Thursday, April 12, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman

Today I fly to Bhutan for my second visit. This, from the travel journals, details that previous journey. 

May 12, 2003

I pass through Osaka on my way to Bhutan.   Perfect start to the trip by viewing a collection of mandalas at the ethnology museum.  The exhibit itself was shaped like a mandala, a series of five circular rooms each filled with thankas and small sculptures. There was a small walk-through mandala at the center, perfect for meditation, like a white tent with various Buddhas on the roof and sides.  Strangely, my eyes were drawn to three mandalas in particular, all from Bhutan.  I only had about an hour to spend there and I wish I had more, as each mandala was packed with little figures and images. Moving my eyes in a circular motion again and again made me dizzy after awhile.  Near the exit was one of those chortens, with the five elements: earth, fire, water, sky, ether.  Standing over it and looking straight down, it resembled a mandala, blurring into a perfect 3-D satori.

This proved to be second surreal event of the day.  Leaving Yonago, we were forced to exit the highway into a parking area, simply to be given little dolls by little kids, in the name of traffic safety...

May 13, 2003 

Arrived in Bangkok early, but wasted a half hour while my driver got his shit together.  I can act well within the rules of Asian time, but I was tired and wanting to get to bed as I'd only have about 5 hours sleep.  I didn't lose my temper, but was probably noticably annoyed.  As it turned out I didn't sleep well anyway.

Awoke at 4:30 to the airport before 5.  A bit of coffee then on a flight to Calcutta.  Aboard, cold mist was pouring out of the vents, and cold water dripped onto my head in a blessing of sorts.  I watched Bangkok recede, green jungles and palm clusters spliced by rivers and canals.  Here and there, the spikes of wats stuck up out of the groves.  Raised houses clung to the perpetually winding rivers, the banks ever in flux. 

On the plane I talked briefly with a Dutch development worker, loving his three years in country.  from his description, Bhutan with its 'aggressive" preservation, seems the antithesis of growth-happy Japan.  Happy as he seems, he appeared exhausted from the near constant travel.  

Flying into Calcutta, I viewed an India looking exactly as I dreamed.  Small villages lay amidst palm trees, connected by narrow dirt roads. An old train chugged up an old track.  Bright yellow taxis of ancient make lined the busy roads.  The earth here was drier, older-looking than in Thailand.  India's agricultural plots looked a haphazard quilt compared to Thai's long green wet patches of rice.  Upon arrival at a definitely third world airport, a long water cannon stood on the tarmac, an important symbol against fire.

After about thirty minutes we took off again.  Our plane had its wings mounted above the cabin, and from my seat I could look into tht eback of the engines, down onto the landing gear, and across at the wingflaps during the take-offs and landings, the latter being perhaps the slowest I've ever experienced, practically gliding in to kiss the tarmac.  On board, the pressure was incredible, my ears and water bottle popping repeatedly.  A beautiful stewardess in traditional clothing paced the aisle.

From the air, I could see the Duars and how they kept out the British, their malaria-ridden jungles running right up to the rivers that separate them.  And out in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas thrust above the clouds.  Our descent into Paro was thrilling, dropping down through the V's of canyons, the wings only a dozen meters or so from the trees.  A young boy led a yak by a long rope, down a trail just above me. Down below, houses climbed up the mountainsides, rivers carving away their bases, and waterfalls slashing away at their faces. 

Met Clarke Warren and Dorjee Wangchuk, our guides.  They draped a white scarf over me and smiled.  We drove along the winding roads to Thimphu.  There we met Susan, Cheryl, and Teri, and had lunch at Jumolhari, overlooking the town whose size and atmosphere reminded me somewhat of Boulder.  Lunch was Indian, and at the next table was the editor of the national newspaper, Kuensel.  After lunch, we went to the town's archery match.  Guys used modern hunting bows and tried to hit targets 148 meters away.   It seemed impossible, but a few did it, then their friends would do a little song and dance.  The parking lot was filled with Indian trucks, their cabs all chrome and covered with various deities, plus eyes on the front.  It seems Indians make up most of the hard labor here.

The rest of the day was spent winding through the mountains over narrow roads.  Due to my fatigue, the whole journey was hazy.  A small village of three shops, one woman selling dried cheese on a string.  Young guys in the back of an army truck singing.  A forest of prayer flags at Dochu La pass, with a faint snowy peak seen through the clouds.  Final stop at Chimi Lakhang, following a trek along narrow paths through rice fields.  Kids running around at play.  Dogs and cows everywhere.  An ox followed me and when I tried to stop it, its owner told me to let it keep going.  Older boys played a game with long nails.  Three newborn pups scratched simultaneously. The white walls of village houses fell into shadow, but the river below and mountains beyond changed color in the late afternoon sun.  A mother and baby sat in the doorway of a falling down house.  

The dzong was atop a hill above the village, the trail leading up through a white gate, then to a prayer wheel.  Beyond was a Bodhi tree, then a stupa under which lay demons defeated by Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman.  I walked clockwise round the temple, spinning prayer wheels and marveling at the flags flapping in multi-colored streaks against the darkening hills.  

Inside, a dozen boy monks chanted and beat drums.  A lone light bulb flickered, throwing shadows on mandala-laden walls.  Butter lamps distorted the faces of deities.  After prostrations and a quick blessing with phallus ans bow, we filed out where the biys chased each other around, threatening to smear shit on maroon robes.  Clarke taught them, "This is the church, this is the steeple..." in Tibetan.  The boys mocked his hand gestures as we walked into the twilight, a warm wind whipping the flags behind us. 

At dinner, I try Bhutanese cuisine for the first time, including ema, a spicy concoction of green chile, cheese, and onion.  After dinner, I sat on my balcony for awhile, listening to someone playing drums in the hillside village above me, the sound echo-ing off the mountains that stood above the village across the river...

On the turntable:  The Flaming Lips,"Zaireeka"
On the nighttable:  Roberto Fuentes, "Hemingway in Cuba"


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