Linda Leaming Thimphu
Photos of Baje and countryside by the author.
© Copyright 2001 by Linda Leaming Thimphu
Baje worked in the Painting School canteen as assistant cook for over 20 years. From the time he was 12 years old he came every day to the shack next to the school that served as the kitchen. He'd collect the fire wood and start a big fire about half past 5 in the morning. Around 6 o'clock in the morning, while he was stirring the big aluminum vat of butter tea, the students would come to wash their faces in the tap outside the kitchen. They laughed and joked with each other, and paid no attention to Baje. They came with their cups on sunny mornings, cold mornings, rainy mornings and he'd ladle out their tea.
By 6:30 he had the morning rice boiling on the fire in a big vat. Thirty or so students would eat over 60 pounds of rice every day-morning, afternoon and evening meals, so he was always cooking rice, stirring big tubs of it then cleaning the pots. The walls of the shack were black with soot from the fires and the place gave off a starchy smell of rice. Sometimes student helpers would come to make yeze, chopped onion, tomato and chili that the students would eat with the rice for breakfast.
After the morning meal it was time to start peeling potatoes for lunch. On rare occasions there would be vegetables which would also have to be chopped for a curry-to put with the rice. And on very special occasions there would be a little meat.
Baje spoke very little, went on with his work and paid little attention to the students as he fed them. The students were learning to be crafts men, painting tangkhas, carving wood and stone and weaving. In Bhutanese society, craftsmen are quite low, as there is no status for working with the hands. But the students were a grade up from Baje, and some of them liked to tease and belittle him as a result. But he said nothing. Or he took their jokes good naturedly-laughing along with them when they called him boy. Even if he was senior to them.
His day ended around 8 o'clock in the evening, after he'd finished washing the big pots of food from the evening meal. He'd make his way home to the shack where he lived. Since there was no electricity he'd light a candle and a small fire, draw water from a nearby stream and take a bath. He said his evening prayers and dropped into bed. This is the way he lived for close to 20 years.
When Baje was 30, one of the old men from his village came to Thimphu and Baje met him in the vegetable market. Baje had a bit more status compared to this village man, as he had held the cooking job at the school in Thimphu for some years. The man asked Baje if he wanted to marry his daughter. Baje hadn't considered taking a wife. He barely made enough money to buy shoes for himself much less a wife and the inevitable children that would come. He declined the offer as graciously as he could and offered to buy the man a beer. They went to a hotel nearby and one beer became three, then five. The village man reinterated his offer to give his daughter in marriage to Baje, but this time he sweetened the deal: He offered Baje two baby pigs he'd brought to sell in the weekend market. Baje considered and then accepted the old village man's offer.
Baje's wife was several years his senior and difficult to look at. In her teens she'd run away with a soldier who had come to her village and was abandoned by him in another village about 4 days walk from her own. When she came back to her village her father, in a rage, had slashed her face with his razor. Now the daughter was spoiled not only by the "temporary marriage", but her once pretty face was scarred and one eye was always red and weeping.
But she was a good woman and she never complained about the small one room shack of Baje's where he took her to live. She kept it clean and washed his clothes and kept to herself instead of drinking tea all day and chatting to the other wives in the neighborhood. She hauled wood from the forests above the city and water from the stream near the house. She repaired the wood of the house when the wind and rain made holes and she covered the inside with bits of newspaper when it was cold in the winter. She wove ghos for Baje to wear and kiras for herself and made some extra and occasionally sold one in a local shop to add to the family income.
The two piglets lived in the house with them. There was no other place for them until Baje was able to fashion a small pen for them next to his house. Every day he brought the scraps from the students' meals to feed the pigs. Sometimes there wasn't enough, so he'd feed them all or some of the food his wife had cooked for him. Every morning Baje's wife would get up and boil the slop brought home the day before to feed the pigs. They grew bigger and pinker every day, rooting around in the mud next to their pen.
The Painting School students would come round to Baje's little house next to the school's kitchen to poke fun. "Hey, pig man!" they'd shout. "Come out and show us your ugly snout." Baje paid no attention.
Two years later, in the spring, the pigs were ready for slaughter. He asked the head cook if he could take two weeks leave from his job, and the cook agreed. Baje killed the pigs and borrowed a cart to haul the meat to the weekend market. He sold the meat within a few hours and made the equivalent in Nguldrum, the local currency, of about $200.
With the money he bought himself a bus ticket and took the 6 hour trip to Phuntsholing, the Bhutanese town that boardered India in the south. Phuntsholing, was flat compared to Thimphu. It sat at the very bottom of the Himalayas on a river bed at the beginning of the Duars Plain. As the bus wound around the mountain roads coming down to Phuntsholing, Baje could see the wide plains of India dotted with tea plantations and cut by rivers that poured out of the mountains and became tributaries. That night he ate some rice and dal his wife had packed for him and slept under a tree in the park at the center of the town. He had never been so far from home.
The next day he took most of the pig money and bought clothes; socks, sport shirts, track pants and pieces of cloth. He bargained hard with the merchants of Phuntsholing to get as much as he could. It was his life savings. Baje wrapped the clothes with pieces of rope and took the bus back to Thimphu. Back in the city he didn't go home, but bought another round-trip bus ticket to Punakha, about two hours east of Thimphu over the Dochula pass. When the bus reached Punakha he set off towards the north walking, to the village of Talo, about 3 hours walk in the mountains above Punakha town. He hadn't eaten since the night before in Phuntsholing and his bundle of clothes was very heavy so the walk took four hours instead of three. But Baje knew that he could rest a bit in Talo and the people of Talo wouldn't let him go hungry, so he pressed on.
In Talo village he was met by laughing children who were awed by the site of a strange man with a large bundle strapped to his back. They followed him as he made his way to the Gup's house. The Gup, or Mayor's house was easy to spot. It was the nicest house in the village, freshly painted in the Bhutanese way, bright white wash with elaborate animals and flowers covering the outside walls.
He waited outside until someone came to the door and invited him in. Without speaking he went inside the house and untied the bundle of clothes. Someone brought him a cup of tea and some zou, rice baked in the sun. Several women came into the room and began to examine the clothes. Soon the room was filled with men, women and children pouring over the clothes. Some were ready with cash. Some offered rice, salt or chickens in lieu of cash for the Indian clothes he'd bought in Phuntsholing.
In this way he halved the bundles of clothes, going from house to house in the village. If the people had no money he bartered for rice or salt. He borrowed a horse from one of the men in the village and took his clothes and food to Lobesa, the next village over. There he sold the remainder of the clothes. With the equivalent in local currency of about $300 and about 150 kg of rice, a few chickens and some salt, he returned to Punakha, left the horse to be picked up by its owner, and took the bus back to Thimphu.
In Thimphu he sold the rice, chickens and salt at the weekend market. He'd doubled his money from the sale of the pig meat with the clothes he'd bought in Phunthsoling and food he'd bartered them for in the villages. He went home long enough to bathe, eat and give his wife a piece of cloth he'd bought her in Phuntsholing to make herself a dago, a small coat worn by Bhutanese women.
Then he did it all over again. He took the bus down to Phuntsholing, bought about $400 worth of clothing in the bazaar, and brought them back to Thimphu. This time he headed towards Ha about 4 hours west of Thimphu. He rented a horse in Ha village and set about selling the clothes in small villages between Paro and Ha. Again, those people not able to pay in cash were encouraged to pay with rice or other commodities.
At the weekend market, the people of Thimphu were happy to buy the barley and rice from Ha. At the end of the day he had a little over $1,000 in his purse. He staggered home and slept for 2 days without waking up.
Ten days after he'd slaughtered the pigs, Baje went to the High Court to visit a man he knew from his village. "I want to buy some land,' Baje told the man. The man laughed and offered him some doma, or betel nut, which the Bhutanese have the habit of chewing as it is mildly intoxicating. Baje reached in the front of his gho and pulled out the purse with the $1,000 in local currency and showed it to the man. The man stopped laughing.
The man, Sonam Phuntsho, took Baje to Hejo, a little village east of Thimphu near the King's palace. Baje rode on the back of Sonam's scooter and they came to a large rice paddy of about 2 acres. "This land is for sale," said Sonam. "You have enough money." Baje and Sonam took an hour or so and walked the perimeter of the property without speaking.
"I'll take it," said Baje. And they went into Thimphu to have a meal to celebrate. At the Wangdi Hotel Sonam and Baje ordered rice, dal, kewa datsi (potatoes, chilies and cheese) and chicken curry. Baje bought a beer for everyone at the hotel, three men and one women. He and Sonam shared a bottle of Special Courrier, a locally brewed Scotch. "I want to build a house," said Baje. "If you help me I'll give you half my land and you can also build yourself a house."
It took a couple of months for the paper work to go thought the court, but Baje and Sonam were already collecting wood and stone to build two houses, one for Baje and one for Sonam, on the propety. By the time the property was registered in Baje's name they'd built a shed on the property to store the building materials.
Sonam went to Jaigon, the Indian town boardering Phuntsholing and hired nine Indian laborers from Cooch Bihar. The men of Cooch Bihar are known for their carpentry skills and will work for about $1.50 a day in Bhutan. This is about 3 times the wages they'd get in India so they have been coming to Bhutan to work for generations.
In eight months the
laborers had built two small, neat houses on the property. Baje and his
wife and Sonam Phuntsho and his family live in these houses. Now when the
Painting School students see Baje at the weekend market they bow and call
him "Sir" as he is now a landowner and worthy of respect. He resigned his
job at the Painting School and grows rice on his property. He's looking
to buy more land.
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