Far from the airport in Paro and the seat of government in Thimphu, Eastern Bhutan sees far less tourists than the western part of the country, and yet has rich cultural heritage of its own. For many years, I have wanted to visit the semi-nomadic peoples who inhabited the eastern villages of Merak and Sakteng in the area around Trashigang, and finally set off this fall to do so. We were a group of four - three women and two men - three of us in our 60s and one in her 70s.
The trip began with a flight from Delhi to Guwahati, the capital of Assam. Here we were met by Kinley, our guide, and Sangay, our "Buddha" driver. From Guwahati, we headed out on a chaotic drive to the Bhutanese border town of Samdrup Jonkhar. The road was under repair and a blend of elephants, busses and trucks belching diesel fuel, bikers, cars, and other assorted vehicles that defy definition. It took slightly over four hours to arrive at the border, check out of the insanity of India and into the relative quiet of Bhutan.
Lodging in the east is rather basic, to say the least, and we overnighted at the basic TLC Hotel. Rumor hath it that with new hotel competition coming in, TLC is going to do some renovation, but "nothing is real 'til its real!" For now, rooms are basic, hot water is sporadic and food is heavy in carbohydrates and light in spices.
The town is simple, perched with a market near the border that picks up on weekends. There is a simple temple or gomba, and our visit connected with the chanting of the monks. There is also a cement plant and some small industry, but overall, this is not a place for great sightseeing.
As Myths and Mountains approaches its 25th anniversary, Founder and President Toni Neubauer looks back at the early days and the continually evolving journey of bringing her dream to life.
How did it all begin?
It was 1983 or so when my friend Nancy phoned and said, “I’m going to Nepal. Are you coming?” I said, “I guess if you’re going, I’m going.” We phoned another friend, and she decided to go, too. Four of us ended up going, and we all had an incredible trip.
At the time I spoke five languages and taught French, Spanish, and English, but knew nothing about Nepal – a place where the most basic things of life - how you eat, how you say “hello,” or how you go to the bathroom – are different. On that first trip, a temple guard almost shot me for sitting on Vishnu – He looked like a rock to me! Returning to the States, I found a freshman from Nepal at Bryn Mawr and said, “Okay, you teach me Nepali, and I’ll teach you how to use a washing machine!” She became my adopted “Nepali daughter,” and her parents adopted me in Nepal. After learning Nepali, I returned to the country. People asked if they could go with me, and then, “Where are we going next?” That was the beginning.
What made Myths and Mountains different from what other travel companies were doing?
Bhutan and Myanmar are wildly popular destinations these days with their beautiful landscapes and fascinating culture and heritage. If you plan to visit either of these countries, we recommend booking your trip as far in advance as possible to ensure availability of hotels and guides, particularly if you plan to visit during one of the many festivals taking place throughout the year.
One of Peru's classic experiences, the Inca Trail passes through scenic valleys, remote villages, high cloud forest, and lesser-known Inca ruins en route to majestic Machu Picchu. If you've always wanted to hike the Inca Trail but worried it might be too difficult, a new Myths and Mountains trip may be for you. "The Inca Trail for Beginners: Easy Does It" adds an extra day to the typical four-day trek, allowing us to break up the journey into smaller chunks. With extra time to go slowly and rest, you don't have to be an experienced trekker or a super-athlete to complete and enjoy this hike!
The woman's thin lips were chalk white next to her brown skin as she slid down under her bus seat. Hands reached out to drag her up. "Birami chha", "she is sick," someone said, opening her window. A man hung her out the window, holding on to her red sari, while she proceeded to throw up continuously for the next hour and a half. "Her first time on a bus," the man noted sourly.
Three seats back, a small baby, naked from the waist down, his tiny body girded by strings tied at birth by the Brahmin priest, nursed feverishly at his mother's breast, oblivious to the chaos and slightly sickening smell of vomit that began to pervade the bus.
Behind the baby, a rooster, tucked into a basket, squawked mournfully, perhaps aware that tonight he was to be the main ingredient in someone's chicken curry. Near the rooster was my seat - a large wooden suitcase perched in the aisle that I shared with three other people. The suitcase belonged to a lovely Nepali couple who had taken pity on a foreigner with no place to sit. As our bus lurched downhill over the rutted roads and around hairpin (and hair-raising) curves, we all slid into each other constantly, bouncing mercilessly on the hard timbers of the box and skidding precariously up and down the narrow aisles.
For photographer Don Vilfer, viewing the world through a camera lens is a way to not only take home indelible images of people and places, but also to deepen his experience of each destination he visits.
A former FBI Supervisory Special Agent in charge of Sacramento's Computer Crimes and White Collar Crimes squad, Don has traveled a lot over the years. He left the Bureau 10 years ago and now runs a company that does computer forensics and electronic discovery. Pursuing his photographic interest while traveling is much easier now that he’s a civilian. He recalls, “Once while traveling with the FBI I was in another country – I can’t say where – and I just wanted to go out and exercise my photography interest, but it caused concern with foreign officials that this FBI agent had a particular interest in going to photograph some area. That area was only of interest as a cultural area, but it kind of caused some incident.”
Don, his wife, Pam Hanback, and their two sons recently traveled on a Myths and Mountains trip to Bhutan. “We had been promising our kids since they were five that when they graduated high school, they could pick someplace as a travel destination,” Don explains. “This was what my younger son picked. He was totally absorbed in the culture, the destination. He really had an appreciation for the way of life.”