As soon I entered Bhutan on a recent bike trip, I started feeling like a hapless character in a Kafka novel. After breakfast at a 3-star hotel on the highway joining the border town of Phuentsholing to the airport town of Paro, we congregated at the hotel lobby to fill in forms requesting the Bhutanese government to allow us to ride motorbikes through their spectacular countryside. The forms and photocopies took half an hour.
“The official will inspect you, your paperwork, and the bikes and only then allow entry,” we were told. We waited interminably, twiddling thumbs, talking to cynical Bihari labourers and drinking oversweet tea. At noon, our guide Tashi came running out of the office, telling us that it was time to claim the mountains. Although we began with palpable excitement, rain-bearing clouds, the accompanying cold, and phlegmatic officials at frequent checkpoints soon brought our enthusiasm down by several notches. It was past sunset when we reached the outskirts of Paro, but the last couple of kilometres to the hotel took more than 40 minutes because the Paro Spring Festival had formed a Marathahalli in the middle of this quaint town.
The most judgemental way of interpreting this chain of events is that culture comes first for the Bhutanese, rules come second. Or maybe it is the other way around… the two might have become indistinguishable in Bhutanese society. But clearly, tourists come a poor third. Every process is freckled with Zen-like imperfection in Bhutan, I realised in the next few days. This might frustrate the luckless tourist but, who knows, might well be the reason behind Bhutan’s famed happiness.
By the end of the trip, we corporate-trained Indians had crisp suggestions on improving the bike trip to impart to the Bhutanese. But I had a suspicion that the average Bhutanese could not care less. I had planned to give Tashi an earful but it is impossible to stay angry in Bhutan. Period. This country and its people are incorrigibly innocent and inexplicably optimistic about everything.
On the way to the Spring Festival that morning in Paro, I greeted a couple of young women, who immediately responded with guileless warmth. They were new mothers, on their way to seek blessings at the Dzong, and cheerfully let me tag along. As a burly man, I have rarely been treated with such lack of suspicion by women in India. I almost wept.
The women of Bhutan will take your breath away. They are beautiful, sure, but also incredibly hardworking. More than 90 per cent of the hospitality workforce is made of these sterling beings who will not shy away from any task, even if it means carrying heavy suitcases up three flights of stairs at the end of a 12-hour shift. Their patience and willingness to serve would put the Indian Y2K techie and the Nepali sherpa to shame. “Before the trip ends, we will see at least one of them lose their composure,” someone in the entourage prophesied. That never happened.
“The women of Bhutan will take your breath away. They are beautiful, sure, but also incredibly hardworking.”
Once I gave up the expectation that the Bhutanese must practise non-linear thinking with parallel processes and proactiveness, my trip got infinitely better. Instead of lamenting what they were not, I began to appreciate what they were. For instance, In Thimphu, I nonchalantly waved at a police officer guarding a royal enclosure. He immediately dropped his façade, smiled; I found both of us melting, falling headlong into a moment of unexpected vulnerability.
Content and self-assured
The Bhutanese, through their behaviour, encouraged me to embrace imperfection. During the weeklong trip, I was surprised at the number of divorcees I met of both genders. I sought signs of acrimony, resentment, perhaps a lust for vengeance. Instead, I was met with almost comical summaries of the past and a resolute acceptance.
I cannot be certain that the hundreds of Bhutanese I met were happy, and so representative of the Gross National Happiness index. But I felt that they were content and self-assured, not inclined to second-guess themselves or their actions.
Here’s wishing a thousand more years of predictable, secure, stable and inefficient Bhutan. May this land never succumb to the lure of amplified outcomes. And may you never feel tempted to visit this nation unless you are willing to experience a jolt of the unexpected and some self-growth.
If you are not lucky enough to visit Bhutan, here is the summary of the trip you did not have: No Hurry, No worry.
Eshwar Sundaresan is an author, freelance journalist, counsellor, life skills trainer, and bestselling ghostwriter.