By Ritu Goyal Harish
It was my second trip to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan and I was exploring the central part of the country. I was in a district called Bumthang, which is also known as the Switzerland of Bhutan.
After I’d visited the temples, and done other touristy stuff, I spoke to the owner of the hotel, PemaDawa, for hiking suggestions in the region.
He gave me directions to what he called the Penthangsay Trail, a meandering path that started from the Yotong-La mountain pass and ended at a village called Jhoori (pronounced z-h-oo-ri).
I left the hotel on a cold and windy day. The intermittent drizzle did not deter me as I set forth through a passage surrounded by prayer flags, at the top of the range. The trail went downhill for most parts through a dense conifer forest.
The starkness and mystery of a forest that we often view from a distance opened up before me as I walked on a winding path snaking its way through the high ranges. In two hours I reached a village called Phogo.
Soon, I met my cab driver who had managed to coax a young woman, Choki, from the village to serve me the local brew Ara, with some home-cooked Bhutanese fare. She cooked us a hot meal (downed with liberal quantities of the brews) as the weather changed for the worse.
That evening, sitting inside her humble home, I learned a lot about the Bhutanese way of life. Choki who lived right next to a famous sawmill at the village, was a single mother, her six-year-old son strapped to her delicate frame for the duration that we were in her house.
She had had a hard life – her husband and father of the child had been in the Army and had deserted her. She ran a petty shop from her modest house, and also did some weaving to make ends meet. She was apologetic about the spartan interiors of her three-room home, which comprised a tiny bedroom, a space for the shop and a kitchen.
The house, which her friends and relatives had helped build, had electricity, appliances such as a rice cooker and water heater and a small, makeshift toilet.
This was the first time I had stepped foot inside the home of a local. I was taken aback by her story because I was in one of the happiest countries in the world, and the only nation that measures its prosperity in Gross National Happiness instead of the Gross Domestic Product.
With my cab driver as interpreter, I asked her if she was ‘happy’. She said she had no complaints and had all that she wanted to be comfortable. Her son would start school soon and his education would be free. I learned that not only medical help, but electricity is also free in Bhutan. Laughingly, she admitted that the only thing she missed was having a man.
At the end of my meal, I realized that it was time to bid goodbye. I gently offered her some money for the food and the brew but she declined. When I persisted, she took it, shyly. She stood at the doorway and waved to me as our car went around the curve on the highway and I couldn’t see her anymore.
I have returned to Bhutan about a dozen times since my first trip and have always met incredible people with inspiring stories – a restaurateur who wanted to become Bhutan’s first female cab driver, a senior citizen who circumambulates a monastery 108 times every week, and a lady with such faith in the King that she wasn’t bothered about the democratic process; “as long as we have our King, we have everything” she had said to me.
Over the years, I have learned about Bhutan’s way of life – how everyone contributes in the day-to-day running of a household, including guests, how the barter system is still practised in the rural areas and how the youth have embraced technology but are still grounded in tradition. These stories have enriched my life in many ways.
My number one tip to those who want to soak in every experience on their travels is to mingle with the locals. Eat and drink with them, talk to them, and most importantly, smile at them. Locals tend to be wary of tourists due to many reasons and the moment we put them at ease, they open up and chat like friends.
As Mitch Albom wrote in his bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie: “Status will get you nowhere. Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone.” Isn’t that why we travel?