Thank God for wifi. One of the downsides of being a solo traveller is the sadness, let’s face it, of dining alone. I’ve travelled alone a fair bit, but in recent years I’ve mostly been with a friend or in small guided groups, which I think is my preference on balance. On this sub-continental gallivant I’m alone every night for three weeks.
Mostly. You do strike up conversations with neighbouring diners. A young Hispanic couple from Miami spotted the Cuban flag key-ring dangling from my backpack yesterday, which started a good ole Cuban chatfest. The night before last I found myself sitting at a table next to an Indian family I’d first met at the ‘Simply Bhutan’ folk museum in Thimpu the day before (where I had a go at archery) and that gave us a pretext for resuming conversation. There’s a funny story about that first museum encounter which I’ll relate in a moment.
But first the dining thing. It’s never bothered me too much but you do sometimes feel that curiosity directed towards a woman out in public without family or companion, especially in cultures where such a thing is eccentric at best or disreputable at worst, although I’ve noticed my international ‘audiences’ becoming more blase about that as mass tourism covers the globe.
In the olden days I would take a book with me into the dining room, but books are heavy and the lighting often not bright enough for reading. The thing about wifi is I can take my iphone with its illuminated screen into the dining-room and pootle away at online scrabble or sorting photos or reading on Kindle and not stand out from my fellow diners, most of whom will be using some sort of small-screen device even if they ARE in company! I have toyed with the idea of bringing my beloved new small but perfectly formed laptop with me and working on my blog and website at the table, but that seems a bit…I don’t know, pretentious or something. Plus there is the greasy sticky fingers issue.
Anyway, the wifi in Bhutan has been good, as it was in Nepal. Here in the remote valley of Punakha it’s a bit slower, but it’s free.
See these, er, long, thin, knob-headed objects? They were in the folk museum in Thimpu. They are to do with a particular Buddhist sage from centuries ago who apparently was a real pantsman and loved wine. We’d call him ‘a typical Aussie bloke’, but they called him ‘The Madman’, and somehow he became a saint renowned for helping couples with fertility. I asked Karma why he was thought saintly when he was famous for indulging in fleshly desires a good Buddhist is supposed to keep under control, but I didn’t really understand the answer. There must be something wrong with my Dharma.
ANYWAY, this was my first encounter with him. The demure little Bhutanese woman who showed us round the museum….
…..led me and the Indian family – mum, dad and 11-year-old daughter – to this spot. There are no flies on me, and I instantly twigged. I jokingly covered the little girl’s eyes with my hand, but she hadn’t twigged and looked baffled. The young museum girl said, with a straight-face and not the shadow of a smirk, ‘You know what is PHALLUS!’
Well I emitted a tiny snigger, of course, being a dirty-minded westerner, but mother and daughter simultaneously said ‘no..?’ throwing puzzled glances at one another and Dad. Dad whispered in Mum’s ear and she gave an embarrassed ‘ooh!’ and blushed. Little girl fell silent. Then the young woman proceeded to tell us the story about the horny boozy saint and we all tried to recover our decorum.
He’s very popular. We visited his temple in Punakha yesterday and on the way there were umpteen houses featuring this giant graphic (above) and shops selling the merchandise depicted below.
I tried to get a better shot of a house phallus, but didn’t like to ask my two lovely but serious young Buddhist boys to stop the car so I could take pictures for prurient purposes. At another shrine there were hundreds of statues of saints, but his was the only one that people had put money into. And there were people carrying babies up to the temple for his blessing, and other folks doing devotions.
I stopped taking phallus pix after a while because there were just so many, but I couldn’t let this one go. It was out the front of my hotel in Punakha, an otherwise quite respectable and lovely place, except that they gave Karma a hard time for checking me in a few lousy minutes early yesterday.
Plus their wifi was a bit dodgy and they charged me 40 ngultrum more on my bill for a glass of peach wine (the local drop) than the young woman had told me last night in the dining room when I asked how much it cost. That’s a bit over $US4, so no big deal, but it’s the PRINCIPLE of the thing, innit?
But on the positive side it was deliciously quiet and so far up a mountain the stray dogs weren’t bothered to climb that far, and I only heard them faintly in the distance when I rose at 5.15am. A propos of which I must still be on body-clock time but it’s not too bad because I go to bed very early and my lurgy’s almost gone, thank you for asking.
Speaking of dogs, I said earlier that I got the impression from Karma that the program to sterilise strays – most dogs here are strays and only a few people keep them as pets – wasn’t being pursued all that diligently. I checked with him again and it seems about half the country’s dogs HAVE been sterilised, like this one. You can tell by the little nick in the left ear.
I’ll leave you today with this pic of me with the BIGGEST, not the SECOND-biggest, prayer wheel in Bhutan.
I suppose it’s fitting that it should be at the temple of You-Know-Who…and here’s Karma with what might be the second-biggest prayer wheels.
And here, before I get too far away from the event in time, is another memorable encounter at the folk museum in Thimpu on my first day. This man, Pema, is…well, I don’t know what disability he has but he can only manipulate objects with his foot. He was strikingly like the Irish artist and writer Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy. Christy Brown, you may remember, was memorably and movingly and brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’, which won Day-Lewis an Oscar and a BAFTA and which is one of my favourite movies of all time. None of the Bhutanese people had heard of it; not Pema himself or Kharma or the museum guide or the Indian family. I told them about Christy Brown and brought myself to tears doing so, big sook that I am.
And yes, I did give him a little something more than moral support. I didn’t buy an artwork because china (or clay?) doesn’t travel well.