Tuesday, October 6, 2009

David's Bhutan observations

We're on a rather routine schedule here in Bhutan. Having a
prearranged tour means that we never have to figure out where to stay
or where to eat or how to get from one place to another. There's one
main east-west road that winds around these mountains. It's paved most
of the way but very narrow. Our driver skillfully negotiates the
curves, the occasional oncoming traffic and the passing around diesel
fume-spewing trucks.

Just as in Tibet, the cars here are equipped with seatbelts but no one
uses them. Generally at home I always use a seatbelt, so I feel
uncomfortable without one, especially as I look over the edge of these
steep mountain roads and witness vehicles passing with only a few
inches of clearance. Unfortunately, the back seat of our car is
covered with a Tibetan carpet that makes it impossible to insert the
buckle into the metal fitting. So for the past several weeks, I've
just been trying to accept the local custom of not using seatbelts,
and gradually I've forgotten about it.

However today, I started thinking about seatbelts again, especially
about how stupid we would seem to our children if we were to meet our
demise because we hadn't buckled up. After lunch, I mentioned my
concern to our guide and we talked a bit about the seatbelt campaign
in the states, how we teach our children to use them and the safety
statistics. When we got back in the car, the Tibetan carpet was
removed and voila! Cynthia and I were able to fasten our belts. And so
did our guide (but not our driver). We only have a couple of days more
in the car, but maybe this will benefit some other guests in the
future. Cynthia asked if I felt better now … Yes, indeed I did, but
it's nothing compared to how good I will feel as we roll over the
shoulder into a ravine.

The restaurants we visit have essentially the same fare, all served
buffet style -- red rice, white rice, chow mein noodles, sliced beef,
roast potatoes, mixed vegetables, and the Bhutanese favorite,
chili-and-cheese. It's amazing how similar the whole meal serving
routine is from one hotel to another. Seems that restaurateurs would
rather do what others have found to work with tourists rather than try
something new.

The hotels we've been staying in have hot showers, if you can figure
out how to regulate the temperature. Unlike some hotels in Nepal, the
shower drain seems to be installed at the lowest point of the tile
floor rather than somewhere else. Unpredictable as to which knob
controls the hot and which the cold, and sometimes puzzling as to how
to open and close the sink drain, but all still workable.

Every sizable town in Bhutan seems to have its own dzong -- a large
fortress-like structure built in the mid 1600s and containing watch
towers, administrative offices, monks quarters and shrines. They each
accommodate both secular and religious functions and they are very
formidable. Some have burned at times over the past 400 years, but
they are always rebuilt and put into service again promptly. The first
four or five dzongs were quite fascinating, but they were all built in
the mid 1600s with similar architecture and by the 15th dzong, we felt
totally dzonged out.

Religion has an important role in Bhutanese daily life. It's important
to make offerings to the various deities, both on designated days and
in accordance with things happening in one's family and among one's
friends. Buddhist shrines in Bhutan are quite interesting. Here is a
pop quiz question for you.

Question: Which of the following items would you NOT expect to find at
a Bhutanese Buddhist shrine?
(a) a statue of the Buddha or Guru Rinpoche
(b) a pile of money
(c) a multi-colored flower arrangement made out of butter
(d) an oversize anatomically correct model of an erect male organ
(e) an AK-47 rifle

See answer at the end of this post.

To an outsider, there are uncountable numbers of different deities and
historical figures the Bhutanese people pay homage to. However, there
is enough commonality among their attributes and icons that if a
person lived in this culture long enough, it would definitely be
something you would gradually develop a sense of. Guru Rinpoche is
one of the most prominent figures. There are his eight manifestations,
his consorts and his disciples. There are long lines of
reincarnations— of body, of speech and of mind. There are those lamas
who left secret treasures behind for others to find later (such as
sacred texts) and there are those treasure finders who found them.
There are all kinds of demons and evil spirits, and all kinds of
deities who subdued the demons and spirits. It would take a lifetime
of study to grasp all the personages, to say nothing of the daily
ritual practices and sacred objects.

Of course, all the items (a) – (e) can be found at the alter of
Bhutanese temples we have visited.

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