“My People, My Country”

December 11, 2011 |  by  |  Dispatches

Festival Love: My mind lingered on the twirling colors, still enamored of the captivating Buddhist Festival staged in the spacious courtyard of the Tashigang Dzong. As we prepared to set out on two more days of biking and several more days of hiking to our final eastern destination—Sakteng, I was giddy remembering this elaborate celebration and its rich tradition.

A Buddhist Festival is a formal affair in Bhutan. From far and wide in their best Gho’s and Kira’s and with a special meal in hand, families come to take in the festivities. The dances and songs emulate Buddhist lore and despite the translation barriers we were transfixed each moment by the movement, colors, costumes, elaborately constructed masks and impeccable people watching.

Our Final Journey East: But our schedule only allowed us one rest day at the Festival and we were off the next morning on bikes—climbing yet again. This cycling leg would take us south and then east to the end of the road past Radi for our final trekking leg. Trekking in far eastern Bhutan would prove to be unique to our journey while revealing—one final time—the lovely essence and soul of the Bhutanese people.

After two days of mountain bike riding we transitioned to trekking toward Sakteng—the most easterly established settlement in Bhutan. This trekking section is a well traveled trade route so our rugged trail was rife with yaks, sheep, horses, donkeys, goats, people of ALL ages, and oddly in a country of stray mutts—countless small white dogs (they are bred in Sakteng). All carry food goods, roofing materials and power poles. Yes—power poles.

The Essence of Bhutan Embraces The Power Pole Carry: Electricity is finally making its way to eastern Bhutan and the people are psyched. So much so that each family in Sakteng is helping in this process—literally.

The government drops a pile of the steel power poles (weighing from 100-300 lbs) at the end of the road past Radi. Villagers from Sakteng then make the trek to Radi to then carry a pole back—a steep, muddy and rocky two day trip on foot. A family whom we met carrying their pole on the trail, invited us to tea at their home in Sakteng where we found out why the villagers are quite wiling to lug the poles back to their villages. Electricity will allow their children to study at night, and their lives in general will be more efficient and cleaner. Rather than smoky wood stove heat, they can use an electric heater as well as cook by electricity.

We continue to be supported by our small contingent of adorable and highly competent RBG army staff and have noticed that they are not only impeccably helpful, cheerful and respectful of us, but they are equally so to their countrymen. If a car is broken down on the side of the road Bhutanese stop to help. If a farmer needs extra hands for a harvest, all step in. When a person is without family and needs food or shelter, Bhutanese offer assistance. One does not see others homeless, starving or begging in Bhutan.

So when we came across two brothers and one of their 15 year old daughters carrying a 300 pound power pole to Sakteng, two of our army staff immediately jumped in to take the place of the girl. When we inquired about the guys eagerness to help in such a tough task, one of our staff declared enthusiastically–“My People, My Country!”. Bhutanese just help each other. They don’t act put out or ponder the ramifications of taking the time out of their lives. Helping is just a part of who they are. It brings them happiness and contentment to know they are supporting others.

My People, My Country: On this end point of our journey we had an opportunity to view old Bhutan at its finest. The village of Sakteng is densely compact as the mud, cement and stone houses are snugged together—separated only by dry stack stone fences or a narrow muddy “sidewalk”. The women wear a distinct black hat made of boiled yak hair and beaded necklaces passed down within the females of a family. Men don maroon colored yak hair jackets, deer fur vests, turquoise earrings and boots of hand sewn colored leather. But despite their unique dress and distinct facial features, they all embodied the same mantra of Bhutanese we encountered prior—”My People, My Country”—a warm greeting, big smile, and eagerness to help all sentient beings.

The Fox is Eating the Moon: The past couple of days we’ve been making our way back across Bhutan by car (yikes: I’d much rather trek and ride a bike). And as I am writing this blog post in the lobby of a hotel in Punakha, Nadick, the fixer for our film team, comes into the lobby and informs us that tonight is the night that the fox is eating the moon. He says that this is a special day and is celebrated by villagers coming out to bang pots and pans and yell and howl to try and scare away the fox that is eating the moon. I remember that tonight is the full moon, so as I’m chatting with him trying to get more information on what this “holiday” is all about, Tony rushes into the lobby and announces—”Come outside and check out the lunar eclipse!!”

Bingo. Fox is Eating the Moon = Lunar Eclipse. Perhaps the villagers noisy efforts were not in vain, since we only witnessed half of the fox eating extravaganza due to cloud cover…

Written by Terri Schneider
Finishing up writing this on a very bumpy car ride from Punakha to Thimphu.