How solo traveling got me invited to a Tibetan bonfire under the stars and a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at a Bhutanese castle

For a card-carrying member of the introvert club, travelling solo terrified me. The fact that it terrified me is rather strange because I had been travelling alone since I was 15, which may not seem that young, but for a girl to travel alone in India at that age is not a common occurrence. Also, this was the day and age of travels in a local transport bus instead of the safe confines of an aeroplane,  before mobile phones became ubiquitous, and much before the location tagging of every post/tweet. By the time I turned 21, I  had made multiple solo trips by interstate buses, overnight trains and long-haul international flights. I had travelled through curfews in the state of J&K, through landslides in the Himalayas, through airport shutdowns due to snow storms, and even an airport staff strike at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  I had not only travelled but survived to tell the tale 🙂

So, it was rather strange that in the last couple of years, every time the wanderlust kicked in, I would start looking for travel companions. Solo travel was relegated to work trips, which doesn’t count as travel in my books anyways.  I was also incredibly blessed to have some amazing travel companions every time I travelled, and thus I had not really explored solo travels.  Last year, was my first foray into travelling alone and I decided to dip my toes in these solitary waters by spending a week in Bhutan.

And thus, on a beautiful, rain kissed morning, I landed in the picture postcard airport of Paro- the only passenger on the Druk Aircraft travelling alone.

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Paro airport nestled under a blanket of woolly skies with the most beautiful airport building facade I have ever seen

The airline staff at the Kolkata airport were so surprised by the fact that they kindly offered me a window seat, although the aircraft was completely booked and choc-a-bloc with holidaying Indian families. Apparently, solo travelling in Bhutan is still not that common and gently discouraged by the Bhutanese government as they want to restrict the ecological impact of tourism in Bhutan, and rightly so.  And even if you are solo travelling, a local guide is expected to accompany you.  I had not foreseen this when I was booking my tickets so I was a little apprehensive when I landed at the airport -but as soon as I caught sight of the lush green valleys nestled in the bosom of the majestic mountains, and smelt the oh so familiar mountain air, I knew that I was back home and not alone. That feeling of coming back home stayed with me throughout the seven days and although I was sometimes gently probed about travelling alone and without a guide, I knew that it was coming from a space of caring and concern.

It didn’t help matters that I was often mistaken for a foreigner, prompted probably by my wild Medusa hair and difficult to geo-locate looks.  The fact that I was mistaken often for a “chillip” (‘foreigner” in Dzongkha -the local language), and not an Indian national, was a source of immense amusement to my driver and also confusion for the locals. In fact, I had to interrupt a very animated conversation with my driver and one of the locals in a remote village in Haa valley by speaking in Hindi, to prove my Indian-ness, as I could make out from the sideway glances that the conversation was all about the “chillip” :). A foreigner travelling alone in Bhutan is a strict no-no, when compared to the Indian nationals, who although being technically “foreigners” are blessed with many more degrees of freedom in their beautiful neighbouring country.

“Where are you from ?”-is one question that I encountered everywhere I went in Bhutan, and have become friends with as I have travelled to other parts of the world.  For a shy, solo-traveller, it’s the perfect ice-breaker and an opportunity to step outside the turtle shell. I have now become so comfortable with the question that I even made it into a “guess my nationality” game for the shop-keepers in the back-alleys of Grand Bazaar at Istanbul.  Suffice it to say that I can now boast of being (or at least being mistaken for) a national of all parts of the world including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Spain, UK,  East Europe, and Latin America, which does wonders for my vanity.  But, I digress as that’s another solo-trip, another blog.

So, on my second day in Paro, when I was greeted by the familiar question by two ladies carrying a rather jumbo wok across the grounds of the home-stay that I was staying in, I quickly answered that I was from India. Unlike the other countries that I have travelled to, typically the conversation didn’t stop there in Bhutan as most Bhutanese have some connection to India.  When probed further, I responded I was from Himachal (a state in the northern part of India that includes the foothills as well as some of the ranges of Himalayas), which was greeted with much enthusiasm and a flurry of exchange.  As it turned out, the two women were also from Bir, Himachal, which is a predominantly Tibetan settlement, not too far from Dharamsala, home to H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.  As we happily exchanged familiar town names and family histories, all the while soaking in the lovely Bhutanese sun, the conversation quickly turned to my travels and the fact that I was travelling alone. No sooner than I said that I was there alone, I was promptly invited to an evening of Tibetan thukpa and barbecue under the stars.  The thought of hot, delicious thukpa under the starry skies, conquered my shyness and the default setting of curling up under my turtle shell,  and I agreed happily.

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I don’t have any pictures of my new friends or the actual bonfire. I am very bad at taking pictures of people -probably because of being camera shy myself.  So, I have added pictures of the homestay that I was staying in, and the rest, the dear reader will have to imagine for themselves. This is the entrance to the Nivanna homestay in Paro where i met my aforementioned friends
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I spent my afternoon making new friends with blooms of all colours and hues. Unlike my shyness with sapiens, I am quite comfortable taking pictures of my delicate, feathery friends

As the evening approached, the rain clouds cleared, the crickets started making merry, the heavenly aroma of wood-fire came wafting down, and I hungrily scrambled towards the bonfire that I could see up the hill, in the distance.  I had not accounted, however, for the gate-keepers of Nivanna lodge.  The mighty, the feral, the ferocious –  night growlers and howlers, and nemesis of hungry, skinny, wannabe mountain girls.

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Say hello to Lady, Grey Wind, and Shaggy Dog- guardians of the flame of thukpas and nemesis of starving girls

Duly chastised by the local direwolves, I snuck towards the main house when I was greeted by the owner of the property who as it turned out was also heading towards the famed pop-up bonfire.  Escorted by my brave and beautiful knight, I finally made it to my very own Mount Olympus, where I met the rest of the family of my kind and generous new friends. It turned out that the two women I had met were sisters who were on a Buddhist pilgrimage along with their elderly aunt (who must be easily 70+) and cousins and nieces.  They were a group of six women who were traveling alone across the length and breadth of the north-east part of India, Nepal and Bhutan, visiting all the Buddhist monasteries, a distance of at least 4000 Km (2500 miles) one way.

Restaurant at the edge of the clouds

As, they washed, cleaned and cooked effortlessly without the modern amenities of running water and a fancy barbecue, I could sense the quiet confidence and comfort that each one of them had –with themselves, with each other, and also with the water the fire, the skies, and the land.  I was therefore surprised when the aunt and the cousins looked at me and said that I had lots of “saahas” (courage) when I told them that I was traveling without “saathi” (companions). To me, they were the epitome of grace and courage.

I didn’t take pictures that night and even if I had they would have been inky black. So, instead, I took pictures, the next morning, of the site where I lost a piece of my heart to a bowl of soup and made new friends

While steaming bowls of bhatuk* and the Tibetan salad were passed around, we made halting conversation in a mix of Hindi, Nepali and Tibetan.  The elderly aunt only knew Tibetan so we made conversation with each other through one of the sisters who acted as a translator.  We shared travel stories about Sikkim -a north east state in India -a state that I have traveled extensively through.  We shared names of monasteries and Buddhist temples to visit, of my morning walk to Paro Taktsang (famously known as Tiger’s nest), of Bir and Himachal, and many other stories. But, the stories that stayed with me, long after I was back home in Bangalore, were the unspoken stories of sisterhood, of connection with the land, and the kindness of strangers. According to Buddhist philosophy, there are actually no strangers, we are each expressions of the beautiful universe, interconnected with each other other in the web of life, all aspiring for happiness and freedom from suffering.

As Yeats, famously once said:

“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”

And I am sure if Yoda had met Thich nhat Hanh, he would have also said:

“Interbeings you are!

My first solivagant adventure in Bhutan brought the feeling of “interbeingness” home and rest deeply in my heart

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A fir tree stealing kisses from an apricot tree under the white mistletoe – making friends across the blue skies

*Bhatuk is a form of Thukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup) that uses hand-rolled bhatsa noodles that look very similar to Italian gnochhi. This is served in a flavorful broth of meat or vegetables. I had never tasted bhatuk before although I have tried many other variations of Tibetan thukpas, but the bhatuk that I had that night was incredibly flavorful and delicious.  As I searched about bhatuk on the internet I came across this treasure trove of Tibetan cooking that describes the bhatuk and the recipe in detail. I also came across this another site that provided another interesting story about the significance of bhatuk in Tibetan tradition.

To be continued… savouring 50 years old oolong tea in a 100 years old castle in the clouds..

Read more about my solo travels in Santorini, Greece here and Vietnam here.

 

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