I wrote this post listening to ellison in wonderland’s musical version of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum on YouTube. You might enjoy listening while reading. Please skip the commercials…
The Fed Ex guy was ready for me, smiling but in full defensive mode.
“This crate is a wreck,” he said. “They used really thin wood and the shortest nails on the planet. Take pictures before you open it.”
He was right, actually. The crate was falling apart. On one end the nails and flimsy boards had separated. I could see splintered wood in the spaces between the pine slats. There was only a thin strip of bubble wrap between the contents and the crate—as if the mere concept of protection was enough to shield a wobbly old cabinet from the blows it might take on its journey from the Himalayas to our doorstep.
Ah, the joys of shopping in the faraway.
Sometimes I wonder if I travel to shop. My heart always beats faster when I stumble upon an object imbued with the spirit of a distant place. That handcarved Dutch Javanese cabinet from Jogjakarta? The Berber carpets from Morocco’s Middle Atlas? Those cunning tiger cubs from a Thai temple? How could I say, “No,” when they were just begging to spend some time with us?
I admit it: I’m an acquisitive person, but there’s more going on than you might think. Those carpets, for instance. They brought wild Moroccan spirits into our house. The dazzling colors and patterns—diamonds within diamonds, fish skeletons, fingers and other magical signs against the evil eye—roiled the atmosphere, in a good way, making it richer and more resonant. Now I look at them and see a camel loping into the surf, bright blue doors in white walls, flickering firelight at a midnight desert celebration. I hear gnaoua trance music, roll grains of couscous through my fingers, taste the spearmint in the sweet hot tea.
Someone once asked if our house was like a museum. No, I said, it’s like a dream: a “memory palace” in which the curl of a carved leaf or the gleam of a painted eye releases a torrent of images from journeys past. Trippy in the true sense of the word.
Of course, first you have to get those talismanic pieces to your door. It’s never risk free, often expensive, and depends on dumb luck more than you might imagine.
But as William and I lifted the chest from the collapsing crate, my worries faded. It glowed in the late afternoon sun, every bit as beautiful as it had been in the dimly lit room in Bhutan. The painting was rustic but exquisite: lotus blossoms crowned with jewels, shimmering long life symbols and colored clouds floated on vibrant green and orange doors. It is the mantra of perfection made visible: Om mani padme hum…
“It’s an old monastery chest,” said Nawang, our Bhutanese guide and friend, as he examined it in the shop. “It’s the kind of chest a family would have sent with their son when he was going to study with the monks. It would have been filled with his clothes and the other things he would need.”
No sooner was the chest out of the crate than it began working its own magic: It conjured up the face of Nawang who himself had spent five years studying scripture in a monastery. I see the gold-roofed temples we visited, and remember how patiently he explained their mysteries, showing us how to pray, how to make offerings to the Buddha, how to light butter lamps. I hear the low chanting of adolescent boys, smell the burning juniper incense, feel the smoothly worn floors beneath my bare feet.
Oh, sorry. Did you think that was it? I’m afraid there was more, much more.
Next to emerge was this blackened earthenware teapot, wrapped in layers of newspaper, from a carton wedged tightly into one side of the chest. It was a pot for suja—strong black tea churned with rich yak butter and salt, likely introduced by traders from Tibet–and when I lifted the wooden lid (which could double as a teacup), the slightly rancid odor of brewings past wafted into the air. The dusty black curves reminded me of the shaggy yaks we saw grazing along the road to Gangtey–and the roguish merchant hawking aged teapots from a shed by the monastery walls.
Now if you’re making suja, you’ll undoubtedly need a strainer, a conical one woven from thin bamboo strips, deep enough to hold a cup or two of wet tea leaves. There are only a few Bhutanese who still practice this traditional craft: I was thrilled to discover this old one, a match to another handwoven strainer found last year somewhere on the road between Bumthang and Gangtey. Where? Somewhere.
And of course you’ll want a tea cup. Once upon a time, this well-worn cup made of artemisia wood might have been tucked into a gho, the traditional short robe worn by most Bhutanese men. If the owner was offered tea, say, by an abbot in a monastery, he would have his small cup at the ready.
Most artemisia is herbaceous—the luxurious hot stone baths we took in Bhutan always had fragrant sprigs of the medicinal herb floating on the scalding water—and cups made of the wood are exceedingly rare. But whether it’s artemisia or no, the gleaming wood has a beautiful dark wavy grain. Plated with silver on the inside, the cup was probably intended for ceremonial use.
I may never make butter tea—a shortage of yak butter would be one problem—but if you’re interested, here’s an updated recipe. (No churning required.) It’s a rich, high calorie drink, made for keeping warm at high altitudes in the bitter cold. Just the thing, perhaps, for the coming chill.
Suja—Bhutanese Butter Tea
(Adapted from the Kewa Laphu Recipe Book produced by the chefs of the Amankora lodges in Bhutan.)
Ingredients for the tea:
3 cups water
1 ounce whole black tea leaves, such as Assam or other strong tea
1 pinch baking soda
1 ounce rich European-style butter such as Kerry Gold
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the water and tea leaves to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes, until very dark.
2. Strain the tea into a blender and blend with baking soda, butter and salt.
3. Pour into a teapot or individual tea mugs and serve. Drink outside, walking through snowy woods on a winter morning.