A Very Bhutanese Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving brought me a bit of an internal battle this year. Usually home with family or friends that feel like family, I sit around the dinner table of familiar faces feeling grateful to be exactly where I am. This year, as we created our own little Thanksgiving away from home where the sight of Skippy peanut butter and mashed potatoes induced actual cheering, I was torn. I was simultaneously mourning missing out on being home this weekend in snowy Colorado and dreading the day I have to board my flight out of Bhutan. As much as the familiarity of home during the holidays tugged at my mind, it was impossible to think of another place without already feeling the loss of leaving this tiny Himalayan kingdom. Sitting around the dinner table with my substitute family this year, we talked about being thankful for having loved ones and a home to miss, but also for getting to experience Bhutan in a way that so few travelers can. One of the many adventures that has made this semester so memorable was a few weeks ago, while were staying near Punakha.
Before the stress of finals began, we drove up into Gasa for a short camping trip in Jigme Dorji National Park. From our campus nestled high up in the inner Himalayas, the sudden change of scenery to the warm broadleaf forests of Gasa felt like entering a different world. Faces pressed against the windows, we pointed out spots by the turquoise river we’d love to explore and waterfalls we wanted to stop and stare up at. At one spot like that, with falls tumbling down from the forest on one side and a wide rock beach on the other, the bus pulled into the tiny campsite we would be staying at.
We left early the next morning for a full day adventure in the higher altitude region of the park. The rutted dirt road that took us into the clouds was flanked by dense, moody forest and sheer drop-offs. As we drove, the clouds parted here and there to reveal the long thread of a waterfall through the greenery or a tiny village perched above the valley. I stared out the window down at the foot of dirt that held us from a long fall down to the churning water of the Mo Chhu river and made a mental note to include this in my list of drives to do before you die. We had a fifteen minute window to make it past a roadblock that would be there all day, and narrowly snuck through on the partially torn apart road. Our destination was the Gasa hot springs, where we sat in steaming concrete baths with Bhutanese men and women. Nearly the only chillips (foreigners) there, we tried out the baths, each hotter than the last, and soaked until our fingers pruned.
With time to kill before the roadblock would open again to let us get back to our campsite, we dried off and made our way to the Gasa Dzong, which looked out across the sweeping valley. Wandering through the fortified walls with monks in red darting past in the narrow alleys, it felt as if we’d been dropped in a different century. The long ride back to our tents was foggy and dark, but I could sense the steep valley walls around us.
With three impossibly short weeks left in Bhutan, even the smallest moments feel momentous and fleeting. I’m already nostalgic for the view of clouds drifting through the mountains on my walk to the cafeteria in the mornings, for the cows that block the road to town, for the red chillies that lay drying on every rooftop. Mostly, though, I’m thankful I’ll have another place to miss next November.
“The ideal is to feel at home anywhere, everywhere”