It is already tomorrow here in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. I am up at 0400 local time, my body trying to adjust to the minor effects of 2400 m (7800ft) and the succession of flights that have gotten us half-way around the world. Given that this trip had a number of potential obstacles (e.g., volcanic ash and political unrest), in the end it was totally seamless. I finished one book and am half way through another. I even got to watch 3 in-flight movies including one of my all-time favorites, The Third Man, with Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Orson Wells. Even after more than a half a dozen viewings, the crisp, witty dialogue and noir style still entertain me.
The final leg was the most notable. We were accompanied from Bangkok through Bagdora, India, to Paro by His Majesty, the King of Tonga (a South Pacific archipelago, not too far from New Zealand). Druk, not being a US domestic carrier, served us a meal even though the flight time was shorter than our familiar run from Portland to Jacksonville. Rather than a choice between chicken and beef, we were offered vegetarian versus non. The non-vegetarian meal included eggs but no meat. Welcome to the East.
The landing at Paro offered us some great views of the surroundings in part because of the four closely spaced alternating 90° turns. (The approach is featured on a You-tube video showing the 10 most dangerous airport approaches in the world.) Once on the ground His Majesty was greeted by a red carpet reception complete with officers in uniforms with stars on their caps and epaulets(or epaulettes, if you prefer), monks in scarlet robes, and an assortment of other men and women, most wearing the familiar national garb of Bhutan. The men wear meticulously folded bath robe-like overwear, knee socks that oftentimes look like argyles and leather shoes with elongated toes. The women dress in long, colorful, fabric, wrapped nearly twice around their bodies. The effect is that of a long dress with a slit up the side, the slit exposing fabric and not skin. This is covered by a long-sleeved blouse. Finished off with heels or sandals, the women look quite elegant. Dharmasuri’s pictures will do justice to these better than my words. Then, while we were queued up to clear customs we met the renowned Buddhist scholar (and father of Uma), Robert Thurman. Dharmasuri was so taken aback by chatting with him and accepting his compliments on her attire that we didn’t have the presence of mind to ask if we could take his picture.
Thimphu is unlike any place that I have ever been before. I suppose that I could say the same about New York but this place really is different. Amongst many other impressions that I will try to share later on, two in particular struck me. The first is in regards to the Bhutanese reputation for happiness. We were sitting in our hotel waiting for a ride when a group of tourist arrived. They had the energy of a gaggle of overactive 10 year old boys, chatting incessantly, nervously flitting back and forth from the lobby to the street. As their guide tried to quietly and unobtrusively keep all of them in some semblance of order, he looked at us and with the most pleasant, playfully tolerant smile, shook his head and whispered “Very difficult”. There was no visual or voiced frustration or acrimony. The second happened last night. I woke to near complete silence. There were no traffic noises and only the occasional barking dog (there are a lot of them wandering the streets here). The only other time I have experienced the same quiet in a city was in Venice. I remember staying at a B and B on one of the canals, listening to nothing more than the gentle lapping of water on building walls and the conversations of gondolier/boatmen returning from a late night outing. Both were surprising and wonderfully peaceful. The sound environment here is in stark counterpoint to the incessant, 24/7 cacophony of horns, car alarms, and traffic that I experienced in Lima.
Today Bill and I do our first 2 – 3 day course for between 30 and 60 ambulance drivers. We start sometime after 9 AM. I think that there is a pattern developing here. Somehow it will all come together.