When my friend Sherab Tenzin got appointed as the governor of the remote eastern Mongar district of Bhutan a few years ago, it was kind of like an old friend getting any kind of big honor: I was proud of his accomplishments, but I really just wanted to hang out with him and drink a beer. He and his wife have been enormously kind to me since he worked as Bhutan’s foreign trade representative. We met after my first trip to Bhutan in 2007, when he came to Los Angeles with a delegation of artisans and merchants who were hoping to sell their wares here.
Of course, I couldn’t refuse his invitation to come see this under-explored region of Bhutan, a two-day drive out of the capital on the rocky national highway. In all the time I had spent in Bhutan, I’d never gone that far east. Outsiders almost never do. My friend Pema Lhamo agreed to go with me on the journey. Even though finding people who speak English in Bhutan isn’t difficult – it’s the language of instruction in schools – I thought it would be more fun to have a friend along, particularly a native. (Pema and I met at the radio station Kuzoo FM four years ago, and she was one of my first real Bhutanese friends. Now, like many young Bhutanese, she’s an entrepreneur; she runs a print shop in Thimphu, where you can get photos put on mugs and t-shirts.) So off we went on our road trip with a driver named Sangay.
In Mongar, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. And since Sherab held a high-ranking position, he was busy during the day. That left me, Pema, and Sherab’s wife, Sonam, to hang out. In Bhutan, that means visiting monasteries and villages and schools, and going for long walks to get to all of them. Tooling around with the “first lady” of Mongar, who is unassuming, down to earth and supremely funny, was amazing. Couple her presence with a very rare, clearly foreign visitor – me – and we were treated almost as if we were royalty! The people of Bhutan are always welcoming, but the two of us showing up meant the virtual red carpet was rolled out.
On that day in Chali, after the death-defying ride up the farm road where I was sure we’d fall off a cliff, we stepped out into the village and were greeted by the sound of a throng of kids, singing sweetly in the Himalayan air. I tried to hide behind a tree. I knew if they spotted an outsider, any outsider, it would disrupt their recess. Visitors are rare, particularly those who look like me, so I just spied on them for a while with my FlipCam. I was super-relieved when my friends said we’d walk through Chali and see more of the village, including the beautiful lakhang (temple), because the prospect of making that drive again was unsettling, to say the least.