Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Drive Misty for Me- A Roadie's Tribute
The trees in the forest keep shifting their shapes, like some giant-plant-chameleon forever merging with the landscape around it and at times, just plain sticking out like some melancholic silhouettes planted by nostalgic highwaymen. The mountains fold and glide and hide.
The national highway from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, the ‘Gateway to Bhutan’ is literally that, a doorway and a ride that delivers more than just trade. It’s a living, breathing, winding organism snaking 175km from the foothills up to the mountains.
There are more symbolic gateways around the world than there are literal ones. My first sight of the gateway to India was unlike anything I’d imagined. You see, I’d imagined the gateway as a literal gate through which people and goods flow. Seeing that gateway, known as the ‘India Gate’ was a reminder in the power of symbolism but symbols are sometimes just that-a symbol frozen in time. In that sense, the ‘Gateway to Bhutan’ is unique, for it’s an actual modest gate constructed in the traditional Bhutanese way bordering another people in another country. The fact that everything, vehicles, goods and people move through this very gate to make a living or conduct business on either side of the border makes it all the more special and without any exaggeration, sentimentally grand and emotionally intimate.
I grew up this in this little border frontier off the edges of West Bengal and down in the foothills of the kingdom of Bhutan at an altitude of 300m. The powers of a porous border can never be underestimated, for what exchanges take place when people are free to move about is beyond any control mechanism, which, by nature, is and will always be limited.
I grew up in a prospering Phuentsholing in the early 80s. Bhutan started and ended in this little frontier. We lived in what was called the wireless colony. Communications via telephone was still a luxury so people had the Department of Wireless to keep in touch with their loved ones. Morse codes were the buttons of the day. I heard my father do the finger-tap and echo words like Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Tango et al.
He was then a wireless-man, Deputy Director of the erstwhile Department of Wireless, a title somewhat misleading, for he’d be busy trekking on foot carrying heavy-duty wireless sets most months of the year. Since my siblings were all boarding students spread across the country, I was the only one studying in what was then Phuentsholing Jr High. Today it’s a warehouse of sorts.
The cool breezy evenings were a personal favorite, particularly during the hot summer months. Life was simple- naughty boy shoes and school, swimming, Gulli Danda, Kabbadi and Gotis. Another pastime was looking far up at the winding roads in what was known as the “Saat Gumti” or the ‘Seven Turns.’ We’d sit and look up, spot a vehicle and make that our own, gazing at our adopted transportation and tailing it. The one who managed to hold the vehicle in sight till the last bend was the winner.
Decades on and this 175km stretch of asphalt still gets me like no other road in the country. Whether I’m in a bus, hitching a ride or driving my 1992 Toyota Corona, the road enthrals me. The monsoon rains wash it, the winter chills freeze it, the spring generation renews it and autumn colors mesmerize it.
The Jumja trail or ‘Shiva’s’ Smoke’ as I like to call it, is one stretch where your car actually transforms into a spacecraft and you’re in the cockpit together with the temptation to go, “ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.”
The misty stretch canopies you. The occasional tree silhouetted against a foggy backdrop brings to mind a Salvador Dali masterpiece. It’s a surreal foggy affair. Thoughts of death and dying, life and living seem to arise out of nowhere just like the mist. The fact that this stretch is always like this is surprisingly comforting. You are still on this bend and the cockpit voice surfaces again.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. We’re cruising at 25kmph at an altitude of 1400m above mean sea level. You can un-strap your seat belts and feel free to stretch your limbs and while you’re at it, look out the window and enjoy the disorientation. You are not hallucinating. It’s not a mirage either and it’s not a drug and no, this is not the Bardo. No. we are not dead. Not yet. Thank you.”
This road’s had more wear and tear than any other highway in the country. There’s more traffic and trafficking here than in any other road in the country. If there’s a strike in neighboring WB than this road feels the stalemate. When this road feels the deadlock the capital, Thimphu, along with Paro and Haa suffer the consequences. Suddenly daily commodities like cooking oil, LPG gas, petrol and diesel, salt, sugar and the bellybutton prices go through the roof. Rationing becomes the norm and the Bhutanese are suddenly queuing. It’s a nightmare. The opposite is also true. When times are good there is everything in abundance but the wear and tear of serving the nation for some 40 odd decades has taken its just toll. Bumps, worn-out manholes, thinning asphalt, rough edges, deforestation, landslides and rocks and boulders bully the highway.
When this thoroughfare was first laid down in the late 1950s until its completion in 1962, a lot of laborers died, (high-risk occupational hazards) of the winter cold, hunger pangs, sicknesses, attack from wild animals and just plain accidents. This was some of the little sacrifices made so that we could enjoy the journey today. The highway-construction is a list deserving of our highest admiration, the deepest tribute and of remembrance. We are what we’re today in no small measure to this stretch of road and the sacrifices endured.
The manifestations are all too obvious today. Villages that were isolated for centuries became connected and prosperous. Trade boomed and ideas free-flowed with the new transportation system. This road was to the late early 60s what Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines, was to become in the 80s and the 90s and the 2000s.
Today this blessed and sacred highway is, after a long hiatus of use, misuse and neglect, getting its due. Construction of a two-lane highway is already on the tracks and where the road has been widened, there’s a plush feeling of satisfaction and pride and that comes about because of the invaluable importance and servitude the road has rendered.
So the next time you’re driving down or coming up in this iconic living legend with an organic feel, know that every stop you make, every mountain you see, every waterfall you hear and all the flora and fauna that captures your senses was made possible because of the vision of a benevolent King to see his Kingdom united, prosperous and connected.
The misty-coasting ride from Jumja toTakthi Kothi and the tangerine sunsets are physical reminders of the splendid beauty of this highway and the largesse of our Kingdom. And should you experience any of the four distinct seasons Bhutan is endowed with, know that you’re among the lucky few experiencing such a sight.
In the end, it’s more than a mere a road; it’s a living breathing organism-pumping life into the veins and pulses of our country’s myriad nooks and corners. If you ever get on that road again, stop and pause awhile and know that you’re there because of the many sacrifices made in a time and a place when life wasn’t that easy and rosy. And in that gratitude you’d have earned the right to enjoy the ride, in the process enriching your own life.
In conclusion, like the signage-pointer from those limestone brushed DANTAK milestones, the idea is to “Enjoy the Beauty of the Valley; Drive without Hurry and in thankful Gratitude, be Merry.” Now will you also please ‘Blow Horn’ and know enjoy this trucker’s motto, “Driver’s life, Golden Life, Every Turning One New Wife.”