Sunday, August 2, 2009
Lately, if you have been awakened by the collective roar of a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ 500cc engine with riders clad in leather with a dragon’s crest and the credo, “Bhutan Dragons Motorcycle Club,” do not be alarmed! It’s a group of friends on the wrong side of thirty living the Robert M. Pirsig dream, with a difference.
They were buddies since kindergarten, mimicking bikers. As teenagers, they became ardent motorcyclists, testing the trails off the beaten path on scooters and dirt-bikes. Though they are in their late-thirties the passion has not ebbed, if anything, it has given birth to the kingdom’s first motorcycle club.
Thinley Wangchuck, Agay Tandin, Chimi Dorji, Tenzin Namda and Tshering Tashi are the founders of what is today a philanthropic club known as the Bhutan Dragons Motorcycle Club. It’s open to anyone with a Bullet (now you know that’s a motorcycle!). The club was formally inaugurated in an initiation ceremony that had 12riders cruising from Thimphu to Paro, with another 10 members awaiting them at Chhuzomsa.
The club was born, on October 17, in an open garage in Paro- surrounded by autumn fields and golden rice stocks, amidst monks, gongs and Bullets.
Along with prayers, the charter was invoked and vows administered together with their new avatars: Thinley’s Pale-Rider, Agay went Ghost-Rider, Chimi took the much coveted Cool-Rider, Namda is Wind-Rider and keeping in mind his historical bent, Tshering was tagged Scribe-Rider.
The biking-avatars are tripling. In keeping with tradition, I became Toxic-Rider (work in progress on background).
This is what makes the club unique. Where motorcycle clubs around the world are associated with gangland activities, the Dragons’ adage is, “love to Ride and Ride to Love” with a considerate swerve and a responsible clutch, one might add.
The next day, members rode to a monastery high up on a ridge to pay their respects and to distribute winter-jackets for the young novices studying there.
The club’s president, Ghost-Rider, adopted one of the young novices. They are all orphans.
It’s this philanthropic bent, a notable theme of the club’s ‘Charter’ that makes Bhutan Dragons an inimitable club indeed. The club now has close to 40 members and counting; a Japanese woman, an Englishman and a German bring some added flavour. A week back, a big herd of riders from Germany were the Dragons’ guests of honour as they were received all the way from Phuentsholing to the club’s Thimphu house, known as the “Thimphu Chapter” for a member’s initiation.
The club has two more ‘Chapters’ in Paro and in Phuentsholing. Pale-Rider, perched on his iron horse, said that one of the aims of the club is to have a ‘Chapter’ in every dzongkhag and to change the stereo-typical image of bikers. Biking, he said, can be, “cool, fun and socially beneficial too as we have designed. When we ride, we designate specific schools or villages in specific dzongkhags, contributing what we can to the community from the club’s funds, which come in the form of membership fees and donations.”
The club rides formally thrice a year and as many times as is possible casually, depending largely upon free time, since the majority of members are well cocooned family men.
When they do get together for the rides decked in their leathers and the club’s colours, the men turn into excitable boys once again. Only this time they get to actually ride the book of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ So if you see a bunch of bikers manoeuvring the highways, give them a smile and a wave, along with the right of the road. For the Dragons have rules and regulations, a charter and a code of ethics, that states that all members must ride responsibly, without intoxicants and bring whatever help they can to wherever they are riding, along with an annual contribution of Nu 6,000.
A small fee for a ride that is thrilling, free and full of camaraderie.
Two families intersected and made two distinct journeys this week. As one family of motorcyclists came back rejuvenated; another family is rediscovering joy and generosity.
The road to Zhemgang from Thimphu itself was the biggest metaphor; as members of the Bhutan Dragons Motorcycle Club coiled, curved, sloped and straightened out their backs on this marathon twelve-hour journey, another family had already begun their three-day hike along the ancient trails of Tingtibi to Zhemgang, bare-footed and scantily clothed.
The rendezvous was Zhemgang town and the meeting could not have been better scripted- reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s classic ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. But this had nothing to do with aliens; it had more to do with people and their humanity. And it had particularly a lot to do with the rugged passion of the Dragons to help a poor and battered family.
Kinga Wangmo, 60, her daughter Sangay Pemo, 24 and five-year old Tashi Lhamo, Sangay Pemo’s daughter, was the driving factor behind the club’s decision to help the destitute family.
“The whole family was out sitting in the sun having their lunch. They look happy and comfortable,” said the club’s president, Ghost-Rider in a phone interview. He said the transformation was very palpable and the family was adapting to life in a new location.
He said the family is housed in a nice setting with electricity, rooms, and bathrooms. The location was kept anonymous due to the father’s violent tendency and the danger he might pose if the whereabouts were made public. However, the president went on to clarify that the family was relocated with the explicit decision of the grandmother, whom he described as an incredibly resourceful and talented woman, well versed in weaving, gardening and plantations and the family’s only next-of-kin, the grandmother’s brother.
The family had made the three-day hike to rendezvous with the club’s members. Until then, they had been living in a bare knuckle shack in Zhemgang town but had been forced to go back to their village after the landlord evicted them. The club had begun communicating with the family after a story in Kuensel highlighted the family’s dismal plight and violent environs. The little girl, Tashi Lhamo, was unanimously chosen by the club as their beneficiary.
The Kuensel correspondent in Zhemgang who broke the story also initiated contact and acted as the intermediary. The father was apprehended upon charges of domestic violence, the family was barely scraping a meal a day.
Ghost-Rider said the grandmother, though capable, had also been a victim of her son-in-law’s violent outbursts and had been confined to looking after her daughter and granddaughter. He said all of them carried multiple scars and bruises. The father apparently knew no boundaries when enforcing brute strength.
The mother was practically rendered mentally disturbed after the last major assault. He said the whole family will undergo medical check-ups. As for school, Tashi Lhamo requires a Birth Certificate before the club can start processing her school registration.
At the moment, the family is well set up with people pitching in to help. It was an incredible experience, he said, that when they actually met, the family had barely any possession, that the grandmother had such a likable quality, that their initial insecurity was gradually replaced by a feeling of joy and hope, as they shared meals and made small talk.
The ride back was even better. He said the family enjoyed the HiAce bus; it was their first step outside the boundaries of Zhemgang. Club members bought the family slippers, clothes and other necessities. They camped a night in Chendibji, where they were warmly welcomed, lodged and fed hot meals by the Chendibji Restaurant staff.
Though they carry scars of a violent past, he said the healing process has begun. A member’s wife, a former counselor with RENEW, will use her expertise to ease the transformation and the trauma.
Sounding positive and relaxed on the phone, the club’s president said the experience was well worth it- that all the bruises on their butts and the blisters on their hands riding a 622 km journey was significant seeing the little girl smile and the family, happy. Now they want to make certain the little girl gets a belated head start- an education to ensure that she does not become a victim of domestic violence as her mother and grandmother did.
The intersection of so many factors truly makes this episode a compassionate vehicle built on the myriad crossroads of life and, well, the dented butts of a few.
Friday, August 2008:
Around two weeks back, about 12 members of the Bhutan Dragons Motorcycle Club made their first official ride to steer in the New Year. They set the tropical climes and plains of Gelephu in southern Bhutan as their chosen destination. The objective was rather simple; ride the weekend to Gelephu, distribute the shawls, blankets, robes and other assorted gifts to eighteen little monks aged between seven – fifteen at the Khaduyangtse Gyemba and ride back to Thimphu the next day.
You see, these bikers are unlike anything you’d ever expect from a stereotypical motor-head. They had to get back to their work stations the following Monday.
Sitting in his office, one of the four founding members, Pale-Rider, looked visibly pleased and sounded passionate recalling the journey, “before we arranged the trip we identified the monastery and the poor monks studying there as the beneficiaries of whatever little contributions we could make.” He said, “Every ride is in effect a little help.”
During the club’s final 2008 ride they did something similar, identifying a monastery that housed orphaned boys turned monks in Paro. On that occasion, the monks were handed warm red jackets for the coming winter.
The club also intends to raise social awareness of the minimal conditions in which they find children, monks, monasteries, community schools and the socio-economically disadvantaged lot. The monastery in Gelephu, Pale-Rider said, was “lacking in basic sanitation, sewerage pipes along with clothing and daily rations.”
Unable to resist the reactions of a welcoming party of a bunch of innocent little monks for some rather unconventional guests dressed in leather and perched on roaring 500cc Royal Enfield Bullets, I had to ask, “What was it like?” He said the reactions were rather curious, with a little fright thrown in for good measure. The scared little faces were soon replaced with broad smiles as the gifts were presented. The two footballs were the highlights. They now had something proper to kick around the temple grounds.
The club rode back the next day, without any mishaps and with a lot of joy at a journey well rounded. He said the roads were in good shape and well maintained.
Recalling the sights and sounds of the changing landscapes, the orange harvests and the pastoral life and the really mean and green colored houses along the route had Pale-Rider breaking in jolly remembrance.
Recollecting the events in the environs of a corporate office made it even more poetic. Then came the bombshell, one of the club’s members, Jamtsho is to look after the education of a little girl. The club and Jamtsho’s attention had been drawn from a Kuensel story in Zhemgang titled, “Wedded to Violence”.
The little girl is paying the price for her parents’ violent-domestic life. When last contacted, Pale-Rider said the procedure involved too many legal complications, further compounded by the alcoholic father’s stubbornness, now in prison.
They are still figuring out how best the five-year-old girl can be helped. This is what sets apart the Bhutan Dragons Motorcycle Club; every journey is a helping hand steering to aid someone…somewhere.