Bhutan. Why Bhutan?
The last and perhaps most mysterious of the Forbidden Kingdoms, a place where Gross Domestic Product is measured in units of Happiness rather than Productivity. It is also a nation-state, in its struggle for modernity, that has exiled nearly one-third of its population because of a mutually stubborn attachment to ethnic identity, religious practice, language, and political power.
I thought I might be headed for Tibet, which occupies a much larger place in the imagination of modern seekers of the far-flung, mysterious, and remote. There was also Nepal, that more humble and accessible Shangri-la of the imagination. Except I would have to negotiate passage through China or India to get to one or the other.
Thanks to the expulsion of its predominantly Hindu ethnic minority of Nepalese, Bhutan is the only Buddhist nation left on earth. It is also the only place on earth where it is illegal to sell tobacco products.
So, Bhutan it was. Thailand would bookend the two harrowing flights in and out of Paro, an airport only eight pilots are qualified to fly in and out of. Did I mention I am terrified of flying, especially take-offs and landings?
We probably all have a place or places that becomes the repository of our desires to encounter the unknown and unexpected, to escape the familiar and predictable. That place might be the moon for some of us. For others, it reveals itself in a bizarre fascination with the Titanic or motor vehicles of various sort. Most of us have this idea of a place, often after visiting for the first time, but usually because we haven’t.
For me, that place was the Himalayas and it was a place that resonated in both pictures and words from early childhood. Alliterative descriptions such as Kingdom of Heaven, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, the Last Shangri-la, Roof of the World, rattled around in my head and mouth accompanied by the visual poetry of an active imagination and books I would borrow from my grandfathers library. I would pore over these tomes, mostly looking at pictures, for hours until the desire to touch those mountains, rivers, and skies became so desperate and palpable that I would pick the books up, breaking spines along the way, shaking those landscapes out into my more mundane world of neighborhood bullies, schoolyard traumas, and three fairly vicious sisters.
As I approached my 50th birthday, wondering how on earth I could actually be 50, I was also about to celebrate twenty years with my partner and two years out from the end of radiation treatment for early stage cancer. This seemed as good an occasion as any to reach back for the childish stuff such dreams are made of.
It’s a bit of a hassle to get to Bhutan. The government tightly controls tourism, possibly out of fear that the third of the population kicked over the border to Nepal might sneak back in. There is a daily tariff of $250 per person plus visa fees and departure taxes, ensuring a quality of tourism that is unlike that of its immediate neighbor. This is not budget travel but the tariff does include lodging, all meals, a vehicle and driver, and guide. For trekkers, the tariff includes pack animals and everything needed to prevent death from exposure and hunger while out and about on your chaperoned walkabout. I don’t camp. I don’t poop in holes, especially if I have to dig them myself, and I am miserable without a daily bath and nice shampoo. A cultural tour would be more my speed.
The tariff, which is wired along with flight costs well in advance of departure, also includes a government royalty, which is put toward all the infrastructure needed to promote the growth of Gross National Happiness: education, healthcare, roads, housing, public safety, etc. I felt pretty good about spending my tourist dollars towards such a goal despite nagging concerns over human rights abuses in the preservation of this Shangri-la.
So, eyes full of stars so close you could reach out and touch them, I set off for REI to look for suitable yet fashionable attire in which to meet any Thunder Gods I might encounter. I did manage to find some pants that did not cost $600. I felt okay about leaving them behind if I decided to instead pack my suitcase full of prayer flags and beads, or amulets and traditional healing herbs.
So, after answering the question of “Why Bhutan?” the next question would be why so long in making the journey. I live in San Francisco. I’m a working class kid who made good. I taught myself to like wine and heirloom vegetables. There is no wine country or haute cuisine in Bhutan, at least not yet.
I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 2010 and, because my cancer was hormone positive, my oncologists thought it a good idea to cut my wine consumption back to less than three pours a week. Alcohol raises estrogen levels and over 75% of breast cancers thrive on estrogen.
After finishing the primary treatments, two lumpectomies and radiation, I found myself with an increasingly severe gastrointestinal condition. Basically, I barf whenever I eat or drink. I can’t keep anything down. This had nothing to do with BC or treatment. I was recently diagnosed with Achalasia, apparently one of those lonely diseases, the ones no one wants to take home when the bars shut down.
Achalasia is an interesting disease. It lacks the tragic poetry of cancer but it is equally complex and doubly mysterious for the fact so little is known about it. We don’t know why we get it and there are only 1000 cases reported annually. I suspect there are too few of us to pique the interest of drug and biotech companies. As a result of this lack of a potential market, there is no push for a cure or an elegant solution. The best treatment is a surgery which will require a second surgery and both of those might fail within a decade.
Anyhow, never one to complain, the upside of taking expensive booze and fine dining off the table was that I was free to visit all those places where the normal traveler loses 20 pounds for fear of eating the local cuisine or going blind after imbibing on the local hooch. There was no small village, Kasbah, hilltop, or remote island that was off-limits now. So long as I didn’t have to dig a hole or poop in one, I was good to go.
The other driving agent of will was my upstairs neighbor, a young man of 18, who took off on a three-month trip to India despite parental forebodings. As is usually the case between adults and young males on the brink of manhood, my opinion of this kid wasn’t always generous. The kid came back from his Odyssey completely transformed or maybe just different. Perhaps embarking on my own Homeric dream trip would transform me, too.