Ugyen Tsheering, who goes by his initials UT, told me about being Brad Pitt’s guide in Bhutan soon after we met him in Paro. “I was Brad Pitt’s guide during the filming of Seven Years in Tibet,” he said with pride.
I could hardly believe my ears. But UT admitted that he had never heard of Pitt or the much-publicised film until he actually met the star. “I stared blankly when Brad shook hands with me,” he recalled. “So he introduced himself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Brad Pitt—Seven Years in Tibet.’”
“Then?” I asked in amazement.
“I said, ‘Nice to meet you, sir.
I’m UT—22 years in Bhutan.’” He grinned. “It’s a joke.” I was in Bhutan on an assignment for Condé Nast Traveller. And in the company of my jovial young guide, in a country that’s famous for its Gross National Happiness index, I smiled throughout that trip.
We rarely reflect upon people like UT—the guides, drivers, waiters, bartenders, shopkeepers, artisans, naturalists, hotel staff, homestay owners— who add to the happiness index of our travels. And yet, our journeys would be rendered soulless and incomplete without their jokes and anecdotes, their local tips and sage travel advice; they are our windows and bridges to new cultures.
Today, as we step tentatively outside the safety of our homes, a universe of travel memories swirling wistfully inside our heads, it is the human connection that we value the most. There is renewed respect not only for the freedom of travel, but also for the people who make it special.
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August - September 2020