Friday, February 8, 2013

Katie Hickman's "Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon": Book Review

One of the first accounts by a Westerner who visited (as of the mid-80s, although this is not specified) the then-less accessible eastern reaches, Katie Hickman's travelogue proceeds in expected fashion. That is, she's a competent travel writer and her integration of the remarks of earlier visitors helps give background for her own Raj-reminiscent trek. Oxford educated, from a diplomatic family, with an international upbringing, she does exude the air of privilege. She and her companion, photographer Tom Owen Edmunds (with 250 rolls of film), gain quickly via Calcutta connections the sponsorship of the Bhutanese royal clan that allows them all the time they need and lots of horses to make the arduous trip.

The lateral east-west road, due to landslides and construction, is out between Jakar and Mongar. The pair and their guides must go by horse over a long stretch. However, this crucial part of the itinerary lacks excitement. Perhaps those more enamored of horses may find it more enticing, but for me, it did not keep my interest.

Also, the tone Hickman adopts can grate. She twice puts down the annoyingly brusque Westerners on a group tour who cross their path. While their "unmistakable plumage" of garish windbreakers and their rude insistence on taking photos of monks where it is not allowed may merit critique, she seems oblivious to her own entitlement and the professional and social connections she and Tom enjoy, compared to the everyday tourist consigned to a package tour--besides, any tourist in Bhutan must go in the company of guides and and an approved itinerary--which only the royal intervention overruled and extended without limits in Katie and Tom's case.

Late in this tale, all the same, two incidents enliven it. One horribly, as leeches infest the pair and one bite makes her bleed profusely from the back of her head as she attempts, in a memorably graphic scene, to sit at the foot of a beady-eyed lama in a dramatically situated temple. Trying, damp and twitchy with imagined or real leech bites to sleep near him that night, musicians and chanters blare. Tom says: "It's like sleeping inside a grand piano."

A bit later, as they find the Bragpa (aka Brokpa) yak-herders of Mera and Sakteng, lots of inebriation and celebration reward them off-road. Like many travelers, the chronology and scenery seem to take the viewer out of now. "Mera had the easy earthy intimacy of a medieval tavern. But Sakteng was a Childe Harold's tower, a darkling place, deep and mysterious as legend." (186)

Hickman to her credit differentiates between a traveller's reveries of anticipation, the possibility ahead of enchantment that drives one on, and the "grumblings of the camel men" (60) who must accompany and cater to the romantic and testy whims of those who hire the locals. You don't get much sense of the Bhutanese who wait on her and meet her, and this report relies much more on the perspective of an intelligent Englishwoman and her wry companion who seek to get under their own skin, to hear the heartbeat that isolation and endurance intensify.

For longer reports from about the same relatively "pre-modern" (the road connected, but not yet electricity, TV, phones, or the internet) period in the eastern region, see Jamie Zeppa's
Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (reviewed by me May 2012) and Ken Haigh's Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan (reviewed Dec. 2012). Both teachers of English from Canada, Zeppa and Haigh nearly overlap in place and time with Hickman, but their stints allow them a deeper insight into this area. This counters the brief glimpses and the few photos Edmunds includes here that can't offer much depth or context.

Hickman's (first published in 1988) book ends very suddenly. Almost as quickly as the pair and their retinue burst into the Bragpa's villages, they realize that they must return. At that moment, Hickman concludes. (Amazon US 1-4-13)

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