Thursday, December 21, 2017

Far away, in another time and place ...

Traditional boots and shoes
Talk about going places you never expect to be! I just returned from 10 days in Bhutan. The scenery, vegetation, and dry climate resemble British Columbia or Washington State – or maybe even parts of Montana. Since I’m missing our family this Christmas, it is a treat at least to have a similar landscape around me.

I'll be blogging in three posts to make it easier for fellow adventurers to follow. Here's the first.

It takes 3 flights from Bandung: first, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (8 hr layover); second, to Bangkok, Thailand (7-hour layover); then to Paro, Bhutan (with a midway stop in India). Then it was another hour’s drive to the Bhutanese capital city of Thimphu. The brutal layovers and 24 hours of travel (coming and going) were determined by the flights booked in Bhutan. Next time, we’d choose a better itinerary.

On the first leg, I sit beside a proud papa and his 9-yr-old daughter. She’s the chess champion of Indonesia for her division, and the global champ for under 10 years. She buries her nose in a book, finishing the Disney tale on the flight. This is so rare: Indonesians are literate, but they are not readers. To see a youngster reading is a shock.

On the next flight, I sit beside a man who is struggling to believe. He has decided on science as his religion, and we talk about AI, transplants of organs and if (he wonders when) scientists will clone humans for body parts. He thinks the time is coming when we’ll transplant a head onto a younger body. I suggest there may be problems with body donors – even if someone wants to extend the life of their head, who would volunteer their body?

Malaysia airport: a mosque with people sitting in front,
and down the hall is a Christmas tree
I have a problem with his claim of science as ‘absolute truth.’ Many scientific truths of past generations have been disproven with new discoveries. Doesn’t it make more sense to have a Creator who delights in letting his creatures uncover what he already knows (absolute truth), bit by bit?

Debbie sits down beside me in Bangkok, taking the place of the gentleman who has moved down a few seats so I can lay down and fall asleep. I’m cold, which wakes me. Debbie and I start to chat: she and a colleague from Yale University’s Public Health Department are helping the Bhutan government set up public health metrics. We share the final two flights and agree to meet up this week.

Sunday, December 10
Touchdown Bhutan. It’s mid-morning and I’m exhausted. From Paro Airport, the roads wind around the sides of mountains. They’ve been upgraded to two lanes with a shoulder in some places. As in most Asian countries, whoever is on the road is “sort-of” on their side. Most of the time, the car drifts across the middle lane, avoiding people walking on the side and other unforeseen traffic hazards. Here we swerve around cattle, dogs, and the occasional parked car.

One day, we drive around a curve and find a huge yellow tarp sitting in the other lane: there’s a car underneath it and there are rocks from the hillside above scattered around it. Apparently, it just stopped and someone pulled a yellow cover over … and left.

But that comes later. Today, Ethne Tours is picking me up for lunch and some initial orientation. We drop by the local market, heaped with sun-dried peppers, local honey, and homemade cheeses. Oh my – I have to come back next weekend to get some for home. We have lunch and I’m finally dropped at the hotel mid-afternoon. I unpack, have supper, and then it’s off to bed. I’m not quite ready to sleep, but I fill my hot water bottle and tuck it in my bedding to warm up the bed. I climb in and read for a few hours.

I like dogs. And that’s a good thing. Dogs sun themselves on the sidewalks and in public courtyards during the day, trotting around the city. Bhutanese Buddhists believe the final reincarnation before becoming human is being a dog. So – in about the same number as the cats that roam Indonesia – dogs are everywhere. They’re friendly, in various states of health or mange. I’m told women earning religious merit feed them. (You never know who the dog is or will be in the next life.)

At night, packs of dogs roam the streets. In the past, tourists jogging with their youngsters have been attacked in the early morning hours. I hear yelping as the dogs protect their territories and scavenge for food. I like dogs – and don’t mind the barking and howling most of the night. It makes me happy to hear them as I’m missing Gypsy, our yard dog. I drift in and out of sleep.

The air is dry. My nose clogs with inner nosebleeds until it adjusts. The little bit of laundry I do is dry overnight. My skin needs moisturizer and sunblock against the intense light and dehydration.

It’s possible to dry things outside, either in the sun or shade, which we would never attempt in Indonesia. Red peppers dehydrate outside on mats. One of the specialty foods is dried meat. It can be hung outside from the clothesline for a few days, before being spiced and cooked with chilies.

The mornings are chilly. Some days there’s frost on the ground. As soon as the sun comes up after 7am, it starts to warm the ground and the air. You can see the progress of white shadow reappearing as bare ground. By afternoon it will be a balmy 18C/68F.

When the sun goes down, anywhere from 3:30-6pm, depending on the surrounding mountains, the cool air sweeps away the day’s promise. I wear gloves and a hat except in midday. My friend Martha has sent me black fitted “smart” gloves: I can use the phone without taking them off, which is great for taking photos.

The bells wake the dawn each morning. From every bridge and many trees, fabric banners and flags flutter – especially where wind whistles along the hillside or through the gorges between. Religion is part of every day’s sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.

There is no apology; people are proud of being a religious nation. Conversion is forbidden and can bring a jail sentence. Happiness is not defined as freedom to choose here – that is a Christian concept of free will, practiced only in nations with core Christian values. Rather, happiness is the ability to fit in and submit to the culture and religion. (In that way, Bhutan is the “happiest” nation.) Disrespect of elders earns you 6 generations of curses.

A new friend, Nengboi, wraps me in a traditional hand-woven cotton skirt, pleating it across the front for modesty. It is held up by a woven band. Ooooh, that is tight (but the skirt doesn’t slip all day). The skirt, a silky pink jacket, and its black under-blouse were chosen for her by her husband of Nepali and Bhutanese fabrics. What an honor to wear it. We’re taking pictures with a group of Bhutanese who are in traditional dress. They’ve asked me to join them.
The government mandates traditional dress for any official business. Locals can’t enter government buildings without it. So the men and women are wrapped in plaid, stripes, and beautiful patterns. Of course the teenyboppers have leggings, jeans, trendy jackets, and T-shirts. Globalization began with the opening of the country to the outside, about 20 years ago.

In the evening, the couple tells me they’d like to gift me with this outfit. Seriously?! I’m stunned. It’s beautiful and expensive; their generosity is totally unexpected. I’m blown away. I can certainly wear it in intercultural settings, and when I do, I will remember them and pray for their well-being and good health.

Read more:
*Caleb said to Joshua, “My brothers who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt in fear. I, however, followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.” Joshua 14:8
*Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed. Isaiah 54:4
*And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;  for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” 
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. Luke 1:76-80   NIV
*Jesus said, “Stand firm, and you will win life.” Luke 12:19
*By faith Moses left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. Hebrews 11:27
Moravian Prayer: O Root of Jesse, who stands as an emblem of the people, before whom the mighty keep silence, and to whom the nations make their supplication: Come, deliver us and do not tarry. 
God of promise, God of possibilities, God of perseverance, help us to follow you boldly into the future you prepare for us, to go where you lead us, and to undertake the tasks you give to us. Let us know that you are always with us. Show us your glory. Amen.

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