The day started with a little morning tea called ngaja, a Bhutanese milk tea (tea, milk, sugar) that was brought to our room. Bliss! We haven’t experienced this since we were in Sri Lanka, and I’ve already decided that we will order this every morning (Patrick could care less). To me, nothing makes me feel more pampered on vacation than a hot cup of tea while looking at the view outside in your bathrobe.
Before we got here, we were told that the temperature would be all over the place, and they weren’t kidding. When we got in yesterday, it was so sunny and warm that I had to strip down to my t-shirt. Last night, it was chilly enough that I wore my coat to walk the few hundred meters to the dining area. This morning, it’s positively freezing so far.
After a breakfast of homemade rolls, Bhutanese honey, marmalade, fruit salad and a Bhutanese rice porridge (made with red rice and not as starchy as the Japanese kind), we set out on a hike to the Cheri Monastery, which sits atop a mountain at about 2,650 meters. I found the hike to be much more difficult than I expected. A bit of altitude sickness kicked in, so my heart was racing. I was out of breath and had a slight headache by the end. Patrick just got sunburned because neither of us realized the sun would be so strong. He spent the better part of the rest of the vacation with a slightly red nose and neck.
Chencho is full of stories. We stopped at one location, where he told us a story about a woman, who had seven children at once. Her husband threw all seven of them into the river below to see which ones stayed (the good ones) and which ones were carried downstream by the water (the evil ones). He kept the four that remained. At another location, he told us a story about a monk, who encounters a witch, who tries to persuade him to break his vows by drinking wine, killing an animal, or marrying her. When he says no, the witch guilts him into at least choosing one because it would be impolite for him to reject all of her offers. The monk chooses to take wine, the least offensive option, but after getting intoxicated, he was persuaded to kill the animal and marry the witch.
At Cheri Monastery, which is apparently now a seminary for monks, Chencho was able to persuade the monk to let us inside the temple. We were told many temples don’t allow tourists these days to preserve the environment. Inside, no photos were allowed, but we were given holy water, flavored with juniper and some other stuff, by a monk. It was suggested to us that we sip some of it and then put the rest on our head to cleanse ourselves inside and outside. The yellow liquid tasted medicinal. It’s quite astonishing how many similarities there are with Catholicism. In addition to the holy water, we were at a stupa or a chorten, when Chencho told us to walk around it three times in the clockwise direction. I didn’t quite understand why clockwise, but the number three was important to purify the mind, speech and soul. Instead of making the sign of the cross like we do in church, they put their hands together and raise them above, by the mouth and in front of their chest.
On the way back, we asked Chencho about his employment conditions. The average salary for Bhutanese is about 4,000 rupees a month, about $100. The Aman pays its people about 4,500 rupees on average. Though he’s been working for them as a contractor for a couple years, he recently got chosen as one of six (out of an applicant pool of 60) to be hired as a full time employee. This means job stability and a pension. The Aman jobs are the best ones around for guides, he says.
In the land of Gross National Happiness, it seems that not everything is as perfect as you would imagine. Granted, I’m forming an opinion from a first world vantage point, but Chencho said steady employment is difficult to get in Bhutan because even in a country with just 700,000 people, there just isn’t enough commerce to go around. Second, though the country considers itself to be environmentally protectionist, we saw enough garbage on our hikes that it was evident that the people and their attitudes are changing. Finally, when we were listening to the radio in the car, Chencho explained to us that radio stations have been calling on people to not be corrupt because it could ruin their lives.
As Bhutan proceeds on a march toward democracy, people are also apparently changing. My guess is that Bhutan won’t be the same in 10 years, or perhaps 5. Along with the rapid modernization, it is starting to see the same problems that every other country in development goes through.