Two weeks ago, I rode by myself 26 km up a Himalayan mountain pass. The up was unrelenting, and every narrow curve had a moment of anxiety about a potential oncoming bus, and I never quite got to the goal of my quest — a centuries-old nunnery tucked into the side of a mountain — but I was 100% happy.
In the week since I’ve been back from my too-short trip to Bhutan, I’ve noticed that what comes out of my mouth when people ask me how it was, I say that I was 100% happy 100% of the time — and I can’t say that about any other experience I’ve ever had before. (The zen lasted about five days after I got home — another record, I think).
At first glance, it makes perfect sense that Bhutan would make me happy — the one thing most people know about this tiny mountain kingdom is that they pioneered the concept of the “Gross National Happiness Index,” a national effort to focus on education, health, social cohesion and the other kind of indicators that everyone knows contribute to health and general wellbeing. But unlike every health planning conversation I’ve ever been in here in Canada, the former King of Bhutan actually put the nation’s money where its mouth is. (And he also converted the country to a parliamentary monarchy, telling them that he couldn’t know for certain that a royal lineage would always in the future have the people’s best interests at heart; and after writing the constitution, he abdicated in favour of his son, to give him experience while he himself was still alive. This is a remarkable story).
The country isn’t full of people running around jumping for joy, but people are kind, open, gentle and I never heard a raised voice. And the stories I did hear from my guides and the people I did a homestay with confirmed that the nation’s money does go into universal education and healthcare — and people sure do love both the current king and the previous one.
The happiness index was one of the first things that intrigued me about Bhutan — and like so many of the people who travel there, I think I partly went there to probe my own sense of happiness and what it means to me. And whenever I can see a country from the seat of a bike (or from the perspective of my running shoes), I seize it.
In the past few years, I’ve ridden bikes significant distances in Germany, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Laos, Estonia and Latvia. I rode across the last two by myself, but I’m not comfortable doing a self-guided solo trip in Asia (yet). This is a bit of a conundrum for me, because I am far happier traveling and riding by myself than anything else in the world. Traveling alone in general, and particularly riding alone in a place I’ve never been, is where I am most fully myself, most fully present to the world that rolls forth around me, the thing that gives me the space to be a person who can connect to others.
But even if I had felt super adventurous, you can’t actually travel to Bhutan without a guide of some kind (and a daily tariff far higher than other similar Asian countries — that’s where they get the money for all the happiness). So with a little trepidation, I ended up booking a guided trip through Spice Roads. (Who were great — use them). But to satisfy my need to experience to the world I was traveling to without travel companions, I booked five days before the cycling portion and a couple of days after.
For that time, I had the same guide as we did as a group. And from my perspective — he was the best guide I’ve ever had. He was nice, he listened to me, we laughed at the same things, he had insight for everything I asked, and he shifted things based on what I wanted to do. He was perfectly fine when I wanted to spend time meditating in a nunnery and outside a hermitage with a cat crawling on me, he walked an extra three kilometers with me to (fruitlessly) try to buy a flashlight in a village, and he made it possible for me to watch the Royal Wedding with an 84 year old woman during my homestay. And most importantly, he got me a bike before the cycling trip formally started, and arranged for me to keep the bike a day later, even though that meant him riding it by himself 60 km back to his home.
The time I had on my own was the most fully present and cellularly-joyful I’ve ever had. I explored temples, I ate momos, and on my last day, I gave into my impulse to climb one more mountain by myself.
The formal cycling trip itself was also epic. My group of four others was very nice — interesting people, easy to hang out with — but I think they had a different trip than I did. They had a great time, but they also assessed and experienced the trip like you’d rate any tour — — one complained about the wifi, one didn’t want to get up early, one didn’t like the food, one was frustrated that there weren’t enough activities when we were done riding; they wanted to guide to entertain them at dinner. One of them did what I’ve always done before and continually compared the itinerary for distance and elevation gain to her garmin and was cranky about the differences. Like she’d been ripped off if she’d been promised a certain elevation gain and her instruments didn’t reflect it. (She didn’t buy my argument that if the topo maps said Thimphu was one elevation and the pass was another, we had obviously ascended that amount of distance).
Here’s the thing: I’ve been all those people, and all of those complaints have come out of my mouth in the past. But this time, I left my garmin at home, and I was actively practicing not having expectations. The stuff that bugged my group — like the wifi — didn’t bug me, and more importantly, their complaints didn’t bug me. I just rolled along with it.
I think that’s what I’ve learned the most from traveling alone — to lessen my grip on expectations, to trust that things will unfold as they should, to be open to what happens to be there. In this way, I’ve climbed on the back of a stranger’s motorbike to find my lost hotel in Myanmar after a monk walked me to the wrong place, sat with a family of mountain gorillas in Congo, and shared a bottle of wine on new year’s eve with two young couples and all of their hopes for a more open world in Xian, China. In Bhutan, I finally found the way to have that same space of porousness and accept
ance while I was traveling with a group.
Do you travel alone? What makes it meaningful for you?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto when she’s not exploring happiness in the bigger world. She blogs here on the second Friday and third Saturday of every month.