May 30, 2012

To Bhutan, with love…


We were on the Druk Air flight to Paro, Bhutan, a destination I had been dreaming of going to ‘some day’. We booked a package tour through, and I was very apprehensive about how good it would be, a concern caused mainly by Yatra’s inconsistent correspondence.

For once, all four of us were going together, along with my cousin Parvati. It was a nice group.  

The Delhi-Paro the flight was smooth. Soon after we boarded, somehow, there was confidence in Druk Air…in its quiet efficiency; good food and service. We began to relax. The announcement that we were flying next to the spectacular snow-clad Himalayan ranges and that we could see Mount Everest made us excited and tension free.

The plane landed smoothly in Paro, winding its way between the mountains. We got down and were greeted by the cool mountain air. The amazing architecture of the airport building took our breath away; and more than anything else, there was quiet. Suddenly we felt like there was nothing else we wanted in life.

Yatra’s representative met us, and we were delighted to see that it was going to be a local travel agency that would take us around.  

Then began the discovery of a country where it seemed true that the mind could be without fear. Bhutan is not like any country I have ever been to. It is a country where happiness is more important than wealth or ‘development; it is a country where environmental protection is a very important aspect of its agenda. As we drove from Paro to Thimphu (the capital), I noticed a similarity to Himachal Pradesh. Yet it was different, mainly the buildings, and the uniformity in the architecture.

A few other interesting facts and observations:
  • Bhutan is the only country in the world without traffic lights. But then, there is not much traffic, either!
  • People are nice. Plain nice. Simple, helpful, humble. Our guide Tshering Wangdi, we discovered, was a fine human being. Very communicative and knowledgeable, this young man endeared himself to all in the group. As did Nidup, our driver. Both of them answered our endless questions with patience, sang with us and taught us Bhutanese folk songs.
  • In this fairy-tale land, the young King and Queen are loved by all, and one finds their photos everywhere. And they live, not in a palace, but in a small cottage near the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the centre of administration and religion in Thimphu.
  • Several such observations make me conclude that these people have their values in place, that to them, logic and practicality are more important than religion or politics or anything else in the world. To me that is an ideal state to be.
  • There are no beggars and no touristy sales-people chasing you. No hoardings either, selling you unnecessary dreams. What a difference these three things make, to a one’s peace of mind.
  • Both the rupee and the local currency – Ngultrum – are used. There are no coins.
  • The Bhutanese are proud of their culture and contribute towards its preservation. Everyone wears the traditional dress (women wear the Tigo-Kira and men wear the Gho). They look fabulous; buildings are all beautiful and uniform, and it is mandatory that even the new buildings should conform to the same architectural style.
  • The weaves of Bhutan are exquisite. They are very expensive, and compare with the best weaves of India. I lost my heart to the colours and textures of the Bhutanese kapda.  
  • The mountains, the greenery, the prayer flags, the traditional buildings and people—all make for a visual treat, both for one’s eye and for the hungry camera.
Our trip was for about 7 days and we discovered three places—Thimphu, Punakha and Paro. We visited several monasteries and dzongs, tried the local food, saw lovely wild flowers and the national animal (Takin) and did a lot of trekking.

The highlight of our trip was, no doubt, the trek up the mountain in Paro (900 metres), to Tiger’s nest monastery (at 3100 m above sea level). It was truly a test of endurance. As we climbed, with every step, our lungs cried for air, and when we got down, it was our legs that screamed more than the lungs. Interestingly, this resulted in camaraderie among people attempting this difficult trek, for we were together in our suffering! The views as we trekked were superb, and after nearly 7 hours, when we were finally down, hungry and exhausted, there was a HUGE sense of accomplishment. This was also because of the fact that this was supposed to be the most pious monastery, one that every Bhutanese aspired to go to, at least once in their lifetime. We felt very blessed for having had the opportunity and the fitness to undertake this trek.

Part of me wants to keep these facts about Bhutan to myself; to hide Bhutan from my world—virtual and real. But part of me also wants to tell my friends to go to Bhutan and discover that there is a place in the world that aspires for higher objectives in life than GDP; that this place is truly the Shangri-la it is believed to be.

Each time I think of Bhutan, I feel a sweet, fresh air blowing against my face, and I smile. I have lost my heart to this Himalayan country. It has never happened to me earlier. After every trip outside India, I have always felt like kissing the Indian soil upon my return. Not so this time. There is a futile wish that I could do something to remind the powers in India (in my state, at least) that if they wish, they could aim for simple,  higher pursuits for our great country. We just need to remind ourselves of the richness of our own culture and that it is important, not just to market that culture, but to keep it alive, on a day-to-day basis.

This we can learn from Bhutan. In the meantime, I wish that I get a chance to live in Bhutan at least for a year to see—not just as a tourist—these incredible people live their simple lives. 

And for this opportunity I have had, to visit the land of the thunder dragon, I will say, a thousand times, “Karadinche”!

PS: I invite anyone wanting to see the photos to please come home. I will be more than happy to share this treasure with you. 

May 01, 2012

The Hyderabad-Pune-Mumbai drive

It is most unusual for this family to go on a long drive. But there is a streak of madness that surfaces now and then (thank god) and breaks the monotony of a timetabled existence. So we set out on a hot April afternoon--Vijay, Malini and I--our good old Santro feeling peppy because it had four new tyres!

Vijay drove the whole way ("you are not used to the highway", he told me, much to my chagrin), and we went slow. The road was great from Hyderabad to Sholapur. There were lots of trees on both sides, and after dark, we drove under a dazzling, starry night---truly the highlight of the trip for me because I miss this sight in the city. I wished we could pitch a tent and sleep under that sky that night...

But Hotel Surya in Sholapur was where we spent the night, to continue our drive in the morning, on a great stretch of dug-up nothingness from Sholapur till the outskirts of Pune. Work is ongoing to make a four-lane road, and for miles, we drove past tree stumps that made me angry and depressed. WHY could they not have planned roads on either side of the trees?

For me, one of the joys of road travel are the lorries! I just love lorry art and delight in taking pictures of colourful lorry backsides, with their inimitable slogans. I also enjoyed looking at sugarcane fields, the shacks outside selling fresh sugarcane juice (didn't dare drink it, though); sorghum, banana and grape fields; a papaya orchard, one more growing pomegranate; several brick kilns; and on reaching the outskirts of Pune, plenty of nurseries--always a welcome sight. The dhaba stopovers were fun too.

We picked up Ragini in Pune and drove to Mumbai the next day, for Vijay's niece Nayantara's arangetram. The Expressway was a delight to drive on (minimum 100 kmph) and we were in Mumbai is about 3 hours.  Nayantara's performance that evening was flawless and the whole program, extremely enjoyable. I felt that this arangetram, unlike some I attended,  was not an ego-trip for parents...Nayantara is fortunate to have a perfectionist teacher in Ms Nalini Raghu, who likes things to be elegant and just right. In times of mediocrity and hypocricy, what a pleasure it was to see something simple, meaningful and brilliant!

The way back was somewhat similar, except that Pune-Sholapur seemed worse, and Sholapur-Hyderabad seemed better. We had missed the view of Naldurg fort earlier, and got a good glimpse of it on the way back. It is massive, and reminded me of Bidar fort.

And we got home, the four of us, and as we got the stuff out, the car seemed to smile at us, and Maloo said it wagged a non-existent tail :) :)