In Bhutan, Skateboarding is a Crime
Driving the other day we see 2 boys on a homemade skateboard, I remark to Dorji this is the first such one I’ve seen. Oh yes, he says, the government banned them a few years back, as hazardous, citing accidents involving skateboarders and cars.Also banned: tobacco and plastic bags. In 2004 Bhutan became the first, and is still the planet’s only non-smoking country. Again citing health hazards, and 4-century-old statements from the Shabdrung (the unifier of the country) warning of the perils of tobacco. One cannot grow, sell, buy or smoke tobacco. This ban is not popular, and much flouted, though most smoking takes place at home and in nightclubs popular with the young. The penalty is 3-years imprisonment, though enforcement now seems to be lax, yet a cop recently told me there are some 200 plus people in jail for smoking. Foreigners are permitted to import one carton, and taxed about fifty dollars for this.The plastic bag ban is more successful. Citing environmental hazard, the country simply banned them. Most Bhutanese already took a cloth bag for shopping. Shopkeepers wrap items in newspapers, or make bags by taping torn newspapers together, or most interestingly, they fold newspapers into origami type bags or boxes so pretty you don’t want to toss them out.
Add not permitted: missionaries. The constitution provides for freedom of religion in this highly devout mostly Buddhist nation. There is a minority of Bhutanese descended from Nepali immigrants a century ago, and they are for the most part Hindu. They worship at home altars, as there are no Hindu temples, though Hinduism and Buddhism are so intertwined that most of my ethnic Nepali friends tell me they visit the temples and monasteries as well. It’s the Christians that are causing trouble. I’ve met a number of these people, as friendly as all Bhutanese, but quick to point out they are Christian, and ask if I am also Christian. While the answer is yes, I am not of the born again ilk they appear to belong to. The Bhutanese Christians have their churches in private homes, and apparently they have sent word out to their parent church abroad they are being persecuted in Bhutan (because they cannot build an actual church, and stateside missionaries are not permitted entry into Bhutan). I’m all for Christianity, practiced humbly and as it was intended. I have little sympathy for born agains trying to ply their murky trade in the only Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom still in existence.
We’re now in Trongsa, one of the prettiest areas in a country that does not lack for pretty places. Our hotel is about a mile from town, an easy and pleasant walk. Each time I make this walk I am stopped multiple times to talk. Those that don’t stop to chat greet me, elder people speaking Dzongkha, say “kuzuzampola“, little kids yell out “good bye” (their way of greeting, as you are after all leaving them as you pass by), and high schoolers and young folks say, “hey man, how’s it going?” In town I find the shops sell wine, imported from India. Bhutanese have easy access to alcohol (unlike tobacco). Two varieties of great local beer always available, Red Panda and Druk 1100 (‘super strong beer’ reads the label). And the army makes the booze: four varieties of whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka. Make booze, not war, could easily be their motto. Home brewed is a rice wine, called ara, not unlike sake. But wine is a rarity, and I’m in a cabernet mood.
As I wander the streets of Trongsa, with my 2 bottles of wine, making new friends I come across a truck with bars for windows. About 12 young men are inside and they call me over to talk. It’s what I come to expect from Bhutan. Now maybe the altitude has slowed my thought process, so I ask why the bars. “Because we are prisoners being transported to jail” comes the answer. I’ve just spent 5 minutes talking with these very friendly criminals, thinking the bars might merely be some window substitute. Then they ask for my e-mail. They motion to a cop standing a few feet away. I ask him if these guys are prisoners, and he nods. What did they do? I half expect the answer to be “skateboarding and smoking.” But no, murder, larceny, and robbery. At that moment I decide I am not going to have any prisoner pen pals, so say “no thanks” and walk away.
That night, Dorji and I polish off an unexpectedly good bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Who knew? Vineyards in India.