Paro, alone

I had a day to myself in and it was perfection.

When it looks like you’re a woman traveling alone, people in Bhutan are excessively kind. Pema, one of the women who works in the hotel dining room, greets me warmly and makes special eggs for me with chilies.

My group was arriving tonight, and I got to be completely on my own. Chador — the best guide I’ve ever had — said “take the bike and ride where you want to today.”

I need the silence and the solitude and I had a blissful day. I drank tea looking over the valley after breakfast, read for a while in the shade, walked down to town to drink a good coffee and quell the knotted headache of caffeine withdrawal that woke me up in the night. Watched the street and savoured a land with absolutely zero electronic noise pollution — no TVs or music as a backdrop to public life, just people gently going about their business.

My soul needs this silence.

Then I got on my bike — a fat-tired heavy mountain bike — and rode to the end of the Paro valley road, gently uphill for about an hour. I passed the mythical Tigers Nest monastery perched up above the valley, heading for a dzong on a hill at the end of the road. Everyone I passed smiled hello.

I pushed the heavy bike up the path to the old stone steps, then climbed up. Like the hermitage yesterday, closed. No chanting, just construction. I sat for a bit in front of a stupa, then turned back to Paro.

The road was quiet and sloped downhill, and when I got back to Paro I headed straight for the momo shop.

Then I had a nap.

It was the perfect day. I’m glad to start the cycling trip, but I could happily spend the next week just riding by myself supported by Chador. It’s hard to explain how I feel nibbled away by interacting in a group when I’m traveling, no matter how nice they are. When I travel like this, I’m reminded over and over that I’m a deep introvert who leads an extroverted life. I thrive on the light gliding of connection with people bringing me food, the 5 minute conversations with people intrigued by me traveling alone. The social world of traveling in a group is… fine. But it’s work for me, and that quiet core that comes when I slide toward exactly what I feel like doing at that moment is essential.

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Hermitage

We climbed up and up to this hermitage on the side of the mountain. The door was locked and we could hear someone chanting softly inside.

People come here for months or years to meditate in solitude. There was evidence of someone settled in — a toothbrush, fresh water piped from a stream — but beyond the chanting, silent.

Except for the thin mewl of a a cat, a kitten really, who bounded up to me and demanded to be loved.

I picked her up and she cuddled me and then shat on me. Cats shouldn’t be vegetarians. Or hermits.

I seriously thought for a few minutes about what it would take to bring her home. I realized that was insane. Then I meditated for a bit while she climbed on me, just like my cats. While I sat, Chador checked his phone.

I hope the hermit is nice to her. And I hope the almond bar I gave her didn’t make her sick.

Homestay

On a beach holiday to the Dominican Republic when I was in my late 20s, we had a chance to drive into the hills with an expat white woman who’d lived there for decades. She drove an old VW van and was the first person who taught me to really think about the lives of people who washed their clothes in the river, who couldn’t do anything with a Canadian dollar I thought I was being generous with.

She took us to buy tightly woven baskets from a woman in the hills. The little house had almost nothing in it — a cooking fire, a pot, stools. I felt a wave of shame that I hadn’t known this was how people truly lived. My ex still has that basket — it’s the sturdy reliable thing to serve bread in.

Since then I’ve been to another 30 or 35 countries. I don’t always end up in people’s homes — but what I’ve noticed when I do is that people try to fill their homes as soon as they can afford it. My guide in Myanmar who took me to his overstuffed main floor, cheap suitcases sprawling over with clothes, photos of his family in gilt embroidered robes. The overstuffed chairs and fabrics that fill the tiny houses I’ve been in in Rwanda and Uganda, Elinah showing off that she had two mugs, Saphra proudly showing me the TV she’d bought with the money she’d earned writing and singing a campaign song for her local MP.

On New Year’s Eve this year I was eating tagine at Hamid’s mother’s home in a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, watching a nature documentary on a big TV bolted high on the wall. Yesterday, I watched the royal wedding sitting on a carpet in the main room in a home in a village in the Haa Valley in Western Bhutan.

Nor Kim, the grandmother of the house, and I both laughed out loud when the preacher just kept on preaching. We both smiled at the prettiness of the bride. She hobbled up off the floor and got a mango from the kitchen area, cut it and offered me half. I got her a napkin.

My guide and Nor Kim’s son were also rapt.

Somewhere in the middle, a teenage girl with braids came in and complained the fire wasn’t lit so there was no hot water to wash with, and Chimi, my host, lit the stove.

The King of Bhutan and his family watched us watch the wedding.

One thing I’ve learned is that most people in the world don’t sit down at a special table to eat a meal. Chimi set the food on the floor in front of us, the national dish of chili and cheese with no cheese for my sensitive tummy. An intergenerational gang whose relationships I never quite figured out ate while watching a Bhutanese singing competition.

When I left this morning, Nor Kim told my guide she wanted me to stay for several days. I could have stayed there a week, drinking tea and reading on the little carpet, listening to the cows outside, sneaking meat to the stray cat who kept pushing open the door.

I think part of the appeal of traveling to less developed countries is this notion of being drawn to some elemental minimalism. I yearned to spend a silent month in the ancient nunnery we climbed up to yesterday — washing dishes in cold water, having nothing but the most basic things with me. I am notorious for losing and dropping things, and I think it really is a symptom of too much, too much stuff, when did I even BUY nine tubes of hand cream, where the hell is my rescue inhaler? That’s partly why I’m always so drawn to activities like loaded cycling where I have to whittle down to the essentials. I want to believe there are essentials, and if I can just locate and select them, I will have equanimity.

Being in people’s homes all over the world, I have realized the wrong-headedness of romanticizing people who “lead a simpler life.” Simpler usually actually means harder, with fewer choices.

I’m not going to move to a hermitage on the side of a Bhutanese mountain, even though the one we climbed to today came pre-felined. (The poor thing was hungry and so starved of love — people on months-long meditations only eat vegetarian food, once a day. But I couldn’t exactly take her with me).

I feel very privileged I got to stay with Chimi and her family, and I know how privileged I am to have the time and space and money to be in this country. And I’m reminded again that equanimity has to come from how we choose to live where we are.

Cate, Delhi

So I got upgraded to business class on my way to Delhi. I needed the world’s tiniest hotel room to squirrel up in. It was a brutal week work-wise, and I needed a transition.

So I’m cosying into my Air Canada duvet, and in the “no smoking” announcement they made an announcement that’s new to me: “if you drop your phone in the seats, please do not try to retrieve it yourself — call a crew member.

That’s odd, I think.

Then I eat dinner and watch I, Tonya, and curl up in my wee nest and sleep for eight hours.

I wake up in a fuddle and fumble around for my phone, and sense that it’s sort of on the brink, and grab it by the headphone, which gives way and…. .thunk.

Know what this is? Most of the crew, ground maintenance and the captain trying to figure out how to get my phone out. And the housekeeping lady who wants to know if she can bring the cleaning crew on yet.

Bobby – the helpful Service Director — and Kim — the other Service Director — were stellar. Another FA offered to use her tiny hands and get right in there.

Meanwhile, there was a whole other pile of logistical drama. I arrived in Delhi at 11 pm and am leaving for Bhutan at 11 am. So I booked the airport hotel. Only it turns out you have to have a boarding pass for your ongoing flight, and you’re supposed to check your baggage all the way through, and Druk Airlines doesn’t exactly have online check in (their email response says they are on a mountain meditating) so I had a complex pit crew of Holiday Inn staff waiting for me with a board pass and an escort and my name on a piece of paper.

Whom I never found, because I had to stay on the plane until they retrieved my phone.

Some agent who works for the airport showed up to help me, and escorted me to e-visa, and told me to go to luggage claim, and just when I thought she had vanished, reappeared and escorted me to a holiday inn kiosk. Where my excitable crew of men said they had my sign and a boarding pass but no me!

Scannings and chatting about cycling and oh my later, I’m in a perfectly lovely hotel in the middle of the terminal, with a tennis court in the middle of it.

With my phone.

When I went to Myanmar a few years ago, someone told me “People want to help. Just ask them.” In all of my travels, I have found that she was absolutely right.

channels

I haven’t been posting much on this blog for technical reasons — apparently my blog storage is full, and wordpress plans go from “free” to something like $200/month.  I need to do some culling of pics from years ago to free up space, because I’m heading off on another adventure on Tuesday and want to post.  But until then, here is a re-post of my contribution to today’s feminist fitness blog.

 

Keep the channel open