The stone gate that welcomes a person to Laya after the weary uphill trail is a signifier of sorts. People climbing up do not enter the arching gate. The trail crawls into this village along the left, leaving one to wonder why that gate is ever there.
They say men, women and mules entered ‘old’ Laya through this gate. The gate doesn’t look that old and the stones are still fresh as it stands high nursing memories of a not so distant past.
Thanks to my brief stint as a teacher, I met an old student of mine there, the representative of New Laya. Following the Cordycep Rush, Wangchuk dropped from Class XII to become a businessman. While other younger people tagged along older folk to collect the magic caterpillar, the 25-year-old decided to do it by himself. Wangchuk, who his friends laughed at in class as he read out faulty sentences, has achieved a financial feat that his friends who went on to colleges could never dream of.
Wangchuk didn’t stop there. He had better ideas than just collecting cordycep. Another Layap told me that he went to Thimphu and bought hundreds of pairs of football kneepads, sold it to cordycep collectors who have to crawl on all fours, and made a fortune.
As Bhutan goes for local government polls Monday, Wangchuk is contesting to become the gup of Laya gewog. Though Laya has a population of around 1,400 only 800 people are voters. Of them, many cordycep collectors, including Wangchuk’s father Pemba, has said he would not be there for the election. But he wished his son good luck.
Wangchuk knows that life is not about luck anymore. Many people who come to visit Laya grudgingly appreciate their riches: “all because of the cordycep. But who knows about the future?”
This year the collection has been poor. On approaching Laya as a tired man, I met Yangzom. She had returned after a two-day cordycep hunt in the mountains and was unlucky. She rested by the gate for a while and walked to the village.
The government is encouraging Layaps to take care of their yaks and also to see tourism as an opportunity because, like luck, the cordyceps are unpredictable: it keeps moving from one place to the other.
With plans to encourage more people to visit Laya, perhaps, a new touristy gate may be erected, through which one has to enter, and not pass by. There could be a day when the cordycep rush would just be a story of the past, and the highlanders have returned to their old ways of life.
On leaving Laya through the new gate, one would have already been satisfied seeing the life of Laya nestled in tourism brochures.