MAIN STORY: Winter is now gone but the chill is there still in the air. Now comes the season with wind, dust and rain.
It’s a weekday. The day is almost coming to an end. Office goers are winding up their work. School-going children are heading home. Cabbies wait for passengers.
Just as everyone is getting ready to leave home, a group of people is just starting their day.
In a small kitchen in Changzamtog, Tshering Lhamo, 29, starts chopping off garlic, ginger and chillies. She puts the water to boil and adds rice, which will soon turn into a thick paste. She gets the paneer (curd cheese) ready to be added into the thick paste followed by spices and chili powder for flavour.
This is how she makes thukpa.
Tshering Lhamo stores the perfectly cooked thukpa into a hot case ready to be sold. It’s 7pm and time for her to get ready and head out.
After 15 minutes, she reaches the city bus parking area opposite to the Changlimithang stadium, which is the new place designated for the street hawkers after they were banned to sell four months ago. There are other thukpa sellers already, stalls set up, waiting for customers.
It’s getting colder by the minute and, to their dismay, tiny droplets come falling from the skies. And there is the cold wind.
Tshering Lhamo stands in her stall, which comprise of a plastic table, chair, an umbrella and a dustbin. There is no roof or wall to shelter her from the harsh weather. She greets other sellers as she prepares her stall. Weather doesn’t bother her.
But there aren’t many customers today. Many seem to have already left home and the city bus parking is almost empty except for the few taxis that are waiting for customers.
Upon seeing the vendors set up with hot cases on the table, the taxi drivers approach for a hot cup of thukpa to stay warm. A cup of thukpa costs Nu 20. Other items such as momo, puri and tea are also sold.
Bundled up in a thick coat, Tshering Lhamo now waits for the customers. She stands up and asks people to buy thukpa as they pass by. Some politely refuse, others don’t even care to look.
Tshering Lhamo was one of the firsts to sell thukpa some five years ago. Today, there are about 45 thukpa sellers in Thimphu.
“We wanted to sell thukpa because it represents Bhutanese culture. Thukpa is made only during special occasions like losar. So we want people to enjoy thukpa whenever they want,” she said. “This idea worked because we started selling thukpa like hot cakes. We used to make about Nu 5,000 a day. But now we barely earn Nu 200.”
Last November, Tshering and 44 other hawkers were told that their mobile business was illegal. Their business was banned. The decision came after discussion among officials from Royal Bhutan Police, Department of Trade, Thimphu Thromde and Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority in May that year.
The authorities informed the hawkers that selling food on the streets have issues related to sanitation, hygiene, littering of a place and creating conducive environment for crime. Some hawkers were even selling alcohol and tobacco products.
The decision came as a shock to the hawkers. They formed a group and began requesting the officials to reconsider their decision since many came from low-income family and were the sole earner from the family.
The tshogpa of the group, Kado, 47, said they had a tough time making their ends meet without the business.
“With the condition that we will abide by the guidelines where hygienic and safe food are sold and waste are regulated, the officials have lifted the ban. We also must wear safety masks, hat and apron while on the business,” Kado said. “This came as a great news to all of us and we immediately resumed our business.”
The officials have now designated a place for the hawkers so that they will not only abide by the guidelines but also help reduce the crime in concentrated areas.
During the inauguration of the Food Hawking Centre last week, economic affairs minister Norbu Wangchuk said the government is happy to lift the ban and allow the street hawkers to continue doing their business.
“The area was identified so that the concentrated place could not only ensure their safety by the constant regulation from the police but also regulate the youth that frequent there,” Lyonpo said in an earlier interview. “It would be easier to monitor and regulate if the hawkers are in one place instead of putting up shop on any road side. It would also be easier to ensure that no tobacco or alcohol products are sold.”
The hawkers now operate their business from 7pm to 11:30pm during non-party days (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday), and from 7pm to 1:30am during party days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday).
Most of the hawkers have elderly and sick family members and children to look after. “Although business is running low in the new place, we are happy that we are once more back on our feet with the business. We only pray that our business will pick up,” Kado said.
It’s past midnight, time for Tshering Lhamo and other hawkers to head home. Business wasn’t good. They look happy nonetheless.
Tshering has her two children waiting for her at home and she can’t wait to spend the rest of the night with them. But before heading home, Tshering and the others hawkers make sure that they have cleaned the surrounding and give out free thukpas to the taxi drivers and people walking by.