This Bugle is based on my most interesting trip so far on this job. There are two areas in the east of Bhutan which are so remote that the reasonably large stores and the schools they serve have not been visited by either the Bhutan Food Corporation (BFC) or the UNWFP for over two years. After a bit of pressure I goaded the WFP into trying to get a permit for me to visit and of course the ‘very difficult’ turned out to be very easy.
Learning from my previous mistakes, I organized an Indian registered Jeep and driver and, along with an FCB staff member and a Bhutanese WFP Logistics fellow, set out for our first port of call, Nganglam. The road leading from the main east-west Brahmaputra Valley highway heads due north into the Bhutanese mountains. It was only 50km from the highway to Nganglam but it took us 4 ½ hours. With nothing more than a rocky track winding its way through the jungle we did not get out of second gear for most of the way. About 7km of the track is along a stony riverbed which, when flooded in the wet season, cuts Nganglam off from the world for 6 months of the year. The Indian trucks bringing in the food during the distribution take two days to do the 100km round trip. No Australian truck owner would allow his vehicles on this track.
The highlight of my whole time in Bhutan occurred about an hour into the journey. As we pitched and rocked at walking pace over the rocks we rounded a bend, and there, not 100 metres away was a large Bengal Tiger. He was idley padding down the track as we stopped. The Tiger continued towards us until he was 30 metres away and, without any recognition of our presence, angled off to the left and faded into the jungle. Best animal sighting I have ever had!
At last we climbed into a narrow valley and arrived at the original Shangri-la. This mediaeval village is straight out of “Lost World” (without the singing). The town is jammed between jungle-clad hills but, unlike the Swiss Chalet appearance of much of Bhutan, every building here was unpainted wood. The people wore a different tribal dress and our vehicle was the only one in town. I created quite a spectacle as it was 18 months since a westerner had been in the area.
Winding down the steep slopes surrounding the little town, strings of pack horses and mules could bee seen descending through the jungle. The only flat bit of ground, serving as village green, football field and town meeting place, also was the pasture for the mule trains coming from the mountains. All around the small field the horsemen had set up temporary woven cane huts in which to sleep while the two hundred odd horses, donkeys and mules were unloaded of their big baskets of mandarins and spices to be set free to graze.
I was very glad of my good sleeping bag that night for the icy winds sliding down from the mountains made it mighty cold on the floor of the cane hut in which we were accommodated. The FCB store man, who lives a lonely existence by himself, made a great effort to cook us a nice lentil (almost certainly pilfered WFP lentils) curry with rice. He also produced a bottle of surprisingly good Bhutanese whiskey to warm us by candlelight.
Next morning we went to his very well kept store to check his stocks and see the condition of the building. Having nothing else to do, he had arranged all the bags of food in the most perfectly stacked manner. They had a bird problem which had been cunningly solved by having a sparrow-hawk (found dead and certainly not killed by the Bhutanese) stuffed in a wings outspread flying position suspended by a string in the middle of the warehouse.
They also had a serious rat problem. I counted 6 rat cages around the warehouse (these are wire cages about the size of a shoe-box which catch the rats, without harming them, for subsequent relocation. The store man flatly refused to use poison or conventional traps). When I asked why none of the traps had bait in them there was a ten minute discussion between the assistant store man, who spoke perfect English and the store man who spoke none. Even with not a single word of Bhutanese, I could see there was considerable prevarication and ducking and weaving going on.
I asked the WFP man to intervene and he eventually got to the bottom of the story. As a very devout Buddhist, the store man thought it was unconscionable to trick the rats into the cages. If you deliberately start lying, even to a rat, your whole life becomes a lie and you will never reach enlightenment.
I thought about the problem for a moment and asked the assistant store man to put the following proposition to his boss. What if we had tiny little signs printed – in Bhutanese and Hindi because, being so close to the border, we could not be sure of the rats’ nationality – and fixed on the front of each cage. “DANGER. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK” Place the bait in the cages and the rats, in full knowledge of their actions, could make their own decision to enter or not. The store man’s conscience would be clear.
As the assistant store man earnestly tried to explain the cunning plan to his boss, the blank face and glazed eyes told me he was stunned by this stroke of brilliance from an expert brought across the world at great expense to the UN. Then again, perhaps he thought I was a complete cretin. Whatever his thoughts, as the 2ic continued earnestly with hand waving and pointing to the appropriate place for the signs on the traps I was taken with a fit of the giggles which recurred from time to time for the next 2 hours.
Retreating on another 4 ½ hour rock’n roll trip back to the highway we only saw monkeys and a couple of deer. It was now time to go as far from the capital as possible. On our way to Daifam we had to travel east through Assam then swing north into India’s most remote state of Arunachal Pradesh before re-entering Bhutan. The further east we got, the more impoverished became the Indian villages. Many had no shops at all, only local farmers sitting cross-legged in the dirt with a small pile of vegetables or some fish plucked out of rice paddy waterholes. The shanty woven cane housing was abysmal and the stench was a mix of curry and excreta. A cup of tea for the four of us at a roadside “café” cost 20 cents. Curry and rice lunch for four cost 80 cents. My arrival in Daifam caused more interest as I was the first westerner that the FCB storekeeper’s 12 year old daughter had met.
There was a problem in Daifam as one of the schools had not collected all the food from the last distribution and there were about 3 tons of bags still in the FCB store. The storekeeper’s daughter (who spoke perfect English) went to that school and told us the 350 boarding kids lived on rice gruel two meals a day for the whole past term. I wonder if “Oliver Twist” was on the school curriculum? The Daifam store still contained the tinned fish, flour, sugar, lentils and oil designed by the UN to give the kids a balanced diet.
It seemed the problem was that the porters did not want to go to this school (9 hours walk away) as they could get more money carting for other government departments such as Forestry. The track was too steep for the mule trains which served the other schools in the district. I could not understand the problem as the government rate for this distance for a porter carrying 30kg was 150 rupees ($4) for the two day round trip but they claimed they were only offered 100 rupees. Nothing for it but a personal visit. Steep hills, night on the ground thinking about tigers, great reception by the headmaster who was rewarded with pre-knowledge that the police would be arriving shortly to take him to jail for pocketing 50 rupees per load.
Leaving Daifam and crossing back into India we met a fellow wearing a washed-out, but neatly pressed, khaki uniform in the first impoverished village. He was the local customs man who asked us to go to his office. I actually had noticed this small, overgrown, hut with a couple of attached rooms on the way up. It had a sign “Foreigners Registration Office, All foreigners must stop and report.” I did not bring it to the attention of my Bhutanese companions who would only have insisted on stopping to obey the rules, losing us another hour.
The customs man had me sit down at his desk (the Bhutanese did not have to register) while his wife brought me some tea. He reached up and retrieved from the shelf a large leather-bound ledger issued by the British in 1863. It was falling apart at the seams but was treated with reverence. He opened the huge tome and I saw at the top of a blank page, written in perfect copperplate writing (could it have been with a quill?) “Register of Foreigners for 2002”. He turned the leaf to another blank page perfectly titled “Register of Foreigners 2003”. 2004 – blank, 2005 – blank.
I can see him now, his whole mission in life is to represent the Indian Government keeping track of almost non-existent foreigners in his district. At exactly 9.00am on January the first each year he arrives in the office to inscribe the page for the New Year. Each day for the next 365 days he arrives at the office at exactly 9.00am and sits, pen poised, ready to record any wandering foreigners passing his domain. The rapturous joy on his face and the bursting pride of his wife was something to behold as he took 15 minutes to record, in perfect copper-plate writing – the details from my passport. I swear there were tears in his eyes as he gripped my hand in fond farewell. I had a warm fuzzy feeling for an hour after our departure.
Departing Samdrup Jankhar via India on this trip was much easier than previously as we were in an Indian registered car. We went through the gate and passed the huge lineup of Bhutanese cars waiting for the military escorted convoy start.
After about 4 hours driving we were told there was a “strike” on the 50 kilometre road that leads from the main highway, north to the Bhutanese border at our destination Phuentsholing. Traffic was being stopped for the day until 6.00pm by disgruntled villagers demanding the government honour its 10 year old promise to fix the road. There were three small towns each with roadblocks effectively cutting off traffic between the two countries.
As we approached the first village there was a line-up of about two hundred trucks and cars. I had the driver pass along the line to the front of the queue where we saw a great pile of tables and chairs across the road. There were numerous red, hammer and sickle flags to be seen. The crowd was as one would expect at any political rally or union stop-work meeting in Australia or elsewhere. A few loudmouths strutted out front and the brainless rabble made lots of noise in the rear.
I decided to play the UN card and got a very friendly reception when I explained that the Secretary General was taking an intense interest in their road widening program and in fact was considering the idea of bringing his own wheelbarrow to India and undertaking the task personally. They opened the barriers and let us through.
The reception at the second town was very aggressive as we drove along the line to the front of the queue. The ringleader was denying our passage in a mixture of English and Hindi in a loud voice for the benefit of his disciples. The disciples reminded me of the poem “The Man From Ironbark”;
….and a row of gilded youths, sat along the wall,
Their heads were flat, their eyes were dull,
They had no brains at all.
It was obvious that the previously successful gentle approach would not work here. Loud enough for the disciples to hear I let it be known that one phone call from me and the UN Security Council would cease discussing North Korea, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Within 48 hours a full division of the UN ready response force, comprising of crack troops from Monaco, Tasmania and the Galapagos Islands would be floating down onto Hasimara to teach them a lesson they would never forget – or words to that effect.
There appeared to be some doubt as to the veracity of my statements . I may be wrong but I think haramkhor means bullshit in Hindi. Faint heart never won fair lady so I moved close to the ringleader and stood arms folded, legs apart, staring him in the eye. He blinked first and they let us through.
The third town was only 7km south of the Bhutan border and the Bhutanese WFP Logistic officer with me, overcoming his stated premonition of being beaten to death and emboldened by our previous success, said he knew some of the rabble in this crowd and would get us through the last hurdle himself. As he diverged from the usual obsequious Bhutanese manner and became authoritative I thought he overplayed his hand somewhat.
In an uncharacteristic loud voice he demanded this important UN Delegation be allowed to pass. If we were detained, the entire Bhutanese Army of 3 would sweep across the border and push the whole Indian population of one billion into the sea. It worked a treat. Not only did they remove the barriers to let us go but they let all the other vehicles pass as well - when they all went home for dinner only 4 ½ hours later!