Trading a thousand of one thing for sixty of another hits you right in the gut. I had been proud that we had each managed to save over a thousand US dollars in a year despite making $13 a day, but I’m running through money at an expected but frenetic pace. Rickshaws drivers simply do not live in the magical fairy land of Bhutanese taxi economics.
So while I’m still reeling from blow to my wallet and my belly (and fuck, I’m hungry, eaten only doughnuts and an airplane meal all day), Malaysia itself comes and dislocated my jaw. I’m just amazed. The first thing we notice is how modern everything looks, and by that I mean it looks exactly like how I remember the United States looking – though I have now concluded that my memory of things is completely corrupted: every step along this journey, from buying penny tamarind candies from pre-adolescent shopkeepers in shacks to the, so to say, bustling streets of Thimphu to the smog-encased, bus-rickshaw-car-motorcycle-bicycle-cow-cart sprawl of Chennai to the packed city streets of Kochi has been a series of reminders that most of the world is not like the world we’ve been living in, and in ways that we’d forgotten could exist.
So the first thing we notice is the modernity – glossy ads, chain shops, cleanliness (had thought that my repulsion at some of the things in India, especially the smog so thick we couldn’t get tanned spending hours at the beach at 10 degrees latitude, was due to the fact that, while Bhutan’s city’s streets are covered in grime and garbage, the country itself is pristine). The second thing that hits is the smell. And the smell is just weird – it smiles nice, real nice. Sweet, even. The third and fourth things, respectively, are the lack of hordes of people everywhere and the utter lack of anything by the sides of the roads. When I say the country looks like the U.S., I mean it – the’ve efffing mown the grass by the side of the highway. There is no one walking on the shoulder. The roads are not covered in a weaving quilt of makeshift vehicles. There are no hawkers with blankets of things yelling at you as you thunder away on a tin-can-concealed croaking two-speed engine.
And the fifth thing, by far the most shocking though it has taken me the most time to realize it, is the absence of animals. No animals. There are no cows sleeping on the highway. There are no stray dogs, no ownerless horses, no chilling monkeys . This has never happened since, hell, forever. I had forgotten that humanity has cut itself off, the only sentient beings alone in the universe. The man next to me in this bus has fallen asleep, his iPod earbuds pulsing.