Bhutan, A Spirited Journey
It was a wild and crazy ride. When the plane finally touched down at the Paro International Airport, we cheered and clapped. Landing in a valley surrounded by mountains as high as 18,000 ft., we had been mercilessly buffeted and bumped by air currents, and were all giddily relieved to be safely on the ground.
A short walk to the tiny airport terminal where we met our guide, Sonam, and our three other travel companions, and we were off!
This trip was a dream come true. Over the years, I had become what’s humorously referred to as a “JewBu,” a Jewish person who also embraces Buddhist tenets. Buddhism had taught me a new Spiritual way of being, and knowing Bhutan is a largely Buddhist country, I imagined it would be a good place to test my inner Zen. I also asked myself, “Was Bhutan really Shangri La?” I wanted to meet the people whose lives I thought to be so different from mine.
I was drawn to visit the tallest mountains in the world, peaks adorned with prayer flags and precariously-perched temples. My adventurous spirit….and finances… were finally ready to explore lands and cultures vastly different from my life in big American cities.
Was Bhutan really Shangri La?
So my husband, Mark, and I booked a trip to Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
In order to visit Bhutan, all tourists (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders) were required to have a visa and to book their holiday through a Bhutanese tour operator, who would handle Visa arrangements, hotels, meals, tours, etc. Easy peasy.
The Bhutanese people are friendly and generous. Their country is known for its GNH – Gross National Happiness, the means by which Bhutanese success is measured. And those we met seemed to be the living embodiments of that perspective. I heard not one raised voice in argument. We were welcomed wherever we went. And everyone, without exception, appeared content, dare I say “happy”.
The tour was super active. Most exciting were the places not on the itinerary, particularly the homes of locals. We were welcomed, invited in, and generously offered Yak butter tea (which I did not love) and local refreshments such as Ema Datshi (chilis and cheese) or momos (dumplings), both of which I did love!
The homes were simple wooden or brick structures, some with dirt floors. But, shockingly (at first), large paintings of penises adorn the outside of many homes… it is a symbol of good fortune, and believed to ward off evil spirits and invoke fertility gods. Patties of yak dung also decorate the outside of many Bhutanese homes to be dried and used as fuel for cooking and heating. Thankfully, the smell of yak dung did not permeate the air!
But, shockingly (at first), large paintings of penises adorn the outside of many homes… it is a symbol of good fortune, and believed to ward off evil spirits and invoke fertility gods.
Each home had a room, or part of a room, dedicated to prayer. Altars were adorned with Buddha statue, candles, dishes for offerings, photos of the Dalai Lama and whatever else they wish.
We attended several religious festivals. They are bawdy, enthusiastic fun. Colorful dancers taunt audience members, brandishing huge rubber penises. They chase chickens. They chase each other. It’s comedie francaise meets the Three Stooges.
If I happened to pass a temple with monks chanting, I invited myself in, took a spot on the floor and let my body and soul surrender to the reverberation of a hundred monks in solemn prayer. The deep moaning of the musical instruments spoke to me in a primal way. It was mesmerizing.
Most of the younger people we met spoke English and were well-educated. We enjoyed spirited conversations about our cultures and politics. A woman traveling alone to this country would have nothing to fear. Bhutanese people are kind and considerate, and women are treated respectfully. The fact that every visitor must be in a tour group offers an immediate layer of protection from any unwanted advances.
The fact that every visitor must be in a tour group offers an immediate layer of protection from any unwanted advances.
I had terrible sinus issues while traveling and was taken to a local clinic. It was nighttime, the building was empty and there was no available staff. On to Plan B. Sonam took me to a nearby pharmacy, where it was recommended I take “these” pills. By the next day, I was returned to my energetic self. A true miracle!
We toured the country by air-conditioned mini-van. The scenery was magnificent, as were the chorten (sacred monuments) and dzongs (fortress monasteries) we were inevitably visiting. But the roads were often unpaved and very narrow, running along the sides of mountains, making for some precarious and uncomfortable travel. Along the way we saw teams of workers. Men and women squatting at the side of the road chopping rock by hand to help build the new surfaces. Driving from Paro to Thimpu, we waited a couple of hours while a truck hauling rock tried to turn around. I was terrified for them, hiding my eyes half the time! But the workers all seemed quite calm, used to tempting fate. We were told that most of the laborers on the ground were from India because Indians are willing to work cheaper than the Bhutanese.
I was terrified for them, hiding my eyes half the time!
Bhutan offered us the most spectacular experience of our entire trip, probably of my life. A one hour horseback ride along a rocky trail often narrowing and ribboning the edge of the mountainside, followed by an hour hike up to Taktsang Palphug Monastery, the Tiger’s Nest. As I imagined the tired-looking horse and me careening over the edge, down to a horrible death, I clutched the saddle, prayed aloud and dared not look down. Others were making jokes. Not I. My body was in constant tension!
Built in the 1600’s, the Tiger’s Nest sits astonishingly tucked into the side of a mountain more than 10,000 feet above sea level, and about 3,000 ft. above the Paro Valley meadow below. It’s a beautiful and complex structure. Our small group was the only one there, and standing in the remote quietude, looking out over the breathtaking view, both Mark and I were overcome with emotion…moved to tears, unable to speak, embracing whatever unknown sweet energy breathed itself into our hearts.
Though we often forget and lose ourselves in the vacillating fortunes of the human experience, we nevertheless absolutely know what it is like to be infused with the feeling of deep peace and unity with the world.
When we began our Himalayan adventure, I had a little lump on my left clavicle.
When we began our Himalayan adventure, I had a little lump on my left clavicle. By the time we returned to L.A. weeks later, the little lump had become quite large. Lymphoma turned my world upside down. Terror and disbelief were my initial reactions. It was a shock on many levels.
Both Mark and I believe to our cores that the Bhutan adventure helped us get through my cancer ordeal with a degree of grace zand ease I hadn’t thought possible. Having been immersed in the Buddhist culture those few weeks, experiencing people who appeared genuinely peaceful and trusting in their spiritual beliefs, we clearly understood there exists a different way of being, one which we were both hungry for and which we embraced.
For us, Bhutan was unequivocally as much a journey of the spirit as it was a journey of miles. Each moment gifted my soul with new insights, new perspectives and new awarenesses. It was exciting. It was intoxicating. I loved and embraced it all.
Photo credits for Bhutan, A Spirited Journey by Beverly Lubin and Unsplash.