Archive for April, 2010

Torino: The First 10 Days

In the City of Torino, sometime at the dawn of the Enlightenment, the Queen of Savoy made the brilliant decision to grant the first licence to a chocolate-maker. With this decision, chocolate, which had up until then been enjoyed exclusively by the nobility, became available for the first time to the general public. (As far as I’m concerned, this was the Enlightenment, but apparently there was a lot of writing, talking, thinking and revolution-mongering going on around the same time which most people equate with that term. My own view is that all that stuff was merely a secondary effect of the widening availability of chocolate.) Today, Torino is still known for its chocolates, pralines (which were invented here), and Lavazza coffee, and is furthermore in the centre of the Piedmont region, which is home to the Slow Food movement, nutella, Barolo and Barbaresco wines, and last, but not least, Asti (yes, as in Asti Spumante).

Perhaps given the region’s dominant position in food and wine it’s not surprising that my landlord, Marco, seemed to think it was at least as important that I know the best brand of spaghetti and the best places to go for cakes, pizza and ice cream, as that I know how to work the hot water heater, when he brought me to the apartment straight from the airport at midnight 10 days ago. Almost every time I see or talk to him he tells me about another pasticceria (cake/pastry shop), and once he even texted me an address. Meanwhile Marco’s sister Martina shows up with more new kitchen gadgets every time she comes by. Although the apartment itself is small and a little dark, it’s very clean, newly renovated and in a great central location, Marco and Martina have been fabulous, and I’m very happy to have landed here and to not have to pack everything up again until early July.

Torino also has a mystical side. Not only is it home to the Shroud of Turin – which went on display for the first time since 1998 a couple of days after I arrived here with the result that the city is much busier than normal – it is said to be one corner of a white magic triangle with Lyon and Prague and also of a black magic triangle with London and San Francisco, Nostradamus hung out here for awhile, and it has a couple of sites linked to the Holy Grail.

What I love most about Turin is the seemingly endless number of hills, riverside trails, parks and villages within an hour’s bus ride or less, where I hope to hike off all the chocolate and cake. Although every time I pull out my camera the Alps disappear behind haze or clouds, I assure you they are there and often visible.

So far I’ve been doing most exploring on my own, but I joined the English-speaking International Women’s Club of Torino this week, and with an hour or so of studying every day and lots of street practice, my Italian is getting better, so hopefully I’ll have some new friends soon.

I can’t figure out why this city, which in addition to all of the above has great museums and a fascinating history (did you know it was the first capital of the unified Italy?) isn’t higher on the tourist radar – maybe the very unfair label “Detroit of Italy” due to Fiat and the local auto industry puts people off – but I know I’m going to enjoy being based here for the next couple of months.


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In Bhutan You Can …

In Bhutan you can wander onto someone’s house construction site unannounced, and with some interpretive help from your guide, they may well invite you up to look around and watch them work, let you help pound down the mud in the wood frames, joke around with you, and happily pose for pictures. There are no mills here: the timbers are mostly hand-hewn with some additional help from chainsaws. Men and women from the village help each other out in the rush to finish building before the monsoon starts.

Wandering through villages and visiting farmhouses was one of the highlights of this trip for me, which I did not get to experience so much my first time in Bhutan last fall. Some places we found a caretaker and were able to go inside the local temple, other places we just continued straight through exchanging greetings with passersby and house builders.

One night on the Bumthang trek (the first of two short treks I did) rather than stay in a tent as planned I spent the night in the guest room of the camp cook’s farmhouse after the luxury of a traditional hot stone bath in a wooden tub outside. As the name suggests, the bath is heated by red hot stones shoveled in from a large bonfire next to the tub, which release healing minerals when they crack on contact with the cold water. Sleep came quickly and easily after a 45 minute soak looking up at the night sky. Just before setting out on the Haa trek, we also visited the farmhouse of Tshe Tshe’s wife’s aunt, for afternoon suja (Bhutanese butter tea, which I love). She sent us away with a bottle of arra (home brew) and yak cheese for the trail. The yak cheese comes in rock hard chunks which are impossible to chew until they’ve softened in your mouth for some time – a good distraction, I found, while climbing some of the steeper sections of the trail.

In Bhutan you can show up at a restaurant with a half-finished bottle of whiskey and not only will they not throw you out, they will cheerfully bring you clean glasses. This I did several times since Jack and Karma generously sent me on the road with a bottle of the K5 I so dearly love, which I knew would be impossible for me to finish in two weeks without help. A couple of days ago Tshe Tshe and I stashed it in a bush at our final campsite on the Haa trek with a scant ounce remaining and a saucy note for Namgay, my guide the last time I was in Bhutan who we knew was 1 day behind us on the trail and is even more fond of K5 than me.

Despite the K5, most nights were early, with the exception of the evening Karma came to Paro with her younger sister and a friend, ready to dance. Although the bars close early (11 or midnight), a guides’ association fundraiser was in full swing a few doors down. There were only a few other chilips (foreigners) there, including a music producer from California with 15 foot long hair, which he uncoiled from his rasta cap at Karma’s insistence. He said he lived with 6 women who helped him look after it. I didn’t probe for details.

By 1 I knew there was no point going to bed since we needed to be back at the tsechu grounds at 3:30 to see the monks’ procession with the thondrol (a huge silk picture of the Guru Rinpoche unveiled once a year just before dawn on the last day of the tsechu). By 4, Tshe Tshe and I were sitting in the stands above the tsechu dance area, giggly with sleep deprivation and cold, marvelling at the thondrol and watching the monks perform their rituals below us. Tshe Tshe made fun of me trying not to fall asleep, and I laughed at him rubbing his bare knees to try to keep them warm. Tshe Tshe scored some betel nut to help him stay awake and tried to get me to try some, but I politely refused. This was the third time I’d turned down betel in 24 hours: the first offer came from an elderly lady sitting next to me in the stands, and the second came from a toddler, who had leaned on my shoulder for awhile to see the dancers better, and then with a sweet smile opened his hand and held out a nut to me. (His parents then grabbed him and said something in Dzongkha which I think meant roughly “chilips don’t chew betel”. Everyone else around including me just laughed.)

Around 5, it started to rain. As Tshe Tshe began to explain why rain at the moment was particularly auspicious, I nodded… and when I next opened my eyes he was laughing at me. He said something to the high school girl on my right in Dzongkha which made her giggle shyly. “I told her to stomp on your foot next time you fall asleep,” Tshe Tshe translated. “I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t,” she apologized. At 6 the rain suddenly began to come down hard, and we made a dash for it along with much of the crowd, as another crowd surged up toward us, made up of people afraid that the thondrol would be put away early because of the rain and that they would miss seeing it. We were drenched by the time we made it to the car, and it was well past 7 before I was back in my hotel room.

In Bhutan if you are very very lucky and the clouds clear at just the right time, you can wake up early on a frosty morning on a ridge just below 14,000 ft. to see in one direction the camp horses silhouetted against the clear dawn sky, and in the other direction the sacred Jhomalhari mountain on the Tibetan border appearing almost close enough to touch. Although the Haa trek provided the most dramatic views, the Bumthang trek was also spectacular in its own way, with blooming rhododendrons, sparkling streams and lush forest.
The importance of such natural treasures to the Bhutanese is made explicit in the very new constitution which places a high importance on environmental preservation, including provision for at least 60% of the country’s forest cover to be maintained, as well as assigning responsibilities to citizens. Unfortunately there is still a fair amount of litter blowing around, but at least there is no clearcutting or stripmining to be seen. The entire constitution, which I had the pleasure of reading while looking out at the Trongsa Dzong – the historic powerhouse in the centre of Bhutan from which the country was unified a few hundred years ago – is an innovative document well worth a read to anyone interested in environmental or constitutional law.

In Bhutan you can unexpectedly find yourself in an audience with a trulku (reincarnate) of a Chief Abbot. This happened to me when one afternoon Tshe Tshe went off the program and took me up to Talo, a ridgetop monastery which is not ordinarily open to tourists. Since he knew the Principal Abbot (and in fact, his grandmother has known 3 of his incarnations in her lifetime), he thought there might be a chance I could get inside to see the temple. When we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find religious dances underway, the final rehearsal for a tsechu to begin the next day. After we had watched the dances for awhile, a monk came to escort us to the Principal Abbot’s chamber, where we were offered tea, puffed rice and cookies. As he did not speak English, he and Tshe Tshe did most of the talking. When we left he gave us each a photograph of the King, a dose of religious medicine he had prepared himself, and a blessing by touching us on the crowns of our heads. Although I am not a Buddhist, the intent and energy behind the gestures far transcended any religious dogma, and I left feeling both tremendous reverence and awe.

And now for one of my favourite moments.

In Bhutan, I was told, most people don’t meditate – meditation is practiced almost exclusively by monks with years of training. That said, people do not mind if chilips sit quietly for awhile in their temples because they understand it is an entirely different practice from that of their monks. Again, although I am not a Buddhist, I sense a sacredness in many of these places that transcends religion, and whenever I can I take the opportunity to pause for a few moments to soak in their energy. In one such place, Chimi Lakhang, after being blessed with the iron bow and wooden and bone phalluses said to have belonged to the Divine Madman (one of many fascinating Bhutanese characters), I sat down in a corner and closed my eyes. Following a brief conversation in Dzongkha with Tshe Tshe, the two little monklets caring for the temple sat down next to me, and imitated my posture. Tshe Tshe told me afterward they had asked him what I was doing, and after he’d explained they’d said they wanted to sit with me and asked him if it was ok. Although they occasionally whispered to each other and the one next to me smacked noisily on his betel nut almost making me laugh out loud, I could tell they were trying very very hard to be quiet and still. When I got up to leave, I was surprised and touched that they thanked me, and I thanked them back.

And so, now I am back in Bangkok about to leave for Torino, Italy where I will spend the next 3 months, and preparing for the shift from Himalayan to Alpine energy. But I think even now I am not quite finished with Bhutan this year…

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