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a travel blog by roel krabbendam

Short in duration and long on distance,a trip to a small Himalayan country to better understand the site for a new project as well as the culture and climate behind it.
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Tucson, United States

We get a call about a possible architectural project, I hop a flight to Tucson to, you know, "take a meeting", and three days later after a veritable orgy of client decisiveness, I'm booked on a flight to Bhutan where I will nominally join a pre-arranged tour group. I have just enough time to buy some T shirts, a new electrical transformer and plug converter, and a junky novel for the plane ride. It's a long one.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 28, 2015 from Tucson, United States
from the travel blog: Bhutan
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Haute Cuisine

Los Angeles International Airport, United States

The flight to Los Angeles dips down out of a liquid blue sky into that gross sepia yellow Summer fog perennially smothering the California coast, we get left in some remote terminal and shuttle to the main building, and then we endure hilariously bad signage to finally find the Bradley International terminal and the flight to Osaka. All the available seats at the gate are marked handicapped and I occupy two of them without embarrassment. Actually, I walk to the wrong gate and try to figure out why I’m not on the flight before realizing my mistake and then occupying the handicapped seats at the correct gate.

It is an hour layover, and I read my junky novel until the flight is called. A small stab of jealousy hits me as one guy in jeans simply saunters through the business class entry, no luggage or anything, as if he does this every day, this flying half-way across the world. As I step through myself however, this same guy flashes a badge and tells me to come with him. It’s the handicapped seating police! Busted!

It turns out he’s drug enforcement, along with an incredibly large black man standing there with his arms folded, and I apparently fit the profile for drug or money smuggling into Japan. It's a fact: I attract police attention wherever I go. I've met some of the nicest cops though, in just about every country I wander into. I’m so surprised by the takedown that I can’t remember the answers to his questions: how much money do I have, where am I going, am I a permanent resident, what's my name…tough questions like that. I’m sure he’s still wondering if he should have let this idiot go.

The flight is 12 hours, 3 movies, 125 pages of technical reading and 60 pages of techno-thriller long, plus two meals and a lot of green tea and water. Very nice Mocha chip ice cream, rather tasteless rice pudding topped with scallions and shrimp, and no crunch at all to the croissant. The Chicken was good, the coffee wasn’t. A mixed bag from a culinary perspective.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 28, 2015 from Los Angeles International Airport, United States
from the travel blog: Bhutan
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Death by Itinerary

Osaka, Japan

Osaka is leaden grey and so is the Fancy airport terminal.

Mercifully, there’s free wifi and a set of plugs to recharge the laptop and the phone. Hideously, my layover is 6 hours long.

Mostly I walk laps down the terminal’s length, all the way down to Starbucks, then all the way back, past Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Mont Blanc, Ferragamo, Bottega-Venetto, Zegna, Omega, Cartier, Rolex, Tiffany, Burberry, Coach and Duty-Free and Victoria’s Secret. Past café’s and restaurants and self-serve automats and money changers. Also very nice single occupant bathrooms with automatic sliding doors, intended I suppose for the handicapped. It’s a theme. The truth is, with no language I am handicapped.

I’m dozing off as I write this and slightly paranoid I’ll miss my flight because of it. Do I sit down at that restaurant and try some local sake? I have this niggling feeling I'll fall asleep, the thought of missing my next flight so disturbing I just keep walking. 26 hours awake: this is death by itinerary.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 28, 2015 from Osaka, Japan
from the travel blog: Bhutan
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Sleep, Eat, Leave

Bangkok, Thailand

On the plane to Bangkok finally, I watch a movie and read my book and treat myself to a glass of wine until Thailand reaches out with mysterious patterns of lighting on the land: straight lines and curlicues of dots. The airport is modern, I exchange $100 for about 3,000 baht, walk up to the wrong customs desk (“visa on arrival” sounded like what I needed, but no…) and eventually find myself in the long, long line of foreign passport holders.

30 minutes later I’m wandering the hall in search of an information booth that will call the hotel for a pickup. A kind lady helps me with her personal cellphone, and after loitering at the curb for a bit longer than expected (am I in the wrong place?) the van arrives. The man at the wheel says nothing to my apology for getting him out so early, and so we ride in silence as the sky turns peaches and rose.

The hotel is a small oasis in a rather dense and working class neighborhood near the airport. Even at this hour, the lady at the front desk is gracious, and a young man shows me upstairs. In front of the chair at the desk in my room it says “Do Not Sit”. It seems a little bossy. At the toilet paper in the bathroom it says “Do Not Place Paper in Toilet”. I’m still wondering exactly how paper and water hose are to be deployed for anything but a pee. The whole thing just makes me anxious. A shower feels pretty good, the air conditioning blows right onto the bed and feels uncomfortable, but 3 pages into my book I fall asleep. Outside, a rooster sounds reveille.

Voices outside wake me at 10:30am and again at 2:30pm before I crawl out of bed and head downstairs. The tour group is out seeing Bangkok says the note slipped under my door in the night, and I’m slightly annoyed with myself for losing the opportunity. Instead I read and write and do some research on spas in Bangkok in case my Bhutan visa and tickets don’t arrive in time. Miraculously though, over the next few hours I get email confirmation of both. What should have taken a couple of weeks my host has produced in 3 days.

The tour group wanders in, some lathered in sweat from the heat and humidity, and the others just off a tuk-tuk. I guess that’s the way to travel around here. We all walk down the street to a restaurant for dinner, the place covered but outdoors and recessed from the street so that it feels wonderfully apart. I choke on my order (chicken and basil), but the guy next to me orders an amazing fish that arrives whole and way too large for him to eat alone. Wait, I don’t literally choke on my order: it was perfectly good. I just wasn’t very adventurous. The fish was delicious.

I’m awake at 4am the next morning, and the same silent chauffeur bundles me off to the airport. I wander around looking for Bhutan Airways and find it finally, do the ticket-visa-passport shuffle, get herded onto a bus, and get bundled off to the airplane. I’m unusually aware of Americans in this environment, and there are several. I wonder if we’re all trying to ignore each other, the shared language an immediate bond, but really not enough to simply chat with a stranger, everyone here for a different kind of experience anyway, not some flock of geese travesty. In the US you wouldn’t give it a second thought, talking to any one of these people or not.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 28, 2015 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: Bhutan
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Kolkata, India

It’s a few hours to Kolkata, which I’m determined to spell that way forever in deference to the Bengali. Expecting dense smears of slum, I see only palm trees and puddles and diffuse development, a garden suburb at least from the air.

The airport is a grim huddle of hangers, we don’t disembark, and I’m not sure finally what we actually saw of the city. We ascend up into a White Cloud, catch a short glimpse of a blue horizon and what may have been Everest or may have been a cloud, and then dive down a narrow valley into Bhutan.

Had the windows opened I might have grabbed some leaves off the Cypress trees on the way down.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 28, 2015 from Kolkata, India
from the travel blog: Bhutan
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The Queen Mother and monks in passing

Paro, Bhutan

Some monks in orange prison garb wander by. Wait, that’s not right. (Their robes are actually a gorgeous orange). We’ve been sitting in the airport for a while now, waiting for the plane to Bumthang, only to find out that that it’s cancelled, probably for the next few days.

We had lunch earlier, near the Paro Dzong: an imposing sight even from a distance.

Much discussion about Plan B ensues, an intricate necklace of connections and hotel reservations and festivals and plane flights suddenly laid to waste by the early monsoon and a drizzle on the runway. Already tired, we finally opt for a 4 hour bus ride to Punakha.

Just before dusk we reach Dochula La for tea and cookies as the clouds moved in and the Queen Mother drives by in a low-key entourage. The 108 chortan commemorating 10 deaths in the Assam uprising of the early 2000s were her daughter-in-law the Queen’s project.

The road down off the pass is a treachery in the dark, all mud and construction and barely one lane, but our driver is unfazed and finally I fall asleep. Then I fall off my chair. My spine feels well-exercised by the time we get to the hotel, where dinner awaits and a fine room and finally, finally some sleep.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 29, 2015 from Paro, Bhutan
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Mothers, Fathers

Punakha, Bhutan

Punakha is famed for its Dzong or castle. It is massive and beautiful, strategically located at the union of the Mother and Father rivers, accessed from a cantilevered bridge over the Mother.

Wide stone steps lead steeply up to a portico sheltering 2 massive golden prayer wheels.

Inside are three courtyards, the first administrative and secular and the last strictly religious, and at the end of the last courtyard is a temple accessed through two simple curtains. You are asked to remove your shoes and refrain from photography, and enter a hall filled with golden columns and light filtering down from a second story in the center. Every surface is intricately carved or embossed or painted, the walls depicting the life of the Buddha in intricate pictograms. Gleaming in the semi-darkness at the end of the room are a series of massive golden statues, thrones for king and monk, lines of bowls with water offerings, and alters lined with money left by supplicants. The floors are dark wood and the smell is of wood. Among the golden columns are low carpeted platforms for seating. Monks wander in and out, as do tourists and a cat. Two Korean monks surreptitiously snap pictures.

This temple is so strangely moving. I thought about the 10 years of work it took to restore the temple after the flooding that almost destroyed it, a glacial lake bursting through its ice dam in the 1990s. I thought about being a craftsman producing just a tiny piece of the intricate work inside. I can’t explain this awkward feeling of sadness in there, a feeling I last felt at the delicate singing of the nuns at a Catholic Center in Benin. Leaving I felt wrung out, and sure I would neither capture the experience in words nor ever forget it.

Bhutan is described as a tripod: a governance of consensus between an electorate, a king and a religious leader. I asked what the politics was actually like to witness, and our guide described it as very English, with laughing and passionate debate and nose to nose confrontation. That description at least felt more real than a tripod.

Later in the day we hike up to the monastery at Chimi Lhakhang, the rituals there designed to promote fertility. We walk among the rice fields below, slipping here and there on the muddy and narrow berms between them. The fields are flooded and everywhere there is mechanized tilling and hand planting. The monks are chanting inside the monastery, women are receiving blessings, and I feel like an intruder.

Many of the buildings on the walk back to the hotel are painted with huge pink phalluses and hairy testicles, and the prices in the trinket shops are very high.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 31, 2015 from Punakha, Bhutan
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Yakkity Yak

Tongsa, Bhutan

The bus leaves early, the drive to Trongsa easily 8 hours on a single lane highway handling two way traffic. Rising slowly through deciduous forests along a steeply sloped river, through Wangduephodrang and Chuzomes and Samtengang and Nubding, to the turn at Ngesa where we crest a pass into a coniferous valley of yak and wild boar.

Below lie alpine meadows and sprinkled houses and the Gangtey Monastery.

We eat lunch in a second floor restaurant, the room dark and low, eating fiddlehead ferns and potato and rice and carrot and kale. Also thousand tiny bones that could kill you if you're not careful chicken, the market ripe for new slaughtering techniques.

The monastery is another forbidding and courtyarded affair, the perimeter lined with monks quarters and the center occupied by a temple. Young monks scurry about, each intent on their mission, though I did catch two red robed kids gleefully mocking the tourists inside the temple.

On one side, a number of monks on the ground were preparing sacrificial cakes for the ceremonies of the Buddha’s birth the following day, a number of supervising monks standing to the side as if it were a public works project. Inside the temple, the layout resembled the temple of yesterday at Punakha, though smaller and less maintained. Perhaps I was fatigued by too many landmarks, but I left to sit outside the complex, happy to feel the breeze and stare down the valley.

We climbed back to the main highway and continued the ascent to the pass at Pelela, where a small monument and a smaller crafts stand offered a break.

At 3390 meters I expected to feel the altitude, but there were no noticeable effects. Downwards now, chatting about our lives in the US and Costa Rica and everywhere else the group is from, we wound past overhanging rockcuts and waterfalls and stream crossings, stopping once for the King and Queen and their entourage. The guides were ecstatic to have encountered both Queen and King on this trip, the karma quotient set almost impossibly high now. The Queen Mother only got two escorts the other day, the King and Queen at least 18 or 20 including personal chef, bodyguards, provincial governors and ministers and a van from BBS, the state broadcasting service. The monarchs had been east apparently, meeting with nomads.

We reached Trongsa at dusk, winding around the massive hydroelectric project under construction in the narrow valley below, up past the massive fortress and new courthouse, to a hotel besieged by clacking frogs and plagued with lousy internet service. Dinner was delicious. They have this cheese and chiles dish here, a national dish of sorts we've had everywhere, that balances spicy and mellow in the most spectacular way.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on June 1, 2015 from Tongsa, Bhutan
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Gross National Happiness

Tongsa, Bhutan

On the way to Trongsa, we stopped in at a primary school in a small town along the way. Despite the admonishment to dress appropriately, we invited ourselves in (politely!) for a visit.

The buildings were beautifully constructed, the administration wonderfully accommodating, and the students…well…polite of course. Out on the basketball court, a class was widely and evenly dispersed to take a test: that way there was no cheating.

I walked into one class managing without a teacher that day and noone was acting out at all. They were all studying. Seeing that they were busy with math, I walked up to the blackboard and whipped off some completely incorrect equations in an effort to get them riled up, but noone took the bait. I’m sure they now believe that foreigners do not understand math. Lately though, and I did not admit a word of this to them, I lie awake at night trying to remember how to solve differential equations…I can’t for the life of me remember how to do it.

The principal acknowledged that 45 people in a single class was difficult on the teachers, but this far from a significant town it was difficult to recruit more of them. Class in any case, is still taught as a sage on stage affair, the internet and alternative teaching methodologies not yet making an impact. The computer lab did not have internet access. What interested me the most was the focus on Gross National Happiness. While we didn’t get any insight on the impact it had on lesson plans, the prominent signage suggested it was taken very seriously.

I wonder if, instead of the Pledge of Allegiance or perhaps on top of it, we had our American kids take a minute every day to consider Happiness…what would happen to our collective national neuroses. It makes me wonder, actually, what the point of all our teaching actually is. Are we interested only in making productive workers and steadfast warriors? Are we interested in developing contented adults? Is there actually even room for Happiness in our national agenda, or are we only interested in the pursuit of it…Happiness being that bus that never seems to notice you chasing after it…exhausted, burdened, desperate to catch the ride…but keeping you running. I suspect deep down that the Puritan spine of the American psyche disapproves entirely of happiness, or at least has its suspicions: equating it with extravagance, or sloth.

Do contented nations meddle with neighbors and antagonize strangers? Of course, you say: Happily!

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on June 1, 2015 from Tongsa, Bhutan
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Buddha Day

Tongsa, Bhutan

We spend the next day in Trongsa Castle. Its Buddha’s birthday, so merits are worth a million times their usual value. Kindness pays today! I’m helping little old ladies up stairs, I’m handing out bits of cash at alters here and there, and I’m thinking only benevolent thoughts. I’m banking some serious merits, but it also starts to feel a bit burdensome. Later in the day though, I discover I can dedicate my merits to all sentient beings with the proper incantations. It’s a big relief.

It's also my mom's birthday. Gefeliciteerd moedertje!

We sit in on the monks and their Buddha birthday ceremony, which I record on my phone. Photography is not allowed, but honestly it feels like watching a group of goofy guys eating lunch; except for this one guy in a yellow robe with a whip and a chain of wooden beads who maintains pacing and discipline. In any case, it’s an interesting spectacle, I root for the guys having fun when the disciplinarian steps out, and we finally leave them mid ritual. It can go on for a couple of hours, and we don’t understand a word of it, but it feels like a privilege nonetheless.

We head to Jakar, another long drive on the same impossibly narrow national "highway", squeezing past oncoming traffic, dodging cows and dogs, past crenelated precipices and flag festooned chortans, over another fog shrouded pass, until we meet the governor of Bumthang prefecture along the side of the road with his wife, and we stop for a few bowls of arra. It tastes like pine, but pleasantly so, this version slightly pink and poured from a 2 liter Fanta bottle, packing a hefty kick in the pants. A couple of people can’t drink it, but you know I hate to see anything go to waste. It’s a Dutch thing.

The governor (actually he’s not elected but appointed, the role similar to a French Prefect) is a partner in Tharpaling Norbu, the company that invited me here to help them plan and design a resort. I leave the group on the bus for the guv’s chauffeured 4x4, and 4 of us now head to the proposed site for the project. Down a rutted dirt road, past farms and farmhouses, we turn off suddenly to an even worse mud logging track, fording several stream crossings until we rise up into a vast clearing surrounded on all sides by pine forest.

It is a damaged site, cleared and farmed once for buckwheat, then converted to a dairy operation and finally left for itinerant grazing. High on the site stand some older trees and vestiges of the original forest, with new growth beginning to fill in the flanks. A healthy stream borders the west edge, a more tepid and marshier flow to the east. The entire slope faces south, towards more distant hills and a distant temple and of course the sun. To use the project to repair this place, to make it whole, feels like a truly worthy intention.

We head to Jakar after dark, the journey quite jarring but only an hour, get lost in the darkness but finally locate the hotel, share a small meal, and call it finally a night.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on June 2, 2015 from Tongsa, Bhutan
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7 Trips
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Here's a synopsis of my trips to date (click on the trip names to the right to get all the postings in order):

Harmattan: Planned as a bicycle trip through the Sahara Desert, from Tunis, Tunisia to Cotonou, Benin, things didn't work out quite as expected.

Himalayas: No trip at all, just...

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