September 11.2001 by Hob Osterlund
The airplane is several miles from its destination in Paro, Bhutan. It's late afternoon, and we're flying so low I can almost count the crowns of individual blue pine trees in the steep forests below. The airport's altitude is 7000 feet, and the plane is still in monsoon clouds. Soon I can see the branches on the trees, mingling tentatively with loose tufts of vapor, whispering the presence of a mystery. Below, I spot women in small rice paddies, close enough for me to be able to name the multiple colors in their kiras, the traditional women's clothing of the region.
Sharp embankments are soon within shouting distance of our wings. Children on mountain roads stop to wave enthusiastically as the plane descends below the clouds. I've been told that a safe arrival in the Paro airport takes a skilled aviator, so it may be a good time to remember that miracles are known to happen here. Even though most people have still not heard of Bhutan, it is a world unlike any other, waiting to be known.
I have come to Bhutan with a group of seven adventurous friends to trek the Druk Path and to experience the mysterious culture of this place. Drawn to the high mountain passes where prayer flags are planted in auspicious locations and where invocations are heard best by the gods and goddesses of the Himalayas, all of us have our own list of prayer requests for our challenged world, and are eager to set these prayers free.
Once the plane lands, I bend down to touch the tarmac in gratitude and bow in reverence toward the mountains, which totally capture the attention of us all. The mountain pass through which the airplane flew is already obscured. These are fleshy monsoon clouds, not the angry hit-and-run variety, but more of the 'what's-the-hurry?', drooling kind. They hang low on the mountains like gauze petticoats, allowing a seductive look upwards. Gradually I notice another subtler, equally magnificent quality - the sweet, unassuming silence. No traffic on the ground or in the air, no leaf blowers, and blessed be, no car stereos. In fact, the airport parking lot has exactly 12 cars. 'Listen to that', we whisper to each other. There is literally nothing to hear except the wind and the birds and our lowered voices. Considering myself an aficionado, often a hunter, of quiet, I am now officially in heaven.
It's easy to like the Bhutanese at once. For example, we are told by two immigration officials that our group visa expired last week. As we explain our itinerary, one official smiles and shrugs, saying something we will hear many more times in Bhutan - 'What can you do?' He extends our legal time with a proper stamp and without fee.
Leaving the building, we are greeted by a local man wearing a Bhutanese man's attire called a gho , which resembles a colorful knee-length bathrobe with rolled-up sleeves. He holds up a sign with our names, which is charming since we are the only visitors in the entire airport. His name is Wangdi, and he is to be our guide. He introduces us to our driver Sharub, which sounds just like Shut Up . This name turns out to be apropos, since Sharub knows no English and will never once speak to us. Since the airport landing strip is reported to be literally the longest, straightest and flattest paved stretch in the country, we will soon appreciate Sharub's exquisite driving skills.He is a good sport, and has a perpetual smile with perfect teeth.
We're taken to Hotel Olathang, set among forest and flower paths, and given tiny keys on six-inch brass key holders that are so heavy it could pull my pants down should I put it in my pocket. The tourist season officially began one week ago and so far we are the only guests in the hotel. Young women in kiras rush out to help us with our bags, and seem confused and embarrassed when I try to tip them. None reaches out her hand in response to my offered folded ngultrums. They back away, smiling. I want to chase them, tell them 'You deserve it.' Still, it doesn't quite seem that deservedness is the issue either. I awkwardly grin, hoping I learn to understand them.
The next several days are spent hiking in the mountains above Paro, taking countless photographs, and visiting remarkable fort-like monasteries called dzongs . Red-robed monks are everywhere, most of them ranging in age from about seven to thirty. Primarily they ignore us, though the younger ones want to engage in English play with us. 'How are you, madam?' 'What is your name?' They giggle at my every response. When I ask how old they are, they guess. 'I am twelve, madam,' says the boy no older than eight. Wangdi tells me quietly, even secretively, that the year of birth is not important in Bhutan, so many people do not know their own age.
When we reach certain vistas on three of our hikes, Wangdi tells us 'from here Jholmohari.' While each of these spots holds the promise of spotting Mt. Jholmohari, one of Bhutan's most sacred peaks, the promise remains unfulfilled. In all these places the monsoon clouds restrict our visibility from yards to miles, but never as far as seeing even the feet of the Goddess Jholmo. I peer through binoculars and telephoto, with my hands cupped over my brows, beseeching her to appear. She does not. I feel a bit stood up.
When we visit the Paro dzong, Wangdi proudly tells us this particular structure was featured in the movie Little Buddha . We also climb to an especially sacred monastery called The Tiger's Nest, notched precariously into a sheer cliff wall. Also known as Takstang monastery, it is here Guru Rimpoche, the second Buddha, arrived from Tibet in 747 AD, riding the back of a tigress. It is a hallowed shrine for Bhutanese pilgrims, and is Bhutan's most famous landmark.
In planning the trip I have been communicating by email with Tshering, the trek organizer, for nine months. Over time our correspondence gradually moved from trip details to philosophy, world concerns and personal experiences. We are already warm comrades, and she has taken us to meet an old friend of hers, a widowed rice farmer woman. Like most houses in Bhutan, the first floor of her house is for the animals. She and her mother live on the second floor, and the third floor is for drying rice and animal feed. The roof is made of wooden shingles, all of which are held down by rocks. Many Bhutan houses are built without nails.
After we climb rough wooden stairs nearly as steep as a ladder, the two women welcome us with yak butter tea. The farmer's son Jigme is here too, having graduated from college in India and returned to help her with the farm. We pass through the kitchen on the way to the sitting room. A toothless hired man grins at us as he looks up from a huge bubbling pot. All the kitchen walls are blackened from fires burned as much for heat as for cooking. Jigme subtly stands back from the circle of Americans visiting with his family, and at the same time is attentive and enthusiastic. He is every bit as gracious as his mother and grandmother, watching over our cup refills. 'More, madam?' 'This is your first time for yak butter tea?' 'How you like?' I find it unexpectedly tasty, like drinking hot water with melted butter. On a cool rainy day it's comforting, and we huddle together with pleasure. A portrait commemorating the 25th year of the reign of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck looks soberly over us.
For the benefit of their family, and the world, the farmers have hired a dozen monks and nuns who are chanting and fasting in an adjacent room. Outside the room is a row of pegs on which hang horse bridles covered with bells, a tooled leather and brass saddle and a red and yellow woven straw wine flask. The doorway is a royal blue and is elaborately painted with multi-colored orbs that resemble planets. A horizontal navy blue, gold and red curtain makes the doorway seem even lower. It has the look of a dressed-up cave, perhaps the home of an artistic cartoon dragon.
After tea we are invited to duck into the incense-filled room to join the chanters, who welcome us by squeezing closer together on the hand-hewn wooden floor to give us space. Small butter lamps light the room, and the chanting is deep, from as far back in the body as sound can originate, and almost a monotone. It's dark, but we can see each other well enough to exchange long glances. A bare bulb hanging from the ceiling turns on briefly without obvious intent or driver. If we were unexpected, they don't seem surprised to see us. In this room with its elaborately-painted ceiling and its massive floor planks, looking much like it did in the 17th century, however, we seem as unlikely as a chrome Cuisinart would be in their kitchen.
We are told that all Bhutanese people have a specific place in their homes for worship. As Buddhists, they pray for all sentient beings. Little do we realize how especially timely this is.
On our last evening at Hotel Olathang before we are to leave for the Druk Path trek, two other Americans approach us with troubled faces. They've just called home. The date is September 11th and it's 9:15 am in New York. Since I have no further access to news, I learn very little more until the next morning when I am leaving on the trek. In addition to ten pack horses and two handlers, Wangdi and two cooks, we are joined by a dozen schoolchildren. I am able to infer the ominous developments from them when I ask them why they're out of school. 'Because two big buildings in America fell down, madam.' The King has shut down the country so his people can light butter lamps for us, in mourning.
I will carry the news of America and the king's compassion like a backpack into the mountains.
'Time is moving and we are not', says our guide Wangdi, hurrying us along. Our group is at the end of a remote road outside of Paro, ready to start the long-awaited trek into the Himalayas. I have spent months combing over outdoor gear catalogues, ordering clothes and preparing myself for all sorts of eventualities. There are Himalayan bears, yaks six feet tall at the shoulder, and the Bhutanese version of abominable snowmen called yeti. There was also the warning of 'leaping leeches' that detect human warmth, double themselves up like a skier at the top of an Olympic jump, then silently fling themselves six feet across wilderness paths onto the flesh of unsuspecting hikers. Worse, they can attach themselves to body parts exposed during a private moment in the woods. This speculation alone has eliminated countless potential trekkers from our ranks.
Although it's sunny at the moment, rain may come again soon. 'Most likely many muds ahead,' Wangdi warns. It is the beginning of trekking season and theoretically the end of monsoon season. This country of Bhutan is a small Buddhist kingdom north of India and south of Tibet and exactly when monsoon season ends in Bhutan depends on whom you ask. Some say it ends in early September, others tell stories of the monsoons that washed away hillsides in the end of October. It's been pouring on and off since we arrived five days ago. For now, I am content to be clothed in long pants and a shirt, hat, and sturdy hiking boots with poles to keep me upright in the slippery and steep moments. My rain gear is quickly available from the pack on my back. Anything I don't anticipate needing imminently is on a horse's back.
In addition to our ten pack horses, all of whom are carrying huge burlap sacks of supplies, a small packless donkey is excited to come with us. 'Why?' I ask Wangdi. 'He just like to come,' he says. I shrug, and return to tightening my backpack hip straps. The goal is for the weight to all sit on the hips, to let the padded bones to the work. Once adjusted, my shoulders literally have no weight on them. Still, I envy the donkey's unburdened freedom.
We are pausing at this trail head for several reasons. For one, we are about to embark on the stuff of dreams: friends who have trained and planned, excited and fidgety as children, for a journey into the high mountains of a country most people have never heard of. For this opportunity, I am already deeply grateful. Another reason for pause is that it's probably going to rain on us in great quantity in the very near future, and we haven't yet tested our mettle or our waterproofing for such inclemence. And now, just now, we have a small piece of news about the terrorism in our country. It will be another week before we see the photos that are already deeply imprinted upon global memory.
As I trek into the mountains of Bhutan, the forests themselves seem to suggest the fragile balance between vulnerability and protection. Hiking single file for hours and days, I have ample opportunity to consider the state of our world, and the painful events in my country. Lives have been lost and hearts have been broken, creating a shocked feeling of powerlessness. America has been stripped of a sense of safety. Still, somehow we find courage. Gradually, as I face quivering legs, soaked 'rain-proof' gear, gasping lungs and altitude nausea , I find strength in the fact that we have survived another day. We have faced obstacles. We have taken care of each other. Somehow in a time of world chaos, this comfort inspires my prayers to the mountain deities of Bhutan.
When we reach the high altitude passes, our supplications are even more fervent than we imagined when we left home and when I finally do see Mt. Jholmohari at sunrise several days later, we are so far above the clouds that our prayers have a clear blue shot at the sacred peak. What echoes back is a feeling of pure, undiluted joy. Perhaps the courage that comes from feeling protected and the openness that comes from sudden vulnerability create a certain alchemy for gratitude.
I stand tall and straight, and become a living prayer flag. Inspired by my schoolgirl crush on Mother Earth, printed on my heart and coursing on my breath, I ask Jholmohari to hear these words: May the miracles that have protected Bhutan fly from these mountains to protect the entire world. May we create a world safe for all children to wave greetings to airplanes. May the illusion of separation be lifted so we can remember our compassion for each other. May those who govern do so wisely. May we keep places of mystery, peace, and quiet safe for the whole world to visit. — H
About the Author:Hob Osterlund is a nurse, a comedian and a freelance journalist. She lives in the Hawaiian Islands, and travels North America performing her one-woman comedy "Ivy Push, RN." She has had the good fortune to make trips to Bhutan. A big believer in Gross National Happiness, she wants millions of people to have the word "Bhutan" on their smiling lips. Please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org about LhaYul Travels, and to visit her website www.ivypush.com Tashi Delek!