Plus: Aftermath in Kathmandu
December 1-10, 2000
After a last minute, frenzied pooling of rupees to cover our outlandish excess baggage cost (It was so much our check-in man had to cut it in half for us.), we proceeded to be prodded, poked, and processed all the way to our Royal Bhutanese plane. Alf and Tilman went the Captain "V" route, while Stephani ingested her beloved Dramamine, and Shamane stocked up on barf bags. Poor Annie, Sian, and Watcharee were left to the daunting task of catering to our every pitiful need.
You may be asking yourselves, "Why all the pharmaceutical pacification?" We have just boarded a plane ride that promised to make Space Mountain look like a kiddie ride. We have asked countless people if the landing in Paro was as "spine tingling" as we have heard. But all we could get were knowledgeable smirks that convinced us that we better just get on, strap in, and stop whining. Trying to placate us with spectacular views of Mt. Everest may have temporarily distracted us from our imminent cartwheel into Paro, but we were quickly jolted back into reality when the plane began to shimmy and shake. Prayer books were brought out, chants were streaming through the cabin, and Annie and Shamane had to endure the pain of Tilman digging her claws into their flesh.
We banked on into the airport and gathered up all our prescriptions, only to be reminded that in six days we were going to have to rocket straight back up through those mountains. Need we say that we'll be spinning those prayer wheels in preparation?
Right away we knew we were in good hands when we met Phurba, our Bhutanese guide. While most of our team were taking in his GQ, dreamy Druk eyes, true to form, Annie and Tilman zeroed in on his to-die-for boots. They were the quintessential elephant polo footgear coveted by all Screwy Tusker jockeys. Before we even hit the bus, we were chatting up his footwear in hopes of scoring a pair for ourselves.
It quickly became clear that we would need to make a donation to the Bhutanese Hernia fund. As chagrined bystanders, we grimaced as we watched our poor bus driver heave our stuffed Samsonites through the back bus window. Pay back came quickly, though, as were encouraged to try the national dish at lunch. We knew we were in trouble when enough large flames came shooting out of Alf's mouth to launch his Naked Ladies.
Oh, yeah, and we actually fit in the National Museum of Bhutan and the Paro Dzong, graciously guided by Phurba. We quickly realized that Bhutan was as beautiful as promised.
Waking up at the crack of dawn, coffee junkies that we are, Annie and I reached for our caffeine IV's in search for a fix. Alf's concoction of No-Doz and water just wasn't going to cut it for these two Seattle girls. So, with Screwy Tusker cups in hand, we ventured out into the dark halls of the Druk Hotel in search of a jolt. After unsuccessfully trying to pry the restaurant door open, we headed to the front desk, only to trip over the slumbering bodies of our tour guides. Profusely mumbling our apologies, but still determined to hit the mother lode, we made it to the desk only to be told by the bleary eyed night clerk that no way we were getting coffee until 7:30 am. Heads hanging, we returned to our room and huddled in front of our sparking, temperamental, floor heater.
Coffee ingested, we headed to the tallest pass of the nearby mountains for what Phurba called a "walk." Conveniently not acclimatized to the 12,000 feet elevation, Alf and Watcharee bowed out of the activities and elected to stay warm and cozy on the bus with our bag of goodies. The rest of us headed up, some of us not so sure that we had made the right decision after the first hill almost caused cardiac arrest. We slipped, slid, stumbled, and sighed all the way to a nunnery, literally perched on the side of the mountain. Being the self-proclaimed Princess that Stephani is, this monumental feat of bravery and stoicism will only make her more of a celebrity than she already is upon her return home.
Phurba once again worked his magic to gain our entrance into a beautiful temple, where we fumbled through prayers and absolution. Stephani's particular prayer focused on the long trail home.
Hours later, finally reaching the bus, we discovered that our main incentive for continuing on, Sian's Snicker Bars, had been devoured by Alf and Watcharee. They seemed quite smug about their choice of morning activities and didn't even have the decency to handi-wipe their chins off.
Bhutan Heater Update:
You may remember the solace that Annie and Tilman took from their sparking toaster oven while they were experiencing their caffeine DTs. Well, have visions of us snuggled deep in slumber to the hum, hum, hum of the heater, only to be sparked awake by fireworks not seen since Millennium 2000. We should have seen this coming given the body size extinguishers found at every hall corner, but after all Sian and Shamane were having no trouble sleeping through the engine like thunder that ricocheted off their mean heating machine. Who knew that leaving the heater on in order to survive these sub-zero temperatures could end up being more death defying than the tree-skimming, mountain-hugging landing into Paro?
Having survived our perilous drive from Paro to Thimpu with fewer straight aways than a crazy straw, we were rewarded by Phurba with a stop at the Mecca of handicraft memorabilia! -- the Sunday Market. Part sadist, part Saint, Phurba let us loose with only 40 minutes on his stop watch. Starved for capitalist consumerism, and never ones to back away from a challenge, we hit the stalls running. Buddhas were flying, prayer flags were waving, door knockers were knocking, and all other enviable items were dueled over. Returning from the Cost Plus Whole Saler Front Lines, we boarded the bus and tossed our trinkets in front of Phurba, who, in exasperation, pawned us off to the staff at the Blue Poppy Restaurant, where he ran for cover.
After lunch, while waiting for a few straggling shoppers, Alf, with stickers in hand, headed straight for a unsuspecting hotel window that was just begging for his Naked Ladies. Taking the time to strategically place them only caused suspicions among the locals who crowded around his handiwork as he sheepishly sauntered away. Revelling in spreading his Screwmaids around, it was all we could do to keep Alf from slapping his girls on the Golden Prayer wheel at the Thimpu Dzong and giving his girls a twirl.
One more time Phurba charmed our way into a beautiful temple, where we were literally greeted by a two meter pink phallic symbol that would turn any major porn star green with envy. And, we were worried about Alf's lovely jubbley ladies.
Memorable Hikes in Punacha: Hike Number One:
In order to get some fresh air, we were encouraged to wander up to a little temple set atop the fertile fields of Punacha. This seemed innocent enough to this group of unsuspecting maternal Madonnas, but we soon found out otherwise. We were lulled into the den of fertility by wide-eyed, angelic child agents and asked to fumble through the ritual prayers that we had learned at the nunnery. The chanting grew louder, and out of nowhere came our blessings. A theme seemed to running through our guide's mind, as he encouraged the pre-pubescent monk to bonk us on our heads with the prettiest, blackest, wooden penis you have ever seen. For those of you who have never been willy-whacked, you can imagine the mixed emotions that were flying through the chambers. With promises of embriotic miracles, we stumbled back down the hill side, hoping not to have to explain impending additions to our families.
Memorable Hikes in Punacha: Hike Number Two:
We had a lovely, quiet afternoon set up for us: visions of postcard writing, reading books, and sipping tea were on the agenda, until Phurba suggested just one more "little walk". How gullible were we to really think that his idea of a little walk would bring us back home within the hour? The start-off should have given us immediate cause for pause, but being our good-sport selves, we trudged up the side of the mountain, gasping for air and following his every footstep. Think of a cross between "Indiana Jones," complete with grapefruit sized spiders, and "Gidget Does Bhutan," and you may get a sense of what we experienced.
Sporting the latest in hiking gear, Annie, in her two-inch-heeled boots, gave a whole new meaning to the words "digging in your heels," until we lost her momentarily down a hole. To quote Sian, who was the last to see Annie, "One minute she was there, and the next minute she was gone." As Shamane led the way across treacherous slips of concrete bordered by 100 foot drops, we were all in denial that the sun had long gone down and that darkness was swallowing us whole. Phurba, while chanting "No Problem, No Problem," had a look in his eyes that revealed impending broken bones if not worse.
At the crest of the ridge, we finally caught sight of small twinkling lights, something akin to the North star given their proximity. The only thing between us and the town was a steep, rocky hill side that would have frightened the most seasoned of mountain goats. "No problem, no problem," as we slipped, stumbled, twisted, shrieked, and slithered down to the awaiting rum bar below. Phurba insisted that we have a stiff drink, but we suspect that it was he who was in greater need. Stoked by our warm cocktails, we declined Phurba's reasonable offer of a bus ride home and elected to weave our way up the road to the hotel. Arriving home four hours later, covered in clay and spider webs, and who knows what else, we toasted our surprising survival with a pint of the local brew and a whiff of the neighboring weed.
Punacha - Thimpu - Paro
Waking up in our beautiful cabin, Annie and Tilman immediately asked Sian and Shamane what they had been giggling about the evening before. At first we thought it had been chanting from the local Dzong, but upon entering our bathroom that night, we realized that the shrieks were coming from our young'uns next door. With innocence to spare, they explained that they were simply test-rolling a new Screwy Tusker Herbal Artifact.
Our first stop on our way back to Paro was the Punacha Dzong, where the King and the High Monks live during the winter months. This was our second attempt to get in. We had declined entering the Dzong the day before due to an unfortunate incident. It seemed as though one monk or another had pinched Bhutan's most sacred artifact: an item small enough to fit into any crevice, which was a fact not lost on all the police who were frisking a long line of Dzong dwellers. We quickly gleaned that, if we had entered, in order to get out we would have to join the snapping glove rank and file upon departure.
Luckily enough, they squeezed a confession out of a monk gone mad and extricated the sacred bone from the bowels of the Dzong. We finally felt safe to enter. It was like walking into a Steven Spielberg movie set, complete with golden pillars, monumental Buddhas, chanting monks, and intoxicating incense. Even for us seasoned Temple Tourists, this monastery left us speechless, which for some reason left Phurba looking very perplexed, if not pleased.
We twisted and turned our way back to Paro, where we were greeted by our own clunky heater. Calling it an early night, we girls collected for a token, pink pajama party. Sian and Shamane, having been the last ones to see our herbal artifact delight in Punacha, were searching full on for it when we entered their room. With their belongings strewn everywhere, they had to admit defeat. So, in order to continue the party, two were selected to solicit our fearless Scout's guidance in our quest for enlightenment. We should have known it would have entailed another hike! Heading out all together under the light of the moon, we skipped down the mountain. With our only flashlight in hand, Phurba vanished into the darkness off the side of the road with the fading words, "Meet me by the last bend in the river."
God forbid we question his directions, so on we continued trying to nonchalantly blend in with the landscape. Having reached what we hoped was our assigned spot, we had faith that Phurba would find us. Sure enough he reappeared like a firefly, complete with bush in hand. Having scored some Happy Himalayan Harvest which seems to grow like a weed, we tripped back up the mountain, giggling and gasping. We knew we had pushed our luck too far though, when we, oh so innocently asked for just one more beer before retiring. With Phurba's firm "Bar's Closed!," we slipped back into our room for a feeding frenzy. With Sian tucked snuggly into bed and drifting off to sleep as Shamane maniacally searched for that elusive canister of delight, her good night words were, "Don't worry Shamane, just leave it to the dogs in L.A."
Add: Lisa and Christy.
Subtract: Alf, Watcharee, and Stephani.
Result: Shopping, Shopping, Shopping (Much to Sian's dismay - what a sport she is.)