The Hardest Thing To Do

One day while I was walking along the street in Thimphu, a tall young man with a scraggly beard came up to me. We walked in step for a few moments in silence. Then he asked me where I was from. Ordinarily I would have been suspicious. In many countries I have visited a perfect stranger starting a conversation was a cause for wariness. But this was Bhutan.

“Boston,” I said.

“The Celtics,” he answered.

That was how I met Gelay Jamtsho, a Bhutanese artist, and, until recently, a member of Bhutan's national championship basketball team. He played for them for four years running. He expressed his admiration for Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. He told me that the Fourth King of Bhutan, the one who has declared that Bhutan will be a democracy, has a T-shirt with Maxwell emblazoned on it. That would be Cedric Maxwell, the power forward who played for the championship Celtics in the 1980’s.

Gelay was part of a group that ran a volunteer artist cooperative. He taught youngsters how to paint and take photographs. He helped put on exhibitions of their work and was thoroughly involved in art education for the young.

He told me his interest in volunteerism developed when he discovered that he couldn’t play basketball any more. His knees had given out. He doesn't even go to the courts to watch. He said it was too painful to sit on the sidelines. I asked him what he does now that he can’t play basketball. He said that he is a Himalayan trekker. This means that he acts as a guide, taking people on long hikes into the Himalayan Mountains that make up a good part of the Bhutanese landscape.

I had read about these treks. Some of them take hikers close to 17,000 feet above sea level. When Nancy and I walked a mere thousand feet up to Tango Monastery, I learned how devastating thin air can be. The monastery is roughly 9,500 feet above sea level. The walk from the road to the monastery proper takes a monk accustomed to the rarified air fifteen minutes. It took us well over an hour. For me it was like walking up a mountain with a ball and chain around my ankles. I had to stop every hundred yards or so to gulp in air and then water. I acknowledged with a wan smile the monks skidding by like so many red clouds on a windy day. I struggled to find the breath for the Dzongkhan greeting, Che gadey bey yoed go? (How are you?)

I asked Gelay if he had ever been a guide on the infamous Snowman trek. It lasts for 25 days or more. The guidebooks rate it as “strenuous and demanding.” I’m not surprised. The average height of the trek is 13,000 feet. Over two hundred and twenty miles long, it crosses eight passes, some at 16,000 feet. It is no wonder the Snowman is considered one of the most difficult in the Himalayas.

I asked him which was harder, playing basketball or doing the Snowman.

“The Snowman,” he replied without hesitation.

“Why?” I asked.

“After spending two to three weeks with people, you begin to get fed up with them,” he answered thoughtfully. “The hardest thing in the world is to mask your anger.”

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