Dear Bhutan,

It’s been nearly 10 years since we met
Can you believe it?
That’s so long.

It’s funny that you’ve become one of the bedrocks of my life:

You, this small little kingdom tucked away in the Himal^^^^
You are the happie^^ pl^^e
You who have such rich cult^^e
You are who are blessed with such l^sh f^^^^^sts and fr^^ fl^^^^^ng riv^^s
You with the phallu^^^ dedicated to a Di^^^ne Ma^^^an

(N.B. Content edited for any cringeworthy clichés)

Okay, fine. I’ll cut it with all those tiresome shibboleths. (N.B. This post will NOT feature any photos of Tiger's Nest).
You’ve heard them on all the other stories about Bhutan - the Guardian articles, the TED Talks, the Kickstarter campaigns, the tourist brochures.

Let’s get real.

Since I left you three years ago,
there’s a little bit of heartache every time I visit.
That feeling that I could never forget you. I really want to.

It’s like trauma, but the opposite.
What is that, anyway?

Let’s call it Ob-auma.

Ok, just kidding. It's one of those lame rhyming jokes that my dad might make (that also happens to be far too timely).

I guess the Portuguese saudade is still appropriate here - the melancholic longing for something that will never come back - and likely never existed.


(A photo of a raven experiencing saudade)

But that’s pretty dark, right? I don’t know if saudade quite captures it.

Mapping the human emotional landscape to language doesn’t work out when you have a feeling so precise and granular, one that I could sift my fingers through, enjoying its rough and unrefined texture that, in my inability to recognise it, showed me that I still live, breathe and wonder with every moment, that there’s so much I still don’t know and even if I memorized all of the untranslatable emotions.

I guess that’s why poetry exists. But then, I was never really a poet, was I?

So. Let’s just call it heartache.
It’s simple enough to convey what I’m trying to say.
Bear with me, ok?


The heartache always strikes when I alight the plane at the Paro airport on a sunny, winter’s day. I feel you in all your splendor as I inhale your winds, as if they were kisses from the firs and rhododendrons surrounding me. It’s an experience that rarely tires me.


(The token chilip photo)

The heartache always strikes when I think of the people - the ones that made me feel special. That showed me that I’ve got a bit of narcissism - who doesn’t love to feel like they’re the special little chilip (‘foreigners’), that honorary Bhutanese who can take the daley chilis while taking a swig of ara (Bhutan's version of sake)?

But you also showed me how much I have to contribute to others. I hardly ever fancied myself as a leader; as someone who could influence the lives of others to be greater than anything they could have imagined. And then, when I see the results, as I did on this past trip, my impact is undeniable. Young people have found courage because of me; have found purpose because of me; and, have shifted their view of the world.

Because of me.

And because I can see that - and not shy away from or deny it out of false modesty - I feel empowered.

In all our years that we’ve been together, I don’t think I’ve properly acknowledged that.

You know: the ways in which you empowered me. (I'll talk about that more in the next post).

This heartache - it’s like it won’t go away. It’s contained within all of these seemingly small and insignificant details. Like how I can’t let go of some of those long, road trips on buses where the driver would loop the same three tracks (Singlem, if anyone remembers that earworm) on your narrow, bumpy roads that curve across mountains such that I’d be nauseous for half the ride, fart uncontrollably from all the cheese I’d been eating and, if questions were asked, I’d lay the blame on some slumbering uncle. Because that’s what old people do - fart. Publicly. And then on those night stops, we’d all stay at some dingy hotel near the bus with zero insulation and a hardly functional toilet that if I had to get up in the middle of the night to go to, I’d be shivering for the next 30 minutes until I’d successfully re-tucked myself back in and regained all the warmth I’d spent hours accumulating. Man going through those rides meant that when I’d reach the destination of my little pilgrimage, it would feel that much sweeter.

Okay, fine. Maybe I’m waxing a little too much nostalgia now.

**But then there are the parts that just allow my face to rest in a smile. **

(Photo Credit: BBC)

Like the road signs from my BRO (The Indian Border Roads Organisation, that is). I always enjoy imagining what those meetings looked like with the BRO team, the same team that came to the conclusion that amusing roadside limericks were the best way to deter irresponsible driving and behaviour and so they appointed a small time of rejected poets to come up with hundreds of couplets and metaphors that they could pull from. My all-time favorite remains “Be Gentle on My Curves!”, though “Driving with Whisky is Risky” is a close second.

*(Photo Credit: BBC)

What else is there?

Oh! Your devilishly spicy food that never ceases to send me to the toilet and sear my ass for days. Bhutan, as my friend shared with me, is the only place in the world that recognises chillies not as a seasoning - but as a "core vegetable".


Not much more I can really add to that, other than that my tongue is now irreversibly Bhutanese not so much by its affinity to chillies, but moreso because I simply can’t taste anything that doesn’t include chillies. Ever. Again!

And the annoyingly lovable cover bands of Mojo Park that have performed at least a dozen variations of CCR’s “Rolling on the River’” and Metallica’s “Whiskey in the Jar.” It’s amazing how far mediocre rock travels, isn’t it?

Somehow, even all this small society gossiping and muckraking has it’s charm.
Actually, wait - no it doesn’t.
Come to think of it.
Yeah, I could do without that part of you.

But I do fear that someday you may forget me.
Worse - that you already have.
Like you just moved on.
With all those hotels, car dealers.
These new chilips.
And these younger Bhutanese I’ve never seen - who are they? I thought they were just kids while I was here. Man, six years is a lot for a 17 year-old I guess.

I move through decades now - not years.
Just as my friends do.
The older ones who are married - or getting married.
Who have gone on to have kids and proceed to the next life stage.
Like, WTF?
I guess it’s normal.

Maybe I need to move on.
It’s not like we’re pretending to be friends, right?
The love has been there.
Real love - not the fake love dispensed by all those syrupy storytellers that don’t dare take a closer look at you.
That don’t dare get to know what your people really think.
Other people will only love you for your gloss.
I love you for your contradictions.
Even the small society part. Yes, even that.

Cause that’s what love is, right?
The Zooey Deschanel’s of the world, the manic pixie dream girls, always comes with the manic side.
When you learn to lean in past all the stubborn imperfections, those pieces that you wish you could change so much but just won’t move as long as you try to push it out.

I was kind of hoping for some Pygmalion effect.
You know, I dress you up as my fair lady and then you beat me at my own game.
Hah! I thought I could tout you up as the special example of the new paradigm that every country should follow.
But that moment never came.
I guess that’s how change works - you can’t really shove it down their throat like some hot chili.
Otherwise it just leads to more painful ass-burns.

Sometimes I wonder whether it could have been different.
Not that I want to get married to you or anything.
That much I’m sure of.
There may have been a time where it looked like it might happen.
That I might just get a Bhutanese wife or maybe become a monk that goes for lifelong retreats.
But I just couldn’t.
Not out of a fear of commitment or anything. (Though maybe there’s still a bit of that...).
And no - there’s not anyone else. Well, maybe there is.
I’m still thinking about it.

I mean, I could see us - and maybe that’s the problem.
I don’t like what I see with us.
That kind of relationship might cripple both of us to a life of stagnation.
Of never really growing much together past a certain point.
That life would have it’s nice pace and a great view.
But maybe that’s just not what I’m looking for anymore.

Let me be clear.
You’re not an ‘escape’ and you never were.
Anyone who says you are is in denial and is dealing with some deep-seated issues back home.
You're just as real as any other place.
And man, it just feels like shit gets realer every time.

So don’t worry - this isn’t goodbye.
We won’t be like those other ex-lovers that refuse to see each other.
You know I could never do that.
But we’re something different now, you and I.
And that’s just something I’m working to accept.

You’re more than just a ‘part’ of me, right?
You’re more like my reflection.
And that’s why I’ll always be grateful.

But it's not just me who's benefited from this relationship - you have, also. And that's what I'm going to share with you in my next letter.