A Landlocked Island

I’m writing this from a noisy hotel room in Siliguri, India near the train station, sitting on the hardest mattress I’ve ever felt in my life. We came to India six hours ago from Bhutan, and the contrast is incredibly jarring. (I do have a newsletter planned about our trekking in the Himalayan foothills in Nepal, but since we’re about to undertake another trek from Darjeeling, I will wait until we’re done and compare the two.)

Bhutan is famously closed off from the rest of the world. Tourists from all countries except India have to pay a government guide $200 a day or more. The guide’s itinerary for his tourists cannot be altered (much, we did a bit), and the Bhutanese government has to pre-approve it.

(Seth and me in Bhutan’s national dress, though mine barely fit, which is why I look uncomfortable.)

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy that only stopped being an absolute monarchy in 2008 when the king decided to make the transition. The royal family is still revered, and pictures of the king, his wife, and their four-year-old son are everywhere, in restaurants, shops, temples, monasteries and stupas. They are everywhere in person as well—we saw the king’s sister at a high pass where we stopped to admire the view.

The government exercises strict control over other things as well as tourism. All construction is of a particular style, brought to Bhutan by the unifier, Ngawang Namgyal, in the 17th century. He escaped from Tibet to Bhutan after a misunderstanding with the Tibetan leadership, smuggling some relics in his sleeves.

Bhutan is a majority Buddhist country, and they practice a type of Tibetan Buddhism rich in symbolism and folklore. In the stupas and temples we visited, images of the Buddha, were surrounded by what our guide termed Enlightenment Figures, which looked like many-headed and -limbed demons, wearing skulls and severed heads, embracing female demons, while standing on suffering humans. Tibetan Buddhism embraces an enormous pantheon, so local deities and protectors, many also with fearsome aspects, looked down from the walls.

Tiger’s Nest monastery, photo by Seth Miller.

Because of my husband Seth’s connections, we were invited to lunch by a pilot for Druk Air, Bhutan’s government owned airline. (A druk is a thunder dragon, the emblem of which can be seen on Bhutan’s flag.) We had a delicious lunch with him and his wife at a Korean restaurant in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. We discussed all manner of things, including Druk Air’s strong moves toward sustainability, and another topic was Bhutan’s concern with the number of Indian tourists that visit every year. Bhutan has a population of just under 800,000, and is caught between India’s billions to the south and China’s billions to the north. Many in the Bhutan tourism industry fear Bhutan being turned into just another Indian hill station, if the tourism isn’t controlled.

Control is a key aspect of life in Bhutan. The national dress, which is lovely on women, and convenient and handsome on men, seems to be mandated by the government as well, at least for those in the tourism sector. And while some may chafe under that control, at least now it is chosen by a representative government, and it does seem like the only way to keep Bhutan’s culture and beauty intact. Though Bhutan has many wandering cows and stray dogs, and is not much more prosperous than its neighbor to the south, it is also clean and quiet, at least for a visitor, compared with the litter and noise of India.

And while I do love India, one of the things I love about it is how it takes everything in and makes it Indian. Even McDonalds and Coke, rather than being American incursions here, have been absorbed, and made Indian. Bhutan’s people are right to fear that happening to them.

I kept being reminded of our visit to Iceland a few years ago. Iceland’s population is even smaller than Bhutan’s and receives 2.3 million total visitors per year. In the summer, Iceland is overrun with tourists, seeing nearly its population visit every month. EU workers in their teens and early twenties arrive in the summer as well to work the tourist jobs—you can spend a whole week there and never encounter an Icelander. Iceland’s natural beauty makes it worth the visit anyway, but I found it more like visiting some sort of international park than visiting a different country.

All this raises questions I’m not equipped to answer—what is the value of a country’s culture, at what cost should it be preserved? What tradeoffs are worth it? Bhutan’s most valuable industry is hydropower, which it sells to India, but tourism comes second. Does Bhutan have to fear turning into a theme park in some ways, no matter what? Is there a way to modernize while staying true to its roots? One of the benefits of being late to modernity and the digital age is learning from the mistakes of other countries. I hope Bhutan can retain its magic.


My trilogy of novels about Viking-Age Norway, The Half-Drowned King, The Sea Queen, and The Golden Wolf, are available wherever books are sold and make great holiday presents! Find a place to buy them online here.

Flames, Death, and Tourists

We had a good first day in Nepal, seeing Kathmandu with an excellent tour guide, organized by our trekking company. He took us to of some of the city’s major sites, including the old palace complex of Bhaktapur, the Boudhanath Stupa—famous for the eyes that look down from atop a white half-globe, adorned by prayer flags—and the Gaurighat temple complex.

At Gaurighat, by the bank of the Bagmati river, locals come to cremate the bodies of their dead. The fire carries the soul away, and the ashes are washed down the river to join the great mother Ganges. Before the cremation, the bodies are placed on a short ramp near the river, anointed, blessed, and adorned with marigolds. This whole ritual is one of the stops that the touring rounds make, so much that our guide says sometimes when he brings tourists there for days in a row, seeing so many dead makes him sad.

I asked if the mourners found it disrespectful that tourists come to see the rituals, to take pictures of the mourning, and he said no, for Hindus, death is a part of life, not that the families aren’t sad, but death is not a thing to be hidden, and mourning is something done in these public places, with the community.

I hope that’s true. The smoke against the backdrop of the hazy sky, slashed by powerlines and filled with pigeons (like doves, considered to be birds of peace) makes for compelling photos. But I still found it odd, to pose with smiling Indian tourists with the burning in the background.

The guide also talked about the sky burials in the high places of Nepal and Tibet where wood is scarce. There the undertakers, instead of feeding the flames as they do in Gaurighat, have the task of dismembering the dead and feeding it to the holy vultures. These burials have attracted tourists as well. Unlike the river-side ghats, where, during the cremation, the body is hidden by wood and flames, there, the body could not be more exposed. Tibet has tried to outlaw tourism at sky burials, which are considered private and sacred, but people come anyway, for a glimpse of something gruesome.

If you want to learn more about this and other death practices in different cultures, I recommend From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty. She is passionately interested in funeral rites, and also very careful only to go where she is invited, to write about what she learns in a way that centers the mourners, even while documenting her own experiences.

And while I feel uncomfortable with the cremations being a tourist spectacle, it seemed to be done respectfully enough. For the most part, tourists stay on the other side of the river from the ghats. No one seemed to be bothering mourners. Gaurighat is a holy Hindu pilgrimage site, frequented by many Indian Hindu tourists, who leave their piles of shoes before entering the temples to pray barefoot, and then snap their own pictures by the side of the river, sometimes with a giant American strawberry blonde lady. We visited other sites with signs everywhere prohibiting photography, so I suppose if they wanted to, they would.

Perhaps I’m running up against my own ambivalence about death, and about sharing emotional experiences with a large community. I do believe that Westerners should be more open about death, less frightened and more loving in the face of loss, and today I saw an example of one way to do that. Death in the middle of life: commerce, tourism, blessings, and cremation, all in one place.

Tomorrow we take a bus to Pokhara, and then will be trekking for a week in the Annapurna region, among some of the highest mountains in the world. See you on the other side!

Photos by Seth Miller.


My trilogy of novels about Viking-Age Norway, The Half-Drowned King, The Sea Queen, and The Golden Wolf, are available wherever books are sold. Find a place to buy them online here.

Tarot and Writing

I don't know which deck to bring...

Dear Friends and Family, Fans and Subscribers—

Notice anything different? I’m trying a Substack rather than posting blog posts. or using my old email template. Somehow this seems a bit more contemplative, less marketing-focused, so I’ll be sending out emails this way for a little while.

Also, my husband and I are leaving in a few weeks for a two-month trip that will take us through Nepal, India, and Bhutan, and a newsletter seemed like a good way to keep everyone updated. But this won’t come out more often than once a week.

Packing for a two month trip is a challenge. I’ve got most of my clothing figured out for two months of everything from trekking to nice dinners, and temperatures from 20 to 90. I have a knitting project that is small and complicated and should take me the whole 2 months.

But what I haven’t picked is what Tarot deck to bring.

*record scratch* What?

No, I don’t use Tarot cards as a divination tool, but I have started to use them as a prompt for creativity, a way to guide my current novel, a way to think about each day, and I’ve been finding it very rewarding.

My inspiration was seeing the book The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life by Jessa Crispin on a shelf at the library. I read the book, purchased a few decks, and now I’m pulling a card to think about each day.

Today’s is The Muse of Emotions/King of Cups from The Muse Tarot. It’s lovely and evocative, a reminder to incorporate thoughtfulness and emotions into my writing, to avoid manipulation, and strive for honesty and warmth.

I’ve also used spreads to delve into various aspects of character and plot. A simple three-card spread, asking, (1) what does this chapter need more of?, (2) what is working in this chapter?, and (3) what does this chapter need less of? has helped me get unstuck a few times.

I did a full Celtic Cross reading for a character that I couldn’t get my head around, and it made me think of how she is making ends meet, what kinds of material problems she had.

What I really like about using the cards this way is they can help me access my intuition about the book’s characters, plot, and themes. If I draw a card that doesn’t make sense or seems wrong to me, the knowledge of that wrongness is as helpful as pulling a card that feels right.

Whenever I work with the cards, I also journal about what I’m learning and discovering, because I also find that the act of writing by hand about my current project helps me learn more about it, and sort out where it needs to go.

Please let me know if this is something you do with your writing, or if you have other tricks for accessing your intuition! I’d love to learn more about other people’s techniques.

On this trip through South Asia, I’ll be doing some trekking, leaving my project and my laptop behind, but also some working from whatever tea houses, hotel rooms, and cafes have room for me to pull out my tiny Surface computer. I’ll be using this newsletter to write about my life and travels, and various aspects of writing. If you think of someone who might find it useful or interesting, please forward it to them!

I’m a huge fan of advice columns, and I’d love to do a little advice giving here, so if you have a writing problem you’d like me to address in a future newsletter, drop me a line at linnea.hartsuyker@gmail.com.

Linnea


My trilogy of novels about Viking-Age Norway, The Half-Drowned King, The Sea Queen, and The Golden Wolf, are available wherever books are sold. Find a place to buy them online here.

Writing

Welcome to Linnea’s Newsletter by me, Linnea Hartsuyker. Author of the Viking Historical Fiction trilogy, THE HALF-DROWNED KING, THE SEA QUEEN, and THE GOLDEN WOLF from HarperCollins. She/her.

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