April, 2007

Trek #1

Trekking in Bhutan resembles the Nepal custom: as the client, you carry only a light day pack, with water, camera, spare clothes, etc. The rest is carried by someone or something else. At each camping place, tents are set up for you: cooking tent, dining tents, your tent, and the invaluable latrine tent. Bed tea and wash water arrive at your tent flap every morning. Unlike in Nepal, animals rather than people carry the heavy stuff. We had five mules and one mule-sized white horse, accompanied by the herdsman and his assistant. Also cook and his assistant. Plus our faithful guide, Jamyang, who was with us our entire three weeks in Bhutan.

Another difference from Nepal-trek is the food: it’s better. Instead of those fried lunch meats and cabbagy-veggies, you get asparagus in cheese sauce, potatoes, chilies, chicken, rice (often red) etc. This is the menu for dinner and also lunch, which is carried in saucepans. My only reservation is that this is pretty much the menu everywhere in the country, not just on trek, and you may weary of it.

We started up the Haa valley, in the western part of the country. (NOTE: virtually all of Bhutan is either mountain or valley.) A few easy uphill hours brought us to a lovely lunch stop in a field of wild flowers (primula). Only when we saw the tents rising did we realize that this was also the dinner and camping place. It was about noon. Well, it was a pretty if surprising place to spend the afternoon. The night proved less agreeable. Our tent, I concede, was comfortable. I mean, for a tent. We were in our sleeping bags by 8:00. Sleep was another matter. Even more than Nepal, Bhutan has an enormous population of dogs, most of them quite independent. They tend to be fairly large, black, and surprisingly healthy. During the day they are docile and often asleep. Nighttime is different. They begin their conversations before 9:00 and continue well into the night. They have a lot to talk about. It’s not so bad unless you want to sleep. I scrambled vainly for my earplugs. They likely would have been little help. A mile away was a herder’s camp with several particularly loud dogs; those by us had a an endless exchange with them. Susan reminded me that some of the beasts might be re-incarnations of our ancestors. I should add that the country is seeking to neuter its canine population. In the meantime, bring earplugs and sleeping pills.

Breakfast was rather grand: cereal, eggs, sausage, bread, guava jelly, honey and that old favorite from Kolkata (Calcutta): Prutina creamy peanut butter. We filled our water bottles and headed up and east, toward the Chelala Ridge. We were prepared for a long day. The terrain steepened, and the clouds came in. There were not supposed to be clouds in early April. Three dogs followed us. I spoke to them sternly in Nepali, but they were not deterred. Perhaps they understood only Bhutanese. After three hours we had gained several thousand feet of height, but could still see little but cloud. Then we came to a clearing to find our tents already established. It was not even noon. We surmised that because Jamyang had not been here before, he was letting the herdsman make decisions. There are few camping places on the ridge because of the lack of water. Whatever the reasons, we had another immobile afternoon, a lot colder than the previous. It was then that Susan announced, “This is our last cold trek.” We eventually crawled into our sleeping bags to listen to the dogs howl another night.

The next day was longer than the first two together. We left at 8:00 and camped at 3:30. Once we had attained the ridge, the trail was almost level, side-hilling for many miles. Most of the terrain was treeless, but the snow mountains we had been promised remained tantalizingly behind the clouds. We did meet another trekking party: three British women, along with guide, mules, etc., headed the opposite direction. We encountered no one else the whole time.

The fourth and final day was but a few morning hours. We arrived at the highest motor road pass in the country, about 12,000 feet. We pulled off our hiking boots and happily boarded a car.

Trek #2

We were now in central Bhutan. This trek (Gongora) proved shorter, easier and, yes, warmer than the first. Also more populated, as we stayed in valleys with small villages. We also had company: a young Swiss/U.S. couple and three older Australians. You could tell they were Australian because they had beer bottles cooling in the stream by their campsite. The days were mostly sunny. The beauty of the trip was qualified by the presence of a new road, down which we walked some distance. The road is good for the Gongora people, but not for the scenery. We enjoyed walking through habitations and seeing weaving, schools and such. We also stopped by a very bleak little settlement that reminded us that many Bhutanese still live in impoverished circumstances. On the third (final) day we finally saw the great snow mountains to the north. These include Gangkar Punsum, which at close to 25,000 feet is the world’s highest unclimbed peak. It may remain so, because the Bhutanese government has prohibited climbing above about 20,000 feet, for reasons of safety and religion.

Now that we had seen the mountains, we needed only to descend the trail to the road. This proved more arduous than I had expected. The distance down was close to 4000 feet, and the lower we went, the hotter it became. Finally I staggered down the last steep stretch and fell (yes) onto the road.

Elsewhere in Bhutan

The trekking consumed one of our three weeks in the country. The rest of the time we drove around and saw many, many Buddhist temples. “Drove” means “were driven.” Driving in Bhutan is nearly as difficult as in nearby countries, but different. There is much less traffic. But there is much less road. The pavement is narrow and often broken; the drop-offs are impressive; and the twists are perpetual. Added complication: the whole country (all 700,000 people) is preparing for the coronation of the new king (king number 5) in December, 2008. [Note: current king is married to four beautiful sisters. The eldest, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, has just written an informative book, A Portrait of Bhutan.] Luxury hotels must be built and transport improved (or established). In consequence, several main routes are shut down for construction much of the day. This adds to the challenge. Our driver, Tshering, was undisturbed by any of this. He maneuvered our white Hyundai Tucson through many improbable places, stopping only for the occasional minor landslide or police checkpoint. The roadwork is done by heavy machinery, but also by squads of doubtless low-paid workers, many from India. Women stoop to brush dust with their half-brooms, while others break stones with tiny hammers.

We arrived in the country at the end of March. Visitors are obliged to enter or leave by air, and most do so both ways. We landed at Paro, the country’s only airport. Getting there is half the fun: the plane barely clears the high forested hills to the south. We were there in time for the annual Tshechu festival, which honors the tantric mystic Guru Rinpoche. He was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the country, when he flew in on the back of a tiger. The ceremonies were held at the local dzong (fortified complex) and attended by many thousands (recall that Bhutan is a small place). We saw many costumed dancers and heard those long Tibetan horns. The second day an enormous thangka was lowered from the roof and displayed for just one day. It must have been at least 200 feet square.

If you have seen only one photo from Bhutan, it is of the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Its brown and white buildings cling implausibly to a nearly vertical black cliff. It looks inaccessible, but is the country’s prime tourist destination. To get there, drive half an hour up the Paro Valley. Then walk steeply through forest to the cafeteria. This is a big open-sided wood structure that serves the standard Bhutanese buffet. It is said to furnish lunch for as many as 400 visitors. You can also buy beer and soda. Some folks end their journey here, but most continue another hour to the monastery. More steep climbing brings you to a spectacular sight: Tiger’s Nest, right on your level, but a quarter-mile east. The trail dips into a steep ravine, then climbs up to the Nest. It’s quite safe, but airy. (An Australian woman told us, “For a year I have been worrying about how to get up here. What will I worry about now?”) As to the temple--it was one of many that we visited. (See below.)

After a few days in the Paro Valley we drove east to the capital, Thimphu. It’s only about 30 miles, but the construction closures and obstacles make for a slow trip. Thimphu has been the capital only since the early 1950’s. It is the country’s metropolis--population 50,000 or so. It certainly felt big after Paro. It has banks, a big post office and an admirable pizza restaurant.

Thimpu Attractions

The zoo: most animals have been let loose, in keeping with Buddhist belief. but you can see a number of takins. These strange creatures have cow-like bodies and goat-like heads. They were created as follows: the 16th-century Tantric master Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman, was asked to perform a miracle. He requested the provision of a cow and goat. He devoured them both, bones and all. Then he belched out the new creature, the takin.

The traffic lights: there are none, here or anywhere else in the country. Police do direct traffic, gently, at the main intersection. The Queen’s book describes the arrival of the first jeep, about 1963: “it created a sensation.... Some thought, when they first saw it in motion, its headlights blazing and engine roaring, that it was a fire-breathing dragon that would destroy them all. Others brought it cattle feed, since this strange beast had to carry such heavy loads and cover such long distances.”

Weaving: lots of it. Susan was fascinated (see below).

Golf: the country’s only course (9 holes). We observed an American pro using his laptop computer images to help one of the locals polish his strokes.

Trashichhodzong: center of religion and government. A huge, impressive compound.

On the Road

A couple of days later we headed east, across one of many forested ridges. Sparsely populated and beautiful. The roads are twisty and narrow. Most are under repair, but they will remain twisty and narrow. Very little traffic, fortunately. We eventually reached the Bumthang Valley, in the center of the country. The eastern section, which we did not visit, is the least developed, but has the country’s only university. (small, like Bhutan). Thence back west, to start trek #2. During this time we stayed at a number of small hotels. Comfortable rooms, though sometimes dimly lit; private bathrooms; no television, which was fine with us. (TV and Internet arrived in the country in 1999.) E-mail was often available, but very slow. Dinner was the standard buffet. Bhutan has several beers. I recommend Red Panda, which comes in big bottles (0.65 liters). Jimyang sometimes ate with us. We taught him card games, which he picked up quickly.

Most hotels were uncrowded. We met a number of Australians, plus some Brits. Few Americans. In Thimphu we ran into a large young Estonian man and his diminutive Korean wife. They differed from the typical Korean-Estonian couple in that they were studying Native American languages (at Indiana University). The husband was leading a large group of Estonian tourists.


This is only sport for which Bhutan has fielded an Olympic team (since 1984). In 2004 at Athens, the first two Bhutanese ever made it into the round of 32 before losing. The Bhutanese shoot at over 400 feet--far longer than the international norm. When they hit the target, they dance and sing and taunt their opponents.


Susan’s network of weavers circles the globe. Bhutanese weaving is famous (at least among weavers) for its use of color and intricacy. And, because it is a requirement that the Bhutanese wear national dress during working hours, handwoven textiles are highly visible and handwoven cloth is a fact of life for the Bhutanese. Through WARP (Weave a Real Peace) Susan had come prepared with the names of two weavers she hoped to meet. Not surprisingly, given the size of Bhutan, we were staying in a lodge in Bumthang that was only five minutes from the home of Leki and Rinzin (and, of course, Leki knew our guide’s mother as they had both worked for the queen, Leki as one of the queen’s weavers). We visited with mother and daughter in their home, admiring their work and getting a closer look at the handwoven keyras worn by every Bhutanese woman and girl. (Upon our return home we found an interview with Rinzin and Leki in one of Susan’s weaving magazines!) Susan traded one of her handwoven scarves for a scarf designed and woven by Rinzin. Susan hopes to bring a group of weavers in 2009; any of our readers are invited to join us.

A note on Bhutanese clothing - since the 1980’s both men and women have been required to wear national dress during work hours in an attempt to maintain tradition and national identity. School children also wear national dress. While women wear the keyra, men wear the gho, a below-the-knee coat-like garment worn with high black socks. The attire is quite beautiful and striking; however, it is expensive and rather cumbersome. School children take classes on how to wear national dress appropriately! Also note: although national dress is the opposite of revealing, Bhutanese seem to have a frank view of sex. Signs warn of the dangers of HIV and the virtues of condoms. Many homes and workplaces sport phallic symbols--more literal than symbolic: hairy testicles and erect members, some in the act of ejaculation. They are intended to propitiate fertility.


We cannot say how many we visited. Bhutan is a Buddhist country--very. Some temples have road access, but many require a climb of an hour or more. One of these is part of a nunnery, Kili Gompa. About 30 nuns, also known as anims, live here. The life of an anim strikes me as demanding: you get up at 3:00 in the morning and study Buddhist scripture until prayers at 8:00. Breakfast (rice and veg) at 10:00, followed by more study. Supper is 9:00 p.m., followed by a bit more prayer. Everyone seemed perfectly happy when we came by, including the inevitable dogs. Another nunnery that we visited was in the midst of a festival, which included dancing and gambling. I ventured 20 rupees and lost.

Here’s the temple drill: remove shoes. Enter quietly and move clockwise if possible. Admire the walls, completely painted with scenes from the Buddha’s life, manifestations of Buddha, etc. all in gaudy colors, unless they have faded. If inclined, donate a few rupees (monks live on these). Note the Buddha statues, some extremely large (20 or more feet high). The delicately poised Buddha hands may be holding an array of rupee notes. There is an enormous variety of temples in the country, which only someone knowledgeable in the many versions of Buddhism is likely to appreciate.

In Nepal: “The Facts of Kathmandu”

Nepal has been in turmoil much of the time since our last visit, in 1998. A “Maoist” rebellion, fuelled by poverty in much of the countryside, has shaken the nation. In 2001, in a notorious episode, the crown prince killed himself, along with much of the rest of the royal family. The new king was unpopular, his reckless playboy son more so. So when the king dissolved parliament and tried to run Nepal by himself, he provoked nearly universal opposition. He backed down. The question now is whether there is to be a ceremonial monarchy or none at all. The Maoists have joined a provisional government. Any optimism must be cautious. Already a group in the southern Terai has mounted a small rebellion to demand cabinet representation.

We wondered how the city had changed in the nine years. Very little, it seemed to me. The new construction seemed mainly beyond the ring road. The pollution was no worse--just terrible. The place is more crowded, partly with villagers who have fled the Maoist rebellion. More motor vehicles, but on this account fewer animals on the streets. Even sacred cows were scarce. Although it was sometimes hard to breathe and walk, it was lovely to be back in the city.

Much of our time was spent with my sometime colleague Shreedhar Lohani. We had last seen him in New York in the fall. We first met him for dinner at Utse, the Tibetan restaurant in Thamel that is an English Department favorite. Participating were a number of friends from my Fulbright stay 15 years ago. The Tibetan food (momos!) appeared at unpredictable intervals. The occasion was the departure of Chuck Baserman, from the Education Department at UC Santa Barbara. He had spent a busy week of instruction in English composition at Tribhuvan University. Shreedhar said that the next day we would take an excursion.

We have learned not to anticipate destinations with Shreedhar--just take things as they come. A large white car came for us in the morning, with Shreedhar, colleague, and driver. We were taken to Nagorgkot, a hilltop 2000 feet above the Kathmandu Valley. From there you can see, at some distance, the great mountains, including Everest. But the view requires clear weather, which we did not have. We did have a good look at a small Maoist rally, with music, dancing and rifles. The Valley was visible through the haze. Following Susan’s request, in the afternoon we drove back down to visit the Patan Museum, which was under development during our previous visit. It is now a fine exhibit of Nepali art in historical context. It occupies a restored temple in the Darbar Square. Now it was late afternoon--time for tea. But we knew that our excursion was not yet over. For our first time ever, we were taken to Shreedhar’s home. It has four stories, which is well in light of its population: Shreedhar and his wife; his two sons and their wives; five of his 10 grandchildren; his brother; his mother. Dinner was sizable and tasty. There’s nothing like Nepali dal baat and accompaniments.

We knew that Shreedhar would ask me to address a college class on something or other. I anticipated him by asking to speak about American Democracy, such as it is. We assembled at New Baneswar, one of Tribhuvan’s numberless campuses. I began by announcing that, this time, my visit was not paid for by any branch of the U.S. government, and that I would be blunt about my view of the current administration in Washington. It felt very liberating. I hope it was helpful in regard to Nepal’s own new governmental arrangements. Afterwards, following the inevitable tea, we walked back to Shreedhar’s house. It was dark by now, and movement was difficult even by Kathmandu standards. A lively vegetable market has erupted recently along the local sidewalks, overflowing almost all navigable space. We arrived at Shreedhar’s just in time to miss a vigorous thunderstorm, unusually prolonged for this pre-monsoon season.

When not with Shreedhar, we retraced familiar ground. From our hotel (Malla) we walked north all the way to Ring Road, then back toward town until we were thoroughly lost and took a taxi. We had lunch at Mike’s Breakfast, which has become well known as the venue of my 60th birthday party in 1997. I finally met the actual Mike (Frame), who came to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960’s and has managed to stay ever since. We also revisited the Annapurna Coffee Shop and wended our way through the crowded, touristy alleys of Thamel.

West Bengal

This is one of the many parts of India we had not seen. We got there by first taking an internal flight from Kathmandu to the small southeastern town of Bhadrapur (elevation 300 feet). The domestic departure terminal is still fairly shabby, but is now served by many airlines: Yeti (which we took), Agni, Buddha, Gorkha, Sita and Nepal (formerly Royal Nepal). We had been warned about unrest around Bhadrapur. but all was calm. A white Toyota station wagon, with guide and driver, took us one hour to the Indian border. We crossed with only moderate paper work and had lunch in Siliguri, the main city of the region. Then we left the plains for the hills, where so many British had taken hot-season refuge in colonial times. After a very long, twisty drive through damp forest, we reached Darjeeling (7000 feet), a place that has gripped my imagination since adolescence. This was the starting point for the British Everest expeditions of the 20’s and 30’s. Because Nepal was closed, they had to take a long, looping route through Tibet. It was here, not in the Khumbu, that Sherpas were first recruited. Don’t expect a quiet hill station. Darjeeling has a population of 100,000, sprawled all over the hillside. Its narrow streets are clogged even by Indian standards. Just a few more vehicles and the whole place will congeal. Our guide, a native, lamented the changes in the place, and blamed corruption for the untrammeled development.

Nevertheless the view is splendid, weather permitting, and the upper part of town is a welcome pedestrian mall. We stayed at the Windamere, a colonial relic. Naturally it now has a website: This late in the season, the place was nearly empty. It is already fully booked for next Christmas.

Two Big Attractions in Darjeeling

1) Tiger Hill. From here you can see a great sunrise and Kangchenjunga, the world’s 3rd-highest peak. Again, you need reasonably clear weather, which happily we had one morning. It’s a major destination for Indian tourists, so start early. We awoke rather late (3:45); by the time we were on the road, so were lots and lots of others. We had to settle for seats at the deluxe viewing area, because super deluxe was already sold out. Deluxe was jammed, but we were able to find a niche by the window. After much suspense, the sun appeared, bright red, in the East where it belonged. As soon as it was safely over the horizon, almost all the Indians departed. That left one Indian family from Bangalore and us to look for Kangchenjunga. We could finally make it out, north and slightly west, perhaps 45 miles away. This was quite a different view from what we had closer up in 1998. I admired its dramatic icy slopes for some time before realizing that I was looking at Kabru, a much lower mountain. The real Kangchenjunga then did make a brief appearance.

2) The Toy Train. It is in fact a real train, albeit with a gauge of only two feet. This engineering marvel was built in the late 19th century to haul coal 50 miles (and almost 7000 feet up) from Siliguri. It is a steep ride, with several loops and numerous ungated road crossings. (See We took the standard tourist “joyride” 5 miles to the rail summit at Ghum. There were three cars, each seating about 12. Many clouded views along the way.

Darjeeling also has a zoo and a mountaineering museum, which I was eager to see. There we were lucky to a 20-minute film, technically crude but historically significant, of the Indian ascent of Kangchenjunga from its very difficult east side. Later I found several new Kangchenjunga books at the excellent Oxford Book Store on the mall.

After three nights in the Windamere, we drove on to Kalimpong. It’s no more than 20 miles away as the crow flies, but we were not crows. On the mountain roads, allow three hours. In our sunny room at the Himalayan Hotel (Richard Gere stayed here!) we found a small, curious array of books: Bible; The Serpent by Clive Cussler (in Chinese); an Erle Stanley Gardner mystery; The Millionaire and His Murderer (in German); Anatole France’s Mother of Pearl (English translation); and Teach Yourself Hindi. Kalimpong resembles Darjeeling, but is half the size. Still pretty crowded.

Tea Plantation

For the next two days we were (paying) guests at the Glenburn Tea Estate. Retracing our route to Darjeeling, we then dipped down an extremely dubious deteriorating road for an hour to the Estate. Although you descend to get there, it is still quite airy. From their website:

Started by a Scottish tea company in 1860, Glenburn has now passed into the hands of one of India’s pioneering tea planting families – The Prakashes, who have over the years come to be known as the “Chaiwala family” – which literally means “tea planters”.

The story of the Chaiwala family began over a hundred years ago, and is closely entwined with that of tea plantations in India. Today, the third and fourth generation Prakash family, carry almost a century of tea knowledge in their inheritance, and invite you to visit Glenburn.

There are only a few rooms, light and spacious. It resembles a Merchant-Ivory film. Guests take the (excellent) dinner at a common table. We met:

--Jehad, a tall , thin, NY Times photographer on assignment. Look for his photos this summer. He is half Libyan, half Kansan, and lives with his French-Canadian girlfriend in Nairobi;

--Myra, a young Irishwoman who works for a travel agency;

--three quarters of a French family. Mother is a physician, father an engineer. The daughter, age 23, is a med student taking a year off in India. When not with her parents, she lives more modestly, for a few dollars a day, and stays healthy.

Except Jehad, who had to return to Nairobi before a month-long assignment on the Silk Road [his photos appeared in the travel section June 10], all of us hiked down the road to the Teesta River. It’s almost five miles. Two 4-wheel drives followed us, in case anyone tired. We had lunch by the Teesta, which proved chilly for swimming. In the afternoon we followed a trail upstream in the direction of nearby Sikkim. It is reached by a long suspension bridge. The cables look sturdy, but the wooden cross pieces were rotting out. Through them you could see the river, hundreds of feet down. I made my cautious way over into fabled Sikkim. There I saw a bright yellow sign: “No toilet or urine here.” I looked around to discover that my companions were still on the other side, where they remained until I rejoined them.

The next day we flew back to Delhi. We had been gone nearly a month, but had one remaining destination. We now had a new car, driver, and guide. He was Mukesh, a lively and intelligent 27-year-old. He accompanied us west and south into Rajasthan. We spent two nights in each of three famous cities: Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. We had been warned this was a bizarre season for a visit, because of the heat. We had highs of 44 degrees or so. That’s Celsius. If you really must do the translation to Fahrenheit, start at 104 and add 1.8 for every degree over 40. In Mukesh’s home town, it reached 46 degrees. I cringe to think that climate change may raise these figures by “only” two degrees. We spent a lot of time in air-conditioned spaces: car, hotels, shops. Accommodations were a long way from tents in Bhutan: in the first two places they were converted palaces. Those rajahs really know how to live: 15-foot ceilings, marble floors, two sinks in the bathroom. The Jodhpur palace, of relatively recent origin, had a 105-foot dome. Numberless employees in raj outfits hold open doors and wish you good time of day. One place even boasted a “pillow menu”: tranquility pillow, dual comfort pillow... 10 in all. There were few other guests; after all, one doesn’t visit Rajasthan in May.

Rajasthan Activities

Shopping, mainly for Susan, who bought more textiles and garments. In Jaipur the dominant attraction is the Amber Fort. You get there atop one of the city’s 90 elephants. who go home to cool off once they have transported you. The enormous fort was a center of power for seven centuries. See

Jaipur city itself is big (over two million), busy and pink. Jodhpur is a bit smaller, calmer, and blue. Udaipur is smaller still. It has a lovely artificial lake. We saw various markets, including an especially crowded one in Udaipur. It was dusk, and the dim lights made the scene eerie. It was noisy but not threatening; the shopkeepers generally ignored us and the few other Westerners on the scene.

Matrimonial Arrangements

Since October, Mukesh had not seen his girlfriend, 25-year-old lawyer. He visited her father’s house while we were in Udaipur. He saw her for a couple minutes only. His main business was with the father:

Father: And what is your program?

Mukesh: Tomorrow I am taking my clients to the city palace and Jagdish temple.

Father: That is not what I am meaning.

Mukesh emerged from the meeting an engaged man.

In Delhi

At the beginning of the trip we stayed in the “legendary” Imperial Hotel. A luxurious beginning. We had a busy morning at the sights: Hindu temple. Jain temple, textile museum, India museum. Then lunch and encounter with Druk Airlines (see below). The second time we were at the Ashok Resort Airport Hotel--pastoral and convenient, but the television and TV did not work, a great disappointment. Our final stay was at the Intercontinental. Just the kind of modern building we try to avoid, but it is nicely situated near Connaught Place. By now the city was very hot--a few days later it was 114 Fahrenheit--so we did not rush about. We did take a tuk-tuk (3-wheeler) to the Khan Market. The driver asked us to pay what we wanted. I gave him triple what turned out to be the normal price of about $1.25. We had a tasty Mexican pizza at the Market Cafe and returned to Connaught Place for a final spasm of acquisition. At a dress shop we met a faculty member from the University of Iowa. He was spending a Fulbright year in India and had just bought a house somewhere remotely north. There he intended to translate works from the Sanskrit.

Finally: the drive to the airport was notable in that we did not have an accident.

Note on Transport

All our many flights were on schedule or close. Newark-Delhi is non-stop: 14 hours. For Delhi-Paro, we were instructed to stop by the Druk Air office in Delhi to collect tickets. We were told to do so at the airport the morning of the flight: on arrival, our driver would phone the Druk people, who would emerge with our tickets. Strange, but that is how it works. We also learned that our departure time was 6:00 a.m. rather than 7:00, and that we would need to be there three hours in advance. For some reason we had executive tickets, which gave us access to the airport’s Ashok Lounge. Coffee and cookies. We also had seats on the left-hand (north) side. Because the day was bright and clear, we had an astounding view of the Himalaya for hundreds of miles. All the big peaks: Annapurna, Everest, Makalu, Kangchenjunga... Security varied widely among the countries, from strict in Bhutan to casual in Nepal. Susan needed strenuous agrument and pathetic looks to be allowed to carry knitting needles on the flight from Bhutan. In India, you are not allowed to take hot red chillies on board. And high government officials are not subject to search. Neither is the Dalai Lama. The incoming planes thread their way through the mountains. It’s a bit scary. Only eight pilots in the world are qualified for this airport.

When we weren’t flying we were driving--that is, being driven. You DO NOT want to be behind the wheel in any of these countries, least of all India. I did drive a bit in Kathmandu when I lived there, but didn’t much like it. At least I didn’t hit anybody, with one harmless exception. Bhutan has little traffic, but you really don’t want to plunge off one of those mountain roads. As to India--if you value your life... It is said that Americans drive on the right, Brits on the left, and Indians on both. This is not always true. Traffic approaches from all directions, however, and in many forms, including rickshaws and tuk-tuks. There is also the occasional sacred cow. Out of town, there is less traffic but plenty of trucks. They plod along at 35 m.p.h. or so; cars pass them--often in the face of oncoming vehicles with little spare room. It is still possible to make good time, but more truck traffic may soon change that. Some of the highways are quite wide, but may be partially blocked off by police checkpoints. It all seems anarchic, but there are rules, or at least customs. Go reasonably slowly, be firm, sometimes aggressive but never belligerent. And blow your horn, as painted messages on trucks demand. This makes for a noisy environment.

The twisting roads in the Darjeeling area are adorned with grandmotherly colonial-sounding injunctions: “No runway, no rally/Enjoy the beauty of the Valley”; “Roads are hilly/don’t be silly”; “Hurry-burry/spoils the curry.”

Note on the Press

India has an enormous reading public. Many publications, presumably like their readerships, are obsessed with Bollywood films and actors. Gossip mags abound, in technicolor. As many of us are aware, Indian moves are salacious and circumspect at the same time. Plenty of off-screen sex, but not kissing. The hottest question in April was the propriety of the enthusiastic kiss that Richard Gere planted on the cheek (neck?) of the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty. Most opinion was that the controversy was an absurd distraction from the real problems of the country, but some writers called the kiss “un-Indian,” and a Rajasthan judge ordered Gere to appear in his court. Shetty was chastised for “co-operating” with the kiss. I should add that while the principal newspapers do print their share of gossip, they have serious opinion columns and editorials.

Indian publications have wide influence. In Bhutan, while vainly waiting for Susan to access the Internet, I looked over a copy of Crime and Detective magazine. Most of the articles described people being cut into little pieces. There was a story about Anna Nicole Smith. The sex columnist dispensed advice to the psychologically or physically challenged. He assured one correspondent that his problem could be solved for only $200, and that it could be done through e-mail.

Much can be learned from the “matrimonials” section of the Sunday Times. Baidya, a “boy” of 30, “seeks beautiful, slim homely girl.” “Homely” means ready to stay home and do housework. A 31-year-old Harvard MBA wants “extrmly b’ful, fair, slim and befitting upper caste bride.” Let no one say that complexion and caste are insignificant in today’s India. The “wanted grooms by caste” section had 14 sections, beginning with Brahmin. (Note: many ads do say, “caste no bar.”)

We returned to the exotic environment of Newark airport 4:30 a.m. May 9 and spent a week recovering from our vacation.

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