The mistiness of Gedu comforts me; it reminds me of other rain-soaked, gray-skied places where I have lived and been happy. The heavy, only sometimes sun-bright air, is like a soft shawl, wrapped firmly around me, holding me in, making me feel as I imagine the Bhutanese babies must feel, tightly strapped to their mother’s backs. They are securely attached, yet free to wiggle if they want, bend their heads back to stare at the passing clouds or at pigeons in flight; open their eager fists to grab a branch or leaf.
As I walk down from the girl’s mess, where I have just finished a lunch of creamy, buttery potatoes and cheese, white rice, steamed vegetables and dal, I look out over the valley from the top of the broken concrete stairs, over the low clouds and dense green of the thick jungle that covers the soft mountains upon which this town is perched. Cows, the Bhutanese sustainable lawnmower, graze next to me, their bells clanging low and melodiously, the sound carrying so clearly in the moist air.
In the village of Tala, on the way to the hydro-power plant, the sweet smell of fresh-cut wood comes our way on the breeze from the factory where plywood is being made. Boisterous boys and girls, the sons and daughters of the factory workers, chase and play, sending badminton birdies whizzing through the evening air; the sound of a soccer ball being mightily kicked floats along with the smoke and clouds.
We all take turns lifting a steel rod with a chunk of cement wired to each end; the little ones grimace and grunt and show off their muscles.
In a small room at the end of the row of wooden shacks where the children live, we hear the rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk of weaving and peer in to watch one of the mothers, giggling at our presence, pounding down the latest row of thread in an intricate black and red kira.
The next day we walk with new friends to Alayka, another village down the hill from Gedu. As we drop out of the clouds, following the dirt road down into the valley, we are sheltered from the wind; we shed our parkas, gloves and scarves. We come across young men playing a game of khuru, Bhutanese darts. The tiny wooden targets, like small gravestones, are placed 100 yards apart on hills of dirt. The darts have a long sharp point and an egg-shaped lead weight on the front, with wooden “feathers” on the back end. They buzz and spin, like heavy cicadas, through the air and land with a puff of dust near the target.
Halfway down the road we stop at a small shop perched above Alayka Primary School. The shop, made of tin and pine boards, bark still attached to one side, looks as if it would fall over in a gale. A gaggle of children gather around us for pictures.
The sounds of their names have finally become familiar to my ear: Karma Choki, Sangay Choeden, Chundu Lham, Chundu Zam, Tsering Dema, Nidup Zam, Tshering Choki, Sangay– who wears a dusty red and blue Spiderman shirt–and Kinley, red rubber boots covering his tiny bare feet. They all belong to one mother, who joins us soon, another baby held fast to her back by a wide orange woven cloth.