Saturday, December 31, 2016

Laya Journal- The Last Lap to Laya


‘One day you won’t be able to do this, but today is not that day’

The morning weather was still bad but the news we received was good. Our five member team in Ponjothang has managed to get 15 horses. It was then I wondered how they must have spent their night in that muddy stretch of road. They later told us that they managed to slip into a tent-hostel prepared for the racers who would be spending their first night there.

O' talking about the race, four members from our team had stayed back in Gasa to take part in the Snowman Run. Unlike us they would be beginning the journey from Gasa Tshachu and run the entire stretch of muddy road we had covered in truck. While I had always feared if I would be able to trek to Laya these were the people who decided to run to Laya. God. Later in Laya we would learn that the winners had cover the entire distance in little more than four hours, which I took nearly sixteen hours. How did they do that?

From Koina it was a steep ascend but the track was fairly good compared to the stretch below Ponjothang where even the horses sunk half their body in sludge. Trekking wasn’t as social as I imagined, we couldn’t walk in group and chat; each had to maintain their own pace and it was a lonely affair. My heartbeat was the loudest sound I could as I inched my way up the hill, often thinking if I should wait a while for the person behind me. Then the internal dialogue began, I was in conversation with myself. Reviewing my life and debating over issues, big and small. Settling matters I had at hand, negotiating with myself and forgiving people, feeling grateful and even composing songs. Ok so that was the reason people go on trekking, to catch up with their inner selves.

When the board meeting within me had started I was lighter on my feet. I frequently had to take breaks from my inner meeting to greet young Layaps descending down to Gasa to take part in the Snowman Run. Looking at the way their feet were negotiating with the mountain trail I knew this race was theirs.

Upon reaching the final curve, from where I could see the Mo-Chhu river down below, the path gradually descended along the hillside. The view from that point was spectacular on the north and the south, stretching endlessly. Across the river it was all gigantic mountains shaped and colored so differently from anything I had seen before. The path was almost running parallel with the river, which could not be heard yet. Gradually I could hear the river, and then the path ran alongside it.

After recurring ups and down between the hill and river the path opened to a surprisingly wide riverbank. I suddenly felt refreshed and ready to undress myself on the Himalayan beach. Some of my team members who left ahead of me were waiting there, perhaps to share the same thrill they got upon seeing the place. We shared cold drinks and fruits and some of them took smoke break while we waited for the others.

There was a bridge across to the other side and within a hundred meters another bridge brought us back on the same side of the river. Dasho Sangay shared that these two bridges had saved us an extra one-hour trek over the steep mountain. He said this was a luxury Layaps could enjoy briefly during winters and this time it was only possible because of soldiers. Anyway, for horses and horsemen they still had to take that unforgiving detour because the bridge wasn’t suitable for horses.

With my motivation Menda and the mother of motivation Chimi

On my return journey I learned that Aue Nedup of Clean Bhutan, who left few days ahead of us, hadn’t known about the bridges and took the long way across the mountain along with his injured friends who had to be partially carried. O God.

At 40 km point there was a makeshift canteen that served us lunch. We had to decide weather to fuel up here or continue another hour to Tashemakha. By now we stopped trusting locals when it came to distance and time, they would say an hour and we land up taking over four. Before our lunch was served NC Chairperson Sonam Kinga and team arrived. They had begun from Gasa this morning and walked all the way from Ponjothang yet they caught us. I felt disappointed with my speed. As if this wasn’t enough his team left us behind from there. Dasho Sangay excitedly joined his chairperson who said ‘the house moves together’.

Our team from Ponjothang arrived with the horses. My friend Dorji was carrying a bag bigger than himself. He told me that the luggage filled with sleeping bags we had left in Koina couldn’t be adjusted on the horses therefore he had to be the extra horse. I felt bad but I was helpless. To his credit he made it to Laya without a complaint.




The horseman looked familiar to me. I recalled he stopped by at Koina guesthouse last evening. When we requested him to pick up our load from Ponjothang he showed us a chit wherein he was directed to pick up Dzongkhag load. He had no clue about the content in the chit. In desperation I even conspired to change the content of the chit but didn’t actually do it. But now I was wondering who actually changed it? Or could it be that there was not load from Dzongkhag so our team got him? I forgot to ask. I never found out.

Tashemakha was a military base pitched on a low plateau. The place was actually called Tashethang. From there we could see our destination high up on the mountain like a diamond in the sky. While the beauty of the mountain was so inviting the distance was mentally exhausting. The man in makeshift canteen told us that it was just an hour more from here. I knew it meant another four hours, and I was right at my speed it took so much.

The inspiring banner and the inspiring people

Gasa Dzongda must have foreseen that anyone could feel like I did at this point in journey so he had put up a banner here that read, “One day you won’t be able to do this, but today is not that day.” I read it loud and felt it deep. It worked like a dose of steroid in my nerves. We regrouped once for the last time only to be scattered gradually by our pace. Our horses and chef had left us too. Good for us because it meant our tents and food would be ready when we reach up.

The Last Lap to Laya, the destination is hidden among the clouds

That last lap was the most agonizing with our muscles stiffening and the air thinning. I took rest in every ten steps or less. When I saw the historical gate to Laya I fell on my knees. I knew I made it. Just then my team member Ching Ching came running down towards me. She said there was someone on the road, probably drunk. It was Jigme our chef. There went our food! He said something strange happened to him and we blamed his countless bottles. He showed us his bottle, still full, and said he wasn’t drunk. He said the spirits affected him. We half-believed him. He had however delivered his bag with a local friend and even asked to serve us tea and help in preparing our meals.

From the gate to the village was yet another struggle by then the darkness had set in. It was hard to envisage that a village so vast, stretching out across the hill could possibly exist. I couldn’t wait for the morning to see the sheer beauty of this place. But for now where was our camp? The third house called us in for tea. It was Jigme’s loyal friend. We declined knowing that we were so close to our camp. We headed for the huge campsite in the field only to find that it wasn’t ours.

For sometime two of us were lost in Laya. We didn’t have an address to seek direction and no one knew about our team. As we lingered in the dark we heard someone calling out Ching Ching. There we found our campsite. Our tents were still on the ground and Penjor was struggling to set them up. He was the only person other than Aue Karma, who was yet to arrive, who knew how to do it. The horses soon brought down the kitchen tent that he had worked on first. The two of them who had arrived with Penjor were sent back to look for us and the remaining who were still coming. When they returned with the rest of team they thought we didn’t make it. We actually made a wrong entry to the village to be found by the search party.

The kitchen team, even without the chief chef, was quick. After the dinner I went straight into my tent and wrapped myself in the sleeping bag. I didn’t have energy for mischief and even whisky didn’t taste good.


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Laya Journal- Rest Like Zhabdrung in Koina


Our team leader had to take a decision; to wait for horses with the entire team or go ahead of our load. If we had the strength to make it straight to Laya then going ahead won’t be a problem because we would get some sort of shelter and food for the night but if we land up somewhere between nowhere we would be in trouble without tents and ration.

There was no cellular network in the area. (Of course we were told later that there was a small patch of land close by where the non-smart phone could receive network). There was no guarantee the horses would come, and even if horses did come they weren’t like taxi to make endless trips. Animals would need rest.

Five from our team stayed back to wait for the horses and rest of us began our journey. I was separated once more from my two staff. In little more than two rainy hours we reached Koina. This was said to be the place where Zhabdrung took rest during his long flight from Tibet in 1616 and therefore it was named Koina, derived from Ku-nyel-na. The place had a guesthouse for travellers. It was merely a shelter with three empty rooms. Retired army Tenzin and his family who ran the canteen occupied the fourth and fifth rooms.

Leki was the logistical official at Koina for this festival period. He welcomed us with tea and backed it up with a much-needed lunch. It was still early in the afternoon though the overcast weather made it seem very late and it was still possible to make it to Laya or somewhere closer but without any form of communication with our team in Ponjothang we couldn’t risk leaving the shelter in Koina and Leki’s hospitality.

Leki offered us an empty room to crash in for the night in case we had to. We spend the whole afternoon talking about everything like in good old times. We literally relived the legacy of Zhabdrung by taking the longest rest in Koina. People who were there before us left before we finished settling down and others who came after us took brief tea breaks and carried on.

Dasho Sangay talking to Soldiers in Koina Guesthouse


We had all the time for ourselves with nothing to distract us from telling stories of our lives that would otherwise never be told in smartphone era. While we were digging out our memories and laughing endlessly our team leader received the message that he dreaded. There won’t be any horses for the day to bring back our load. But before our smiles faded he announced that Chef Jigme and Artist Dorji from our team in Koina had volunteered to go back to Ponjothang and get us our sleeping bags. I was simply awed by the compassionate courage of these two men to walk back the whole stretch and return with our sleeping bags. I couldn’t thank them enough for the giving us the beautiful night in Koina.


Among the many who came inside the Koina guesthouse that day after us only Dasho Sangay Khandu decided to stay back with us. His entry was the beginning of the next episode of our night in Koina. Taking advantage of our friendship I complained about the road conditions to his Gasa. He said he could only ask for it like the rest us and that it was Lyonpo Damchoe I should complain to. He however said that the having that mere road in itself was a blessing Gasa could enjoy only recently. Gasa had to endured with minimum development because it had been a Dungkhag under Punakha Dzongkha for a long time.

Upon asked how Gasa could even dare to host a festival of this magnitude without having so many basic logistic in place, he said that an able leadership would have the foresight to see order in chaos. While it also seemed like a nice justification to our innate complacency but the words went echoing in my head for a long time. And it made perfect sense to me when I finally saw the magnificence of the festival later in Laya.
Good Night's Sleep in Koina

If it weren’t for that night I wouldn’t know that we still could spend hours at end talking with fellow human beings. If we were dots, our stories were lines connecting them and at the end we were all interconnected. Even our retired solider host wasn’t left out; he confessed he was among the group of soldiers who bashed up Dasho Sangay and Chimi Zom’s mate in Sherbutse. To add special effects to our tales there was continuous supply of beer at much cheaper price than any club in Thimphu. One thing was confirmed, unlike road and mobile network, beer was everywhere. Learn from beer!


No experienced traveller would stay up so late and drink like we did ahead of a long journey but I further proved how big an amateur I was by continuing my night with Leki. Two of us became the voice in the silence of the dark night. Often we could hear giggles muffled in thick sleeping bags indicating some of our roommates were listening to our conversation while still pretending to sleep.When I finally got into my sleeping bag I felt so lonely. The silence in the room was deafening so I said a few lines of humor to check if they were really asleep only to find that all of them were trying hard to sleep. Except for little Menda the rest jumped back in conversation while I quietly slipped away into my dreams. From deep inside my sleep I could hear them curse me for disturbing them.


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Friday, December 30, 2016

Laya Journal- Waking Up in Gasa

October 13, 2016

I woke up early to feast on the magnificence of Gasa. Doctor’s quarter was perfectly located below the Dzong facing the overwhelming mountains. The moment I came out of the door I was face to face with the stunning mountains. The peaks of every mountain looked as if the naughty children of gods playfully handcrafted them.

The next thing I wanted to open my morning eyes to was the Dzong. I had always seen it in pictures, standing against a formidable snowcapped mountain. But to my dismay it wasn’t there. The utse of the Dzong was under renovation and without it, it didn’t quite look like Gasa Dzong.

After a quick breakfast in the same restaurant we had dinner in last night we climbed up to the parking lot near Dzongda’s quarter. The town was no bigger than a small village with single storied wooden huts. Even the bank was housed in one of those fragile structures.




In the parking lot we found out that the road to Ponjothang was too bad for Bolero Campers we intended to take. The only way to get there was in the two military trucks. The parking lot was filled with people who were equally lost and all eyes were on the two trucks. We even heard that our horses were ‘hijacked’ by some teams who went ahead of us, which was a nightmare because we had enough loads for at least 15 horses.





When the military trucks readied for the journey people rushed like herd of wild cattle, each trying to get ahead of the other. Our loads were lying on the road, we were left looking at each other’s faces. There was a big empty space inside the truck but the back entrance was already cramped with people who wouldn’t give us way. These were people from Thimphu known for being so nice in good times. If only they knew that we all must get to Laya anyway.

Utterly disgusted I climbed up on the truck with some force and asked my team to pass in the bags. One by one most of our bag were adjusted but it wasn’t without some resistance from the herd. 

The Third Truck

Third truck appeared in the parking lot. It was a non-military one that won’t make it till Ponjothang but we had to take the chance. It filled up easily and I was in the company of some of my teammates and some other good friends. I thought it was going to be like a nice ride on the back of truck. But the moment truck moved we were displaced from on side to another and everyone bounced in some random pattern. The floor of the truck was a pool of mud and we were careful not to get muddy but after a while we gave up. We were like popcorns in a frying pan; all those branded bags, pants and boots were covered in sticky mud.
Tashi Namgay Kidney being careful
The Rough Ride

Our truck refused to climb somewhere on a steep uphill climb and that was it. The two military trucks waved at us. We dismounted and started walking. Two friends stayed back to with the bags, hoping the military trucks would come back for us. We met a Bolero Camper returning from Ponjothang. How did it make it there? Who said it was impossible? Ok there was no time to repent because we had to request the man to pick up our bags. It was quite a feat to persuade him. When he came back with our bags we jumped in as well and on the way up we witness how his beloved pickup suffered all sorts of damage from the harsh road. Despite everything the man asked for just Nu.1500. Aue Karma T just couldn’t help adding Nu.1000 more for humanity’s sake. 


Dumped on the middle of Nowhere! 


Walking the gap with my team leader Aue Karma T and Aue Sonam (ABTO)

Ponjothang was not a settlement as I envisioned it was just point on the road beyond which the truck couldn’t go. There was a tent serving as makeshift canteen where we could eat for free by showing our official card. For now more than lunch we needed horses and there was none. They told us that it all messed up after 120 horses left for Lunana. Nonetheless they comforted us by assuring that the ones in Laya would be on their way back.


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Laya Journal- Long Road to Gasa


The weather hadn’t been good all week and frequent news of bad road condition worried us. On 12th October morning the sky faked a brief sunshine. We took it as a good sign. Our four cars were loaded with bags and people equally. My two friends Che Dorji and Dorji Phuntsho got into the Bolero Camper that was loaded with camping equipment and ration. I didn’t see them until later at night in Gasa. They made it to Gasa three good hours ahead of us.

I was in a car with three talented gentlemen; Dorji was an artist, Sangay was a musician and Dr. Tenzin whom I knew for a long time was a dentist, dancer, social worker and a good human being. But after Dochula even these three extraordinary companions couldn’t keep me awake because I had seen this stretch of road a thousand times. I wanted to save my wakefulness for the road from Punakha to Gasa, which was a road-not-taken for me.

 
With Trekker 360 in Thimphu
We stopped for lunch in Khuruthang and I was all prepared to enjoy my maiden journey to Gasa. Road to Gasa began all bumpy and miserly squeezed in between steep hill and the roaring Mo-Chhu, with nothing much to see on either side. I waited for some time to see if there was anything else to see besides the raging river but the road continued that way forever. I tried to go back to sleep only to be woken by frequent stops at roadblocks. We could see fresh landslides but thanks to the many dozers deployed to handle the situation across the stretch of the road.

The road didn’t at all seem favorable for Gasa to dare such an event, not even on a normal day. Hundreds of people had to travel on the road that was a ticking time bomb. It was miracle that nothing bad happened. Perhaps this was to let Thimphu feel the pain of Gasa.



We reached Gasa in the darkness of the night. The farmhouse the team had booked was all lite and waiting for us with steaming tea and dinner. Che Dorji had already arranged three of us to put up at his friend’s, who was a doctor in Gasa. Dr. Wangchuk had come to pick his three guests and he knew where exactly to take us for dinner and drinks. Gasa was so alive that night with more people and cars than it ever saw.

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Laya Journal- Excitement in Thimphu


Laya is a beautiful place everyone heard about and most are guilty of not having visited it. It's just there within our reach but many of us have just managed to visit it in the pages of magazines. In few years road is going to reach Laya, and then there is going to be more cars than yaks. Then Laya will be just another place.

Gasa Dzongda, Dasho Dradul briefing BTO team in our office

In August I received a mail from Gasa Dzongda asking my office, Bhutan Toilet Org to take part in Royal Highland festival in Laya. The festival was going to bring in huge number of people to the pristine mountains and the last thing Dasho wanted people to leave behind was their crap all over the mountainside, therefore we were invited.
Preparing for Laya

It was therefore an official invitation to travel to a dream destination. My toilets have taken me to so many places and Laya was literally the icing on the top of the list. But Laya was a beautiful girl protected by deadly father of a journey. My confidence faded at the thought of the arduous journey. I haven't tested my trekking ability in years. The last thing I wanted to be was an extra baggage on my team members.


Checklist

It was 10-year-old Menda who motivated me without saying a word. She had already done Jomolhari trek with her parents and now she was joining us to Laya. I was like a child telling myself, “If this little girl can do it, I should be able to.” It helped.

But soon I had to worry about the travel expenses and logistics. It was again Menda's parents who rescued us. Aue Karma T and Chimi Zom included us in his Trekker 360 team and took the burden of worrying about everything for us. This pro trekking team was scheduled to do Dagala trek this time but when Laya made its calling they changed their mind easily. It was blessing for us. My three-member team only had to report with our stuff in Dorji Elements’ parking lot on 12th October morning. That's it.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Civil Society Organizations- Fragments of The King's Dream

The following article was written for The Bhutanese's special issues dedicated to the 10th Anniversary of His Majesty's reign. It was published on 9-12-2016. A week later on the 109th National Day in Trongsa 23 CSOs were awarded National Order of Merit (Gold). 
Read the same article below.


At the World Toilet Summit 2016 in Malaysia members of toilet associations of different countries took to stage and shared great stories about their works but one tragic twist in all their stories was the lack of support from the leadership of their countries. They were yet to convince their leaders on the significance of what they were doing. They were fighting to get their leaders’ attention to their cause.

I was to speak in the afternoon of the second day of the summit. By then people had heard enough toilet stories to have any more appetite. Attending the summit for the first time that was the best slot I could get. But I have enjoyed so much attention in two days just by being in gho. Even before I went to stage hundreds of people took pictures of me or with me. They called me Mr. Bhutan Toilet.

When I finally went to stage that lethargic afternoon I could see that I had all eyes because of my dress. I soon projected the photograph of His Majesty and me on the giant screens across the hall and told them stories of how I have the blessing of my king on what I do. When I told them that His Majesty the King gave me the title ‘Chaplop’- The Toilet Teacher, I heard the loudest round of applause in that hall. That made me the only country representative at the summit who, with a little guilt of having to contradict with the rest in the house, spoke proudly about having the support of the King of his country.

When elsewhere in the world Civil Society Organizations fight for benefactions from their countries’ leadership here in Bhutan our leadership inspires people to take up social works. In 2015, during the Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition in Paro His Majesty said, “Where we live must be clean, safe, organized and beautiful, for national pride, national integrity, and for our bright future. This too is Nation building.”

I was then experimenting with Bhutan Toilet Org as an online campaign but that royal message seemed to me like a personal command. I immediately began working on making toilets across the country ‘clean, safe, organized and beautiful’ and that was the beginning of this long journey I have started.

Who wouldn’t desire for an audience with His Majesty the King, but when His Majesty summoned me during Paro Tshechu I was least expecting it. I knew I didn’t deserve it yet. What I didn’t know was I was summoned to be blessed, to be inspired and to be guided for the long journey ahead of me.

I still have vivid memory of that auspicious moment. Dasho Zimpon made me wait on the bridge. I was the only person kept on the bridge and the next person I would see was His Majesty. I could see thousands of people on both ends of the bridge waiting to get a glimpse of His Majesty. I was frozen. I didn’t move an inch even though no one was watching.

Then came the moment, I couldn’t look up directly but I could make out from the radiance that His Majesty had come. I bowed down to pay my respect and froze back to stillness. His Majesty right away congratulated me on my team’s work during the Tshechu and told me to walk alongside him across the bridge.

I had crossed that bridge thousand times in my life but even in my most beautiful dream I haven’t seen myself walking with His Majesty the King and talking about the work I am so passionate about. I shared Bhutan Toilet Org’s Roadmap and the challenges faced in maintaining public toilets. His Majesty talked about the importance of behavioural change in making our efforts sustainable. The bridge seemed so short that day, at the other end of the bridge His Majesty stopped and shared stories of toilet issues in our country and how thing are in other countries. He blessed me with his guidance and assurance of royal support henceforth. Everything seemed so possible suddenly.

To make this priceless moment live with me forever His Majesty granted a Kupar with me with the permission to share it on social media. It was as if he knew I would need this to remain motivated each day and to influence people around me.

I couldn’t quite convince my mother to appreciate my new work after I left teaching until I sent her my picture with His Majesty. It worked magic with her. She finally began to accept and appreciate my work.

Few months later I received Royal Command to participate in the Royal Bhutan Flower Exhibition. It was only during the last Flower Exhibition that I was inspired work with toilets and now I was going to setup toilets at the event, it was too good to be true. It was granting the biggest platform to showcase ourselves and we took it up with challenge and with great pride.

During the closing ceremony of the exhibition His Majesty made special mention of Clean Bhutan, and Bhutan Toilet Org and it was then that I was granted the title ‘Chablop’. It suddenly made me feel like I was doing a prestigious job. Thereon, it made us glorify the act of cleaning toilets; it felt like an art. We never had a problem looking for volunteers to help us.

Just last month, during the Royal Highland Festival in Laya, I had the fortune of meeting His Majesty again and this time it was right next to the toilets we set up. The first question came as a compliment to our team, “How do you manage to keep the toilet odorless?” We were surprised that His Majesty knew about our knockdown toilets that were travelling places during events. For the King to know about every little effort you make was the highest reward we could ever dream of.

Later at the end of festival, during Civil Society Organizations’ audience with His Majesty I knew how he has been instrumental in the formation of every organization and how they were guided by his vision. It was like we were gifted fragments of his dream with his blessings.

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