I watch a group of students, faculty, and facilitators that are circled around a center stage. Performers wearing Traditional Bhutanese dress, costumes, and masks perform a history of Bhutanese beliefs and tradition through dance and theatre. This was our farewell.
As I watched the performance with my peers, I am confronted with the shared emotional reaction we were all collectively having to the following questions: Is this the end to my Bhutanese experience? Will I ever be back? How do I embody this experience forever? How do I ensure that I do not forget Bhutan?
Bright fabrics fling through the air by way of jumping, spinning, dancing while across the way I confronted red puffy faces holding back tears as we realized that our chapter in Thimphu was coming to an end. We were grieving for the unknown, wondering if this opportunity would ever present itself again. This grief was familiar for it was but a few days earlier I had left a family and a way a life that had me reliving my childhood.
As part of our travels, we were arranged in groups of 5 to stay with families in rural villages in Phobjikha Valley. The village we stayed in sat on a hill with all homes near each other. The valley had a small steam running through the maze of farms, a temple, and land being prepared for the dormant winter. The house I stayed in had some stone steps leading to it with a yard used to welcome guests and for cow grazing. As I walked through the small gate, I came to a steep ladder that led to the porch. Off the porch was the wash room, then the laundry room and bathroom. After removing my shoes, I entered into the house. The entrance into the living room and kitchen was made cozy with cushions on the floor inviting the gathering of new friends around the wood burning stove. It was incredibly cozy.
The head of the household, Dawa (the matriarch) and her family were our gracious hosts. Her daughter and son-in-law lived down the street, but decided to assist with our home stay and sleep over at the house. We arrived late, close to dinner time. I offered to help with any cooking and, thankfully, they accepted. Dawa’s daughter showed me to the sink where I could wash my hands before being given a bowl of vegetables, an empty bowl, and a knife. She sat on the floor with me to show me how to cut the vegetables in preparation of our dinner. I carefully cut tomatoes, potatoes, and onions with my left hand while I cupped the vegetable in my right. I guided the paring knife through the vegetables with my thumb, just as my grandmother did when I was a child.
Another student and I had the opportunity to help Dawa’s daughter and son-in-law feed the cows prior to breakfast one morning. In the cold air we massaged some of the cows as the family milked and organized the cows for feeding. I carried heavy pails of turnips and turnip greens to the troughs where the cows began to feast. This work was also familiar to me and I excitedly waited for the reward of morning chores completed… Fresh Milk! It was warm from a brief boil and incredibly flavorful. My childhood family dairy farm did not raise cows with this type of diet, therefore, the milk was less flavorful than the milk from the Bhutanese cows. I fought the fading memory of milk provided on my family farm in New York. This milk was delicious and worthy of replacing memories.
The cooperative preparation of dinner, fresh milk, cheese, and breakfast made me very nostalgic of a cozy and safe time I had on my family’s farm. Memories of harvesting and then preparing vegetables without a cutting board with my grandmother. Only with my hands and my grandmother’s words would I slice and dice. She taught me of the importance of taking care of my goats’ health and habitat, for with proper care we would be rewarded milk to make goat milk fudge. The heart of my grandmother’s house was the wood stove. She would make gravy for 3-4 days on top of this stove, filling the hot air with succulent fat, essence of meat, and herbs, all creating a blend of comfort, nurturing, gratitude, and love. She showed me the magic of making food and its power to bring people together. She will forever be the craftswomen of the culinary soil where my soul is rooted.
All of these memories were recreated by Dawa’s household almost as if they knew how to make me feel like family. It was impossible to stay present in the moment for even the scents of my childhood were mimicked by the steeping of Bhutanese butter tea and milk tea on the wood stove.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in my childhood, for I was comfortable there. I held back tears for there was no way to communicate the experience that Dawa and her family had provided me within 2 days time. I was afraid that my tears would tell a story of something wrong instead of their true reason, which was overwhelming gratitude to relive fond memories. It was impossible to show them just how much they have impacted this ‘Chillup’. (Dzongkha for foreigner).
In Paro, we said good bye to Tenzin, Bhuwan, Uygen, Novu, Tashi, Zoc, and many others that had impacted our lives while studying with Royal Thimphu College. We were also saying goodbye to Bhutan.
As my plane took of, I took a deep breath in between sobs caused by grief. My heart was breaking for there were unanswered questions. Did Bhutan know of my profound gratitude, my longing to stay, and my resistance to forget? Karinche Bhutan. Karinche La.