Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dancing with the Snowman by Kevin Grange

Kevin Grange
(From  Tashi Delek , In-flight magazine of DrukAir)

Sometimes the best way to deal with Bhutan’s daunting Snowman Trek is to start dancing.
Bhutan’s epic 216 mile trek – Snowman Trek – which crosses eleven towering passes – is like a 24-day boxing match for the hiking boots. Yet for all the blisters, sweat and tears, countless moments of supreme beauty and grace await. Trying to capture Bhutan’s beauty in words for my travel memoir, Beneath Blossom Rain, was difficult, but trying to catch the beautiful spirit of its people proved to be the bigger challenge. After all, the height of the mountains can be measured by how can you convey the exquisite joy of a nation that governs by Gross National Happiness?
 Certainly, nothing beats a visit to the Dragon Kingdom but there was one special moment from my trek that revealed the magic of this tiny country. The event took place on the 10th day of the Snowman Trek. My trekking party – a small group of travelers from all over the world – and I had hiked 94 miles and had reached the remote village of Laya. We’d spent the afternoon threshing wheat with the locals, visiting the temple and getting our cameras ready for the cultural dance that was planned for that evening. I also happened to have met a ruddy-cheeked , 12-year-old girl named Tshokyi. When I first saw her outside the while stone schoolhouse she was chewing on a big wad of bubble gum and wearing sweat pants and the playground dirt of any child her age. However, when I encountered her again that evening, a miraculous change had taken place.
… When I saw Tshokyi for the second time, I barely recognized her. I was on my way to dinner when she appeared. Her face glowed with a fresh washing, her hair was pulled back, and she now wore the traditional skirt, sweater, and conical hat of the Laya women. She beamed like a little flower girl at a wedding, but when she swept past me, she immediately ducked her head shyly, and I pretended not to notice her. Like a young actress in costume, I knew I was not supposed to see her before the show. Still after she passed, I had to turn and steal a glance because she could’ve been the cutest sight I had ever seen, Gone was the little girl covered in playground dirt and in her place, had awoken a sweet little Cinderella, and her blue sandals sparkled like princess slippers. As Tshokyi hurried up the hill, I had the feeling that tonight would be her first dance with the adult ladies of Laya – tonight would be her welcome to womanhood. The night got off to a great start after dinner when Ryan bound up the wood ladder, carrying a big box full of Hit beer,.
“Aw, how d’ya do it, Ryan?” cried Rob.
As Ryan handed out the beers, I realized that like a great host, he was more interested in others having a good time than himself. Ryan didn’t necessarily like to party in the big drinking sense, he just liked to have a good time and was always serving himself last.
Once we all had drinks, Peter raised his glass. “To our rest day tomorrow!”
After we toasted, Paul threw out the idea of making dinner for the kitchen staff tomorrow. “Let’s give the boys the night off and whip up something special ourselves.
“What do you say, lads?”

“Are there any microwaves in Laya?” I mused.
Needless to say, everyone quickly volunteered. After that, it was just like old times – eating, drinking, laughing, and telling stories. Night slowly descended in dark hushes, and from outside, we heard the crackling laugh of campfire logs and relished the oaky incense of camp smoke.
20 minutes later, Sangey scuttled up the steps and peeked his head in the door. “The women are ready.”
We filed down the steps one at a time, mindful not to spill our beer, and came upon a sacred scene no doubt repeated throughout the ages: 10 Bhutanese women, all wearing full traditional Laya dress, stood in a circle around the fire. Tshokyi waited in line with the women, still chewing her blessed bubble gum. Then like theater ushers of Radio City, Sonam and Sangey escorted us to our appointed seats. When we were all seated, they made the rounds like wine stewards, refilling our cups with generous pours of Hit. The night was cold, but the fire and the gusting wind combined to throw off great waves of heat.
When the cultural show started, the women started singing, clapping, marching, and spinning in circles methodically and joyously. Watching them, I had the sense they’d be dancing exactly the same way for one spectator as they would for one hundred. While they were dancing before us, they weren’t dancing for us – they were dancing for something else, something higher. As my eyes fell on little Tshokyi, I realized something timeless and true was happening before my eyes. I could tell by her beaming face and hesitant dance steps that this was, indeed, her first dance with the adult women.
The dance looked simple but it was actually quite complex = requiring all kinds of twists and turns and claps. Naturally, Tshokyi got a few steps wrong. Yet when she turned the wrong direction, the woman in front of her with graying hear gently encouraged her in the other direction. And moments later, when she forgot to step forward, the woman with long black hair directly behind her, gently encouraged her ahead. As I looked at the three women in procession, it dawned on me the woman in front of her was her grandmother and the woman behind her was her mother and I was watching three generations, dancing and singing under the stars. Yes indeed, that night, Tshokyi would be initiated into womanhood the way her mother was and her before her. Watching Tshokyi’s beaming smile, it was all right there – I saw the young lady that she was, the woman she would become, and thanks to the big wad of chewing gum, the little girl she was leaving behind.
When Tshokyi danced past, I clapped enthusiastically and nodded. She didn’t respond, for already the importance of this sacred rite had filled her gentle little soul. She had no time to smile for there was more important work to be done. She had to sing. She had to dance and clap. She had to pray.
The night rolled on, my cup was refilled, the fire grew higher and by the time Norbu suggested we join the dancing, we all immediately rushed forth – Kira, Bob, Ryan, Tom, Larry, Paul, Joe, and me, all following Peter’s lead. Moments later, Achula, Sonam, Sangey, and the horsemen joined in, and in no time the rest of the village was also dancing even the stray dogs paraded around the circle, yipping and barking with excitement.
There was something intangibly magical about the night, something infinitely hopeful that bypassed my head and spread its scented petals of promise into my heart. All I can say is circling around that fire with joyous representatives from five different countries – Bhutan, England, Canada, Australia, and the United States – made me feel lucky to be alive and filled with such infinite hope that no matter any cynic said about wars and humanity going to hell, I know our world would be all right.
My critical mind told me it was just the beer talking, but I didn’t believe it.
People were still singing and dancing at midnight when I crawled into my sleeping bag. That night was amazing, but already I couldn’t wait until the next day, a rest day, and the chance to do laundry, soak in a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath, and of course, I no longer found falling asleep difficult. No longer did I fear the sound of horse hooves stepping precariously close to my head, the harness bells and night wind lulled me to slumber, and my sleeping pad now felt like a king-sized mattress. In fact, I could hardly remember my bed back home and the person who once slept there seemed like a stranger.
While the fire coals have long since cooled, my feelings from that evening still burn bright. Thinking back, I’m reminded of a Buddhist priest who once said, “We don’t have an ideology. We don’t have a theology. We dance.” I think the inspired message of that night is that the best experiences in life cant be captured. Instead, we should simply circle around them, singing and dancing joyously, before offering them up and letting them go, like heaven-sent embers from some inextinguishable fire, like that one special night in the beautiful village of Laya.


-          Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World

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