Saturday, September 7, 2013

Paro, Puja, parents and porridge

We headed for Paro on a Friday afternoon, the trip is about 140Km (87mi) which we anticipated to take about 4hrs which means we planned to average around 37Km/hr (23mph). Nearly all of the trip was on main highways in Bhutan illustrating how twisty and slow the roads are, throw in some areas under construction and a few stretches of poorly maintained road and it is no wonder it takes so long. I was traveling with a friend who is a teacher at Gaselo LSS, Zimba Gyeltshen. Bhutanese make a clear distinction between home, where one was born,  and where one currently lives. If you ask someone if they are going home after work they are likely to tell you no, their home is somewhere else. His home is a village very close to Paro and his parents were having the annual cleansing ceremony, or Puja, on Saturday. Every building, institution, and house in Bhutan hosts this ceremony, we had one for the entire school in the fall.
Traveling with us was an 11th grade boy, Tshering Gyeltshen, whose aunt was the hostess this weekend and with whom he had lived for a good part of his life. As we neared Paro we stopped at the only main intersection on the trip to wait for another relative who was arriving on a bus. While waiting for him a cab pulled up with two young women inside who were part of the family coming from Thimphu. So it goes in this tiny country where everyone is related to or acquaintances with what seems like half the country.
We arrived at Zimba’s home to find his parents in the kitchen, the main room of the house. His father was deftly cutting beef on a round chopping block seated cross legged on the floor. Each swipe of the sharp blade cleanly cut another chunk which was added to a growing pile. Eventually this pile of beef chunks was added to the very large pot cooking away on the open fire in the “kitchen” out back. This is really a large shed 2/3 of which is a stall for the two cows with the remaining 1/3 a cooking area with the open fire in one corner. The pot contained a large batch of “porridge” to begin the next days festivities. Bhutanese define porridge as rice cooked in excess water until it becomes a thick broth, spices are added, notably thingnea pepper and then the beef chunks are added as well. All this cooks overnight. I found Zimba’s father tending the fire the next morning when I got up for a bit of a walk before six. Around seven local cheese cut up into pieces was added to  bucketsful of porridge which were distributed to houses of nearby relatives. The family and many guests then gathered in the kitchen to enjoy several bowls of porridge, more guests would filter in and out and I have no idea how many gallons of porridge were consumed. I discovered, as I ate porridge, that the beef chunks were primarily bone, which made the cleaving of the night before all that much more impressive as every stroke cut another piece. The bone pieces were sucked clean and tossed onto plates set out for that purpose or piled neatly on the floor if no plate was handy.

Six monks and a Lama arrived to begin the day long cleansing ceremony, their first order of business was to have several bowls of porridge. The ceremony takes place on a large shrine room or home temple. The shrine room in this house was extensive, intricately decorated, and divided into both the inner and outer rooms. The ceremony is chanting accompanied by horns and drums which lasts all day. Each time the monks took a break the family had a meal ready. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all rice, chili and meat curries in a variety of combinations. One of the curries had small golden mushrooms in it and was delectable. One of the “aunties” sits cross legged on the floor patiently slicing chilis into quarters longways for hours to provide the mounds of chilies required for each meal.
I took time out after breakfast to go into Paro and do some business at the bank. It took two hours as the bank’s system was down I went and watched some archery and returned some time later to stand in a very slow moving line. I was almost to the window when the guard ushered a blind mind to the front of the line. I recognized him as a local celebrity who I had seen on BBS the night before. We had an interesting chat and finally I was able to make my withdrawal. 
The walk back to Zimba’s home was less than thirty minutes, during the walk I travelled from a busy street full of people, cars, and shops of all sorts, to the heart of the tiny village of Nemjo which is carless, surrounded by rice paddies and composed of only traditional farm houses. The walk was almost like traveling back in time to a Bhutan which had existed in isolation for centuries. However, closer inspection reveals the ever present TV that is always on, the ubiquitous cell phone which is ever present even in the hands of children, and the casual western dress of the younger generations, all of these remind me that I am indeed in the 21st century in a culture that is stepping from the 1800’s directly to the present. By midday the meals consisted of 4 generations and several shifts to accommodate everyone.
After lunch we rounded up gho, kabney, and the necessary offerings of butter lamp, incense, and a bag of the first rice harvested this year and pounded into edible flakes. This was in preparation for a visit to Kichu Lhakan, one of the nearby temples which is one of the six holiest in Bhutan. When we visit there seems to be an event going on, the parking is full. Inside there is a fairly large prayer session going on, among the monks praying, in song, there are nuns. It is the first time I have seen women participate in prayer in a Lhakan. Our offerings made we head home.
Later in the afternoon I prodded Zimba to go on a walk to prepare for the next meal. He took me around to his apple orchard. The family has numerous apple orchards, rice paddies, and family members occupy five house in the area. Zimba’s plot of apple trees, perhaps an acre or two, is the spot he hopes to build a house one day to and live near to his home. We pluck some apples from the trees and they are tasty indeed. As we are leaving one of his many “uncles” calls from a nearby house to ask who is the chilip stealing apples. After they palaver for a bit and reestablish who is who, Zimba is a bit of a stranger in his village as his teaching assignments have taken him away from home for many years, all is well. 

We continue around to his grandmothers house, she is 88 and does not get out of the house much. She still lives above the yard where her husband, Rinzin, stabled his strings of pack ponies. He was a trader who spent much of his life traveling to Tibet with goods to trade and return to his storehouse at his home near Paro. His wife, Tshering Bidha, can still tell stories about traveling on foot to Lhasa as a young unmarried woman following the man she wanted to wed. She returned to Paro and had a child at which time her mother had to give up on her attempts to thwart the marriage of Tshering Bidha to the trader. The marriage lasted a lifetime and the family established itself as an integral and important household in the village of Nemjo. We have a nice visit and like all older folks Tshering Bidha appeared truly to enjoy the unannounced visit of her grandson and his unlikely companion. As we walked through the rice paddies we could see the rice heading out on the top of the stems, hanging over a bit heavily as the 
grain matured. Some of the paddies were starting to turn a little golden from the vibrant green they had been earlier in the summer. The rice harvest is still a ways off but things are beginning to change as the days grow ever shorter.
Unlike Eastern Bhutan many households in Western Bhutan are essentially dry. In the East the consumption of ara at every occasion, sometimes starting at breakfast, is the norm but not so in the west. So, nearing the end of our circumnavigation Zimba and I venture into town to enjoy a beer, a whiskey, and some conversation. Between the walk and the drinks we feel well prepared for the final meal of the day. 
In the morning we finish up the last of the porridge and bathe in the bathroom out back with water heated in the big pot on the fire. Hooks and hangers, none in Bhutan, I love hooks to keep everything off the floor, if Bhutan is going to adopt one more thing from the west I suggest hooks everywhere. After a bit we have breakfast, then it is off up the hill a ways to a monastery which is associated with the village. The visit to Kichu and especially to this monastery are part of the ritual of the Puja for Zimba. He invites the two younger boys and three little children to go along with us. This trip to the monastery which is quite old and rather small overlooking the village is a fitting end for our stay in Paro. We go back to the house, eat lunch, pack up, at which point Zimba’s mother loads us up with bags full of produce and a bag of rice for Zimba. 

The trip home includes errands in Thimphu and Bajo, a stop for tea this side of Docha La brings us back to Gaselo to enjoy the packed lunch which was sent along. Whenever Bhutanese have a packed lunch whether it is on the trail or on the road it is the same lunch they would have had at home, rice, emma datsi, meat curry, all packed in plastic bags and eaten as is. 

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