Arriving in Bhutan

I am in Bhutan,juhuiiiiii! actually since Monday 27th of August. The new foreigner in town and I get stared at - wow. I will quite enjoy anonymity of London once I am back. Before arriving I had a stop in Calcutta - what a city or metropolis better - and what a climate - I love it - humid and hot. I stepped out of the plane and it slapped me like a heavy wet warm towel at 6 am in the morning.
My hotel was funny and beautiful - you have to pay everyone for everything. I just remembered when the guide waited around for a bit longer then necessary whilst saying good buy - hahahaha
Within 10 min walking in the streets I had a self-proclaimed guide – very gentle and nice. Anyway I wanted to move on and he stuck to me like glue – but eventually he got the hint. Another five minutes passed and I had another guide but he had more umpf. Since I obviously had to have someone with me I though I might as well make use of it and asked him to show me the old market - a maze of little streets. Ojjjj Paige this is a market we should photograph - it was breathtakingly beautiful, mysterious and decaying. Old English glory used over and over again decaying in heat and humidity - amazing.
All in all I have absolutely fallen for Calcutta - I had a very funny evening with two other guys that lived near the hotel, just strolling through the back streets.

Next day I had an early start at 4:45 in the morning having heard the crows the whole night. My guide came to pick me up and drove me to the airport. Calcutta was awakening, everywhere I saw people on the street sleeping or standing sleepy in the road looking out into nothing - some brushed their teeth, some washed or drank tee sitting closely to their friends, some smoked brown sugar (o-tone my guide - cheap heroine I believe). As I passed I was overwhelmed with a feeling of life – everything happens unfiltered in front of me right here on these streets – every day whether I am there or not. What a place to be.

Getting on the plane involved the usual confusing waiting system at the desk, where every body get served at the same time and nobody gets anywhere for a long time. It is definitively a question of language – if I would understand what they were saying it would be much easier. So again I swore to myself to learn Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Dzongkha and all other possible language jajajajajaj as if..

A quite typical scenario at the x-ray followed. I asked if it would be possible to check through my films manually – he said ok and we spent 15min looking through all the films – then I had to be checked by the policewomen separately and meanwhile he let the films through x-ray. I was furious not only because it didn’t go my way but also because he breached our deal. I made that clear and as a reaction all my baggage was checked very meticulously. Knowing how Indian border police can make you stay and miss your plane I switched very quickly to very polite.

Arriving in Paro, I got a visa for 2 weeks only, so I will have to apply for a new one at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which of course involves more payment.

I met Namgyal and he told me that the road from Paro to Thimphu, where we were heading is under construction and therefore only open from 7-8 12 –1 and from 5 onwards so we had to wait till 12:30 to drive to Thimphu. He took me to Drukyel Dzong at the end of the road towards northwest. This is one of the oldest Dzongs (fortresses) and sits at a very strategically point.
Built in 1647 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate his victory over the Tibetans in 1644. It means fortress of the victorious Drukpas. A three days walk further into the valley will bring you to the base camp of Mount Jomolhari 7,314 meters and marking the frontier to Tibet.
Unfortunately the Drukyel Dzong burned down in 1951 but even the ruins are very impressive. It was amazing to get out of the car not only because the road was only one lane for both ways and full of bumps – the first thing that overwhelmed me was the smell. I realized that this was one of the smells I missed – Artemisia is the plant that produces it – it was a hot day so there was a undercurrent of pine – it was so fresh. We walked up the hill and I felt the height. I can explain how Bhutan looks to Swiss people - it looks a bit like Switzerland 200 years ago but with many payer flags. Their houses look a bit like chalets but very colorful ones with red chilies on the roofs, and dragons, snow lions, gods eating snakes and big penises painted on the outside wall.
One of their best-loved Saint - called the divine mad man allegedly scared many demons and evil spirits away with his private parts and therefore one believes that it still has the same effect. The landscape is very lush right now because of the monsoon. There are a lot of pine trees and paddy fields.
We arrived in Thimphu at 3pm I could hardly keep my eyes open - actually I couldn't anymore.

Later I walked around and found a youth centre - met a young Bhutanese guy a volunteer and I was asked by the manager of the centre to talk about Swiss democracy on Saturday as part of a workshop they were organizing and as exchange I can take some photos. I met the same guy - Tashi and his friend Dorji by accident on Tuesday while they were on their way to a festival in a village called Hongtsho, up the hill towards Punakha Of course I went along. What a chance to photograph local people celebrating a religious festival in honor of a local male deity called Yartshap ! This festival happens once a year It was absolutely amazing - I felt so lucky and so very happy to be there.
The crowd at the festival were in a very celebratory mood, they had a little fair – about 6 stalls, one sold food and drink, one offered dart play, one sold a lot of plastic toys making noise for the kids and at 4 of them one could bet money. That was obviously very popular. They were drinking and chewing doma – a mix of leaves and betel nut. It makes the whole mouth red and looks a bit like old vampire movie special effects. It also smells quite strongly – but it is very popular. There are always two clowns, jaspers that lighten the whole ritual up. Their masks were amazing, looked very old and worn. Once one came very close to me and I could see that he had some comics stickers on his forehead. First I though oh what a pity, but then I thought that the difference between living and dead culture also lies in the preservation of it – we would never stick a silly comic figure sticker on the forehead of an old mask but then we don’t use them anymore in this way.
Then there are the religious dancers representing the twelve zodiac signs coming out of the little monastery one after the other.
Then Girls bring some offerings and Gonp and Gommo, which are protective deities of Bhutan come out. All of these deities will now disappear slowly one after the other and then the Yartshap will be brought out and placed on the altar. Now people will offer money to the deity for prosperity, happy cattle….
It was amazing in every way.

But otherwise I am slowly getting in touch with all the people I arranged to meet before hand - it all goes quite well. I have to have a permit for everything - road, monasteries, and hydroelectricity power station.... They are keeping a very close eye on my movements and because the government did not invite me but a private person, I have very little weight. But it does not matter too much for this story.

I am planning to leave thimphu at the weekend and drive to Chukka and Thala, and then move on to Wangdi, stay there for a while, move on to Bumthang and stay there for 2 weeks and then go to Shemgang at the end to visit Dorjee and old friend of mine.
Right now I am in the process of finding a driver/translator and a guide to come along... But it proves to be a bit tricky. The main season has just started and all the guides are booked.

I think the main story will be on the young people here. Wednesday I have found out about a youth program, a youth club with focus on art - I had a very long and interesting conversation with the organizer and I will take pictures of the workshops on Saturday. There is a rehabilitation centre for the youngsters and very new a detention centre for young offenders - both of which I want to get access to - I can only imagine how difficult this is going to be.
But tonight I will explore Thimphu's night life - and photograph it hopefully.
And happy me they have got the equivalent of the Haygate here too - council housing Bhutanese style - it looks very different from Elephant and caste that much I have already spotted.

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