I first came to Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation where I make my home, in August 1994 to punctuate a two-month trip I was taking through India. I was instantly attracted to the Bhutanese -- their charm, their physical beauty, their quickness to laugh. During my two-week stay, I spent several days in Punakha, a semitropical valley northeast of Thimphu, the capital.
On my first day there I set off from my mountaintop hotel and walked down to a narrow road that meanders through the valley parallel to the wide Mo Chu, or "mother river." The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful, with geometric orange groves forming a dramatic counterpoint to unruly poinsettia trees. Here and there, gold-roofed Buddhist temples terraced with emerald-green rice paddies peeked through the surrounding mountains. The air was delicious -- clean and sweet smelling.
Children stopped playing as I walked by, watching me and shyly waving. One brave boy stood as if at attention as I passed his house, and then said formally, "Hello English-man!" -- a phrase that amused me, a born-and-bred Tennessean. I remember feeling that it was a day when anything could happen. Maybe it was the high altitude, but I was nearly giddy. Bhutan made me happier than any place I had ever been.
Before I knew it I was two hours into my walk and the valley walls on both sides of the road had become steeper, the mountains more imposing. I decided I'd better head back to the hotel. But first I hiked down to the edge of the wide but shallow Mo Chu, whose rushing sound had accompanied me throughout the morning. I removed my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and dipped my feet into the icy water flowing over smooth brown stones. I was just thinking how slippery the stones were when -- boom! -- I fell.
As I pulled myself out of the water, a sharp pain shot up my leg. I sat down on the riverbank and examined my ankle, which was starting to swell. I struggled into my hiking boots, made it back to the road and limped along for a few minutes, but the pain was too intense. It was the worst fear of every woman who travels alone -- being hurt and stranded. Miserable, I sat down on a rock to rest. I felt perfectly safe but knew I needed help to get back to the hotel.
I'm not sure how long I sat, but eventually I forced myself up. Almost immediately I heard a motorcycle. I waved vigorously, and a man wearing a black helmet with a visor and a gho (a belted, knee-length robe that is the conventional dress of Bhutanese men) passed me slowly. He went down the road a few feet, then swung the motorcycle around.
"Where going?" he asked. (Most Bhutanese speak English.)
I hobbled toward him. "There, on the mountain," I said, and pointed upward. "Zangtopelri."
He let out a big laugh. As I learned later, Zangtopelri, besides being the name of my hotel, is the heavenly abode of Bhutan's patron saint, an eighth-century Tibetan lama who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
When we reached the hotel I asked, "How can I thank you? Will you come in and have tea?"
"No, thank you," he said.
I pulled out a wadded 500-ngultrum note -- equivalent then to about $15, a week's wages for the average Bhutanese. But he refused the money.
"Welcome," he said, driving away.
Two months later, I was sitting in a cafe in Florence with friends from America, testing their patience with my incessant chatter about Bhutan. "I'm going back," I told them.
And I did, returning for short visits several times over the next few years. Then, in October 1997, with the support of my family in Nashville, I moved to Bhutan and got a job teaching English at an art school outside Thimphu. I was radiant with happiness; I felt I had founds the center of the universe.
During my second year at the school, I fell in love with Phurba Namgay, one of my fellow teachers, a talented painter of Buddhist images. Ours was a Victorian courtship: It began with stolen glances, polite smiles, and the occasional hello. Gradually we started to chat, and, still later, he began coming to my house for tea.
Our wedding, in March 2000, was a traditional Bhutanese celebration -- very festive, with red-robed monks and lamas chanting, blowing big horns, and banging drums. It was a first marriage for both of us, as well as a late one: I was 40; Namgay, 37.
As a Buddhist, Nam believes our karma brought us together, as it has before and will countless times again as we are born and reborn. Maybe in the next life I'll be his mother; after that, he'll be my dog. The precise relationship isn't relevant, he says; what matters is that we will be together.
His conviction is so persuasive that even though my background is Christian, I am inclined to agree that karma had a hand in our story. After all, I am from a place where few people have passports, much less travel to remote Asian countries. Moreover, the fact that I fell in love with the people and the place, and that I kept coming back (eventually turning up at the very school where Nam was teaching), strongly argues for some sort of karma. As Nam points out, we both had earlier opportunities to marry, but neither of us did. Maybe we were waiting for each other. Maybe I came to Bhutan to look for him. For me, none of this is dogma, and it probably isn't even Buddhism -- it's just an incredibly romantic way of thinking about my husband.
One day, two years after we got married, we were chatting in our garden when Nam said, "Remember that day I gave you a lift on my motorcycle?"
"You don't have a motorcycle."
"Before. The day you sprained your ankle."
"In Punakha? That was years ago. How do you know about that?"
"Because I gave you a lift."
"That was you?" I remembered the day vividly, and the way the shade of the motorcycle helmet obscured the driver's features, except for his lips. Now, in a rush, I realized I had seen those lips many times. Of course it was Namgay. Of course.
All this time he had assumed I knew; to him, it was an understood part of our shared history.
And therein lies one difference between Western and Asian thought: Americans ask a lot of questions; Bhutanese let much go unspoken. They are more at ease with coincidence -- perhaps because life here is slow enough that people can tune in to it. Being here has taught me that life is full of joyful moments, of fortuitous, life-altering "accidents."
So if someday you find yourself in a magical place, do as I did, and let yourself be carried away.
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