All epic journeys begin somewhere and mine started with a 1AM wake up call in Bangkok. From Bangkok, I would fly to Calcutta, India and then connect to Paro, Bhutan. As I write this from the window seat to Calcutta, the sun is slowly rising on the east, a light show of pinks and purples, eventually chasing the plane into sudden broad daylight. I tried to catch a little bit more shut-eye, but nerves and anticipation wouldn't let me.
I have spent so much time on airplanes and airports in the last ~48 hours that I'm starting to get the hang of it. Coming. Going. Being welcomed and said goodbye to in one foreign language after another. I tend not to count how long these journeys take. I feel doing so takes me away from feeling how I am actually feeling by letting my mind interfere instead. And so I've learned to ignore the flying time count anymore, which has surprisingly worked very well so far (tip: this also comes in handy when you're flying to Barcelona from Oakland just for the weekend). It also occurred to me how traveling is the closest I'll get to cheating time. I have already had three breakfasts before 8AM and I would realize later that I had a fourth one coming in Paro around 10AM.
The flight to Paro is the most remarkably beautiful I've been on yet. On the final minutes of the flight, Mount Everest made a stunning appearance. The plane's weight shifted to the left as people scrambled to pile atop each other to steal glances and photos of the highest mountain peak in the world, even if just from an airplane window. It was a divine sight. Several Himalayan mountain ranges would also peek above the clouds, completely crusted in snow. I have never seen anything that compares to it.
This trip is off to a roaring start.
And then I was at Paro. The rest of the arrival process was pretty unceremonious. I got my passport stamped, collected my bag and almost immediately found myself outside (it was a very small airport). I found my guide and driver amidst a busy group of men in robes. Introductions were made and we headed to town to settle in with tea.
I will not lie. This part was strange. I am such a (self-diagnoed) introvert to begin with and being thrown in a situation where I'm thrust into forced conversation with two strangers who I will spend the next nine days with is very daunting. And so I filled the awkward silence with nonsensical superficial (and embarrassing, I realize it now) chatter. I excitedly (nervously?) babbled to two Bhutanese guys about their country and showed them maps of their own town from my book. I laugh at my antics now, but I would learn throughout the trip how ridiculous I've been. In the West, we are terrified of gaps of silence in conversation. It is impossible for us to be comfortable in that silence. Is that social conditioning? I would learn that in Bhutan, that is just plain strange. Nobody is bothered by the silent gaps in conversation. It's okay to sit and stare at each other silently while drinking tea (I made that sound creepier than it actually is.).
My guide is Sonam and my driver, Ugyen. Both are from the less visited eastern part of Bhutan. They have an obvious connection and they would speak Scharschop, the eastern dialect, mostly, and would only speak Dzongkha (the national language) when speaking to others. Not that I would be able to tell the distinction.
We walked around Paro Town after tea and if there's one word I would use over and over again the next couple of days, it would be "strange". I could not draw comparisons from any other place I've been to because Bhutan is already proving to be so dramatically different. The architecture, the people, the smells, the language, the energy - everything was, well, strange. I was born and raised in Asia and I've traveled to many parts of it, but Bhutan doesn't even feel remotely Asian. It feels so in-between here, I can't wrap my head around it.
I would be shown the rest of the downtown area, a vegetable market, a giant prayer wheel in the middle of town. After lunch, we would stop by an archery match and go to Rinpung Dzong, an important fort-monastery in Paro. The locals, for the most part, wore the traditional dress of gho (for men) and kira (for women). I would stick out as if I had "TOURIST" in big red letters plastered on my forehead. The culture shock would persist for another couple of days.
Dzongs are fortress-monasteries found all over Bhutan. They serve not only a religious function, but especially in Bhutan's history, dzongs provided security from its would-be invaders from the north, the Tibetans. It was said that due to these dzongs, Bhutan has survived at least seven attempted invasions from Tibet. It is common to see dzongs on a hill or across from a river.
In modern Bhutan, dzongs serve as monasteries educating monks, as well as local political administration offices. Dzongs have stunning displays of art in the form of religious paintings or "thangka". It is also an impressive showcase of traditional Bhutanese architecture. Inside a dzong, there would typically be a wide open courtyard where "tsechus" or festivals are held. There is also a temple within the compound and because they're considered sacred, no photography is allowed inside.
It is common for Bhutanese families to send a child to become to a monastery, some as early as four or five, where they become educated and learn the path to become a monk. They would live in the monastery for the rest of their childhood and on to their adulthood. Rinpung Dzong houses a couple hundred monks.
The afternoon of our visit, I can hear the sound of excited young chatter echo in the otherwise empty courtyard. A group of kids were in classroom above us where the teacher had apparently stepped out. Next to us on the courtyard below, an elder monk witnessed this and admonished the children. A young boy's head stuck out the window and he got an earful. This would be one of my earliest photographs of Bhutan which would also turn out to be one of my favorites.
I retreated early to my room - a lavish studio with walls and floors made of fragrant pine. I would crawl to bed early, but would awaken many times as I always do when I'm wrestling with jet lag. I had a balcony so I stepped out in the freezing cold night, the air thin at this elevation. It was pitch dark but one can see Rinpung Dzong from a distance, a couple headlines would dart into the otherwise pitch blackness. And I was hit with the realization and appreciation of how life is a series of daisy chains that lead us to where we are, which is exactly where we need to be. And I am overwhelmed knowing that this is where I need to be right here and right now - in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
I went back to sleep with this marvelous thought.