A handful of children surrounded me, half of them clad in ruby red robes, the others tucked into winter sweaters and jackets. “Acho (big brother), please play with us!” they requested, brandishing skateboards and asking me to teach them how to ollie. Little did they know that it’d been over 10 years since I jumped on my banged-up deck, an Alien Workshop, now gathering dust in my parents’ shed. My rusty moves might disappoint them more than my refusal. On the other hand, the kids seemed to be warming up to me this afternoon, as opposed to the baleful eyes that had greeted me the day before. I also didn’t want them to think I was some poncey chillip (a colloquial Bhutanese term for foreigners), too cool to hang out with kids.
As it turns out, it was hard to say no to a gaggle of puppy dog eyes, and I gave in. My worst fears were confirmed as I jerked and flailed on the deck like an inflatable man advertising a car wash. I didn’t even try to ollie off the ground, and instead abandoned the ambling board as if it was a speeding car headed for a steep cliff. The kids looked more confused than disappointed. Then I caught Sonam’s eye, the only girl at the park, dressed in a Union Jack sweater, as she held her little brother’s hands, teaching him how to balance on the board. She smiled at me, and let go of her brother’s hands, allowing him to gracefully glide away.
Even though they whizzed about the skate park with relative ease, these kids had been skating only for mere months. Hardly any of them wore shoes, and instead maneuvered around on the frayed grip tape of their boards with worn chappals. This was the country’s first skate park, a swathe of smooth concrete built on the edge of the capital Thimphu at Babena, Jungshina.
The children here shared one board between five of them. If one of them couldn’t stand up on the board without teetering they’d push him around. When another landed a three-foot drop without batting an eyelid, the others watched keenly, ready to learn how the trick was done. They skated without pretense. They surfed cement for a simple reason—it made them happy.
The story of Bhutan’s first skate park begins in sun-soaked Malibu, California with Johnny Strange, an adventurous American. Strange belonged to a well-to-do family that participated in all manner of adventure activities such as trekking, kayaking and rappelling. His family always knew he had the spirit of an adventurer. Yet even they were surprised he asked to join his father on a summit of the highest peak in Alaska at just 12-years-old, and were amazed to see the youngster beat the formidable peak, hungry for more.
“He was a fierce kid, and when he put his mind to it, he could accomplish quite a lot,” said Strange Sr., in a telephone conversation from the U.S.A. Strange was a big wave surfer, skateboarder, paraglider, base jumper, martial artist and mountaineer. But his daring feats weren’t confined to the outdoors, at least during his late teens.
He once surfed atop a BMW on a busy California thoroughfare, which made national news in the U.S.A. According to Strange’s family, he regretted some of his daredevil acts because he didn’t want other kids to try them and get hurt. Strange’s personal mantra, however, differed: “The day I let fear deter my ability to follow my dreams, I have already died,” he said.
In 2009, 17-year-old Strange became the youngest person in the world to conquer the Seven Summits at that time, which entailed climbing the highest mountain on each continent. Six years later, at 23, he passed away during a base jumping incident in the Swiss Alps. Before his tragic death, Strange spent a period of time in Bhutan that moved the young man. Strange Sr. personally funded the construction of the country’s first skate park in honour of his son’s memory.
Strange first came to Bhutan to summit Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan’s highest peak at 24,835 feet, widely reported to be the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. All previous attempts to scale the peak by mountaineering troupes from Europe and Asia had met with defeat. In 1994, Gangkhar Puensum was officially declared off limits by the Bhutanese government. Strange was intrigued, and at the behest of an ESPN employee, he sought permission to climb the mountain, recalled his father. Although his request was denied, Strange spent six months in Bhutan, teaching young kids how to skate and helping the country’s Olympic Committee develop adventure sports programmes, as per his official blog.
Dressed in a traditional gho and black sneakers, Strange wandered through Bhutan armed with a longboard and an infectious smile. YouTube videos of the confident Californian during his sojourn give the impression that he was perpetually enwreathed by a posse of red robed-children. “Johnny loved the people of Bhutan, particularly the kids who (Strange described as) always smiling and happy,” said his father.
After his demise, Strange Sr. made sure to pay homage to his son’s relationship with Bhutan. At first, he grappled for a way to honour his son’s legacy. He wanted to create something that honoured youth and the outdoors. Ultimately, he decided to build two skate parks, one in Bhutan and another in his native Malibu. In doing so, he laid the ramp for a new history and culture for Bhutan’s young.
As winter thawed around Thimphu, I spent a sunny Saturday afternoon at the skate park, chatting with various skaters alongside a team of translators. A lot of the children there didn’t know about Strange. All they knew was that somehow, someone decided to grace the far reaches of their city with a novelty that has infused their weekends with new purpose.
Once again, the chorus of, “Acho (big brother), please play with us!” rang out. This time the little skaters targeted my friends for tips, hoping they might glean something better from them than my frantic four seconds on the board. I moved to the stone cut-out of the Seven Summits placed at the centre of the park. I leaned against it, and observed. I thought of Johnny Strange, the wild child from Malibu. I imagined him in his element, lounging on a billowing cloud snagged on a Himalayan peak, watching the children below make skateboarding as fun as it was truly intended to be.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.