Sunday, October 16, 2011

Big Bash in Thimphu

The Bhutanese start with lots of color and beautiful fabrics, so you know that if it's a big day, the kind that requires they break out their sartorial finery, you're going to see something spectacular. And that was Saturday in Thimphu, the day set aside for a celebration of the King's wedding. Not that the other days weren't celebratory. But this was the day for everyone to hang out and dance with Jigme and Jetsun (actually, folks here call him Khesar to distinguish him from the previous three Kings named Jigme, but my colleagues at Wheaton knew him as Jigme).

(This is a larger-than-life poster of them in their wedding clothes that appeared in town on Saturday morning).

Our driver Sonam wanted us to leave for town at 7 am in order to get into Changlimithang Stadium, but knowing we had to pack and that we had a long journey ahead of us, we talked him into a 10 am departure, accompanied by Hyun. Like a typical Bhutanese, Sonam is unfailingly polite, so even though he might have been thinking, "Silly American madams, we will never get a parking space," he just smiled and said okay.

And we couldn't get a parking space, at least at first. But Sonam is nothing if not resourceful, so we did eventually find a spot, wedged in between a car and the gate to the hospital, and walked ten minutes down the hill toward the stadium. We passed people wearing their very best kiras and ghos.

Even Sonam was dressed in his finest gho, and asked Betsy to take his picture, exacting a promise from her to send it--a hard copy! Via mail! How quaint. We actually have no idea how to do that, but we'll figure it out.

The stadium was filled, of course, so we couldn't get into the side with the seats, but we did manage to get in on the far side where people were standing around on the grass underneath the largest banner I've ever seen. It's one hundred feet tall:

We were joined by thousands of Bhutanese as well as westerners, all trying to catch a glimpse of the dancing going on just a few yards away on the stadium field.

Since we had watched the rehearsal on Tuesday, Betsy and I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. The program basically alternated between a monk dance (accompanied by a low whining horn punctuated with a slow drumming) and a traditional folk dance (more melodic, occasionally with singing). It was...kind of...endless. In fact, I suspect the idea of a dance marathon was invented in Bhutan. Each dance was ten, maybe twelve minutes long. None of them involved any kind of quick movements (perhaps they prefer to preserve their energy at that altitude). To amuse myself, I pictured Justin Timberlake in a monk's costume gyrating to "Sexy Back." And then Justin grabbing Jetsun, who makes a few J-Lo moves before returning to the side of her dazzled King.

I was pulled back to reality by a very stern-looking military officer (he had a lot of colorful things pinned to his chest, and the police officers nearby jumped when he spoke to them, so I assume he was someone with a high rank). He was telling everyone standing there to sit. "Sit!" he said, in very good English. "Sit down or get out!" Betsy and I obediently sat, slightly stunned by the first sharp tone we'd heard in ten days. Hyun, who of course is a faculty member, resisted such an autocratic demand and wandered off to take more pictures of the incredibly beautiful costumes and dress.

These are monks right after their dance (sans crazy animal masks):

Did I mention they had elephants?

We eventually got brave enough to stand up and then headed out of the stadium, having had our fill of low whining horns and spinning monks. The King and Queen were still in their box, not yet doing what everyone had told us they would: get a little bored themselves and start wandering the crowd. Diwash had told us a few days earlier, "The King loves to talk to his people."

Not being one of his people, it seemed an opportune time to get some lunch. We enjoyed one last round of veeeerrrry slow (but polite) Bhutanese table service at The Zone, a popular spot for ex-pats and western tourists (i.e., they know how to back off on the spice for outsiders), where we sat outside, just across the street from the stadium.

Judging from the crowds leaving the stadium, I wasn't the only one who found the program a bit repetitive.

We finished our pizza (yes, pizza) and said our goodbyes to Hyun and Noel, whom we'd found wandering with her camera outside the stadium. I was sad to leave Hyun, who has been a most excellent host, but glad to think I have a new friend at Wheaton. Though I had known her before, we hadn't had much contact, but now I am looking forward to her return in January and more time together. And Noel is absolutely lovely--as polite and sweet as they come.

Getting to spend time with her, along with some of the other students, was one of the best parts of this trip. I am so impressed with how well they have been doing in the two and a half months they've been here (with two more to go). This is not an easy place to study abroad. But they have made Bhutanese friends, adapted to the diet (rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner), worn their traditional dress, learned some Dzongkha (an impossibly hard language), shone in their internship placements and grown into the kind of students Wheaton wants to claim. I can't wait to see them back on campus.

The drive back to Paro was another hour of sheer roadway terror. You'd think that coming back would be a bit less frightening since we'd be driving on the side further away from the cliffs above the river. But Sonam is nothing if not consistent. Lanes here are a casual suggestion. And the one thing being on the left side of the road did afford me was a closer view of the boulders perched precariously above us (and above the "Watch for Rock Slide" signs that again seem like more of a suggestion than a warning). Speaking of signs, there was another in the Burma Shave tradition whose meaning I couldn't quite interpret: "On the curves, keep your nerves." What does that MEAN? For Sonam, I think perhaps it was encouragement to test his nerves (and ours) by swinging out to the right on blind curves, edging close to the hundred-foot drop-off, in order to pass slow-moving vehicles (and to Sonam, every other vehicle is slow-moving). At least that gave him a split second more to avoid the cows, horses, boulders and Indian labor crews that work the road--mostly women, it seemed--breaking up rock with hand tools.

Despite what at times felt like a car-like video game (Cow! 200 points! Boulder! 50!), we arrived at the airport in good shape. We sat at the (one and only) gate watching a big-screen TV that was showing the
BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Service) coverage of the stadium festivities. And lo and behold, there on the screen was the King, followed by his Queen, working the crowd. Picking up children, gently squeezing people's shoulders, smiling broadly the whole time. The guy is a Buddhist Bill Clinton (and I mean that as a compliment). And then he and the Queen got in line with a large group--maybe two hundred others-- and danced a traditional (i.e. slow and repetitive) folk dance called the Zang Whey, which looked similar to the Electric Slide. Images of Justin and J-Lo returned to me, but I quickly banished them and along with my fellow travelers enjoyed the spectacle.

We arrived in Bangkok late Saturday night, slept a few hours at the airport hotel, and were back in line, passports in hand, at 4:30 am. I'm writing this on the flight to Tokyo where the movie "Thor," complete with Japanese subtitles, just finished.

I'll do a post from there or San Francisco with a few more photos that I think you'll enjoy, and then a final one when I'm home in Norton. But right now, I think I'll put my headphones on and listen to the traditional monastic music I purchased in Paro. Kidding!!

Location:Thimphu Town

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