Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Baby in a Frontpack in Bhutan

Lily does a few blockies (koras) around the Memorial Chorten, Thimphu
I’m sitting in Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square as I write this. Our two month old daughter, Lily, is asleep in a carrier on my chest and my wife Lucy is catching up with her colleagues in a nearby hotel. The square is filled with the usual faint clamour of a Friday night in Thimphu: dogs squabbling by a rubbish bin, cars and taxis sounding their horns, a children’s football game being played across the cobblestones of a disused fountain.

It feels strange to be back in Bhutan, after almost ten weeks in Australia for Lily’s arrival. Strange to be somewhere so familiar but also so completely different. I felt prepared for everything to be different when Lily arrived, especially as she was born in a city I had never visited before. But I realize now that I had been subconsciously expecting Bhutan to feel familiar, somewhat more known. But it’s not.

The serpentine road etched into the side of a cliff that leads up to our village used to thrill and excite me with its beautiful cross-sections of exposed rock and dramatic views down to the forested valley below. Now, in my parental-anxiety-addled mind, fueled by jet lag and overnight REM-sleep interruptions – the same road leaves me seeing only eroding cliff edges, potential threats to Lily’s safety and a gleaming question mark asking, “Why did you bring her back here?”

Similarly, the unlikely prospect of encountering a bear during a walk in the forests around Chamgang used to lead me to a sudden feeling of excitement, a few shouts of ‘Yo! Bear!’ and a quick mental reassessment of my Himalayan-black-bear-survival flow-chart (a chart that mostly dove-tails into ALL CAPS instructions: ‘Run home screaming and praying for bear-spray’). Now my reaction to the idea of a bear is one of almost pure terror and defenselessness (although I still do the shouting and praying for bear spray).

Our previous life in Bhutan also involved a wonderful leap-frogging between the energy, diversity and indulgence of regular time spent in Thimphu, and our everyday life spent in the quiet, parochial community we felt so much a part of in Chamgang. But given how bumpy the drive is and Lily’s intermittent dislike of car travel, I wonder if we won’t be instead spending more time camping out at home and enjoying a somewhat more limited range of entertainment options.  

Lily, Lucy and some of the Ambient Cafe crew (Jigme Namgyel, Junu and Jigme's sister/cousin)

But on my first day back at school, as I walked into an exam hall that just coincidentally happened to contain all of the students I have taught over the past 18 months (classes VII and VIII), I was reminded of one of the reasons why we chose to come back to Bhutan. Risking a clip around the ears or an accusation of cheating, students smiled broadly when they saw me and looking up from their exam papers whispered heartily, “Wel-come back, sir! How is your baby? How is Madam Lucy? We are very much missing to sir and we are happy to meet you!”  

This warm reception was mirrored in all parts of Bhutan, with teacher friends in the village picking us up at the airport, offering to cook us meals on our first few nights, friends in Thimphu offering us baby clothes and accommodation, expat medicos offering their attention and expertise and the wonderful owners of our favourite café organizing us emergency accommodation and support when our quarters proved to be not quite ready for baby-habitation. 

Besides all this, Bhutan is also phenomenally beautiful at the moment. Whilst the mountains surrounding Thimphu often look barren and harsh during the dry seasons - red, rocky soil scattered only with the spindliest of pine forests - during monsoon they pulsate with a verdant lushness that brings warmth and softness to even the most remote and inaccessible mountain peak. The walnut and apple orchards seem to have erupted into a carnival of weeds, birds and fruit and the lively spectacle of watching village and city-folk negotiating the intermittent storms is as entertaining as ever.
Outside Madam Nancy's
The heading of this post is a tribute to the fun travel memoir Baby in a Backpack in Bhutan by Australian writer Bunty Avieson.

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