I have done to prepare:
- Found Bhutanese textile tour on the internet and asked to join. Proprietor (in Sausalito California) has made a tour just for me. I am not sure why I could not just join a tour that exists, but whatever. I feel quite special.
- Read Beyond Earth and Sky (has convinced me that Bhutan will be a kind of Buddhist Little House on the Prairie with dirt floors and no electricity)
- Read Married to Bhutan (has underlined conviction)
- Made two trips to The Hague to get Indian visa (necessary despite the fact that I will be in India only 2.5 days). Bhutanese visa managed with ease by Teri in Sausalito.
- Packed: sleeping sheet, anti-diarrhea medication, Dramamine, water bottle, hiking shoes, shower shoes, walking shoes, hiking trousers, all my running clothes (they said layers…) puffy coat, wool hat, gloves, flashlight, two giant books, two dozen chargers, wilderness wash, toilet paper.
World Health Organization-recommended vaccinations:
- Diphtheria and Tetanus
- Hepatitis A&B
- Chicken Pox
- Japanese type B encephalitis
I am totally regretting the idea. And no, I have not been vaccinated against rabies. It seemed like such a cool plan nine months ago. But I am going ALONE. I have never travelled anywhere alone. I mean for work, yes but not on my own for weeks at a time. Will I find myself, become a Buddhist and marry a Bhutanese man? This has happened in all books I have read about Bhutan, except Lonely Planet.
I’m predicting I’m going to spend a lot of time bored, lonely and frustrated because I don’t know what I’m doing, have made an enormous time-wasting mistake and/or have not been able to make myself understood to the train staff/civil servants/local police/ambulance driver.
I am deeply regretting this already.
Day One Ams => Zurich => Delhi
I have arrived in Delhi at last. Crowded, very hot. I arranged for the hotel to send someone to pick me up, and I’m glad of that because there are a ton of guys asking if I want a taxi and some kind of strange pre-paid taxi system, and it all seems very sketchy. But I don’t see my name on any of the placards. I go around again and still nothing. I try to call the hotel but my phone doesn’t work in India. I am trying to go back into the terminal but guys with guns stop me. Getting a little freaked out now. But one of the guys with a gun (tall, grey-eyed, handsome Indian) asks me what I need and actually uses his own phone to call the hotel. (!!)
The hotel guy was waiting somewhere else, and he turns up in a very spiffy, red, bell boy suit and gloves. He is apparently the AIRPORT hotel guy who does nothing but meet people, and there is someone ELSE who is the DRIVER. The driver wears white and is also very formal. They both call me ma’am. The driver has a fancy car with water and diet coke (heaven!) and Wi-Fi!!!! I was kind of expecting rickshaws and starving people with flies buzzing around their eyes. Oop.
The hotel is super glam with fruit and a ton of beauty goop and a little desk set with glue stick and a pencil sharpener! Woo hoo!
I feel like a doofus for bringing toilet paper.
I had a totally western breakfast (didn’t see the eastern side until afterwards; the food selection is HUGE. I slept and am right now in the 33 degree heat in the garden drinking an Indian sour (whatever that is, but it’s good!) and eating things on skewers. The restaurant theme is Tuscany. So, er, not roughing it.
Twice the staff have been out here to tell me it is very hot. But it’s so nice to be outside. And I’m scared to leave the hotel on my own. The traffic is crazy, and there is constant honking, and it just seems intimidating.
The driver from yesterday (I think his name is Ranji Kant) has agreed to drive me around Delhi. He picks me up in the lovely hotel car. Everything else on the road is a motorbike or a green and yellow “auto rickshaw.” An auto rickshaw is like a motor bike with a bench across the back and a cover. There is complete no-lane, kamikaze driving accompanied by constant horn honking.
Ranji Kant tells me that in India the saying is that you need to drive with a good horn, good brakes and good luck.
He takes me to a 1,000 year old step well. It’s basically steps down to a huge dry hole. But it’s nicely done in stone and I duly admire. Then we drive to old Delhi and round the red fort. It is empty now (and you can’t go in), but it’s a huge compound of red stone built but the Mughals. I always think of them like the Dursleys, but they’re not. They were from Iran. Ranji Kant knows a lot, which is good, because I don’t feel dumb asking him questions.
- What is the difference between a sari and the tunic-and-legging thing? (the latter is Punjabi)
- Seiks wear turbans, right? (right)
- What do other men wear as national dress? (something about trousers and a vest and how you can tell where everyone is from by what they wear)
- What’s the difference between a swami and a yogi? (a swami is a title given to you by your followers. Like teacher. And a yogi is a hermit.)
All the tourists are Indian. We go to a temple called Akshardham. On the way we see a beautiful lady in yellow sitting side saddle behind a motorcyclist. She is wearing her sheer yellow head scarf over her whole head like a bridal veil, and I think it’s very romantic. Ranji Kant says you can tell she’s from the countryside because that’s a totally redneck way to wear a veil. He also points out (hadn’t noticed) THAT SHE’S HOLDING A BABY ON HER LAP. On the motorcycle.
There is a bus full of people that Ranji Kant says are from the countryside. A whole village rents a bus and travels for days. With stoves and other gear in the bus and when they want to stop they just pull over and cook and camp.
At the temple you can’t take anything in. I leave it all in the car with Ranji Kant and go in. There is still loads of security. Even at the hotel, we have to go through a metal detector and a luggage screen. The temple is in a large garden.
A guard lunges across the crowd straight to me, and asks me where I’m from. I always panic at that question. What does he mean? Most recently? Where was a born? Where do I live now? He seems ok when I tell him Holland. I am the only non-Indian here. When I was getting my visa for India, the main thing seemed to be proving that I wasn’t Pakistani.
There is a pre-temple complex with some great carvings. One is the peacock gate which I really like. But I can’t take a photo because you can’t take phones or cameras in. We have to take off our shoes to go into the temple. I un-shoe too early and end up walking around in my stocking feet all around the outside of the temple (wondering if my shoes are going to be stolen). The court is all marble and smooth and warm, and so it’s not bad at all. There are loads of fountains. Apparently the big thing here is a night water show. Which makes me think of Efteling.
I walk around the outside of the temple which has a super charming 3D frieze (or almost 3D, not sure if that is a frieze?) of elephants. Elephants playing instruments, worshipping deities, helping people, attacking lions, attacking people. Very cute really. All is accompanied by mysterious sayings like “Enjoy all things like the elephants do” and “Elephants love the Ganesh celebrations most of all.”
Inside the temple is a crazy sparkle-encrusted, white carved marble amazement. The center area has a big gold statue of Sri Swaminarayan, who looks young and wears a turban. He’s being attended by six other guys also in gold. The effect is impressive since they’re HUGE and the temple is so very, very sparkly. The other areas of the temple have life-sized painted statues of ladies and men dancing and stuff. It stinks of humanity. Actually, it smells like meeting room 17.gre.M03.
I guess there isn’t really a ceremony like a mass or group prayer in Hinduism. Or so Ranji Kant says once I’m back in the car. He is from Nepal but he’s Hindu, and he speaks seven languages. He explained where each language comes from, but I really didn’t follow. Actually a fair bit of the time I don’t understand him.
Ranji Kant: Where are you going?
Ranji Kant: For work?
Me: For a textile tour
Ranji Kant: You’re a geneticist?
Me: No, textiles. Weaving. Cloth.
Ranji Kant: Yes. Yes.
Ranji Kant takes me last to a fabric market. It is dark now, and the temple as we’re leaving is splendidly lit. All during my elephant perambulations people kept asking me the time. was getting a bit paranoid about it until I realized they just wanted to be sure they got to the water show.
The fabric market is in an industrial area. Ranji Kant says it is wholesale cloth and vegetables. It’s called the Indian Textile Arts Institute, and it’s four floors. Despite the promising name, it’s not handicrafts at all. Just pre-made stuff.
There are three or four tailors sitting on a concrete floor in the back room doing bespoke work, and the rest of the stuff is in cellophane packages. I do kind of like it though. I try on a patch work jacket and the proprietor tries to talk me into pyjamas. They are great colors and patterns but synthetic and scratchy. He says cotton, but later admits there is some viscose.
The second floor is all saris and bedspreads and wall hangings. I realize I already have a wall hanging (made of old saris) and a sari (as a wall hanging), so I resist. The proprietor models a sari for people who don’t know how to wear saris. It has elastic at the waist and hooks at intervals so you can ensure that the skirt stays on.
I’ve seen a lot of back flab on this trip in the first day.
I buy the jacket in the end. I’m tired and hungry
Ranji Kant takes me home, and I eat at the restaurant (third time today and NOT a bargain) and it’s delicious. They make these lovely little crust puffs that a guy fills with chickpea paste, and sauce (sweet or sour) and you eat in one amazing bite. Wow.
Sleep badly because I’m worried about the flight and getting up at five AM.
It is quieter going to the airport because it’s super early. But there are still lots of horns and madmen on motorbikes with enormous packs. You can ride your bicycle on the highway here. I can see people out on the median.
Me: What are they doing?
Driver: (who is not Ranji Kant): They are exercising.
Me: On the highway median? At five in the morning? At the airport?
Driver: Well, they don’t have a garden.
Apparently they live 1.5 km away and this is totally normal to do.
It takes seven people to check me in at the airport. And security is super tight. Men in very stiff khaki uniforms and berets and guns are everywhere. Every piece of paper gets stamps on it. It was the same at the temples yesterday. There is always a ladies’ screening and a men’s.
The man waiting next to me at the gate is singing and slapping his knees enthusiastically along to the airport music. I still haven’t seen anyone in Bhutan national dress. What if it’s not true?
Now another guy has joined in the singing.
FINALLY! The stewardesses arrive and they’re in kiras! The National Dress of Bhutan! Yellow with a blue cuff and neck and yellow-and-red striped skirt. So lovely!
Still no boarding but the lady who (with six men looking on) checked me in is printing reams on a dot matrix printer.
Still no boarding. There are twelve of us. The Bhutanese guy behind me is wearing jeans and has two (!) giant McDonald’s bags. I am the only one with a back pack and hiking boots. I’m suddenly wondering if time has caught up with the land time forgot.
FINALLY on the plane. It is a normal airbus. The good news: we are stopping in Kathmandu on the way!
The bad news: The plane sells not only the usual Swarovski crap, but also advertises the Baskin Robbins in the Thimphu mall. Bummed.
Probably didn’t need to bring wilderness wash and toilet paper.
SIGN UP for the rest of Gross National Happiness (spoiler alert: contains phalluses, chilipeppers and very poor illustrations).