Get­ting un­der the skin of a coun­try that mea­sures suc­cess in ‘Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness’

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Emma Thom­son

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.

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