Friday, June 8, 2012

Ours is pretty impressive when it comes to home kitchens here
Yeshey making his version of ema datse

May 27
Shopping is a special experience in every culture, unique to its own people, tastes, and economy.  Tara and I were missing a couple ingredients for dinner, so I skipped out down the road to get cooking oil and a can of mushrooms.  (OK, I walked, but it’s not as poetic.)  An old man was coming the other way.  He was all dressed in hiking boots, gho and swinging his prayer beads, returning from a blessing at our closest monastery, the 8th century Jampey Lhakhang.  He was marking his steps with a walking stick made from a long piece of iron rebar with an umbrella handle shoved onto the end.  This old guy reminded me about how the Bhutanese way of life embraces simplicity with grace and often values acceptance over innovation.  This pragmatism is what makes shopping what it is here. 
National standard: rice, emma datse, veggie curries

There are probably more than a dozen little shops lining the 2 km between our house and Chamkhar town.  Every one of these is run out of the front of a home, most having the square area of a large North American bathroom at best.  Many have an open window through which you can be served Doma (a cone of paper containing a betelnut kit, including the leaf and lime paste) on the fly.  Or you can come in and serve yourself.  What fascinates me is how they could even be viable businesses: they all have basically the same stock on the same weathered pine shelves. 

No shortage of carbohydrates in this diet...
Doma, 20 Nu (40cents)
Somewhere in the back corner is a tin box full of paper money.  This is the cash register.   There might be a glass cabinet stuffed full of Indian shampoo, nail polish, sandals, miniscule jars of Vaseline, plastic sleeves of pirated DVD’s, mostly Wrestling, Kung Fu, or badly made blood bath films.  (Maybe an antidote for locals who’ve had too much Compassion and need a dose of Suffering?) One glass shelf might have Band-aids, rolls of red and yellow cellotape, boxes of feminine pads, orange toothpaste, and medium-sized padlocks.  The top of the cabinet will be stacked with clear plastic buckets containing various “treats”, which are offered as change to bring your bill to the nearest 5-/Nultrum.  Pot-luck, though: could be mini-chocolates, or Vicks cough drops, or maybe pseudofruit-filled chewing gum.   The shopkeeper will disappear behind these rows of plastic, plastic, plastic….to search out change in the tin box.

You know the plastic stuff on the top of the shop counter?
Well, this junk food has just been blessed at school, and will now be
eagerly distributed to each household to help manifest the blessing.
Now the pine shelves lining the walls all have tinned mackerel in tomato sauce, soybean oil, Britannia tea biscuits, blocks of semi-real processed cheese, bars of blue laundry soap, blue bags of milk powder (500g and 1 kg size), bottles of Horlicks hot grain beverage, tinned fruit cocktail and tinned button mushrooms, six-packs of lychee berry drink complete with straws in shrinkwrap, Thai Wai-Wai dried noodle packs, jars of pickled chilies, and little red bottles of Waikfield Baking Powder.

In one corner will be plastic bags of dried chilies in two sizes, powdered chilies, dried cakes of tea leaves, and various assorted puffed rice, dried unsweetened corn flakes, and other grains for sprinkling into your morning tea. (!)

Near that will be other local stuff: wooden crates, bamboo baskets, and cardboard boxes filled with fresh chilies, potatoes, purple onions, and mustard green leaf bouquets held together with baling twine.  This same twine is used to make a handle for the eggs, assembled on half a 24-flat topped with a rectangle of cardboard cut from some box, all packaged up for you to go.

If you want a couple bottles of Druk 11000 for the evening, you might have to look around the corner in the house’s kitchen, where the beer is kept.  Nothing is refrigerated, nothing is run past a laser code-reader, nothing is on special, nothing is this week’s promotion, nothing is displayed to draw you away from the competition.  If there happens to be electrical power to the shop, it’s not to see the items better; it’s only used for the TV up on the top shelf, tracking this week’s Talent Hunt at the Thimphu BBS studio. 

most yards looks like this in April
Now it’s important to note that the above is the constant, the rest is brought with the seasons…or not.  What I mean is, a walk to “Market”--what locals call town—will yield you what’s offered, rather than what you’re looking for:  Loads of oranges may suddenly appear in all the shops from southern climes. Or the cucumbers will be pregnant and plentiful.  Or tomatoes.  Last month, it was asparagus and cheese curd patties at the Pharmacy.  Gardens are plentiful now.  The school grounds are taken over after class now by teachers’ families harvesting the explosion of veggies they planted there, literally a few weeks back. 

All over this little Kingdom there’s a resurgence of “Grow Bhutan”, as the Indian rupees are less available and we must reduce our imports, increase our exports.  Variety is suffering: What, no honey? Well of course not, it’s out of season; carrots for carrot cake? Nope, wait till Fall.  It’s a good thing spuds grow all over Bumthang.  But meat, other than dried fish?  Not this month…nor next month either, for that matter.  For info on why and when, refer to your local monastery calendar. 

Landlord Karma and family invite us upstairs to share their feasts
our first lasagne, from my own pasta
Tara's chili pizza's almost a local celebrity

Oh, speaking of monasteries, we saw that old man later when we all returned to Jampey Lhakang for a blessing following their Tsechu this week.  Outside the gate was a throng of devotees…actually, they were standing in line for the bags of local strawberries being sold out of the tailgate of a farmer’s wagon.  Ah, what a blessing, indeed!
awaiting a blessing--or strawberries--at Jampey Lhakang

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