Right about the time we rounded a corner and saw the monkeys having sex in the road, it started to get really dark. We were on our way to Pele la. “La” means “mountain pass” in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan. The curvy road crept under vines and waterfalls, and past camps where Indian road workers melted blacktop over open fires and smashed big rocks into little rocks with sledgehammers.
I was already getting a spooky feeling when Ugyen #1 started mumbling. Ugyen #1 was our driver.
I whispered to Sangay, “Why is Ugyen #1 praying?”
“Actually, he’s praying, la,” Sangay said.
The word “la,” in addition to meaning mountain pass, is also added to the end of sentences to signal respect.
“I know he’s praying, la,” I said. “Why?”
If Sangay knew, he wasn’t saying. To help break the tension that had descended upon the bus, I told the group a joke about a traveling Vaseline salesman.
When we crested the pass, there were dark shapes in the road. The bus slowed to a stop. Two yaks were butting heads in the headlights.
Then we were descending into Bhutan’s Phobjika valley, where the endangered black-necked cranes, which live in Tibet, spend the winter.
After days of hiking in the high Himalayas and talking to farmers about Bhutan’s emerging organic agriculture program, we were going to spend a rare night indoors at a hotel, followed by a morning of bird watching. I was ready to take a shower, sleep in a bed, and e-mail Flash in the Pan, my deadline for which had already passed. Wangda, our guide, had assured me I could send it from Phobjika.
But the phone lines were down in the valley. With no line to plug into my laptop, Flash couldn’t make it home.
“Tomorrow in Trongsa you can send it, la,” Wangda promised as we wolfed down some ema-datse, the fiery Bhutanese combination of chilis and cheese. And we drank “Dragon Warmers,” a heated blend of rum, apple juice and honey.
The next day we traveled back over Pele la and down the third side of the three-sided pass in this insanely folded mountain landscape. We passed a large stupa with eyes painted on it—“To keep away the demons,” we were told—and we promptly pulled over and ate some ema-datse. From there we descended down, down, down, more than 5,000 feet, from yaks and snow to bananas and tangerine trees. We didn’t slow down in Trongsa, whence I was supposed to send Flash.
“We’re late and they are waiting for us in Langdhel,” Wangda explained. “They have a phone there, la.”
We were going to a village whose inhabitants make fabric out of nettle fibers, with help from Bhutan’s Tarayana Foundation, which had helped us organize our trip to Bhutan. The Tarayana Foundation’s mission is to help poor Bhutanese villagers lift themselves out of poverty, and the nettle cloth project is one means toward that end. We were visiting to see firsthand how the Tarayana Foundation works, and evaluate the possibility of future collaboration.
We arrived at dusk to a royal welcome, the villagers lining up and greeting us with bows. Then we were ushered into a room with bamboo walls and given butter tea, sugarcane, guava and saffron rice—a huge and moving gesture of respect. Then we were given ara, a local brew that was too strong for most of us at the moment, so most of us gave ours to Robl, who happily accepted. We looked at the nettle cloths, interacted as best we could with our hosts, and were ushered down to a bonfire for singing and dancing and more ara.
“I’m sorry, la,” Wangda said, “but the phone line here is down. Ugyen #2 [our SUV driver] will drive you to a nearby village where you can get a phone line.”
So Sangay and Ugyen #2 and I went driving through the deep dark, back up the steep and windy road toward Trongsa.
Ugyen said something to Sangay in Dzongkha.
“Excuse me sir,” said Sangay. “Do you have any condoms?”
“Ugyen #2 wishes to go night hunting tonight,” Sangay explained.
No overseas trip leader’s first-aid kit would be complete without condoms, so I assured Ugyen #2 that I could help, after we completed our errand.
More curves, more bumps, and suddenly the lights of a village. We stopped in front of a “General Cum Bar” (which means “general store with a bar”), and Sangay persuaded the owner to let me plug my laptop into a scary tangle of wires behind the counter. She even made me Nescafé. Thus, last week’s Flash was e-mailed across 13 time zones to Missoula.
Back in Langdhel, the festivities were in full swing. Robl, I learned, was in his tent recovering from chasing a soccer ball into a nettle patch. I delivered a little package to Ugyen #2, whose night hunting began in earnest, then sat by the fire watching all the action and feasting on a plate of ema-datse and yak intestines, washed down with a hard-earned cup of ara.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Beating the heat
Q: Dear CBA,
Your column last week mentioned the spicy Bhutanese dish ema-datse, and I was inspired to try making it myself. While the flavor was quite good, it was, as you’d warned, very hot.
In fact, I spent quite a few minutes in great discomfort. I’d like to try making it again, but in the event that I overdose again, I’d like to have a bailout plan.
Do you have any suggestions for putting some emergency “ice” on the spice?
A: Dear F.U.,
A few years ago I was invited to make Bhutanese food to sell at an international fair. Afraid that I would inflict upon those who sampled it an experience similar to yours, I also made a vat of what I called “antidote.” It was essentially a banana smoothie made from banana, milk and sugar. Both milk and sugar are well-known relievers of capsicum heat, and the sweet creaminess of the banana fits into this category. The banana’s texture adds a nice body that keeps the antidote in contact with the affected areas.
I left my ema-datse in the hands of an assistant for a few minutes, and she didn’t quite understand the meaning of antidote. As ema-datse is pronounced ay-ma-dot-say, she assumed antidote was pronounced auntie-doat-ay, and was telling people it was a typical Bhutanese drink.
Whatever you called it, the antidote worked, and I had no trouble selling it at a very high price, while practically giving away the ema-datse as what merchants like to call a “loss-leader.”
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