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Saturday, May 19, 2012


On the second day of the Bhutanese Losar (New Years), I was thrown into a whirlwind of curiosity and confusion, which all ended in a nice, comical surprise.  It all started when my Bhutanese friend, Sonam, asked me, “Would you like to have a stone bath today?”

Intrigued I responded, "What’s a stone bath?" 

Sonam looked at me with pure amusement and broke into laughter, "Hahaha you don’t know what a stone bath is?  Don’t you know that tourist come to Bhutan to take stone baths and they pay a lot of Nu for them?  Don’t you have stone baths in America?" 

Now I felt a little embarrassed that I had no clue what she was talking about and I said, "Hmmm I’m sure we must have stone baths in America, but I never have seen a stone bath let alone had one.  So what is it?"

Sonam started to turn into her teacher mode, "A stone bath is…"

Then as I got an idea, I shouted, "WAIT! STOP! Don’t tell me yet, I’ll draw a picture of what I think it looks like and then you tell me if my drawing is correct or even close.  It will be fun!" I didn't realize how fun my drawing would actually become.

"Ok, this should be interesting…" she said with a smile.

I thought about the two words: STONE BATH.  Hmm, it’s seems totally self-explanatory.  It has to be something like a bathtub made out of stones, hence the name, stone-bath. Duh, this is easy.  Then I proceeded to draw a perimeter of a bathtub with smooth, round stones containing steamy water with a good looking stick figure (me) enjoying the bath.  When I showed Sonam my drawing, her face said it all; my picture was incredibly off and not even close to what a stone bath entailed (however, she knew that the stick figure was meJ).  She laughed and laughed as well as ran away with my picture to show everyone in her family my funny looking depiction of a stone bath, which made everyone look at me with a sly grin and more laughter.  

Based on everyone’s reaction to my little picture, we agreed that she wouldn’t tell me what a stone bath was so I would have a nice surprise once I saw it.  However, it wasn’t just my lack of knowledge about stone baths and my likeness for surprises that brought about the ultimate shock.  Instead it was my first time experience facing a language barrier in Bhutan that aroused a hysterical miscommunication between a monk, and myself, which lead to the real unfolding of a stone bath.

All day I thought about what the stone bath could possibly look like and I kept coming back to the same image that I drew of a bath made out of stones.  I wondered how it would be filled with hot water and if it was indoors or outdoors.  Finally, as the evening started to approach, my adventure of the stone bath really started to spiral the minute Sonam announced, “It’s time to get ready for the stone bath.  Let’s go while we have a few hours before dark.  Grandpa said that he is going to prepare it for you like he does for the tourists…” 

Sonam, her monk brother named Dorji, her grandpa and I drove across a salad bowl of valleys for what seemed like forever to grandpa’s place.  I was so excited that I looked like little Jimmy bouncing around the front seat, hanging my head out the window taking in the fresh, cold air and waving to people as we drove by.  My excitement peaked when we turned down a narrow dirt road that had been scrapped out of a mountain leaving behind the evidence of jagged, angry looking rocks.  I asked Sonam, “Can your tires handle this road and how are you going to turn around?”  “Yes, this is Bhutan and these are our roads…” she said with confidence. 

There were no roads to this spot
Eventually she stopped the car and I looked around searching for the sight of a house amongst the usual scenes of enormous woody mountains, but I didn’t see any houses nearby.  As Dorji and her grandpa got out of the car, I asked, “What are we stopping for?” Sonam answered, “I can no longer drive because there are no roads to grandpa’s house way up that mountain and you guys will have to walk to get there (these are the roads of Bhutan)”  I was so anxious to discover this mysterious bath that I didn’t even process what she had just said and I jumped out of the car saying lets go!  However, Sonam didn’t get out of the car and instead she fidgeted with the steering wheel.  Then she hesitantly said, “I have to go back and help mom prepare the Losar dinner, then I will come back with the food and everyone else.  Will you be ok alone with Dorji and my grandpa? I promise to be back before the bath is ready so I can explain it to you.”   

I was so revved up about discovering what this stone bath was all about that it didn’t occur to me that I was being dropped off in the middle of nowhere with a monk who spoke a little English and a great-grandpa who didn’t speak a word of English.  And so I naively said, “Ya, no problem.  Don’t worry about me I’m fine.  I can take care of myself and if I can’t, then Dorji will take care of me hahaha, right Dorji?”  Dorji smiled at me as if he understood me and at the time I was sure he did.  Dorji and I had known each other for two short days and although I was just about to learn that he didn’t understand everything that I had been saying, we were going to get to know each other a whole lot better.   

As Sonam drove away leaving a cloud of dust trailing behind her, I was eager to document the excitement I felt about another one of my first time experiences in Bhutan.   I busted out my camcorder and batted my eyelashes at the monk hoping that he wouldn’t mind filming me so I could make another home documentary.  I started to ask Dorji all kinds of questions to get my documentary rolling, but I quickly discovered that he didn’t understand English that well and he was struggling to talk to me in English.  Then I started to think about what our encounters where like over the last couple of days that caused me to think that he spoke English.  Well, maybe it was because I had short brief conversations with him where I would ask him simple questions, such as where do you live, and then he would smile, nod or murmur a few words like India.  I thought that he understood everything that I had been saying the last couple of days and now it just dawned on me that Sonam had been translating most of the conversations that I had been rambling on with her entire family.  Geez how did I miss the fact that he might not know what the heck I was saying. 

Once I registered that Sonam was long gone and I was very far from anyone who spoke fluent English, I felt like I was really on my own.  That’s when all my joyful thoughts turned into nervous what-if thoughts like a sudden flash flood:  What if I start to have an allergic reaction from today’s lunch and I need to be airlifted away, how I am going to communicate this to them, or what if I get travelers diarrhea and I need a toilet with toilet paper, but they don’t understand me. What if Sonam never comes back for me and I’m stuck here for days, ahhhhh.  Then after a few minutes, my chest started to hurt from the wicked what-if thoughts, which signaled me to snap out of my insanity:  No way am I going to let this little language barrier squash my excitement.  Besides Sonam said that she would be back soon before the bath is ready.  I’m fine.  No big deal.  This could be fun. I can make up sign language. Yaaa I’m going to take a stone bath in the Himalayan Mountains weeeeeeeee… what the heck is a stone bath…

We hiked up a steep mountain following a rocky, narrow dirt road that was so rough, only grueling tractors could drive on it to get to dusty crop fields.  I could see the hut that looked as small as an ant in the distance and I tried my best to keep up with Dorji and grandpa.  Straggling behind them, I couldn’t help but notice grandpa’s huge calves.  Even though Grandpa was literally half a century older than me (he’s 79 years old), he seemed stronger and healthier than me.  I was panting out of breath while grandpa looked like he could hold up that very mountain with the tip of his finger.  In fact, I’m always admiring how most of the Bhutanese elderly seem to be this way and their strength reminds me of my Portuguese grandparents from the Azores. 

Mounds of turnips behind me that I thought were stones
Once we reached the top, grandpa showed me where the tourists who take the stone bath eat their meals.  It was a small hut constructed out of flat and roundish stones. The way the different sizes of the large stones had been thoughtfully fitted together looked so beautiful and rustic.   The stonewalls were covered with candles and at one end of the room there was a mound of rosy turnips.  At the time, I had no idea what they were showing me because they couldn’t communicate it to me in clear enough English and I couldn’t understand Dzongkha, so I was making a lot of guesses from Dorji’s broken English and gestures.  It wasn’t until later that night, would Sonam give me the correct information.  For instance, I thought the turnips where stones and when I asked Dorji if these where stones for the bath he said yes.  It took me awhile to realize that he was saying yes to almost every question I asked.  

Dorji how far is the stone bath? 


Dorji where is the stone bath?


Dorji… Dorji… Dorji…

Yes! Yes! Yes!

This didn’t stop me from continuing to talk his ear off because every so often he knew what I was saying and it was causing lots of laughter between us.  Although we were struggling to communicate with each other, there wasn’t a minute of frustration and we were always giggling or smiling.  The atmosphere was light and playful.  I could feel the warmth of generosity from their hearts wanting to share a piece of their culture with me and they could feel my excitement and gratitude of taking it all in. 

Next, I followed them further up the mountain towards another single stone hut (which I mistaken for grandpa’s house) and I just knew that the stone bath had to be near.  I was so anxious to discover it that I kept asking Dorji, “Is the stone bath over there?” and of course he would respond, YES!  This time I believed his yeses and I gave him the camcorder to film what my face would look like when I saw the stone bath for the first time.

The suspense was causing me to bubble over like a corked Champaign bottle.  I walked backwards so I couldn’t see it until I was right behind it.  I asked, “Dorji is the stone bath behind me?” and once again he said YES!  I knew that I shouldn’t have believed him when I walked backwards into a thin bamboo fence and nearly tripped.  “Dorji, you have to tell me when I am going to walk backwards into something,” I said tittering in semi denial that he didn’t speak fluent English.  I continued to ask him, "Can I stop walking backwards now? Are you filming? Don’t forget to film my face! If I turn around will I see it?"

On cue Dorji answered, "Yes, yes, yes, ughhhhhhhh yes"

It's a fire pit not a stone bath lol
I bubbly said into the camera, "Ok on the count of three I’m going to turn around and see the stone bath for my first time. One Two Three… OH MY (lots of laughter at what I saw) this isn’t what I was expecting."

My eyes popped out of my eye sockets and I was extremely shocked looking at what I thought was the stone bath, but what was really a big special fire pit grandpa was making to heat up the stones.  I didn’t know that the actual stone bath was inside the hut and Dorji didn't have the words to help my funny looking face of confusion.  As I stared at the unique fire pit trying to look really optimistic, I thought how am I going to get in there? What is that?  It looks like a fire pit.  Wow, this is a real surprise.  Why do people pay so much Nu for this?  This can’t be the stone bath… grandpa must be building it on top of this fire pit… Oh where is Sonam? Hahahhaha

Heated Stones
Poor Dorji could clearly see that I was confused looking at the dry fire pit wondering how people bathe in it and he tried his best to spit out some English words to clarify the misunderstanding.  Finally, he took the camera off me and motioned me to look inside the hut and that’s when it all started to come together.  As I studied a wooden rectangular bath inside the hut, the floodgates of my observations opened up and I started laughing at myself saying over and over, “Ahhhh I get it, it’s all making sense now, I know what a stone bath is, oh thank you Dorji.”

 Stone Bath
Finally, I figured out that a stone bath in Bhutan starts off with heating large stones in a fire.  Once the stones are glowing red from the fire, they are placed in a box section or chamber of a wooden bathtub that is filled with water.  The small holes in the chamber section allow the large hot stones to slowly heat all the water and prevent the stones from entering the other side of the tub and burning someone’s legs off.   The wooden bath looks like a long, deep trough.  The minerals from the hot stones leach out into the water and some medicinal plants are also added to the water.  It’s very relaxing and if you have never heard of a stone bath, now you know!

Can A Stone Bath Make You Feel Drunk?

Sure enough Sonam came back with a carload of people and food just as the stones where ready to be put into the wooden bathtub.  There was so much commotion and excitement that I didn’t have time to narrate to her the funny miscommunications throughout the day. I was more concerned about the pattern of checkered holes in the woven bamboo doors of the hut and I asked Sonam, “Do I have to go in the stone bath naked? What if someone sees me through these big gaps in the woven doors?”  Since I was feeling extremely shy and conservative, Sonam said that it was ok to go into the stone bath with a tank top and undies.  She also laughed at how my American mind was worried about perverts and peeping Toms.  She said that was nonsense and nobody would do that here; people can take baths in front of others as well as with their entire family and no one would stare.  We had a really interesting and funny conversation about the differences of our culture.  

Sonam told me to first wash my hair and body outside the wooden bathtub inside the hut using a scooper to pour the water over me because she and her family would also be using the same water to take a bath after me.  She also said that I could stay in there for an hour and that she would stay near, huddled by the fire with her family incase I needed anything.  I thought that there was no way I would stay in there for an hour maybe twenty minutes tops, but the strangest thing happened: the minerals of the hot stones consumed me taking me into another world. 

Tangy Sunset
It was sunset and I sat in the bath that was high on a mountain absorbing the beautiful colors of goldish and redish sunrays that stretched through the gaps of that old boomboo door.  Ironically, I was now thrilled that the doors had a hundred holes in it, so the tangy sunset could peak in the hut lighting it a warm amber color. , As the sun faded away, through those little holes I watched the colors of the sky slowly change different shades of baby blue until it finally turned into jet-black.  When the sky fell into darkness, like magic the candles started to slowly glow filling the hut with a dim romantic flicker.  It was so beautiful and I once again found myself falling deeper in love with the Himalayan Mountains of Bhutan. 

I managed to practice some energy medicine in the bath for several minutes to clear my mind and keep it quiet.  I sat in the bath feeling pure peace listening to all the surrounding sounds and I had no concept of time.  Half way through my bath, her grandpa put more stones in my water, which made it so hot that I had to add a bucket of ice water and I took several breaks from the heat by sitting on the edge of the tub with my feet dangling in.  Every once in a while Sonam would yell out, “Sabrina, are you ok? Your so quiet, your scaring me” (She later told me that she thought the heat from the hot water made me pass out and I drowned ha).  Each time she yelled out to check on me, I would say, “Yes, I’m getting out now,” which was always a lie. 

When I eventually got out an hour later, the combinations of falling in love with Bhutan, the intense heat and the minerals made me feel like I was literally intoxicated.  I dried off holding onto the edge of the bath to keep my balance.  I didn’t want to tell Sonam that I felt like I was in a hazy cloud and scare her.  I assumed that it was the heat of the water that made me slightly dizzy and it would soon pass, so I kept quiet and zigzagged my way to grandpa’s house while she took her turn to take the stone bath with her family.

Candle Lit Stone Bath
The walk further up the mountain in the pitch-black night left me freezing, but still incredibility woozy.  When I entered the house I immediately sat on the floor next to the warm bukhari and it wasn’t helping my eyes to stay open.  I couldn’t fight the tranquil strange feeling that had overcome me and I found myself curling up into a fetus position.  I thought I feel so strange. What is happening to me? Did the minerals drug me or I'm I exhausted from the day?  Then Sonam’s aunty brought me a pillow and my heart started to pound a little as I wondered if I was dying from the stone bath.  As the hypnotic feeling continued to cling onto my body, I told myself that if I was dying to stop resisting because this would be a nice way to go and I let the urge to be swept away in darkness slowly take me out of this world.  The last thing that I remembered before I fell into the deepest sleep of my life was squinting at several brown caring Bhutanese faces staring over me like I was a lost, helpless child. 

I don’t know how long I slept for, but I eventually woke up to the sounds of about twenty people speaking Dzongkha and forty eyeballs glancing my way.  Although I still felt tired, I couldn’t bear to have anyone watch me drool any longer and I forced myself to sit up within the circle of people.  We had a huge feast and for once I stayed quiet observing everyone sitting crossed legged and eating with their hands.  They passed around huge bowls of rice, little bowls of a variety of curries, hot water and salty suja tea.  Everyone was chatting and laughing and I was so grateful to be witnessing a Bhutanese family bond.  Once again, the family unity of the Bhutanese culture reminded me of my family get-togethers and I wondered what all my family members were doing on the other side of the world.  However, my heart wouldn’t allow myself to get homesick because there was only enough room for falling in love with Bhutan.

When it was time to go back to Sonam’s mother’s house, eight of us hiked back down the mountain through a wall of darkness.  I don’t know how we all squished into Sonam’s mini car, but it was fun and that’s when I finally started to wake up.  When we went up steep parts of mountains, half of the group had to get out of the car so the car could actually make it up the mountain.  Then the group would walk up to the top and jump back in for the downhill or neutral parts.  I found it to be exciting because I knew that I was having another fun unique experience in Bhutan. 

When we finally got to the house, Sonam and I sat down to watch the tape of the “stone bath surprise.”  As the adventure and misunderstanding started to unravel on film, we rolled around the floor laughing at how perplexed my face was staring at the fire pit thinking that it was the stone bath.  She cried, “This is so hysterical! How could you have kept this from me all day.”  We literally had tears rolling down our cheeks for about twenty minutes and we watched the tape at least five times that night.  Even when we climbed into bed and tried to sleep, I could hear Sonam randomly giggling thinking about it, which would cause me to start giggling on the other side of the room and then we would start the full on laughter all over again.  “No more laughing please…my stomach hurts so bad from laughing” she chuckled.

Through tears and laughter I responded, "You stop laughing first, so that I can stop laughing. Try to stop thinking about it."

"I can’t, it’s too funny…you thought that a fire pit was a stone bath and Dorji, oh my goodness Dorji… haha," Sonam repeated several times.

Finally, before we almost died of laughter, I ended the adventure by saying, "Haha ok seriously Sonam, thanks for the best day, the best Losar, and the best Bhutanese experience of a stone bath and for my new monk friend, Dorji hahaha… You're an awesome friend!"


Friday, May 11, 2012

Black-Necked Cranes Bring Good Luck

The first morning of Losar (Bhutanese/Tibetan New Years), as usual little Jimmy refused to let us sleep in and he woke us with the rising sun.  Since we arrived in Gangtey late, I would have begged for more sleep, but I felt so excited for no good reason that I eagerly got out of bed to follow the flurry feeling, which led me outside.  As my eyes adjusted to the bright sun, my jaw slowly dropped to discover that I had slept all night next to the most breathtaking views of deep picturesque valleys that pushed back soaring green mountains.  My eyes had never seen anything like it before and when I told Sonam that her family had million dollar views, she laughed so hard trying to wrap her mind around my statement.  We brushed our teeth and washed our face outside with a bucket of hot water heated from the bhukari and I just couldn’t wait for that feeling in my stomach that something great was around the corner to actually occur.  Even the freezing cold temperature couldn’t pierce my bones because I was on fire with excitement.
Sonam Serving Thub

In the kitchen, I discovered that all her family (sister, brother, grandfather, neighbors, Norbu, kids, monk uncles…) had come over for the Losar and they were all huddled around the bhukari (woodstove).  My prediction that something great was about to happen was finally coming to the surface as her family squeezed me into the circle.  I warmed myself next to the blazing bhukari and exchanged smiles with all the warm faces that were nodding at me.  Although I didn’t really know anyone yet, I somehow felt like I belonged. 

No more food 
Maybe it had something to do with the never-ending feast of traditional Bhutanese food they placed in front of me including the bottomless consumption of thub.  Thub is a thick porridge with tofu, rice and ginger that is usually served on special occasions.  At first, I wasn’t too crazy for the chunky texture, but after Sonam’s mom filled my bowl up for the third time, I started to acquire the taste and I downed it like sweet tea.  Sonam’s mom and sister are amazing cooks and I ate like I was a starving person.  After every serving, I would lean back holding my stomach, moaning from being so full and begging Sonam not to give me any more food.  However, as long as I was sitting next to the bhukari, my jaws were always chomping away on something: Bhutanese cookies, loam, home-made French fries, gondo, red rice, nor sha, chillie etc.  I credit this week as the onset of my weight gain in Bhutan.

After breakfast, Sonam’s family and I stuffed ourselves into Sonam’s little blue car to go see the black-necked cranes.  I somehow made up this belief that seeing them was good luck, which produced a burning desire in me to have just one glimpse of them.  If you read my last blog, then you know that some Bhutanese people believe that how your Losar turns out is an indication of how your year will be.  Therefore, I really wanted to see them in order to spark a great year of good luck, which I know first hand that you can create what you believe in. 

Archery is Bhutan's National Sport
On our way to see the birds, we discovered that a big archery match was taking place in Sonam’s village.  Since I had never seen an archery match before, we stopped to watch it and I was like a kid in a candy store.  I don’t know what over takes me at times, but I frequently become a funny looking news reporter in Bhutan.  I whipped out my camcorder and before Sonam and her monk brother, Dorji, knew what I was doing, they became part of my documentary about Bhutan’s national sport. 

Furthermore, while I was asking one of the players some questions, without thinking I joyfully asked him if I could try shooting his bow and arrow.  He looked at me like I was crazy and walked away in the middle of my next sentence.  Sonam and I couldn’t help but giggle as I was left dumbfounded on film.  Then Sonam explained to me that some players would never let others, especially women, touch their bow and arrows because they think that it might bring it bad luck.  Fortunately, a couple of Sonam’s uncles were playing in the archery match and they weren’t superstitious; they gladly let me interview them as well as examine their bow and arrows.  We had a blast laughing and joking around.  I was even encouraged to join in a traditional circle dance put on by the local women to entertain the audience.  The sight of me in my black pants, a bright red turtleneck and snow boots amongst pretty kiras trying to pick up the steps made everyone watching laugh and clap.  I like to think that everyone was able to feel how happy I was to be in Gangtey, Bhutan.

Thrung Thrungs
A few hours later, six of us piled back into Sonam’s mini car and we were on a mission to find the black-necked cranes that fly to the neighboring village in Phobjikha for their winter habitat.  In Bhutan, black-necked cranes are called thrung thrungs and are featured in their songs, paintings, poetry, stories, etc.   The way that they are revered in Bhutan makes me think of them as magical birds and I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to observe them in their natural habitat; they are found in certain areas of Bhutan, Tibet, China and India. 

Jimmy was also eager to see them and once again he would hang his body out of the car and make the most believable birdcalls I have ever heard.  A couple of times his birdcalls would trick me into thinking that it was a real black-necked crane and I would jump into a frenzy searching for them, which caused everyone in the car to chuckle.  I think that my melodrama over the birds was contagious because the car felt like a box of fermented excitement.   I thought that it was very sweet how everyone was so thrilled for me to see the black-necked cranes for the very first time. 

V Formation 
After a few moments of driving with all our heads hanging out of the window searching for them down in the valleys, we started to hear their loud, honking birdcalls.  Instantly our heads snapped back and forth across the valley trying to locate where the noises were coming from.  A couple of times I would shout, “I see a black-necked crane” and Sonam would say, “No, that’s a car driving in the distance... No that’s a cat.”  Basically, I was mistaking everything for a black-necked crane.  Finally, to all our amazement we realized that the calls were coming from directly above our heads.  Sonam stopped in the middle of the dirt road and screamed at me to get out of the car at once to film them because it was rare to be so close to so many of them.  I couldn’t believe how big they were (3 feet) like fat turkeys with long rich black necks and tails.  I filmed them with awe as they flew into perfect V formations all around us and I hoped they wouldn’t poop on my head.

I'm hiding behind a tree taking pictures
After they flew away, Sonam said that we were lucky to be that close to them and I knew that my lingering excitement could get me even luckier.  That’s when I spotted a couple of them land in some farmland several hundred feet off the road.  Sonam said that if I went alone to film them, then I would have a better chance because it would be quieter and Jimmy reluctantly stayed behind.  So I immediately jumped over a fence with my camcorder and all the way down the plot of dirt to the black-necked cranes, I ducked behind trees and bushes, rolled down a hill and even fell over a huge stone trying to get closer to them without scaring them away.  As I filmed them while hiding in tall grass, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself because I felt like I was working for National Geographic making some kind of rare footage.  Finally, when I was about 30 feet from them, the black-necked cranes spotted me inching closer and they flew away with their long black tipped wings.  Then I came out of hiding waving goodbye to them. 

Goodbye Cranes
Strangely, I felt sad and happy at the same time.  It had been such a thrill to see these beautiful birds that I felt a little somber with each geese-like call that grew fainter in the distance reminding me that my adventure for the day was coming to an end.  On the other hand, I felt extremely blessed to soak in what I perceived as good luck: observing them stream across the sky until I could no longer see them like a lost balloon being taken over by the wind.  I stayed mostly in a vortex of happiness and I felt good about going back to the car to end the day.  However, when I turned around to head back to the road, I was embarrassed to discover that a group of villagers had gathered to observe what this weird Californian was doing jumping in and out of the bushes waving to birds in a crop plantation.  Although I was blushing, I waved to the villagers, had another good laugh at myself and trampled my way through the dirt trying not to stomp on their unsowed rows as they started at me all the way to my getaway car. 

Little Jimmy sees some
Black-necked cranes
When I got back to the car, I was limping from the fall over the stone and everything about me was dusty looking except my cheesy white smile about getting close up pictures of the birds.  Everyone in the car cheered for me and Sonam told me that the black-necked cranes adventure was not over yet; we were headed to the Black-Necked Crane Information Center to view them through big telescopes.  It was pretty darn cool to say the least.  I learned a lot about the black-necked cranes and I wanted to wrap my arms around them to protect them from any harm.  At the end of the adventure, we made a toast to the black-necked cranes and in my documentary about them (which I can’t upload with my internet here) I asked anyone and everyone to please protect the black-necked cranes by preserving their summer habitats, such as in China and their winter habitats in Bhutan and by not collecting their eggs…

A Casted Love Spell
After we left the center, I felt like the black-necked cranes casted a love spell on me and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.  I wondered if the Chinese would be kind to them and their summer habitats.  I worried if their numbers would decrease as Bhutan development increases and my heart raced just thinking about the black-necked cranes future being in possible danger.  I even pondered about what a tattoo of them would look like (Mom, relax, I said “pondered”).  On and on my mind swam around in thoughts about these heavenly birds and at the end of the day all I could do was pray for the continual survival of these beautiful creatures that have made their way into the Bhutanese culture and now into my heart. 

Cheers to the black-necked cranes
Furthermore, after reflecting about the day, I have no doubt that the excited feeling I woke up with was the awaken part of me that sensed what lay ahead of me: experiencing authentic Bhutanese culture, finding my way into a Bhutanese family, partaking in an archery match and sighting black-necked cranes.  Moreover, according to my first day of Losar, my year is going to be filled with adventures in Bhutan and hopefully lots of good luck.  In fact, I can’t wait to see the black-necked cranes when they come back to Bhutan in November because I created a new belief that if you see them circumambulating the Gangtey Monastery, it will bring you good luck for the rest of your life.  This means I can’t leave Bhutan until I get to witness this.  If you also want good luck from the black-necked cranes, then the next time you have a good drink, cheers to the black-necked cranes, which will surely bring you good luck (Ok, I made that one up too).  However, it’s what you believe in that can or cannot bring you good luck, so cheers to the black-necked cranes…


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bhutanese Losar - A 3 Day New Year

After the celebration of the King’s birthday, it was time to get ready to celebrate the Losar (Bhutanese/Tibetan New Year on Feb. 22nd) for three whole days.  YES AMERICA, THEY HAVE A THREE DAY NEW YEAR (in some areas it’s longer than 3 days)!  This is a fabulous idea! I thought, I can’t believe that I get to celebrate new years again and why don’t we get three days off in America to celebrate new years?  Although there were some years that I managed to celebrate new years for longer than three days, I knew that this was going to be the best new years because I always manage to get myself into some kind of wacky adventure. 

Road Trip - Eating Grapes
So I was all ready to head off to the comfy Swiss Hotel for a few days of hot showers, wine sampling, feasting and lots of laughs with some respected folks in Bhutan when my dear friend, Madam Sonam Choden, said that I was to cancel my plans at once and repack my bags.  Sonam and Norbu, the monk, were taking me to their home village in Gangtey to experience some AUTHENTIC Bhutanese living.  As much as I wanted hot showers and some luxury at the popular Swiss Hotel, I had this feeling deep down inside that something magical was waiting for me in Gangtey.  So I apologetically canceled my previous plans and minutes later I found myself on a five-hour road trip that was leading me to the beginning of something truly special; a once in a lifetime experience for this Yankee.     

"Give me milk and cheese"
Jimmy hanging
out the window
As we drove up and down the side of sheer dropping cliffs, little Jimmy would hang his body out of the back seat window and yell at the cows and yaks on the side of the road to give him milk and cheese.  Occasionally, he would also reach up front from the back seat and Sonam would let him steer the steering wheel around the cliffs.  I would close my eyes and say, “Sonam, please don’t let the seven year old drive us off the cliff” and for some odd reason we all laughed including Norbu who sat in the back with Jimmy.  
Driving along the cliffs

Jimmy driving around cliffs
For hours, I listened to the three of them sing along to Bhutanese and Tibetan songs.  Sonam translated the poetic words for me and I must have said a hundred times, “That’s so beautiful.”  As night approached, the last stretch of the drive became dangerous because a thick cloud of fog angrily hovered around the mountain tops.  It seemed like Sonam was honking her horn every few seconds to warn oncoming cars that we were coming around the mountain, so to watch out for us.  We could only see a foot in front of us and I tried my best to console my fear, but a few times I let out a scream into my scarf as cars zoomed out of a hazy cloud nearly missing us.  This didn’t seem to faze anyone and Sonam would chuckle, “Are you scared?” 

As we got closer to their home village, Sonam told me that her mom’s house was different from our home in Chumey and she asked, “Will you be ok if it’s different from what you’re used to?”  I said, “Of course Sonam, I don’t care, I’m so excited that you invited me and happy to be here.”  It made me smile knowing that Sonam still had a lot to learn about me.  When we got to her house, I found it to be lovely, warm and comfy.  I loved it so much that by the end of the trip, I didn’t want to leave.  The only major difference from my home in Chumey, Bhutan and her mother’s home was that the bathrooms were outside and it didn’t have running water inside, so a hose was used to fill up a huge barrel of water in the kitchen for washing and cooking.  I learned that this is one aspect of “authentic” or “real” Bhutanese living.

Norbu and Jimmy 
Finally, when we arrived to her village, I met some of Sonam’s family, which is one of the warmest group of people I have ever met.  I instantly felt like I was part of their family and I just fell in love with Sonam’s mom who beamed the essence of caring.  Although everyone in Sonam’s family spoke Dzongkha, it was fun watching Sonam in her home environment and it reminded me of my own family; talking around food, drinking cups of tea, sharing funny stories and just being amongst each others company.  I didn’t have to speak Dzongkha to make heart connections with them and fit in. 

Before we went to bed that night, Sonam warned me that however our Losar turned out would indicate how our year would be.  “Oh great! Does that mean if it’s bad, then I’m going to have a bad year? Hmmm, but if it’s really fun, then I’m going to have an amazing year,” I said to her like I just discovered a revelation of wealth. 

She responded, “Yup, you got it so we have to be careful, but still have a good time.”  I was so determined to make the next three days wonderful that if you set my hair on fire, I probably would have said thank you, smiled and claimed that it was good luck.  Thus, by the end of the next three days I would come to learn first hand that life is all about how you view it.  Needless to say, my Losar experience predicts that I am going to have the most adventurous year of my life… (To be continued…filming rare black neck cranes, dancing at an archery match, and my huge misunderstanding taking my first stone bath).

Slide Show of our Road Trip to Gangtey Village