In honor of the Kalachakra ritual being performed in DC right now, I’m releasing this expurgated chapter from my book, Radio Shangri-La. (See below the pictures.) It’s about the Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the National Mall in the summer of 2008, which focused (in part) on Bhutan.
It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, to volunteer for this festival. These photos are from the “monastic arts” tent where I was assigned, and where Namgay the monk “painted” a sacred mandala with his fingers and sand. The chapter below tells you much more:
4- Harmonic Convergence, or, The Faux Bhutan (from the book Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ap Tshering is human Prozac, vibrating energy, beaming pure happiness. Maybe it that he visiting the United States for the first time. Maybe it the fact that he never before in his sixty years stepped a foot out of the Himalayas. Maybe he always this way. You can help but look at him, and it not just what he wearing– the traditional Bhutanese gho, this woven garment that a cross between a bathrobe and a kilt. It that look in his eye, that force field around him. The confidence, without any swagger. And right now, he chosen me for the honor of a dance in the ballroom of the Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn, Virginia.
When you mention Ap Tshering name to another Bhutanese, theyl invariably pause for a moment, shake their head a bit, then tell you emphatically how he one of the richest men in all of Bhutan. How he got 200 yak. Enough food stored away for three years or more—a sure sign of wealth in a poor country. How the family land is riddled with the Himalayan equivalent of gold: cordyceps, a natural Viagra-esque worm that fetches thousands of dollars an ounce at auction. How he once fronted the government payroll for the entire district where he lives when the cash from the capital couldn get through because of the weather. How, as is typical for wealthy clans in the northern part of Bhutan, he and his three brothers share one wife.
I don care about Ap Tshering marital status, or his money. I just love his electricity, the way he holding my hand tight as we shuffle to the twang of Texas bluegrass. Simple, pure communication. The language of the beat—of the moment. How he embodies everything that made me fall in love with Bhutan since I got mixed up with the place a few years ago. I can make small talk to ask if he ever heard this kind of music before. All I know how to say in his language is ello,hank youand est wishes.He doesn speak even two words of English. Somehow I doubt the answer would be yes.
When wee done with a few wordless dances, he gestures toward the hallway. I follow, curiously. What could he possibly need to show me in the halls of this hotel? Does he want something from the bar that theye not selling in the ballroom, like a whiskey, perhaps? Suddenly, I realize what going on. Ap Tshering is grinning more wildly than he has since I first laid eyes on him a few days ago. He may never have seen, much less ridden in, an elevator before coming here. He may have, upon arrival, asked if he could forgo this strange building and that bed with all those pillows to sleep outside in his yak-hair tent, instead. But right now, he pointing upstairs. He wants me to go with him up to his room.
In the summer of 2008, a crack cross-cultural team of Bhutanese and American builders constructed an authentic Buddhist temple right smack in the middle of United States federal property. Not just any federal property. The National Mall, America backyard. You could only get more sacred if you built on the White House lawn, or right beside the Statue of Liberty.
Guys named Khandu and Lhendup worked alongside guys named T-Bone and Tony. Thru a translator, the Bhutanese crew expressed terror when they saw the people coming ut of the ground.(They were passengers exiting the Metro.) They also wondered about the steady stream of planes flying overhead. Where were all those people all going? In their country, one flight a day was a relatively new phenomenon; Bhutan had only had its airport for 25 years, tucked away in the southeastern part of the country, and, since 2004, two planes to serve it. Flying was a luxurious mode of travel reserved for dignitaries, tourists or Bhutanese traveling to distant lands to study.
As they unpacked the sacred religious components of the temple from a shipping container that had been in transit for three months from Bhutan, it was clear the American crew couldn tell the difference between a Guru Rinpoche and a green Tara if their lives depended on it. Even if this particular summer, their livelihoods did. Using nonverbal communication, a shared love of tools, and beers every afternoon, together they erected this ornate 40x 40structure in under a month, a fraction of the time it would have taken on Bhutanese soil. A giant jigsaw puzzle, in the name of Buddha.
The speed at which they worked was thanks to modern construction equipment unavailable in Bhutan, and an important deadline: The start of the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. This year, the tiny, remote, historically cloistered Himalayan Kingdom was to be the featured country. Over a million visitors were expected to converge on the Mall over a two-week period, which included the almighty birthday of America–guaranteed to generate a mob scene. In all of Bhutan, there were only around 700-thousand people. Only in the last year had the number of tourists visiting the country swelled as high as twenty thousand. Never in history had the nation exposed itself to such a wide audience. In fact, it had long gone out of its way to keep people out, officially allowing visitors only in 1974. Now, here Bhutan was, complicit in one hell of an advertisement for itself.
The reason for the reverse in course at this particular moment in time was, as these things usually are, complicated. Bhutan was in the throes of an unprecedented transition. Its beloved King had surprised the people 18 months earlier by handing the throne over to his eldest son, years before anyone had expected such a transition to take place. Not long before he abdicated, he ordered the election of the country first democratic government. All as the nation was gearing up to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of his family rule. Bhutan was growing up, reaching out, in ways it hadn before. There couldn be a better time for an enormous coming-out party.
When the 144 member Bhutanese delegation arrived at Dulles airport on Sunday, June 22, 2008, they had been traveling for almost a week. Or in Ap Tshering case, close to two weeks, since, from his village, you have to walk five days to reach the nearest road, and from there drive two days to the airport. This motley group had wrought havoc on the airlines as they trekked west. Three guys in the bunch named Kuenzang Thinley, all with the same birthday, 1-1-60. The computers had assumed there had to be a mistake, and dropped two of them from the flights. What you couldn program in to the most sophisticated database was an understanding of Bhutanese naming convention. For one thing, there are only about fifty names in Bhutan. For another, names are conferred by the monks, not parents—and theye unisex. Nor do you inherit your surname from your father. And so, duets of names occur with the frequency you only dream full houses would in poker. A man named Pema Wangdi could be married to a lady named Pema Lhamo and they could have a son named Pema Dorji. If you shouted any of the names in a public place, probably half the heads would turn to attention.
There was no way, either, that a computer could know that birth records weren kept in Bhutan until the early eighties. People born before that typically didn know their date of birth. Their mothers were too busy to notice, and besides, keeping time with watches and calendars was the domain of the developed world. When official documents were necessary for anyone not born more recently, January First was assigned as the default birthday, attached to a guesstimation of a year. Moreover, it had only been in 2007 that all Bhutanese passports had been converted from handwritten to computerized. The government realized for its people to venture out in the world in the post 9-11 era, such a high-tech touch was essential. Perhaps they also had the exodus for the Festival in mind; this was the largest group of Bhutanese to ever leave the country at one time.
After coping with the duplicate names mess, the delegation had been detained at customs at Dulles for hours. Their checked baggage included two hundred containers, from sturdy trunks to taped-together cardboard boxes, jammed with bows, arrows, religious scrolls, textiles, incense, statues, and various miscellaneous supplies unidentifiable to government agents—like fiery hot chili paste to get through weeks of anticipated spice-less western fare. Chiles were a thrice-daily staple of Bhutanese cuisine, prepared and consumed as if they were vegetables. The more tear-inducingly hot they were, the better. (Giant mounds of rice helped mitigate the impact.) Then, there were the knives. No man in Bhutan feels complete without his machete—which he carries more as a utility than a weapon. Everyone had been instructed to pack those away in checked baggage, too, but invariably some forgot, causing consternation among security guards.
Perhaps half of the delegation, like Ap Tshering, had never seen a plane, much less been on one, before this trip. In advance of their journey, the newbie travelers in the bunch had been briefed on the finer points of Western etiquette, how they should not spit, urinate or defecate under trees. For even the elite among them–those who had earned fancy degrees on scholarship at the finest western schools– the notion of staying for two weeks in a six-story Marriott with maid service, cable TV, a bathroom in every room featuring endless hot water and stacks of fluffy towels and little wrapped soaps—for free!– not to mention a catered party every evening in a ballroom, well, that was luxury beyond their wildest imaginations. And now this King-approved lot of people was expected to create and appear in a replica, a living museum, of their tiny country. In the dead center of the ultimate embodiment of capitalism and consumption—everything the Bhutanese had long aspired not to be.
Citizens chosen to appear at the festival were the best of the best at what they did, a kind of ho whoof modern Bhutan. An astrologer renowned across the land for his accurate readings of the heavens. Bhutan most acclaimed and one of its few published writers. Bhutan most sought-after painter, the first to break out of the tradition of Buddhist art to express himself individually. (He was 50, and hadn seen paper until he was nine years old.) Bhutan most famous actor, who also happened to be a television producer and host and the pivotal character in one of the few books ever published about the country. (His fame and his personality were so widespread that 20 years ago he been nicknamed itler,the fuhrer being the most famous person anyone in Bhutan at the time could muster. It had nothing to do with hatred or genocide. Just notoriety.)
The holiest monks were imported to staff the temple, to chant and offer visitors thin cords of silk around the neck as blessings. (So many blessings were given, the silk ran out and yarn had to be substituted.) The finest artisans were to demonstrate their crafts, the intricate weaving, embroidery, silversmithing, woodworking, incense-making of which Bhutan was so proud.
In addition to being acclaimed in their lines of work, those who came to America had to meet another key criterion: They had to be considered extremely unlikely to want to stow away in America. The Bhutanese took great pride that the vast majority of its citizens who ventured out for education and training returned, unwilling and unable to adapt to life beyond their borders. That was changing now. In the ten years since television had been beamed into the country, more and more of Bhutan people—particularly its young—had been struck with an acute case of wanderlust. At the least they wanted to move from the remote villages of Bhutan to the capital city; the more ambitious of them aimed to study overseas. Many harbored a desire to live and work in the promised land of the West, where they were sure vast fortunes awaited them. For all the good being on display in the United States might do Bhutan, it would be a public relations disaster back home if even one festival participant decided this was his opportunity to stick around and mine the streets of America for gold.
The presence of a member of the royal family helped keep everyone in line. Reverence for royalty was inculcated in the youngest Bhutanese. By law, you were prohibited to defame it—not that positive feelings needed to be legislated. The handsome young Prince Jigyel –a doppelganger for his father, the fourth King–had been chosen by his half-brother, the new and fifth King, to lead the delegation. None of his subjects could imagine doing anything that could be construed as disrespectful.
Now, but for this cast of characters, and the temple that was its centerpiece, this makeshift Bhutan really didn look a thing like the real one. It couldn possibly. Replicating the curious splendor of the Kingdom against the backdrop of the Mall mish-mash of architectural styles and fauna would be impossible. A wide open space dotted with porta-potties and trash bins and concession stands didn—couldn—exist in an undeveloped place like Bhutan. Then there was the matter of those enormous structures at the ends of the Mall, taller than any structure in the Kingdom, unless you factored in the altitude. (At least several Bhutanese thought the US Capitol must be home to the President—because wouldn the most imposing building belong to the ingof America?) Not to mention that in Bhutan, where archery matches are ubiquitous, there are no security guards to keep onlookers out of the line of fire. Everyone in Bhutan knows of at least one person who been felled by an arrow.
As inauthentic as the backdrop might be, this faux Bhutan and the real live people in it captured hundreds of thousands of hearts and minds. It was the ultimate, and mostly harmonic, convergence. Bhutan-philes the world over who traveled to see this unprecedented replica of the country they loved oohed and ahhed at the very sight of out-of-context Bhutanalia. Astronauts and cowboys appearing at the Festival other two exhibits, dedicated to the state of Texas and to NASA, fell in love with the colorful ceremonial boots worn by the Bhutanese and bought them right off the feet of their owners. Pretty young American festival volunteers—one who worked at Disneyland as Snow White, even— flirted with the Prince and partied with him late into the night. Families visiting the Nation Capital City for America birthday–who just stumbled on the festival while looking for the Air and Space Museum—stood for an hour in 92-degree temperatures just to get a glimpse inside that temple. Then headed over to the arts and crafts tent to finger paint wall-hangings of Buddhism eight lucky symbols.
Hasidic mothers and their broods stared curiously as a bear-like Buddhist monk named Tazi precisely molded delicate religious sculptures called torma with his enormous hands, little jewel like pastry-esque discs so pretty they looked like confectionary flowers on a birthday cake. Poor kids on field trips from inner city DC Head Start day camps learned the social significance of salty yak butter tea. Employees of a local Indian restaurant served up a spiced-down, Americanized interpretation of Bhutan red-hot staple chile and cheese dish, emadatse, in Styrofoam containers for nine bucks a plate. (A sum that could feed a typical Bhutanese family for over a week.) Hundreds of tourists at a time crammed under an enormous white plastic tent in the scorching DC heat, mesmerized (or perhaps lulled) by the repetitive motion of masked men performing religious dances never before seen in the United States. Patient visitors sweat it out in line for an hour for the chance to get wrapped up in the official Bhutanese national dress. (Only one guy made off with the loaner outfit.)
In the gift shop, shoppers picked over Texan and NASA-themed merchandise, while wiping practically everything Bhutanese off the shelves. Including cases of etoxherbal tea named for Tsheringma, the protective goddess of long life. Pricetag: $13.50 for twenty bags–twelve dollars more than you pay back in Bhutan.
The worst dissent came in the form of the occasional rogue contrarian, who raise his hand in the lecture tents with questions about displaced Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese descent, a dispute that had simmered for over twenty years now. The Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations got so exasperated by the drumming about refugee camps and resettlement that he refused to keep showing up at what were supposed to be cheerful sessions discussing what it was like to be an expat from such a curious homeland.
But for the most part, even the festival-goers who thought this Bhutan a bit weird couldn’t help but be charmed. Even the Bhutanese who couldn wait to get home to the simple quiet of their daily routines—and their own food— were bolstered by the knowledge that they were serving their King by being here, and participating in history.
And while on the face of it, the festival itself was the main event, the more amazing thing was the big picture for Bhutan, a country where a complex series of forts had been built centuries ago in the name of repelling outsiders. It had only been thirty years since the first tourists were permitted in —and even then, only under the most rigid restrictions. For years, strict laws had led to arrest and punishment for those who didn wear the Bhutanese national dress in public. In the modern, Internet-connected global village in which Bhutan had chosen to dwell, it couldn keep itself cordoned off any more. The literal gates might still be up, but the figurative ones were falling down.
The very prospect of modernization—whether to, and how— had been a source of internal strife for many years. Some even believed the royal-appointed Prime Minister had been assassinated in 1964 because of his progressive views. There was an inherent risk in Bhutan now allowing this public celebration. Who knew what could follow as a result of this display? Which of the delegates would get hooked to the convenience of elevators and escalators, find those beds at the Marriott awfully cozy? Which of the festival attendees was to visit Bhutan at some point down the road and fall in love with a local, or conjure up some scheme for a business there? No one had any idea, of course. And that was, in fine Buddhist fashion, the point. Even if for years this particular clan of Buddhists had done their best to avoid mingling too much with the outside world, they knew well this basic underpinning of their faith: The only constant in life is change.
___________________ (possible cut here to last scene with Ap Thinley.)
One day, after the festival had closed to the public for the evening, I paid a quick visit to the Monastic Arts tent to say hello and see if anyone needed anything. For a few days earlier, my volunteer job had been serving as the voice of the monks—explaining to the general public the nature of sand mandala paintings, how they were made with painstaking precision, only to get swept away. As I answered questions, Namgay, the monk so expert in this art that he taught the other monks back at the monastery in Bhutan, sat bent over a 12-foot square wooden table, his body in an almost perfect 90-degree fold that would leave even the most flexible yogi needing traction. Namgay gently feathered colored sand into intricate patterns with spectacular precision using nothing but his thumb and forefinger. Tibetan monks needed tools, but not the Bhutanese. Dozens gathered, rapt, gazing silently for minutes at a time as he transformed the dull, rust-colored tabletop with this beautiful, sacred design. To show how easy this wasn, a display area allowed onlookers to try their hands at aintingwith sand.
o way,said a girl, about thirteen years old, her hair a nest of ponytails, her voice pitched to amazement. This seemed to be the typical reaction to Namgay. This particular onlooker was just more vociferous. e just doing that with no tools or nothing? No WAY!o:p>
e incredible, isn he,I said, feeling rather PT Barnum-esque. The entire festival had a bit of an air of a three-ring circus, so why not seize the mood?
About a quarter of the table was covered at this point with arcs of bright reds and purples and greens. ow long has he been doing this?she asked.
ince the festival started.o:p>
o, no, I mean, how many years has he been doing this stuff with sand?o:p>
Twenty-five years, since he was a little boy and joined the monastery.o:p>
could practice for 25 years and never do that!the girl exclaimed, to no one in particular. She circled around the assembled crowd and poked through it to see Namgay work from another angle. Adolescent shyness did not appear to part of her makeup. hat happens to it when he done?o:p>
ell.I spoke with as much understated drama as I could muster. t gets brushed away.o:p>
ait a minute,she said, shaking her head. You mean he spends hours and hours and hours on that, and then just DESTROYS it? No, I don believe it. Mama, did you hear that?The girl shouted over Namgay and across a thick, otherwise speechless crowd. It was astonishing enough that Namgay could concentrate with a mob hovering so close, many of them leaning onto the edge of his table-canvas with their sweaty cups of $3 lemonades and such dangling precariously near this masterpiece. But with someone shouting? This must be evidence of how a quarter century of monastic training hones your ability to focus. hat crazy! I shoot myself if someone did that to something I worked so hard on.Her faced was all twisted, and she had her hands on her hips. She was genuinely outraged. ow, explain to me why would you work so hard on something and DESTROY it? That doesn make any sense.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>
ell, actually,I said, taking the bait and cribbing what Karma, one of the monks who spoke English, had told me in an ad-hoc crash andala for Dummiestraining session. hese mandala paintings embody three important beliefs of the Buddhists. The very making of it is a meditation for Namgay, a form of prayer and concentration. Looking at it is a meditation or spiritual experience for the rest of us. And sweeping it away is an example of impermanence. The Buddhists believe nothing lasts forever, and destroying the mandala is an illustration of that.
ama, did you hear that? That just crazy,the girl said, although her Mama had disappeared in the crowd as it continued to swell in the lunchtime rush. At least, I couldn see her anymore. hat CRAZY!span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> She paused to think about it for a minute. could never, ever be one of those, what did you call it, Boo-dists.o:p>
At the end of each day, on display to what must have felt like all of America, and after various seemingly endless permutations of this kind of patter, even the imperturbable, Dzonghkha-only Namgay seemed a bit fatigued. Maybe it was the toll of the unfamiliar humidity, all the chatter. On this particular early evening, the heat had dialed down a bit from its mid-day extreme, but at twilight, the air still hung thick. Namgay smiled a hello. Standing near him were Tazi, the torma-maker, Karma, the English-speaking monk, and another younger man– also named Namgay. Back in Bhutan, he ran a tour company. He was hoping that by being here, he drum up some customers.
o you guys need anything?I asked, past the point of wondering if uyswas an irreverent word when it came to monks. Besides, language was benign; they begun to cheerfully acquiesce to the near-constant clutch of tourists grabbing them and mugging for photos. Back home, no one would dare touch a man of the cloth.
ell, wee thinking of going shopping,said Karma. The monks had been going shopping after the festival most every day; not being drinkers, the nightly parties back at the Marriott ballroom were not quite their cup of tea. Not to mention that this was a rare opportunity to avail themselves of the consumer goods unavailable in their part of the world. e went to Target last night. Got watches.He held up his wrist; in the remote parts of Bhutan, a wristwatch was still a coveted acquisition. Earlier in the week, on the festival day off, they bought digital cameras. e may go to Pentagon City Mall tonight to the Macys. But we also need to find an art supply store. Do you know where?o:p>
do, actually,I said. hat do you need?o:p>
Namgay the monk produced a slip of paper from his robes and handed it to me. Printed on it meticulously in block letters was the word, CETONE.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> He looked at Karma as he spoke, and Karma translated.
e would like a liter of this acetone, if it possible, and he would be very appreciative. Also empty spray bottles, about this big?He gestured about a quarter of the size of a Windex bottle. s it possible to bring us two of those?span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> I said it would be my pleasure, and although I was curious what all this was for, I didn pry. Karma continued, lso. Do you know how to get to the Pentagon City Mall?o:p>
The Macys at the Pentagon City Mall had been the point of pilgrimage for many members of the delegation. It was more than the fact that it was conveniently located a few metro stops from the Marriott in Rosslyn. The department store was a known purveyor of a large selection of long, dark men socks of the Gold Toe variety. In a society where everyone had to wear the same outfit, a pair of Gold Toe brand socks was the ultimate practical fashion accessory. For the gho reached just to the knee, leaving men mighty calves exposed to the elements. Tall socks that covered this indelicate body part had become, especially in colder weather, an essential part of a man haberdashery. But Gold Toes—coveted for their softness, sag-free nature and durability—well, they simply couldn be bought in Bhutan. Only cheap facsimiles could, and, since they were imported from China by way of Bangladesh, as was most Western clothing available in Bhutan, they fetched a whopping ten bucks a pair. For a Bhutanese to leave the country and not return with at least several pair of Gold Toes was unimaginable. Even though the monks didn wear them with their red robes, they were a staple of every shopping list for family members back home.
I tried to break the bad news gently.
ut if youe looking for the socks, someone else in the group told me yesterday that Macy is all out,I said. ll the Bhutanese have been going there.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>
Disappointment washed over the face of the serene-looking Karma.
id you look in Target? They always have them,I offered. heaper, too.o:p>
e will. Okay, yes, we know the Target. Thank you. Another thing. Namgay,he gestured to the tour guide Namgay, anted to go to Pentagon City for something else.o:p>
he Apple store,beamed Namgay. going to buy a computer. A laptop.
After a day out on one Mall, the last thing I could imagine was a night at the other Mall. Besides, given the choice between shopping and going to the dentist, I always choose the dentist. My plan for the evening had been to take a swim at the Marriott, to cool off and tune out for a while. But, I did know a thing or two about Apple computers, and I did want to help out the monks and their posse. In Bhutan, if you ask someone how to get somewhere, anywhere, they drop everything and take you and wait patiently until you are done, even if it means an investment of several hours. In the spirit of Bhutanese-American relations, I found myself offering to escort Namgay.
have a thousand dollars that someone owed me,he said, patting the front of his gho, which hid a pouch that served as a catch-all kind of purse. have to buy a laptop quick before I spend the money. I can have money in my hands without spending.o:p>
Just like most people in this country, I thought. But while the impossibility of keeping money in your pocket might be universal, the similarities stopped there. In Bhutan, there not only wasn much money, there wasn much to buy. Hard currency didn exist until a bit over forty years ago, and anything beyond the basics –anything that wasn actually produced in Bhutan, which was very little—was still hard to find.
After our goodbyes, Namgay and I were headed to the rush-hour Metro and the monks were headed off in the other direction to Target. I said I have the monk Namgay acetone to him tomorrow.
Shopping malls, as anyone who has frequented several of them knows, are a bit like cars. They all have the same components, but they vary widely in their finish. The Pentagon City Mall is a Mercedes of shopping. For anyone who hopes to part with money in exchange for some sort of item, it is the quintessential luxury shopping experience, Fifth Avenue under glass. Its glass-topped four stories gleam and glisten and scream: o ahead and conspicuously consume.o:p>
If the rush hour mob scene on the Metro ride from the National Mall to the Shopping Mall hadn been enough to undo Namgay, emerging from under ground into the palatial structure itself almost did. To acclimate, we leaned at the edge of the first level, which allowed a 360-degree view of the action: down at the mobbed post-work food court and up at the escalators filled with people clutching logo-embossed bags stuffed with booty, and all around at display after display and store after store bursting with lavish items, all available for purchase. Stuff, stuff, and more stuff. He might have seen pictures of American shopping malls a thousand times in movies, but clearly the real thing didn quite capture the frenetic reality.
This Pentagon City shopping paradise overwhelmed even me, a native daughter of capitalism. Namgay glued himself to my side, the way a child would to his mother in a crowd. Leading a group through the forest and preposterous elevation of the 25-day Snowmen Trek — no problem. Navigating the mall, a whole different story.
After a few moments of taking it all in, he spoke, shaking his head.
here sure is a lot to buy here,he said. The Bhutanese were typically understated, not prone to exclamation. In fact, people who exclaimed made them a bit nervous. I learned pretty quickly to dial things down a bit when I was with them. ou have a lot here.o:p>
In Bhutan capital city of Thimphu, shops were decidedly not of the chain variety, and they were the opposite of the pristine and well-organized American merchants founds in shopping centers. Most of the Bhutanese shops looked like the rattiest, cobbled together mom and pop version of 99 cent stores, chaotic, crammed full of all manner of merchandise. An establishment might have, on the same shelf, boxed juice, potato chips, shampoo, cheap plastic toys, with big cardboard boxes on the floors stuffed with a jumble of clothing, all of it produced someplace else. The average yard sale was more organized. Most of the non-Bhutanese clothing you could buy was stuff that had been rejected from Bangladeshi factories, deemed too flawed for top-dollar Western consumption. Right next door, another shop might have the identical merchandise, displayed in its own disorderly fashion.
ell, I didn realize there would be food here, too,Namgay said. s there a McDonalds?span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>
I squinted to see through the row of signs, hoping the answer would be no. mm, yes. Looks like it. Down that way.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> I motioned laconically to the left from where we were standing.
an I treat you to a hamburger?he asked, the cash in his gho pocket burning a hole. ee going to miss the dinner at the hotel, so we should eat something.o:p>
ell, youe right,I said, hedging, for the only thing I might dislike more than shopping malls was fast food. ave you ever had McDonald before?span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> I didn want to deny him the experience if he been dreaming about it.
es, in Thailand.o:p>
id you love it?o:p>
t was okay.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> Namgay shrugged. He didn look rapturous over the thought of a Big Mac. It just seemed like the thing to ask for in America.
ell, if it okay, let get a slightly better hamburger—so you can compare. This is my treat.o:p>
Bhutanese are infamous for saying no when they mean yes. It impolite in Bhutan to accept anything, especially food, when offered on the first go. Youe supposed to say no several times and finally acquiesce. Right now, this cultural difference worked in my favor. Before he could change his mind, I navigated us into a slightly different sort of chain restaurant, the Johnny Rockets, a sock hop diner-esque joint with jukeboxes on the table. As Namgay followed the waitress toward the back, majestic in his orange and red gho and white ceremonial boots with the green trim, everyone turned to stare. In New York, no one would have looked twice. In suburban Virginia, he became instant dinner conversation.
f I hadn worn gho, no one could tell I wasn from around here,Namgay said, laughing, devouring the first onion rings of his life, and slurped his first-ever milkshake (vanilla.) As he curiously twirled the knob on the table-top jukebox, he said he liked his cheeseburger, too,
Stuffed with our one-step-up from fast food, we rode the escalator to the second level to the reason we were here, the Apple store. The temple to modern living that seemed to have happy juice pumped into the air. Everyone in here always looked blissed out as they touched the merchandise, the prospect of a digital future in their very hands.
And, as we made our way into the crowd to the MacBook display, I immediately realized we had a problem.
The nametag around the neck of the tall, clean-cut sales clerk announced, o.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> Another indication we weren in New York was that all the workers here seemed awfully clean cut, not hipster looking garage band types, like they been in every other Apple store I visited. Besides his middle American good looks, Bo was strictly business. His day job was doing IT at the Pentagon; he just loved computers. Moonlighting gave him a reason to be around a type of machine he didn get to play with during regular hours. He seemed not to notice Namga clothing; Bo was all about equal opportunity geeking out. The two of them immediately got down to business, discussing features and RAM and the need with a Macintosh to purchase software that came pre-loaded on a PC.
As they chattered, another sales clerk appeared out of nowhere, rushing over urgently. His nametag said he was, att.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> He was a foot shorter than Bo and way more animated, but just as clean cut.
h my god! Are you — are you Bhutanese? Yes, I recognize the outfit—what it called again? Right, right, ho.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> I love those boots! My god! How exciting! Welcome to the Apple store! Welcome to America!!!! Ie been to your country and it just so bee-you-ti-ful!span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> He looked at me, as if Namgay wouldn understand this part of it. was dating a guy who was living in Nepal, studying. A crazy long-distance thing. And the guy knew some Bhutanese people, and all of a suddenly we were traveling there, as guests. No tourist visas!span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> He looked back at Namgay. /span>The food was fantastic in Bhutan. I Italian and I loved all the garlic.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> That comment made me wonder if he really been to Bhutan, or was mixing it up with someplace else. Of all that people loved, they never raved about the cuisine. n Nepal, they would offer us another curry and we say, no thanks. So, my god—what are you doing here?o:p>
came here to buy a computer,Namgay said, confused, because that seemed kind of obvious.
o, I mean, why are you here in the DC area?o:p>
Namgay seemed kind of lost, so I explained the festival. Matt remembered that he heard about it, needed to make it over there. He started rattling off names, places, books he read about Bhutan. Politely and proudly on the very model computer he was thinking of buying, Namgay called up the Web site for his travel agency. Several requisite beauty shots of the Bhutanese landscape sprang to life on the screen, followed by a picture of him flanked by Sting and his wife Trudi Styler. Namgay most famous client. Celebrities loved coming to Bhutan because there were so few other tourists to gawk at them, and no paparazzi. But whoever their tour guide was usually made up for that. Matt took the bait.
ou had Sting as a client? I LOVE Sting. How fabulous!span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> By now, Bo had excused himself and disappeared, perhaps in search of less exotic customers.
Matt picked up where he left off. A discussion of price of the computer ensued. To walk out of the store with the least expensive MacBook, with a memory upgrade necessary for all the pictures Namgay needed to maintain his Web site, as well as the necessary software, and, to be cautious, the extended warranty protection plan, plus the sales tax would bring the total for a computer with a $1099 price tag up to over $1700. Seven hundred dollars more than Namgay had in his pocket.
e offer an installment plan. Or. You could use a credit card?Matt said.
here are no credit cards in Bhutan,I said, defensively and then wondered out loud: esides, how would the protection plan work in a place like Bhutan? It not like Apple has a service center there, and toll-free numbers or anything. Few people have their own computers, anyway—much less Apple computers.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> Though the younger generations were, because of television, becoming more aware of consumer products, an older man had asked me in Thimphu if a radio I brought from a 99-cent store, the size of a pack of gum, was an iPod.
hina and India are right next, door, aren they?offered Matt, clearly proud that he knew his geography. ou could ship it to India. We pay for the postage if there a problem.o:p>
It was obvious that on his visit to Namgay country, Matt hadn had experience with Bhutan Post. It wasn like there was a Fed Ex drop-box on every corner in Bhutan. There wasn even home mail delivery, because there weren any street addresses. Despite being wedged between the two most populous countries in the world, it took weeks if not longer for anything to get into or out of the country.
Matt wasn being a pushy salesman. He was genuinely trying to be helpful. With every possible solution Matt raised, there was a Bhutanese antidote to it. And there was still the matter of money.
ook, I really want you to be able to have this computer. I love the idea of knowing youe in Bhutan using an Apple.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> Matt lowered his voice conspiratorially. not supposed to do this. But. What if I drop the sales tax? Does that help at all?span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> Virginia sales tax was the lowest in the country. That only slashed around a hundred bucks off the price. Even if we dropped the Apple Care protection plan for $250, with the necessary software and memory upgrade, we still be four hundred bucks over what Namgay had in his pocket. can try to throw in the software, too, but we have to be very, very quiet about it. Go ahead. Sleep on it. Il be back here again tomorrow night.o:p>
Namgay already seemed to have made up his mind. The lack of cash made up his mind for him. He politely said he consider it, but I knew he didn mean it. I struggled with how to offer him the money to make up the difference, wave my credit card and just make it all happen; I wanted to help, but I wanted him to feel self-sufficient, and most of all, I didn want to hurt his pride.
ell, for now: Do you have a case for this?span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> He pulled an iPhone out of his pocket. The world snazziest communications device, just released on the market in the US several months before. To get one that worked in Bhutan must have set Namgay back at least $600. Matt looked a bit surprised.
here did you get that?
got it unlocked from a friend.span style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> Namgay grinned, for he knew what a big deal it was to have done that.
Thirty bucks later, we were heading out of the Mall, the iPhone encased in a hip bit of black plastic, and a large sum of money still in Namgay gho pocket. I routed us past a drug store to look for acetone, and picked upt two big bottles of the stuff, pure 100%. It only said in tiny letters that it was nail polish remover. There were just two spray bottles left in the store, one pink, the other green, so I bought those. For good measure, I got two packages of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookies. It felt good to bring the monks sweets.
The next day before the festival opened, I delivered the goods to the monks.
hank you so much,Karma said, with his beatific smile. Namgay the monk looked very happy, too. They fished around their pockets, and offered me cash, which I refused. amgay says this will be very helpful.o:p>
glad to hear it,I hesitated, not wanting to be nosy. o you mind if I ask you what it for?o:p>
ack home at the monastery,explained Karma, in the same matter of fact tone he described the mandala to me in the first place, completely unaware that he was contradicting the notion of impermanence the sand painting was supposed to illustrate. y spraying the acetone lightly on the sand, itl hold it in place.o:p>
On the final day of the festival, Ap Thinley waved me in to his yak-tent. This invitation I would not refuse, as I had his last one to join him up in his room. I tried to mime that I was expected at my day volunteer job on the other side of the grounds. Today my assignment was to transcribe a session about Television in Bhutan, and it was about to get underway any minute. Ap Thinley couldn and didn understand. His body language made it clear he insisted. Wanting to be polite, I folded back the flap of the yak-hair tent and sat down on the ground, enjoying the cool of the shade. Already it was one of those muggy DC days. Smoky incense clouded the dark air. Ap Thinley fumbled for something next to a pile of business cards visitors had left behind. I imagined him flipping through those cards back home, finding a younger person who could read English to translate, as yak peacefully lumbered around in the cold air, their movements reverberating in the silence. From the front pocket of his gho, he pulled out a pile of money, some American dollars, some Bhutanese ngultrum, and a giant heap of chartreuse colored meal tickets. All the participants had been given $9 worth of coupons each day, to pay for a lunch entre and a beverage. But Ap Thinley, he hadn been using them. Take-out food wasn exactly part of his culture. He was probably scandalized by the idea of a toss-away container, not to mention the unusual taste and cost of this foreign cuisine. A couple times over the last few weeks when I passed by this tent, I’d seen him furtively munching on those hard white biscuits from back home, one of the contraband imports. I understood. When I was in Bhutan, I found myself smuggling in Power Bars and paying dearly for Skippy peanut butter and Kellogg Corn Flakes, stuff I would never, ever eat back at home.
From this wad of cash and papers, he carefully—lovingly, paternally, almost– counted out $9 dollars worth of meal tickets, as if he were giving me something precious—or, perhaps, my allowance. He pressed them into my palm, and cupped his hands over mine tightly, the warmth like a glow. And he looked deep into my eyes, and said, smiling beatifically, ello./span>