Last February, I journeyed to the most exotic location I had ever been, Bhutan. I became one of the first 500,000 tourists who had the good fortune of visiting this last Shangri-La. It was a trip of a lifetime few had the privilege of experiencing. I was invited to cover a travel conference, alongside many travel professionals. We’re talking here serious travelers who have been to been to many countries. Among us was Costas Christ, editor at large of National Geographic who has been to over 120 countries. He can now add Bhutan to his long list. Just like the rest of us, he was giddy with excitement to experience this unique destination for the first time.
I arrived a few days before the conference to explore what Bhutan had to offer. I had accepted the kind gesture of a local Bhutan tour operator to host me and show me Thimphu, Paro, and Punakah. In the first few hours of landing to Paro International Airport, I was in awe of it all: the mountains all around me, the high altitude, the crisp winter temperatures, seeing men in traditional dresses and knee-socks, the mud houses, and Bhutanese homes with elaborate wooden carving and ornate painting, the painted images of penis on walls and wooden phallic symbols on the doorways, the monasteries, the cows passing by, babies carried on slings like backpacks, the interesting expression on the faces of these people hardened by living in the mountains, organic vegetables, and my introduction to chili and cheese ema-datsi.
|Buddha's Point, a massive bronze statue looking out to Bhutan's capital, Thimphu|
I was in the hands of a tour guide, assigned to me by my kind hosts. But in his hands, my experience of this magical kingdom was stained. Just before dusk, he suggested a trip to Buddha’s point. We had been there a few hours earlier, but he insisted it gave the best nightscape of the capital, Thimphu. I went along with his suggestion. He then insisted we walk on a pathway to see the best view. As night falls in Bhutan, the temperature drops. Deliberately dressed in a roomy coat allowing me to layer many sweaters, this tropical girl felt like ill at ease in my winter getup. Darkness was just coming upon Bhutan, with the lights slowing going on. I looked out at the view, parallel to the giant Buddha looking out to Thimphu, and my back against the mountain. Then, my guide did the unthinkable. Coming from behind, he hugged me then put his hand on neck. I was appalled, shocked, and freaked out. But I could not yell or scream, for he too was driver and my way down the mountain. I insisted to head back to the hotel, saying it was too cold and I was tired. He took stabs at holding my hand, but I pulled my hand away. He then suggested going to another lookout point. I said, “No!” He persevered and asked if I wanted a “det.” I couldn’t comprehend what it was, “you know when you go out.” Apparently, I was being asked on a date. “No, please take me back to the hotel.” Relentless, he insisted on a meeting in my room to discuss the next day’s itinerary for our out of town trip. There was nothing to discuss, more so no need to do it in my room. Putting my foot down, his last-ditch effort was to grab my camera bag and handbag insisting he would bring me to my room. I forcefully grabbed both from his hands, quickly said goodbye, ran to the lift, and locked myself in my hotel room. I then prepared my plan of action, which was to call his boss and report his inappropriate actions in the most diplomatic way. All alone in foreign place with no contacts to call upon, I was afraid. Hungry, I called room service. But I was afraid to open my door. When I heard a lady’s voice, I opened it. Naturally, I had no appetite to eat, taking only a few bites to feed my hunger. Thankfully, there was internet allowing me to connect with friends and relatives. I fell asleep to be awakened by a phone call. It was his voice on the other line. I quickly put the receiver down. Outside the agitated dogs of Thimphu were barking furiously. I could hear noises and it seemed to be just outside my window. How could that be, if I was in the fifth floor? A well-traveled male friend online on skype suggested I call reception to report the commotion. After numerous calls, a sleepy man answered. But he could not understand me. My last decent rest was in Manila, two nights ago. Yet, I lay awake afraid all night – fearful for my safety. For the first time in thirteen years traveling alone, I was seriously worried for myself. It was a long and uncomfortable evening. I remember writing on my journal, “Happiest Place on Earth? If this country prided itself in its Gross National Happiness, then why was I unhappy?”
I reported all the details to the tour operator, and he replaced my guide immediately. I stayed on in Bhutan for the next eight days to attend the conference and to see what it had to offer. In the days that followed, I crossed paths with many kind people. But the scar of this man’s inappropriate actions stung. It was like a deep dark secret I had to keep. Two days after the incident I opened up to a young British couple on holiday. They were having a fantastic time, but the lady was not surprised. Her female British friend who had been to Bhutan before mentioned women hooking up with Bhutanese men. I confided to two close male colleagues in the conference. In their presence, I felt safe in this foreign land. Perhaps, this is how other women who have been violated in the past feel. I felt if I don’t mention it, it didn’t happen. But it did happen, it frightened me, and I don’t want it to happen to another single female traveler. As the conference closed, I then alerted the conference organizer and the head of tourism in Bhutan.
|Trying to the enjoy the grandeur of Bhutan...here I can't fully manage a smile as I stood by the Punakha Dzong|
In the remaining days, I continued to do what I had set out to do in Bhutan: to experience it, take photos, and videos. I am surprised at the results, probably the most gorgeous photos I have taken in years. But seeing it and remembering Bhutan brings back the painful memories with that man, the experience of being vulnerable, scared, and feeling unsafe. I thought I could ignore it and just show you idyllic bits. But I can’t remain silent. The hoteliers, the tour operators, and the tourism authorities of Bhutan say this hardly happens. But it did happen to me. They have apprehended this tour guide, revoked his license, and penalized the tour operator.
When something traumatic happens to you, you try not to remember. But you don’t forget. The memories creep up. They haunt you. I have tried to bury the negative feelings and numb myself. But it is still there. Last night, I realized, I am angry at this man. His inappropriate behavior ruined my experience of a wonderful place I had spent precious time and money to visit. He had ruined the image and magic of Bhutan for me, the Bhutan his countrymen have lovingly protected and care for. Don’t get me wrong. I still think Bhutan is a wonderful place. I would like to visit again, and even impart my extensive knowledge of this hidden kingdom with others.
I am sharing this incident to heal. Hopefully, soon I can look lovingly at my photos and videos of Bhutan without remembering the pain. I would like to move on, and to celebrate the many beautiful places, people, and events I witnessed there. But I am also sharing this to alert you. I have lived the romance of travel for thirteen years and had been lucky to be unharmed. I caution female travelers who travel solo to be extra cautious. And if something happens, do report it the authorities (for your sake, and for the sake of other women in the future). Don’t ignore it. Don’t put yourself in situations where you are the only female in the group. Listen to your gut, and be quick to act. I am glad I was bold to repeatedly say, “NO!” to his attempts to go to my room. And, when you are scarred this way, take the necessary steps to heal.
Surely, travel is a joy. There is much beauty to see. But dear traveler, you too are a thing of beauty. Take care of yourself as you travel. Sometimes, the most exotic journey is the adventure within your self.
March20,2012.Text&PhotosCopyrightMaidaPineda. No part of this blog or any photo may be used without the permission of the author. Follow me on Twitter/themaidastouch and Facebook.
Want to read more on my Bhutan trip, here's an earlier post.