Saturday, December 3, 2011

Looking forward, looking back: Summarizing Bhutan


Tomorrow, our program officially ends.  We are about to part ways—a few of us are traveling to India or Nepal, a few staying on longer to travel in Bhutan with our families, and the rest of fly to Bangkok.  Tomorrow we will be in different countries, and a few days later in entirely different parts of the world.  These four months we have shared will begin to crystallize into memories--the things we disliked will start to seem not so bad in retrospect, and the things we cherished will seem even better.  Although, no matter what perspective time brings, to the day I die I doubt I will miss the chilies.  If I never eat spicy food again for the rest of my life, that is fine with me!

The first few days
We met in Bangkok at midnight on July 31, and learned that our flight would not leave until 6 AM.  None of us really slept (although we got a taste of the bizarreness to come as some put on various night gowns, comical eye covers, “snuggies”, colorful felt blankets etc.) as we waited the night in Bangkok's airport.

Professor Kim greets the group in Paro, Day 1 Bhutan
We arrived in Paro, Bhutan early in the morning, all of us running on all nighters.   We were too excited to sleep, and even that first day contained a great deal—including archers who shot at targets from so far away I initially thought it was a joke.  They would still nail the targets—a “bad” shot was considered being off by a few feet, and people would stand next to the targets as they were being shot at.  Other than eating more chilies, I cannot think of anything I am less willing to do than stand next to an archery target as my friend shoots at it.  Yet that is what they do.  Seeing this on Day 1--the 
trust, the fun of it all, the carefree attitude—made it very clear we had entered a new environment. 

Archery on Day 1.  They shoot from behind where I took this picture
 Those first few days were a whirlwind of activities—notably our beautiful hike to the “Tiger’s Nest” monastery—and all of a sudden we were on our way to Royal Thimphu College.

Hiking to the "Tiger's Nest" monastery
About to go to Royal Thimphu College for the first time...
August: The first month: “Honeymoon”
Everything was terrific when we arrived—we loved each other, and we were amazed at the warmth of our reception.  We enjoyed wearing the gho and kira national dress for the first time, and like all honeymoons our semester felt exciting and full of possibility.  In our second week, we were invited to the Fifth International Gross National Happiness Conference, and suddenly found ourselves meeting the Prime Minister.  We were amazed by the beauty of Royal Thimphu College’s campus, especially the sweeping view of the Himalayas.

Wearing a gho for the first time with my roommate
Meeting the Prime Minister
September: The second month: Reality
By September, life became real and responsibilities set in.  We became established in our internship sites, with our group doing everything from teaching nuns English to an urban planning internship to working on a project for the Prime Minister’s office.  We began to make friends with Royal Thimphu College students, developing our independent lives and own spaces within Bhutan.

October: Feeling established
By October, having breaks from our routine began to feel nice.  We were established.  We knew what we liked and what we did not like.  We had been in Bhutan long enough to realize new interests, and found many ways to build on those through our program.

We volunteered as a group at Bhutan’s first-ever Special Olympics, held in the presence of the Queen Mother, at a special needs school where some members of the group were interns.  

The Queen Mother presents a medal to an athlete in Bhutan's first-ever Special Olympics
We also had an epic experience in Haa, a different part of Bhutan.  For one weekend we stayed in the home of our guide’s family.  Much of the weekend sitting was spent around a woodstove drinking tea, eating together, and just enjoying the company of each other and our hosts.   

Pushing the van through the mud in Haa
In Haa, we befriended a man from Luxembourg who had also hired our guide, and who became a friend—two of us are going to visit him in Luxembourg over winter break.  It was extremely rainy that month, and when we weren’t socializing we were pushing our van through the mud to get around.  We even saved someone’s life—on our way back from our trek, we found an Indian laborer passed out in the mud, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt and violently shaking from the cold.  Fortunately he was able to be resuscitated, and in the morning thanked us and left, a bit embarrassed but entirely healthy.   

View on trip between Haa and Thimphu

We also made a trip to Bumthang with “Dasho Colonel Kado,” a larger-than-life retired military Colonel.  The Bhutanese equivalent of a British Knight, Colonel Kado’s daughter went to Wheaton and he offered to take us throughout Bhutan as thanks.  Every day with Colonel Kado was full of adventures and fun.  

Near the house we stayed at in Bumthang
November: Closing up
Our normal coursework and internships were now in their third month, and we are all benefiting from those experiences.  Once again, fortune turned out to be on our side.  After Bumthang, Colonel Kado offered to take us for an entire week to the East of Bhutan.  Great as Bumthang was, it pales in comparison to the experience of traversing the whole country by bus.  Along the way we met an Eastern Dzongda (Governor) and rural villagers with lives very different from that in the city of Thimphu.  We visited a hydropower plant, experienced sub-tropical climates (as opposed to frigid Thimphu!) and had what was about as close to a perfect week as is possible.  

At this point we were all focused on a particular research question for our final papers, and it became quite comical to have 11 overzealous Wheaton students all trying to extract as much information from as many sources as possible.  Group discussions turned to who had interviewed whom, and we frequently started saying things like, “You got an appointment with her?  I really wanted to talk with someone from the Gross National Happiness Commission.  Can I tag along, and ask some questions about my topic, too?”  The final workload became heavy at the same time we were winding up our internships and tying up the many relationships we formed in our  time here.

Views like this were common on our trip to the East
We leave tomorrow
As I write, my roommates (both Bhutanese, as was the case with all of us) are sitting on the other side of the room chatting.  We are having dinner in a few hours in town, and they have waited on campus, delaying their vacations until I leave tomorrow.  It is by no means an isolated gesture of kindness, and it is at this point you really notice those sorts of things.  You start to realize what you have grown accustomed to will not be in your daily life anymore—the warmth, the hospitality,  that suddenly you are going to wake up and the Himalayas won’t be in view as you eat breakfast.  

One of my last nights with my roommates
Yesterday, I left Jigme Losel Primary School, where I taught 5th graders.  Our sendoff from Jigme Losel was astonishing—five of us worked there, and we had no less than three sendoff events.   At the second, the children performed a variety of dances and kept serving us food.  In Bhutan sharing, especially sharing food, is a serious expression of friendship and love.  It isn’t necessarily about eating, but rather the act of giving.  To say the least, we felt the love in a major way—to the tune of each having four plates on our laps, food spilling off the edges and still children coming up and serving more.  At one point I had six drinks next to me—a tea, a coffee, a mango juice, and three kinds of soda.  The children then performed dances and sang songs. 

The last day with my 5th graders at Jigme Losel Primary School
 A few days later, Jigme Losel Primary School held a celebration for having just won an international award for educational innovation.  The Prime Minister and Minister of Education were both in attendance, and in front of these dignitaries the principal called the Wheaton students in front of the crowd and publicly thanked us for having been a part of her school.  The Prime Minister then took the stage and reiterated her thanks.  That was actually the third time we saw the Prime Minister—it felt like that part in Forrest Gump where he says, “And I met the Pres-eee-dent of the U-niii-ted states…AGAIN…”  Where else other than Bhutan could we have had this kind of experience?    
Jigme Losel Primary School children perform for the Prime Minister
To the future
Whatever we do after Bhutan, we will all be better for our time spent here.  We have been fundamentally challenged in many ways, and have come out smarter and perhaps even a little wiser for it.  We have met incredible people.  We have had larger-than-life experiences on a regular basis.  We have navigated some of the most complicated questions of the 21st century—about social identity, national development, poverty, status, making a difference, volunteerism, one’s own role in society.  It was not always easy.  But tomorrow morning, we part ways.  And while no one will have quite the same thoughts or reflections as anyone else, each one of us can say we are better for having spent this semester in Bhutan.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Watch out for Night Hunting!

I worked in RENEW (NGO working with victims of domestic violence) for the first month and would often hear about night hunting. After being here for almost four months, I have been hearing the term many times. So what is night hunting? According to my roommates it occurs mostly in the villages of the East. Here is an article by the KUENSEL newspaper which describes one Bhutanese woman's experience with night hunting:

She is frightened of the night. Not because of ghosts. She has never really believed in it anyway. Since being posted as a teacher in a remote school in Trongsa dzongkhag, Zangmo (name changed on request) has become the target of unknown local men who come under the protection of darkness to “trouble” her- frequently. She has become terrified of them.”I wake up in the middle of the night distressed to hear intruders climbing my window, trying to open it,” Zangmo told Kuensel.At another time, intruders, unable to open her window, walked around her house, knocking at her door, trying to force it open, rattling it, and calling her out.The first time she heard somebody trying to open her window she broke down with panic and “cried the whole night”. That was a few months ago, barely a few days after her posting to the place.”I didn’t know how to react,” said Zangmo. “It made me feel so low and unhappy with life.

”A female colleague told her that it was “night hunting” and that it was the village norm. It was not that Zangmo had not heard the term before. The idea sickened her. But facing this so called culture at such close quarters filled her mind with fear and loathing.There is no electricity in the village. So the 27-year old teacher, whose house is next to the school, keeps her kerosene lamp burning the entire night, just in case. She checks her doors and windows are shut properly before dark. As a companion, she keeps with her a class VII schoolgirl, whom she also looks after.When noises at night outside her house persist, she wakes up the girl and waits in a corner for the sound to go away. There is no telephone.”I got to bed prepared to wake up anytime I hear some noises,” said Zangmo.She has not made official complaints to any authority.”Whom should we complain to?” said Zangmo.

”I can’t complain because I’m worried that people will make fun of me,” said Zangmo. “I told a male colleague about my predicament the other day and he had a nice laugh out of it.”So far Zangmo has managed to keep herself safe.Some village girls say that most night-hunting was not consensual in the least. And the men were complete strangers – nameless and faceless. Sometimes they came from town. Girls sound asleep after a day’s farm labour had hardly any time to protest before it was too late. The stranger would have crept through the open attic or forced open the poorly shut door or window with a knife to squirm in. The entire business was forced entry, they said. Some became pregnant as a result. Since it was deemed a norm, most rural girls accepted the practice. 

No one usually ever went anywhere to complain.But Zangmo is a teacher. And she knows. She says she won’t accept it.Zangmo, however, is not alone in her predicament. Other female teachers posted in remote schools share her experience.In Langthel lower secondary school (Trongsa), where most teachers live in traditional Bhutanese houses with no attached bathrooms, female teachers told Kuensel that it was unsafe to go to toilets at night.In Tangsibji lower secondary school (Trongsa), drunken men tormented female teachers living in empty classrooms. Men knocked on their doors and tried to break their windows open.”A person kept walking on the class ceiling,” said a teacher.When teachers complained about the incident to the locals the next day, a few men charged them. It took the village tshogpa’s intervention to calm things down then and later resolve the issue.A female health worker posted at the place told Kuensel: “The men keep climbing my window and calling my name out. But I’ve iron grill windows so I feel safe. But you never know. People drink and they can do anything. (Kuenselonline, Oct 1st 2008)

Ludivine de Rancourt

The Betel Nut !

"Doma zhes  is one of the most heard and widespread phrases 
in Bhutan: " Please have betel leaf and areca nut" becomes a 
leitmotif each time two individuals meet, at the end of a meal, 
and in all the occasions of everyday life. It is impossible not to 
notice the importance that the betel leaf and nut holds in 
Bhutan. One can multiply the scenes and the examples: 
Customers buy the betel leaf at the weekly Sunday market, 
their dress's pocket bulging with  silver boxes, or just simply 
with plastic bags filled with betel leafs; petty sellers at bus 
terminals selling ready made quid, called  kamto, in coneshaped papers;
 monks returning to the monastery with their 
bags filled with quantity enough to last for a week’s 
consumption; betel leaf with a small piece of areca nut that 
the host offers with his two hands to the guests at the time of 
a ceremony; betel leafs and nuts put in a plate along with 
those filled with chocolates during archery games or official 
ceremonies ; betel leafs and nuts passed round after dinner ; 
red stains in the street; men and women with red stained 
teeth sweating profusely."-Francoise Pommaret  

As Francoise Pommaret states, the betel nut is part of the Bhutanese tradition, even if it was borrowed from its neighbors. For this reason, a real experience in Bhutan cannot discard the tasting of the betel nut!

Aaron and Billy buying some betel nut on our first day in Paro!

So what you do is you get a green leaf and apply a white substance (which looks like glue but apparently is lime) and you wrap the nut with it. Then you put it in your mouth, all at once! After you have chewed it for a while, you spit out a red juice which tastes very bitter. In theory you should keep chewing throughout the day, leaving the nut in the corner of your mouth while you speak. My roommate told me she was given betel nut since she was two years old! Since then she eats betel nut all the time. Our driver for the East named Tsering would eat some Betel nut everyday in the bus! He explained to me that the leaf symbolizes the human flesh, the lime is the brain and the nut is the bone. "You mix the three together and you get red blood! That is why we spit out the red juice" he told me.

Ludivine de Rancourt

Ever been given change in gum?

As I lined up to do some printing, I saw a student pay the owner for her printing and then him giving her some gum. "How nice of him," I thought, "he gives our free chewing gum!" When it was my turn to print I vaguely remembered being in a taxi and seeing the taxi man give some gum to the man who was being dropped off. It suddenly occurred to me that this must be a form of change. "Do you give gum as an equivalent to one noutlrum?" I asked the owner, he responded with a smile. I paid 30 N for my printing instead of the cost which was 27 N. "Do you also want some gum?" the owner asked laughing. Like a child eager to receive candy I nodded in excitement. I don't know about you, but getting strawberry chewing gum instead of pieces of paper sounds much more interesting to me!

What did you say?

I am sitting in my Buddhism and Social Theory class as the teacher explains to us the activity of the day, "Please get into 4 groups and discuss how this article relates to Engaged Buddhism. I get into my group and watch as one of the students starts packing his things. "Where are you going?" I asked, he shakes his head sideways and replies "bunking." I am perplexed, "what did you say?"
"Feeling bored, I am bunking the class." I suddenly understood that he was skipping the class. Since that day I heard the word bunking everyday. It is quite frequent here. Just this morning as I was getting ready for class, my roommate was still hiding beneath the covers, "you are not going to class?" I wondered. "No I am bunking"she answered, and took the covers up to her face and fell back asleep.
When our Professor told us that we should all get the real Bhutanese experience, we told her that we would have no choice but to start bunking :). What a cool word don't you think? I find it really funny that this word was invented in Bhutan (from my knowledge at least). When I asked my roommates, "where does this word bunking come from?" They replied in shock "it is not English?"
Buddhism and Social Theory class

Ludivine de Rancourt

Friday, November 18, 2011

If that's what they do...


There's a great deal of emphasis in study abroad programs, at least in terms of the ideals of what a student gets from them, in integrating as much as possible--acting Thai, Chilean, Chinese, etc.--or in our case Bhutanese.  One of the things I have heard many times is about Bhutanese people who are "actually" Bhutanese compared to those who are considered not, especially those who have been influenced by foreign cultures, and within those especially people who have been so-called "Westernized."

One day about a month ago it was raining quite heavily, and my responsibilities for the day ended at noon.  I went back to my room to get dry, and my roommate asked if I wanted to watch a movie.  It turned into two movies, and ultimately a four-movie marathon punctuated only by dinner.

It was a great day, and between movies we talked about the kinds of things roommates talk about.  In the context of my experience here, that means more of an emphasis on culture.

But at the end of the day I found myself thinking that this would not be considered a "Bhutanese" activity.  But it is what Bhutanese people do, and it says something about what the future might look like because a significant amount of young Bhutanese people are having that experience.  So even if the activity is familiar to what one already knows, how is it less "cultural", if that's what people actually do in today's world...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dear Parents

Silk.  Cotton.  Wool.  Women with fingers faster than the eye can catch.  Prices that could make you cry and then make you rethink your last years of college payments.  Patterns both fine and intricate while colorful and vibrant.  And don’t forget the adoring fans back at home who cannot live without several pounds of it.  Yes, I am talking about fabric, but not just any fabric.  I am talking about Bhutanese, hand woven, (preferably from Trashigang) fabric. These fabrics in Bhutan are considered hand woven, vegetable-dyed rainbows.  And this, my friend, is how we have broken the bank, ran the financial rivers dry, and scrapped the bottom of the money barrel. 
It is no secret that this group of student seems to be burning through the greenback at a much more rapid speed than our predecessors, and it should be known why.  It has often been said that our group was woefully underprepared for our stay here, more so than the last group BECAUSE we thought we were prepared.  Little did we know just how wrong we were….  We were not told that before 1 PM in order to not offend our hostess we would have to drink six cups of Ara.  We were not told about the foul and persnickety nature of the weather in Thimphu.  And we were not properly warned about the fabrics. 
Have you ever seen a puppy open its eyes for the first time?  It stumbles around, yipping at the bright and dark objects, licking some, and simply staring at others.  The little puppy is simply dumbfounded.  Now imagine us as those little puppies at the fabric markets in Trashigang, or in the open markets of Thimphu and Bumthang. 
If you can imagine that, imagine one student (Marijose) dragging another (myself) around by a piece of fabric while they bickered openly – and loudly - over who would get to buy it. 
For all of the mothers and fathers who occasionally read this blog, please understand.  Vegetable dyed rainbows! When we arrive home broke, loaded down with not our clothes, not our toothbrushes and toothpaste, not our socks or shoes, but loads of brightly colored goodies, please realize that we were those baby puppies.  (And keep that image close when you see our bank statements)
Miranda Joy