India and Bhutan: 10/13/2017 - 10/25/2017

Saturday, 10/21/2017 - Paro: Sonam's College, Hungren Temple

It had rained heavily all night, and it was still raining this morning. How fortunate that it had held off until just after the closing of the tsechu!

Sonam brought some tea downstairs to us as we packed up our things. It was bittersweet to leave this house which had been so full of love and laughter. But as Buddhism teaches, all is impermanent. Even if we had been able to stay, everyone else would have returned to their normal lives and things wouldn't be the same. So we felt gratitude for the experience and knew we would treasure these memories forever. Rather than lamenting the end, we would look forward to the next time. We will definitely be back to the Shelmakha Tsechu long before another ten years have elapsed.

Sonam pointed out some pheasants in the grassy area between the house and the prayer flags commemorating his brother Kezang. They were quite skittish, but we watched quietly.

Over the past few days, we had repeatedly passed a small storage shed every time we walked to or from our apartment. Curiosity got the better of Craig, and he peeked inside. It had wooden plank walls (except for the back, which was a stone wall). Sonam stepped inside and showed us some of the hand farming tools which hung on the walls waiting to be called into use.

We went upstairs and were delighted to find Pema and Kinley. We hadn't realized that they were still here! Kinley wanted to sing a song for us, and like a good big sister, Pema helped him and encouraged him. Then she recited a poem for us. Our Bhutanese grandchildren are so charming and sweet!

Apa fed us a hearty breakfast of crispy fried eggs, crispy hard boiled eggs, rice, beef, and tinned mackerel in tomato sauce.

Soon guide Kinley returned to pick us up. Instead of our previous driver Pema, he was with a driver named Gyem Phub. The overnight downpours had left the Shelmakha road quite slick and muddy. Pema's van would not have been able to get up the steep mountain road. Luckily, Gyem Phub was available to drive us in his smaller 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

The family knows that we love peppers, so Apa brought an armload of red chilies inside. He dried off the moisture by laying them on the lid of a pot on top of the camp stove. He then packed them into a bag for us. [ Unfortunately, nobody remembered to pack it into the car. Apa would try to call us to tell us that we had forgotten them, but the spotty cell service meant that Sonam didn't get the message while we were on the road. We would only realize our mistake when we made it back to Paro. No chilies for us! ]

After breakfast, I went back down to our room to finish packing. Pema approached me, asking "Are you leaving, Grandma?" I told her that I needed to get our things together so that we could go back to Paro. "May I help you?" she asked politely. She is so sweet. I accepted her offer and we walked together to the downstairs apartment. Her little brother Kinley was already down there, eager to help as well. I checked to make sure that we hadn't forgotten anything. Pema carried Grandpa's hat and sunglasses, while Kinley proudly carried Grandpa's water bottle.

We said goodbye to our adorable grandchildren and then said an emotional goodbye to Apa. He took such great care of us, and he is an incredibly warm-hearted person. He presented us with threee thangkas (Buddhist silk applique scrolls). One depicts Guru Rinpoche, the second the God of Compassion, and the third the God of Wealth. We were so touched by his generosity! We would hang them in our bedroom right above our bed. He also gave us a peach wine bottle to take with us.

We walked down to the car. I hadn't laced my boots tightly and I was a bit distracted, so I wound up slipping on the rain-moistened cement steps and careening down the length of the staircase on my bum, like riding a very bumpy slide. Totally my own negligence, and my ego was more sore than my body. But wow did that leave a mark!

We completed our farewells and piled into the car. Craig, Sonam, and I were three across the back seat. The village was much less busy than it had been when we arrived three days ago. It was probably for the best that there were far fewer vehicles around, because the rain had rendered the dirt road into a slip-and-slide of muddy ruts and ditches.

Gyem Phub's driving strategy reminded us very much of driving on snow and ice in the winter. When the wheels slipped, he steered into the skid and successfully avoided sliding into the walls and fences on either side of the narrow road. Nicely done, sir!

Our friend Toni Neubauer who owns Myths and Mountains Travel, founded Rural Education and Development (READ) Global, a foundation which builds self-sustaining libraries in rural Asia. We have traveled on many Myths and Mountains journeys but have never had the opportunity to visit a READ Center in person. Kinley is close friends with Toni, and offered to take us to the READ Center in Shelmagangkha. That is the village between Shelmakha and the main road. Unfortunately, when we passed by it was closed. It was too early in the morning on a Saturday, especially for the day following a tsechu!

We continued down toward the main road, stopping again at the chorten which overlooked the valley. White clouds gathered above the river, and the visibility was poor. A small falcon was perched atop a dead tree.

Back in the car, we chatted about Bollywood movies as we bounced and slid down to the main road.

As we continued on to Paro, we passed a bad accident near where we had stopped to take a photo on Wednesday. The driver was very lucky that he hit a post, otherwise his car would have wound up plunging into the river. Speeding and distracted driving are a big problem here, despite the many pithy clever rhyming slogans warning against it every couple of kilometers.

Everything in Bhutan seems to anecdotally be around 2 hours away from everything else. Whenever we asked anyone how far away two points were, they would answer "About two hours." "And then how much further to another place?" "Around two hours." It became an inside joke.

Well, sure enough, exactly two hours after departing from Shelmakha, we arrived back at the NakSel Boutique Hotel in Paro. Kinley directed us to the seating area in the lobby. We sat with Sonam, enjoying a welcome cup of apple cinnamon tea while Kinley checked us in.

Kinley returned to us with a key and a gleam in his eye. He had arranged a surprise: he had upgraded us to a suite and had arranged for Sonam to stay with us for our two final nights. We were all so excited; it would be great to be able to maximize our time together!

Suite #805 was on the second floor of the main building. It was exquisite, with two double beds, two walls of windows, a large seating area, and a bathroom with separate bathtub and shower. The view out one of the walls of windows was of a wooden covered bridge and a manmade waterfall. Like our previous room, it had a view of Mount Chomolhari. Its spa-like atmosphere would be a very relaxing place to spend our final two nights in Bhutan.

Kinley jokingly asked Sonam if he thought there was enough room for him to comfortably stay with us in the suite. Sonam looked a bit like a deer in headlights, saying that he could easily sleep in the armchair or love seat. We told him that he would have one of the double beds. He still looked overwhelmed, and joked that even the bathtub would be a sufficient sleeping spot.

We got settled in the room, took showers, and refreshed ourselves before going into town.

We stopped in to the Mountain Cafe for a light lunch. We got a local take on pizza: ema datsi (chilies and cheese). We had lassi to drink. Lunch was delicious. We chatted with Kinley and Gyem Phub while we ate, telling them about our adventures in Shelmakha over the past few days.

I had fallen in love with the skeleton masks from the durdag dance at the festival. They would make a nice addition to our mask collection, and would also complement our Latin American Day of the Dead motifs. There are many artisan shops in Paro, so we wandered into many shops looking to see if they offered skeleton masks. None of them did, but we did find some other small souvenirs.

We asked why there weren't any skeleton masks. Were they considered to be bad luck, because they were associated with death rituals? Sonam and Kinley assured us that this was not the case, but said that they weren't really available in tourist shops. They did say that one could easily be commissioned from an artisan who creates them for festivals.

Next we stopped at Sonam's college (Paro College of Education) so that he could pick up some clothes and things for the next couple of days of staying at the hotel with us. His dorm is on the banks of the Paro River and is in the shadow of Paro Rinpung Dzong. It is new construction that was built for forign students, but some domestic students got to move in to rooms which were empty this semester. It was quite a nice dorm, with a kitchen area for "self-catering." He and his friends rotate cooking duties.

We visited his room, where we met his roommate and several friends. As Sonam packed a few things, his friends prepared and delivered tea and snacks to us. Everyone is so kind and welcoming!

Some of the underclassmen were working on their final project: designing and building a playground for the early childhood center on campus. We were amazed at the landscaping and construction work that they had undertaken. The playground was Paro in miniature: there was a child-sized model of the Nyamai Zam covered footbridge. There was a rack of prayer wheels at a height where young children can easily spin them. There was a clock tower and a chorten, all to scale for children. They were also burying concrete pipes for the children to climb through. It was amazing. I would love to see the looks on the children's faces when they see it for the first time. Rather than plan a fanciful fairy tale playground, they planned a playground that is rooted in their cultural traditions, giving the children a Buddhist kingdom that is just their size!

Craig noticed that the young ladies seemed to be the ones working (laying sod, etc.) while the young men watched.

While walking back towards the footbridge, we passed two of Sonam's female schoolmates. Kinley joked with them, telling them that we are Sonam's American parents. He teased that we could interview them as potential daughters-in-law, and asked which of them was interested. They giggled, glanced at one another, and one replied, "Both of us!" They dissolved into giggles. We hope that our eligible bachelor son wasn't too embarrassed. We smiled and waved to them, continuing on our way.

Sonam wanted to take us to a hidden gem: the 8th century Hungrel Temple hewn into the rock below the Paro Dzong. We walked past the dzong, down a path along the river. Tall straight cypress trees towered above us. We proceeded downhill and down a neat stone staircase. We could see the centuries-old wooden structure nestled under the shelter of the cliffside.

It is a very important site for locals, and Sonam told us that he goes there to pray before exams. Women are not allowed inside the temple itself, and this includes the Queen of Bhutan. The belief is that the local deity would not be pleased, and might exact revenge on any woman who tries to enter. I always respect local beliefs, so I dutifully waited outside while the guys walked up the stairs to enter the temple.

I wandered around taking photos of the river, the rock ledges, and the marigolds growing nearby. It started to sprinkle rain, and I stood under the shelter of the rocky overhangs. Also huddled in these natural bivouacs were clusters of "tsa-tsas," small stupa-shaped statuary. These are often made in honor of the deceased, sometimes with their ashes mixed in to the plaster. Sacred texts on tiny tightly rolled scrolls are sometimes placed in the center.

I heard Sonam calling to me. The monk had told them that I was welcome to come into the anteroom. I was surprised, and asked if it was truly ok. The monk said that the anteroom is fine for women; the queen waits there while the king is making offerings inside. So I climbed up the stairs and entered the anteroom. The door to the temple was open, and I could see inside.

There were very old guns and moth-eaten helmets hung in the anteroom, and two ravens' beaks above the door to the temple. Ravens signify protection, and temples, including this one, were often built in areas where ravens nest. The wooden plank floors were around 2 feet wide. It definitely had the feel of a bygone era.

The guys talked to the monk and looked around inside the small temple, with its altars bearing statues and prayer flags. Though Kinley had visited this temple once when he was younger, he had never taken tourists here.

It was lightly raining when we left the temple. The overcast conditions meant that it was getting dark earlier than usual, so the buildings were lit up early tonight. We admired the view of the beautifully lit Rinpung Dzong and National Museum from Nyamai Zam covered bridge, and lingered for a few minutes taking photos.

Kinley and Gyem Phub dropped the three of us off back at the hotel. We dropped our souvenir purchases in our room and went straight to dinner as soon as the buffet opened at 7 o'clock. We enjoyed the paneer, as well as pasta, pork, polenta, and popadums (wow, that's a lot of P's!) The waitstaff largely ignored us tonight, which seemed strange. The restaurant was quite busy and it was Saturday night, so that may well have been a big part of it. Or maybe they thought that Sonam was our guide rather than our guest? Even Sonam, who is new to tourist experiences, noticed that they were being standoffish. We made a joke of it among the three of us. Luckily we are low maintenance.

We went back to the room and got our packs together for tomorrow's hike. After chatting a bit, we went to bed. It would be a big day tomorrow.

Sonam commented on the vast size of his double bed, saying that he would only require one small corner.

Saying farewell to Apa

Saying farewell to Apa

A light lunch at Mountain Cafe: Craig, Sonam, Kinley, and Gyem Phub

A light lunch at Mountain Cafe: Craig, Sonam, Kinley, and Gyem Phub

Sonam's dorm room

Sonam's dorm room

Playground project for college students: Child-sized prayers wheels and replica Nyamai Zam footbridge

Playground project for college students: Child-sized prayers wheels and replica Nyamai Zam footbridge

Sonam, Steph, and Craig beneath the Paro Rinpung Dzong

Sonam, Steph, and Craig beneath the Paro Rinpung Dzong

Craig, Sonam, and Kinley at Hungren Temple

Craig, Sonam, and Kinley at Hungren Temple

Paro Rinpung Dzong and the National Museum

Paro Rinpung Dzong and the National Museum

Sonam, Craig, and Steph on Nyamai Zam footbridge

Sonam, Craig, and Steph on Nyamai Zam footbridge

Buffet dinner at NakSel

Buffet dinner at NakSel

The guys lounging in Room #805 NakSel

The guys lounging in Room #805 NakSel

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