..: Seat of My Pants :..

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Pursat, Cambodia - 1996

I had been given a ride up to Pursat from Phnom Penh by an MSF team working in the area. There were plans to visit their site later in the month, documenting a Canadian doctor working out of a clinic on the Mekhong. However, the first task was to connect with a British fellow seconded to the Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC) working just outside town on a CIDA-funded project for those having lost limbs from landmine accidents. There was a school for children that accepted un-maimed children as well and two buildings where classes were taught in hair care and styling for women and bicycle maintenance /repair for men. This allowed the amputees to be more-or-less stationary as they worked a job and earned some income. This project was extended to those afflicted with Polio as well.

I arrived in the late afternoon and parted with the MSF staff to locate the hotel where I would stay. The Mekhong flows through town and I stayed at a rather nice place run by an elegant Cambodian woman and her daughter. The woman seemed very old world and was gracious and curious. The building itself was new as most in Pursat were, but she clearly had been brought up in Cambodia through the French period and perhaps had run a similar business under that regime. In business now for herself, I assumed, I was the only guest in perhaps 10 rooms. It was US$15/night; more than the usual US$5 I had been accustomed to in Phnom Penh and the US$1 per night in Siem Reap (‘See-em Ree-epp’).

I met with the Brit the next morning, having telephoned him from the hotel. A fellow from CFSC had come ‘round on a small motorcycle to pick me up. I learned that this ‘bike’ was the primary means of transportation for the project to outlying villages where many amputees lived. CIDA funded this project via CFSC, but the Friends conduct their projects (Central America, Southeast Asia) with a very meager budget and could not afford a second bike, let alone a car for the area. The Brit was an imposing man, large around the middle and prone to talk of the old days in India. I liked him well enough, but could not escape the creepiest of feelings that he was taking advantage of the several boys living in his compound. I had absolutely no evidence to back up my feelings, other than the lingering looks and semi-casual laying of his hands on their shoulders and arms. Normally, this could easily be construed as protective care and attention. However, this was not the feeling I got and I was not unhappy to be away from him in the end. We had lunch that day with a Danish judge, in town to teach basic law to the fledgling security forces then being deployed outside the capitol. The Khmer Rouge were still very active in the area and I was told that they often rode through the town at night picking people up in their vehicles and either dumping them later outside town, beaten, or ‘disappearing’ them altogether. I resolved to stay in my room that night, the first of two there.

The interesting thing about the judge teaching basic laws of governance was that they had to be taught at all. Cambodia had reared an entire generation lost to human civility and general governance. The French has wrested control of the Republic late in the 19th Century, only giving it up in the 1960s to an untried monarchy unable to rule. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, they basically reverted the social fabric backwards 200 years, to the point of evacuating all urban populace and planting palm trees in the middle of streets in Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese (long time foes of Cambodians generally), marched into town in 1979, ousting the Khmer Rouge and only gave up squatters rights to the UN in 1989. So for at least 30 years, Cambodians had been under one form or another of foreign rule. Try to imagine another modern state so encumbered in recent history. The average Cambodian had little concept of normal daily life, local business transactions, or even neighbourly civility. These accepted benefits of even marginalized societies were slowly being brought back in from 1992 (the official UN governance take-over) onwards. This all being said, I found Cambodians to be extraordinarily warm and friendly – far more so than my experiences in VietNam later in the same trip. I knew there to still be a steel underbelly, however, to the people their and their interactions with the plethora of foreigners that have plagued their nation over the years. A motorcycle man (the person to whom you hire to drive you around) at Angkor Wat later told me of the time he remembered most from the Khmer. He said people were often taken off the street never to be heard from again because of perceived looks of distrust. His father was taken this way. The old man had had a stroke some years before the Khmer took power, leaving part of his face a little slumped, giving him a look of displeasure where there was none. He saw his father taken away with the words “I don’t like your frowning old man.”

After photographing that day at the schools in Pursat, I returned in the evening to the hotel and up to my room. I was woken sometime after midnight by popcorn popping outside my window. I had been in night markets in several places in Southeast Asia and it seemed Pursat had one too. I wasn’t hungry and lay there listening to the periodic sound. It occurred to me that I didn’t hear any other night-market noises however, not the least of which was the usual blaring music. I peeked out the edge of the window, lifting the corner of the chintz and peering out into the darkness. Instead of a popcorn machine, I saw a jeep with three men in fatigues and flashes from their AK47s as they drunkenly fired at stars right outside my window. I very carefully set the chintz back against the window, realizing I was instantly sweating. It actually ran down into my eyes.

The next morning, everything was normal and fine. It was a beautiful day and the Brit agreed the men were probably Khmer Rouge regulars not yet brought into the government fold as yet. The western and eastern provinces were slowing having their Khmer Rouge soldiers enticed into deserting and joining the regular army of the government. This was a clever plan of the prime minister. The co-prime minister, actually. There were two elected to serve the nation jointly, one from the old Khmer regime and one from the opposition ushered in under the UN. Not long after the fledgling government was instituted, Hun Sen a former Khmer Rouge cadre, forcibly evicted the second PM , who fled for his life to Paris. Hun Sen, it turns out has extensive business interests in the northwest regions of Cambodia; mineral rights, to be specific. In an extraordinary coincidence, northwest Cambodia is home to some of the largest Ruby and Sapphire mines in the world. Odd that. Hun Sen is still in power to this day.

I did some more photography outside town with a polio victim who was operating a bike repair shop under a thatched roof without walls to support 17 children. Yep, 17. I saw a Canadian Flag on his tool kit and the Brit mentioned that CFSC loaned people money to buy these kits at no interest and trained them, and then the newly-trained repairmen slowly paid-back the cost of the kits over time, the money going back into a joint kitty to provide interest-free loans for others. The system worked extremely well, with people paying back their loans at a much faster rate than CFSC intended. That evening on returning to the hotel, I struck up a conversation with two Irish fellows working in Pursat on an Irish aid project. They managed to talk me into a game (or five) of poker in a small cantina next to the hotel. Soon, it began raining in a stupendous torrent – and I mean a stupendous torrent. The drops hit the tin roof of the cantina with such a deafening pounding that even shouting at each other was pointless. We were soon hoarse and just sat and drank beer and played on.

Soon, we observed the Mekhong wasn’t as far away as it had seemed earlier. I saw the proprietress giving us worried looks like she wanted to close up for the night. But jeezuz the Irish can drink and they kept ordering beer after beer while I nursed my second of the evening over the whole time. Eventually, I could stand the woman’s worried looks no longer and I begged off to bed. The river was lapping at my feet inside the Cantina as I left, but one beer does me in and I was asleep on my feet.

The next morning I awoke to silence. There were no trucks or cars running in the street outside, no beeps or honks as normal. I was returning to Phnom Penh that day to meet with contacts and begin the second phase of the trip to the region by planning for VietNam. I also had to meet with my partner travelling with me. She’d be concerned if I just didn’t show after a trip to that part of Cambodia and maybe worry about herself sitting alone in Phnom Penh.

The hotel woman was standing near the door to the street, arms clutched to her chest. I looked past her to a street filled with water – waist deep to some people wading through it. Ulp. Were there any vehicles travelling back to the capitol that day, I asked, already dreading the answer. She shook her head slowly and pointed to a row of huge transport trucks at the side of the main road leading out of town. Their drivers were slung in hammocks beside the truck bodies and, as the line parked uphill somewhat out of the flood-waters, in hammocks underneath their trucks. Cambodians knew better than an increasingly panicky Canadian how best to deal with adversity –go to sleep for a bit. Very Buddhist indeed. Its interesting how a goal that isn’t all that important at first, becoming desperately so when one is confronted by natural disaster. In very short order I had convinced myself that I just had to get to Phnom Penh, come hell or high water I thought with no hint of irony.

I caste around with no luck, asking truck drivers and even the Irish who were – inexplicably – up at that early hour and about. I went back into the hotel and saw three Cambodian soldiers in the small lobby. Their Toyota pickup was outside and one of the soldiers had two lengths of lime-green plastic hose in his hand. I watched him go out and attached one end to the truck’s exhaust pipe and string it up the back with its end pointing up in the air and then do the same with the air filter intake from under the hood. I somehow nerved myself to go up and speak with him and asked for a lift back to the city. He held up his hand in the universal ‘wait a minute’ gesture and I followed him back inside. He spoke with one of the other two soldiers in the lobby – the older of the two; the younger looked like foot soldier, a corporal or something. The older man looked over at me evenly, appraising me from head to toe. I stood a little straighter. With a barely perceptible nod the green pipe soldier crooked his finger at me and I flew upstairs to retrieve my backpack and camera bag.

I met the soldiers as they were getting in the Toyota and saw that I would certainly be riding in the open bed with the corporal, and this pleased me. A ride out in the air or inside a stuffy and cramped cabin. Which would you choose? The pipe soldier came up to me and indicated the back of the truck. I am a Captain he said, the older man he indicated was a General. No word on the ‘corporal’ and so I assumed I had been right about him. It would be a three or more hour trip and the corporal never once spoke a word, but communicated instead with me via pointing and monosyllabic ‘huh’ and ‘mmm’ noises. He was just reserved, perhaps a bit shy, but every inch the proud soldier on important duty. He sat the whole time atop one corner of the truck back with his boots hooked under ropes or bed struts to balance himself on the edge, his AK47 cradled across his lap. The land around us as we pulled out of Pursat was flat flat flat, the rice paddies having been covered over completely with water, now still and reflective in the morning sun. It looked like we were driving across an enormous sheet of glass. Here and there the odd palm tree swelled up out of the glass and shimmered in the heat. Our truck made good headway through the water, thanks to the pipes the Captain had installed. It came up to mid-grill level but we never bogged in it. The Captain drove fast and water shot up, out and away from the front tires like the parting of the red sea, whooshing up like a high wake from a motorboat.

Every now and then, the corporal would bend over and touch me on the shoulder and point to the edge of the road coming up as we passed over a small bridge or other. In a flash I would see someone as we passed, rifle to shoulder and pointing it at us. “Khmer” he said the several times we passed these men. They were most likely Khmer Rouge irregulars who hadn’t yet turned themselves over to the Nation’s regular army as mentioned before. Doing so meant new clothes and steady food for the men and so many were turning themselves in over those months in droves.

We eventually reached Phnom Penh and the Captain stopped the truck downtown and asked me to get out. He had leant me his soldiers’ floppy camouflage hat because it had a tie under the chin to keep it on my head. My own had didn’t have this and would have blown off and so we traded for the trip home. As I got out of the truck as I asked him if we might trade permanently, but he averred, saying it was the uniform of a soldier. But his quick glance at the cabin where the General sat, revealed that he wished to trade too, but could not. Oh well, I sighed, I guess that’s to be expected. I shook hands with the corporal and Captain and bowed my thanks to the General who nodded briefly to me and they drove off in a cloud of dust.

I have often wondered why they took me on. I was certainly visible in the back. It was a small Toyota pickup after all and the bed wasn’t that deep. Perhaps I was meaningless as any cargo might be, or perhaps I was also some kind of insurance against attacks along the way. Maybe I’d get shot, but maybe I might also deter the Khmer from involving themselves in an international incident in the area, and allow the General to get to Phnom Penh that much more quickly. I will never know.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Shok La Camp - Thailand 1996

It was the eighth day of photographing in the camps, and the third camp visited. Thailand is host to several Karen refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. While Burma is referred to as Myanmar by itself and, diplomatically, the world at large, it is still spoken of by its long-standing name of Burma. These camps number between seven and five, depending on who you speak to, and contain anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 people.

The Karen (Kah-wren) indigenous peoples of that region of Southeast Asia are widespread geographically. They can be found not only in Thailand and Burma, but also Laos and China. They are a diverse people, having experienced nomadism, pastoralism, and even modernism within recently memory. But they are a particular thorn in the side of the Burmese junta (Hoon-tah). There are other indigenous groups besides the Karen in that region: the Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and others. However, these groups can largely be said to comprise their numbers more or less within the national boundaries of the mentioned nations. This, from the Burmese Junta’s point of view, makes them far easier to manage than the Karen, for example. The groups can be encircled, intimidated, pressured, threatened more easily than a trans-national group like the Karen. As intimidating as the Junta is, they still find it difficult to cross international boundaries and enforce their brand of hatred and suppression. This is a very good thing.

So what’s a poor Junta to do with a trans-national group that is fiercely independent and funded from without its borders? They took a page from what is arguably one of the older militaristic systems in history – the Romans. When an opponent seems insurmountable the cleverest strategy is to cause it to collapse from within – divide and conquer. First, locate some vocal Karen dissidents from within their ranks. Second, fund their weapons needs and fan their flames for perceived injustices, and third, promise riches and rewards for forward action. This strategy produced the following oxymoron: The Karen Democratic Buddhist Army (DKBA). Really. They have become the thorn in the Thai camps’ side much as the camps are to Burma. It is this Army that regularly insurges Thai national territory, and invades the refugee camps, sometimes razing them to the ground (the camp of Mae La, which I photographed at first in my time there, was burned to the ground two weeks after I left, sending 6,000men women and children into the jungle overnight).

But it gets more interesting. Due to the unstable and unpredictable nature of the Army and its attacks, the westerners working therein have had to create bomb shelters to protect their numbers and as many of the refugees as they can from rocket attacks, resorting to them every couple of weeks or so from threat of attack. However, it has happened that on occasion, DKBA soldiers have strolled into the camps from the jungle and simply begun asking refugees for the names of the westerners working in the camps. The terrified refugees when confronted with arms-carrying zealots, often comply and those westerners are obliged to remove themselves to other camps our out of that theatre altogether. The Army’s purpose? Capture of the medics (mainly), for servicing of their own sick and wounded.

However, there is a sinister collusion at work here atop this human drama. I photographed in three camps for two weeks in late 1996. Each day, I accompanied doctors and nurses from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) in their white Toyota trucks, bouncing and bumping along the country roads into the camps. On every occasion we were obliged to pass through not one but several Thai army checkpoints to each camp. This indicated a fair Thai military presence in what was, after all, a fairly sensitive border with a testy, fundamental communist neighbour. How could it be, then, that refugee camps containing thousands of people get burned to the ground and DKBA insurgents have the capacity, not to mention audacity, of walking onto foreign soil and questioning foreign citizens on repeated occasions? The answer is fairly simple, actually. The Thai government lets them. The camps have been in operation for decades, with little resolution in sight between the Burmese Junta’s denials of human rights and the Thai government’s requests for closure. The camps are strung along the backbone ridge of the two nation’s borders and in later years have come to represent a fair value in shrinking real estate in a nation of 50 million that physically would loosely fit into Alberta, Canada (whose population is approximately 2.9 million). Land is valuable, and no less so in a country yearning for the life of a developed nation. What’s a poor Thai nation to do with all those refugee hangers on? Well, the easier path is to allow the DKBA to make some in-roads and help solve the problem their neighbour created in the first place.

On that eighth day of photographing (I hesitate here to say ‘shooting’), we were traveling to a somewhat more remote camp right on the Burmese border – Shok La (Shoak-Lah). The doctor I was travelling with had been in-country for just 4 days or so and this was our first visit to this camp. It maintained the largest collection of cholera-infected persons defined in Thailand and comprised a camp all its own as a result. The road was choppy to a degree hard to imagine. At times, the truck was literally side-ways and very nearly toppled to left or right. I saw the red-earthed road ahead of us, twisting through the jungle slant this way and that as I bumped my head alternately on my seatmates, the ceiling and the window I sat beside. I cradled my gear in my lap and tried not to get sea-sick.

The camp was red throughout - from the earth in the area. Red dust had been flung up on most surfaces by the region’s heavy rains through the monsoon seasons, and even the air had a warm and cozy red feeling to it. The people were quiet and shy, unlike other camps we had visited, and there seemed to be an air of resignedness, even sadness pervading the village. Many refugees were Burmese nationals and maintained the Burmese dress; women in sari-like garments, and men in long cloth wraps around their waists (the Lunge – ‘Loon-gee’). I sat beside some men preparing long poles for timbers in building. They worked with machetes, stripping bark off the poles and nicking out notches here and there which I supposed were for future lines to be knotted – nails being in short supply that far in the jungle. Structures were often built with materials to-hand, and this included making their own fibre ropes from available materials to use as binders between structural elements in buildings. The men didn’t acknowledge my presence, just twisted away at the ropes and hacked with their machetes methodically. They were festooned with tattoos around their legs and up their backs. I was fascinated, and mainly could make out dragons and spirits writhing in static poses.

We were led to a small grass-thatched hut off the main village path to our right. Inside, a beleaguered-looking indigenous nurse had two patients with her; an older man wheezing and coughing every few seconds, and a small child looking quiet and uncertain. MSF routinely trains local, indigenous staff for many hospital and out-clinic duties in efforts to guide peoples toward self-sustainability in their environment. The nurse gently thumped the old man on the back and listened attentively to his chest via stethoscope. Perhaps she seemed beleaguered because of the mountainous task of caring for a village consisting of mainly of people hopelessly infected with what is largely a terminal disease. I never found out. The American doctor I was with melted before the small child and sunk to her knees in the earthen hut before the little girl. The urchin sat upon a table of bamboo slats and regarded her evenly. The American reached out and placed her hand on the child’s knee and patted and then stroked it comfortingly. Exactly what she should have done. No words. The girl smiled shyly and looked up to the nurse who smiled back reassuringly. The American conversed with the nurse, while keeping her attention on the girl, speaking with her about the girl’s recent history and prognosis. I heard later that the American doctor became known in the camps as Dr. Mary Wash-Your-Hands because of her repeated admonitions to do this to all who came her way. I was enormously impressed with her caring and sense of humanity for the human beings around her. The girl was given some prescription and passed over to her family waiting patiently outside.

The more northern of the camps struggle against the most virulent form(s) of malaria in the world. All available drugs in the western world have failed or are failing. The MSF teams had resorted to the American Army’s anti-malarial treatments, then still in narrow use as probationary drugs. This was 10 years ago. What on earth could they be using now? Shok La, with its cholera contingent, was working more on containment-theory and palliative care for deeply affected people.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Scooter heights

Bhutan - Tango Monastery (1989)

Ron and I were still just getting used to the scooter. Actually, and to be fair, it was mostly me just getting used to clutching. We had rented an Indian ‘Bajaj’ scooter from an expat living below us in our rented house in Taba, Bhutan. The Bajaj was a direct rip-off in design to its Italian counterpart the Vespa, but with none of the workmanship, quality, or smoothness. The clutch needed letting go with a precision in tandem with the gas that rivaled neural surgery. Slightly too slow on the release, and the motor bogged and quit. Slightly too quick, and it leapt up. I do actually mean ‘up’, as I accidentally twice bent the rear license plate in half to prove it. Our destination that day was Tango monastery ‘somewhere at the end of the valley and up the mountainside.’ With this as our only guide we felt confident we could reach it in a day. The whole of Bhutan is only 100 by 200 miles as the crow flies, right? Only later did we learn that the 200 mile length was actually 600 miles to drive, due to all the twists the road was obliged to take as a full-fledged member of the Himalaya.

At any rate, after we flattened the rear plate as much as it would allow, we tottered off down the road out of Taba toward the next village of Denshensholing. It was a bright day in the early morning and we had packed a nice lunch. Although we rarely got over 20 KPH, helmets seemed always a good idea given the mountain roads. I often drove into town for Indian beer (Black Label) in litre bottles, clink-clanking my way home with them in the scooter’s basket in front of my knees. And it was on these trips that I learned to just be content with my speed (or lack thereof), and to definitely keep to far right of the road. Huge trucks owned it and cared little for anything else except other huge trucks. I never drove at night. God help me should I ever have done so. The little blue scooter did have a horn, but was so ridiculously squeaky that we immediately christened it The Druk Duck. ‘Druk’ is a Bhutanese term for a dragon and is more or less the national symbol – it’s on the Bhutanese flag, for example.

The road wound around pitched rice paddies, stepped above each other on the gentle slope, before leading us into more forested patches that swelled up toward Denshensholing. We had been in the village previously, having visited a silver smith at his shop. It was, in fact, a village of silversmiths, known for their craft and suppliers to the Royal Household. But we passed on through that morning and on into the pine forest as the end of the Thimphu valley closed in and the slopes on either side of us grew steeper. We came to the end of the road; or rather, it came to an end on us and dithered off into earth to become a path. We left the scooter there and set off on foot.

Footpaths in Bhutan are much like footpaths anywhere else and we switch-backed and see-sawed our way up the path, pausing more and more frequently to heave air in and out of our lungs. Taba, where we’d started, was already at 9,000 ft above sea level, and we’d probably had added another 1000 to that so far. Air starts to thin at 11 or 12,000 feet and so we were feeling more faint that we would have normally at home on such a hike. We met monks making their way down the mountain from time to time - sometimes with a donkey, sometimes without. Well up the mountainside we came across a Chorten, and taking this as a sign we were nearing, slumped on the ground nearby to rest. Chortens are interesting monuments. They need to contain some relic or other from Buddhist scripture, and are usually roofed, although solid structures without any real interior. Painting them white with a wide red/ochre band about 2/3 of the way up is standard. Sometimes the red band is made up instead of bas-relief slate tiles depicting the Buddha in various of his positions from scripture. This was one such Chorten and had lovely slate pieces inset at perpendicular angle to the bas-relief plates and ran above and below them all around the structure. There is a very important protocol to Chortens as well – well maybe a few I guess, but I did know one. The traveler must always pass around Chortens on the left side, and circle them counter-clockwise if circumambulating. This is a common Buddhist mandate, and applies to the spinning of prayer wheels, creation of mandalas and so on. It is said that this motion reflects the turning of the earth as viewed from above the North Pole. We got up after a brief rest and passed the Chorten on its left and hiked on up further.

In short order we wound around on the path to the left, and instead of switching back to the right, the path continued on levelly along the slope and through the pines. The path opened up and we found ourselves in bright sunshine with the spread of the monastery before us. It’s buildings started above us and seemed to slip down the mountain to some animal shelters down-mountain. But the main entrance was in front of us and we approached it carefully as uninvited guests. On my right before the main gate, was a large flat structure on the grass tilted up slightly to catch the sun equally across its surface. It consisted of a length of plastic pipe would back and forth, back and forth, exiting out one side and snaking over toward the monastery. I saw an input pipe on the other side and realized I was looking at a simple water heater. The sun warmed the water passing through the pipe as it wound through the apparatus. Nifty!

There was man standing outside and near the entrance in monk’s robes. He seemed to be waiting. Surely, not us? I never found out. We gesticulated that wished to enter the monastery, and he nodded quickly. I guessed him to be 40 to 50 years old. He said a word or two in Bhutanese, to which we could only smile, and looked out over the valley as it spread out below us. It was a truly magnificent sight, and we could see easily how far we had come – it was a helluva way! I held up my hand toward him asking with one word: Lama? He nodded and turned smoothly toward the entrance taking us with him.

We walked across and open courtyard perhaps a hundred metres on a side. The main Dzong, or temple building, was situated on a raised platform of large flat stones with steps up to it before us. To my left were some smaller outbuildings lower down, giving any vantage point from the raised platform and temple a truly spectacular view of the Thimphu valley. The capital itself, Thimphu, was far away near the other end of the valley and not visible from this range. However, we could see a layer of haze snaking along the contours of the valley part of the way up. This was the smoke of morning kitchen fires from villages along the valley floor. Behind the monastery were some more buildings creeping up the slope and crowding the back of the temple. These turned out to be the monastery’s dormitories.

The Lama led us across the raised platform toward the cool and dim interior of the temple proper. We removed our boots at the wooden threshold and I felt the smooth, cool, wood slid under my socks like I was stepping onto a cloud. How many bare feet had trod that step before me to wear it so? I raised my head to watch for the doorway’s lintel, trying to avoid one of those bone-crunching thuds I so often experienced in a country built for smaller-statured people. Successful, I stood up straight, as did Ron beside me. The ceiling was ten or twelve feet above the floor and was a geometric containment of squared, wooden panels sunk into one another across its breadth. It gave the structure a curious undulating effect that caught available light in pockets and made the contents glow marvelously. The Lama gestured gently for us to follow and we exited the main room via a small doorway (watch your head!), stepping over a raised threshold like that in a submarine. We found ourselves in a smallish room set with pillows on the ground crowding a low table. There were two or three windows across and behind where the Lama was seating himself and two more on our left at the south end. These last two looked out over that same spectacular view of the valley. Several more monks joined us and Ron and I settled ourselves as well as our gangly frames would allow. Tea was brought in and a platter heaped with a yellowish rice. Was that just waiting around somewhere? How did it get here so fast? I wondered if we had been noticed before we had left the Druk Duck in its lonely spot at the head of the trail!

The Lama sat quietly watching us, but not watching us. He gazed around the room, out the window, anywhere but directly at us. We spoke and thanked him kindly for his quick generosity. His eyes flickered over us and he smiled briefly. The monks who brought the food settled as well and the Lama reached out and scooped a handful of rice into his hand, motioning us to do likewise. The rice was sticky, but was not ‘sticky rice’ per se. It was granular and somewhat under-cooked, but its stickiness came from honey mixed into it. Holy cow was that good! The yellow colour in it I’d seen at first was from strands of saffron blended into it. Real saffron, locally grown I’m sure, and considered a holy spice due to its close proximity in colour to the yellow robes worn by senior monkhood. In fact, most monks wore variations on burgundy, and full yellow robes were reserved for the most senior monk in the Kingdom – the Je Khinpo. Further, it was illegal for the laity to even wear yellow at all in any of their clothing. Some senior monks, such as the Lama before us wore a sort of yellow under-jacket, with the familiar red robes flowing around his shoulders and into his lap.

I reached for my tea, but stopped abruptly as it neared my mouth. I smelled something quite odd about it and then noticed a whitish lump floating in it. Ulp. I looked at Ron who looked down at his own cup to see the same thing. What the…? On inspection, the lump turned out to be butter (specifically, rancid butter as I learned later and that this was the right and proper way to serve it). I sipped the tea gingerly and a curious taste came forth, the mild and smoky taste of the slightly ‘gone’ butter, but also a hint of salt. There was no sugar in it. On reflection, it was an ambrosia of which I have never since had the like. More rice with honey followed more sips of tea. It was wonderful. We all of us in the room sat quietly, tending to ourselves and our taste buds. I suspected then that no one beside ourselves spoke English. I could certainly hazard that no one besides them in the room spoke Bhutanese. Ahem. I spoke the only words I knew: Kuze Szambo (Koo-zeh Zambo), a greeting. There were broad smiles and all continued to eat.

One of the monks brushed some crumbs from his robes and made to rise. The lama remained seated and the others began to rise as well. We were motioned to join them and we left the room and the Lama and took a winding staircase just outside the room up a flight to a very cramped room overlooking the valley. This was a monk’s dormitory room, and at least five of us crowded in there. The monk whose room it was, was visibly excited and showed us a variety of things in his room, popping out the odd word in English to our surprise. A letter from a German tourist (I translated as best I could from my high school German, but couldn’t really do the letter any justice), a cassette tape of what looked like Indian pop music, some pens and pencils. They were very interested in our scooter helmets. We’d been lugging these around not knowing where to leave them and they were always annoying shapes to bang into door frames and so on. They had no redeeming value in any safety sense, being just hard plastic shells really. But the monks were quite interested and wanted to try them on. Hey why not.

I ended up corresponding with the monk whose room it was a couple of times on return to Canada. The most miraculous thing was he sent me a letter with a Tsenden leaf enclosed. The Tsenden is the most holy tree in Bhutan, specifically grown next to monasteries and lamaseries. The leaf he sent was tucked inside his letter, itself inside a flimsy, 2 micron-thick blue airmail envelope. The envelope arrived at my door in a Ziploc bag actually, with a sticker declaring ‘Repaired by Canada Post.’ Inside, the envelope was in shreds, looking like it had gotten wet, sat on, run over, and stepped on. But the delicate leaf, this holy leaf, was completely intact. I was astounded. I still have it somewhere under glass. He had signed the letter with the familiar Buddhist swastika that we know from Nazi use. It is a very old symbol, from Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, preferring luck and life and good fortune on those its ascribed to, rather than the dark and wholly evil purpose it was set to in Germany in the early 1930s. I shall have to dig out that letter and snap a shot of it to set into this post…