Tshelthrim Dorji, a 36-year-old from Bhutan, had been used to waking up every day at 5 a.m. to start his 12-hour-shift as an Uber driver in New York City. He stopped going out during the prolonged pandemic-related lockdown, and as he slowly returned to work as the city reopened this summer he found his already taxing job increasingly stressful.
So to unwind on Saturdays he still wakes at dawn, but drives instead to another destination: a serene expanse of woods at the end of a dirt road in Shamong, New Jersey, around two hours from his home in Queens. There, he and a group of around two dozen Bhutanese immigrants — most of whom are also Uber and Lyft drivers — gather for a long day of archery, their small country’s national pastime.
Before the coronavirus swept through their New York neighborhoods, they would gather only monthly for a traditional match, because the field was so far away and their workdays were so long. But in July, as state officials began to allow more outdoor activities, the group decided to resume its ceremonial games every weekend.
Archery provided a way to exercise, socialize at a distance and offer prayers for the city’s speedy comeback. Most of the players had preferred to live off savings in recent months rather than continue driving — and risk infecting other members of the region’s small Bhutanese community. There were around 24,000 Bhutanese living in the United States in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, with most in Ohio and a significant population in Rochester, New York.
The archers said they knew of about a dozen people in the smaller New York City Bhutanese community who had contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. All eventually recovered, they said, with the help of a committee of volunteers that coordinates donations of food and money for the sick. The Bhutanese have even rented a communal apartment to offer to people in need of a space to quarantine, one of the archers said.
“Especially in these pandemic times, everybody was alone at home,” Dorji said. “That’s why we created these tournaments to see each other again, to recover.”
When the group arrives on the land rented from a local Buddhist temple — the same site where they have been practicing for the past two years — they brew tea and eat rice for breakfast while getting dressed in gho, traditional robes that are burgundy tweed or gray. They organize themselves in two teams of 12, sometimes representing the east and west of Bhutan. Their archery group, which was founded in 2006, is called Shaa Wang Pasum, for the people who live in three districts in Bhutan that helped unify the country.
Before each match, those taking part say mantras to Buddha and pour an offering on the ground: a bottle of beer. At one end of the long field, they set up one wooden target with a bull’s-eye painted in a rainbow of colors and framed by red, yellow, white, green and blue ribbons. Another is placed 145 feet away, on the other side of the field. Six players from each team hide behind a blind next to the targets. Then each archer raises a professional-grade, compound target bow and shoots two arrows. They walk to the other target to collect their arrows and then shoot again in the other direction to complete one round. At the end of their 12-hour day of play, they will have walked about 11 miles.
The distance between the targets makes it difficult to see exactly where the arrows fall, so they listen for the telltale sound of creaking wood that signals a hit. Each shot takes composure and balance to draw back the string, the equivalent of pulling 60 pounds of weight, while keeping a motionless center.
“You must concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do,” Dorji said. “Then you brace yourself for failure.”
Landing the arrow within an arrow’s length of the target merits one point. Hitting the target is worth two points. A bull’s-eye is three. There is no referee. The game is played on the honor system, with every player keeping track of their own points and adding a colored ribbon to their belt when they are successful.
Every time an arrow hits its mark, the shooter’s teammates perform a song and dance to honor the accomplishment.
“We are all Buddhist, so it is not competitive,” said Thukten Jamtsho, 43, one of the competitors who works as an Uber driver. “We come to see each other, meet new friends, and bring the community together.”
Bhutan’s relationship with archery is long, according to the players. Legend holds that the father of the country’s first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, used his skills as an archer to defeat an invading British army in 1864, and from that point on the king promoted archery as the country’s national sport. Many of the archers in the club wear pins with photographs of the current king on their robes. As children in Bhutan, they sometimes began practicing with handmade bows and arrows cobbled from bamboo.
The activity is a popular way to socialize in rural areas in the country of about 750,000 people, and Bhutanese immigrants in New York wanted to bring the game to their adopted home, said Chador Wangdhi, 56, the oldest member of the group.
Wangdhi, who is on the committee that manages the club of about 90 shooters, works on the administrative staff for the permanent mission of Bhutan to the United Nations. He is one of only a small fraction of club members who don’t drive for ride-share companies.
Even before the pandemic, making a living as a driver in New York was getting more and more difficult, most of the archers said. It was good business until last year, when more cars on the road meant more competition for customers. Then the coronavirus came, with New York as one of the United States’ first hot spots, and business dried up almost overnight.
“Little by little we are going to return, but it will be difficult,” said Sonam Ugyen, 28, an Uber driver and one of the archery group’s youngest shooters. “We are thinking of changing our profession or looking for new opportunities.”
Each weekend in July, one volunteer made breakfast and lunch for the group in an outdoor kitchen on the field. A typical midday meal was rice with the national dish ema datshi, a stew of green chilies and cheese sauce, or a fish curry.
Now that many of the drivers have started working again, though, they plan to return to their once-a-month schedule.
They said the serenity gained from more frequent practice in recent weeks would serve as preparation for their return to the heavy traffic and the anxiety of masked passengers in the city’s changed landscape.
“We come here to scare away evil spirits,” Dorji said as he took a sip of his suja, a butter tea. “The games are an offering so we can stay safe during the week, with no accidents.”
For Ugyen, archery and dealing with New York City traffic can be similar challenges. “Both are games where you need to maintain focus,” he said. “But the difference is that here, in this field, it is only the body that suffers. In the city, driving all day, it is the mind.”