People of Bhutan

Thinking of Bhutan brings back memories of a wonderful country with gentle and friendly people. As tourists we probably saw a larger proportion of monks than there actually are in the population. Also, we saw much more of the countryside than the city. Still, I hope the slide show below captures a not-unreasonable cross-section of the people of Bhutan. Click on any of the photos to start the slide show.

Memories of Phobjika valley

The six of us struck off eastwards across Bhutan with no particular destination in mind. We had a vague idea that we would stay one night each in a valley. Phobjika valley was the first we came to. We made a turn off the forested east-west road, and drove for a little more than an hour until the forest opened up very suddenly. In front of us was a wide valley carpeted in green (featured photo). We took a second look, because the carpet of greenery was not grass. It was a stiff ankle-high plant, which was very hard to push through. We decided not to climb the first hills we saw, but to go on ahead.

In 2008 Bhutan was still in its last year as an absolute monarchy. You could not book hotels outside the Thimphu-Punakha-Paro triangle on the web. We knew that some tourists came to Phobjika, so we were pretty certain that we would find a few rooms. We drove along the road, and soon came to a little village. We stayed in this village in Phobjika valley, Bhutan There was a family-run hotel, and they had rooms.

People in Bhutan are extremely friendly and informal. We gathered in a little dining room with the family. A baby was handed to us, and as we kept him entertained the table filled up with snacks. There was a mixture of dishes made with local produce, and simple packaged things like biscuits and tea. The long transport lines needed to bring them here made them extremely expensive. Dinner included a wonderful thukpa made with vegetables freshly plucked from the garden.

Layers of blankets and a wood-burning radiator in the middle of the room kept us warm through the night. Phobjika lies between 2900 and 3200 meters in altitude, but in the middle of May temperatures could dip down to 4 Celsius at night. In winter there is enough snow that some villagers move away to more comfortable valleys.

View of Phobjika valley, Bhutan

The next morning after breakfast The Family and the rest went off bird watching. I decided to take a walk down the valley. Bhutan is built from material laid down half a billion years ago near the Tethys Sea, and carried here by the Indian continental plate. The geological events that made Bhutan occurred mainly in the last 20 million years, and have been mapped extensively by the Geological Surveys of Bhutan and India. As the Indian plate pushes up the Tibetan plate, the sheets of ancient rock concertinaed and folded vertically along the east-west axis we were traversing. Wild plant in Phobjika valley, BhutanAs a result the Tethys rocks metamorphosed into the minerals seen here today.

The gently sloping Phobjika valley lies over white granite rocks distinct from the geology of Paro to the west and Bumthang to the east. Glaciation in the last few thousand years may have initially started the valley. However, its present form is due to the action of monsoon, repeated frosts and snowfall, and the wind that constantly blows across the valley, carrying topsoil with it. Interestingly, there is evidence of pre-historic human slash-and-burn agriculture in the last two thousand years in the form of deeply buried charcoal. This ancient abuse is perhaps what cleared the valley of the forest cover which lies around it, and caused the soil to turn unproductive. I wonder whether the two rivers which wind through the valley today, the Nake Chu and the Gay Chu, flowed in those days.

I walked along an unpaved road with the valley sloping away to my left. The weather was mild enough, even with the breeze that brought clouds tumbling over the far hills. Along ridges I could see rows of flags: white for mourning and coloured for prayers. Beetle in Phobjika valley, BhutanThe Buddhist belief here is that the winds blow these prayers and distribute them over the valley.

The poor soil needs prayers. As I walked along, I noticed the rocky ground with a thin covering of red dust. Hardy wild plants straggled across it, and strange insects scuttled between patches of growth. Ferns grew out of the soil, hiding spiders in their spiral folds. In the distance I saw farmers at work. Once I passed a cow which turned to follow me with her eyes without interrupting her mouth.

A truck drove by and the friendly young driver leaned out to smile and wave. A young child scuttled away from me and then gathered enough courage to peer at me from around his door. The mother came out to investigate, and gave me a friendly wave. After a while I saw school children walking back home. This gang of four planted themselves in front of me and told me in their broken English to take a photo. They stood grim-faced for the photo, but immediately after that broke into smiles and started pushing each other. It was time for me to get back for lunch and find out which birds The Family had spotted.

Wangdi’s place

It was evening when we reached Wangdue Phodrang; the name means Wangdi’s Place. The highway passed by a dzong high up on a cliff. In the evening light it looked forbidding, as the intention must have been once. A dzong is today the administrative headquarter of a district (called a dzonkhag) in Bhutan. The origins of the country are tied up to these dzongs, which once were the religious, military and administrative centres of a region. Even today a dzong has rooms for the Penlop (governor) of a province as well as monks. I hear that the Wangdue Phodrang dzong burnt down a few years after I took the featured photo, and is still under repair.

Telephone shop in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Soon after this we left the highway and turned into Wangdue town. It is the smallest town I’d seen in Bhutan till then. It population must have been a few thousand. The center of the town seemed to be the main bus stop, where you could take a bus to Punakha, Trongsa, Gasa, or Thimphu. There were a few people waiting for buses. Shops were open, and one prominent place was taken up by a phone center. Mobile phones were new in Bhutan, and connectivity was very poor. So the B-mobile shop also had booths where you could use a land line. At that time these STD/ISD centers were common in India too. I took a photo partly because of the policeman, the first I had seen outside Thimphu.

General store in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

We wandered around the town center for a while. The Family admired the two-story wooden house whose ground floor was the town’s main general store. It sold everything from cooking gas to toffee. The Family likes to buy local sweets. She inspected the collection and found that most of them came from India, but a few were from Bangladesh. She bought a stock which would come handy during our long drives. We admired the traditional Kira (skirt) and Tego (jacket) that this lady was wearing. Bhutanese wear traditional dress to work. The men wear the Gho (gown) in public, tied at the waist with a Kera (belt).

Evening fell quickly. The warm interior of this tailor’s shop contrasted with the restaurant next door which had shut after the last bus left. We decided it was time to find accommodation for the night. Our driver, Dinesh, knew two options. The nearer one was ruled out, it had been completely booked by a company of people who were riding motorbikes across the country. The other had rooms for us.

The Real India

Ideas take a long time to ripen. Around the beginning of the century half the human population finally moved into cities. Ripe to overripe takes a short time; I now read that by the end of this decade about two thirds of India’s population will probably move to cities. This thought struck me as I moved very slowly through traffic in a smaller city in India.

What is smaller? A population about halfway between that of Barcelona and Madrid, and a bit more than a tenth of Mumbai’s is what passes for small here. The tremendous growth of cities means that space is scarce. Land use patterns are the same as before, so housing, work and leisure districts have each become denser. Many more people then need to move between these areas, so transport is the big new problem.

Flying in to Patna after a decade, tremendous changes are visible. Great efforts have been made to manage traffic in the central part of the town. Extensive systems of flyovers are portals between the east and west of the town. The centre still gets crowded, but no more so than a decade ago.

It is in one of the older parts of the city that I took this photo. The variety of traffic on the road amazed me. The man walking down the middle of the road is moving faster than the average speed of other vehicles. The slowdown in caused mainly by hawkers parking carts full of merchandise in the middle of the road, or, as in the photo, trying to push it against the traffic!

Home, beautiful home

In visits to Odisha in the past we noticed the beautifully hand painted fronts of buildings. A lovely custom is that a marriage is announced by a painting on the front wall of a house with the names of the bride and groom. In the Cuttack-Puri-Bhubaneswar area these are often written in the Roman script and easy for travellers to read.

Poverty has declined by 24.61 percentage points from 57.20 percent in 2004-05 to 32.59 percent in 2011-12. The reduction of poverty by 25.11 percentage points was higher in rural Odisha than that of 20.31 percentage points in urban Odisha.
—Economic Survey of Odisha 2014-15.

We drove far outside this urbanized area on this visit to Odisha. A three hour drive took us to the east, into Kendrapara district. Odisha is one of the poorer states in India, although it has made tremendous progress in the last decade. Rural India has poverty twice as high as urban India, and Odisha is no exception. This was clear even from the windows of a speeding car when we moved out of the urbanized Bhubaneswar-Cuttack area.

Even in this region, the tradition of decorating a home with paintings can be seen. We passed many villages where there were only structures made of mud, but each of these was beautifully decorated with patterns in white. After about half an hour of driving I asked myself why I wasn’t stopping to take photos. So I did, and the result is the featured photo. The lady in the photo was working in a road development gang next to the thatched mud hut where you see her. The decoration is fairly typical.

Everyday Bangkok

It is possible to generalize. There are distinct flavours of everyday life which announce "Europe" or "Asia". Off the main roads in an European city you will still find a slow neighbourhood life. People will greet each other in a leisurely way, and be curious about the tourist clicking photos, but be too polite to ask. It takes a couple of weeks before you are included into the life of the neighbourhood: at the corner cafe they know what you want, the baker has a smile for you, and the grocer exchanges a few words in some shared language.

I walked away from the tourist’s Bangkok into crowded little roads. These are exemplars of busy Asian street life, the anonymity of crowds but also friendliness to total strangers. These streets are the last bastion of the truly free market, for example, the lady at the corner in the photo above, selling clothes.
Life in the vertical, Bangkok The jumble of wires is a sign of a population far too busy to be weighed down by fear. There is a lot more of brisk walking, and substantially less window shopping. The weight of people is larger than what you find in Europe, as a result personal space is very small. Space always seems to be at a premium, except in centres of power like Tienanmen Square. Businesses are stacked above each other in vertical growth. I always like to look into a barber shop, with its deceptive air of leisure while business is actually being transacted as fast as possible. Bangkok’s barber shops are no exception.

Generalizations structure travel, but its pleasure comes from the particulars of the people you meet. My experience of Bangkok was made more pleasant by the sing-song greeting of the corner shop which sold us large plastic bottles of water, the waitress who pressed a glass of fresh orange juice for me when my tongue caught fire from the green curry she served, and the lady with her many shopping bags who guided us through a maze of streets to where we could get a tuktuk.

There’s no there there

When I’m not travelling, I can spend time travelling in cyberspace. As my grandmother knew, it is a place first described by Gertrude Stein in 1937 as "There’s no there there"

The word cyberspace is said to have been invented by the cyberpunk writer William Gibson in his story Burning Chrome. His science fiction is often called prophetic. Wikipedia writes that before Gibson’s work science fiction was "widely insignificant". So it was fun to put together this table which correlates Gibson’s bibliography with hardware and software advances.

Year Publication Hardware Software
1982 Burning Chrome   Atari Virtual Reality lab founded; 4th anniversary of Minitel; emoticons invented
1984 Neuromancer 10th anniversary of the first PC (Altair 8800); 9th anniversary of the portable computer (IBM 5100); Telebit’s Trailblazer modem uses 18,432 bits/s 15th anniversary of internet; 10th anniversary of Maze war; 9th anniversary of Adventure
1986 Count Zero    
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive    
1990   Virtual reality headsets developed Birth of the web: HTML, CERN web server, CERN browser
1993 Virtual Light   NCSA Mosaic browser
1994   First smartphone (BellSouth’s Simon) IPv6 development starts; QR codes invented
1996 Idoru    
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties    

As you can see, in reality Gibson’s work trailed behind development in many ways. When he began writing, the internet was a decade old already, as was internet chat and usenet. In France people were already buying train tickets and shopping online via Minitel. His most wonderful image, of cyberspace as a consensual illusion which organizes all data, never came to pass. Cyberpunk was always steampunk,a re-imagination of old technology. But Gibson’s language still carries a certain resonance.

Harvesting water chestnut

Skimming anthropological news late last year, I found the first inventory of the diet of humans who lived three quarters of a million years ago. The largely plant based diet included water chestnuts! I love eating this, and reading the paper took me back to the time I watched them being harvested.

On a visit to Patna a decade ago, I stood near a pond covered over by plants. A boy wearing a flotation bag made of the skin of some animal was wading in the water, carefully harvesting the chestnuts, as you can see in the featured photo. The caltrop plant from which water chestnuts are harvested The Hindi name for the nut is Singhada (सिंघाडा), the same word that is used sometimes for samosas. The commonality of the names probably comes from the similarity in shapes; the word literally means horned thing. Water chestnuts are ancient food in India and further to the east. I’ve eaten them in China and in Japan (where it is called Hishi). Since samosas are a later import, I guess the word Singhada originally referred to this nut. You can see the plant in the photo above; it is technically a water Caltrop.

At one time the little ponds of North India were covered with Caltrop, making it an easy nut to harvest. As a child I learnt to distinguish it from the invasive weed called water hyacinth (photo here). Water hyacinth with flower I have memories of seeing people dredging these useless invaders from ponds using rakes. They would come away easily, with water dripping from shallow black floating roots. Now that water chestnuts are regarded as a poor man’s food, the efforts to keep ponds free of water hyacinth have decreased. As a result ponds grow stagnant, become breeding grounds for mosquitos. Eventually, they are drained because they have become health hazards. It is hard to get Singhada in markets now.

Mourning the death of Rama IX

I had read reports of the death of Thailand’s king Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX in mid-October when we were in the middle of planning our trip to Bangkok. Once we were assured that tourism would be undisturbed, I put it out of my mind. We spent a week out of touch with news in Myanmar before we arrived in Bangkok.

The Grand Palace was the first thing on our minds. We arrived on a sweltering hot morning and joined the tail of a long queue. My mind was a blank. By the time we reached the gates of the palace, I was on the verge of heat exhaustion, and was clearly not thinking clearly. It was only late in the day that I realized that the crowds of Thai people dressed in black (in the featured photo) must be mourners.

Ritual objects mourning the dead king in the Grand Palace, Bangkok

The Family tells me that I was incredibly slow that morning. While we wandered through the temple of the Emerald Buddha I drank water from bottles of water with blacks bands on them which were handed out free in kiosks manned by women in black. The side galleries with paintings depicting the story of the Ramayana were lined with people in black patiently queueing to enter a different part of the palace. From inside a large pavilion we could hear a rhythmic chant which we had no difficulty in recognizing as a religious ritual. Then we saw the odd collection of objects whose photo you see above. The rusty gears of my mind engaged briefly and I realized that this must be part of the king’s funeral. The flame, the cow, the horse, the cooking pots, are ritual objects, some of which are used in modern Hindu funerals in India, others in older Hindu funeral rituals.

Part of the palace was closed off. This was when I finally connected the dots. When we exited the palace and found food being served on the roads, we knew what it was for. We tasted a little of what we could see. The rice and curries and sweets were not what we would recognize as Thai food, but they were wonderful and quite appropriate to the extreme weather.

Through the rest of our stay we would encounter other signs of the month-long state mourning. We’d timed our stay to coincide with the November’s full moon, the supermoon. Normally there would be a celebration at this time. This year it was cancelled. The next day we walked into the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The space inside is a wonderfully adaptable gallery, as you can see in the photo alongside. Apart from an interesting group show in the lobby, the whole space was taken up by an exhibition of photos taken by the late king. I learnt later that King Bhumibol had been interested in photography since his teenage years.

The day had raised my curiosity about Thai royalty. I sat by bar in the rooftop pool of my hotel that evening and read a little of recent Thai history. I was impressed by the political skill of the late king, who in 66 years as head of state is said to have used the successive military coups to consolidate his position. Rama VII had been forced to create a constitution in 1932, sealing the process of modernization begun during the reign of the historical king (Rama IV) made famous by Yul Brynner. The slow marginalization of the king in the previous half century seems to have been cleverly checked and reversed by Rama IX.

Pink cars

Growing up in ancient India, I thought cars were either white or a dull grey. Doctors were subject to a different rule; they could have black cars. My grand uncle was an iconoclast. He would emerge with his stethoscope in hand from a dark blue car with cream coloured leather seats. That was it. Until the advent of red cars much later.

So I’m still taken by surprise when I see pink cars.Pink and black cars, Chicago They have to be special. The pink car which I saw on Valentine’s day in Chicago was clearly special. It stood in one place for hours, while the dull traffic flowed around it. The tarmac on the road was the grey of charcoal. The buildings surrounding it were dark and brooding black, or the brutal colour of concrete. The pink Valentine car was a touch of joy in the morning.

In the colourful and boisterous traffic of Bangkok you might not be surprised by cars coloured bright greens, yellows and blues. But when I see taxis in pink I’m still shocked. I was taken aback at the Bangkok airport when I saw a whole line of taxis in pink, as I got into a green and yellow cab. After that I kept my camera handy, and managed to take the featured photo while we were stuck in traffic next to one of these flamingos of the road.

Pink car near the Drum Tower of Beijing

On a walk near the Bell and Drum Towers of Beijing I saw a pink car parked primly on the road bordering the plaza between the two towers. I’d begun to get used to seeing pink cars on the road in India by now. I took a photo and asked my Chinese colleagues the next day about pink cars. It turned out that these colours were also relatively new in China. My colleagues had roughly the same reaction to pink cars as me.

I’m happy to see pink slowly diffusing over the world.