A Baby in a Backpack to Bhutan,
A Baby in a Backpack to Bhutan
An Australian family in the Land of the Thunder Dragon
Bunty Avieson worked for twenty years as a journalist on newspapers and magazines in Australia and Britain. She was Editor of Woman’s Day and Editorial Director of New Idea, winning three Magazine Publishers Association Awards. She is also a Williamson Fellow (1999).
In 2000 Bunty took up fiction writing full time. Her first novel, Apartment 255, won two Ned Kelly Crime Writing Awards and has been translated into German and Japanese. She has written two other novels, The Affair and The Wrong Door.
Bunty lives with her partner and daughter, dividing her time between Sydney and India.
Also by Bunty Avieson
The Wrong Door
First published 2004 in Macmillan by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited
St Martins Tower, 31 Market Street, Sydney
Copyright © Bunty Avieson 2004
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in
any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher.
National Library of Australia
A baby in a backpack to Bhutan: An Australian family
in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
ISBN 1 40503582 X.
1. Avieson, Bunty - Journeys - Bhutan. 2. Australians Bhutan - Biography. 3. Bhutan - Description and travel. 4. Bhutan - Social life and customs. I. Title.
Papers used by Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd are natural, recyclable
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Typeset in 13 pt Granjon by Midland Typesetters
Map by Laurie Whiddon
Printed in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group
This is dedicated with much love and affection to those luminous women of Taba – Karma Yangki, Phuntsho Wangmo, Karma Chokyi and Wesel Wangmo.
And to Kathryn Rose – you make everything so much fun.
Map of Bhutan
1: A New Life
2: Two Becomes Three
3 :The Muncles
4: Men of Magic
5 :The House of Many Mothers
6: Oh Glorious Luminosity
7: The Beast and the Oracle
8: Lady Muck
9: Yak, Yak, Yak
10: The Talk of Thimphu
11: Twelve Eminent Men
12: The Wrap Party
13: Leather Stew
14: A Very Special Lady
15: Back for More Yak
With heartfelt thanks to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and all his monks at Bir, Pema Wangchuk and the Siddhartha’s Intent household in Delhi, Sogyal Rinpoche, Mani Dorji and Tenzin Wangdi in Thimphu, Douglas Mills for his Tibetan translations, Linda Smith, Sandra Lee, Tom Gilliatt, Karen Penning, Sharon Metzl, Selwa Anthony and the very gorgeous Mal Watson.
Map of Bhutan
2 AUGUST 2003
It’s 5 pm on a Saturday afternoon. Monsoon rains are hammering on the roof of the marquee, the air is steamy and I’m quietly drowning in sweat inside my kira, a thick, heavy piece of woven cloth that is so tightly wrapped around me I can hardly breathe. In front of me sit the Queens of Bhutan, four elegant and beautiful sisters who are all married to the country’s ruler, the Dragon King.
Beside me, my partner Mal is exhausted and relieved. The movie he produced has just had its world premiere, here in Thimphu, Bhutan’s tiny capital. Travellers & Magicians has been given the royal nod and at this genteel post-premiere reception he can finally relax.
Cavorting happily in the rain in front of the royal entourage is our eighteen-month-old daughter Kathryn, stumbling about on the grass in her miniature kira. It is the country’s national costume, which by law the Bhutanese women must wear, and out of respect, we do also. While she looks cute, I look like a round multicoloured keg.
One of the Queens turns her head and exchanges pleasantries with Mal and me. It is one of the few occasions that we can look Her Majesty in the eye without being considered rude.
In this unique little kingdom nestled in the Himalayas, royal protocol normally forbids such intimacy. I have heard many funny stories of drivers who, spotting a royal car on the road ahead, have driven into fields and rice paddies as they dutifully lowered their gaze. The reverence the people feel for their first family is extraordinary. The Royals are considered a national treasure.
The King has decreed that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. And that’s how his people live. For many, life is a struggle, yet they remain remarkably content and happy. It is a little pocket of sanity in a world gone mad.
It seems like just a minute ago that I was Editorial Director of an Australian weekly women’s magazine. It was a crazy, hyper world of celebrity gossip and glamour, big money and even bigger egos. And I loved every mad minute of it.
Interrupting my thoughts, a handsome waiter with feline eyes and angular cheekbones (and wearing what looks suspiciously like an orange tartan dressing gown) offers me another yak hors d’oeuvre. The Queen engages me in polite conversation, saying kind things about my daughter as she frolicks in front of us, wet but happy.
This is about as far away from that Sydney magazine office
– and all the corporate brouhaha that went with it – as I could possibly get without actually leaving the planet. By some fortunate set of circumstances that I never saw coming and wouldn’t have dared even imagine, I have arrived here, at this enchanting moment, in Shangri-la.
A New Life
I meet Malcolm Watson at an inner-city cafe in Sydney on a blind date. Sort of. Mal lives mostly in India but is currently home visiting his family. He works as an architect on projects for an international charitable organisation and was coproducer of the delightful multi-award-winning movie The Cup – about soccer-mad monks in a Tibetan monastery in India. A friend, aware of my growing interest in Buddhism, thinks I might find him helpful and so she organises dinner at her place. Half an hour before we are due, she phones to say she’s ill and will have to postpone. I suggest she gives Mal my number and that the two of us can go out somewhere for dinner. She phones back to say he’s shy and would rather we rescheduled. Used to running my personal life like my professional life, I take down his number and phone him.
‘I know you’re free for dinner, well so am I. How about it?’
He has the grace to say yes.
I choose an inexpensive Nepalese restaurant in the inner city, figuring it’s probably the sort of place he will like. I arrive on time and wait, the only person in the room, watching the door for someone with a beard and sandals, maybe beads, and possibly smelling of incense.
Mal is nothing like the hippy I am expecting. He is clean shaven, conservatively dressed in jeans and an open-neck shirt, and wears leather shoes with laces. Arriving at my table, he takes one look around the deserted restaurant and says he knows a much better place – a groovy Italian bistro in Darl
We decamp there and I trot out all my questions about Buddhism – karma, reincarnate lamas, personal gurus and so on – all the things I just can’t get my Anglican-educated head around. He doesn’t directly answer a single one. I come at him from five different ways which, as a journalist, I’m used to doing. He sidesteps them all so neatly that I don’t even realise until we are two steps past.
Dinner is pleasant enough anyway and we agree to meet for lunch the following Saturday. This time I avoid all the vegetarian haunts of inner Sydney and suggest a little spot overlooking a park. We move from the restaurant to my apartment and talk non-stop for sixteen hours, about anything and everything. He leaves at 5 am just as the sun is rising, and we shake hands, rather formally, at my front door. It’s only as I watch him walk up the driveway that I realise he still hasn’t answered any of my questions about his personal Buddhist path.
I think he’s funny, pretty laidback, and probably the most fascinating man I’ve ever met. Even after so much talk, I feel like we haven’t finished our conversation. He feels the same and delays his return to India. We see each other every evening for the next ten days.
I’d been planning a two-week holiday in America with friends. Mal says, ‘Cancel that, come to India. I’ll show you around.’ May is such a lovely time of year to see the country, he tells me.
Of course! Why not? I’ve known you for a nanosecond.
I’m astounded that I say yes. But three weeks after meeting Mal, I’m in the doctor’s office getting vaccinations.
‘Where are you going?’ asks the Indian cabbie who drives me to Sydney Airport.
‘You’re crazy! No-one goes to Delhi in May – it’s the hottest time of the year. People leave Delhi. I’m from Delhi and tomorrow I’m coming back to the airport to pick up my mother. Every year at this time she comes to Sydney to get away from the heat . . .’
I decide this is further proof that all men lie during courtship.
When I get off the plane amid the chaos of Delhi Airport, my courage deserts me – what the hell am I doing here, meeting a man I hardly know? I stand in limbo at the customs gate. Outside is a sea of faces and colour and noise. I can’t go back and my feet just won’t propel me forward. I’m suddenly very embarrassed and shy. What if he isn’t out there ... worse still, what if he is? Will I even recognise him?
People push past me, eager to get to their families, and are absorbed into the crush of bodies ringing the customs exit. My high-pressure world of magazine publishing suddenly seems very sane. I would rather be facing manic deadlines and hysterical publicists than get sucked into this frightening vortex.
With great reluctance I push my trolley through the gates and stop, mesmerised by all the faces. It appears as if the whole population of Delhi is crowded into the arrivals hall. But I’m lucky. At just under two metres, Mal stands head and shoulders above the rest. He’s also blond, which is enormously helpful. I make my way to him and he wraps me in a bear hug. I think it just might be okay.
Delhi is even worse than the driver had predicted. I feel like I’m standing at the door of an open pizza oven. By day the temperature reaches an unbearable 47 degrees Celsius; at night it drops down to a still unbearable 30 degrees. I can’t breathe. I have no energy. The moment I walk outside the air-conditioned hotel I’m drenched with rivulets of sweat on my back, my arms and in my eyes.
The people of the city limp through May and June in a kind of mindless stupor. Rickshaw drivers don’t work in the middle of the day but instead take a nap by the side of the road at the street intersections. Anyone who can afford to flees the city, mostly heading for the hills. Mal suggests we do the same.
We catch an overnight train to Bir, a Tibetan refugee settlement of about 3000 people nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, north of Delhi. This is where Mal spends most of his time while in India.
Though born in Sydney, Mal has worked for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and his charitable organisation Siddhartha’s Intent for more than a decade, overseeing the building of retreat centres and monasteries in Canada, India and Bhutan as well as co-producing Rinpoche’s 1999 film The Cup. The movie was made here in Bir, and Mal continues to be involved in an ongoing project designing various monastery buildings for Rinpoche.
Bir is truly the most magical place, although it shares the frustrations of any city in India – intermittent electricity, garbage and plastic bags strangling the waterways, inadequate sanitation, stray diseased dogs that fight and bark all night, poor telecommunications, corrupt Indian officials, desperate poverty, heat and disease.
But despite all the chaos, Bir exists as a unique little oasis of beauty and harmony.
We stay at Rinpoche’s house, the Khyentse labrang. Mal’s ‘boss’, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, is a Buddhist lama who travels the world teaching and in his spare time wrote and directed The Cup. In Bir he has a much-respected institute for 350 monks and tucked behind it is Khyentse labrang, which is his home and personal headquarters when he is here.
Bir is one of the parcels of land the Indian Government has leased to Tibet’s government-in-exile for a period of ninety-nine years. While much of the western world argues about refugees and houses immigrants in detention camps, India, despite its own staggering poverty, has made welcome the Tibetans fleeing Chinese occupation, many of whom walked over harsh snow-covered terrain, sometimes for three months or more, to get here. More than 120 000 Tibetans have made it safely to India, Nepal and Bhutan since 1959. That was the year that their spiritual and political leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama moved out, arriving half-dead at the Indian border. Each year more Tibetans attempt the same hazardous journey. They are sent to refugee camps, where they receive health care, before being relocated to Tibetan townships such as Bir.
There are two different townships, known locally as Indian Bir (up the hill), which has a few Indian-run shops, and a few kilometres away is the Tibetan settlement known simply as Bir. The community is made up of monks and families as well as some Indians running their businesses side by side with the Tibetans. In the main street of Bir an Indian man has a shed-shop, made from corrugated iron. He sells mostly the same grocery items as the Tibetan man opposite, and while the two business rivals wait for customers, they happily play cards together on the ground.
There are two telephone shops at either end of the main street, one run by some young Tibetans, the other by a deafmute Indian, whose shop is always full of monks calling family around the country or in Tibet and Bhutan. When we need to call home, this is where we come. We take our place in the queue and when it’s our turn, we write the phone number on a piece of paper and pass it across the counter to the proprietor. Then we wait in a small booth for the phone to ring. It seems incongruous that someone who can neither hear nor speak is running a telephone shop. It seems even stranger when I discover that the Indian Government, as part of a program to help the disabled, assisted with finance to set up his business.
He is cheerful and efficient, and also runs a lucrative sideline in photocopying. In this he has no competition. Such is his attention to detail that all the monks bring him their pecha (horizontal Tibetan books) to copy. These are prayer books and esoteric Buddhist texts, about thirty-by-ten centimetres in size, and made up of between 100 and 500 loose-leaf pages. While he doesn’t understand a word of the ornate Tibetan script, he is precise and methodical, perfectly reproducing entire books in a matter of hours.
Each evening at dusk we join the local community on ‘the walk’. It is a stretch of road that leads out of the main township, winding through tea plantations, past traditional Himachali mudbrick homes, to the river. In the north-east the land creeps slowly higher then rises dramatically to the mountains, and above that the snow-capped Himalayas. Many adventurous westerners come here to hang-glide, taking off from those mountaintops and soaring above the valley alongside the kites, massive eagle-like birds native to this area.
To the west the
Bir has four monasteries, representing different lineages or schools of Tibetan Buddhism. For six days a week the monks’ intense study schedule starts around 4 am and can finish at 8 pm or later, so Sunday nights are one of the few opportunities for them to relax and be sociable.
We see them everywhere along the road, their maroon robes draped around their waist and slung over one shoulder. Most are dapper and carry themselves with great pride, looking learned and dignified like Roman senators, only in dark red, not white. Some look scruffy, as if they slept in their clothes. Others, particularly the young ones, are mischievous as they run around teasing and chasing each other or kicking a soccer ball. Some hold hands as they walk together. It has no romantic connotations, Mal assures me after one monk, an old friend, grabs his hand and walks with us for a few hundred metres.
As well as the monks, the road is always abuzz with people strolling, chatting, admiring the sunset, looking for a good vantage point for the final act or heading for their favourite spot. Tibetan women, demure in their chubas, their pinafore-style national dress, knit and gossip as they walk, children running around their legs. The occasional cow meanders past, used to having right of way on every road in India. Everyone, it seems, comes out to watch the sunset, enjoy the waning day and socialise.