PrologueWe first visited Bhutan in 2007. The Buddhist Kingdom, which measures success via Gross National Happiness, captured our hearts immediately.
Ten years ago, we spent four days in the rural mountain village of Shelmakha. We met many lovely people during the course of their annual tsechu (festival), including an inquisitive and sweet 14-year-old boy named Sonam Tshering. We chatted with him, showing him photos from home. Few foreigners visit this small village, so we were a source of curiosity for all of the locals. But most of them were very shy, and few approached us with the openness of Sonam. We didn't even realize the extent to which the younger generation spoke English, since they didn't have the confidence to speak to us.
The villagers perform many ritual dances as part of the festival. They taught us some of these dancers, and I was challenged by the subtlety of the movements. They good-naturedly teased me about the exuberance of my dancing. They were eager for me to teach them a dance from our country. Although I love to dance, I don't know many formal dances. So I fell back to the good old Electric Slide. It was a big hit, with its exaggerated movements. We all had a lot of fun.
Dasho Karma Dorjee, Secretary of Industry and Tourism, who originally hails from Shelmakha, had taken us under his wing, and taught us a lot about the customs of Bhutanese culture.
After camping during the festival, we spent two nights with a family in their farmhouse. Karma, his wife Dekhi Pem, and their four children showed us tremendous hospitality.
Sonam asked if he could call us his American parents, and we exchanged contact information. We kept in touch via letters once we returned home. As he got older and changed schools, we lost touch for a few years. But Facebook reconnected us. Sonam is now a 24-year-old young man who is studying to be a teacher at the Paro College of Education.
On the 10 year anniversary of our first visit, we planned to return to Bhutan to reunite with Sonam. We timed our visit to coincide with the tsechu. We were eager to return to the friendly village and reconnect with everyone. Sonam had college classes on the festival dates, and wasn't sure if he would be able to travel to Shelmakha with us. The last thing we wanted to do was disrupt his school schedule. So we planned for time in Paro before and after the festival to make sure that we had adequate time to spend with him even if he was unable to go to Shelmakha.
One day, Sonam initiated a video chat with us. He had great news: his attendance during the rest of the semester had been outstanding, so he was able to miss a couple of classes and attend the festival. And he had a surprise as well: his family invited us to stay with them in their home while we were in Shelmakha! We were overcome with happiness, knowing that this would be the kind of experience we love, where we are not in a hotel but in a home, truly experiencing the local culture and connecting with the people.
We planned the trip once again through Myths and Mountains, and they worked with Sonam to solidify the logistics. We looked forward to meeting Sonam's parents, siblings, and extended family. We became Facebook friends with Sonam's sister/cousin Kinley, who lives in Bangkok. We were thrilled to find out that she and her adorable "6 plus" year old daughter Bumchu would be there during the festival as well! We contacted Dasho Karma Dorjee to let him know that we wold be returning. We had no contact information for Karma and Dekhi Pem, but hoped that we would encounter their family as well as many other children who had befriended us while there.
As we would be flying in and out of Delhi to reach Bhutan, we decided to spend a few days on either end of the trip with our dear friends the Pandyas in Agra, India. In fact, Mukul originally planned to join us on the trip to Bhutan. He has led trips there in the past, and wanted to meet Sonam Tshering. The dates of the Shelmakha festival are determined by the lunar calendar, and turned out to overlap with the Indian holiday of Diwali. When Mukul realized this, he had to bow out of the Bhutan trip to be with his family. But he insisted that we spend a couple of nights with the family prior to Diwali, and suggested that we visit Amritsar together at the end of the trip.
We had originally planned for an additional day and a half in Agra before heading to Bhutan, and had booked tickets on Emirates. Unfortunately, our current President's short-lived restrictions for Middle Eastern airlines caused Emirates to temporarily cut back its number of flights from Boston. They rescheduled our departure from Boston a day and a half later on a red-eye.
Since we would be flying at night rather than at the usual crack of dawn, we expected to be able to get a full night's sleep before departure. Maybe we would get a leg up on the jet lag. But my optimism hadn't factored Friday the 13th into the equation.
Thursday night, after washing a last-minute load of laundry, Craig noticed that water had backed up into the two downstairs bathrooms. (Fortunately, the water was confined to the tile bathroom floors, and didn't damage our flooring in adjoining rooms). Knowing that we'd be going away in less than 24 hours, Craig's brain subconsciously dwelt on the plumbing problem all night, and he barely got any sleep. In 24 years in this house, this had never happened before.
Friday, 10/13/2017 - DepartureWe called Roto Rooter, and they dispatched someone first thing this morning. Our plumbing configurations make it difficult to snake out, but he was persistent and finally was able to clear up the clog. That was a relief! And now we can take showers before flying halfway around the world! Bonus!
The day improved even more significantly when the mail arrived. When we had been on vacation in Guatemala over the summer, my camera had suddenly stopped working. I had purchased a replacement, but it was a different make and model. This would be my first trip with it, and it was new and unfamiliar.
I had researched the problem with my broken Olympus. It is a known defect with the model, but Olympus would only fix it if it was still under warranty. Being just over a year old, mine was out of warranty, and we had decided that we didn't want to sink any money into fixing it since it could likely break again in the same manner.
But Craig remembered a benefit of our Discover card that we had never utilized - it extends manufacturer's warranties. We contacted Discover, which we had used for the original purchase. After submitting receipts, a copy of the warranty, and an estimate for repair, they approved the claim and sent us a check for the repair amount.
Now we had nothing to lose, and we decided to get it repaired. But the whole process of finding out this information had taken so long that we sent the camera in shortly before leaving for Bhutan. I resigned myself to the fact that I would't be able to use the camera on the trip.
But, here in today's mail was my camera, good as new with a new screen. I felt relieved that I would now have a backup camera with which I was comfortable and experienced, in case I had problems with the new camera. It was a nice surprise, and hopefully signified that our luck had changed.
Craig's brother Steve drove us to Logan Express at around 8 p.m., and we took the bus to the airport. Our flight to Dubai departed on time at 11:15 p.m. We had a surprisingly good meal of fried cod for dinner and then attempted to sleep for the duration of the flight to Dubai.
Saturday, 10/14/2017 - Arrival in Dubai, Flight to DelhiWhen we landed in Dubai, we went through security again. The metal detector beeped when I walked through, so they brought me into a curtained cubicle for further inspection. The hijab-wearing female agent was friendly and asked me to raise my arms. When I did, she let out a surprised but knowing "Oooohhh. I think it is your bra." We both had a good laugh and she sent me on my way.
I was hungry and wanted to get something to eat at the food court while we waited for our connecting flight to Delhi. There was an Indian restaurant and I saw dosas on the menu. I stood in line with my mouth watering at the thought of my favorite Indian breakfast food. I grew more and more impatient as the woman in front of me dug through her coins to pay for her purchase. I made my way to the front of the line and confidently ordered a dosa with coconut chutney. However, I wasn't taking into account that though it seemed like morning to me, it was actually 8 p.m. in Dubai, and they weren't serving breakfast. Back to the drawing board.
Although I very rarely eat at McDonald's these days, they had some local specialties which looked interesting. I ordered the Spicy Chicken Deluxe and fries. As he handed it to me, the polite employee noted, "Spicy, ma'am. Is it for you, ma'am?" When I said that it was, he seemed absolutely delighted that I was the one who liked spicy food rather than just getting it for my husband. It was deliciously spicy, a good choice. I admired the Arabic writing on the packaging.
We then boarded our flight, which took off on time at 10 p.m. It was a long flight, and we were fed yet again, a lovely Indian meal. Craig got mutton biryani and I had paneer.
Our handsome Bhutanese son, Sonam Tshering, age 14 in 2007
Showing Sonam Tshering (seated) photos from home, 2007
Teaching the kids (including Sonam Tshering, in yellow) the Electric Slide in 2007
Our host family in 2007: Dekhi Pem, Steph, Passang Dorji, Phub Zam, Phub Dorji, Phub Lam, Karma, and Craig
McDonald's, Dubai Airport
Spicy Chicken Deluxe
Waiting for our flight to Delhi