On a slow Monday in Madrid

There is little to do in Madrid on a Monday. Most museums are closed. The main exception is the Reine Sofia, but The Family and I had been there a couple of Mondays back. So I crashed a film shoot (see the featured photo).

I walked about aimlessly. From the Opera I walked the length of the pedestrian Calle Arenal to the Puerta del Sol, where a gay pride banner was being set up. Then I ducked into the Corte Ingles at the corner to buy a bottle of wine and some olive oil. I walked to the head of the Gran Via, and then on to Plaza de Espana. It was a pleasant morning. Last night’s rain had cooled things down.

At the plaza there was a crowd of Japanese tourists, and I was surprised to find them posing with someone who looked Spanish. Other passers-by had also stopped to gawk. I saw the microphone and camera and realized that this was a film shoot. The actresses spoke in English. I sent the photos to my nieces, and since none of them could recognize the actresses, I guess they must be Spanish. Can anyone recognize them?

That broke the monotony. I walked on to the Royal Palace and back to the Opera to find a place for a small drink and a tapa instead of lunch.

Beat the Heat

Spain can be hot. In the heart of Andalucia, in Seville and Granada, we regularly found that the maximum temperature during the day would pass 40 Celcius. This is hotter than Mumbai. The dry heat approaches the weather of Delhi.

However, Spain has found wonderful little ways of cooling off. We especially liked the covered street that you can see in the featured photo. The temporary screens shade the street from the hot sun, and allow people to walk about the street without getting hot under the collar.

"Why can’t we do this in India?" asked The Family when she saw this wonderful temporary structure. I couldn’t agree more. Notice the flowers on the lamp posts? Not only do they look good, they also hold water which drips down to cool the streets.

Green, How I Want You Green

Federico Garcia Lorca is one of the most famous poets of Spain. The title of this post is the opening line of one of his most famous poems. The poem was written in 1928, eight years before he was murdered by the right-wing rebel forces of General Franco.

A visit to Garcia Lorca’s house in Valderrubio, a little outside of Granada, is worth doing, if you are interested in this charismatic poet. The featured photo is of the living room in this museum house. Romance Sonambulo, the collection of poems from which the title is taken was written while he lived in this house. It is recorded that he often wrote at this table. So it is possible that some of the lines of this remarkable poem were written here.

The house originally belonged to his father, who moved here from the neighbouring village of Fuentes Vacqueras when Federico was six. It is an old style house, with thick walls that keep the inside cool even during a hot summer like this year’s. It is still painted a traditional white, with green doors and windows.

Today it is a quiet and peaceful place. I wonder whether it was as peaceful in those days when the radio was putting out news of a country in turmoil.

Puzzle mania

In Spain we tried to stray off the beaten path whenever we could. This meant that we would often get lost and tired. The hot sun would force us into a small and forgotten bar now and then. These places are either wonderful or terribly dispiriting. The featured photo shows two barflies nursing their drinks in the middle of a hot afternoon. It would seem we had wandered into a bar of lost souls.

Not exactly. Outside the bar were a couple of retirees engrossed in books of puzzles. On the metro we had seen a couple of other people equally deeply into puzzles, and wondered what they could be. They did not look like Sudoku or crosswords. At the cafe we discovered what they could be. The sachets of sugar we got with our coffee had these two puzzles on them. Presumably the old people we saw were trying to solve bigger versions of these puzzles.

I shoulder-surfed one of them as we left. He was solving an intricate word puzzle which was not a crossword. Maybe we could try to buy one of these books and try our hands at them.

Siesta in Madrid

I am told that life is now too hectic in Spain for an old-fashioned siesta. Schools let youngsters have a nap after lunch, shops shut for a few hours in the afternoon, and, as likely as not, keep open till midnight. Still, a real siesta? Unlikely.

Not always, I found while walking around in Madrid.

A fun thing about Thimphu

Many things have been written about Thimphu. It is easy to find lists telling you the ten best things to do in Thimphu. All of them miss out on the most fun thing to do: play carrom at night with the locals. Back from Bumthang, we were feeling warm in Thimphu. After dinner we started looking for ice cream, and wandered into a street lined with carrom boards, all in use.

There were groups of young men playing. This is a game all of us had grown up playing, and it was fascinating. The Family noticed that there was no female player. "Why," she asked, and did not stay for an answer.

Carrom players and kibitzers, Thimphu, Bhutan

We stopped at some of the games to comment on the technique and play. We were not the only ones. Several boards were crowded with onlookers and kibitzers. In India, any carrom board attracts its share of people who give unwanted advice: kibitzers. Bhutan was no exception. If we knew Dzongkha we would have joined in. At some point we did discuss the finer points of strategy on one of the boards. Since we spoke English, and the players did not, we managed not to give away a national advantage.

If you are in Thimphu one night, you can have a good time joining one of these groups to play carrom.

A mountain life is hard

Now and then The Family asks me, "Why don’t we leave Mumbai and go live in the mountains?" The question is not always rhetorical. I have to suppress my impulses and give a rational answer, which is that "Living is hard at the heights we would like to live in".

There are few people, and fewer roads. Everything you want will have to be brought up from the plains. For a large part of the way it will come by truck. But eventually it will be brought up by horses, and at the very end by people. Can we do it? I don’t have to ask the rhetorical question, because we both know that the answer is no. We are good for ten days around an elevation of 4000 meters. Maybe we can stretch it to a few weeks, but then we would come back to the plains.

Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan

The beautiful and serene Kyichu Lhakhang, Bhutan’s oldest temple (photo above), stands right next to the cluster of buildings where I took the featured photo. This temple was built in the 7th century CE by the Tibetan king, and Padmasambhava is said to have visited the temple less than a century later. One of the wonderful stories about Kyichu Lhakhang is that the two orange trees which you can see inside apparently bear fruit all year round. Seeing the temple, and hearing these stories, one still has to remember that it was hard manual labour which built places like this.

Temple dancers return home to Paro, Bhutan

When we left the Lhakhang and came back to Paro, our car fell in behind this pick-up truck. The temple dancers sitting in the back turned their masked head to look at me as I took photos. Which tsechu had we missed? The only dances in May are the Domkhar Tsechu and the Ura Yakchoe, both far away in Bumthang. I don’t think these masks were for either of those. If I knew the culture of Bhutan better I would have been able to tell from the masks which festival the two were dressed for. It has been a mystery to us. Perhaps another trip is called for; it has been nine years, after all.

The Clear Air of High Places

Chele La is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. We drove up here, 3810 meters above sea level, on a clear day. There was a clear view of the conical peak of Chomolari (Jomolhari), 3506 meters above us. Below us we could see the sun-dappled valleys of Paro and Haa. We had driven up through a road that wound through rhododendron forests, and had seen the spectacular colours of Khaleej pheasants for the first time.

A raven comes to rest on a flag in Chele La, Bhutan

I love the sense of calm at such heights. The sun was warm on my face, but the wind carried a biting chill. The wind blew through the massed prayer flags. The crack of blowing flags was a constant sound around us. There was a deep call of a raven, and I saw one come down to rest with its claws on the dagger of knowledge, completely oblivious to religion and revelation.

Chorten at Chele La, Bhutan

I walked down the road. A little way down was a chorten and next to it a heap of stones. At this height, your rational self can recede behind oxygen depletion. The magical longing to leave a little mark on the earth takes over, and you place another stone on the growing pile left by previous travellers.

View of Chomolari from Paro, Bhutan

I look at Chomolari and remember the two expeditions: one of 1937 and another of 1970, both over the southeast spur of the peak. The 1937 climb is described in a book. Dorjee Lhatoo and Prem Chand never wrote about their 1970 climb. I will never make a climb like this, not even over the newer routes pioneered more recently. But I sit on a cold grassy mound and dream about it.

Prayer flags at Chele La, Bhutan

I’m walking closer to the sky than I usually do: thoughts like this arise with hypoxic magic. On another rise is yet another group of flags. I walk between them. The wind is made visible, audible. Magic surrounds you. The fraying flags are supposed to release good wishes, calm and peace into the wind. These wash over you in gusts of the wind. Bhutan is supposed to top the world in Gross National Happiness. Can you doubt it when you stand so close to the sky?

Chimi Lhakhang and Tantric Buddhism

Rice fields are easy to cross: there are narrow embankments along the edges, meant to trap the waters. We took these easy paths to cross stretches of fields, and reached the hillock below which Chimi Lhakhang stands. The monastery was built in 1499 and is dedicated to the "mad monk" Drukpa Kunley.

This disciple of Pema Lingpa is said to have subdued the demoness of Dhochu La with his Magic Thunderbolt of Wisdom and trapped her in a rock near the monastery. If you think about the fact that this is a place where women who want children come for the monk’s blessing, then you don’t need to see the wooden copy of the thunderbolt to figure out what it is.Gilded wooden Buddha in Chimi Lhakhang, Bhutan In any case, if you are interested, you can be blessed with a tap on the head with it.

The main shrine had interesting paintings and statues, including one of Drukpa Kunley and his dog. Unfortunately it was too dark, and the exposure required tested the steadiness of my hands. The only photo which I managed to take was of this gilded wooden representation of the Buddha.Monk, Punakha, Bhutan The lobby, on the other hand, was very well lit, and the monk at his rosaries there was clearly interested in our party of six. I should have paid more attention to the paintings on the walls. My memory is that they depicted monks and celestial beings surrounded by animals, being serenely cruel towards demons and other powerful evil creatures. I’m sure the old monk would have explained the meanings of these paintings. We were to see more such paintings later in the day.

Butter lamps in Chmi Lhakhang, Bhutan

Most holy places in Bhutan have burning lamps, and stores of ghee for lighting new lamps. The rooms are nice and warm when you come in from the outside, but also, because of that, smells of rancid ghee. We left the shrine and walked about the monastery. It was full of young novices at work making candles and the lotus-and-dagger wooden pieces which go on top of poles holding prayer flags. They seem to be pretty fired up by the teaching of Drukpa Kunley.

In her on-job avatar, The Sullen Celt had been bringing tour groups to Thimphu and Punakha every year. She was the one who had read up about Chimi Lhakhang and its tradition of Tantric teaching. Drukpa Kunley was a Tantric master who taught that sex and religion were inseparable. The oldest Tantric story I knew was of Kapalika, who, after her lover died and was cremated, smeared his ashes over her body as a mark of their union. In India the tradition remains mainly in temple sculptures showing sexual acts, but in Bhutan it is very alive. Phalluses were painted on walls of huts in villages nearby. The refusal to separate different aspects of life is a very healthy attitude.

However, Drukpa Kunley lived in medieval times, and his poems reveal that his attitude towards women was of his times. As tourists we met few urban people socially, so I was unable to find out how his teachings are interpreted today.

The Hard Work of Farming

After reaching Lobeysa, we gave ourselves time to do nothing. After breakfast we decided to solve the mystery of the missing men, something that had puzzled us in Ura as well as Tang. The Sullen Celt wanted to walk to the fields that we saw across a small river. After surveying the distance, we voted to take the car part of the way.

The whole village was at work in the fields. Nine years back, the economy of Bhutan was clicking up. Hydroelectric power export and tourism were becoming a larger fraction of the economy, but most of the population was still involved in farming. Around a third of the economy came directly from agriculture.Rice paddy being carried for transplantation in Lobeysa, Bhutan Almost all the working women worked in agriculture, as did almost two thirds of the working men. Lobeysa has water for irrigation, which instantly resulted in rice being the main crop.

Human culture is so centred on agriculture that it is hard to think of it as technology. But this was not how the original humans evolved. The little tribes of humans who walked across continents and land bridges exposed by the frozen seas of the last ice age were not farmers. They were hunters and foragers. Farming was invented in diverse parts of Asia during the explosion of plant life that followed the retreat of the ice. Converting virgin forest into farmland, shaping the landscape by tilling, diverting water for irrigation, planting, transplanting and harvesting rice are technologies as old as the settling of Asia.

Tilling a field in Lobeysa, Bhutan

Farming is backbreaking labour, whether it is carrying the rice paddies in a basket from one field to another (photo, above left), transplanting them in a flooded field (featured image), or tilling the field (above). When I look at this work now, I see in it an effort to recreate the soil conditions of the receding ice age in which Oryza sativa, rice, developed.

One major difference between this part of Bhutan and the Bumthang district is in the crops they cultivate. Bumthang has less irrigation, so the major crops there are millets like buckwheat and barley, or potatoes. On the other hand, the Butanese seem to love rice, so the better off one is, the more rice one eats. Economics is the same in all countries!