On the second day of the Bhutanese Losar (New Years), I was thrown into a whirlwind of curiosity and confusion, which all ended in a nice, comical surprise. It all started when my Bhutanese friend, Sonam, asked me, “Would you like to have a stone bath today?”
Intrigued I responded, "What’s a stone bath?"
Sonam looked at me with pure amusement and broke into laughter, "Hahaha you don’t know what a stone bath is? Don’t you know that tourist come to Bhutan to take stone baths and they pay a lot of Nu for them? Don’t you have stone baths in America?"
Now I felt a little embarrassed that I had no clue what she was talking about and I said, "Hmmm I’m sure we must have stone baths in America, but I never have seen a stone bath let alone had one. So what is it?"
Sonam started to turn into her teacher mode, "A stone bath is…"
Then as I got an idea, I shouted, "WAIT! STOP! Don’t tell me yet, I’ll draw a picture of what I think it looks like and then you tell me if my drawing is correct or even close. It will be fun!" I didn't realize how fun my drawing would actually become.
"Ok, this should be interesting…" she said with a smile.
I thought about the two words: STONE BATH. Hmm, it’s seems totally self-explanatory. It has to be something like a bathtub made out of stones, hence the name, stone-bath. Duh, this is easy. Then I proceeded to draw a perimeter of a bathtub with smooth, round stones containing steamy water with a good looking stick figure (me) enjoying the bath. When I showed Sonam my drawing, her face said it all; my picture was incredibly off and not even close to what a stone bath entailed (however, she knew that the stick figure was meJ). She laughed and laughed as well as ran away with my picture to show everyone in her family my funny looking depiction of a stone bath, which made everyone look at me with a sly grin and more laughter.
Based on everyone’s reaction to my little picture, we agreed that she wouldn’t tell me what a stone bath was so I would have a nice surprise once I saw it. However, it wasn’t just my lack of knowledge about stone baths and my likeness for surprises that brought about the ultimate shock. Instead it was my first time experience facing a language barrier in Bhutan that aroused a hysterical miscommunication between a monk, and myself, which lead to the real unfolding of a stone bath.
All day I thought about what the stone bath could possibly look like and I kept coming back to the same image that I drew of a bath made out of stones. I wondered how it would be filled with hot water and if it was indoors or outdoors. Finally, as the evening started to approach, my adventure of the stone bath really started to spiral the minute Sonam announced, “It’s time to get ready for the stone bath. Let’s go while we have a few hours before dark. Grandpa said that he is going to prepare it for you like he does for the tourists…”
Sonam, her monk brother named Dorji, her grandpa and I drove across a salad bowl of valleys for what seemed like forever to grandpa’s place. I was so excited that I looked like little Jimmy bouncing around the front seat, hanging my head out the window taking in the fresh, cold air and waving to people as we drove by. My excitement peaked when we turned down a narrow dirt road that had been scrapped out of a mountain leaving behind the evidence of jagged, angry looking rocks. I asked Sonam, “Can your tires handle this road and how are you going to turn around?” “Yes, this is Bhutan and these are our roads…” she said with confidence.
|There were no roads to this spot|
Eventually she stopped the car and I looked around searching for the sight of a house amongst the usual scenes of enormous woody mountains, but I didn’t see any houses nearby. As Dorji and her grandpa got out of the car, I asked, “What are we stopping for?” Sonam answered, “I can no longer drive because there are no roads to grandpa’s house way up that mountain and you guys will have to walk to get there (these are the roads of Bhutan)” I was so anxious to discover this mysterious bath that I didn’t even process what she had just said and I jumped out of the car saying lets go! However, Sonam didn’t get out of the car and instead she fidgeted with the steering wheel. Then she hesitantly said, “I have to go back and help mom prepare the Losar dinner, then I will come back with the food and everyone else. Will you be ok alone with Dorji and my grandpa? I promise to be back before the bath is ready so I can explain it to you.”
I was so revved up about discovering what this stone bath was all about that it didn’t occur to me that I was being dropped off in the middle of nowhere with a monk who spoke a little English and a great-grandpa who didn’t speak a word of English. And so I naively said, “Ya, no problem. Don’t worry about me I’m fine. I can take care of myself and if I can’t, then Dorji will take care of me hahaha, right Dorji?” Dorji smiled at me as if he understood me and at the time I was sure he did. Dorji and I had known each other for two short days and although I was just about to learn that he didn’t understand everything that I had been saying, we were going to get to know each other a whole lot better.
As Sonam drove away leaving a cloud of dust trailing behind her, I was eager to document the excitement I felt about another one of my first time experiences in Bhutan. I busted out my camcorder and batted my eyelashes at the monk hoping that he wouldn’t mind filming me so I could make another home documentary. I started to ask Dorji all kinds of questions to get my documentary rolling, but I quickly discovered that he didn’t understand English that well and he was struggling to talk to me in English. Then I started to think about what our encounters where like over the last couple of days that caused me to think that he spoke English. Well, maybe it was because I had short brief conversations with him where I would ask him simple questions, such as where do you live, and then he would smile, nod or murmur a few words like India. I thought that he understood everything that I had been saying the last couple of days and now it just dawned on me that Sonam had been translating most of the conversations that I had been rambling on with her entire family. Geez how did I miss the fact that he might not know what the heck I was saying.
Once I registered that Sonam was long gone and I was very far from anyone who spoke fluent English, I felt like I was really on my own. That’s when all my joyful thoughts turned into nervous what-if thoughts like a sudden flash flood: What if I start to have an allergic reaction from today’s lunch and I need to be airlifted away, how I am going to communicate this to them, or what if I get travelers diarrhea and I need a toilet with toilet paper, but they don’t understand me. What if Sonam never comes back for me and I’m stuck here for days, ahhhhh. Then after a few minutes, my chest started to hurt from the wicked what-if thoughts, which signaled me to snap out of my insanity: No way am I going to let this little language barrier squash my excitement. Besides Sonam said that she would be back soon before the bath is ready. I’m fine. No big deal. This could be fun. I can make up sign language. Yaaa I’m going to take a stone bath in the Himalayan Mountains weeeeeeeee… what the heck is a stone bath…
We hiked up a steep mountain following a rocky, narrow dirt road that was so rough, only grueling tractors could drive on it to get to dusty crop fields. I could see the hut that looked as small as an ant in the distance and I tried my best to keep up with Dorji and grandpa. Straggling behind them, I couldn’t help but notice grandpa’s huge calves. Even though Grandpa was literally half a century older than me (he’s 79 years old), he seemed stronger and healthier than me. I was panting out of breath while grandpa looked like he could hold up that very mountain with the tip of his finger. In fact, I’m always admiring how most of the Bhutanese elderly seem to be this way and their strength reminds me of my Portuguese grandparents from the Azores.
|Mounds of turnips behind me that I thought were stones|
Once we reached the top, grandpa showed me where the tourists who take the stone bath eat their meals. It was a small hut constructed out of flat and roundish stones. The way the different sizes of the large stones had been thoughtfully fitted together looked so beautiful and rustic. The stonewalls were covered with candles and at one end of the room there was a mound of rosy turnips. At the time, I had no idea what they were showing me because they couldn’t communicate it to me in clear enough English and I couldn’t understand Dzongkha, so I was making a lot of guesses from Dorji’s broken English and gestures. It wasn’t until later that night, would Sonam give me the correct information. For instance, I thought the turnips where stones and when I asked Dorji if these where stones for the bath he said yes. It took me awhile to realize that he was saying yes to almost every question I asked.
Dorji how far is the stone bath?
Dorji where is the stone bath?
Dorji… Dorji… Dorji…
Yes! Yes! Yes!
This didn’t stop me from continuing to talk his ear off because every so often he knew what I was saying and it was causing lots of laughter between us. Although we were struggling to communicate with each other, there wasn’t a minute of frustration and we were always giggling or smiling. The atmosphere was light and playful. I could feel the warmth of generosity from their hearts wanting to share a piece of their culture with me and they could feel my excitement and gratitude of taking it all in.
Next, I followed them further up the mountain towards another single stone hut (which I mistaken for grandpa’s house) and I just knew that the stone bath had to be near. I was so anxious to discover it that I kept asking Dorji, “Is the stone bath over there?” and of course he would respond, YES! This time I believed his yeses and I gave him the camcorder to film what my face would look like when I saw the stone bath for the first time.
The suspense was causing me to bubble over like a corked Champaign bottle. I walked backwards so I couldn’t see it until I was right behind it. I asked, “Dorji is the stone bath behind me?” and once again he said YES! I knew that I shouldn’t have believed him when I walked backwards into a thin bamboo fence and nearly tripped. “Dorji, you have to tell me when I am going to walk backwards into something,” I said tittering in semi denial that he didn’t speak fluent English. I continued to ask him, "Can I stop walking backwards now? Are you filming? Don’t forget to film my face! If I turn around will I see it?"
On cue Dorji answered, "Yes, yes, yes, ughhhhhhhh yes"
|It's a fire pit not a stone bath lol|
I bubbly said into the camera, "Ok on the count of three I’m going to turn around and see the stone bath for my first time. One Two Three… OH MY (lots of laughter at what I saw) this isn’t what I was expecting."
My eyes popped out of my eye sockets and I was extremely shocked looking at what I thought was the stone bath, but what was really a big special fire pit grandpa was making to heat up the stones. I didn’t know that the actual stone bath was inside the hut and Dorji didn't have the words to help my funny looking face of confusion. As I stared at the unique fire pit trying to look really optimistic, I thought how am I going to get in there? What is that? It looks like a fire pit. Wow, this is a real surprise. Why do people pay so much Nu for this? This can’t be the stone bath… grandpa must be building it on top of this fire pit… Oh where is Sonam? Hahahhaha
Poor Dorji could clearly see that I was confused looking at the dry fire pit wondering how people bathe in it and he tried his best to spit out some English words to clarify the misunderstanding. Finally, he took the camera off me and motioned me to look inside the hut and that’s when it all started to come together. As I studied a wooden rectangular bath inside the hut, the floodgates of my observations opened up and I started laughing at myself saying over and over, “Ahhhh I get it, it’s all making sense now, I know what a stone bath is, oh thank you Dorji.”
Finally, I figured out that a stone bath in Bhutan starts off with heating large stones in a fire. Once the stones are glowing red from the fire, they are placed in a box section or chamber of a wooden bathtub that is filled with water. The small holes in the chamber section allow the large hot stones to slowly heat all the water and prevent the stones from entering the other side of the tub and burning someone’s legs off. The wooden bath looks like a long, deep trough. The minerals from the hot stones leach out into the water and some medicinal plants are also added to the water. It’s very relaxing and if you have never heard of a stone bath, now you know!
Can A Stone Bath Make You Feel Drunk?
Sure enough Sonam came back with a carload of people and food just as the stones where ready to be put into the wooden bathtub. There was so much commotion and excitement that I didn’t have time to narrate to her the funny miscommunications throughout the day. I was more concerned about the pattern of checkered holes in the woven bamboo doors of the hut and I asked Sonam, “Do I have to go in the stone bath naked? What if someone sees me through these big gaps in the woven doors?” Since I was feeling extremely shy and conservative, Sonam said that it was ok to go into the stone bath with a tank top and undies. She also laughed at how my American mind was worried about perverts and peeping Toms. She said that was nonsense and nobody would do that here; people can take baths in front of others as well as with their entire family and no one would stare. We had a really interesting and funny conversation about the differences of our culture.
Sonam told me to first wash my hair and body outside the wooden bathtub inside the hut using a scooper to pour the water over me because she and her family would also be using the same water to take a bath after me. She also said that I could stay in there for an hour and that she would stay near, huddled by the fire with her family incase I needed anything. I thought that there was no way I would stay in there for an hour maybe twenty minutes tops, but the strangest thing happened: the minerals of the hot stones consumed me taking me into another world.
It was sunset and I sat in the bath that was high on a mountain absorbing the beautiful colors of goldish and redish sunrays that stretched through the gaps of that old boomboo door. Ironically, I was now thrilled that the doors had a hundred holes in it, so the tangy sunset could peak in the hut lighting it a warm amber color. , As the sun faded away, through those little holes I watched the colors of the sky slowly change different shades of baby blue until it finally turned into jet-black. When the sky fell into darkness, like magic the candles started to slowly glow filling the hut with a dim romantic flicker. It was so beautiful and I once again found myself falling deeper in love with the Himalayan Mountains of Bhutan.
I managed to practice some energy medicine in the bath for several minutes to clear my mind and keep it quiet. I sat in the bath feeling pure peace listening to all the surrounding sounds and I had no concept of time. Half way through my bath, her grandpa put more stones in my water, which made it so hot that I had to add a bucket of ice water and I took several breaks from the heat by sitting on the edge of the tub with my feet dangling in. Every once in a while Sonam would yell out, “Sabrina, are you ok? Your so quiet, your scaring me” (She later told me that she thought the heat from the hot water made me pass out and I drowned ha). Each time she yelled out to check on me, I would say, “Yes, I’m getting out now,” which was always a lie.
When I eventually got out an hour later, the combinations of falling in love with Bhutan, the intense heat and the minerals made me feel like I was literally intoxicated. I dried off holding onto the edge of the bath to keep my balance. I didn’t want to tell Sonam that I felt like I was in a hazy cloud and scare her. I assumed that it was the heat of the water that made me slightly dizzy and it would soon pass, so I kept quiet and zigzagged my way to grandpa’s house while she took her turn to take the stone bath with her family.
|Candle Lit Stone Bath|
The walk further up the mountain in the pitch-black night left me freezing, but still incredibility woozy. When I entered the house I immediately sat on the floor next to the warm bukhari and it wasn’t helping my eyes to stay open. I couldn’t fight the tranquil strange feeling that had overcome me and I found myself curling up into a fetus position. I thought I feel so strange. What is happening to me? Did the minerals drug me or I'm I exhausted from the day? Then Sonam’s aunty brought me a pillow and my heart started to pound a little as I wondered if I was dying from the stone bath. As the hypnotic feeling continued to cling onto my body, I told myself that if I was dying to stop resisting because this would be a nice way to go and I let the urge to be swept away in darkness slowly take me out of this world. The last thing that I remembered before I fell into the deepest sleep of my life was squinting at several brown caring Bhutanese faces staring over me like I was a lost, helpless child.
I don’t know how long I slept for, but I eventually woke up to the sounds of about twenty people speaking Dzongkha and forty eyeballs glancing my way. Although I still felt tired, I couldn’t bear to have anyone watch me drool any longer and I forced myself to sit up within the circle of people. We had a huge feast and for once I stayed quiet observing everyone sitting crossed legged and eating with their hands. They passed around huge bowls of rice, little bowls of a variety of curries, hot water and salty suja tea. Everyone was chatting and laughing and I was so grateful to be witnessing a Bhutanese family bond. Once again, the family unity of the Bhutanese culture reminded me of my family get-togethers and I wondered what all my family members were doing on the other side of the world. However, my heart wouldn’t allow myself to get homesick because there was only enough room for falling in love with Bhutan.
When it was time to go back to Sonam’s mother’s house, eight of us hiked back down the mountain through a wall of darkness. I don’t know how we all squished into Sonam’s mini car, but it was fun and that’s when I finally started to wake up. When we went up steep parts of mountains, half of the group had to get out of the car so the car could actually make it up the mountain. Then the group would walk up to the top and jump back in for the downhill or neutral parts. I found it to be exciting because I knew that I was having another fun unique experience in Bhutan.
When we finally got to the house, Sonam and I sat down to watch the tape of the “stone bath surprise.” As the adventure and misunderstanding started to unravel on film, we rolled around the floor laughing at how perplexed my face was staring at the fire pit thinking that it was the stone bath. She cried, “This is so hysterical! How could you have kept this from me all day.” We literally had tears rolling down our cheeks for about twenty minutes and we watched the tape at least five times that night. Even when we climbed into bed and tried to sleep, I could hear Sonam randomly giggling thinking about it, which would cause me to start giggling on the other side of the room and then we would start the full on laughter all over again. “No more laughing please…my stomach hurts so bad from laughing” she chuckled.
Through tears and laughter I responded, "You stop laughing first, so that I can stop laughing. Try to stop thinking about it."
"I can’t, it’s too funny…you thought that a fire pit was a stone bath and Dorji, oh my goodness Dorji… haha," Sonam repeated several times.
Finally, before we almost died of laughter, I ended the adventure by saying, "Haha ok seriously Sonam, thanks for the best day, the best Losar, and the best Bhutanese experience of a stone bath and for my new monk friend, Dorji hahaha… You're an awesome friend!"
SLIDESHOW OF THE STONE BATH PROCESS