So why did it take me fourteen years to actually see it for myself? There were a couple of factors that significantly complicated a trip to the little Himalayan kingdom on the other side of the world. Since the country first opened up to foreign travelers in the 1970s, Bhutan has implemented a "High Value, Low Impact" approach to tourism. International tourists are welcome, but only on Bhutan's terms of a $200-$250 per person all-inclusive daily tariff and a compulsory guide booked through a certified tour company. While this might sound exclusive, and indeed it is, I ultimately agree with the conscious intention to capture the economic benefits of tourism while mitigating the cultural and environmental impacts of an industry that has a tendency to overrun most of the amazing places around the globe. However, my theoretical support did not align well with my personal circumstances. With a strong aversion to guided tours and an environmental educator's "salary," the years ticked by while Bhutan felt unfairly out of reach.
When Matt's parents, Mike and Esther, suggested we include a trip to Bhutan in our Himalayan adventure together, it was certainly met with great excitement on my part, as well as indescribable gratitude for their substantial investment in my dream. Yet having a real live opportunity to visit Bhutan also forced me to come to terms with a new emotion. For the first time, I feared losing my fantasy of what Bhutan had become in my mind's eye. Having propped it up as the pinnacle of my travel ambitions for so long, what if reality was no match for my expectations? Perhaps those excuses about money and fixed itineraries were actually protecting an irrational idealization that could only lead to disappointment. Surely, if I was truly serious about this passion, I could have found a way by now...developing a specialized skill or area of expertise that would allow me a way in through an INGO, academic study, or the like.
Regardless of any nervousness that still remained about facing the real Bhutan, the day soon arrived when we boarded our Druk Airlines flight, got a stellar view of Mt. Everest and other 8,000 meter peaks en route, and were forewarned by the pilot that getting unusually close to a mountain was simply standard landing procedure for the Paro airport. We were greeted with katas by our guide "U.D." and driver Namgay from Bhutan Swallowtail tour company. Namgay is also a tour and raft guide, so we got a special bonus of two for the price of one!
We drove about an hour from Paro through Thimphu before darkness set in, getting our first glimpses of iconic Bhutanese architecture and people wearing the national dress of ghos and kiras, for men and women respectively. We took a break for tea at a restaurant atop the Dochu La, a 3,140-meter (10,300-foot) pass where on our return trip we would have nice views of the mountains between the 108 hilltop chortens. They were commissioned for "atonement of the loss of life" incurred while expelling separatist militant groups from the neighboring Indian state of Assam in southern Bhutan in the early 2000s. The dark starry sky was the main attraction for us on that chilly evening though.
We then drove a couple more hours along Bhutan's version of a highway, the one and only road traversing Bhutan west-east. Traveling late in the day we were spared the delays (but not the dust) of the current expansion from one lane shared by both directions of traffic to each way having an entire lane to themselves! We settled in to what our budget-traveler selves consider a luxury hotel (also known as three stars!) and had our first Bhutanese meal, toned down on the chillies for the uninitiated of course.
Similarly, the whole next day was occupied with driving, this time on a road the wound its way down to the southern district of Dagana. We were on this unusual order for an itinerary, blowing by the typical introductory stops of Paro and Thimphu, in order to make it to a religious festival called a tshechu in the village of Dagapela. On our way there, U.D. casually mentioned that we would be the first tourists to ever visit this village. Wait a minute...WHAT!?! Did he just say FIRST and TOURISTS in the same sentence? As in, we are practically discovering this place? My surprise quickly morphed into protective skepticism. How can that be? Surely there will be some other tourists wandering around when we show up there. After all, I found out about this festival on a website called Visit Bhutan 2015.
In fact, attending a tshechu is one of the most popular activities for tourists in Bhutan as it is a chance to observe an important and authentic aspect of Bhutanese culture in an uncontrived context. It is a social and festive event with Bhutanese dressed in their finest, yet spiritually significant since witnessing the dance blesses and cleanses the observer of their sins. It also illuminates the path one follows on their journey after death. Each masked dance depicts historical events or illustrates a spiritual element with the themes centered on subduing demons and the triumph of good over evil. All tshechus follow a similar format of the same dances performed in the same order over three or four days and occur throughout the year. The tshechus held at district dzongs (fortresses serving as administrative and monastic centers) attract the largest crowds, whereas local tshechus, like Dagapela, may only have attendees from the surrounding communities.
My skepticism wavered on our approach to Dagapela on a rough dirt track dug of the hillside only within the last year. Prior to the road, the village was not accessible by vehicle. As our guide explained the lodging situation that had been arranged in the absence of tourist infrastructure, I became convinced that we were indeed the only tourists around. Our itinerary indicated we were scheduled to stay at a house typically reserved for business-related guests of a hydropower plant fifteen kilometers away. The complication was that no food would be provided there and fifteen kilometers on the narrow windy road was a 45-minute drive each way from the village. We looked at the only other option of an undesirable "local hotel" and opted for the power plant's guesthouse and a long food commute. However, by the time we had settled in to our lovely rooms, U.D. had worked his magic with various local officials and found the right one to authorize and arrange for meals to be cooked for us in-house. To top it off, he had also procured a jug of locally-brewed ara on a Tuesday, Bhutan's dry day, which we sampled while surviving our dinner made with an authentic quantity of chillies.
Once the logistics of basic needs were taken care of, it dawned on me just how much work had gone in to allowing us to be tourist pioneers. Tashi, our tour coordinator at Bhutan Swallowtail, had engaged her connections through several degrees of separation to get us permission to stay at the only place in the whole region where we would be comfortable. She had researched and planned for this unusual destination, as well as the rest of our tour, with less than two weeks notice, a noteworthy accomplishment even in the less busy month of January. I was already so grateful that I had found this small company committed to providing truly customized experiences and we had not even witnessed a minute of the festival yet!
On our drive to the festival the next morning, U.D. mentioned that we would have the honor of having tea with the head lama of the monastery hosting the festival. Yet we had no idea of the extent of our VIP status until we cleared the gates and parked right next to the monastery and the dancing grounds. We were whisked up to a room in the monastery with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the dances where we were introduced to the lama and many government officials. From our comfy couch seating, we sipped tea, snacked on local citrus and bananas, and conversed with our gracious hosts, all while trying to keep an eye on the fascinating proceedings below.
After we enjoyed a buffet lunch all together, a towering deity was extracted from the lower level of the monastery and paraded around the perimeter of the dance ground, then placed on an altar. Everyone in attendance immediately got up to receive blessings from this deity, creating an orderly single-file line with the assistance of several young beautiful ladies wearing "Community Police" vests. As guests of honor, we were ushered to the front of the line where we touched the top of our heads to his robes, left a donation, received a blessed yellow string to wear and holy water to sip and brush on our heads.
With the line stretching all the way down the hill we had driven up, we took advantage of the pause in the dancing to explore the rows of vendor stalls. We tried our hand, alongside young monks, at a couple of exciting gambling games. We also tried a shot of one of Bhutan's whiskeys, Bhutan Highland, much to the amusement of the outgoing Bhutanese teens serving us in their temporary tented restaurant. As cultural outsiders, we were equally intrigued with the seeming idiosyncrasies we were observing: women dressed in their best kiras shopping for Western clothes, kids running around with realistic toy guns at a festival intended to transmit Buddhist teachings, purchased from stalls filled with cheap plastic doodads that can only bring fleeting materialistic gratification.
Returning to the dancing arena, the program was about to resume as the last few people were receiving blessings. We opted for a different vantage point and stood behind the mass of villagers sitting on the ground adjacent to the monastery. Our hosts soon spotted us (I can't imagine how since I am sure we didn't stick out at all...) and insisted we take front row seats in a shaded tent nearby. With more tea and an even better view than before, we watched the same imposing deity feature prominently as the judge in an acting out of a "sinner's" path through the intermediary world of the deceased.
With so much lovely attention directed our way throughout the day, it was not until then that I could really focus on appreciating the beauty of the dances. All dancers had elaborate, colorful costumes and expressive masks of humans, deities, animals, or a blend of these categories. The precise choreography relied on simple drum beats and chimes of various tempos, but this highlighted the impressive athleticism of the dancers as they held poses balanced on one foot, executed high jumps, and twirled intensely.
However, watching from ground level exposed us to a new distraction, the playful attention of the atsaras. With red masks featuring a beak-like nose, these mischievous clowns are an institution of the Bhutanese tshechu. The combination of anonymity and immunity allowed them the freedom to act out whatever spontaneous behavior might amuse the crowd, whether imitating the serious dancers with silly exaggerated motions, or dangling a phallus on a string while inserting themselves in the lead of a solemn procession, as well as harmlessly harassing the audience in various ways. As for us, they enjoyed wearing our sunglasses while posing for photos and stealing our water bottles.
The atsaras seemed like yet another idiosyncrasy for us newbies trying to process all that we were taking in. As with many first impressions, digging a little deeper reveals a rectifying explanation. The Bhutan Swallowtail website explains, "atsaras are actually learned saints and high lamas who have already attained enlightenment. They are regarded as teachers and during the festival they guide the masked dancers on the ground should anything go wrong or if their costumes and masks need to be adjusted. As in the legends where teachers transform themselves in many forms, being a clown is one of their many manifestations to correct and guide their students in a light manner!" Another reminder that with any performance, as in life, there is more going on than meets the eye, especially an untrained one!
As the sinking sun began to bathe the dancers in a glowing golden light, the deity of judgment made another pass around the field and was retired back inside the monastery, signaling the winding down of the day's program. We expressed our genuine gratitude to our hosts for the memorable day and took some group photos that would be posted on websites to document the first tourists to Dagapela village. While the festival would have been an incredible experience even with a history of tourism, the honor did a lot to restore my faith that "discovery" is still possible for the average traveler in this hyper-connected globalized world.
This was quickly followed by a sharp reminder that you don't get the gems of leaving the tourist track without making some sacrifices. Unfortunately, the price you pay tends to be directly proportional to the genuineness of the experience. In this case, our return trip home was interrupted by a sudden expulsion of all of the contents of my stomach as the manifestation of an increasing discomfort in that region towards the end of the day. I was quick to blame my sampling of doma as the cause of the incident. I had been curious about the common habit that results in the blood red smiles of the Bhutanese, so I chewed a packet of the areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf spread with a pink lime paste. It was an interesting and authentic cultural experience, especially as it was carefully prepared for me by the head lama. The pungent aroma and unique flavor was overwhelming in the moment, but I suspected the basic lime, which activates the chemical reaction, had left a lasting effect on my digestive system.
Unfortunately, my theory that left everyone else in the clear was invalidated shortly thereafter. Upon reaching the power plant guesthouse, Esther replicated the scenario, except with her own style of many frequent upheavals rather than my singular thorough emptying. I know this because I had also gone directly to our room adjacent to theirs, crawled into bed fully clothed, and remained there until morning, except for plenty of follow-up trips to the bathroom for another related issue of course. Few things in life bring you closer to your mother-in-law than sharing only a thin wall, not sound-muffling in any way, between your respective toilets in a never-ending night such as this one.
Meanwhile, Mike and Matt were in the clear for the evening with Matt mysteriously being the only one to remain completely symptom free through the next day. I have traveled with enough people suffering digestive issues over the years, myself included, to believe that it is simply unavoidable human travel nature to have to first hyper-analyze and then decisively conclude the exact source of contamination. It was either the plate that was still wet from rinsing, or the tea that hadn't been boiled properly, or the hand we shook before peeling and eating an orange... Or was it breakfast? In reality, we can rarely deduce the when, where, how, or even the what that made us sick, and even if we did, it usually has no effect on the situation going forward. Yet somehow the speculation provides a great deal of comfort. But I digress...
Despite not feeling quite on top of our game the next day, we returned to the last day of the festival for a couple of hours in the morning in order to make the most of our opportunity and our effort to get there. With no one having an appetite except Matt, we began our return journey before lunch got under way. There was no avoiding our second main challenge of getting off the beaten path, which in the case was the path itself, beaten to smithereens by the extensive construction zones of tremendous hydro-power projects. Not exactly the images that come to mind when thinking of Bhutan, we were driving through a side of it that few tourists have awareness of, much less see firsthand, on their standard tours of scenic iconic sites.
Tourism is second only to hydro power as Bhutan's primary source of revenue. With extensive untapped potential and ever-increasing demand from their sole customer of India, it is widely accepted as the future of Bhutan's economic viability. A tenant of Gross National Happiness is to develop with minimal impact to the environment. Once finished, these hydro power plants may be a legitimate low-carbon energy source, but they can't possibly exist without making present-day ecological sacrifices. The resources required to divert a river through a mountain seemed incalculable when passing by the equipment staging areas, Indian worker camps, discarded materials and debris spanning both sides of the narrow river valley for miles at a time. Amongst all of this, I caught a glimpse of an ironic sign commanding, "Save the White-bellied Heron," an endangered bird that abandons its riparian nesting habitat with just minimal human disturbances. I also wondered what creating dry stretches riverbed by diversion will do to the aquatic ecosystem of the river itself. Even in a country more earnestly trying to balance environmental concerns against "progress" than most, it seems the messy business of hydro power construction will continue full steam ahead in pursuit of the country's other long term development goals.
However, if designating a few of its drainages out of the Himalayas for the singular purpose of hydro provides the stability of consistent income, perhaps it will enable the achievement of its environmental targets elsewhere. Bhutan already has over one-third of its land under protection, the largest percentage of any country in the world by some measurements, which becomes even more impressive when considering its diminutive size. Even so, they are striving to maintain carbon neutrality by maintaining minimum of 60 percent forest cover as development moves forward, although the nation is currently a carbon sink when accounting for the present level of forested land hovering around three-quarters of the country.
Once through the gauntlet of the hydro-construction zone and with our appetites gradually recovering, we returned to the main tourist trail feeling that our unconventional introduction to Bhutan was like any true adventure, worth the risks and discomfort in the moment for the vivid memories to be recounted for years to come.