Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Canteen

The Bhutanese are unrelentingly sociable. Embellished tales of recent visits by academic dignitaries and racy office banter dance about the tobacco smoke that hugs the old wooden picnic table in the back garden of the canteen. Even with strangers, the conversation is never forced nor the silence ever awkward. More like a verbal game, quiet at the table is spent in respite, anticipating the oncoming crack at any idiosyncrasy the next subject of abuse happens to have.

“Is smoking not banned in Bhutan?...” I ask. 

My inquiry is answered with earnest, wordy responses that utterly fail to provide clarity. I wonder if the ambiguity is intentional, a convolution to avoid the intrusive question, but decide it is not. The Economist article I read must have had it wrong so…  

A tray of yogurts arrive (their plastic tops unsealed).

Unsweetened but deliciously refreshing, the yogurt is more creamy and natural than any I’ve tasted before. It’s the first dairy product I’ve had since arriving in this chili infested land and lines the walls of my stomach, soothing my gut. Chilies in the Cheese Omelet. Chilies in the Chicken Pizza. Chilies in bloody everything..

After the yogurt, the frequency and predictability of bathroom visits returns to normal. Thank God. Most restrooms I encounter are flooded holes in the ground, toilet-paper used up long ago.

During the first few days, I became increasingly aware of my foreignness. Squeamish, precious, Western, I wonder how I must look to the locals.. like the tourists in Babel, scared of life outside my hyper -sanitized bubble? Do the flies buzzing about the food not bother ANYBODY else?

After a generously timed one hour long break we head back to the office, returning to the familiar sound of rats trampling hurriedly across the wood-chip ceiling, their claws scuffing the panels.

This is my first time living in a developing country. In many ways, I didn’t know what to expect. At this early stage, despite appearances, the discomforts of life outside 02138 are more interesting than perturbing however.

Let’s hope it stays that way…

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