Saturday, April 10, 2010

A series of events

This was one of the more interesting days of my life. Unfortunately for you, I’m sworn to secrecy about most of it, which is how you know it was so interesting. Here are some of the more bloggable occurrences.


It’s a continuing meme in our experience that the Bhutanese conception of hospitality is absurdly beyond anything we use to define the word. The Bhutanese—at least the good ones—don’t think of hospitality as being kind to your guests, or even deferring some of their needs to take care of yours. When a Bhutanese is in hospitality mode, they will cut off a limb if they think you might be entertained by it.
I went over to my friend and colleague Ugyen’s house tonight. Ugyen is the most hospitable person on the planet. His brother Tenzin, a student at my and his brother’s school, puts him to shame. When I arrived, Tenzin was a ball of miserable-sounding flesh buried under two blankets. He was really, really sick. As Ugyen took care of some hospitality in the other room, I spent a couple minutes alone in Tenzin’s bedroom. The only thing indicating another person in the room was an occasional pre-death moan from under the lifeless pile of blanket. As I halfheartedly browsed the bookshelf, I heard a rustle from the corner; the rustle became movement, and with the effort of a Soviet prisoner rousing himself from the brink of death to renounce his belief in God, Tenzin sat up and said:


An hour later, we were in the Emergency Room. Ugyen went outside to make a call. I accompanied Tenzin, who was shaking with feverish chills but refused to put on the sweater I wasn’t even wearing. We sat in silence for a while, enjoying the surprisingly pleasant ambiance of the marble waiting room. It was an effort for him even to sit up in the chair—every few minutes he would be overtaken with pain and double over. Which is why it made total sense for him to turn to me and say, with genuine concern,

“Sir, you must be very bored.”

Even in the goddamn EMERGENCY ROOM, it was inconceivable that his needs could in any way supercede mine.


After we returned to the apartment, Ugyen was compelled to cook a monstrous feast of a dinner, even though it was 10:30, I was still stuffed from earlier, and I told him I would not eat anything. I insisted on watching and trying to help him cook, since I like cooking, a fact which not a single person in Bhutan has accepted as possible, given that I am male and do not currently work as a caterer. He spent an hour painstakingly making an authentic Bhutanese meal of fried fish, vegetable curry, beef sausage-ish stuff, and chili sauce. Just as he’d forcefully loaded me up a heaping plate, he addressed me with the conspiratorial tone of someone sharing an inside cultural secret with a worthy outsider.
“Here—try this,” he said, and with a deft motion of a serving utensil, he scooped at least three tablespoons worth of butter on top of my rice.
He is the P.E. teacher, by the way.


Don’t ask how, but at one point in the evening I became acquainted with a 90-year-old man who had spent his life as a Dasho, or judge, a position that commands the utmost respect. He spoke no English, but I sat as rapt as everyone else as he shared (presumably) wise nuggets of knowledge with his much younger company. (According to the other people there, he really liked me despite our total inability to communicate, and said it was great that I was taking a respectful interest in Bhutan, but fervently urged that I send most of the money I made here back home to my parents.)
For a while we all sat around listening to him and power-chewing doma, which he kept a gargantuan stash of, and which he kept offering me. I accepted at one point, and after I started chewing, he stuck his hand into his massive gho pocket (the Bhutanese pride themselves on having the largest pockets in the world) and rooted around for a minute. With a gleeful, childlike grin, he handed me a piece of gum. “For after the doma,” someone translated. It was a pretty great moment.

But not the best. After another long period of respectful listening, Ugyen went into the kitchen and brought out two cups. In one, he poured a solid four and a half fingers of whiskey, which he placed in front of Dasho. In the second, he poured water. The Bhutanese drink whiskey diluted with water in about equal parts—they will pour the water glass into the whiskey glass and sip away for an extended period of time.
Not this Bhutanese.
As I looked on in amazement, he poured a tiny dash of water into the whiskey, and then he CHUGGED THE ENTIRE GLASS. After that came about 15 seconds of the hacking death-rattle noises you expect 90-year-olds to be making pretty much all the time, let alone right after pounded a frat-sized bro-tail. He recovered and then continued sharing wisdom. It was pretty impressive that he was even awake at 9:30 PM, let alone outdrinking the rest of the room by 200%. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. He told us his brother was 92 and did a full man’s load of farm work every day. He also looked no older than a 65-year-old American. There’s something in the air here. Something other than old-man spittle mixed with $2 whiskey.


  1. Is Tenzin OK? (Sounds like the ER facility was impressive -- what did you think about the ER medicine?)
    What is doma? Even Wikipedia doesn't identify it as a chewable herb ...

  2. According to, doma is "areca nut and betel leaf with a dash of lime." (When in doubt, ask Mr. Google.)

  3. hahahaha.... and are you sending some money back to your parents? haha