Friday, June 24, 2005

Tales From Middle Earth 4: Dreams of Paro

Bhutan is a riddle wrapped in a mystery enfolded in puff pastry. Most of the cliches you've heard about it are true. It is stunningly beautiful. It is cut off from the rest of the world. The men do wear frocks. You cannot buy a diet Coke over the counter. You cannot smoke anywhere. The television channel broadcasts for an hour a day. Virtually nothing is made here apart from the very basics. Everything comes from either India or Thailand. The local newspaper comes out twice a week. The Indian Rupee is legal tender. Everybody speaks English and Hindi. The King is married to three sisters. It is all true.

First impressions have to centre on the ring of mountains that surround Paro, the second city of Bhutan. Through half closed eyes these look like our version of the Himalayas, except much higher and, curiously, much nearer. Then there is the riot of colour that hits you smack in the face. Sunglasses are advised not for ultraviolet protection, but to keep you at bay from the kaleidoscopic colours that swathe the architecture, the costumes and the interiors. For example, the Bhutan High Court is painted Surf box yellow with red, pink, green, blue and orange ornamentation. Then there are the sounds. Cheesy as it may be, one actually wakes up to the sound of birds chirping. And there is the river which has its own soundtrack. The assault on the senses is complete but cloyingly pleasant.

I am given a cottage at the state owned hotel where we are to stay for the first three days. This is not unlike the PTDC cottages dotted through northern Pakistan but infinitely cleaner. The conference (the ostensible reason for my visit) is scheduled to open soon and I charge down to register. It is clear that nobody is here to listen to tedious papers on development. There is a clang of cymbals and troupe of Buddhist monks enter chanting in sonorous tones. Speeches. Yawn. Meaningless words strung together. Then there is tea. I decline Bhutanese tea (which is laced with butter) and opt for boring old Liptons. The delegates (all from South Asia) eye each other curiously. "Jolly" says a pudgy pleasant faced man extending his hand. "Very jolly" I reply, extending mine. "Err. No. That's my name actually." I squint at his lapel card. It reads "S D Jolly." Oops. The Jolly's and I are destined to become good friends. Their three sons have never met a Pakistani before and I am deluged by a barrage of questions. I suspect that one of the Jolly boys may be a little "jollier" than meets the eye, but I leave this train of thought uninvestigated.

I return to the cottage to discover that Jewel (who has a cottage adjacent to mine) has hit the Australian shiraz. We imbibe in silence watching the view. Time to head down for dinner. We are treated like royalty. Bhutan produces every which kind of alcohol -an exclusive Army monopoly. I think of the ramifications if this were to happen at home. I ask a minister why it is so difficult to enter the country. "We have our traditions and we wish to preserve them." He looks over his shoulder, lowers his tone a few decibels. "We don't want to end up like the Nepalese. All those scruffy drug taking hippies with long hair." He is right. I never encounter any of those in the week I am to spend in Bhutan. Not a single backpack. Not even Prada.

Jewel and I totter back to our cottage. I look to see if anyone is watching and then light up one of my Delhi Havanas. Bhutan is a no smoking country. It is an offence to smoke in a public place or to sell tobacco to anyone. If tobacco is a no-no then drugs are beyond the pale. The next few days will see Dimples and myself looking for strategic smoking spots. Ban notwithstanding, people do smoke. There are cigarette butts all over the place. My Bhutanese friends tell me there is a thriving black market in Indian cigarettes. I sip my Shiraz. The combination of Druk vodka, Bhutanese scotch and Australian wine is beginning to tell. I climb the precarious hill and eke out just enough energy to fall into my miniature bed. Another Day in Paradise.


Blogger say what? said...

and we still are in third world .. haa ..

incest is supposed to be a sin .. reserved for royalty eh .. cleopetra was a child of incest too ..

7:43 pm  
Blogger Sin said...

It actually sounds quite heavenly. How does one go about getting a visa for this place?

11:04 pm  
Blogger Sin said...

Wait. You can't get a Diet Coke over the counter?

1:58 pm  
Blogger s said...

"one of the Jolly boys may be a little "jollier" than meets the eye" - that line had me laughing out loud for a good five minutes!

do the men wear anything underneath those frocks?

2:42 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

tdh: yes. but only royalty can marry sisters. rumour has it that they do not get along with each other.

sin: visas and diet cokes not available easily. Only 2500 visas a year at USD 250 a day. Diet cokes by special arrangement at your six star hotel. Bhutanese scotch on tap.

S: I peeked. I'm not telling :)

4:29 pm  

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