Ronda

“Impulsive! Randomly impulsive!”, that’s what I think when I suddenly decide to take the bus to a small town directly after work on Friday. I have no plans, no toothbrush, no hiking booths, no extra clothes, but the weekend had started and to get to my own village from Seville is about 1 hour, while getting to this apparently amazing town, Ronda, is two hours. … and I am in Spain and healthy and have enough money to get me there and no plans for the evening, so who cares if I don’t have a toothbrush!

I get on the last bus for the 2 hour ride. The bus takes off into the night and 2 hours later, I’m in Ronda. I manage to find a nice and affordable hotel in the middle of the city and rent a small room, walk down the street to a spectacular bridge and then head back to the hotel feeling tired and a bit confused about my decision, it is too dark to see anything and the bus ride was also in darkness, maybe I should have stayed back in Seville! But I managed to find a toothbrush and I sleep early.

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The next morning, it is raining! Damn, I was planning to go for a hike or at least a walk around town. I decide to get up and out anyway, and as I do a beautiful thing happens: the clouds start parting for a short bit. The streets are empty and I walk to one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen: two towns built on huge boulders and connected by a massive bridge. It is unbelievable and the sun shines for a moment too and I am in heaven!

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Ronda is an ancient town: it was occupied by the Romans and then over time became an important Muslim stronghold before being retaken by Christians. Over time, it has attracted many writers and artists including Ernst Hemingway. When I was reading the description of the town in the guidebook, suddenly, I remembered a shocking passage in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” where in a small Spanish town (Ronda, as it turns out), during the Spanish Civil War, the fascists of a small village were rounded up in a town square which was close to a cliff. They were beaten and then had to walk between two lines of villagers to their fall into the valley below. This shocking story is unfortunately true and it did happen in Ronda, in the same square that I am sitting in now (Plaza de Espania).

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Looking down the cliff from Puente Nuevo is terrifying and also fantastic. When I cross it, I enter the beautiful old town. My running shoes are slippery and dangerous for walking on the wet road here, so I slow down but in the end manage to take a short historic walk (based on one recommended by the tourist office and beautiful described in relation to trees and the landscape) around and outside town. I first visit an abandoned palace (Casa del Rey Moro) with beautiful gardens and a long (again wet and dangerous) staircase to the very bottom of the cliff. It is a fantastic view from down here and legend has it that this was a hidden bathing spot for the sultan’s wives in the past.

Up on the cliff again, I walk down to the ancient Banos Arab (Arab baths) and the ruins of two windmills. Walking on a smaller bridge, I get to ancient farmhouses where pomegranate trees are growing and time seems to have stood still. I walk back to the city and head to the final spot to see before departure: the private Museo Lara (www.meuseolara.com).

Witches tools, Museo Lara

Witches tools, Museo Lara

Collecting interesting objects from clocks to guns to pipes to microscopes to Medieval torture instruments to witches tools, it the passion (and obsession) of the owner of this collection. It’s fun and quirky museum that I enjoy very much. The ride back to Seville is fantastic: what I had missed on the previous evening because of darkness, I see now: expanses of mountainous scenery dotted with farmhouses and ruins. I get back to the same station I impulsively took off the previous day, grateful for the adventurous pushing spirit in me that sometimes takes over when I am indecisive!

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Picking Oranges

My first weekend in Seville was full of kindness from the family of my friend and colleague who has arranged my stay here. In addition to helping me with every arrangement of the trip she also invited me to lunch and a very pleasant afternoon with her family. We had a nice lunch that included different kinds of cheeses (one matured in a cave) and large tasty shrimp and two courses, including my favourite chilled soup, Salmorejo, and Andalusian rice and chicken. After lunch we went for a walk around Seville and my friend and her husband showed me several interesting areas famous because of Sacred Week or Semana Santa when sacred statues are paraded in the streets and worshipped. This is a special festival in Seville and the most famous virgin that is celebrated is Macarena. We visited the church where the statue of the saint is housed. Fragrant incense was in the air and a small nativity scene was created in small detailed statues in a corner. 20141207_184129 These days, close to Christmas, there are many places where items to setup one’s own nativity scene are sold. Most shops have cute and sometimes very detailed nativity scenes and also interesting dances (for example, the ancient Seises in the Seville Cathedral) take place.

Small objects for nativity scenes

Small objects for nativity scenes

After visiting the church, we walked out to see the surviving part of Seville’s 12th century city wall. Walking along the wall we reached the centre again and finished in the city’s oldest bar called El Rinconcillo. It was packed and a small number of vigilant and expert servers attended to a large number of customers. They used the wooden bar as a tab to keep track of what people had ordered with chalk and would wipe it off later with a wet cloth! Big Jamon Iberico legs hanged from the ceiling.

My friends invited me to a family gathering in the countryside the next day. The next day was a beautiful holiday and the sun was shining in the sky. We drove to a village close to the place I’m staying and then on to the countryside where my friend’s parents live. It was fantastic to meet this kind and generous family. After a glass of pure orange juice from the fields, we snacked on olives from their fields and my friend’s father shared some stories from the time he was a diplomat in Indonesia. He had brought many beautiful folk art pieces with him that adorned their beautiful house. He also had painted interesting and detailed scenes and pictures. It was a delight exploring their home and seeing all the objects. In addition to collecting the objects, he had designed and built the house himself and was taking care of the large field with a small tractor. I was very inspired by my friend’s parents who kept serving me fresh oranges, sweets and food. For lunch, we had a beautiful Paella with seafood and a cabbage salad that reminded me of sauerkraut. My friend’s mother is a very kind and pleasant lady with many jokes. I enjoyed her energy and the translations of my friend and missed my grandmother in Iran. 20141208_152449 After lunch and a short break, we went  into the field and collected many oranges and lemons that I look forward to eat in the next few days. In my experience, one of the joys of travelling is experiencing people’s kindness, something that gives us hope and strength to carry on and be sources of joy ourselves. The best part of travelling is meeting new friends and today I am very grateful and honoured for that. The Mediterranean Diet is recognized by the UNESCO as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity and I feel the goodness of the sun, earth and sea really adds magic to the food here. I think the most important and “intangible” ingredient in this diet is the family love that runs through people’s veins. 20141213_170026

Cordoba

I met a Portuguese archaeologist over Salmorejo (chilled tomato and olive oil soup) in an atmospheric bar with lots of bullfighting paraphernalia in Cordoba. His expertise was in making sure building renovation projects did not destroy national heritage, a job with much possibility in Europe (especially in Iberia) where layer upon layer of history are laid on top of each other! In the last few days, I have been immersed in this history and learn something new each day. 20141206_112729 I arrived in Spain last week to start a two month visiting researcher residency in the University of Seville. I have been in Seville once before (in the middle of the summer!), but I stayed just for a night before going to Portugal. I left intrigued and eager to spend more time here. So I’m very grateful for this chance to be able to live and research here for this time.

Marcel Duchamp's famous piece

Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece

I arrived in Madrid on the weekend and stayed at a nice hostel in the middle of the city. It was rainy and I was jet lagged and decided to grab a coffee and hit a museum. I wanted to the save the world famous Prado for when I was more focused and decided to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. In the last year, I’ve become obsessed with museums and as usual I spent about 6 hours of none-stop exploration at the thought-provoking galleries. I’ve been recently reading Paulo Frier’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and the surprisingly a series of exhibits were about revolutionary teaching methods and revolution and its relationship to knowledge. Of course, the most famous piece at the museum (and justifiably so) is Picasso’s Guernica, a magnificent work. After hanging out with Miro, Duchamp and Picasso, I went for a walk around Madrid and went through a couple of small markets where families and the young party crowd share space on communal tapa-tasteing tables. The next day, I took the fast train from Madrid to Seville and met with my colleague and friend who has kindly arranged my stay and even picked up groceries for me so that I wouldn’t be hungry over the sunday (when a lot of grocery stores close). I will be staying at a nice, spacious villa in a village near Seville. These villages were built by Romans to escape Seville’s heat in the summer and have higher elevations. The village I’m staying at, La Valencina de la Concepcion, which is about 6 kilometres from Sevilla, is deliciously non-touristy and authentic. The streets are full of orange trees and there’s a large lemon tree in my backyard. In the evening, I went for a short walk and saw local boys on horseback going to pick up groceries! 20141201_104648 In the mornings, I take a bus to Seville’s main station from where it’s a pleasant bicycle ride along the river to the university. At the university, everybody is very friendly and welcoming. I eat lunch at the school cafeteria where nice two course meals can be had for less than 5 euros (the cafeteria also has the best cafe con leche which is served by an energetic and humours barrister). Seville is an amazing city with a long history and a lot of character. One day when I was walking back from work, I decided to cross the river and visit the historic Triana, a famous neighbourhood known as the birthplace of flamenco, and walking through its narrow streets suddenly passed a window where the beautiful voice of a singer was accompanied by guitars and claps. I stood there transfixed and listened to the beautiful song they were rehearsing. I love flamenco, it’s passion, it’s raw energy, it’s simultaneous restraint and expression! I can’t wait to hear more of this music of “hope and despair” (in Lorca’s words). Here and here are a few of my favourite songs at the moment! (I’m planning to write more on Seville in future posts). 20141201_111432 So back to Cordoba! I decided to visit this historic city over a weekend. It is very close to Seville with the train and once there, the best way to see it is to get lost in the neighbourhoods. If you close your eyes, you almost feel like you are in medieval times! As I arrived at the hostel, which was very close to the famous mosque-cathedral Mesquite, suddenly there was the sound of Muslim call to prayers. It was beautiful to hear and reminded me of visiting Morocco last year. The arts and crafts in Andalusia have a lot in common with Moroccan art and the cultural interchange can be felt in everything from food to music. 20141206_110839 My favourite activity in Cordoba is getting lost in the varied and atmospheric barrios (neighbourhoods) and imagine myself in a different world of many centuries ago. This is easy to do as many restaurants and shops play atmospheric flamenco, Sephardic (Jewish) and Andalusian music that adds a lot to the atmosphere. The jewel of Cordoba is the Mezquita (Great Mosque), one of the largest mosques in the world, that was transformed into a cathedral in the 16th century after the Christian reconquest. I arrived there early in the chilly morning to avoid tour groups that are not allowed in until 10:30. As I entered, through the beautiful Patio de Los Naranjos, a small courtyard full of orange trees, I felt myself transported to many centuries ago, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived here together. The Mosque/Cathedral was dimly lit with many small candle-like lights and an organ was playing beautiful atmospheric music. This building is very large and I could imagine large mass prayers being held here. The structure is supported by a large number (856 to be exact) of pillars that are coloured in a unique pattern that has become famous in postcards and posters of Cordoba. I believe the pillars are meant to resemble palm trees in a promised land. The site of Mezquita has been home to Roman and early Christian temples before being turned into the mosque in 785. Cordoba was the first stronghold of the Moor (Muslim) rulers, before their centre of power moved to Seville in the 11th century and finally to Granada before being defeated completely in 1492 by Christian forces from the north. The Mezquita building was so magnificent that the Christian rulers, despite converting it back to church when they captured Cordoba in 1236, did not destroy it. In 1271, however, they decided to modify it and built a church in the middle of the mosque destroying the central area in the process. King Carlos I, who gave the order of building the cathedral, was remorseful when construction was finished and famously said, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world”. 20141206_093726 I spent some time walking around the building in a meditative mood and thinking of all the persecuted people of the world. I was especially moved when I saw that a lot of the work was done by Syrian artists. I felt pain in the thought that still in many parts of the world persecution and murder because of differences in belief or ways of life goes on; something that has been with us since time immemorial. The Mihrab, which is the main prayer point and faces Mecca, is especially impressive. It is made of detailed mosaics inlaid with floral patterns and Koranic inscriptions laid in gold by Syrian masters who were sent to the Sultan Hakim II by the emperor of Byzantium, in the 10th century. Upon exiting the mosque-cathedral, I went up the bell-tower (former minaret or prayer call tower) for a fabulous view of the city including the Roman bridge that connects the two sides of the river. I continued exploring Cordoba further, visiting the famed Plaza de la Corredera, which was the sight of gladiator fights and inquisition burnings before turning into a peaceful square with cafes and restaurant (including one called Ali Kebab, I guess the Muslim influence is coming back!), the Muse de Bellas Arte and Plaza del Potro, a former horse trading plaza. Another highlight of Cordoba for me was the fantastic Posada del Potro, a former inn turned flamenco museum, made famous by Cervantes in Don Quixote. Here, you can imagine the scene from the amazing Spanish novel where Sancho Panza is being thrown up and down by playful and mischievous travellers on a big sheet! The flamenco museum is very nice with historical short films being shown and interactive systems where you can try your hand at keeping rhythm with different flamenco forms. 20141206_114848 After visiting these sights, I went to grab a bite to eat in a tavern where old servers poured house made wine from barrels and this is where I met the Portuguese archeologist. With him we decided to explore the former Jewish area. After the reconquest both Muslims and Jews had a hard time in Cordoba and many had to convert (or pretend to convert) to Christianity. This conversion, however, was a temporary solution as eventually all Muslims and Jews (converted or otherwise) were expelled. This sad history gave context to visiting the old Synagogue and Jewish area where a small museum describes the history of the Jewish people in Cordoba, with focus on famous Jewish women, Maimonides (an important and controversial Jewish polymath) and the Inquisition. I tried to practice my Spanish by joining a Spanish tour, eventually giving up and almost wanting to leave, when suddenly the young and charismatic tour guide started to sing heartfelt Jewish songs in the small courtyard of the museum. This was a beautiful, magical and sad moment as many of these songs are songs of loneliness and exile. I feel in the end it is not about who did what but about what we do now: remembering our collective past should make us more loving, tolerant and compassionate beings (rather than revengeful or angry). With those haunting melodies in my head, I left Cordoba appreciating of life, its joyful moments, its moments of peace, moments of love and compassion.

An Encounter

One day during the last days of my stay in Thimphu, I was walking through the market in a light drizzle after meeting with a poet, philosopher, meditator friend of mine (need I say, a lot of people you meet in Bhutan are unique?!). Suddenly, someone called to me “Sir, where are you going?” Anywhere else I might have walked on but I turned and saw a kindly older Indian gentleman standing under the cover of a shop front avoiding the rain and smiling at me. “Just walking!”, my standard response which is true most of the time, including this time: I am walking through life! “Where are you from?” and our conversation continued.

For all the random times I have met people on the street, this time I was blessed with having a conversation with a sensitive, caring, kind man, who shared some stories of his life: how his wife had passed away, how his children are grown up and married in India, how he has decided to devote the rest of his life to children and how the cold weather of Thimphu is a menace for him who has grown up in the warm climate of Kerala! I enjoyed listening to him but even more I enjoyed looking at his kind moist eyes and the sincere quivering in his voice when he talked about an orphanage he visits sometimes and how he loves the children there for whom he sometimes cooks and tells stories.

He said he loved the children in Thimphu where he is a primary school teacher, although the workload is heavy and the pay is not very good. He still enjoyed his time there and smiled and looked in the distance whenever he talked about his students, I believe imagining their inquisitive faces and open mouths as they listen to him tell them stories like this: “Once Socrates was walking down the street in broad day light with a lighted lamp. Someone asked him what are you doing? He said, ‘I am searching for real human beings!'”

He told me he wants to write a book about his life. That would be great but would it capture his kind gentle energy? Would words express his sincerity? Would literary metaphors and images be enough to convey the tenderness in his heart? Perhaps, but it would be a difficult task!

After a short time, we shook hands and moved on. No phone numbers exchanged, no Facebook adds. This was a different kind of encounter: a moment complete in itself, a coming together of souls appreciating the pain and love and beauty that is life!

Rain

I left from Bhutan on the first day of the monsoon. In pouring rain, one of my colleagues kindly drove me to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. Watching the beautiful valleys and fields of Bhutan disappear in the clouds as the plane ascended from the Paro airport, I could not help but also wash my heart in rain. I have travelled to more than 20 countries but none of my departures (other than leaving Iran for Canada) have been filled with such sense of nostalgia.

Words will not describe my feelings. I am looking forward to going back to Canada and seeing my family and friends which I have missed, but leaving Bhutan was like leaving a child that looks at you as you walk out the door, saying goodbye without knowing when and if you can come back, and knowing they will grow and change the next time you see them. The innocence, kindness and imagination of this land is enormous and I have felt it intimately and have to let it go now!

Coming into Kathmandu, I felt tired and without much energy but decided to do my favourite activity: take a long walk! My friend Sonam had recommended visiting Bodhnath, the largest stupa in Asia and a very sacred Buddhist temple which is about 5k from Thamel where I am staying. I started to walk and after dodging a few hustlers was soon in a more quiet area of town.

On the way, I came across the Pashupatinath Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River and was approached by many panhandlers, “baba”s wanting to pose for pictures and “pandits” trying to convince me to do a 1000 rupee puja. I left, leaving empty. Some places are best not visited, some mountains best not climbed.

As I was walking away suddenly I saw isolated stairs descending to the water, I walked down and suddenly I was beside the sacred river. It was quiet and peaceful. I stayed here for some time and looked at a monkey who like myself was looking at the river and enjoying the silence (I think!). As I turned to leave, I saw an old Sadhu sitting in a building looking at me. I waved at him and he did the same, kindly turning his head in a message that I felt meant “I know”!

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As I walked towards the Temple, the rain intensified. When I got to the temple it was simply pouring, so I decided to wait under a cover for sometime before continuing. Here, I met an old man who told me he was from Tibet and started complaining about health problems and how expensive it is to get medicine here. He said he comes to the temple to pray to get money for the medicine. When I replied saying I will try to help him, his eyes became bright and he started talking about how much money I can give him. I smiled and said, “no, that’s not how I can help, I will pray for you the way I pray for other beings so that their suffering becomes less!” He was not impressed and I walked away!

I have heard (and quoted) the saying that “the thief only sees the saint’s pockets”. I am no saint but on this trip I wanted to ask what does the saint see when he or she looks at the thief? I think a mixture of ignorance and obstructed misplaced love.

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The monsoon is also strong here and walking in the rain I was soon completely soaked. Many people looked at me in surprise but I enjoyed the warm rain on my body with the knowledge of having dry clothes back at the hotel. After all, we are 80% water!

Walking back to Thamel, I was confronted with children sniffing glue and playing with stones next to posh tourist shops. Thamel is full of beautiful things and I had planned to pick up some fun souvenirs from here but seeing this scene combined with many shopkeepers designing their stores only for foreigners who want to buy an cool image killed my appetite for any shopping and I decided to walk back to the modest hotel and read. It’s not that these things do not happen anywhere else (including Bhutan) but my state of mind was too sensitive at this specific moment.

Don’t take me wrong, Nepal is excellent for shopping and all the power to people who have the interest and patience (usually I do too) but this time I just was not in the mood for that at all. Also, the styles I was so attracted to (festival gear, psychedelic patterns, asymmetric outfits) are novel the first few years you discover them and then become more of a uniform than a creative expression of beauty. So I will have to discover new aesthetics for myself this summer.

My time in Nepal was too short: I’ve heard of majestic mountains and quiet beautiful towns that you can reach in a couple of day. Maybe next time I budget a few more days to visit Pokhara, a place I’ve been recommended to go a number of times. As it was, after the deep connections I had made in Bhutan and the way I had become used to its unique untouched fabric, it was hard to adjust immediately to the big city vibe of Kahtmandu.

Black-Necked Crane

When I first found these wings spreading behind me, I was surprised,

Just like the first time you lose yourself when you make love,

new feelings, new sounds, new life!

 

 

Who filled my eyes with dreams, my wings with feathers?

My legs are unsteady when I walk on the ground,

But in the sky I am like the wind: invisible, free, in my element!

At first, I stumbled, clumsily flapping my wings, looking at the trees, desperate to land.

But the trees became smaller, the wind cooler, I flew higher!

 

 

Like the sun, I am completely here when I am here,

But when the time comes,

When the air begins to warm and spring arrives at Phobdjikha valley,

I have to spread my wings again, fly once more over my winter home,

Circle the Chorten three times and fly away North,

Where my invisible wings are determined to take me!

 

 

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Note:

Black-necked crane is a popular bird from Tibet that every winter flies into its winter home in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley. Legend has it that each spring when the birds migrate back to Tibet, they circle the sacred Chortens (Stupas) in the traditional way (clockwise), before moving North.

Burning Lake

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My solo trip towards central Bhutan started at the Thimphu bus depot. After getting the necessary route permit for Bumthang and purchasing my bus ticket the previous day, I had anticipated this journey and felt it would show me a different side of Bhutan. I am a big fan of long bus rides (something I’ve inherited from my grandma), especially if they involve going through magnificent scenery, so I was looking forward to this 9 hour journey. I was lucky to  get an excellent window seat right behind the driver, it was so good I asked for the same seat on the way back.

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My fellow passengers were very friendly (even at this early hour) and they kept offering me sweets and water. A lot of people were chewing Dolma which is a combination of fresh beetle nut and lime paste neatly wrapped in a leaf and chewed. It is similar to the Indian Pan (except it’s made with fresh beetle nuts) and has the same reddening effect on the teeth. The effect is a slight high similar to one coming from chewing coca leaves (another cultural similarity between Andes and Himalaya! Incidentally, “Koka” is the name of a popular instant noodle brand here that is also taken dry as snack). It also heats you up which is great in high altitude mountain areas. The taste is famously bitter and there is a numbing effect on the tongue and lips. I have tried this concoction a few times and like its effects but can have it only once in a long while!

Once we started the journey, our driver started DJing, playing an eclectic combination of old Western (including Modern Talking!!), some Dzongkha (including an alternate version of Gangnam style) and Hinidi songs. It was mostly fun, except the songs would repeat once in a while, which is understandable on a long bus journey.

The road snaked out of Thimphu and climbed high into hills filled with apple orchards and blue pine, reaching the village of Hongtsho where my permit was quickly scanned and stamped. For someone who is used to spontaneous changes in travel plans, having a set itinerary can be stifling but I was impressed with how efficient the procedures were once the paperwork was in order.

After the village, the road went higher and higher until the Dochu La (3140m) pass which is marked by many prayer flags. All along the road there are chortens that have to be passed from the left side, our driver drove the bus one whole rotation around most of the chortens before continuing.

Once we passed the high pass, the road started descending into the valley. This whole area is a Royal Botanical Garden and there are many different species of trees around. At times, the scene unfolding in front of the bus looked like a Zen painting.

The scenery and movement helped me go into a meditative state and think about my life. In recent years, I have had a lot of different experiences but what draws me to them is not only a need for achievement or novelty (which my ego sometimes strives for these) but a maddening desire for a feeling of suddenly being really alive. At the best of times, I feel I am truly serving the purpose for which I was created. When this happens, here and there become one and past and future disappear; suddenly there is no other way but this path as it unfolds is the essence of freedom. My path is not one of pleasure or pain but truth.

Suddenly, our bus came to a halt. Trees were being cut in front of us and we waited a surprisingly short time before the road was cleared. During the pause, I chatted with some of the passengers and the driver. He said he drove this same route 5 days a week: going to Bumthang, staying there for the night and driving the next bus after that. As he was driving, he would lean back and point out the different cities and monuments to me.

After the pass, we descended into the warm Punakha valley. This is the winter residence of the monastic body who move to Thimphu every summer. The landscape was markedly different. Although, we were soon again going up another mountain, on the way to central Bhutan.

The road was full of bends and turns and at times, we had to really slow down and drive beside another passing truck or bus, just centimetres away. At around 11 we stopped for lunch and the driver asked me to join him in a separate room where we had ema datsi, dhal and huge plates of rice. After the lunch, the very friendly assistant driver bought a large number of candies from the restaurant and offered it to all the passengers. I got a “medicated cough candy”, after a moment of hesitation, I popped it in my mouth, it was an interesting desert. By the end of the trip, I accepted two more of these medicated candies!

All along the path, people would hand the driver parcels to bring to someone at the other end of the road. These ranged from letters to big boxes and rolls of paper. In Jamie Zeppa’s excellent memoir, Beyond the Earth and the Sky, I had read that these buses used to be affectionately (I think!) referred to as “vomit comet”. I think things have much changed since the 80’s and the quality of the transport is very good (at least in this part of Bhutan). However, the road has lots of twists and turns and for a long time I could see the head of a child propped out of the window of the  bus in front of us, throwing up on the road.

After a few hours, we got to Trongsa, which is right in the middle of Bhutan. From here, the road became surreally beautiful. Each scene could be an amazing poster. I remembered travelling in Peru one time and meeting a photographer who was touring the country, taking pictures for a photography book. That would be such an amazing thing to do here too! Despite all the movement on the bus, many people were sleeping. First, I was surprised and then fell asleep myself!

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Arriving in Bumthang, I checked into a beautiful guesthouse (Kila Guesthouse) that my friends in Thimphu had recommended. The guesthouse had a large courtyard and reminded me of old Japanese movies (especially the Oshin TV series). My room was immaculate, with a nice Bukhari (wood stove) that I asked to be lighted that night. After a large meal at the hotel restaurant I slept to the pleasant sound and smell of burning wood!

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Next morning, I woke up at dawn and started walking up the Chokhor valley. There is a large Dzong (fortress) and many important temples and monasteries in this area and I visited many of them including the very old and sacred Jampey Lhakhang and Kurjey Lakhang. The sound of chanting combined with the smell of incense was mesmerizing in the morning. I sat for sometime at Jampey Lhakhang, taking in the atmosphere and watching the many elderly people who were praying and turning prayer wheels in its courtyard.

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My morning walk took me up the Eastern side of the Chamkhar Chhu river and back from the West side to the Bumthang brewery. This establishment setup by the Swiss a number of years ago is a centre for producing Bhutan’s (arguably) best beer (the Red Panda) as well as honey and cheese in the nearby Swiss farm. Here, I met a serious and self-made young man who gave me a tour of the brewery describing that most of the process is done by hand and that the output is very small (about 1000 litres per week). In the short break I took there, we chatted about many things and I tested the fresh final product (excellent!).

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During our talk, I watched the Swiss gentleman who has established the farm tend to a number of beehives. Herr Fritz Maurer, established the first Swiss farm here many years ago and brought modern beekeeping to this part of Bhutan (there used to be traditional beekeeping in the South involving making a hive out of a hollow tree trunk and cow dung). He is a serious hard working man and when I complemented his establishment, he smiled and ambiguously said, “yes, there is a lot of work!” From a man with a strong work ethic, that comes as a happy statement.

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I bought some fresh cheese at the store next door that tasted divine, especially after sharing the road with cows all day! After the walk, I went back to the guest house and met it’s owner Mr. Kaila Tamang, who told me he used to host Christmas parties for Canadian teachers in the 80s. After a brief rest, I pondered the idea of catching a taxi to the famous Burning Lake but decided to walk there and back (about 10 km one way). While I wanted to see it, the important thing was not to reach the destination but take the journey. The idea of spending so much time with myself was both thrilling and slightly worrisome.

The Burning Lake is the site of the discoveries of two famous treasures by Pema Lingpa the 15th century saint. Once he dived into the lake, finding a sacred statue and scroll in the  dakini script that he managed to translate (an enormous task since each dakini word stands for a 1000 human words!). The lake got its name from an incident in which he went in the lake with a lighted lamp and returned after some time with the lamp still burning and with new treasures in hand!

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I started the 5 hour walk through beautiful pastures and mountain passes at 2. I was slightly worried about it getting dark and at the midway point almost turned back, but a few steps forward and my worries were gone. During the walk, slowly my mind started to quiet down and my heart started singing a song of longing:

“I search for you in the mountain and the metropolis,

I search for you in the dancehall and the temple,

I search for you when I am praying and when I am drinking,

I search for you in my lover’s hair and in my companion’s smile.

They warned me don’t act the fool! I became your joker, your performer: It’s better to be misunderstood than stop longing for you.

I became the madman, the drunkard, the seducer, the loner, the freak: I became everything and nothing, in my path there is no sin other than forgetting you!

They warned me: “don’t try too hard, don’t go too high, your fall will be painful, your down will be deep”,

if I don’t use my wings to fly towards you, its better if they are broken,

and if my eyes don’t thirst to see you, I’d rather be blind.

If I don’t spend my life searching for you, dreaming of you, loving you, I might as well be dead.

My heart is in my hands, my life is all I can offer. If you want me to love, I will love and if not, I will die waiting for you!”

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When I got to the lake, I was ecstatic! There was nobody there and the water was flowing and making dreamy patterns and small whirlpools here and there. I could not stop smiling, I felt safe, protected! Once you see the path, there is no other way.

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After a few minutes I headed back, still singing in my head and feeling as if I was flying. Back in my room, I looked wild-eyed and wild-haired! After a shower, I went for a huge dinner (I had skipped breakfast and lunch). Mr. Kila was impressed by my walk and kept telling everyone in the room about it.

There was a kindly gentleman sitting at the other table who had studied in Washington, DC in the 80s. He told me some funny stories of his experiences in America and also said that he knew the man who put fish in the highland lakes at the request of the king. He said when he was a kid he used to see this man carry a big earthen pot full of small trout on his back to the lakes and release them there.

At the end of the day, I went to bed with a good companion, the famous travelogue by Peter Matthiessen, “Snow Leopard”. A few days later, I saw two hunted and taxidermic snow leopards in the National Museum in Paro (along with a small but absolutely amazing collection of objects that mix mythology and history including a horse egg, a unicorn horn and some thangkas dating back to the 15th century).

When I arrived back in Thimphu, after dining at a restaurant the owner suddenly produced a beautiful book full of pictures of Bhutanese deities and sacred places and gave it to me saying, “my uncle is the reincarnation of a famous saint and he has written this book, instructing me to give it to someone who is interested in these things!” “Thank you!”