When you go through customs in Bhutan, they ask you whether you’re carrying any cigarettes. The in-flight magazine had forewarned me about a potential 300 per cent tax on tobacco-related products. Since China is apparently blowing across a global warming smiley over the mountains and into the little kingdom, I guess they could do with a little less smoke.
Anyhow, as soon as the customs officer beckoned me with a raised eyebrow, I defensively stammered, “I have no cigarettes!” All he wanted were my baggage tags. Eventually, the tax I had to shell out on the carton in my bag was enough to make me quit.
I had spent over a month in Bhutan 12 years ago. It was a fantastic experience that involved fishing, trekking and some random bar brawls. This time around, the intention was rather different. I was planning to read, write, indulge in yoga and avoid bars. Some very close friends who live on a spectacular trout farm were hosting me. One of their main businesses is supplying organic vegetables so, between the fish jumping out of the river and the veggies in their backyard, you can imagine how good the food was.
After a few days of sitting by the riverside and writing until my computer battery exhausted itself, an invitation to go ‘mushroom hunting’ sounded exciting. Somehow, visions of me wearing my Sound of Music outfit and skipping through fields picking shrooms seemed entertaining. I was in the middle of nowhere and being spotted in a floral skirt didn’t seem daunting.
The real picture was drastically different. I followed…no, I crawled, panting in pain behind a 70-year-old Bhutanese man who deftly bounded up a forested mountain that never seemed to end. To add to my agony, there were no paths. My old guide parted a wall of thorny branches to make way and left them exactly when my face was at a perfect distance to stop them. After the fourth smack in my face, I suspected a pattern. After the eighth, it was nothing short of a conspiracy.
Yet there were two other concerns that plagued my experience. The first one had something to do with my elderly companion emitting guttural screams every few minutes. At first it scared the hell out of me. Once I learned to anticipate the time of each scream, my annoyance grew as his yelling pierced through the peace of the jungle. When I had had enough, I sat him down and begged him to stop. Soon, I discovered that the screaming was to alert the several bears in the area. They needed to be notified of our presence, as it wasn’t very wise to suddenly startle a foraging bear. At once I started yelling so hysterically with every step that I risked tripping over my tonsils.
The other issue at hand was this: How the hell would I know which mushrooms to pick? There were three options—edible, toxic and deadly. Now, toxic I was willing to indulge in if they promised some magical effects. Though with my luck, it would probably result in my face swelling up like a hot-air balloon. And what about the old saying, “One man’s drink is another man’s poison.”
Either way, I decided not to be too discerning and picked every mushroom in my path. I have never seen so many different mushrooms—the colours, shapes and sizes amazed me. But then I have never gone ‘mushroom hunting’ in my life before.
As we sat over dinner having more than 10 dishes of various wild mushrooms that had been cautiously compared to pictures in the Big Mushroom Catalogue and then cooked, I kept thinking of what would happen if one of the “deadly” shrooms slipped into the pot. What if the photograph of a type was just that lighter shade of pale yet with very deadly properties? I was a good guest at the table, wolfing down all that I had been served, but finally I had to quell my curiosity.
“Oh, whenever there’s a doubt we try it on the old man first,” my host laughed, adding, “last season we had to pump his stomach twice!”
I found the whole thing hilariously bizarre and couldn’t help but wonder whether he had been screaming madly to alert the bears or if he had been guinea-pigged one too many times on his mushroom hunting expeditions.
Write to Homi at firstname.lastname@example.org