Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Few Shots

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Castles in the Air

"CASTLES IN THE AIR: Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan," an article written by John Claude White for 'The National Geographic Magazine', and published in 1914 gives an interesting account of pre-monarchic Bhutanese life. He writes in detail about Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuk and the way of life in BHutan. He also gives a detailed description, along with images, of Drugyel Dzong. Well, I am not going to get into the nitty-gritties of what is being written here; that's why I have uploaded the original article for you to read. I hope you will have a good read!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chili: An obsession among Bhutanese

Imagine if all countries were asked to send one person for a gathering at a certain place and showcase a talent which will distinguish themselves from all the others. What could that lone Bhutanese possibly do? Showcase Buddhism? Lozees and Tsangmos? Zhundras and Boedras? Dramestse Nga Chham? Well, what about ema-datse and our ability to consume spicy chillies?

After all, ema-datse is considered our national dish and just the sight of chillies is enough to send shivers down the spine for those foreigners. So here is a rule of thumb – the more chillies you add to your dish, the further they [ foreigners ] will stay away from your food. I think the affinity for spiciness is more of a conditioned rather than an innate characteristic for Bhutanese. As little toddlers, the number of times you hear that you are handsome or beautiful is in proportion to the amount of chillies you eat; And toddlers can do anything just to hear that they are good looking.

Foreigners often say that chili is used as a vegetable – not a spice – in Bhutan; If only they knew chili is the taste of Bhutan. Two or three chillies and a pinch of salt is all we need to have a hefty meal. [If you need prove for this statement, flashback to your school days!] It is hard to imagine Bhutanese dish without chillies. Bhutanese eat chillies whether raw or cooked, minced or roasted, fresh or dried, but no Bhutanese dish is complete without it. It isn't just another vegetable – or fruit if you want to get real scientific – we eat everyday; it is an integral part of our culture and life.

It is hard to believe that South America is the actual homeland of chillies. Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador are home to dozens of wild chili species which are believed to be the ancestors of all the world's chillies. Scientist believe that people in South America have been using chillies for at least 8000 years based on the discovery of traces of chilies on ancient milling stones and cooking pots from Bahamas to southern Chile. The evidence gathered from the study of potsherds from archaeological sites shows that Americas began domesticating chilies more than 6000 years ago.

After the discovery of American continent and the Caribbeans, chilies spread around the world rapidly. In 1492, Christopher Columbus encountered cultivated chili plants by the Arawak Indians in Hispaniola , and mistakenly called them “peppers.” Pepper, which belongs to the Piper genus, is a spice which is native to the Indian subcontinent, while chili belongs to the Capsicum genus. The mistake is attributed to another mistake Columbus made by falsely believing that he reached India when he landed on the West Indies. He later wrote that those people “deem it very wholesome and eat nothing without it.”

Columbus took chilies to Spain and introduced them to other Europeans. Soon the Portuguese traded them to Africa from their trading post in Pernambuco, Brazil. Within 50 years, Pernambuco chilies were cultivated in India, Japan, and China. India could be the only possible place from where Bhutanese got their first chili seed. Without written records about it, it will be hard to say when chillies found their place in the Bhutanese cuisines. But I think it is safe to speculate that Bhutanese got the taste of chillies only during the late sixteenth century – at the very earliest.

Chili have many varieties and it ranges from very mild bell peppers to the Naga Jolokia, the hottest chilli. Naga jolokia is a inter-specific hybrid found in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. The spiciness of chilies is attributed to a heat generating compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin stimulates the neural sensors by affecting the taste buds, nerve cells and nasal membranes of tongue and mouth. The sensors also detects rising temperature due to the heat generated by capsaicin and it notifies the brain. The brain then releases endorphins, and increases the heart beat and perspiration rate. The flow of adrenaline is attributed to the enticing experience while eating chilies.

According to an article titled 'Hot News about Chili Peppers', published in the Chemical and Engineering News ( Aug. 2008), capsaicin alters the way our body uses the energy produced by the hydrolysis of ATP. Normally, the energy generated is being used by SERCA proteins to move calcium ions to and from Sarcoplasmic reticulum, a special type of endoplasmic reticulum found in smooth and striated muscle fibers . The sarcoplasmic reticulum releases calcium ions during muscle contraction and absorb them during relaxation. In the presence of capsaicin, the conformation of SERCA is altered and hence most of the energy is being released as heat energy.

Scientist believe that the spiciness in chilies have a evolutionary purpose. Fruits in general needs to lure birds and animals for a successful germination. But at the same time, they will have to keep away predators. Capsaicin is produced by a gland near the stem and the rate of production increases as the fruit ripens. In an experiment conducted at the University of Washington, rodents ate the mild chilies but avoided the hot ones. Interestingly, chilies have no effect [spicy affect] on birds. However it is found that capsaicin slows the digestive system of birds; this gives time for the seeds to germinate. An in-depth study of chilies in Bolivia revealed that capsaicin also protects the fruits from fungal inflection. It is observed that the more spicier ( more capsaicin ) the chili is, the less fungal inflection it suffered. It is also observed that the more moisture the place has, the more spicier the chilies grown. This is primarily because the growth of fungus is more prevalent in moist places.

While the reasons for the popularity of chilies in Bhutan is entirely up to wild speculations, these characteristics of chili might have contributed to it in small ways. It is quite natural for people to cultivate fruits and grains which grows well and have less predators. Since the practice of shifting cultivation is common in Bhutan, and the capability of chili to keeps away predators naturally, it might have been an idle plant to cultivate [ If this little theory of mine sounds stupid, just forget it]. While some people believe that the cold weather of Bhutan might explain the romance of Bhutanese with chilies, I am left wondering why didn't the people living in the Appalachian mountains eat chilies like we do. The weather is much harsher there than in most parts of Bhutan and chilies have been introduced to them by the English as early as 1600's. Whatever the reasons might be, it is just simply stunning for Bhutanese people to not only incorporate chilies in Bhutanese dish, but also make it an integral part of it just within few hundred years. ( I think an even more interesting thing would be to know the Bhutanese dishes before the advent of chilies. )

The scale which scientist use to measure the spiciness of chilies was invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. A solution of chili extract is diluted with sugar water until a panel of trained tasters no longer feels the heat; the degree of dilution gives the Scoville rating. The unit for the measurement is called Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). Due to its dependence on humans to judge the saturation point, it is quite unreliable scientifically. Nowadays, high-performance liquid chromatography ( HPLC ) is being used to measure the concentration of capsaicin and other caspsaicinoids. The result is being processed with a mathematical formula to yield a result in American Spice Trade Association pungency unit. This unit can be directly converted to SHU. Bell pepper have a rating of zero SHU and Naga Jolokia measures 855,000–1,041,427 SHUs. Pure capsaicin measures about 15 to 16 million SHU.

Apart from its usage by Bhutanese as an integral part of dishes, chilies have several beneficial uses. Chilies were found to have an ability to reduce food spoilage and can also be used for medicinal purpose. Mayans were the first to use chilies in treating wounds, gastrointestinal problems and earaches. Capsaicins are also used in local anesthetics. The presence of chili in meals reduces the amount of insulin needed to lower the blood sugar level. Interestingly, chili is found to have an ability to lower obesity level; this explains why I am gaining weight now. While I am not sure about its truth, I heard from elders in villages that applying/rubbing chilies on the eyes when you have conjunctivitis will cure you from it. [ Try at your own risk. ] As is the case with anything, beneficial characteristics comes with destructive characteristics . The high consumption of chilies is the main cause of stomach ulcers and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) . I heard that stomach ulcers is one of the highest problems associated with Bhutanese, correct me if I ma wrong.

While I will agree that people eat food to enjoy the taste - other than the obvious reason to supply energy source for our body - and not to torture themselves with capsaicins, we Bhutanese have a weird way of enjoying food. Perhaps Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, was completely wrong when he called Bhutan’s dishes the “the world’s worst cuisine.” As far as I am concerned, you know what's my rating, don't you?

[Reference: National Geographic Society Magazine 2009]

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Street Lamp

The icicles gave a natural decoration to the glowing street lamp. I thought it is beautiful.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Party Conversation

I lost a game of darts. The queue seemed endless and my beer glass was almost empty too. It appeared to be frosted over but in reality were merely coated with dust – or so I thought. People of all race, size and height crowded the place. Some are scantily clad while others exposed only their faces and hands. The dart game resumed right after I handed over the darts. Few people played pools and most are crowded around the counter. The bartenders had put on a show of their talents in dealing with the bottles and glasses. Game three of the NBA finals between Lakers and Magic is underway, and the cheers and jeers from the crowd even suppressed the loud background music. Slowly, I made my way to the counter.

After what seemed like an hour, finally I ordered two Monster Bombs – I really don't want to be in that line again. An elderly man was beside me. His eyes were following my glass, so I asked if he would like to have one, which he gladly accepted. After few sips, he asked me which team am I supporting. Since the team I had been supporting had lost the game long time back, I had to resort to the mono-syllabic 'none!'.

“Are you an American?” asked the old man with suspicion written over his face. A good reason to doubt my nationality since every Americans will be supporting either of the two teams.

“No, I am not,” I answered. “I am an international student from Bhutan.”

“What? Bhoo...,” he stammered while trying to pronounce.

“Bhu-tan,” I repeated myself more clearly and slowly this time. “It is in the Himalayas between India and China.” Those lines came naturally on my lips after numerous repetition to countless people. His mouth remained wide-open above the chin which is supported by his left hand. While he kept his eye ball rolling, I took my first sip.

“Ohh... I'm sorry.” said the man apologetically. “Now does that make you an Indian or a Chinese?” Perhaps my looks might have confused him.

“Jesus H. Christ! Do I have to teach him A,B,C next?” I silently asked myself. Nevertheless, his innocence was real and I already stirred his curiosity. “See,” I said finally, “I am neither an Indian nor a Chinese. Can we just agree on me being a Bhutanese?”

“Of course! I didn't realize there is a nationality named 'Bhuutoonese'. My bad!” said the old man.

I might have sounded a bit pissed off when I asked him to agree on my nationality. After all he was quite an old man and the possibility of Bhutan's name reaching him is negligible. He shared his love of different American sports – basketball, football (the rugby style one) and hockey – and how it is part and parcel of everyday American life. I thought he's right since no television channel will broadcast anything without some sports news, updates, or clips. People, both old and young, will rather chose to go for a Yankee game than to eat good and healthy dinner for a month. In fact, once I went to meet one of friend and saw his roommate watching a baseball game between Yankees (New York) and Red Sox (Boston). I just asked who was his team and I seriously was only expecting him to name either of the two teams. Instead he stood up, opened his closet, took out the outfits – pants, shirts, caps, etc – of Yankees and was speaking at the top of his voice that he is a fan of Yankees. I could see my friend (who is from Nepal) laughing and I felt like saying, “Yo Dude!! Calm down. You don't have to get too excited with my question.”

One conversation led to another and soon we started talking about the presidential elections. The election of Barack Obama to the white house has been a history in itself. I saw young Americans of all races and gender rejoicing during the presidential inauguration in January – in fact our professor even paused his lecture and watched Obama speak to the nation. The old man I was having the conversation is a black man; Although I'm not sure whether he is an African American or a Caribbean. The election of a first black president to the highest position in the history of United States signifies the final triumph of the civil rights movement which they fought so hard.

“The election of Obama to the White House surely is a history in itself.”I said Hesitantly. “What does it mean to you? The election of the first Black..... I mean African American-”

The old man brightened suddenly. I knew I made a blunder by using a politically incorrect name calling noun.

“Black and African American. Funny you should correct them. See,” he began, “an interesting thing about America is the political correctness. When I was very young, – about sex or seven – they would call us 'Blacks'. When I was your age in the 1960's and in college, they called us 'Negroes'. After the civil rights movement in the south, we are known as 'Afrikans', and it finally changed to 'African Americans'. We're the same people, common!; our names doesn't have to be changed. But, it does and everything is about political correctness.”

I nodded my head in agreement. I felt stupid of myself for trying to change the word; It would have been normal if I just continued using 'Black' and didn't make any attempt to make the word sound more correct. “Well!I mean, how did you feel for having elected an African American as president?” I said finally.

“It's very interesting you would ask me that.” he said. “You know, people say the 'first black president' or 'first black player'. The fact is no one in America has a pure racial heritage now. Obama's mother was a white woman. Tiger Wood is more like you than he is like me. He has more ancestors from Asia than from Africa. I look like a pure black man, right?” he asked.

“Yea, sure.” I replied.

“My maternal grand mother is Chinese,” he continued, “my sister looks like a white. Everyone has mixed race nowadays. But sure the election of Obama to office is a great achievement of 1960's.”

Suddenly I realized that my glass was empty and I want to visit the restroom too. As a concluding question, I asked how he sees America in future.

“People say that America is a 'melting pot' and I really think it should be one. Racial, cultural, religious, political tolerance should be valued. It should become a place where people like you and me can discuss freely like we're doing now. I'm sure it will be one ultimately.” He said.

By then, my bladder could hold hardly any longer and I took leave of him.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Misquotation or Misinterpretation

Which will you consider more dangerous, misquotation or misinterpretation? I had been reading few articles from Bhutanese news sites, and frequently the reporters are being accused of misquoting the interviewee. While the officials insist on having incorrectly quoted, reporters have their own justification and proofs of having quoted correctly – often with equal passion. Although this practice could lead to some unwelcome consequences, it is not really an irresolvable issue. If needs be, we can simply resolve it by bringing both parties to the same table. Perhaps the actual truth might be somewhere in-between the two extremes.

On the other hand, the problem of misinterpretation is in being subjective. While a phrase might be accurate word-to-word and letter-to-letter, the implied meaning would differ depending on the context, culture, and time it is being used. There are thousands of phrases which are being misinterpreted and have now become just another cliche. “Religion is the opium of the people” by Karl Marx is one of those phrases which is often quoted and often misinterpreted.

Nowadays the quote is being used to mean that religion makes people lunatic or delusional. It is not surprising since opium is being used for producing a drug-induced delusion for the person using it nowadays. The misinterpretation can also be attributed to the use of similar phrases like “religion is poison” by Chairman Mao during Chinese Revolution. The phrase appears in an introduction of a book – Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – where Marx critiques Hegel’s Philosophy of Right paragraph by paragraph. Marx writes:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people

In the above quotation, Marx not only says that religion is the opium of the people, but also sigh of oppressed, heart of heartless, and soul of soulless. It is very important to take into account that opium is used as medicine – painkiller – during his time. Therefore he clearly states that religion provides a false solace – it does not make people delusional in any ways. He says that the purpose of religion is to create an illusory fantasy. Even if the living conditions and the economic situation prevents the poor people from finding happiness in this life, religion instructs them to take it positively since they will be rewarded in the next life. Therefore, religion provides solace for now and gives at best a questionable hope for future. Therefore Marx considers religion as an illusory happiness. He calls for the abolition of the illusory happiness since that is the ONLY way to demand the real happiness. Anyone would prefer the real happiness to illusory one, wouldn’t you?

In the recent incident of the murder of a woman by few Christian-converts, I have seen few people using Marx’s phrase to mean people become delusional or crazy because of religion. This certainly isn’t how Marx saw the world’s religion.

By the way, if you would like to read the text by Hegel and Marx, the links are provided below: