Having been in Bhutan for 3 weeks WFP decided to send me on a ten day tour of the country to inspect all the small food stores in preparation for the next food distribution in January. I traveled the 168 kilometres (and six hours driving) from my base at Phuentsholing to the national capitol of Thimpu. After a night in the hotel with earplugs worn against the hundreds of continuously barking dogs, I set off with Megrehj, the Food Corporation of Bhutan representative, Tashi Doma the WFP Logistics Officer and Tashi our driver (Tashi and Tashi are male and female but the name is bisexual so to speak).
We headed into the mountains on the usual single lane ledge hacked into the cliffs. The scenery is spectacular and at one stage we crossed a 12,500’ pass, sliding on black ice inches away from an unguarded 1,500 foot vertical drop. Each morning when we set off Tashi spent about 5 minutes singing under his breath. When I asked him what he was singing he told me he was praying that we would not slide off the mountain today. I thought this was a pretty good idea so told him before he finishes his conversation with Buddha each morning to say “Lang sends his regards and says the same.”
One night we stopped in Mongar (9,000’ altitude) and checked into a basic establishment (with resident dogs of course). There were cracks in the walls and I had to get into my sleeping bag under the bed covers. Arising next morning I went into the “bathroom” and went flat on my back. There was no shower and you had to bucket water over yourself and the water left on the floor from the night before had frozen into a sheet of ice.
Over the next few days we went from small store to small store. Most of these are built on ledges in or near a tiny settlement and are as far as trucks can travel up that particular valley. The schools then come down with their horses, donkeys and yaks to collect the food and take it back into the mountains. A couple of schools in this area are two days walk but in the north east there is one requiring six days walking.
During inspection of one store a truck, loaded with rice, arrived from India. As it backed up to the loading ramp I noticed a family of rats leap off the back and scurry straight into the store disappearing under the pallets of bagged food inside. The boys told me these were not just any rats – they were Bengal Rats! I got a pretty good look at them and think the only way to tell the difference between the touring Indian rats and the Bhutanese stay-at-home variety is by their suitcases, sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts.
We finished one day at a small village near the Tibetan border which just happened to be our driver, Tashi’s, home town. He told us that after we were settled at our hotel - for want of a better word - his parents wished us to come for dinner.
He later picked us up in the Landcruiser and we scrambled up a four wheel drive track far into the mountains. Eventually we stopped and Tashi pointed to a tiny house somehow attached to the side of the mountain far below the road. The almost vertical twenty minute descent on a rough footpad brought us to his home where his parents scrape an existence from one tiny rice paddy terrace, one cow and a couple of pigs. His toothless old dad and wrinkled, round-faced mother welcomed us into their three room dwelling.
We were taken into the living room where a great effort had been made to prepare with nice carpets, obviously only used for special occasions, laid out for us to sit upon. A rough wooden altar festooned with pictures of the King and the Dalai Lama, cut from magazines and lit with candles stood against one wall.
The first treat was a serving of Arak, the local farm-distilled drink. I had been told previously that this was normally 110 proof (55% alcohol). It is a clear liquid tasting something like a mix of bad sake and rough gin with a dash of paint thinner. Tashi’s dad brought in a saucepan full, heated to just below boiling, which he placed in front of us. He then produced an egg and whipped it into the liquor which was soon swirling with lumps of poached egg. The final touch was a heaped tablespoon of yellow-green rancid butter. This spread across the mixture like an evil scum.
As a very large bowl of arak containing at least half a litre was placed before me I thought “This is going to be interesting.”
Mother saved the day for, before I could put off drinking no longer, she appeared with two large bowls and placed them before us. To each of us she gave a large plate containing rice and, on top, a great pile of the hottest chilies known to man. No other meat or vegetables, just chilies. Of course there were no utensils and we ate with our fingers.
Anticipating a bit of a test, I thrust the first handful into my mouth. I can tell you right now that women in childbirth know nothing about pain! Instantly my eyes watered but I thought it can’t get any worse, so plunged on to finish it in one painful short period. This was a bad mistake.
The pain went straight to eleven out of ten. By now I could not see through the tears, sweat had broken out on my brow and my nose started to run. Not having the forethought to bring a handkerchief, I wiped the flowing snot from my nose with the back of my hand, immediately transferring chili to my nasal passages. About this time I reminded myself of my oft quoted phrase “Giving up anywhere short of death is a mental decision.”
I could not give up in the face of the intense scrutiny of the family but I definitely needed some relief. The only liquid available was the foul potion sitting in the bowl in front of me but, desperate times require desperate measures.
I grabbed the bowl and in one continuous draft consumed the entire half litre. It could have been the finest champagne or diesel fuel as far as my decimated taste buds could tell but at least it was liquid. The pain immediately decreased to a manageable five out of ten.
There I sat with a sweat beaded brow and tears flowing from my eyes down my cheeks. Snot was pouring from my nose over my yellow, rancid butter soaked moustache and lumps of semi-poached egg hung from my beard. But, as I tried to focus through blurred vision, I saw the wide toothless grin and the extra hundred wrinkles that had appeared on the round, beaming face. All in all, I think I carried it off rather well.
The exit on hands and knees up the vertical path in the pitch black darkness remains a little unclear. The next morning I resolved to erase the whole incident from my mind but was unfortunately forcibly reminded by nature a couple of times during the day.
The instant height of the Bhutanese mountains is amazing. After sliding across the high road on slick ice at 3.00pm we were back down on the border of Assam at 5.00pm checking into a hotel fitted with much needed mosquito nets and fans. Samdrup Jonkhar is another teeming border town similar to Phuentsoling with Indians allowed across on a daylight basis. Unfortunately it is the centre of Assamese independence rebels and the Bhutanese close the border regularly any time they get uppity.
I was absolutely overjoyed while wandering around Samdrup Jonkhar to make reaquaintance with a company I had seen in Calcutta 12 years ago. They have obviously been successful and opened a local branch.
J.B. GUPTA & SONS of Calcutta
Purveyors of Lingerie for Ladies of Distinction
We have had a hand in womens’ underwear for 30 years!