Jakar: Construction

Today we’re visiting construction sites: restoration projects, historical expansion projects, new construction, whatever we can find and barge in on.

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We start at another monastery, this one expanding with a new two story residential wing as well as a new temple that artfully swallows a much smaller temple originally on the site.
I learn about statues made of clay and paper containing scrolls and sandlewood and precious stones all hidden from view.

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I learn how they make mud bricks here, the process exactly as I saw it in the Sahara only with pine needles here providing the tensile strength. I learned how they carve wood and fabricate ornate reinforced gypsum panels.

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I see statues intricately formed, containing forever hidden from view various scrolls or jewels or valuables…

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For a moment we consider a good CNC machine, a computer driven cutter or router that could produce elaborately carved wood in a fraction of the time and expense of traditional carving, but then we imagine an entire craft laid to waste by the power of those machines and the whole enterprise feels obscene and quite antithetical to gross national happiness.

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Afterwards we stop at a new Thai hotel under construction, a vast complex devoted to only 9 guest rooms charging thousands of dollars a night when complete. The site superintendent allows me to review the construction document set, and he offers details as well about material pricing and labor cost. The complex is almost alarmingly modern, with huge expanses of glass, but in the end it is only selling a room for the night, albeit a room with its own private courtyard. I feel that our project will be selling a powerful, visceral experience, not just a room, and that distinction feels important.

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Next we find the Aman hotel, easily the most refined and modern interpretation of traditional Bhutanese architecture we’ve seen. The manager happily spends an hour with us, showing us the entire hotel, explaining the financial picture, offering us coffee and cookies, and relating his own background. After training in the army he started in the laundry of the hotel, working hard and moving up slowly until he was offered training so that he could eventually become the manager. It’s what we might recognize as the American Dream: only it’s universal. No surprise. I only wish we’d chuck this American exceptionalism…which is just another name for nationalism…which is probably also universal. Sigh, I’m glad we’ve had this talk.

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We stop at a handicraft store to buy trinkets, and later that night there’s traditional dancing and way too much arra, this time mixed with hard cider in glasses rimmed with honey and salt. We name the drink “thunderbolts of infinite wisdom”, though I doubt I’m any smarter for the encounter. They have this awesome bowl of fried potato shavings with a touch of red chile in it that is better than potato chips. In any case, despite overindulging I feel only slightly buzzed and later feel no hangover at all. It’s a miracle.

The dancing is highly stylized, relies heavily on hand gestures, and to my untrained eyes and ears feels very repetitive. When I ask if their dances ever express masculine energy or ever celebrate randomness, I’m told that’s a different category of effort. I also get dubious looks from the group, all of them aware that I’m not a practicing Buddhist and really should try meditating for a few years before asking questions. They’re very nice about it though!

Something about seeing the dances in the hotel feels inauthentic or strange. Perhaps the problem with inviting dancers into a hotel for the guests is that it makes the dancers the visitors instead of the tourists. If we were to visit the dancers outside of the hotel, then we would be the invitees on their turf, and perhaps the relationships would feel less awkward. Or perhaps the lack of a stage, a backdrop set apart from the audience, infected the performance with the mundanities of real life even though the costumes and music set them apart. I don’t fully understand the problem, but I do know these dancers brought a lot of effort and talent to bear, and they deserve a venue free of these social or psychological impediments.

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