Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Cup

It is a beautiful thing to be outside of the U.S. during the World Cup. Here are my experiences:

Zeb and I go to our friend Ugyen’s house to celebrate the opening of the Cup. We are also celebrating our first night of real-life work that truly felt like college: the night before, we had written our final exams, strictly following the government-mandated syllabus, meaning I had to write 40 pages worth of English exam. All the classics were there: absurdly involved late night snacking, caffeine pills, 3 A.M. showers, and the like.
Ugyen’s inhumanly hospitable brother Tenzin greets us, takes the bottle of brandy we offer Ugyen, and pours us heaping-full glasses of hard A. Needless to say, we belligerently root against Mexico, while the Bhutanese root for them, because they are the better team. They insist we stay for the evening game at 12:30 AM. Zeb passes out on the floor of the 8-by-10 room that both Ugyen and his brother sleep in. I stay awake, alone, for the entire France-Uruguay game. Ugyen and Tenzin are sharing a bed, adorably. I sleep on Ugyen’s bed while Zeb sleeps on the floor. We wake up at 7 AM and walk 45 minutes back to our apartment along a Himalayan mountain ridge in the glaring, revelatory morning sunlight. We have forgotten to lock our apartment. The Bhutanese criminals have not stolen anything, perhaps because they are busy faithfully tending to their elderly relatives, or praying deferentially to Lord Buddha, or not existing.

On Saturday night, Zeb and I make our way into bustling downtown Thimphu. Zeb has a Skype appointment, so I watch the World Cup as it is meant to be watched: with intense passion, alongside one’s curbside compatriots, on a sidewalk on TVs being displayed in a store window. Eventually the store closes, leaving its patrons out in the literal cold, so we make our way to one of the fancy expat-catering bars in town, where I see my first black person in three months. It was a wonderful experience. I thought I was going to go a full year without seeing anyone with a skin shade darker than Bengali. Of course, this guy was Jamaican-Canadian-British and not particularly dark, but it was a surprisingly visceral relief to interact with him. I felt more human, somehow, being reminded of the heterogeneity I was brought up to value so deeply.
The bar closed at midnight, as they all do, before the all-important U.S. game. We called Ugyen, hoping he would let us rudely crash his apartment in the middle of the night to watch the game. The conversation went like this:
“Hey, buddy! How are you?”
“Jon. I am in Paro.”
“Oh, shit. Nevermind. Have a good weeke—“
“Please come to my place to watch the game. I have left the door open. Please come.”
We arrived at 12:40 and the door was literally open. Not the lock. The door was wide open. In the middle of the night.
We watched the U.S.’s glorious draw next to a sleeping Tenzin. We thought we were the biggest assholes in the world. Five minutes after we arrived, two Bhutanese guys knocked on the door.
“Yes, is Ugyen here?”
“You are watching World Cup, yes?”
“Umm…[sounds of World Cup game in background]…kinda…”
And they came in.
And they both sat on Tenzin’s bed.
And they turned up the volume—which we had on silent, the TV being two feet away from our sleeping angel of a teenager—to very loud.
And they took the blankets from sleeping Tenzin and both passed out on his small bed, forcing him onto the ground.
It’s a cultural thing.

This made two days in a row we had rudely violated Ugyen’s domicile. All Sunday, we avoided talking to him, embarrassed. We saw him at school on Monday. He was quite nonplussed with me, as I expected.
“You had a good weekend?”
“Hey, Ugyen. Look, I’m really sorry about passing out on your bed, and coming over at 1 AM and waking your brother up, and I swear I’ll make it up to you, and—“
“Where were you yesterday? World Cup game was on, yes?”
“Wha—Um, well, yeah, it was.”
“Why you did not watch at my place?”
Guilt. It’s a cultural thing.

Needless to say, tonight we went to Ugyen’s place to watch the highly anticipated
match. Ugyen was not picking up his phone. We decided to go over uninvited. We arrived, and Tenzin was sleeping soundly at 8 P.M. Being the perfect student and brother is a tiring occupation. Again, it goes without saying that there was a random Bhutanese guy there watching the game in the bedroom by himself while Tenzin tossed and turned.
Ugyen’s third roommate Bini—keep in mind, this is probably a 250-square-foot apartment—came home during the game to find us camped out alone in his living space. He asked petulantly why we were not drinking beer. He insisted we stay 2 ½ hours to watch Brazil-North Korea. He insisted we stay the night on his bed. His arrival woke Tenzin up. Tenzin’s response to seeing two white men unexpectedly sitting next to his bed watching his television loudly was this:
“[sleep groan.]”


“I will make you dinner.”

It’s a nice culture they’ve got here.


  1. What an amazing culture! Before you arrived, did you have any idea that it was so open, trusting, generous and kind?

  2. I bothered the people I was around by laughing so much at this.

  3. Bill-- we had some idea. Buddhists are generally pretty chill. It started to get real when a major headline our first weekend was "Roving street gang terrorizes downtown." The gang was a group of teenagers who were smoking pot and talking loudly.

    Strenio, it's really good to hear from you. You should come visit. We hear that we can get a couple people in per year without the ridic minimum-expenditure tourist rule.