Words by Roger Gribbins
Photography by Andrew Faulk
Kencho Dorji casually navigates the winding roads from Paro to Thimpu. The Suzuki sedan that will serve as our transport for the week careens through narrow turns and speeds passed small construction crews that are slowly widening the outdated highways of Bhutan. Breathtaking views of the Lower Himalayas unwrap around each curve and our camera gear jostles patiently at our feet. The request to pull over is constantly on the tip of our tongues, but we hold back and enjoy the unspoiled scenery. We turn onto a dirt road and pass a small group of traditional homes. Windowsills and doorways with ornate wooden carvings are juxtaposed with power lines and compact car. The Suzuki pulls to the side and our guide, Pema ReenZeen, points to the top of a small hill, “This is your farmstay.”
We climb a set of stone steps laid into the hillside that lead to the gate of Esataba farmhouse. We enter the gate and step into an expansive yard and the large three story complex stands tall over the 1.5 acres of terraced rice paddies stacking themselves up the hillside. It is spring, and tomorrow our host family will use the communal rototiller, with help from neighboring farmers, to begin preparations on the caked soil. A small crop of local vegetables is grabbing the first of the warm weather in one corner of the yard, a stone bath hut adorns a small hill that leads to the rice paddies, a mountain of hay rests under a tarp, and the crucial woodpile sits neatly stacked along the concrete outhouse. The air is clean. The skies are cobalt blue with wisps of clouds. Above the last rice paddy terrace we spot a collection of tall white flags. We will learn that evening, after a sunset walk around the property before dinner, that there are exactly 107 flags. In Bhutan, the flags are a traditional burial offering for the deceased, and they are ubiquitous along the countryside – at Esataba the flags honor the deceased family members of our hosts.
Esataba Farmhouse sits on a hill in Namseling Village, just outside of the capital city Thimpu. Zangmo and her husband Sangay, along with Sangay’s parents Auchu and Pema Zangmo, have hosted tourists here for the last fifteen years. Sangay’s parents acquired the farm around 1960, a working farm that still pumps out eight hundred bushels of rice annually. The family also hosts roughly sixty tourists every year with about forty of those choosing to spend the night in the rustic quarters. Visitors that do not spend the night are welcome to enjoy a hot stone bath and traditional Bhutanese dinner, but those guests are missing out on the true experience of staying at Esataba. Of seeing the stars and ink black skies when you slip to the outhouse before bed. Of waking to the smells of burning incense and butter tea brewing on the wood burning stove. Of sipping the local wine, very much like a sake or soju, and chatting with Zangmo after dinner about her life and the history of the farm. A quick visit will only provide the breadth of the place at the expense of falling in rhythm with the heartbeat of a Bhutanese family farm.
We are welcomed with genuine affection by Zangmo and her mother-in-law, Pema Zangmo. They have the understanding smiles of aged women who have raised generations of children and grandchildren with the same fragile determination as the stalks of rice protruding through the soil in their backyard. We are shown to our room, just enough space for two beds and our bags, and we take a quick walkthrough of the house. The heavily decorated prayer room sits adjacent to our room. The walls are adorned with paintings depicting several incarnations of the Buddha, and the colorful alter hosts burning incense and modest offerings. After the the prayer room, a family room and a large pantry room separate the rest of the house from the kitchen.
Like many homes, the kitchen is the center of the action at Esataba, but it takes us a day to get there. Our first meal is taken in the family room. Zangmo hands me a plate of rice, fried pork, stewed chilis, and a leafy green vegetable that is the equivalent of Bhutanese collared greens. Sitting on a thin mat in the family living room, the first spoonful climbs towards my mouth while Zangmo and her youngest son, Kezang, stare at me with eager anticipation. The salt and spice hit my mouth and I reach for more. Zangmo and Kezang smile and immediately offer more rice – an endearing habit I will quickly learn to appreciate.
Zangmo and her family have documented their experience as hosts and they proudly share with us a collection of photos from the last fifteen years – including a picture of their very first visitor, a Japanese school teacher. Old family Polaroids and framed pictures of the Royal Family of Bhutan watch over us from the serving hutch. The dark wooden floor shines under the bright glow of a single fluorescent light, and the faded green walls are decorated with Auchu’s archery quiver and monk drum. A small pile of homemade khuru darts, used for the the traditional Bhutanese game of khuru that is similar to lawn darts, rests in a corner. A calendar from 2012, one from 2015 and three calendars from 2017 surround a clock with no batteries and holding fast at 6:05. And that first night in Esataba, looking through the pictures and hearing a little about each visitor from our hosts, the frozen clock and the old calendars on the wall, and I could be one of those old photos. Sitting with our hosts under a dim light, thumbing through images of fellow travelers, and we are consumed into a void that is becoming harder and harder to achieve. For a few hours that evening we are timeless. We are visitors along a fifteen year continuum that sits in the crease of a faded Polaroid.
For the remainder of the trip we eat in the small kitchen with the entire family. Every morning the family gathers around the wood burning stove to burn off the morning chill. They eat breakfast and take tea together. The grandparents, Auchu and Pema Zangmo, eating with their hands in the traditional way while Zangmo’s sons, Passang and Kezang, eat with a spoon. We sit on the wooden floor, Zangmo closest to the small cooking area and the grandparents beside the wood burning stove. We are surrounded in the tight space by large steel cooking pots on high shelves and the modern touches of a Samsung refrigerator and Sharp rice cooker. Auchu sits on the floor and thumbs his prayer beads while quietly reciting his prayers, Pema Zangmo is methodically chopping chilis that will be stewed with cheese and served with every meal (we grow to love them by the end of our stay), and Zangmo alternates between working the propane double burner stove and squatting next to me to answer my questions. Her smile shines through betel nut stained teeth as she talks proudly about the history of her home.
On our last day in Thimpu, our guide Pema suggests a hike after our picnic lunch in Centenary Park. It takes many attempts, but we eventually convince him and that we just want to go back to Esataba for the afternoon. We want to spend time with Zangmo and her family before we leave for Paro in the morning. We return to Esataba and we are invited to play khuru with Kezang Wangdi, the middle son, and his friends in a field next to the road below the farmhouse. We walk passed the cows crunching hay in the makeshift barn below the house, cross over the small stream that winds down from the mountain and zigzags through Esataba’s rice paddies, and across the dirt road to an empty field where Kezang has set up a khuru court.
To play khuru, players stand at one side of a surprisingly large field and throw wooden darts at a frustratingly small target. Due to the inherent safety concerns of hauling large darts at full velocity across a large expanse, all the players stand together at one side of the field and take their turns throwing, and then a slow march across the field ensues to retrieve the darts and repeat the process towards the opposite target. Of course, having all the players stand together and then walk across the playing field in ceremony naturally lends itself to the kind of banter that one would expect from a game that can take half a day to complete and ticks along with the rhythm of a slow waltz.
Halfway through the game we look up and see that the entire family has come out to watch. They perch on the stone steps leading up to Esataba and enjoy our attempt at playing khuru. Kezang and his friends are good (Kezang actually holds the highest khuru score in all of Namseling), and we are terrible. But, we get a little better as the game goes on. We carefully watch our new friends and try to mimic their form. The laughter and smiles of Kezang and his friends slowly transform to approving nods and raised eyebrows as we begin to understand the nuances of the darts, of the bigger picture of this Bhutanese family. We make sense of the mechanics of the throwing motion, of the daily routine and personalities of our hosts. We start to grasp the the idiosyncrasies of the game, of the politics and playfulness of Esataba. The darts begin to fly a little straighter and spin a little faster, and the subtlety of life at the farmhouse comes sharply into focus. Under the orange and blue skies of the fading Bhutanese afternoon, we inch a little closer to our target with every throw.
Roger Gribbins is a photographer and writer currently living in Saudi Arabia. Whether he is behind the lens or behind the pen, he is trying to capture the human spirit through images and words that evoke emotion and tell a compelling story. You can see more of his photographic work and read his blog on his website.
Andrew Faulk is an award winning portrait and editorial photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. For over a decade Andrew has lived in Asia, shooting travel assignments and creating content for a variety of brands and international publications. Andrew is a husband, father, and lover of fried food. To see more of his work, visit him at his website.