Experiencing Bhutan Firsthand

I chose not to read about life in Bhutan outside general tourist information to breathe in all the country has to offer upon arrival. I wanted to savor the newness of my experience firsthand. And I am ever so grateful for my intuition, because as you might expect Bhutan has not disappointed, happily providing a proper space for time to fall away, quite literally.

I went so far as to leave my wristwatch behind so that I could be present in each moment. And thus far, every moment has been rich with texture, color and contemplation. Absent of any expectations of what this trip might reveal, I find myself on a quiet retreat, pleasantly lost in a place absent of time.

Maile Walters, yoga instructor.

Tuesday began with daily yoga practice and breakfast followed by a hike to Tango Monastery located on the mountainside of northern Thimpu. Our guides at Bhutan Tours and Travel have been gradually introducing us to the Himalayan altitude, every day preparing for our hike to Tiger’s Nest. The hike to Tango included, with its steep trail and wide switchbacks, enveloped in a canopy of walnut and pine trees, flowers and fern. Peppered throughout the dirt road are mantras and Buddhist sayings, guideposts of encouragement for the traveler.

Yuki hikes to Tango Monastery, Bhutan

Dangspa explains how the circuitous trail represents the spiritual path to enlightenment, one interpretation is depicted in this mural of an elephant on his journey to paradise. With each step closer to purification, the color of his hide turns from gray to white.

Path to Enlightenment Mural, Tango Monastery, Bhutan

About halfway to Tango, we discover an hermitage built into the mountainside. We scale a narrow stairway carved out of stone and wood to reach the meditation room. The expansive view is breathtaking. Dangspa leads the group in meditation as nearby, mosquitoes suspended in the air in front of us battle one another, and a ginger cat settles under a stream of sun. (No photography is allowed within the temples so you’ll have to use your imagination.)

Afterward we head back to Thimpu for our first official Bhutanese lunch, it was quite a spread of local dishes starting with roasted rice and butter tea. The meal featured red rice, mushroom soup, pork and chicken specialties, spinach, sautéed vegetables and the country’s delicacy Ema tadashi (also known as chili cheese).

Bhutanese Cuisine: Roasted Rice, Fermented Pork, Spinach.

We visit a weaving arts center and observe artisans as they craft fabric for traditional Bhutanese clothing.

Bhutanese Textile Craftsmanship

Later in the evening, we visit with the Choden family at their home in downtown Thimpu. It is a full house with Thinley, Pasa, their mother, sister, niece and nephew together with our tour group of nine. They so graciously pose for a family photo.

Contemplating Bhutan: First Impressions

Crisp mountain breeze. The moment the air in Bhutan touches your skin, it’s as if you’ve been reborn. As if you stumbled upon a bottled elixir, untouched by impurities and accessible only when one has traveled far, far away from the Western world.

In recent months I’ve been obsessed with comic book inspired programming (The Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) with mystical storylines that involve parallel existences both supernatural and alien, worlds alight and pristine. I can’t help but compare the reality of Bhutan to the fantasy of Lian Yu; it’s like nothing I’ve ever known, yet everything I could have imagined. And that impression was just from walking across the tarmac at Paro International Airport.

Paro International Airport

The six of us piled into the caravan and began our journey to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. On the way we stopped at Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge one of 108 iron suspension bridges built during the 14th century by Lama Chakzampa. The Pachu River gushes beneath the prayer flag cloaked bridge, in torrents of white and crystalline blue. The bridge shaking with delight with every footstep provides passage to a multistory chapel on the other side of the river, the inside decorated with deity murals. At every level, cone-shaped totems dipped in white paint honor the dead and the living.

Totems, Bhutan

This morning we explored Thimpu, starting with the Great Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic golden Buddha commissioned by the King of Bhutan, funded by foreign donations, and made in China. The interior is made of bronze, accented in gold, the ceilings painted with deity murals and over 125,000 Buddha decorate the inside.

Golden Buddha, Thimpu

Dangsa, our guide shares the history of the Buddhist prayer and then leads us through a live demonstration. He explains how the ritual is meant to tamper the negativity of the five emotions: Anger, Pride, Desire, Ignorance, Delusion through a 2-part asana. Performed 3x upon entry to the temple, we follow his lead to purify our spirit in mind, speech and body. We position our hands in lotus prayer, cupping our third eye, then mouth and heart, followed by a kneel bringing our forehead to the ground. The flow is familiar, a cross between an abbreviated sun salutation and the Muslim Salat.

The temples of Bhutan welcome all people but there is one group more popular than others. Seniors. We learn that the reverence for Buddhism is multigenerational, and that it is a common practice for families to drop their children off to school, and their parents off to the The National Memorial Stupa or Golden Buddha while they are at work. The temples act as a Senior Center providing a place to congregate and a purpose for its elder members to contribute prayers for all sentient beings.

The statue also plays an important role in the daily routine of Bhutanese living in Thimpu. At the close of their business day many make the trail to the temple a part of their exercise and meditation practice.

Yogis at Golden Buddha, Thimpu

The city is filled with religious buildings and next on our tour is Changangkha Lhakhang, a temple frequented by parents seeking protection for their children. The building is framed by rows of prayer wheels, and an inconspicuous courtyard with a stupa made of archery bows.

Bhutan’s national animal the takin, is an endangered goat-antelope that roams the mountainside forests 2500m above sea level. We visit the Royal Takin Preserves to see the creatures firsthand, and marvel at the sanctuary nestled in a valley of blue pines.

Takin, Royal Preserves

The young girl I used to be

Sunday, September 30 — 9:00 AM

This day has been 9 months in the making. And as I sit here listening to the waterfall fountain at our Bangkok resort, I can’t help but wonder how did this small town Brooklynite get here.

Small town Brooklyn may sound like an oxymoron to some but I came of age in a time when the only rising star in New York City was the borough of Manhattan. That was way before Brooklyn was hip and cool, and anyone claiming to be a New Yorker from the outerboroughs was decidedly B&T–Bridge and Tunnel (for those too young to know).

Back then the boroughs–Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and The Bronx were ethnically segregated based on where families settled in New York after migrating from their oppressed homelands: Italy, Ireland, Poland, Cuba, Puerto Rico. We lived as our ancestors did, in hamlets and villages organized by dialect, town and tradition.

Bensonhurst, where I grew up, was primarily Sicilian, Northern Italian, Irish and Jewish. We kept to ourselves, congregated after church or synagogue, and through local social activities on our blocks. If it wasn’t for the public school experience, we probably never would have considered that there was anyone outside of our family nucleus.

Public school. I wonder if my parents knew what a gift they had bestowed upon my brother and I. It was the first time I felt my world break open. And I’d like to believe that in some small way it opened my mind to experiencing other cultures whatever way I could: gathering information from books and movies, and through conversations with others.

That young girl who I used to be, would never have imagined traveling halfway around the world to hike a mountain. My brother, in one of our recent conversations, candidly shared that young girl who I used to be would have been too afraid and timid to dream this big, traveling 24 hours by plane to explore a country few had heard of, let alone been.

I guess you could say that this trip has been 46 years and 11 months in the making; and it’s about time for it to begin.

One Day in Bangna, on the outskirts of Bangkok

Like any city with a well-orchestrated train system, Bangkok is easy to navigate. The BTS Skytrain with its colors, words, and numbers, has, as Claudia shared “something for everyone.” The train itself was wide enough to accommodate the throng of people bound for downtown Bangkok on a Saturday morning. I reveled in the courtesy of its passengers, all of whom acted respectfully toward one another and created space for their fellow travelers at each station. And, not so surprisingly everyone abided by the no smoking/drinking/eating instructions made by the automated announcements, which of course meant the subway cars were clean and sparkly–although that last bit was probably from the glitter painted floors.

Our mission for the day included visiting the Jim Thompson House, the home of an American expat who ‘single-handedly’ (with some help from his good friends at Vogue), reinvigorated the Thai silk trade in the 40s and 50s. We had a lovely tour guide with a keen sense of humor who shared Thompson’s history and architectural vision for his homestead. The temperature was balmy so we escaped into the cool environs of the Jim Thompson restaurant for a light lunch and a refreshing dose of Thai iced coffee. Afterward, we set our sights on the most important part of the day: finding a yoga mat. Rather than carrying one transatlantic, we decided to try our hat at buying one locally. And we did, thanks to the surplus of shopping malls along the Sukhumvit train line.

A selection of photos from our day:

Udom Suk train station

Verandah at Jim Thompson House Museum

Silk weaving at Jim Thompson House Museum

Map of Siam, c. 1686

Morning Glory with Chili Peppers, Shrimp Spring Rolls with Spicy Basil Dipping Sauce

King Rama 9, Street Art Mural, Bangkok Art Culture Center

Just two friends on a journey in Asia

Street Art near Udom Suk Station

grief: the price of freedom

May I ask you a question?

Absolutely, what’s up?

Okay, this is going to sound like crazy talk, but do you believe in the afterlife?

The afterlife? Do you mean reincarnation? Or life after death, like they taught us in CCD?

Honestly, I’m not sure.

Well, it depends on … wait a minute, where is this all coming from?

(quiet pause)

Luv, what’s going on?

On the way here, as I was sitting in the plane at 30,000 feet way above the clouds, I stared out the window looking for Heaven. I couldn’t SEE it. I couldn’t FEEL it, and now, well, you’re going to think I’ve lost it, my mind that is, from all this loss, from their death. But it’s my faith that I’ve lost. How can I believe in something that I can’t see or feel?

Oh, luv, that’s what faith is, it’s believing even when something is intangible, unproven. It lives in the space between where your heart learns to feel and the rational ends of your conscious mind accepts the unknown. Losing someone unexpectedly, as you have, when you are already in a place of uncertainty flips the switch on your belief system. I suspect this will not be the only thing you second guess over the coming days and weeks.  

(She shakes her head)

What you’re talking about is a lifelong journey, not just days and weeks. I don’t want to be a part of that, I want it to be over sooner than later, like right now.

Luv, that’s not how grief works; it doesn’t operate on a timeline. It shifts along with the individual until they have–until you have–the courage to walk through its fire, to break through to the other side. That’s the only way you will ever be free.

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Excerpt from a free writing exercise, The Woolfer Writing Group, 9/20/2018

remembering mama

I sometimes wonder how my mom would have changed if she had the time to age. I’d like to believe it would have been a graceful process, one that involved my dad, me and Rich, and getting to know her grandkids. It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries when someone is taken so much younger then the rest of there generation. Many of her friends have been living the life she ought to have had, had cancer not taken her so soon.

The most cherished trait I have acquired from my mom is empathy, the ability to understand share the feelings of others. She was by far one of the kindest souls I’ve had the fortune of knowing, and if you ever met someone who knew her, it’s quite possible that her thoughtfulness would be one of the first things they would mention. Her sweetness was also her Achilles heel. Sensitive to the core, she would never consider harming another human being. And on the rare occasion when an intention was misunderstood, she suffered with self-inflicted guilt for days from the infraction, no matter how minute.  She was a worry-wart, a trait I’ve sucessfully shed from my emotional repertoire.

I’ve been dreaming about her a lot lately. Lucid dreams that feel all too real, the kind of dreams that are painful to exit because they leave a stronger mark of loss when you wake. Bittersweet as they may be, rife with emotion and zeal, I’ll take them for however long they choose to linger in my psyche, offering a closeness to my mom that I haven’t felt in nearly 18 years.

I recently scrapbooked all the notes and cards she and my dad sent to me, including the jotted handwritten notes enclosed in college care packages. I strongly suspect Mom single-handedly supported Hallmark during the late 70s and 80s for all the cards she sent to family and friends, near and far. I’m a fan of snail mail. And for awhile I, too, thought it might be a dying art. I was relieved to find out that I’m not alone in my letter writing, it appears that my fellow Americans still buy about 6.5 billion cards each year for birthdays and Christmas.

Today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 90. I’ve been thinking about her all day struggling with what to write to honor her memory flustered by the passage of time, these last 18 years and more potently the last 23 hours evaporating around me.

Happy birthday Mom, I think of you always.

xo

Lucy Preziotti

9/19/28 – 1/23/00

The Healing Power of Soup

This last week I got slammed by some sort of virus; the kind where the cats even took notice. Rather than caterwauling to go outside, they lay on either side of me while I slept the week into infinity. There’s no greater comfort than the love of a warm, furry being. Except, maybe soup.

Whenever I’m feeling out of sorts, either from a head cold or the stomach flu my body craves soup. Piping hot broth-based soup. Chicken soup most often, from scratch if I can manage to make it myself. But when my body makes that task almost impossible to achieve I opt for wonton soup instead.

There’s something about Chinese soups that screams medicinal healing, and whether based in fact or fiction — I’m ever so grateful for the kick in the seat of your pants induced sweat lodge session that rids my body of its impurities and nurses it back to health.

The Greatest Life is the One You Choose to Live

Anniversaries are my totems. Although they are not animate objects or things, they still breathe.  With each year that passes, they remind me to come alive.

My parents were late bloomers: marrying and starting a family at an older age way before it was fashionable. I never had the opportunity to dig deep into their childhood stories but what I’ve been able to glean second-hand is that they didn’t quite fit into the norm of everyday life, and instead carved a life for themselves as best as they knew how. Attuned to the beat of their own drums, they found each other through their love of dancing.

I see myself in that analogy.

A friend recently shared that I, too, had carved a different life for myself, unlike anyone else’s. And I guess in some ways that is true. I owe my parents, and especially my father everything for giving me the opportunity to create a path filled with possibilities of my own choosing.

Dad was the middle child, the first native-born generation Italian-American. Named for a grandfather no doubt, as was the tradition. He grew up in Brooklyn, attended public school and later enlisted. He was a numbers guy, and I often wonder who he would have become if he had the chance to go to University.  Dad would have been 18 when he entered the army,  donning fatigues at the height (1943) of the Second World War. He once told me how a deviated septum prevented his deployment, and although he served his time, it was never on foreign soil. I’ve always wondered what happened to his platoon, but he never spoke about it (or them) again.

Dad was a conundrum, sporting a protective, rough around the edges shell on the outside. But his insides were softer than that, something I learned first-hand in the years after Mom died. A product of the Great Depression he didn’t know how to show emotion, let alone say “I love you.” It took decades before he could audibly say it out loud, but he shared his love tangibly in every day.

If you took the time to discover his truth, you earned his respect and friendship, and his stories. The tales he shared with my friends were different from the ones he shared with me, and so each new interaction became a gift in its own way. I regret that I didn’t fall in love in his lifetime, I’m sure that mystery man would have accessed another chapter or two.

Dad lying on a sandy beach
July 1957

What I remember most about my dad is his love for the sea, tennis, pasta fagioli, and chocolate, his passion for math and conservative politics. Not necessarily in that order. He would stay up all hours to watch a tennis match, staring intensely at the screen, mirroring the vibrant emotion of the crowds. Dad was always on the prowl for pasta fagioli foraging restaurants in New York, and Italy for a bowl like Grandma Teresa used to make. And his love for dark chocolate was infinite. He once consumed a ballotin of Godiva (the first I was ever gifted) in one sitting.  What I wouldn’t give to share a box with him today.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Five years is both a long and short term of passage when you lose someone you love. There is no workaround to the wave of emotions you will feel. Grief doesn’t operate within a specific timeframe, some days will feel like you’re burrowing through marble, while others sand.

I stand by my belief that healing is the hardest part of the process; when you find the courage to move through it, you become a stronger version of yourself. Another lesson I learned from my Dad.

Vincent “Jim” Preziotti
b. 12 May 1925
d. 2 August 2013

Sunscreen: What Not to Forget for a Week in the Desert

You can be as open as you want but if you don’t take the time to prepare yourself for the elements of Black Rock City, you’re toast.

Everyone has their method, but the general rule, especially for first-timers like myself was to ensure I had enough water to last a week. The recommended calculation is 1.5 gallons per person per day. I planned to arrive on the first day and stay through the Temple Burn the following Sunday, that meant a minimum of 12 gallons of water. I upped it to 13, my lucky number, just to be safe.

burn throne
Photo Credit: Harry He, The Outer Playa Throne

The next priority involved learning how to manage extreme temperatures both hot and cold. After spending many a summer in Sicily, where temperatures could quickly escalate to 113º F, I knew I would be okay during the day. It was the night when temperatures dropped to Northeast winter conditions which had me most worried. After chatting with veteran Burners, I realized that I had to pack clothes for the polar extremes. So, in addition to shopping for cute barely-there booty shorts and tank tops, I was also trolling online stores and thrift shops for faux fur coats and wool capes.

Preparedness also included decisions about accommodations (tent, yurt, RV); food supplies (meals, snacks); hygiene (dry shampoo, medical masks to protect against the dust); and just about everything else you could think of to survive the rough terrain of the desert for a week. The playa is 121 miles from Reno. On an average day, it might take you 3 hours to drive from downtown Reno to the heart of Black Rock City. Burning Man is anything but average. The length of time from one to the other quadruples once the gate opens. And similar to summer weekends in the Hamptons or every day in Ubud, there is one road in and one out, so be prepared to exercise patience whenever possible.

Death and taxes are constants in the default world. On the playa it’s dust and sun exposure. My skin turns a shade darker within seconds on a New York summer day, but on the playa complexion is relative. It’s no holds barred: anyone contemplating a week in Black Rock City, especially those with a fair complexion, should be buying sunscreen and moisturizer in bulk. Friends warned me about the intensity of the desert sun and so I was able to take precautions early on. I suggest you do the same.

This post is one of a seven-part series reflection on my personal experience at Burning Man: Radical Ritual. Part one, Stoking the Fire was published on Thrive Global. 

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How the world is changing, how you can help

I sometimes struggle with how the world is changing. And in particular, how my country is changing.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
– Neil Armstrong, astronaut

After years of moving forward toward a global acceptance of humanity, I struggle with the actions of the current Administration. It’s as if we are undoing all the good, all the progress and taking a giant leap backward. I feel that there is a daily breach to America’s core values and purpose.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.png

FACT: 43.7 million immigrants resided in the United States in 2016, accounting for 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population of 323.1 million.

I struggle with the constancy of xenophobia and racism in my country, one that was established to welcome and protect those ostracized for their beliefs and oppressed for their differences.

My grandparents migrated to the U.S. to forge a better life, to provide for their family and to pursue the American dream. Yesteryear’s immigrants: German. Irish. Italian. Spanish. Polish. Caribbean. Philippine. Korean. Mexican. Hungarian. Russian. Protestant. Catholic. Jewish. Buddhist. Hindu. Atheist. They came to the US with the same intentional dream for the opportunity to create a better life for themselves. It is the same intentional dream that IS shared by today’s immigrants. Nigerian. Afghani. Indian. Pakistani. Bangladeshi. Chinese. Indonesian. Iranian. Sri Lankan. Thai. Animism. Muslim. Agnostic. Christian. Orthodox. They aren’t any different than our own ancestors.

I struggle with the lack of empathy and compassion humans have for one another. We can learn so much from listening to their stories, and remembering our own stories.

Early this morning I met a woman struggling to keep her family whole. Her name is Shahina, and she was the Uber driver I was assigned on my return from Jersey City. A mother of three, a former housewife, called to the work force to support her family after both her husband and son were deported to Pakistan. She told me of their emigration to the U.S. 25 years ago, of coming here to escape the atrocities of their homeland, to find a better life to raise her son and two daughters. And despite all of the emotional and financial difficulties she and her family now have, Shahina had only good things to say about our country, the land where her children were born, raised and educated. These are the families President Trump and the current administraion are tearing apart.

I struggle with understanding how that makes America great again.