Saturday, October 8, 2011

Smooth-talkin' American

I'd like to just say, in my own defense, that members of a royal family look a lot like normal people when they're doing normal people things.

Let me back up a bit. Our flight into Paro was everything promised by YouTube. We flew above and then alongside mountains, wingtips seemingly close enough to do a little edge-trimming on the mountain pastures. A man from Thimphu who had the window seat in our row was kind enough to let me trade seats with him so I could see it all up close. Seeing the Himalayan Mountains was breathtaking, and I will forever be indebted to this kind man, Kesang Namgyel, who works at the Bhutan National Bank. We exchanged cards as we were about to deplane, and as I handed him my card, a young boy in the row behind me spied it and said, "Wheaton! My sister goes to Wheaton!" So of course we ended up chatting, with me trying to recruit him despite his age (I'm guessing around 11). His sister Tenzin will graduate this year. And yes--what are the chances of that particular encounter?

We came off the plane, for which I had developed an unusual fondness (a flight path like that inspires such devotion), and headed for customs and baggage. This is Druk Air flight 129. Ain't she a beauty?

Bags collected, we waited outside for our guide. I ran inside to use the restroom, and when I came out, Betsy pointed to a woman on a nearby curb and said, "That must be Tenzin's mother, because she came out with her arm around that boy. You should go introduce yourself." She pushed me toward her, and I stepped up on the curb and waited for a moment while she spoke to another woman. When she looked at me, I said, "Hi! Are you Tenzin's mother?" She said yes, and I said, "I'm Lee Williams, the Dean of Students at Wheaton College." I reached out and shook her hand. She said, "Yes, my son said he met you. How long are you staying?" I told her we'd be here for a week, at Royal Thimphu College, and she said, "I'm sure we'll see you" (because it's that kind of country). We parted ways, and I went back to find Betsy and our guide, who showed up moments later, out of breath and apologetic for not finding us immediately. I said, "That's fine. I had a chance to meet the mother of one of my students."

"Oh, of course," replied Dechen (more on her in a moment). A little while later, at lunch, she casually mentioned Tenzin's mother...the Princess.

"Um...huh?" I asked, careful not to spit my tea across the table.

"Yes. She's the fourth king's youngest sister." [You may recall from our earlier lesson on contemporary Bhutanese history that the beloved fourth king abdicated in 2006]. I felt so incredibly dumb. Not because I didn't recognize her, as I've never even seen her picture before. She's a beautiful and impeccably well-dressed woman, but there are a number of Wheaton moms who match that description. I replayed the whole scene in my head, thinking that I was a complete oaf to just walk up to someone whose name is preceded by the letters HRH and basically say, "Howdy! I'm a pretty big deal at Wheaton! Kinda like a princess there, only without a bodyguard" (who, by the way, had sidled up very close to me as I greeted her, which perhaps should have been my first clue; in retrospect, I'm glad not to have caused an international incident by being thrown to the ground, arrested and deported 20 minutes after deplaning).

Dechen assured me that it was no big deal, that the Princess is very humble and very kind, and that she probably likes it when someone just comes up to her like that, since "the people in Bhutan would never do that. They would just bow and be very nervous around her." Not me! Nope! Howdy!

After recovering my composure, I resumed my wonderful day in the company of Dechen Yangzom, Wheaton Class of '09. Yep--our guide here in Paro is a Wheatie, and Betsy and I are her first "guide clients." She's actually employed in Thimphu at UNICEF, but her father, a friend of Wheaton to whom Alfredo (our Dean of Global Education) has entrusted my care, enlisted her services to play personal concierge and educator to Betsy and me. So she is giving up her weekend to hang out with us, for which we are immeasurably grateful. And how great it is for me to spend time with a Wheaton alum who loved her time in Norton and speaks with great affection about her faculty, friends, and John Bragel, our Director of Dining Services.

We spent a truly fun day being driven by the quietly competent Dashi, stopping for lunch in town and then heading to one of Bhutan's oldest temples, Kyichu Lhakhang. Built in 659 by King Songsten Gampo of Tibet to pin down the left foot of a giant ogress who was thwarting the establishment of Buddhism into Tibet, the temple is also a location for cremations, which Dechen described to us, along with other rituals related to death in the Buddhist tradition. Then we went onto Drukgyel Dzong, a fort built in 1649 in part to establish a trade route and ward off Tibetan invaders. Its success is evident in its name: "Druk" means "Bhutan" and "gyel" means "victory." Obviously, the relationship between Tibet and Bhutan is a rich and complicated one, with a shared religious tradition and ancient family ties.

I'll write more about our adventures with Dechen and Dashi tomorrow after our climb to Taktshang Goemba, or "Tiger's Nest," the most famous of Bhutan's monasteries. It is one of the most holy sites in the kingdom, and sits precariously on cliffs about 3000 feet above the floor of the Paro Valley. It's about a two-hour hike with some apparently sketchy stretches of narrow path along the edge of the cliff. Sounds like fun.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from today.

Prayer wheels at Kyichu Temple, being twirled by a man in the Bhutanese national dress (a "gho"):

Prayer flags across the path going up to Drukgyel. Flags like this hang everywhere in Bhutan, placed by people seeking blessings and enlightenment.

Drukgyel from below gives a sense of its strength and longevity:

The view from Drukgyel included brief glimpses of Jhomolhari, the tallest peak in Bhutan (about 24,000 feet). You can just make it out behind its twin peak, aptly named Jhomolhari 2:

If you look down from Drukgyel, you can see a broad expanse of rice fields on the floor of the Paro Valley. The palette of greens is amazing. Look closely and you can see two dots in a field on the right, figures clad in red, likely harvesting, or maybe just looking for something. Hard to tell from up here:

And for my sister Alyce, whose heart belongs to every sketchy-looking pooch on earth:

If she were to ever visit Bhutan, home to many, many stray dogs who nap without fear and then stay up barking all night, she might never leave. For other reasons, I may have the same problem.

Off to bed to rest up for tomorrow's climb and whatever (or whoever) else may show up in my path, prompting an enthusiastic introduction from me. Howdy!


1 comment:

  1. I am still laughing at your meeting with Tenzin's mom, "the Princess" too funny. And the precious pooch, so comfy napping there, love it, thanks. Thank you for this wonderful travelogue. As always, your writing puts us there. Hi Betsy xo