“What are you doing in the tree?” I asked.
“I am going to stay in the forest” answered the little boy, some 5 meters off the ground, sitting on one of the branches above my tent.
“Aren’t you going home?”
“No” came the decisive reply.
“My mother will beat me” came the response, delivered in a matter-of-fact tone.
“What about food?”
“I don’t want food”.
“You will want water at least” I insisted.
“Water is just there” he said, pointing up the hillside. There must be a spring somewhere nearby, I thought. I needed to find it too.
“What if a bear comes at night?”
“Then it will eat me; I will die” was the reply, delivered minus any melodrama.
“Why is your mother going to beat you?”
“Because I didn’t go home yesterday” came the prompt reply.
He was perfectly serious and I burst out laughing while he looked on impassively.
I was camping, somewhere near the Druk Path in Bhutan. I had heard some shuffling noises and stepped out of my tent to investigate. At first, I couldn’t see anyone and then when I looked up, I saw the child, maybe eight or nine years old, perched up on a branch.
My wander along the Druk Path had taken me by surprise more than once but I suppose I should begin at the beginning, and go on till the end; then stop as the famous advice goes.
July 30, 2004
There are many wonderful hikes in Bhutan but most have the annoying requirement of a guide. I wanted to find out if they could make any sort of exception and have spent the last three days speaking with the tourism department, some of officials and even one of the aides to the minister. Despite being seemingly friendly and open, it has all resulted in nothing. Resigned to having a guide, I contacted a few whose names I have been given. Over tea in a couple of the cafes, I realized the upshot of the triple-digit-dollars-per day fees that Bhutan charges foreigners. The guides are very well paid – so much so that they were well beyond my paltry purse. It was one of them that suggested the Druk Path; a five day hike between the Paro and Thimpu valleys, crossing the range in between. It is one of the few that don’t require a guide. And so, here I am, in Paro, intent on setting off tomorrow along the Druk Path.
July 31, 2004
I set off toward Paro Dzong, up the path to the museum and then to the start of the Druk Path. Middle of the monsoon season is quite possibly the worst time to be in this part of the world. The humidity makes me feel exhausted sitting still, let alone haul a fully-loaded pack. As is the norm, it started raining and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for remembering to buy an umbrella yesterday. Watching the Sherpas in Nepal, I had learned that in this climate, it works far better than any goretex jacket. But the self-congratulations were a tad early; barely an hour into the walk, a strong gust of wind had my umbrella displaying its broken ribs and a bent pole. I was sitting under a tree, trying to coax the leatherman into doing repairs, when a couple of people came walking up the path. Rigzin and Sonam were on their way to their grandparents, who have an apple orchard on the slope of this ridge. We stopped and chatted awhile and when I asked if they knew of a good campsite, they insisted that I join them.
So here I am, camped out in an apple orchard, a guest in the house of Dasho Sherub Dorji. Like most weekends, the extended family have come to visit and the house is abuzz with children and babies, aunts and uncles and the smell of cooking wafts out of the kitchen. Great grandmother is ninety-six and although she cannot hear too well, Sonam tells me, her mind is still sharp. An aunt had been to Tibet in 2001 and was just as eager to talk about it as I was. She insisted on a detailed description of every step of the Mt. Kailash kora that I had just done and showed me her photos of Lhasa over the lunch. A lunch of cabbage and chilies, cooked with cheese tasted delicious over red rice. And the constant chatter and laughter that accompanied it was just as perfect.
This is no poor family, nor are they typical of the rural families I often meet in the mountains. Well educated, as most Bhutanese seem to be, Dasho Dorji has a son who is married to a Dutch woman and lives in Holland. A daughter studied in Australia and is now a vet in Thimpu; her husband lived and worked a while in Japan. Dasho Dorji himself used to work in the Ministry of communication and has travelled widely. He grinned as he showed me pictures of him in California, in Australia, in New York and Japan.
Despite his offer to sleep inside, having hauled my tent, I wanted to camp. I was escorted to the orchard and amid a volley of advice from the children on a good site, pitched my tent. Although not quite peak season, the trees are laden with apples and delicious they are.
At the edge of the orchard is a spot with a wonderful view of the Paro valley. I can see the roofs of the Paro Dzong and the round one of Ta Dzong and below them lies the valley. All along the valley flows the river, milky-green as it tumbles over rocks. I can hear the faint roar of the waters from here. Closer, is the sound of a bell – someone turned the prayer wheel at the temple below. To the north and south are the mountains, playing hide-and-seek amid clouds. A little further on, the slopes are hidden behind a wash of rain. The sun makes a fitful appearance but disappears behind gray clouds again. It has started pouring again.
August 1, 2004
After several rounds of Kodak moments, with the sounds of their farewells ringing in my ears, I left the apple orchards of Dasho Dorji and headed up the path toward the top of the ridge. The sun is out today and it is close to thirty degrees Celcius in the shade. The shrubs, trees, bushes and the very soil seems to steam. The buzzing of cicadas cuts through the air like scissors and a dozen steps has me drenched in sweat, feeling drained of all energy. There is almost no breeze, the air dense and heavy. Coming to Bhutan, now of all times has to rank up there as one of my stupidest ideas, I berate myself as I stop to rest in every bit of shade.
At one such stop, I saw a couple of boys coming up the trail. They stopped and we started chatting. Well-versed in English and Hindi, they kept up a non-stop chatter as told me of their school, their home and games they play. They are cousins, their homes in the village of Damchena. They had been to the shops down the hill and are on their way home. Both had been eyeing my pack as we walked and once the initial shyness had worn off, they asked if they could carry my pack.
“Really?” I asked, “Are you sure?”
Vigorous nods accompanied by little jumps betrayed their eagerness and I needed no second urging. They swaggered up the path, taking turns in carrying my pack. As we climbed, the shrubbery and bushes fell off and we entered a pine forest. The faint breeze felt blessedly cooler. Instead of heading to the Druk Path, I was being taken to their home.
I was welcomed by a couple of adults and told I could camp anywhere. The boys had now been joined by a horde of other children, all belonging to the same extended family and we trooped off to find a campsite. They took me to small clearing some distance from the house. Surrounded by pine trees, with a grand view of the valley and out of sight of the trail and the houses, it was enchanting. I pitched my tent amid curious looks. I could tell they wanted to crawl inside but were being extremely restrained. It was only after one of them asked that the dam broke and about five of them managed to squeeze inside simultaneously.
I usually set out, meaning to follow a route but as always happens, I meet people and my plans veer off into new paths. That pattern seems to be holding here as well and I had no complaints. I had not made it very far today and was quite happy to laze away the rest of the day. It is Sunday and they have no school so every so often I was visited by a group of the kids. They are intensely curious as they watch me scribble in my journal, fold out my camp stove, fold out the thermarest. The bolder ones ask questions but mostly they simply watch. The older boys whom I met on the trail were helping their uncle paint a house, and came by on their breaks and told me stories. The stories of bears in the forest was no doubt designed to scare me. It was later in the afternoon that I heard shuffling in the trees and met the boy who did not intend to go home. He even had his school uniform hidden in the bushes – in preparation for tomorrow when he’d have to go to school.
It was later that day, sipping tea in his uncle’s house, chatting with the adults that I learned the whole story amid much head-shaking and chuckles. He has apparently been playing hooky, rarely turning up in class. When questioned by the teachers, he spouts colorful tales of how his parents keep him working on the farm and don’t let him come to school. He has had to stay back a year already and this past term when his mother went to pick up his report card and heard the stories from the teachers, she was justifiably livid. She is still livid and so he’s been staying at cousins’ houses, afraid to go home.
August 2, 2004
Stifling heat, sweltering humidity and visible clouds of steam rising from every surface is hardly the recipe for an enjoyable trek. Plodding through near-constant downpours is no ambition of mine and I’ve been dithering about continuing this trek. I’d decided to continue one more day and then decide if I wanted to call it quits. Close to 2800 m, the air feels slightly better. There are pines everywhere now and I can see more and more of the mountains across the valley but to the west, of Jomolhari, there isn’t a hint. It is firmly hidden behind the clouds. Along the way are yet more apple orchards, fields and cattle pastures. Sometimes I see a few horses in their paddocks.
Toward noon I could see angry dark clouds gathering overhead and it would start pouring soon. I had no desire to keep plodding on and at one of the houses I passed, I asked if I could camp nearby. A couple live here with their three children and readily gave me permission. Next to the potato field, near their plum orchard was my home for the night. I hurried to pitch my tent, with help this time. Tashi has clearly seen a tent before and knows what to do with the poles and the pegs. I was going to drape an extra bit of plastic to make a shelter for cooking. He saw my intent and came back with a couple of sticks. He rigged it better than I could have and now I have a little porch. Phuntso, their son is staying home from school today because he is a little sick and has been watching us. He ran off and came back with a handful of plums and a shy smile.
The timing was perfect. No more than fifteen minutes after pitching the tent, the heavens opened and the deluge began. I ran to my tent and Passang, who had been working in the potato field, ran indoors. This is no mere rain, it is a torrential downpour. Heavy rain, like water from a high-volume faucet had my rainfly plastered to the inner wall in minutes and drops came straight through to the inside. And then I heard a thwacking sound. The man, with a long raincoat thrown over him, wearing tall rubber boots had come with a pick axe. He was busily digging a trench around my tent. They are so lovely, these people! Incredibly hospitable, warm and helpful to go to such lengths for a total stranger.
The rain lasted a couple of hours and then slowed to occasional sprinkles. Instead of cooking outside, I was invited in and we shared a meal – a hodgepodge of my instant noodles, their potatoes and cabbage. Despite not walking very much today, I felt tired and gladly went to bed early.
August 4, 2004
It rained again last night but I had slept deeply and woke up to the sounds of a farm greeting the new day. Passang was outside clucking to the hens. Earlier still, I had heard Phuntso heading off to school, singing loudly. I lay luxuriating in the coolness of the morning and the thought of quitting the trek. Draping everything on branches and bushes in an attempt to dry them out a little, I packed up. I gave away the extra food and fuel and said goodbye to Passang. Tashi was already out in some field but Passang was sure he would like the new tarp I left behind. Along with the tarp, I left him a hat with a wide brim. It is nearly the end of this trip an I lighten my pack by giving Passang a few more clothes and she beams her thanks.
With a new spring in my step I headed back, this time without the detours I had taken on the way up. Part way down, I got a ride to Paro and as luck would have it, managed to get a bus back to Thimpu just as I reached Paro. It is pouring again but even the dismal gray doesn’t bother me as I savor the feeling of being dry.