by Julia Booth
In 1990 I had set out on my quest to meet my first person from Bhutan. My boyfriend at the time, Moshe, was Israeli. He had managed to defer his military training as a conscientious objector. He was imprisoned for three months and then classified to work in the military library. He gravitated towards the National Geographic section of military social sciences.
Once freed from the IAF, he travelled the world and settled in Australia. The passion for National Geographic never left him and our tiny apartment was dominated with hundreds of National Geographic editions dating back to its first edition in 1899. In this collection I found the 1974 July edition, the cover featuring the coronation of the youngest ever monarch, the King of Bhutan, barely 19 years old. I had never heard of Bhutan. I asked my university friend Ian if he had. Ian really knew everything about everything and more than that he actually knew someone who knew someone from Bhutan. I wrote a letter to Ian’s contact explaining my interest in Bhutan and my understanding that they were acquainted with someone from that country.
The response was swift and I was invited to meet a visiting Rinpoche Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse in a Gonpa in Kyogle northern NSW, the following month.
The Gonpa was in the middle of nowhere, there were monks, retired hippies, spivvy well-heeled men, younger women, grubby children and a large group of middle-aged women. The world of Tibetan Buddhism was entirely foreign but being twenty, nothing fazed me and it all seemed like a marvellous adventure.
While I was waiting to be introduced to Rinpoche I struck up a conversation with a 40ish year old man Singye who was studying Vet science. As a practising Buddhist he was pursuing a method to provide the least amount of suffering: he had designed a safe and effective form of chemical castration for horses. Impressive, to top it off he was from Bhutan. He expressed a desire to explore Sydney. Of course I asked him to stay with me, I had a nice place in Bronte by the beach in the east of Sydney and he would be welcome any time.
His reaction seemed a little underwhelmed and I was taken off guard, but I gave him my number and address and told him to contact me if he wanted to stay.
Years later as I have come to know more Bhutanese, the reaction that I first imagined was underwhelmed is really just a recognition and acceptance that “while it seems a great idea, let’s just see what happens” reflective of the Buddhist training of no hope, no fear.
Singye eventually did contact me in mid-December a few months after we met; not long enough for a twenty year old mind to forget but long enough to be surprised.
He arrived in the midst of a stinking hot early December week. After settling him in on a rather wobbly fold down bed and giving him a cleared out space in the cupboard, a cup of tea and some small talk I suggested we go swimming.
“Yes I would love to, thank you, but I cannot swim.”
Can’t swim? Being a girl from an island continent I had never met anyone who couldn’t swim. I suggested I could teach him.
Moshe gave him a pair of boardshorts and a towel and we were off.
I took him down to “God’s waiting room” a set of benches near the pool where the old people sat bronzing themselves until their skin turned the colour of walnut and the texture of bark. My personal favourites were the “tea bags” the old ladies who would bob up and down in the water with bathing caps, some quite elaborate, gossiping away for hours.
I decided it was best to start our lessons in the swimming pool. Searching through my mental library of techniques to teach swimming, I realised I had none. There were some vague memories of being at the side of a pool as a young child blowing bubbles in the water, kicking and taking a breath from the left to the right. The rest was a blank, swimming had become second nature, like walking.
I winged it. We put down out towels, I muttered a few hellos to the residents of God’s waiting room and we walked into the bracing water.
“Ok hold the edge of the pool and start kicking.” I glided to the edge and demonstrated. Singye had an amused and uncomfortable look on his face.
“It’s ok you will be safe.” He came toward the side and positioned himself, we went through the steps and made some progress. We got through floating on the back, blowing bubbles and, most difficult, complete submersion.
I felt inordinately proud of my pupil and my excellent skills as an instructor and wondered whether I might be able to put this on my rather bare CV. We continued working each day to build up ability and on the fourth day I suggested we try the sea.
For our big day we decided to wait until the heat of the day had passed and we strolled down at around 3 pm. A dip in the sea was a perfect end to a still hot and dry, lazy day.
The waves were rolling in evenly, and there were surfers on the southern end mesmerising with their slow sinuous movements cutting a track through the waves.
Singye’s expression was unreadable. “Are you excited?” I asked.
“No, not really,” was the reply.
It didn’t matter I was excited enough for us both.
Towels on the sand, we strolled into the water. I suggested he follow my lead and reminded him to put his head under when the wave comes, “hold your breath and come up the other side”. We started out together — first wave, second wave — and seeing the third wave gaining momentum I shouted: “This one is going to be bigger – dive now, now!”
Upon us, a big wave of the type that you can hear crashing as your body is pushed towards the sea bed. I emerged through the mass of white foam, Singye wasn’t beside or in front of me. I swivelled to look back towards the beach, he wasn’t there either.
I panicked and swam as fast as I could almost on top of the water towards where he was last seen. Out of the water came two arms flailing and then a head, hair covering the eyes and his shoulder, elegantly strewn with a piece of seaweed. He was gasping and coughing. I swam over and guided him back to shore. We clambered up the bank onto the flat sand, me rubbing and tapping his back, picking the bits of seaweed out of his hair and shoulders. I let him catch his breath.
His boardshorts were filled with sand front and back and he was hunched over like a rag doll. The spluttering stopped and his breathing returned to normal.
“Wow” I said, “You really got dumped.”
“That’s what just happened! The wave came and dumped you.”
“I couldn’t breathe, it was all white, I was really scared.”
The southerly buster whipped up the sand, needling our bodies.
“Quick!” I said. “Grab your towel the southerly is here we should go.”
“Southerly?” he asked, dazed and confused.
We waddled up the sand to the showers. Singye’s board shorts were still full of sand and blobs dribbled down his legs.
In the warmth of the outside shower I watched as he removed the remnants of seaweed, his brow deeply furrowed.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I am so glad you are ok.”
“Yes me too, it was something. I was dumped,” he replied with a scintilla of a smile.
I realised at that moment how we take things for granted.
A dive under a wave as natural to me as breathing had been a life threatening experience for my Bhutanese friend.
Singye and I are still friends but we have never been swimming again.
Julia Booth is a Director of the Australian Himalayan Foundation and a Lecturer in Media Communications at the University of Sydney. Julia has worked over the past 25 years in the private, public and NFP sectors , creating and managing projects in relation to cultural exchange and development. Julia is passionate about literature and history particularly in relation to North East India, Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan. She is currently completing her first book “She”, The Story of Indira of Cooch Behar, and is honoured to be part of this publication.