Sunday, 2 June 2013

On the first visit to our new village

On the first visit
to our new village,
half eaten buildings
like concrete puzzle pieces
strew the road
outside the capital.

There is some hope there
on my part
of being shown to the top floor
of an eighteenth century
farm house
with giant cedar beams
and delicate wooden shutters
red chillis drying
in the roof cavity
the woodstove charred
and blackened with soot.

But I have become an expert
in keeping expectations low
and prepare myself
to enter a desolate village
clinging to the side of a
built around the jail
for which the village
is so well known.

This is, I think,
my least favourite part of Bhutan
says our knowledgeable guide

and I count my breaths.

As the road leaves the city
it winds up a ridge
past a monastery
nestled amongst the pines.

Built in 1673
it is known
as the country’s oldest
and its faded burgundy roof
provides me with
something like relief.

Ice appears beside the road
a clear and frigid stream
in the gully.
In these quiet woodlands of
juniper, spruce and birch
I am in the territory
of leopards
demons and bears
and the city seems a distant memory.

Sweeping around each bend
we stumble upon jaunty
timber houses
messy piles
of split pine
stacked against the walls.

Children fling stones
at unseen targets
and stare
without waving.

The prison sits low
against the ridgeline
under Talakha’s
snow peppered peak
rising like a thunderhead
into the sky.

The yak herders
graze their animals

in the meadows
behind that peak

says our guide

and my mind slips
into images
of alpine lakes
bursting with trout,
alpine flowers
colouring the hillsides
an ancient
reverent space
still enough
that I can hear it
In the village
shit-streaked cows
stand in the streets
eyeing our car.

The silhouettes
of village men
drinking 11,000
by the longneck
fill the windows
of Gyeltsen’s
General Store Cum Bar
and we climb
past the prison
and towards the school. 

rammed earth houses
for space with smaller
blue pine constructions

says our guide

and I can feel
the mountain wind
slipping in
through the glaring cracks
in their bark.

Timber piles
back onto cow pens
that flank outhouses
and border
vegetable patches
frozen in translucent layers
of mud and ice.
Stripped, naked
branches of walnut
and peach point
like fingers into the
soggy, clouded sky.

Our landlady greets us
with a mixture
of grace and embarrassment

shifting today?
she says, eyes wide

and sends her neice
to sweep out
our house and quickly
mop all the floors.

She brings us
steaming milk tea
thick with sugar
and orders in Dzongkha
for our neighbour
to connect us to his
electricity supply.

Today, I didn’t know
that you were coming.
she says and smiles shyly.  

The concrete house
has been painted
the inside walls
with erratic green paint
the colour fading
near the top of the walls
where the painter
has seemingly not
been able to reach.

The concrete floors
are cold and bare
the sink and drain
nowhere to be seen.
I run my hand
over an exclamation mark
of paint
and sand falls away in my hand
leaving me coughing
in a small cloud of dust.
The doors refuse to close
and cold winds blow puffs of dust 
through the gaps below the windows.

There are no delicate
wooden shutters
or giant cedar beams
no thick walls of rammed earth
to warm against the cold.

No ancient shrine room
housing golden effigies
of Guru Rinpoche,
no window in the hay loft
where I can look out towards
the mountains and dream
cloud encrusted dreams.

No stone landing 
sweeping down
towards verdant
rice paddies and fields
of billowing wheat.

But soon five boys
come bustling in
Good evening, sir! How are you, sir!
They fold themselves in half
bowing almost violently
enormous grins
plastered on their faces
carrying a huge iron bed
that they hustle and wrangle
through our too-small-doorway.

They jump and bang
and hammer and cajole
until each slat is firmly in place
every fibre of their bodies
brimming with energy
and helpfulness.

Can we clean for you, sir?!

Too embarrassed
I accompany them outside.

We walk towards the school
on the edge of a ridgetop
high above the Thimphu Valley
which glitters and hums

Snow covered peaks peer
through the clouds
looking back,
I see an endless forest
of rhododendron, oak and pine
stretching from behind our house
towards the Dargala mountains

and the valleys beyond.

The boys throw stones
and wrestle
their silhouettes
framed against the setting sun.

And I know
that I will be very happy here.

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