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

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Time feels different here. Days feel longer, but I am not too sure why. I think it is because I am not running around trying to complete my “to-do” list. I don’t look back on my day and think “where did my day go?” There is something more peaceful about living here. Something which makes me feel less anxious or stressed. Days just flow in their natural course. I only look at my watch when I have to go to class or an event. When I feel like taking a walk, reading, talking to my roommates or just sitting in the grass with Momo; I never ask myself the question “do I actually have the time to do this?” I just go for it.  It allows my time to be so much more spontaneous. I think that’s it! My days are hardly ever planned; I wake up not knowing what my day is going to look like. It’s just a new day with a big question mark!
That’s what slows time down: freedom! Not being worried about time for once. I remember being at Wheaton and not believing how fast time went by. It feels so different now. This shows that you really can change the perception of time; it just depends on how you spend it, and where your mind is while you are living.
Weekends? Weekdays? There isn’t really a big difference between them. In fact the days of the weeks are only told in English. Some of my Bhutanese friends didn't know how to recite them in Dzongkha. I like that there isn’t such an emphasis put on the dates. Days are just days-time passing by. Personally, I dislike knowing the date because that reminds me how much time is left here. Interestingly, not too long ago, birthdays were not celebrated individually. There was only one date which was celebrated and that was New Years. It was considered to be the whole country's birthday every year. I like that idea of just acknowledging everyone’s presence in one day. To all grow older on that day. Speaking to a friend while watching Thimphu from the Buddha point on top of the mountain, he said, “Why do we say twenty years old, it should be twenty years young.” I wonder why we should celebrate people’s age or even tie it to people’s identity. Age doesn’t have to say so much about you. We shouldn’t have to be so conscious of our own age, it’s just time spent on Earth. I don’t even have to be so stressed about getting to places on time because of magic “Bhutanese Stretchable Time” (BST). I have lived in countries where no one ever gets anywhere on time, so it's nice to be in that time zone again.

"Everybody's worried about time
But i just keep that shit off my mind
People living on twenty-four hour clocks
But we're on a ride that never stops"
-Ziggy Marley

Ludivine de Rancourt

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Wild East

It's a cold morning. I sit with my backpack and watch sunlight creep into the valley of Thimpu before me, the statue of Buddha sits peacefully in the distance absorbing the morning rays. A subtle feel of excitement takes hold of me. It starts in my stomach and flows up to my head, I feel light. We're leaving this morning for Eastern Bhutan – a two days journey by bus to a remote land I have only heard of. A land of natural beauty, small villages, and traditional Bhutanese life... The sunlight has not yet risen high enough to hit my face; I soak in the feeling – adventure ahead.


"Ara"n't cha glad I didn't say Ara?

It is the night before we leave for our trip East. As I sit contemplating the unfinished - let’s get real -  unstarted packing job I have ahead of me and the laundry left to be done, stress grips me. I procrastinated, I whined. Suddenly, memories of our last trip grips me and the anxiety of readying myself for the trip pales in comparison to what has made my stomach churn thus.
We are embarking on another trip with Dasho Colonel Kado, a man of extreme kindness and in possession of a wicked cool beard, and the trip ahead of us will certainly involve Ara.  Ara, a home brewed Bhutanese alcohol made with wheat, maize, rice and millet is part of the “real Bhutanese experience” that Colonel Kado, like the exquisite host that he is, is very intent upon showing us.  I might also add that the dzongkhag of Lhuentse which we shall be visiting, is the birthplace of this..ambrosia of the Druk. 
Our first interaction with Ara came about half an hour after our group had gotten off of the public bus in Bumthang, the twelve-hour ride just behind us.  We sat down to the hotel dinner table wearied, hungry and slightly dehydrated.
“Ara first, dinner after. This is how the Bhutanese do it,” Colonel Kado insisted.
“Colonel Kado, I think we’re a little hungry from the ride-” Professor Kim interjected.
With a matter-of-fact tone, he responded, “It has egg in it.”
Thus, the idea of warm, protein-rich eggs that had a little kick to them settled our protests.
“May I go see how the eggs are made with Ara?” I asked Colonel Kado.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, as he led Ludi and I into the kitchen just off of the dining room.
The Bhutanese kitchen staff glanced up from their prep work to smile at us as Colonel Kado spoke to the woman who would be our Ara chef. Handing her a large bottle that had, at one time, contained a brandy of some sort and now contained a much stronger spirit he insisted to us several times that this Ara was from the Eastern part of Bhutan and was thus, “the best.”
Ludi’s and my stomachs grumbled as the slab of butter began to melt ever so succulently in the pan.  Approximately two eggs were then cracked by the cook’s capable hands (I say approximately because my body was nearly keeling over in hunger and numbers were not my forte at the moment) into the butter just as it had begun to brown around its edges, the center bubbling from the heat.  The smell of cooking eggs filled my nostrils, the sound of the cook’s wooden spoon scraping against the pan’s bottom filled my ears as she scrambled the lovely little eggs. 
“Oh my..” Ludi and I sighed in unison.
The cook, said something I’ll assume went along the lines of “It’s Ara time!” in Dzongkha and uncapped the Ara bottle, splashing the small amount into the pan and mixing. 
The idea of scrambled eggs with a small amount of grain alcohol mixed in wasn’t displeasing at all...until the cook picked up the bottle again. Her wrist formed a ninety degree angle as the entire bottle of Ara splashed into the pan with the same sizzle that the sound of my hungry dreams made, disappearing in a sea of hard alcohol.
What progressed next was beyond words.
But I’ll try:
The covered pot containing hot Ara and egg was placed before our hungry eyes on the hotel’s dining room table. 
Colonel Kado stood before it.
He ignited a match and dropped it, lit, into the pot. 
The flames shot up half a foot into the air, highlighting the silvery shade of the Colonel’s beard. 
The liquid, still lit with blue flames flickering across its surface was poured into a small soup bowl in front of me.
As the Ara cooled, I noticed the bits of egg below the thick, milky surface of the alcohol.
Peer pressure ensued.
I drank.
It is a delicacy, it is a tradition, it tasted, to my untrained tongue, like glorified gasoline.
Our training with bottles of Black Mountain whiskey (which at the local Eight Eleven costs the equivalent of about four U.S.  dollars) had clearly not been strenuous enough.
Long story short – the next night we had egg and Ara again. And Bumthang will probably on red alert for the Wheaton group’s second visit..

"Haa"ppy Birthday!

With Angay (grandmother) in Haa
In late September we took a trip to a village in rural Haa to stay with our tour guide’s in-laws. While the rest of the group went hiking, I stayed behind in the house and spent time with the family. As it was my birthday on the 24th, I had the unique opportunity to celebrate my birthday in the Bhutanese tradition. Bhutanese will usually go to the hla-gang or temple, to light a butter lamp. I went with one of the family members up to the nearby hla-gang and lit a lamp and listened to the stories that the lama told about that monastery. One of the stories I found most intriguing was one about the local diety of Haa (Eup Chundu): A short time ago some robbers came to steal some sacred relics from the shrine room of the temple. The caretaker, who was away that night, found the robbers the next day tied by invisible ropes by the prayer flags. The robbers could only be unbound when they returned the relics and were given permission from the caretaker to leave. The lama also said that the Buddha statue in that shrine was predicted to speak in the future. Another statue had already spoken.
In Haa there are many stories of their powerful protective deity. It is understood that the reason the last horse in a group will always be tired because the deity has chosen to travel on it. When arriving in Haa (or any new place where one has arrived) it is expected that offerings be made to the local deity. Although this practice has become less commonly practiced, I never fail to see at least one person at the dining table throwing a bit of their food or drink on the ground or table for the deities.
I spent the rest of my time in Haa learning Dzongkha from the family--the son in law of the family translated for me as the Agay and Angay (grandfather and grandmother) didn’t speak any English. I found the most useful phrase of the weekend to be Nga doh mahp ya si!  “My face has become red!”  used in response to Agay whose flattery made me blush! (It’s been so long since I’ve seen such a beautiful girl I forgot to say my Om Mane Padme Hum! (Compassion mantra repeated many times over prayer beads.) The day of my birthday the cook spent all day cooking a cornbread and writing “Happy Birthday Nunu” on it. He even placed a butter lamp on top! This year I didn’t blow out my candles, instead I put the lamp on the family alter and made my wishes to the Buddha image and protective deities that this year bring happiness and good health for myself and all beings. This birthday I learned that there is more than one kind of family with whom to share special moments.
Celebrating my 19th birthday with our host family
Despite my having been here for more than three months, I still feel enchanted by the magic of Bhutan. Although I’ve learned that thunder dragons and talking statues aren’t the only kind of magic found here—the greatest magic I’ve experienced  is the relationships I have made with people here—from the deaf students teaching me sign language at Drak Tsho to my sister- roommates here at RTC.
Photos by Ellie Angerame

Majors in Anthropology and Asian Studies
Class of 2014

Another typical "Heather-moment"

    It's 7:30am.  I was out celebrating Halloween with some friends last night and it is far to early for my alarm to be going off.  I'll hit snooze until 8, it won't take me that long to get ready anyways.

    It's 8am.  Ok, I better get up now.  I pull on my shorts, t-shirt, knee and ankle braces, and my tennis shoes and run up to the dining hall to grab some breakfast before the 8:30 set-up time for my first game with the RTC college basketball team.  We will be playing Gedu college: best two out of three.

    Of course, when they told me to arrive at 8:30, that was BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time),  further stretched by the fact that the game itself was moved from 9am to 9:30 late last night without my knowledge.  Oh well, I got to watch the competition warm up for a bit before the rest of the RTC girls arrived.

    We huddle up and our team captain and basketball club president explain the “plan” for the game.  I'll get subbed in after we start.  The game begins at high speed and although we are close, our team seems to be on edge.  I get called to switch into the game and do my best, finishing off the quarter at 10-10.  As the game goes on, our team steadily plays better and better and we take the lead.  Although we are winning, RTC never slows down and we even get a little aggressive, fouling a number of times within only a couple minutes.

     Around the end of the second quarter I pull a typical “Heather-moment.”  I am right under the basket.  Jump up... and wait! Someone is behind me and I can't land properly, spraining my ankle.  This is the second time I've sprained an ankle playing basketball in Bhutan, my body really doesn't like it when I am active.

    Both teams circle around me and despite my protests start stretching and rotating my ankle to see how it is.  Someone is even behind me holding my head so I don't have to put it on the dirty floor.  The school medical officer comes over, takes a look at it and after a few minutes about 4 girls (from both teams) pull me up and then two of the taller girls from my team get me over to our chairs.

    Although I probably shouldn't have, I got back on my feet and played for a while in the 4th quarter and our second game.  We went undefeated, beating Gedu twice in a row.  Although as I write this my ankle is still a bit sore, the team-work, team-spirit, and great attitude of all of the girls makes it worth it.  Cheers to my RTC basketball girls and thank you for making me feel like a real part of the team!

Good afternoon ma'am

"I wish I had gone to a Primary school like this!"is what I told myself when I first visited the Jigme Losel Primary school, "look at all those beautiful flowers!"

I was very impressed with the school's vision which was painted on the wall :
                 Learn, Value and Practice
Mission: Allow for self discovery and holistic learning
Value knowledge that is for life

  • of Self
  • of Thinking
  • of Community
  • of Environment
Goal: to produce green students
          to create a green school for green Bhutan

Jigme Losel Primary school incorporates Gross National Happiness in its curriculum. The 4 pillars of GNH are:

  1. Economic Development,
  2. Good Governance,
  3. Cultural Preservation
  4.  Nature Conservation

After leaving the school, something changed inside me. I had this great desire to come back and visit the students because we hadn’t been able see them. I already had my internship at RENEW which is an NGO which seeks to help Bhutanese women with domestic violence, but I couldn’t resist going back to the school. I went back with Adam, and before I knew it, the Principal had given me two classes to teach. Deep down, I knew that this would happen. Before starting to teach, the Principal let us observe a class. I watched a first grade class and was delighted to see how patient and warm hearted the teacher was. She started the class with “mind training” and what used to be a classroom full of running loud students, became a peaceful place in a few seconds. The students sat on their chairs, laid their little hands on their laps and closed their eyes halfway. I observed several grades, and all of them started the class with mind training.

Class 6C playing kickball

I have now been teaching at Jigme Losel for almost three months and it has been such an enriching experience for me. The students in my class have this amazing capability to lighten up my day with all the energy they have. I always wanted to be a teacher when I was young, but later I thought I wasn’t patient enough. The truth I didn’t know then is that it takes experience to learn to find that patience within you. I remember the first time I stepped into 6A, they all stood up to greet “good afternoon Ma’am.” As soon as they sat down again, all 32 of them were chattering and it was impossible to speak over their voices. I had such a hard time making sure they were constantly interested and attentive.

Class 6c watching their peers during role-plays of the 3 Buddhist poisons

 But slowly our relationship began to grow, and soon enough I found a way to keep them entertained. I taught them games I had learned in leadership camps, I taught them how to speak Spanish (they now greet me with a big “HOLA” when I come in) I showed them a power point presentation with some pictures of the countries I had been to (they were especially marveled by the picture the fish under the sea “you went under the sea ma’am? You know how to swim?” None of them in the class have ever seen the ocean and they have never been taught how to swim. In fact they are discouraged to play nearby the river) and I have taught them classes by making them do role-plays to demonstrate their understandings of my teachings.

Billy playing Lacrosse with them! 

Adam and I have been feeling really inspired by teaching in this school. He had the idea of starting a debate club after school so a couple of weeks ago we gave it a try. The first meeting we had there were about eight students but after the second meeting we had about 25 students or more! It was incredible! The students have loved it, and it has been great medium through which they have been able to improve their oral skills and confidence when speaking in public. On Wednesdays in the global warming club for the 6C class who apparently expressed their interest in starting this project with us. This Wednesday the local news called BBS visited the school and interviewed our students. Just a few minutes ago the owner of the cafĂ© where I am presently at said to Adam (I was sick and unable to go)“I saw you on the television!” Isn’t that crazy?

A poster showing "What does citizenship mean?"

Last Wednesday we organized a field trip to the Biodiversity National Park with 6C so that they could see how global warming was affecting their country with the extinction of medicinal plants and orchids. The trip was such a success! The students were so excited to go on this trip. Being in the bus with them reminded me of my own field trips. The students were singing on top of their lungs in Dzongkha and passing around chips and candy all around the bus. I hopped from seat to seat as the students demanded I sat next to them and listened to them talk to me about their lives and anything they wanted to share with me.

On my way back to RTC in the bus, I looked out the window at the beautiful scenery and that special little house which sits on top of the mountain on its own and smiled to myself: “this is it, I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do.” 

Children have neither past nor future; they enjoy the present, which very few of us do. Jean de la Bruyere

By learning you will teach;
by teaching you will understand.
Latin Proverb

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cause and Effect.....Where are you, Ruslan?

When you plan to go and study abroad, there are many things that cross your mind. You think about the type of experiences you want to have and the type of adventures you might encounter. It might even cross your mind the possibility of falling in love or meeting a lifelong friend.  For days before coming to Bhutan I felt "butterflies" in my stomach picturing the different outcomes and things I would learn. I imagined myself in many different scenarios. 

For one thing I thought that I would come into terms with the spiciness of Bhutanese food and embrace it (for which I have to some extent miserably failed). I also thought that I would be hiking quite a lot and that I would get into shape. In reality we have hiked a couple of times, but I really wish someone would have told me that most of the time I would find myself wearing a kira and in need of  high heels. I also wished for roommates with whom I could learn things about Bhutanese culture and share my own culture. Looking back at the past couple of months I have many good memories with my roommates that I will always cherish. I know that in the future when I think about my time with them, there will be an inevitable smile on my face. 

Then, there are the things you don´t expect to deal with, experience, or learn from when you are abroad. It is the kind of things that break your heart... and spirit. The hardest was dealing with the death of a good friend. My friend Ruslan passed away after he had a cycling accident back in September. I thought he was too young to die, he had so much to give and I was deeply saddened by the idea of not talking to him ever again. If I had been at home I would have found some sense of comfort by going to church and praying for his soul. My friends and family members would have told me how he had become an angel and that he would eternally be looking after us from above. My way of dealing with his departure would have been very different from the way I experienced it in Bhutan. I came to understand the idea of death and reincarnation from a Buddhist perspective to cope with my loss. 

The moment I heard the news, I broke into tears. I couldn't help but to sob uncontrollably. My friends were trying to calm me down "don´t cry anymore Mari...". The  first thing they told me was that "crying for someone who is gone, will keep their soul attached to this life". They explained to me that if he had been a compassionate and giving person he would surely reincarnate into something good in his next life (cause and effect).  They asked me about the things he had done in this life and I narrated how he was such a loved person by everyone who knew him, how he had been so committed to Special Olympics when we were at high school and his love for his family and friends.I remember Ruslan as always willing to learn from others and always striving to become a better person.  I found myself thinking back at all the good deeds he had done in life. I remembered him making jokes and smiling in my room and being there for my roommate when she needed some good advice. I also thought about when he lead the independence parade in Costa Rica dressed very proudly with his Latvian traditional clothes. He also helped me to overcome my fear of cycling in the town where we lived. He encouraged me to try it out and prepared all the equipment for me.

 One of my friends then smiled back at me and said “he had surely accumulated a lot of good karma". On that same night, I sat with a very close friend of mine and we talked about the impermanence of things. He told me that even though he was Buddhist himself he had had a hard time dealing with loss, but that it was important to realize the impermanent nature of everything, not just regrading to death, but also to relations and material possessions. I thought about my parents and my other friends, and how sometimes we think that their existence  and presence will be permanent. We take things for granted. Once they are gone we are left with a huge hole inside that we don´t quite know how to deal with or fill. On the next day I went with him to a monastery and lit some butter lamps for Ruslan. I closed my eyes and prayed that wherever he was, he was safe and happy. An old lady who was there also prayed in Dzongkha for his soul. That day I learned that I could also find spiritual comfort in a monastery far away from the churches I'm used to, or even in prayers which language I can’t understand. Sometimes it is all about the intention and faith. 

( The monastery where I went)
I had more conversations with my roommates regarding reincarnation and their believes in death. My roommate Rinchen assured me that everything you do in life has a cause and an effect (not only in your present life but in future ones as well). She said that it is believed that people who have done wrong in past lives are born into animals such as cows, pigs and chickens, which are consumed by other people, and undergo a great deal of suffering. On the other hand, if good karma has been cultivated in past lives it is very likely to be born human again. Those who have accumulated good deeds could also be born as monks or very wealthy and healthy people. Something that I found very interesting was the way Bhutanese families deal with the loss of a member. She told me that when her grandmother passed away they consulted an astrologist about what her future reincarnation would be and the different rituals and pujas they would have to perform in order for her reincarnation to take place. She also told me that in fact the 4th King is considered to be a reincarnation of the Lord of Compassion (no wonder why he was born as a King of Bhutan).

In my religion which is Catholic, we are taught to find comfort in the belief that the person who is gone will find eternal happiness and peace in heaven next to God. They become angels who guide and protect us. I find so interesting that in Buddhism, the family in a way helps their relatives’ soul to reincarnate into a new and better life through different rituals. In a way the life of a person ends with their death and a new one starts following their reincarnation. The good and bad deed that they have done in previous lives carries over. According to my religion we have a funeral and display the corpse for two or three days before burring it, and we pray for the person's soul to reach heaven safely. We also dress in black as a sign of respect. I'm not sure if Ruslan is an angel, a monk, or even perhaps a future king, but either way I can look back and smile at the great life he had and all the different ways he touched so many lives while he was alive. 

Miss you hermano.

- Marijose Vila Class 2013

"Time heals all wounds"--but not those caused by spicy food!


The longer we have been here the more I found myself thinking about our role within the larger RTC community, and also the role we as a group play in the future of this program.  

One of the first things I was struck by when we arrived was how large and how beautiful the campus at RTC is.  The college is only three years old, and I did not expect they would have come as far in their infrastructure as they have in such a short time.  And the improvements have been visible even in our time here—a new auditorium (said to be the nicest in all of Bhutan) was inaugurated in our first two months, and a new "Executive Centre" has gone from merely a concrete foundation to a large building in the same amount of time.  Given what we are seeing, and the point in the college's history, it is funny to think of what it might be like to visit RTC a few decades down the road—I can only imagine the college will become.

I have also been thinking about what it means to be in a place for four months.  Depending on who is asking you, “How long are you in Bhutan?” four months is either received as, “Wow, that’s great!  So much time!” or, “Wow, so short!”  It is certainly a much longer time than a tourist would be here for, but also much less time than the people we meet whose time in Bhutan can be measured in years (in a few cases decades) as they work on various projects or become plugged into different sectors of Bhutanese society. 

Just yesterday my roommate asked me a question to which I responded “No problem” and automatically tilted my head sideways, which is an Indian and Bhutanese characteristic that I caught myself doing on the basis of instinct.  I laughed out loud and said, “It looks like I will be fully adjusted to Bhutan just in time to leave.”  This is largely true—if you are as here for as long as we are, you really become comfortable and feel a part of things, but cannot go much deeper than that the true feeling of belonging one develops.

But let me qualify the “sense of belonging” with one critical caveat.  I could probably live here for decades, centuries, or millennia and to the day I die still not be used to how ungodly spicy the food is!  I am a total wimp in this respect—even “spicy” by US standards—and what we can consider spicy in the US does not even register as remotely hot here.  The level of spiciness they use here is roughly on par with what I think should be considered biological warfare, and while some in the group have done quite well adjusting to it, I have learned to be good friends with plain white rice as often as needed to avoid spicy food!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hugging or Making a Bow or Shaking Hands?

(Nanako Ota)

One of my experiences of culture shock when I came to the U.S. for the first time was how people hug for a greeting. I honestly felt shocked when my male middle-aged adviser hugged me even though we have not introduced each other yet. Because in Japan, we usually make a bow when meeting a person, and sometimes shake hands but not always. Making a bow is important in our culture that it shows a respect (technically speaking, we have three different degrees of how much you tilt your upper body: 15, 30, and 45 degrees), and my friends in the U.S. mock me because I ‘shake’ my head busily even when talking on the phone.

After living in the U.S. more than four years, I came to hug people for a greeting.
My friends in Japan seem a little confused when I hug them, but they generously accept ‘Americanized Nana’ anyways. Here at RTC, when meeting my roommates on the first day in my room, I wanted to run to them, hug them, and say, ‘’Nice to meet you!” I found myself opening my arms widely to get ready for a hug ceremony, but I noticed that my roommates holding their mug cups and did not move. So I told myself, “Oh, maybe not.” Then I suddenly switched my mode from American to Japanese, and softly said, “Nice to meet you…” while making a bow.

Bhutanese culture of greeting is interesting. In a formal occasion (when people greet kings, or when students receive a certificate on the stage), Bhutanese people make a deep bow and put their arms low as if they were saying they have nothing to harm you. On campus, I see students (not everyone) make a bow to their professors. When I was in Japanese middle school and high school, I needed to make a bow to the older students, even if it was only one-year difference (it was THE hierarchy society). The students here do not seem to do that, although they put asim (sister) and acho (brother) for calling the older students (ex. acho Kinley = brother Kinley).

In town, I found it so interesting how my Bhutanese male friends actually stop in the middle of the road, and shake their male friends’ hands to greet. Their hand shaking is not a subtle thing; they do it with their both hands while looking into each other’s eyes. I cannot really describe well, but when observing it, I really feel warmth, respect, and caring between the friends. They often ask each other “Gate mo?/ Where are you going?” and sometimes have a long conversation after that. On the other hand, Bhutanese girls do not shake their hands but call their friend’s name loudly, or just tap on the friend’s shoulder.

After living in Bhutan for more than three months, I do know that hugging is not the culture here, but I still do it when I feel like hugging Bhutanese people who are precious to me. And I love how they (especially my roommates) come to try to hug me back now, even though they must feel a little awkward. It is just amazing that a hug, which used to be foreign to me, can connect us mentally here in Bhutan.  

Pressure Abroad

The Watson Fellowship. I hadn't thought I would apply for it, but with the encouragement of my friends and the subtle watson, watson! whispers in the back of my head-- I decided to go for it. The Watson has a long application process that begins in September and ends in... well, I'm not quite sure when it ends. I knew it would be difficult to do in Bhutan, and I'll show you exactly what I mean.

In this picture is ara, the local brewed wine (but more akin to vodka). “You can tell how strong it is by the flames,” says Colonel Kado, as he scoops the liquid with a ladle, flames everywhere. “Ohh!!” A massive smile spreads on his face and I feel myself shuddering, “it's very strong!”

We were in Bumthang, which is where Buddhism pretty much began in Bhutan. But more interestingly, Bumthang is the capital of Bhutan's wine, beer and cheese. We were being treated unbelievably well—like royalty—by Colonel Kado. That night we were sitting in the Swiss Restaurant, Bumthang's hotspot that provides all the incredible edibles (and drinkables) of Bumthang. Just as we sat down, Aaron got a call for his Watson interview. He rushed downstairs and I sat nervously, for 45 minutes, awaiting my turn. “You'll be fine, man! Don't worry about it!” Billy's words really did calm me (thanks Billy!), but I couldn't escape the pressure of this interview.

The core of the application is a personal statement and project proposal, basically to show the Watson Foundation that you're a worthy—exceptionally worthy—person to invest in. Wheaton advisers conduct interviews with applicants and choose up to four to nominate for the national selection round. After that, they work closely with nominees in an attempt to win the prestigious fellowship. Applying for this Fellowship challenges you in significant ways, demanding that you look at yourself and ask, 'who am I and why do I want to do this?'

The Watson application process is complicated as it is, without us being in Bhutan. I'm proposing to explore Buddhism as a vehicle for social transformation in conflict-afflicted communities, in a effort toward peace. Working on this application in Bhutan has been an interesting experience riddled with small challenges that have, I would argue, richly colored the Watson application process. It demands extensive research, communication with advisers, constant busy work and much editing. In other words, it demands good internet, quiet work space, and few distractions—all of which are difficult to come by in Bhutan, especially in combination. Aaron and I navigated through these challenges to earn an interview with the Wheaton Watson selection committee.

It was to occur on that night in Bumthang. My greatest concern with the Watson, in general, is portraying myself: not the matter of completely exposing myself (though that took adjustment), but trying to portray my true self. This is what made my interview with Wheaton so much more intimidating. How do I accomplish this, when the only connection with my interviewers is a distant voice in the telephone, barely audible? When I cannot look into their eyes to gauge if they think I'm crazy or if they understand me? I sat thousands of miles away, in a small restaurant in the countryside, surrounded by cannabis shrubs and wild dogs, while they sat in the warm Filene center (or so I imagine), looking over my application and a list of questions...

As I waited for Aaron to finish his interview, I sipped on freshly brewed beer and delighted in small cubes of Swiss cheese. Aaron came into the dining room and handed me the phone; it was my turn. I ran down the stairs to the small office we had requested—a quiet place to talk. There were two computers in the office, sitting among scattered papers. Against the back wall were a couple kegs. Focus! I heard a distant voice in the telephone, followed by an awkward pause, the “long-distance pause.” I centered myself for a moment, catching my breath and trying to gain composure. Pressing the phone hard against my ear, I tried to catch every word spoken. I could feel the phone getting moist from my sweat, and cursed my already bad hearing.

In the middle of the interview someone tried to open the door. It slammed several times against the lock. “One moment!!!” I stuttered, trying to hear one of the questions. At that moment I wished I could just speak telepathically to the intruder. I'm in the middle of something!

Having thanked my interviewers and hung up, I felt as if weights were lifted off my shoulders. I walked back upstairs into a lively room, greeted by mugs of beer, amazingly cheesy emadatse and good company. Looking back, it couldn't have been any better.