January 2014 – A Reintroduction to Bhutan

Prayer flags at Taktsang

Blog Update
We’ve been a bit slack on the blog lately, but this is our return to semi-regular blogging.  We’re now settled in our new home in Khaling, Bhutan and will be blogging from our little cottage for the rest of this year.  Additionally, Brett will be posting some very belated blogs on our travels from China near the end of 2013.  Anyway, enough of that and onto the real stuff….

An introduction to Bhutan from our perspective…
Our decision to live in Bhutan for 2014 was largely influenced by the brief six days we spent as tourists in the country’s west in October 2012.  That first visit brought so many impressions of this place, one of a culture that had been more hesitant to assimilate to the west than most.  This in itself is intriguing as people in most ‘developing countries’ seem to latch on to the outward manifestations of commercial success rather than the cause of this success – a dangerous approach to capitalism that is sure to result in more heartache than financial or actually wealth, not to mention a total loss of the traditional cultures that these people leave behind in haste to grab onto the better life that they believe the western system inherently holds for all.

But not Bhutan.  Here was a place holding onto those traditional virtues that the rest of the world is abandoning or has abandoned as relics of the past – most notably patience and honesty in all relationships, not just those with friends and family but with all people.  Here also seemed to be a place that maintained a genuine and complete adherence to their traditional religious principals where much of the world seems to compartmentalize their religion and practice it only in confined ways or spaces.  The evidence of these virtues was all around us in the form of traditional buildings and ancient dzongs and goempas, but perhaps the most eye opening example was the school for the traditional arts in Thimphu.  This was a place for students who did not place well enough on their exams to continue on to University, and here were kids taking immense care and patience to learn and practice traditional religious arts – thanka, embroidery, sculpture, etc.  That anyone in their upper teens could diligently and carefully spend over a month on a single 20cm x 20cm embroidery was surprising to us coming from the west.  That they could do this repeatedly for five years and that these were the students who could not quite reach university was hard to imagine – there is nothing like this level of patience in anyone in Australia or America, let alone in kids of 18 and 19 years.

And while this was our initial impression after those short six days, we also realize the very significant possibility that these impressions might not be completely accurate.  There is a tendency in most people to see all the greatest parts of a new and dramatically different culture first and only see the holes in the façade after some time, if at all.  Most people travel, at least in part, for the unique and nonreplicable education travel offers, but some merely revel in the differences of a new place without turning the same discerning eye on new cultures, governments, etc. that they turn on their own homeland.  While we were and are very intrigued by what we saw of Bhutan back then, our decision to come here is as much about living in and experiencing this unique culture as it is about testing our overwhelming positive impressions over a long period of time.  I don’t mean to say that we will look to poke holes, but only to find them and enjoy the whole texture of this place –swiss cheese would be less interesting were it a solid block.

Our departure from Chicago was odd in that it was normal.  Usually when we are off to another place, by whatever mode of transportation, there is at least some level of anticipation if not excitement.  Neither of us felt the normal excitement en route, perhaps because this has become all too common for us, or perhaps because we had some previous experience with Bhutan and there was not as much unknown, at least not so far as our two week orientation in Thimphu was concerned.

We arrived in Kathmandu on 20 January via Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur, a longish haul that at 42 hours was still well short of our recent 52 hour composite flight from Sydney to Chicago (also via Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi).  For me (Brett), the chaos of Kathmandu is always oddly relaxing – I can’t really explain why as this feeling is absent in any other city.  Perhaps it is that this chaos is so easy to meld into and be lost, or perhaps its because the nearness of the mountains is known in my mind despite the shroud of smog that conceals them from view.

Kathmandu is a good place for being exhausted.  We sleep half the day after our evening arrival, then venture out to walk around a bit before an early dinner at our favorite Thamel restaurant.  We try to avoid Thamel itself as much as possible, but its convenience for a single day stop is impossible to ignore, and Third Eye indian restaurant is the thing that makes this place acceptable.  We enjoy a great paneer dish and then return to our room to chase the jet lag once more.

The next morning finds us at Tribhuvan and our flight to Paro is delayed until early afternoon.  Last time we flew this route we were on a much larger plane that was predominantly filled with western tourists twice our age.  Since this is the tourism offseason, we’re on a much smaller plane and almost all the other occupants are Bhutanese, Nepali or visiting monks from numerous other countries (we notice one from each Korea and China, at a minimum).  The flight is spectacular, as expected, but our afternoon departure means that the clouds have already set in atop the 8,000m peaks – and there are many.  The peaks of Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga and a few others are all covered, but the surrounds are all visible from above, and it is as beautiful as we remember.

Everest in the clouds

The flight lands easily and those who arrive on these smaller planes have no idea what a tight squeeze this narrow valley is for the larger jets.  Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF) head Nancy Strickland stands outside the small terminal building to meet us, and BCF employee/ jack-of-all-trades Nima is waiting behind the customs desk.  We are soon in an SUV driven by Nima heading towards Thimphu.  We are the last of the 20 plus BCF staff and family to arrive.

The opening night dinner is a meet-and-greet, though this jet-lagged crew is much more up for chatter the next morning at breakfast (many have awoken at 4 or 5 am due to their jet lag and are well awake by the time the 8 am breakfast rolls around).

This is a great group, as one would expect, a mix mostly of Canadians, Americans and Australians, with one Aussie-based Pom and a Mexican thrown in for good measure.  People have a variety of experiences, from extensive travel and living abroad to life and work in remote parts of northern Canada and teaching experience with indigenous groups in both Canada and America. To a person, all are friendly and have a unique and interesting backstory.  Some have more experience than others, and while perhaps the young amongst us look to those of us a bit older and experienced for advice, those of us in our mid-thirties look on the younger ones with jealousy – the paths that have lead many of us here have been long and the prospect of experiencing Bhutan at the age of 24 is really intriguing.  There are three teachers returning to Bhutan after a year away and Aussies Ian Swift and Vicky Chartres and Utahan Scott Harris have endless amounts of very helpful advice to us newcomers.  Returning for his second consecutive year in a town near Thimphu, Aussie Matt Stretton also has a wealth of knowledge to share.

At a small pub in Thimphu

I won’t share too much about the orientation process.  Thimphu might be an eye-opening place to many, but in the context of Bhutan it is a big city (~100,000 people – ~12% of the country’s population) and a vastly different place from those where the BCF teachers will reside.  This two weeks is more about the BCF teachers getting to know each other and being told what to expect once they get to their more remote locations.  Again, I use the word ‘remote’ in the way it is understood in the non-Bhutan world.  Here, the government classifies those places that are greater than three dholams from a road as “remote”.  A dholam is one day of travel on a pony.  Those places located between one and three dholams from a road are classified as “rural”.  A place less than one dholam from a road is classified as “semi-urban”.  This is how things work in a place so sparsely populated and cut by the Himalayas and its jagged foothills.

Taktsang

During these first two weeks, there are roughly ten days of orientation seminars, shopping for household goods and supplies and a number of day hikes to fill the open times.  Matt leads us on a gentle day hike to Talkha Goempa and a more strenuous day hike to Phajoding Monastery.  The last Saturday we are in Thimphu we all load on the bus to Paro for a BCF-lead hike to Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Taktsang.  It is as beautiful as on our first visit.

The view from Talkha Goempa

The one interesting thing that happened during our two week orientation is that Angie and another special education teacher, Kezia, got a chance to go to Gelephu for a special education conference.  Gelephu is in far southern Bhutan on the Indian border, a location most other foreigners will never visit.

Angie’s account of her time in Gelephu:

Gelephu

The Bhutan Foundation, with headquarters in the USA, are the main supporters for the development of Special Education within Bhutan. Before leaving the USA, I was fortunate to be connected with the Foundation and spoke with several of the individuals associated with the organisation.

Kezia and I were invited by the Bhutan Foundation to attend the national winter conference for the Special Education program. Even though it reduced our time in Thimphu to get organized and attend the BCF orientation, we were excited to attend the conference.

We traveled with the Bhutan Foundation team from Thimphu to the conference in Gelephu, which is in southern Bhutan. Few foreigners make the excursion to Gelephu due to it being on the border with India and because it’s not on the main tourist route. I felt very lucky to be able to visit a new part of Bhutan and experience my first immersion in Bhutanese culture.

The winter conference focused on schools discussing their current programming and status in working with students with special needs. For me, it was informative and inspiring. The government is motivated to include students with all abilities and there are some schools doing wonderful programs. Special Education is only five years old in the longest running programs, and the teachers are making leaps and bounds.

On our day off Kezia and I walked around the small town of Gelephu several times. There were many curious eyes following us and we enjoyed exploring and talking with locals.

Along a neighborhood gravel road, we met a group of children. We chatted with them about their names, ages, and such. Then their extended family began joining around, all smiling and chatting. The Hindu Nepali – Bhutanese family invited us into their home, serving us tea and biscuits. It was a beautiful experience, with the family so curious about us, and us with them. We spent a few hours with them just questioning and learning from each other. In years past some of the ethnic Nepali Bhutanese have been pushed out to Nepal and many have eventually landed in the US or Canada with refugee status. As we spoke with the family the grandma inquired about the likely situation of some family that had gone to Nepal and then to the US and Canada.  The family translated her questions, her largest concern was to know whether her family who live in the USA are free. The joy on her face was great as we told her that people in the USA are free. The following day we saw them at a local fair, and the grandma quickly met us with a huge smile, gently grabbing and holding our hands. The experience, smiles and warmness on their faces were memorable.

It was a great opportunity to attend the conference and visit Gelephu.

The Departure
There were a few days of orientation remaining when Angie and Kesia returned from Gelephy, but most of the time and energy of the entire group was spent more on material preparation than mental preparation.

Two nights before we headed out in two buses to our postings, we had a formal dinner with the Minister of Education and numerous other Bhutanese government officials.  This gave all of us a first chance to wear the traditional dress we’d bought in Thimphu.  Behold….

Us in Gho (Brett) and Kira (Angie)

This was the end of our time in Thimphu, and truth be told most everyone was ready to head out days before we actually did.  What would come next is a five day trek eastward to our postings…..

Orientation Photos – Thimphu, Gelephu, Paro and Taktsang

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