As a child, I was told magical stories of travel to Bhutan in the old days, which I included in my last book, The Inheritance of Loss. I have waited a long time to visit Bhutan myself. I already anticipate the joy.
Deeper into Lola’s intoxication, when the fire died low, she became serene, drew a pure memory from the depths: “In those old days, in the fifties and sixties,” she said, “it was still a long journey into Sikkim or Bhutan, for there were hardly any roads. We used to travel on horseback, carrying sacks of peas for the ponies, maps, hip flasks of whiskey. In the rainy season, leeches would free-fall from the trees onto us, timing precisely the perfect acrobatic movement. We would wash in saltwater to keep them off, salt our shoes and socks, even our hair. The storms would wash the salt off and we’d have to stop and salt ourselves again. The forests at that time were fierce and enormous — if you were told a magical beast lived there, you’d believe it. We’d emerge to the tops of the mountains where monasteries limpet to the sides of the rocks surrounded by chortens and prayer flags, the white facades catching the light of the sunset, all straw gold, the mountains rugged lines of indigo. We’d stand and rest until the leeches began working into our socks. Buddhism was ancient here, more ancient than it was anywhere else, and we went to a monastery that had been built, they said, when a flying lama had flown from one mountaintop to another, from Menak Hill to Enchey, and another that had been built when a rainbow connected Kanchenjunga to the crest of the hill. Often the gompas were deserted for monks were also farmers; they were away at their fields and gathered only a few times a year for pujas and all you could hear was the wind in the bamboo. Clouds came through the doors and mingled with the paintings of clouds. The interiors were dark, smoke-stained, and we’d try to make out the murals by the light of butter lamps…
“It took two weeks of rough trekking to get to Thimpu. On the way, through the jungle, we would stay in those ship-like fortresses called dzongs, built without a single nail. We’d send a man ahead with news of our arrival, and they’d send along a gift to welcome us at some midpoint. A hundred years ago it would have been Tibetan tea, saffron rice, silk robes from China lined with the fleece of unborn lambs, that kind of thing; by then, for us, it would be a picnic hamper of ham sandwiches and Gymkhana beer. The dzongs were completely self-contained, with their own armies, peasants, aristocrats, and prisoners in the dungeons — murderers and men caught fishing with dynamite all thrown in together. When they needed a new cook or gardener, they put down a rope and pulled a man out. We’d arrive to find, in lantern lit halls, cheese cauliflower and pigs in blankets. This one man, in for violent murder, had such a hand for pastry — Whatever it takes, he had it. The best gooseberry tart I’ve ever tasted.”