"Tsering? Can I ask you a question about Bhutan?" My guide, driver, and I were driving up the mountains from the Indian border to Thimphu, the largest city and capital of Bhutan, and our stop for my first night in the country.
"Yes?" Tsering – my guide – was anxious to answer any questions his tourist had.
"Does Bhutan have the yeti?"
He didn't miss a beat.
"Yes." I could see his face this time, and unlike when he told me about the charm in the road that prevented landslides, he did crack a smile.
"What do people do when they see yetis?"
"It is bad luck to see a yeti, and how you escape depends on if it's a male yeti or a female yeti. If it's a male yeti, you run uphill because male yetis have long hair and trip over it. If it's a female yeti, you run downhill as they have very large, sagging breasts and will trip over them."
I checked on this later. He wasn't making it up. This is the popularly accepted wisdom for yeti encounters, and when Bhutanese illustrators draw the yeti, they give it long hair or huge, sagging breasts to indicate its gender. But for the moment, I suspected that he was having me on.
"Tsering, you know the yeti is just a bear."
"Many people claim to have seen it."
"Yes, but what they saw was a special Himalayan bear standing on two legs. Reinhold Messner saw it. Do you know Reinhold Messner? He's a famous mountaineer."
"Hmm. Maybe. But there is a monastery with a yeti..."
"Yes, Reinhold Messner went to the monastery and saw the yeti skull. It's a bear."
I could see we weren't going to resolve our yeti spat today.
"The yeti... I have an important question."
"Let's say there is a yeti who walks over to Bhutan from Nepal. Can the yeti stay in Bhutan even the yeti is from Nepal?"
"Certainly. All the Nepal yeti has to do is marry a Bhutan yeti."
Our driver Tobgay slowed the Hyundai as we approached a road crew that was doing repairs. He and Tsering got out of the car to go talk to the man with the flag. They didn't look too thrilled when they returned.
"It's going to be a half-hour wait."
They spoke quietly among themselves.
And then we ran the roadblock. We ran a roadblock in Bhutan. This was a first for me during my trip around-the-world. Later, I'd learn that private cars can proceed at their own risk, but commercial and public vehicles are required to wait. But for the moment, I was in awe of my team. I hadn't particularly wanted a driver and guide, but it was part of the deal in Bhutan, and it seemed like it was working out so far.
We were on the outskirts of Thimphu now, and drove past the famous human stop-light (a policeman directing traffic from a kiosk in an intersection). I know Bhutan has no stop-lights, but it's a bit of a technicality, as the traffic policeman serves the same function.
Tobgay drove us straight through town and out the other side, up a hill to the suburbs. Neither my driver nor my guide had been to our scheduled hotel – Ugyen of our travel agency had booked it. We followed the signs to Peaceful Resort, parking in front of a brand-new building of stone and wood.
Tsering led the way, following the hotel clerk into my room first and inspecting before I even got through the door.
The room was huge, beautifully lit, and had a small balcony and a giant picture window. Plus, the Peaceful Resort had excellent wifi. There was even an undistorted full-length mirror, something I hadn't seen in months. I saw myself – a sweaty, unkempt backpacker out of her element here with a guide and driver and a nice hotel. A backpacker who had put on weight. I estimated that I was ten pounds over my usual. Was it age or was it the horrible greasy road food I'd eaten all year? All those months of eating whatever was available hadn’t gone too well.
I needed to get to work on that. I immediately used the excellent wifi to email a friend at home in New York to tell her I'd go straight to the gym when I got home, so that I could train long enough to be healthy again, and my goal would be to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with her.
I will, I realise, regret that promise soon enough.
I didn't bother changing for dinner, since it seemed pointless. Tobgay and Tsering had both gone to stay with friends for the evening and I didn't feel like cleaning up yet.
So I was surprised and embarrassed when Tsering showed up for dinner, cleaned up and looking spiffy after the day's drive.
"Change of plans," he said. "The hotel offered me a room, so why not stay here?"
Because I probably stink, I thought. But instead of saying that, I ordered dinner.
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