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Ex-addict creates the first Bhutanese dessert

The story of a youth who made a successful turnaround from the skid row of drugs

 Profile: Tashi Penjor, a tall, young and handsome youth, walks into Ambient Café in Thimphu.  It is 3.30pm and the evening sun is pale against the walls of the buildings on the other side of Norzin Lam.  This neat young man in blue jeans with a grey fedora exudes confidence that is rare in young people these days, gazing deep and straight into the eyes of the person he is talking to.  He drops a white paper box gently on the counter and turns to silence and the empty chairs.

From Samay in Dagana, twenty-four-year-old Tashi is the creator of the first Bhutanese dessert.  It is called the Himalayan Cardamom Cake, made of seep (traditional Bhutanese corn flakes), milk, cream, sugar, walnut, cardamom, wheat flour, orange juice and sweetened cottage cheese.  Tashi is not happy this day because he could not patent his sweet creation.

Tashi was five when his parents separated.  It was 1998.  His father, Gyembo Dukpa, was into drugs and the cause of problems for the family.  Ugyen Pem, Tashi’s mother, was a headmistress in a school in Samtse.  She met a new guy not long after, but the problems only increased.  Ugyen Pem’s new husband was a bad abuser and treated the kids badly.

Flashing the senseless tattoos on his left arm, Tashi says that life became difficult for his mother and two brothers. “These are the things I made when I was 19 and high all the time.”  Tattoos look like nothing.  They are some random art that resemble nothing at all. “The silly things I did back then.”

In 2005, Tashi’s mother asked for a transfer to Lungtenzampa Middle Secondary School in Thimphu.  Tashi was in Class 8 and was doing marijuana quite frequently.  One time, at a school concert, Tashi drank to gather some courage to tell Kinley, a girl in his school, that he loved her.  A fight broke out because a friend of Tashi’s liked the girl too.  After that incident in school, Tashi started to skip the classes.

“It was funny that he had to love every girl I loved,” laughs Tashi.  But Tashi and his friend settled at the Traffic Canteen and called a truce over a drink.

In the meanwhile, Tashi’s academic records began to decline.  He failed in Class 9 and had to repeat.  Fights and drugs were the overpowering factors. “Things got very complicated,” says Tashi. “I had strayed way too far.”

Tashi then went to Chukha Higher Secondary School.  It was 2008.  There, in the boarding school, Tashi improved by a little, because the warden there was his mother’s teacher.  He behaved relatively well.  However, Tashi did not qualify for higher secondary education and went to Kelki Higher Secondary School in Thimphu to study Arts.  There, he beat up a boy in his school and got kicked out.

That night, Tashi got overly drunk and was walking along the Clock Tower when a group of boys came from nowhere and knocked him out of sense.  Badly bruised, he didn’t go home because he had a broken face and didn’t want to worry his mother.

After he got kicked out of Kelki, Tashi went to Pelkhil School in Thimphu and began studying Commerce.

“And I was totally lost. I skipped classes and did a lot of drugs. Problems grew. I couldn’t handle anymore,” says Tashi, looking away.  There is a silence, a long grey silence.

It was a hot day in Olakha in Thimphu just after lunchtime. 2013.  Tashi and his cousin Thinley were making tattoo on Tashi’s left arm, when Tashi’s brother showed up with Lama Shenphen Zangpo, the resident lama of Deer Park in Thimphu.  Tashi did not listen to lama’s advice.  He did not want to go to rehab.  Tashi went to Dagana instead.

But the problem became severe and Tashi’s mother told him to give it a try at a rehab.  Tashi set off for Thimphu again. After a week’s detoxification programme at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, Tashi decided to go to a rehab in Siliguri, India for five months.

“That’s when I understood about addictions and problems that come with them. Five months seemed like a very long time because I wanted to start living a new life,” says Tashi.  After coming back, Lama Shenphen asked Tashi what he wanted to do now that he is out of rehab.  Tashi wanted to be a chef. To his surprise, Lama took him to Hotel Druk immediately.  That was January 19.  Outside, it was all white.  It was the first snowfall of the year in Thimphu.

Tashi interned at the hotel’s kitchen for 10 months.  After that, with support from Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck, Tashi went to Aleenta Resort and Spa in Phuket Phangna, Thailand for one year to train as a chef.  Tashi had left addiction completely by then.  He doesn’t go to high-risk places like drayangs and bars.

“I hate these places. I don’t go there anymore,” says Tashi.  There is another silence, longer and greyer than the last.

“I realised that Bhutanese food is actually varied. It’s not just Ema Datshi,” says Tashi. “So I created the first Bhutanese dessert – Himalayan Cardamom Cake. But I could not get it patented.”

Tashi worked at Osel, a hotel in Thimphu, but left after 18 days because he didn’t like the job and the pay there.

“My mother has always been very supportive. Now I want to make up for all the trouble and hurt I gave her,” says Tashi, turning away.  He consults his watch but says nothing, doesn’t move. And then he looks up, breathing into his cupped hands.

“I’ve got to meet my girl. She is going back to college tomorrow,” says Tashi, and gives out his hands.  They are cold and firm.

By Jigme Wangchuk

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