Getting under the skin of a country that measures success in ‘Gross National Happiness’
Shaking the dry soil from their fragile roots and collecting them into bundles to cast down to the flooded terraces where younger women stood, ankle deep, planting them into the water with flat backs and legs spread wide. Their lips cracked into smiles when they saw me, revealing stained red teeth. “Betel nut – Bhutanese lipstick!” laughed, Sonam. “It staves off hunger and gives you a boost.” The tinkle of cowbells echoed from the valley below and the setting sun warmed our backs.
A wooden house stood on stilts overlooking the paddies. “Let's say hello to my neighbour,” suggested Kinley. Lemo Zam was in her twilight years and welcomed us with the wide white smile of a mare. The walls of her sparse two- room home were blackened by cooking- fire soot, and neatly piled in the corner were her sleeping blankets. “Her sister was married first, then she stole her husband, so they share him,” related Kinley, watching to see if I was shocked by the common occurrence of polygyny in Bhutan. With the light fading, we headed home and I fell onto my tiger- grass mattress and listened to the dogs bark at the darkness.
“They keep the demons away,” Sonam told me the next morning.
“Mum is preparing mangey – Bhutanese pizza – for breakfast,” enthused Kinley, as their blind house dog, Kamba, shuffled and wheezed across the kitchen floor like a grey shag pile carpet. We spread the gelatinous rice- flour pancakes with a paste of poppy seeds, chilli, ginger and coriander, and poured shallow bowls of butter tea for each other. “Zhim tok tok [ delicious],” I mouthed.
Afterwards, Kinley led me into the bedroom and asked me to strip. “We need to dress you to visit Punakha Dzong ( Bhutan's most beautiful fortress).” Her mum entered and started riffling through the wardrobe. She pulled out an embroidered kira ( skirt) and started wrapping the 10ft- long swathe of fabric around my waist, binding it so tightly with a woven belt, I gasped for air. Next came a fuchsia wonju ( longsleeved blouse) and purple toego ( cropped jacket). I sashayed into the living room and saw my homestay dad's chest swell with pride.
It was that afternoon we returned to find Tshering brewing ara – a local tipple made from fermented rice or wheat – in the outdoor shed; shards of firewood stoking the flames underneath. I took a tentative sip, expecting it to strip my windpipe, but it was warm and smooth. She poured small glasses for each of us and then cracked some eggs into a saucepan, slipped in a knob of butter, a squeeze of honey and glugged the remainder of the bottle into the mix. We sat in the living room, the conversation slowing with each sip of the sweet concoction.