It was love at first sight. I first saw it in standard 9th while reading ‘The Hindu’ newspaper. It was a beautiful picture of a cave on a mountain. That glossy Sunday edition had justified the photographers click. I didn’t read the article, just saw the name of the place BHUTAN. There began a story. Then began a love affair.
In the world of lazydom, thinking is everything. One can sure travel to the moon and back, and boast about it. Over the years my friends have heard numerous times of my dream of visiting Bhutan, my Facebook post once said “Dear God, I want to go to Bhutan!”. True story, as if Mr.Dear God is on Facebook and would miraculously transport me there. Alas! as the lazy mantra goes, think! Not act. Just think!
It was before my convocation in 2014, during my post graduation that few of my batchmates planned to take an all girls trip. The place ‘ Bhutan’. They didn’t even know that it's my dream destination and still those lovely souls planned it. God bless them! It was a strict budgeted backpacking trip. My role in all the planning was to provide my share of the money wherever required and pretend as if I am participating in all the itinerary for the places to visit. Trust me, I didn’t google a single article and photo on Bhutan all these years. The reason was simple, I wanted to see it in real. It was pure love and I didn’t dilute it a bit.
On the D-day, we left the campus amid cheers as the all girls group on our foreign trip. We departed from Anand for Vadodara. From Vadodara, we had to travel to Delhi in gareeb rath. Jokes exchanged on how we would tease the Bhutanese boys and how we would paint the whole of Bhutan red. It was ten minutes before our train arrived one of us noticed that our tickets were not confirmed. Ouch! We had booked the tickets two months back and no one bothered checkING whether they were confirmed or not. Adventure, thou a bitch! going back was not an option since we had a connecting train the next day from Delhi to new Jalpaiguri. After every permutation combination of checking for buses, other train options, a feat achieved in ten minutes we decided we would board the gareeb rath. If it were any other train, boarding without tickets was not much of a problem, but boarding an all AC train without confirmed reservation and with 6 people together is a problem, big problem. We scraped in the place in front of a special coach for disabled and the TT indeed charged all of us a whooping amount per ticket. Sigh! It’s the thing with adventure, the more inconvenience it causes, the more you love it. We laughed and marveled at the situation the entire way in a closed space with all our luggage and a galloping train.
Reaching Delhi was feat equivalent to reaching the Mars. Oh! The pain of sitting on your bags the entire night in the train , you would give yourself brownie points for all the bravery. Thankfully the next train to New Jalpaiguri was easy. We waded time playing antakshari, dumb charades (an all time travel cliché) and other silly games we played in our childhood like the famous name, place, animal, thing and raja, rani, chor,police. It was a vacation after all, so we indeed had started vacating ourselves.
The transition from NewJalpaiguri-Siliguri-Hasimara-Jaigaon was hazy since mostly we were trying our best to get our permits in Bhutan on time to save a day. Jaigaon is a bustling town speckled with dust and people. The border was nothing like I had seen before (In retrospect I realize obviously it wasn’t anything I had seen before because this was my first foreign trip after all). There was big gate through which vehicles came in and out and a sidewalk was there for tourists like us. We crossed the sidewalk and Voila! We were in Pheuntshilling, the first town of Bhutan. That victory song one hears in the end of every Die Hard movie is what was playing in my mind jukebox. I was at last in Bhutan.
We received our permit well within the afternoon. Our plan was to reach Thimpu the same day but due to seat availability we six had to split . Strike 2 . Splitting that too in a foreign country and with no cell phones to reach each other seemed a big risk. But adventure! (evil laugh) . The first three left early so that they reach Thimpu and search for a low budgeted hotel. Yes, the hotel search was impromptu (backpacking remember). Our bus journey started and to add icing on the cake we were joined by three hot boys from IIM. How we know they were from IIM, well permit office, a bit of stalking, you get the idea. Joking , teasing , absorbing the scenic view , the fog-clad mountains, the drop in temperature with every passing village and listening to the songs from “son of sardar “ in a foreign land ,it was indeed a story written in heaven . I would describe the journey to Thimpu with an analogy. It was like a hot crisp jalebi dipped in rabadi on a freezing cold winter night
Rather than remembering my trip as step by step itinerary, I remember it as instances. Like going to the Buddha point in Thimpu in a tourist car and loving the road so much that coming back walking in freezing cold covering 15 kilometres. Having Druk Bhutanese whiskey in a pub and hear local musicians play . Falling head over heels for Bhutanese cuisine just ones and craving for Emma Datsche every night but restricting to the thukpa, noodles and omelet’s due to restricted food budget. Visiting monasteries, watching the local culture infusing both the modern and traditional variants, there are solid reasons why this is the happiest country in the world.
We dedicated an entire day for visiting the fertility temple in Punakha. Ah! The souvenir shops all over the long trek to the temple was clad with ‘penus’ of every size and color. Something we all avoided buying assuming uncomfortable responses back home. The evil heads that we were photos in every pose were clicked for future references.
As six shopaholic girls traveling, we were a bit annoyed on the shopping front due to expensive souvenirs all over the country. In one instance, a friend of mine eager to buy a Keira(a Bhutanese wrap around skirt) asked a sales person “ how much was the Keira for?” “ 35,000 rupees”, he replied (they sense if one is an Indian and hence he quoted in Indian rupees). My friend was flabbergasted and requested again “ discount a bit for us, we are students !”. “Alright!” he replied “20,000 rupees”. Shocked and giggling we all proceeded from that shop. On a strict student budget of 10,000 rupees each for the entire trip, we were fighting a losing battle when it came to shopping . We all bought picture postcards and mailed it to our friends and family to pacify them and ourselves that we were indeed in Bhutan.
The last leg of our journey was Paro, a laid back town beautiful by all means. We hoped to run into the IIM guys we met on the way to Thimpu but instead we met an uncle from India along with his nonchalant son always with a DSLR around his neck on our way to Paro in a bus and they were the same person we ran into everywhere we went . We went to Druggel and blue monastery, they were there, we went to Paro museum they were there. One could imagine all the conspiracy theories we must have woven about them which added to the spice for the fun we were having. Weirdly more than seeing the Paro museum we were excited to watch the airplanes take a turn along the mountains and land at Paro airport. The birds-eye view of the entire city buzzing timidly, evening prayers at monasteries, soccer on playgrounds, those two hours sitting outside the Paro museum on top of a hill was the climax of our entire trip.
We kept the most fun, painful and amazing part of our Bhutan trip for the last day. The trip to Tigers nest, an ancient temple on top of a mountain. We began the treacherous trek which is tiring and amazing at the same time. One could not be amazed on what human spirit can do. They put an entire temple on a mountain, a freaking inaccessible mountain. Technology can do that now but doing something like this four hundred years before, please take the Noble prize from me.
There are some moments in ones life when you go blank. Your brain shuts down. After three hours of huffing-puffing I saw what had begun 14 years before. The mountain and the cave. I was at the same angle from where the photographer of that article in Hindu must have taken the shot. That view would be something I would carry with me when I breathe my last. It was one of the defining moments of my life, a perfect ending to my love story for Bhutan.
The sweet melancholy of a dream fulfilled and over.
Machu Pichu anyone?