Postcard From Bhutan No. 1

Turns out there is much to love about a country that measures its Gross National Happiness.  The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, land of the thunder dragon, is between Tibetan China and India, in the Himalayas east of Nepal. It is the size of Switzerland and mostly mountains and woods, hence its legendary natural beauty. 

Punahka Valley, Bhutan, as seen from Khamsum Yuelly Namgyal Chorten

 On an Indagare Insider trip there earlier this month, we hiked to gorgeous river valleys, meandered through rice paddies, scrambled up rocky mountain paths, passed humble farmhouses, and visited magnificent temples.

Prayer flags, Bhutan

Singing bridge with prayer flags

Pink cosmos was in bloom everywhere.

House with cosmos in bloom, Bhutan

And pink buckwheat, too. Did you know Buckwheat was pink? Me either.

Buckwheat in bloom, Bhutan

Prayer flags en route to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan. Expert archers use compound bows to shoot the flags across wide mountain gorges.

We never knew whom we might meet. Everyone, by national decree, dresses in native dress. For the men, it is a robe-like garment called a gho.

Bhutanese man in gho

Fortunately the dress decree leaves room for interpretation, as the addition of this leopard hat attests. It is faux leopard, of course, him being Buddhist and all. 

Bhutanese man in leopard hat

We also were privileged to meet with a member of parliament discussing the challenges of his country’s nascent democracy; a doctor of Tibetan medicine talking about the integration of ancient practices with modern science; and the head lama of the storied Tiger’s Nest monastery, who received us in the same room reserved for the royal family. I had not thought that much yellow satin in one room was possible.

The children were precious.

Bhutanese child

Bhutanese child

The Bhutanese laugh easily and have a wonderful sense of humor. Even the wastebaskets are funny.

Wastebaskets in Bhutan

 Some days we traveled by car. Was a snazzy ride, all right, complete with slipcovers and needlepoint neck pillows. In retrospect I believe this decorative interior was meant to distract us from the dreadful roads. Which it did not.

Our snazzy, slipcovered wheels in Bhutan

Like everywhere, one must share the road in Bhutan.

Cows on swinging bridge, Bhutan

The only creature outnumbering  cows in Bhutan is dogs. Note humongous Buddha in background. (This was a GOOD road, btw.)

Sharing the road with the cows in Bhutan

The Buddha is one of tallest in the world, at 170 feet. Isn’t the face beautiful? Overlooking Thimpu, he radiates auspicious energy throughout the country and the world. I will remember that the next time I am stuck in traffic on the L.I.E.

Giant Golden Buddha, Bhutan

There is a reason there were cows on the road above and not on the one below. Cows have more sense than to be on roads like this.

Bhutan roads are not the best.

But the payoff is arriving somewhere like the Gangtey Valley, and all those bumps in the road are just that.

The Gangtey Valley, Bhutan

And if you’re lucky, you get one of these.

Bathtub at Gangtey Goenpa Lodge.

Some of us trekked to the Gangtey Goempa monastery at dawn to hear morning prayers and to be blessed by a 12-year-old monk who is the 36th reincarnation of a revered lama and spiritual master. When we spoke with him, he was shy and somewhat self-conscious, like any 12-year-old might be, bless his heart. His is a huge responsibility and a role that chose him and not the other way around. Asked about the biggest challenge of being a monk, he answered, in so many words, “the homework.”

Gangtey Goempa Monastery

Young monks at the Temple of the Divine Madman

So many beautiful temples and monasteries, also called dzongs. The reddish stripe around a building signifies it is a holy place.

The Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The high point of our trip, literally and figuratively, was reaching the Taktsang Palphug, or Tiger’s Nest, monastery built in 1692 on the side of a cliff. The 8th century guru who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet reportedly flew here on the back of a tiger, whereupon he meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours.

That is about how long it takes to hike there, absent flying tigers. Here is the lookout point. The tiny white speck in the distance, in about the middle of the photo, is the monastery. A ways to go yet…

Lookout point en route to Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan

The arrival is worth it. You cannot come upon this site without being moved by it and all it represents, from the sheer physical feat of constructing it to the profound spiritual devotion required to sustain it.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

Because too many tourists ignored requests to avoid photographing temple interiors, cameras are not allowed inside the monastery, period, which in a way allows us to experience the place more fully, without the distraction of a camera or the competition of the next great Instagram post… (guilty…) Wrote our leader, friend, and Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley, “It was a reminder to me that how we travel–responsibly and respectfully or irresponsibly and selfishly–has an impact on the whole community of travelers.” Read Melissa’s excellent account of our trip in Indagare Magazine here

Happy Hikers Leslie Johnson and moi in Bhutan.                                      Photo, Melissa Biggs Bradley

Coming up: More art and beauty from Bhutan, and an explanation of all those, ahem, phalluses painted everywhere. Blame it on the Divine Madman, they say. Meanwhile, more photos on my Instagram here, #bhutan (duh)

Posted in Adventure & Travel, Art, Photography & Culture, Blog, Sketches, Paintings & Projects | 27 comments

You Will Truly Be Inspired by Tradition With Norman Askins’ New Book

You Will Truly Be Inspired by Tradition With Norman Askins’ New Book

Atlanta architect Norman Askins finally has a book, and it was worth the wait. Aptly entitled Inspired by Tradition, the volume is filled with beautiful architecture and (bonus!) terrific interior design. Among the 15 houses included is the Askinses' own Atlanta residence, Villa Vecchia, "old house."  Villa Vecchia in Atlanta, home of Norman and Joane Askins. Susan Sully, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Comprising styles ranging from Italian Renaissance, to English Country,  to American Federal, the monograph is a brilliant reference for anyone considering building,  renovating, or adding on. The livability, handsomeness, charm, and accessibility of Askins' designs grace every picture in the book and every word of the estimable Susan Sully's text.  Askins' wife Joane did the the interiors of VillaVecchia in a wonderful, warm manner that looks to be accumulated by successive generations of an old, noble family. Villa Vecchia in Atlanta, home of Norman and Joane Askins.  Susan Sully, photographer.                            Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Norman Askins' designs are elegant without pretense, and consciously so. In describing a Federal-style stone house in Atlanta, he notes that, "...every time we introduced a formal element, we found a way to take it down a notch, warm it up, or give it soul." I imagine that to be true of all Askins' work, because that is the way he is.  Villa Vecchia in Atlanta, home of Norman and Joane Askins. Susan Sully, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. I've been lucky to write about this architect's work in Veranda and to know him through family members with whom he has worked in the past. I was always happy when our paths crossed in my Atlanta days, and it is an honor to count him as a friend; Joane, too. Villa Vecchia in Atlanta, home of Norman and Joane Askins. Susan Sully, photographer.                                             Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. The longer you sit with this book, the more it sits with you--the details, the historical references, floorplan requirements, site and setting--all the ways a house comes together gracefully and yet practically. A North Carolina mountain house he designed for a garden-loving client is inspired by Sir Edwin Lutyens's Homewood, in England, with its sharply pitched gables and fat brick chimneys. Askins' version is called Thistlewaite. Thistlewaite, in Highlands, North Carolina. Susan Sully, photographer.                    Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Atlanta designer Jackye Lanham did the interiors. Thistlewaite, in Highlands, North Carolina. Susan Sully, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press.  Norman has worked with some of the best interior designers in the business, Jackye Lanham, Carolyn Malone, Susan Bozeman, and of course his own fabulous wife Joane, to name a few. Not that Askins needs any help, but good interiors have a way of making  good architecture even better. Thistlewaite, in Highlands, North Carolina. Susan Sully, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Thistlewaite, in Highlands, North Carolina. Susan Sully, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. The garrett-like dressing room in this house might is one of my favorites. La  Bohème meets Heidi. Thistlewaite, in Highlands, North Carolina. Susan Sully, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press.  A good classically-trained architect (University of Virginia in this case, thank you, and Wahoo-wa)  can probably conjure a grand house on a grand budget in his sleep--and certainly in his dreams, but it takes a special sensibility to conjure an almost-perfect cottage, like this Southern Gothic interpretation in Atlanta. Southern Gothic cottage, in Atlanta, Georgia. Erica George Dines, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Again with Jackye Lanham interiors. The staircase shares space with the dining room. Putting dining rooms in halls or thoroughfares is genius, in my opinion. That way you are sure to go in it. Whether you eat there or not, at least you enjoy its beauty. Southern Gothic cottage, in Atlanta, Georgia. Erica George Dines, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Southern Gothic cottage, in Atlanta, Georgia. Erica George Dines, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. The bead board interior walls and Gothic details of built-ins keep with the cottage feeling. Southern Gothic cottage, in Atlanta, Georgia. Erica George Dines, photographer. Courtesy of The Monacelli Press. Southern Gothic cottage, in Atlanta, Georgia. Erica George Dines, photographer.        Courtesy of The Monacelli Press.  Don't you love every single room? And how versatile he is? I appreciate concrete, steel, and glass as much as anyone, but for nesting, give me tradition any day. Here is Norman with another super-fantastic Atlanta interior designer, Nancy Braithwaite  on the October cover of Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, where yours truly was privileged to work many moons ago. Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles  Norman always wears a bow tie, a sign of confidence and personal style, with the bonus of almost never having soup spilled on it. The book will be out on October 14. Order it here at  Norman Askins' website. Or second choice your local bookstore, which if you don't know, find it here: IndieBound. Or Barnes & Noble or Amazon. Inspired by Tradition - The Architecture of Norman Davenport Askins.    Text by Susan Sully P.S. Sorry for the lapse in posts. As soon as I get out of my bathrobe, I will be back with a Postcard From Bhutan, from whence I have just returned, with a bug that became a cold the likes of which I haven't seen since I don't even know what ... You should probably wash your hands after reading this.

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Posted in Blog, Decoration & Design | 19 comments

The World Is a Great Mirror

The World Is a Great Mirror

The world is a mirror. I always say that whenever something in life goes off the rails, first thing to do is look in the mirror. I say that. Sometimes it takes a while to get to it... but the answer is always there. The world is a mirror... Thomas Dreier This Thomas Dreier quote was among the "150 Love Notes" I found the other day at stylish Wendy Foster in Los Olivos (CA). All 150 are  different and with charming, vintage-y illustrations and borders. A picture of an old-timey sewing machine as the caption "You are sew perfect." A pink sheep says "Love you baaaad." 150 Love Notes - Sugarboo Designs Their maker is Sugarboo Designs, based in Roswell, Georgia, and they make all sorts of lovely handcrafted slightly rustic-chic-granny sorts of things for the home. Great gifts, too. Sugarboo Designs Anyway we were having houseguests for the weekend, His Grace's old Army buddies and their wives, and I thought these notes would be fun to incorporate into the place cards at dinner the first night. For each guest I put a note in an envelope with his or her name on the envelope. After the first course, we went around the table and read them in turn. Some were serious, and some were funny. I randomly chose them, but it was interesting to see how each somehow suited its recipient. Sunflower tablesetting Rancho La Zaca Our sunflowers are blooming and we are all about sunflowers at the moment. Here's another table, similar. Sunflower table setting Rancho La Zaca And one more... Sunflowers on the table at Rancho La Zaca Now I'll leave you to look in the mirror. You look great, by the way. Don't let anybody tell you different. And remember, joy is the best make-up. Anne Lamott said that. Love her. I'm traveling for a few weeks ... but I'll see you on Instagram in the meantime. More sunflowers, these painted from a photo a friend sent from North Carolina: Sunflowers at the Mayo Farm, near Tarboro, North Carolina. Oil on canvas by Frances Schultz

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Posted in Art, Photography & Culture, Blog, Entertaining, Humor, Insight & Inspiration, Little Life Enhancers | 24 comments

Get Saucy! Brilliant Olive-Caper-Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette for Fish or Chicken

Get Saucy! Brilliant Olive-Caper-Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette for Fish or Chicken

"Brilliant" is a strong talk for a simple sauce and not used lightly. I definitely don't use the sauce lightly. I double the recipe and eat the leftover with a spoon.  Olives, capers, herbs, lemon, olive oil and vinegar, boom. No cooking. Make it in advance. Make it at the last minute. Make it for your friends. Just make it.  Olive Vinaigrette for fish, chicken, or vegetables. Recipe by Stephanie Valentine. Yet another of Chef Stephanie Valentine's sublimely delicious sauces. For simple fish or chicken, or even vegetables--but the tanginess makes it especially good for fish. Healthy, too, but don't be turned off by that. (To compensate, you can cook the fish in butter and eat bacon for hors d'oeuvres.)   Special enough for company, simple enough for everyday. My kind of recipe.  If you are intimidated by cooking fish - don't be. Here is a fool-proof 4-minute YouTube video by Susan Odell for pan-frying. Cooking in real time takes 4-5 minutes. A breeze. Any fish works, and I recommend a thickness of about a half-inch, so you have a generous ratio of sauce to fish with every bite. Bliss.  

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Posted in Blog, Entertaining, Food & Recipes | 5 comments

Start the New School Year With “The Alchemist”

Start the New School Year With “The Alchemist”

"When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too," says the boy to the sun, in Paul Coelho's The Alchemist. If I could teach children anything, it would be that. Well, that and manners. Okay manners and grammar. And kindness. Well, manners are about kindness. Okay kindness comes first, actually, and that puts us back to sentence 1. Fine. "To realize one's destiny is a person's only obligation," is another good line. No wonder a crop of refrigerator magnets has grown up around this book, or that my copy has about 15 sticky notes in it. Paul Coelho's The Alchemist It's been out now more than 25 years, and I've been meaning to post about it for a while... Finally The Wall Street Journal's piece on Coehlo last week prompted me. That and the thought of a new school year beginning, which always feels like the real New Year to me, and a fresh start. Paul Coelho in The Wall Street Journal The Alchemist has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 315 weeks. Just out this week is the titillatingly entitled Adultery, the prolific author's  27th. Journal reporter Ellen Gamerman writes Coelho likes the one-word title because it goes well with a hashtag. Lord help us it has come to that. But the man hasn't sold more than 160 million books in 80 languages for nothing. If his social media-saviness boosts his presence in impressionable young psyches and elevates consciousness in the rest of us, fine. Paul Coelho in The Wall Street Journal Just now my own little psyche said, wonder if ol' Jesse Kornbluth has written about The Alchemist on his terrific I bet myself a nickel he had, and I won. He writes circles around me on the subject of books (and music and movies...), read for yourself here. Funnily enough he penned it earlier this year--and the book was published in 1988. Synchronicity. If you don't know, or have forgotten, The Alchemist is the tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy who leaves his homeland in search of treasure. What he finds is wisdom and a great love. Writes Jesse Kornbluth, "All this is cloaked in a story that moves considerably faster than the camels that take the boy across the North African desert. Warriors appear, and a haunting young woman, and an alchemist, and there is blood and battle and a kind of magic. It’s a hot, dusty, dangerous trip — an Indiana Jones tale for the spiritual. *  I can't think of a better send-off to school for a young person than her own copy, inscribed inspiringly by you. "Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams," says the alchemist to the boy. I don't have chillens of my own, but I have step-chillens and nieces and nephews, four of whom are just off to graduate school, college, and boarding school. Each will be receiving an Alchemist from Auntie, and yes, there will be a quiz--along with the promise of Coehlo's more salacious-sounding new Adultery. That ought to get them going. *If you go to the HeadButler post and click on the links from there, a small commission goes to Jesse Kornbluth does so much to promote writers and artists, I'm  all for sharing the love. 

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Posted in Blog, Humor, Insight & Inspiration | 12 comments