(While You Are Still Breathing)
Bhutan Adventure Thoughts – Day 4
Wednesday, September 28th, 2022.
I was anxious to get on the bike early because we were headed back to the capital city of Thimphu, and I wanted time to explore the city on foot before dark. I felt another night’s rest had upgraded my legs as I took over the pace-setting on the climb back up to Dochu Pass. I dropped Pema after only 19 of the 50km climb. I momentarily felt bad about this before remembering all the times on the road when I had felt like trash and he had continued to dance on his pedals. So I rode on knowing he’d probably catch up during my next bad stretch. That never came around though, and the next time I saw him, he and our driver pulled up beside me smiling and taking photos. He would ride in the truck the rest of the way to the pass leaving the narrow and windy heights all to me. Every five kilometers or so I’d find them holding water or snacks out as I came around another switchback. My very own Tour experience! In between those feed stations, there was nothing but incline and thin air. It was such a freeing otherworldly experience, and I couldn’t stop thinking about just how rare moments in life like these are.
The temperature fluctuated between brutally hot in the sun and cool and breezy in the shadow of the mountain, but I did my best to keep the pedals turning over at a high cadence regardless. I wasn’t pretending about my cycling chops, I was simply pushing to that comfortably hard space without any external pressures or influences. An Hors Catégorie (HC) is a French term used to describe a climb that is so tough it is beyond categorization (A category 1 climb is the most difficult while a category 4 is the easiest). According to Wikipedia, the average HC climb in the Tour de France is roughly 16.1 kilometers long and has a grade of 7.4%. The “Dragon Fury” climb that was to make up most of my day four ride stretched over 37km at a grade of 4.4% and had over 2000m of elevation gain. Twice as long but half as steep as an average Tour climb. What a beast! Near four hours of climbing at elevations between one and two miles high. That little kid playing right field in my imagination was pumping his fist and throwing his glove in the air when I finally pulled into the rest stop at the pass. My quads ached as I stepped off the bike, but my lungs were good to go another round. I ate two lunches and enjoyed an entire pot of wonderful black tea on the patio before climbing back on to the bike for the last 25km down into the capital.
Thimphu is a great little city of roughly 100,000. Locals like to tell the story of how the city got and then got rid of the country’s first stop-light (apparently many felt it was too impersonal and the people asked the King to have it removed). Sure enough, at the square in the middle of the city a white-gloved police officer waved and whistled to move traffic along. Not an electric signal in sight.
Thimphu hums. Motorbikes politely zip through the slow moving procession of cars. Neon lights flicker to life as the sun dips below the surrounding hills. I walked through the center square and down towards the river. Unlike Singapore, people make eye contact and smile. I had no map and no SIM card, but I felt confident enough that I could navigate my way back in the dark. Dogs out for a jaunt or their evening commute rambled along the roadside. All kinds of music streamed out of store fronts at reasonable volumes. Cheers erupted from the football stadium down near the river as the flood light flickered on. Bhutan’s capital sits here, at this cross roads of eastern and western ideas of happiness. There’s an immediateness in the commerce, but it’s bustling, not hurried. There’s movement but without the stress that the worst of capitalism produces and nourishes. The city felt like something out of another time. Walking around downtown, I noticed how few people were on their phones. People were having conversations. Kids were leaning out windows just watching. They were all present. Waiting to cross a street I recognize a Jamiroquai song bumping from the car stereo. The driver slowed as he approached and pulled up next to me. Window down and smiling bright he shouted “Hey man…” And I think he’s going to ask if I need a ride. “Yo! Impressive height mister!” And he nods and grins and then rolls off again singing into the twilight. “Futures…made of… virtual insanity…” I fumbled with an ugly attempt at a Bhutanese “thank you” but resorted to a smile and a wave. How could you not love this city? Walking back towards the hotel I passed kids playing soccer on the sidewalk in the dark, a women carrying groceries with her headphones in, dogs lazily lounging on stoops and next to open front doors. It’s the quietest capital city I’ve ever visited. The stars almost outshine the street lights.
I happen across a small restaurant that seems just my speed. Naughty Pigs serves Bhutanese BBQ with a side of rice and a gravitational energy. The neon glow is thick and warm and the floor is slightly sticky, not the gross kind, but this is a good eats kind of sticky. You walk in, and the place just smells like happiness. Again, nobody is on their phone. Customers are sharing tables. Customers are sharing laughter. The music and lights and cool night air out on the deck make me feel like I’ve been transported to a summer night in the late 90’s. People look you in the eye and ask about your visit and when the world will be coming back to Bhutan. There’s an authenticity that isn’t tired or apathetic. I have no other word for it but happy. It’s not a western version of happiness though, all glossy and striving, gamified and filtered. Somehow happiness in America always feels more incomplete, like there is another installment, something coming later, bigger, brighter… The promise of which puts the anticipation of future happiness where there could be more present happiness. I blame some of this on Marvel and Fast and Furious and season 47 of the Kardashian spin-offs, but in Bhutan the moment itself is full of happy. And I’m confident that tomorrow night and the next and the next it will feel happy in there too.
For many Americans, myself included, this kind of lasting happiness… The kind that feels like contentment absent the resignation or fulfillment minus the shortest of half-lives remains beyond the horizon. Can we live there too, or is it just a place we’ll visit? Is that the price of America? I can’t help but wonder, if happiness isn’t complete, is it still happiness? Can happiness and longing coexist?
To be continued…