At 8:30 this morning—a Saturday morning, mind you—a middle-aged woman rang my doorbell. As my apartment is well removed from the middle of nowhere, I hadn’t been anticipating a social call. Also, it was 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.
“Uh, hello,” she whispered. (She’s shy, and her English is better than she puts on.) She placed a giant thermos in front of the door. “I made tea for you. Um, I have to go shopping into the city.”
On Thursday, on our insistence, Zeb and I moved out of the cushy hotel our employer had been paying for and into an edifice I have dubbed The Realness. It is an hour’s walk from downtown Thimphu, fifteen feet from a calm but highly audible river, several kilometers away from the pervasive influence of Whitey, and, at the moment, cognitive light years away from being a respectable domicile. At present, we lack: a heater; curtains; chairs; floor coverings; a stove; sheets; and anything designed to conceal the exposed cement that forms almost every surface.
We have: potatoes. (That one’s for you, Christian. Though it is true.)
It is going to be a simple existence. That said, we are extremely fortunate to have gotten this apartment. The housing market is crazy here, as befits the most rapidly expanding urban area in the country—our principal, for one, is still looking for a place. To boot, the place is gigantic. We have a huge common room and a master bedroom that we don’t know what to do with. Given that we live in a dusty cement box in the basement of a building, there’s really no excuse for us not to be training in Muay Thai streetfighting, or at least becoming enlightened ascetic monks.
Our best experience with this place has been the landlords, of whom the aforementioned lady is one. Our first night here, they came to set up our water heater and noticed that we were about to cook dinner by an open fire by the riverbank. Somewhat appalled, they invited us to come eat with them. We spent a very enjoyable evening making awkward conversation with the husband, who speaks excellent English and studied in Australia for two years. They are just sincerely selfless people. They set out snacks for us that they didn’t touch; they cooked a huge meal and insisted we eat before they even served themselves; and most incredibly, again without our asking, the wife (Dawa) served us tasty homemade liquor from her family’s home town, and then told us that they don’t drink at all. They keep liquor on hand (and in a beautiful ornate serving vessel) just in case they happen to have visitors over. Keep in mind they live an hour away from town.
The next night, still having on hand the potatoes and vegetables we’d cut up and offered to the landlords (they refused, of course), we decided to cook out by the river. We (and by this I mean Zeb, who is an Eagle Scout) built a fire in a pit we found and fried up a nice wokfull of chilies, potatoes, onions, and a literally inedible dried cheese product called Chugo. (As in, it tastes good, but you can’t eat it. It just sits there, mocking you. We soaked it in water overnight and deep-fried it. No dice.) Halfway through the cooking process, we see several residents of the apartment building staring at us from their balconies, with that look that even from 50 feet away says, “WTF LOL WHITEYS.” Right on cue, Dawa came down to the river bank, I guess to make sure we were aware that we had built a fire and were not criminally insane. She hovered around us for a good while, assessing the situation, and, likely, our mental well-being. When she determined that we were both serious about this camp-cooking and rather successful at it, she trundled off to her apartment to bring us rice, without which our meal would have been incomplete. She invited us to cook in her kitchen until we got a gas stove installed, and generally extended the kind of pitiful hospitality you’d give to an invalid retiree who’d just had his pension cut. We tried to explain that we found this kind of outdoors experience fun, and that we wanted to do it at least once, but this concept didn’t translate. Thus, there she was at 8:30 with a thermos of hot tea.
Discussing this with our other American friends yesterday, Zeb and I found ourselves a little divided. Zeb, rightfully, seemed ashamed to have been subjected to this pity—and it was clear that pity was the defining element in our relationship to our new friends upstairs. The more I thought about it, though, the less I minded. Pity, after all, is the opposite of the attitude locals have towards tourists, and any distance I can put between us and that demographic is worth some loss of dignity. After all, this was our truest interaction with locals yet. In many ways, this was the personal, spontaneous hospitality I’d been promised in long trips to Ecuador, Costa Rica, and France, but had never experienced. So our connection to these people started off based on our perceived poverty, or incompetence, or insanity, or whatever: it was still a connection. If it took some pity to get there, so be it. You’ve gotta start somewhere.
[There’s a lot more to tell right now—the school is finally starting up, and I lucked into 11th and 12th grade English, which I’d most wanted to teach. We don’t have internet in the apartment, and probably won’t until our first paycheck comes in, so updates will be few and far between.]