By Elsie Sze
(First of Two Excerpts)
The following comes from The Heart of the Buddha (2009, Emerald Book Co, 231 pages, US$14.95), the latest novel by Elsie Sze, one of Canada’s most-talented authors. She writes this story about twin sisters, one of whom has vanished in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, bringing the other in search of her.
Paro, February 9, 1999
The landing at Paro Airport was surprisingly smooth. If the visibility was not good, we were told, the plane wouldn’t be landing, since the airport was not equipped with radar detection devices. “What you see is what you get” was the order of the day.
“It always works! No chance of errors from those faulty radar systems,” a man said from behind, as we stood in the aisle of the congested cabin waiting for the attendant to open the plane door.
The airfield was in a valley surrounded by mountains. The sky was clear as I emerged from the plane and stepped down to the tarmac. In spite of the high altitude and time of year, there was no snow anywhere, not on the hills all around, and not on the ground. The temperature felt like early spring in Toronto. I crossed the field to what was probably the smallest passenger terminal building in the world, a modest single-level house with designs on door and window frames as Marian had described. Alas, I was walking the same land as Marian, breathing the same air, under the same sky.
A man in a blue-striped gho, his hands behind him, walked up to me as soon as I stepped through the gate into the passengers’ hall.
“Welcome to the Dragon Kingdom, Miss Souza. I’m your guide, Karma Penjor from Bhutan Wilderness Travels,” he greeted. I must have been easily identifiable with just a handful of foreign-looking passengers on the flight, and being the only woman traveling alone. Karma gave me a genuine smile and my hand a firm shake, a reassuring start for a taxing journey, though he had no notion at the time of the true purpose of my trip. I followed him as he went through the rigmarole of getting my visa and baggage in a most efficient manner.
I would place Karma anywhere between 25 and 35, for he seemed to have one of those young faces on which age had trouble leaving its mark. A rich crop of black hair complemented his youthful look. With his medium height and rather athletic build, he could look smart in a soldier’s uniform or a tennis player’s outfit. As it was, in his gho, he looked like one who had come out of a Ming Dynasty novel, a hero of a bygone era, but for the fresh-looking Nikes he was wearing, over grey-and-yellow harlequin-patterned knee-highs. He spoke with a faint, rather pleasing accent.
My driver’s name was Chimi, a young fellow with a constant grin and a minimal amount of English. He drove a rather new-looking yellow jeep, property of Bhutan Wilderness Travels. Karma, Chimi and I would be travel companions for the next 21 days.
We arrived at the Hotel Druk in Paro where I would be spending the first night. Perched high on a hill not far from the airport, the hotel looked like an ancient palace. Tea was served in the deserted hotel dining room. Through a big picture window, Karma pointed to the Paro Dzong, a white fortress-like structure, perched on a hillside, the Paro Valley dotted with farmhouses in the fields, and, further on, the town of Paro, looking more like a settlement of low buildings.
Karma suggested a visit to the town before sunset. I complied, to be polite. I planned to tell him the true purpose of my trip that evening, and have him change my travel itinerary accordingly.
Chimi drove us downhill and parked at the foot of the Paro Dzong. We crossed a river through a covered bridge and walked along an unpaved road into town. I set my eyes for the first time on prayer flags that Marian had described, all flapping relentlessly in the breeze. I was thankful for my down jacket, for the air was nippy. We passed an archery field, where men in ghos were practicing for a tournament, according to Karma.
“You should see a real tournament,” said Karma. “When an archer hits the bull’s eye, his whole team sings and dances around him like children.”
I nodded, feigning interest.
Paro was a town with one dusty main street lined with low houses with shabby storefronts, a very loose definition for a town. A few cars here and there, but mostly people, children on their winter break from school, and adults going about their business as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
I was glad for the walk. The fresh mountain air was therapeutic, the environment soothing. If only I were not on a mission to look for my missing sister, I could enjoy the place.
Up till then, Karma had no inkling of my real motive of coming to Bhutan. His company had faxed me a detailed itinerary for my 21 days, including a trek in Central Bhutan. I had approved it, intending to make changes to my travel plans upon arrival. After all, mine was a custom-designed tour, just for me. Having met Karma in person, I felt more comfortable confiding in him the purpose of my trip.
That evening, over dinner, I told Karma about Marian’s disappearance, but only to the extent that Marian had not come home when I had expected her to, long after her work contract in Bhutan was over, and she had not written or called. He looked at first bewildered, then gradually nodded attentively, as I told him the last I heard from her was her phone call from Bhutan two and a half months ago, on November 25th. I did not mention her memoir. Nor did I bring up the strange phone-calls from Tenpa Norbu.
“So Karma, I need you to take me to places that may give me clues to my sister’s whereabouts. You’ve got to help me,” I almost pleaded.
“We should first check with Immigration to see if your sister has left the country.”
“No, please, no Immigration. Her work visa has expired, and if she is still in the country, and I have good reason to think she is, she’s staying illegally.”
He nodded. “In that case, you don’t want to call their attention to your sister.”
My change of travel plans did not seem to upset Karma. After all, the assignment I laid out was a first for him, and he looked excited. Even though he had to report to his tour company the changes to my travel plans, the company did not have to know the real reason. I did raise my concern that the driver might wonder at my unusual itinerary.
“I’m not worried about Chimi,” said Karma. “He’s my loyal friend. His job is to drive anywhere I ask him.”
“Tell me, Karma, is this a safe country? I mean – could something bad have happened to my sister?”
“Bhutan is the safest country in the world, Miss Souza. Very little crime. As for accident, people would have discovered by now if she was in any accident. Your sister must have other reasons to disappear.”