Monday, October 31, 2011

Nurit's Ten Discoveries

Here are a few of the discoveries I have made since arriving in Bhutan:

1.  I introduced myself as “breast-milk” to the Prime Minister. Apparently my nickname, Nunu, has a different meaning here in Bhutan than it does in the country where it originates (Burma) where it means “gentle.” 

2It’s a very bad idea to put an entire dried chili pepper in one’s mouth…especially in front of distinguished hosts. I learned in practice a few important Buddhist lessons from the experience: that of restraint (although my tears slipped out of my control, I thankfully kept myself from screaming out loud), generosity (the other two expensive chilies ended up underneath a leaf of lettuce for the deities to consume—I’m sure that they are more capable of handling such delicacies), suffering (I didn’t know that food could cause physical pain!),and impermanence (the pain of the chilies faded after the longest twenty minutes of my life.) 

3.  Bad karma can follow you even in to your Buddhism and Social Theory class: the seat of the chairs at RTC do not attach to the frame. The entire class laughed for a solid minute after I fell off my chair in heels and full traditional dress. Closely followed by…

4.  Being inconspicuous as a pchilip or foreigner in Bhutan is absolutely impossible. Although the other day I was mistaken for a Bhutanese and someone asked me “sister, what happened to your hair?” (I have very curly hair.) Of course it’s become much funnier now that I can understand a little of what people say when they talk to each other about me! 

5.    Finding parallels between the two Tibeto-Burman languages of Burmese and Dzongkha isn’t something you should attempt. After accidentally throwing out a dirty swear to my new friends while saying the word “chicken” in Burmese, I save my linguistic endeavors as comic relief instead. 

6.   It’s time to drop the habit of cutting my nails at the end of the day. Apparently it shortens the life of your parents (sorry mom and dad!) 

7.  Practice language only on close friends: in my attempt to practice Dzongkha pronunciation I ran through most of my Dzongkha Commission phrase book with my roommate. Unfortunately my interpretation of the phonetic spelling was unintelligible until I came across the phrase Choe gi awa na le bup thoen me ga? “Do you have worms in your stools?” which apparently came out crystal clear. 
8. The 50 Ngultrum note looks a lot like the 500 note in a dark taxi (or in a well-lit café for that matter.) 

9. When riding a city bus, prepare to use your full lung capacity to combat the compression from your neighbors on either side of you. 
10.Chewing a piece of dried yak cheese is a serious commitment. It took me two and a half hours to finish the eraser sized lump. When I asked if most people took so long to eat the cheese, my friend responded “My (toothless) grandmother takes a little longer.”
For more blog entries go to:

Majors in Anthropology and Asian Studies
Class of 2014


Walking in town I realized...

Children are playing outside by themselves, the doors to houses are widely open and people walk on the street without apparently caring about others.Here I walk all the time from my internship into town crossing houses and corn fields and somehow I feel safe.I have even hitchhiked my way up to RTC by taking a construction bus.Sometimes when I take a taxi  the driver will stop on his way to pick up more customers. The first time this happened I felt uncomfortable with the idea of a total stranger sitting next to me on a cab.  I must even admit that taking the public bus the first time was nerve wracking to me...

I cant help but to pause sometimes and evaluate the situation.  Where does my fear come from ? and How is Bhutan different  from my home country ? As an international student in the U.S,  I remember the unfamiliar feeling of walking on campus late at night and feeling safe. Or just even the fact I could walk by myself to Wallgreens or CVS. In Guatemala, where I live,  I am not allowed to walk by myself or  take  the public transportation. Everywhere I go I'm constantly aware of my surroundings and who is walking next to me. I don´t like having the windows of the car down and I am terrified that one of these days I will be mugged.Here in Bhutan my experience has been the total opposite. Even though I do stand out as a foreigner, I have never felt disrespected by the locals. If anything they have been very helpful. The other day,  I left my scarf in a restaurant and when I called they assured me that they would keep it safe for me. " Don´t worry Mam we will keep the scarf for you". The other day Billy left his bag with a laptop and everything was returned back safely to him as well.

 Of course there are crimes here in Bhutan and people get robbed, however it is not something that is common to hear. Violence has not been normalized. It is rare to see in the front of the newspaper news related to violence. If anything the most common form of violence that is published in newspapers are rape cases. Definitely alcohol abuse might be a huge problem here and broken families are also on the rise. I have also read some articles on gangs in Bhutan and apparently the youth that are either unemployed or come from broken families find comfort in them. However, I don't think there is a comparison point between the activities of  gangs here and the ones I'm used to back home. I really hope that Bhutan will continue to remain a safe place where citizens trust each other. There just seems to be a sense of common trust in this place that is impressive.

Marijose Vilá Class 2013

Trash and Other Social Quandries

There are a lot of beautiful things about Bhutan, and their trash collection is sadly not among those things.  As Thimphu began to develop at breakneck speed it found itself sorely lacking in a trash collection system that could keep up with its growing waste.  A dumpsite expected to fill up in ten years filled up in six.  A collection system that took a few hours now takes days.  Somehow twenty tons of garbage is now around fifty tons. 
As someone who has never given our waste collection system much thought, it was shocking to see people burning their trash, throwing their trash on the sides of the road! It became more and more obvious as I worked with Thimphu City Corporation, that the mismanagement of the trash was actually a symptom of the rapid development of the city.  The TCC (Thimphu City Corporation) is working very hard to develop a new collection system that actually standardizes and streamlines trash collection through a pilot program.  They allot two bins for wet and dry waste, separate and compost the materials, and track the levels of material entering the system.  They promote cleaning campaigns to try and raise awareness about proper waste disposal, ban unregulated dumping, and provide public waste bins (all new to Bhutan).  Bhutan recognizes that is has a growing waste problem, and is actively trying to fix this issue. 
 What surprised me the most about Bhutan’s trash was actually not being addressed directly by these new programs.  In Bhutan many people make their living off of this excess trash.  They collect it, sort it, and recycle it through India, where scrap materials are gobbled up and reused in new products.  The prices are fairly high, and the living is not a bad one.  These people fly just under the radar of the municipalities, and have recently become a hot topic for development agencies such as the UN.  They take out a large portion of waste before it even enters into the data stream, and collect revenue untraced in the system.  They represent key statistics on paper, glass, plastic, wood, and metal levels in trash.  This in a town that is always under construction leaves a lot to be discovered.  They skew not only trash data but also construction data as the prices of some materials leads to thefts, mismanagement of materials and other headaches in the construction business.
They are also potential victims of the new cleaner campaigns, more efficient waste collection systems, and general trends to waste more responsibly.  Families that hand the business of scrap collection to their children are handing them a dwindling revenue source, as fewer and fewer materials become available on the streets and in the dump.  Plastics are being banned in grocery stores, cardboard frowned upon in transportation, and glass materials reused in the home.  Cleaner streets may look more attractive to the tourists, but it also cripples an entire sector of work. 
What I find interesting is how many other informal sector jobs are being made obsolete in the new management systems of Bhutan?  Is the technically trained weaver pushing out the weaver who learned from their mother?  Is the village handyman losing work to the big carpenters?  What kinds of livelihoods are being reshaped by the more efficient systems slowly being implemented across Bhutan?  And is more efficient always better?  We should ask the scrap collectors first.  
Miranda Joy

Eight things one cannot travel to Bhutan without: But we did…

Number one: Heels
This trip is packaged as a hiking, biking, outing extravaganza, but little did we know!  The average woman in Bhutan will not wear her Kira without heels.  It is considered rather sloppy to not have heels with their Kira, not to mention when going out to disco-techs heels are a must (and yes, disco-techs are a very common pastime here).  So when we arrived in our hiking gear and our no-nonsense shoes, we were in a bit of a bind.
Number two: Travelers diarrhea/ Altitude sickness/ Motion sickness meds
It has happened to all of us, and it WILL ABSOLUTLEY happen to you! You drank the unfiltered water when you brushed your teeth and suddenly your stomach is rumbling is a very, very unsettling way.  You begin your adjustment to the new altitude by trekking several thousand more feet into the sky, and suddenly lunch is more threatening than when it first went down.  And my personal favorite (and this is for all of you carnival junkies, boat enthusiasts, motion extravaganzas), you get on what the Bhutanese have so lovingly called the “vomit commit” bound to some remote part of Bhutan and realize that it is, in fact, apply named.  It has happened to us, it will happen to you, and to think it wont will usually end in some form of explosive loss of food. Bring the meds.
Number three: Warm, Cold, AND RAIN clothing
You arrive in the middle of hot, humid monsoon season.  You hike in the middle of monsoon season.  This means that you literally strip down to a tank-top and shorts for two hours, add full rain wear and are up to your mid-calves in mud for the rest of the trek, and finally sleep in winter weather at night.   Most people hit one or two of these categories but no one ever gets all three right.  And to make matters worse, by mid October your are running around in every single article of clothing you own desperately trying to stay warm, wishing you HAD brought two or three pair of thermal undies.   Trust me when I say, the last few treks will end in sleeping bag sharing.  You may panic (as a few people did) and dump “excess” clothes in an attempt to hit the 20 kilo mark, but trust me, they wont charge you for three or four extra kilos, and Bhutan will hit every extreme in weather.  PS: extra socks don’t hurt either…
Number four: Toiletries
Like so many people, I believed that I could probably get by in Bhutan without bringing along the essentials.  However in short supply here are good razors, sun block, and mouthwash.  What can’t you find here? Tampons…..  (not good dinner talk I am sure, but get caught without them and you will not be happy) My advice is to just bring it.  A large tube of toothpaste, decent sized shampoo (conditioner is not required), and ANY toiletry you cannot live without…. because you just might have to live without.
Number five:  Extra memory cards
They are tiny and a pain in the butt to keep track of, but day 6 in a 10-day hike and your camera says “memory full” and you will be hurting.  This happened to most people during the Tsechu festival, and trust me when I say; it was not something any of us dealt well with.
Number six: Credit/Debit cards:
These bad boys are always dangerous to travel with, and it is best to really try to travel with a set amount of cash, however you can always withdraw more in times of need.  We were told one amount of money that was optimal to take, but quickly realized that did not account for extra travel (which we were then told to do), specialty diets (groceries can be expensive), and any shopping for clothes, shoes, or even gifts for friends and family.  Needless to say we came with one amount of money, and EVERYONE has spent more than that.
Number seven: Protein
Powder, bars, milks, any way you can get protein into Bhutan, get it.  All of our doctors advised it, none of us listened.  Now we have anemic this, lethargic that, and it is a general pain in the butt for those who pass out from iron deficiencies.  You can get peanut butter and meat in Bhutan, but expect to pay for it.  And that leads me to my last must have.
Number eight: Care packages
Now you will never bring everything, and the food here is very spicy, so make your parents send you something nice! A few general tips; don’t send electronics (they won’t make it), don’t send over five pounds (the price skyrockets into the hundreds), and always send in envelopes and never in boxes (an envelope takes twenty days, a box several months).  If you are like me, specialty coffee, skittles, and any other snack item is an extremely nice treat half way through the trip.  Most people receive entire packages filled with mac-n-cheese. 

Let me say, there are plenty more items we have all griped about not having, hair dryers, proper hiking bags, decent headphones, and so on.  However the lack of any of the things mentioned above has at some points cripple our enjoyment of the many experiences in Bhutan (especially number two).  Being unprepared comes with the terrain, but it never hurts to try and be as prepared as possible.  Hiking in torrential rain without a raincoat or watching a once in a lifetime festival without being able to record it can ruin anyone’s day, and sleeping in freezing cold weather without warm clothes will ruin anyone’s night.  Be prepared, be safe, and bring heels! 
Miranda Joy

Please do NOT pay the Lamas

Call it culture shock, call it bad manners, but one thing few people will actually admit to is that sometimes we get it wrong.
Bhutan is one of the growing number of countries that use English as their language of education, and therefore our group has become very comfortable in their communication in Bhutan.  However there are simply some things that have not translated.  For instance it is no secret that the average non-vegetarian American is more than a little attached to their hamburgers.  And it should also come as no surprise to anyone that hamburgers are in fact rare in Bhutan.   However when we happen upon a menu that offers hamburgers, we often jump at the opportunity to reconnect with our American roots.  But alas! In Bhutan a hamburger is exactly what is sounds like, ham and bun.  And when one orders a cheeseburger, they often get cheese and bun.  Needless to say, we have inserted foot-in-mouth more than once.  
Don’t think the language blunders end there!  In an attempt to overcome our painfully obvious chillip status, we have begun learning Dzongkha.  The idea is to better understand Bhutanese culture, assimilate into society, and a more overall smooth transition into the Bhutanese inner-workings.  Armed with the simple phrase, my name is Miranda, or “ngegay mi Miranda i” in Dzongkha, we set out into the bright new bilingual landscape.  What we didn’t know is that if you mispronounce the first word what we are actually saying is “Will you sleep with Miranda?”  Needless to say our Bhutanese friends were both mortified and hilariously amused with our new phrase. 
And did it stop with language?  I think by now you can guess that it did not.  The Bhutanese seemed just as confused with our customs as we were with them.  As it turns out a rumor went around campus that some of our parents were visiting the college.  Some of our parents will in fact be coming to RTC, but not until December, so you can see how the rumor may have been started.  I was not aware of this particular rumor; however there was a lot of speculation as to whose parent would be arriving on campus. 
One morning, two days after Dean Williams and her friend Betsy had arrived on campus, a good friend of mine stopped me.  She seemed very excited, so I naturally asked what she was up to.  She explained to me that she had just met my mother.
“What?!” I responded, sure she had misspoken.
“I had no idea your mother was on campus.  It must be nice to see her.” She replied.
You must understand, my mother is a lot of things, but able to stay on a plane for more than 15 hours, she is not.  The likelihood that she would actually visit Bhutan is about the same as Pigs flying, which is to say, maybe, but not in this lifetime.  So naturally I was confused as all get-up to hear that my mother was suddenly on campus.
“Noooo, I don’t think you saw my mother.  I think Ludi’s parent are coming, but not until December”
“No, I saw her! She was with dean Williams.”
“No, I am pretty sure she was not.”
“But she was just in the dinning hall.”
“Oh yes! That isn’t my mom that is Betsy, Dean Williams’ friend.  My mom is definitely still in the US.”  I paused, because Betsy and I bare no resemblance to each other, “why did you think she was my mother?”
“She was feeding the dogs.”
Yes, I do feed the dogs on campus.  Yes I am known as a bit of an oddball when it comes to working with dogs (no one else is crazy enough to play with the sick dogs).   And yes, if my mother was here, she would feed the dogs as well.  But a fondness for dogs does not a relative make, and one has to admit this was a pretty hilarious mix-up that my friend and I later laughed over. 
When abroad, one expects a certain amount of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and simple cultural differences.  It can be as simple as whistling at night, sleeping with ones shoes under the bed, or accidentally asking a friend to sleep with you in a foreign language.  Bhutan is no exception to this rule, and our blunders have for the most part been received in good nature.  But as one navigates the terrain of new countries, they should learn to accept and even cherish those awkward moments when they get ham and bun.  
Miranda Joy

Not Another Post On Dogs

Bhutan is the topic of many a blogger these days.  Beautiful mountains and unique culture keep the average tourist writing and clicking away long after they have left Bhutan.  Complaints are few in these blogs but one topic of annoyance that often repeats itself would be Bhutan’s stray dog population.  These dogs are not pretty, they bark all night, they have a penance for darting out in traffic, and they run in packs.  They scavenge in the trash, laze about on doorsteps, and can be found anywhere.  (During the Kings wedding two dogs accompanied many of the dancers on the field)
But this is only one view of the dogs that wander Thimphu.  In Bhutan a stray dog is a strange relative, a reincarnated friend, and part of the fabric that makes up daily life.  What seems at first to be a stray dog wandering around town actually is someone’s dog.  That dog is fed and washed but wanders during the day, seemingly another stray in the area.  I was once in a store and made a comment about one of the dogs outside who seemed to be limping badly.  He was lying about with several other dogs, all shaggy and without collars.  However it turned out that this dog was owned by one of the shopkeepers and the dog had in fact been taken to the vet.  
A pack of dogs is usually attached to several families clustered together in an area.  They alert the families of newcomers, keep real stray dogs away from the houses, and chase away wild animals that would ruin the gardens.  This is not to say that dogs are a welcomed sight in town. 
When I first came to Bhutan I first looked for the dog kennels and found none.  What I found was a horror story known as the Memelakha dog pound where dogs would go in but not out.  Because of the scale and nature of the mismanagement all pounds were shut down.   The few organized groups dealing with dogs involve mass sterilization campaigns and rabies vaccinations.  However I still wanted to work with the dogs.  Enter Marrianne, a fifteen-year Bhutan resident, who currently works with every dog that comes her way.  These dogs tend to be covered in mange, victims of the ever-increasing car accidents in town, or debilitating diseases.  Once when I was helping her a dog came in that had been attacked by a butcher with his machete (and then probably went back to cutting meat with it), and another time I brought her one of the dogs on campus who had been kicked in the face and lost his eye.  The dogs she tends are paraplegic, without fur, blind, and many other ailments that can prove fatal on the streets in the increasingly cold Thimphu. 
I leave a blanket out for one or two of the dogs on campus at night.  These dogs are covered in mange and don’t have the necessary fur to keep them warm at night.  I keep a box of crackers handy for any dog who wanders by.  There is no reason to not feed them.  There is no reason to not keep them warm at night.  The debates about karma always enter into the discussion about helping the dogs.  It is your karma to help dogs, or what good karma you are creating.  This leaves me torn because the creation of good karma is what motivates a lot of people to feed the dogs and without the food the dogs would not survive.  However I also feel that feeding the dogs should be as natural as brushing ones teeth in the morning.  If you can help someone or something, you should.  This should be the end of any debate regarding social action.  People will always feed the healthy, pretty dogs, but what about those who’s back legs don’t work?  What about those who’s hair has fallen off?  What about those who need it most?  Bhutanese dogs are not pretty, but they are the sweetest dogs you will ever come across.
I was once in a heated argument over which animal was better, cats or dogs.  My friend turned to a picture of his dog and said, “Look at those eyes, there is a soul behind those eyes.”
 Miranda Joy

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Insight Via PB&J Sandwiches..

Humming to myself, I laid out five pieces of thick bread, unscrewed the lid of the peanut butter jar and sank the knife into its depths.  Tomorrow I was taking the four young nuns I teach English to on a fieldtrip to Lamperi Park, the first Botanical Park in Bhutan.  We would be accompanying Adam and Ludi’s primary school students and I was doing my best to stifle my nervousness as to whether they would behave themselves, if they would open up and befriend the other students and what on earth I was to do if they didn’t have a nice time.
Lost in my thoughts, I jumped when I heard Adam’s voice beside me.
Adam raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you sure they’ll want these? I mean, don’t most Bhutanese not like sweet things?’
Anger flared alongside the doubt inside me as I slapped another pat of jelly onto a slice. ‘Kids love peanut butter and jelly, Adam,’ I said in my coldest tone.
‘Yeah, but I mean, have they ever had it before? Did they tell you they wanted-‘
‘Adam, did you eat PB and Js as a child?’ I intoned, ‘they’re sweet, full of protein and filling. They’ll love them.’
But as Adam left the kitchen with a shrug and I continued to spread the gooey goodness over thick, bakery-fresh bread, doubts began to fill my mind:
-What if one of them is allergic to peanuts?!
-No, I asked them if they liked peanuts already, and I’m pretty sure they understood what I meant.. Besides kids love peanut butter and jelly.
-Don’t the girls mostly eat rice at the nunnery? Who is to say they’ll want this?
-Goddamnit, Ellie, everyone loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stop worrying!
I tried to continue the methodical and happy pace of my work as before, but that anxiety that grips mothers the night before they send their child off to school for the first time had ensnared me. 
Quickly finishing up the sandwiches and wrapping each of the five carefully in plastic wrap, I felt Momo nuzzle my ankle. Upon meeting my gaze she cocked her head with that puzzled expression she usually reserves for when one of us does something outrageous or calls her to ‘Come.’
 ‘Don’t give me your sass, Momo, they’re going to like them.’ She sighed as if to say she was far more Bhutanese than me and has a much better grasp on the situation and nestled down on her bed for the night.   

As we sat in the grassy field the next afternoon the long bus ride, the beautiful walk through the park and all of the excitement weighed down on the nuns and myself, making us very hungry. 
‘Ready for lunch, girls?’ I asked, ‘I’ve made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!’
Ýozer, Ngawang Chezom, and Rinzin sat around me quietly chattering in Dzongkha while the oldest, thirteen-year-old Ngawang Yanden asked, ‘Hmm, Miss?’
‘Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,’ I repeated with mock confidence, ‘do you like peanut butter and jelly?’
‘Jelly like jam? Jam is good..’ Ngawang Yanden said, with a trace of apprehension, ’what is this pea-nut butter?’
’You’ll see, it’s really good!  We eat it all the time in America! All the children do, they love it!’ I responded, my misgivings showing through the speed of my speech and the squeak my voice ended in at the end of every statement. I went about quickly unpacking the bag of sandwiches I had brought with us. 
As each of my little nuns accepted their sandwiches, they studied them; the purplish red and brown congealing against the plastic wrap, the texture of the now slightly-sodden bread.  Ngawang Yanden, being the most polite, was the first to take a bite, and the others followed suit soon after.
            I don’t think I can properly describe the look a small Bhutanese girl’s face makes when she bites into something utterly foreign and thoroughly disgusting.
Ngawang Chezom’s freckles seemed to turn the shade of her maroon kab-ney and stood out against her sweet ski-jump nose. Rinzin’s lips, usually taking the form of a smirk or smile, turned down in a frown of confusion.  Yozer, the sassiest of the four, promptly began to rip hers into pieces and throw it to a fat old dog nearby who, with several cursory sniffs, dismissed it and left them to lie in the grass. 
            The primary school girls, seeing the distress of their new friends, quickly came to our circle with offerings of rice, emadatsi, kiwadatsi and tea which the three younger nuns hungrily accepted. 
            ’It’s good, Miss,’ Ngawang Yanden said, seeing my crestfallen face. Yet I couldn’t help but notice she was struggling to swallow globs of the alien gooey mass I had presented so excitedly as her lunch.
            As Ludi and Adam sat nearby chuckling at the reactions my packed lunch had elicited, I had to admit that it had been pretty ethnocentric of me to expect little nuns from the other side of the world whose meals regularly consist of vegetables and rice to want the odd concoction of peanut butter and jelly I had provided.
            As I looked down at my sandwich, shaking my head at my own silliness, I came to another shocking realization.
’Goddamn,’ I whispered to myself, ‘I don’t even like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that much!’

I guess it’s true what they say, by traveling abroad - you don’t only learn about the culture around you, you also learn about yourself.


There we sat, my roommate Chimi and I, with our foreheads decorated in bright paint, our hands and hair full of Marigold pieces and white rice. As I opened my eyes, the smiles of the twelve people crowded around the bedroom greeted me.  ‘How did I get so lucky as to be here?’ I wondered to myself.
Diwali is a Southern Bhutanese custom adopted from Nepal and parts of India.  It is a celebration that spans several days and is held in honor of Lord Rama’s return to his palace and after defeating a demon dragon in an epic battle (it may be noted here that the God this festival is attributed to changes depending on whom one asks). Bhutanese and Nepali alike celebrate with dancing, singing, firecrackers and ceremonies, yet I had no idea about any of this when our roommate Hema invited Chimi and I to her family’s celebration of Diwali in Thimphu. 
As we walked up the stairwell to Hema’s uncle’s home we were greeted with bright garlands and strings of electric lights around his doorway. The sitting room just inside looked much the same. Garlands hung from the ceiling, bright lights decorated the walls and Hema’s aunts and little female cousins were swathed in beautiful saris, each in a different color.  Every member of the family bore bright paints upon their foreheads and kind smiles on their lips.  Ushering us to sit, her family greeted us with ‘Namaste,’ served Chimi and I sweet tea and asked about our homes.  When we had finished our mugs, Hema smiled her sweet smile and brought forth garland necklaces made of real Marigolds which had been strung together with white string.  To my delight, the shocks of orange and green were placed around our necks and Chimi and I were taken by the hand down a small hallway to the master bedroom.  The jolly chanting and musical accompaniment I had subconsciously registered since I’d entered the apartment was emanating from a computer screen inside the bedroom.  A video of traditionally-dressed Nepali dancers covered in Marigolds were singing praises to Lord Rama and Diwali. Chimi and I were motioned to sit upon a woven rug in the center of the floor while Hema’s extended family crowded noisily upon the bed, the dresser and the floor to watch as we received the Diwali blessing.  Before us on the wooden floor were several platters which contained butter lamps, incense, and apple, rice and even more Marigolds, these in several shades of orange and red.
Hema’s beautiful little nine-year-old cousin, Nikita, somberly picked up the brass vase of marigolds, tipped the water into her hand and sprinkled it twice around the rug we were seated on.  Another small golden pot held pieces of grass which Nikita ceremoniously dipped and swept upon the floor around us in a circle twice, then did the same with lit incense.  While Nikita performed her part of the ritual with incredible seriousness, the family and I beamed at each other and the drums and voices of the Diwali video rang out through the entire apartment.
  Nikita, with her younger cousin Mukita, then took handfuls of white rice and crushed marigold buds and alternated sprinkling them over our heads and into our outstretched hands, the sequins that adorned their little saris glittering in the light.  “It is time for your tika!” Hema’s uncle proclaimed, and from seemingly no where a large metal tray was produced on which there were several brass bowls of different colored paints.  With all the seriousness of brain surgeons, Nikita and Mukita went about placing the first layer of white paint in a large dot in the middle of Chimi and my foreheads then alternated like dancers between painting the insides of these dots for both of us in colors of green, blue yellow and red.  “Ellie, you look so happy,” Hema exclaimed from her place nestled on the large bed with her family.  I opened my eyes and realized that the chiming Diwali song, the dzongkha chatter and laughter Hema’s family made, the deep scents of marigolds and incense, the crunchy and smooth textures of the rice and buds in my hands- all of it had almost overloaded my senses and truly given me such a sense of pure happiness. I began to register that my cheeks were in a bit of pain from smiling so widely for such a long amount of time, but nothing could make me stop.
 Here, in the home of people I had only just met, taking part for the first time in a ceremony like this I felt more at home in a way I rarely had since coming to Bhutan.  I wasn’t able to understand what the family said to one another in dzongkha, or say more than ‘Namaste’ to Hema’s grandmother who spoke no English, yet the warmth that emanated from each of them, the feeling of close bonds and family inclusiveness made me feel that I was part of their flock.  ‘How strange,’ I thought, ‘that so far from anything I have known in these twenty years, I can feel so at home.’

With Sincerity, Ellie

How ‘Bhutanese’ Are You? – External vs. internal authenticity

(Nanako Ota) 

In Thimphu town, I often visit handcraft shops – looking at beautiful handcrafts never gets me bored. When I am with my Wheaton friends, people working for a shop usually stand or sit still, look at us steadily for maybe five to ten seconds, and smile. On the other hand, when I go to these shops alone, they have a totally different reaction; this is most likely because I look like a local Bhutanese person because of my Asian face. The interesting thing is that once I start speaking English, say, “Excuse me, how much is this?” they look surprised and tell me a price in a small voice. Looking at their reaction, I secretly say, “Yes, that is right, I am fake, I am not Bhutanese…” in my mind.

Similarly, when I walk alone in town, the local Bhutanese people often talk to me in Dzongkha. The other day, because we take a weekly Dzongkha class here at RTC, I proudly said, “Nga Dzongkha mi shi (I do not know Dzongkha).” The person made a very confused face expression, and left. Despite my excitement I felt that I could try my Dzongkha skill, I thought I did something incredibly embarrassing. Since then, I just say “I do not know Dzongkha, sorry,” in English with the clearest pronunciation that I can do.

It has been surprising for me that the local Bhutanese people in town and even some RTC students tell me, “I thought you were from Bhutan only,” because I still feel like I look funny in kira and do not act ‘Bhutanese’ enough. Until I started writing this blog entry, I was unaware of how I answer the same sentence to those who make “I thought you were Bhutanese” comment; I always reply, “If I could speak Dzongkha fluently.” I guess this instant reaction reveals how I am concerned with the language barrier I feel here, because I do know that I can be much closer to the people if I have enough fluency in Dzongkha.

I am sure that each of Wheaton students here has been experiencing different kinds of barriers that we feel between us (chilips) and them (locals). I bet one of the biggest barriers is our foreign appearance, which stands out no matter what. In my case, my Asian appearance has certainly helped me interact more with Bhutanese people in a way that they seem to feel more approachable to me.
However, I still feel puzzled with the fact that I am considered a Bhutanese woman due to my appearance, because I believe, ideally speaking, my ‘Bhutaneseness’ has to be present not only externally, but also internally. And I think that if my ‘Bhutaneseness’ came from inside me, that is the time when I finally could understand Bhutanese culture.

Because we Wheaton students think it is important to experience ‘Bhutanese ways of knowing and understanding their cultures,’ at RTC, we are strongly encouraged to wear kira and gho. I feel nice when doing the same thing as what other Bhutanese students do here; however, I also feel that if their culture can be understood by merely wearing a traditional dress, nothing will be complicated in this world. I do not know how much I can be Bhutanese only within four months in this program. Appearance is an easy first step to take to get closer to Bhutanese people. I, fortunately having my Asian face as an advantage, would like to challenge myself to be real Bhutanese in the last one month.

Who Were You and Who Will You Be – My struggle with the dogs

(Nanako Ota)

During this summer vacation before coming to Bhutan, I tried to get information about Bhutan as much as possible; I closely read online news articles and books, and never missed any single TV program on Bhutan. My grand mother told me, “By now, you know too many things about that country.” And to some extent I believed what she said and felt good about it.

I was wrong, indeed – I never, never came across the fact that there are a number of stray dogs in Bhutan. On a car road, cars have to avoid dogs (and cows) because they appear randomly and cross the road. One morning, I woke very early and expected no one in the bathroom in my dorm; what I saw was a dog sleeping near the toilet. One night, my roommates and I did not lock the door, and a dog came into our room and tried to forage for food from the trashcan. When RTC male students had a basketball tournament at the gym, the game was heating up towards the end; then a dog came in, and crossed the gym from the entrance to the exit (It was so funny how the judge was trying to blow a whistle to the dog). I do not know how to tell exactly, but basically, we can find dogs almost everywhere.

Honestly, I am not fond of dogs at all. The time I feel most strange is when RTC students feed dogs during the tea break, which takes place from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the dining hall. Free tea (very sweet milk tea) and biscuits are served, and what some students do is grabbing a lot of biscuits and throwing them to the dogs near the entrance. However, the people working in the dining hall do not want dogs around there, so they try to keep the dogs stay away. I asked one of my Bhutanese friends why he feeds the dogs. I said, “We should not do this, the dogs will just keep coming, and it is not good.” He answered, “No, they are just hungry. And we have food. Why not giving to them.” Looking at him smiling and petting the dogs with his legs, I just did not know what to say.

I still cannot totally support this behavior of feeding stray dogs, but one book gave me a clue to interpret it as a valuable act. The book’s title is The Divine Madman, which is about Drukpa Kinley (Tibetan: འབྲུག་པ་ཀན་ལེགས་ 1455 - 1529). He was a great lama (master) of Mahamudra in the Buddhist tradition and is still respected and loved as a teacher of the Drukpa (Dragon) school. In the book, dogs appear as reincarnates of great lamas and kings, and people who do not treat the dogs well are described pathetically because they never know the hidden value of the dogs thus can never see the truth of nature. The Buddhist idea of reincarnation certainly changed my view towards the dogs here at RTC. They might have been some great beings before, or, I might have been a dog in the past world. Then, why cannot I be friendly to them…?

Now, during the tea break, I take some biscuits and give those to the dogs with my friends. Looking at the dogs eating together and playing with each other, once my Bhutanese friend said, “See, they are just like us, humans.” I still feel a little afraid but try to pet the dogs, and look into their eyes. They do not say anything, but in my mind, I say hello to their souls, which I never know where they have been and who they will be.

Let Me Lose My Cultures – Being on time is what?

(Nanako Ota)

It is hard to believe that now we only have about one month left in Bhutan…by now I have gotten to know my Bhutanese friends in RTC better as well as ten other Wheaton students. It gets really cold here in the morning and in the evening, but during the day, it feels so nice being under the sun and walking around in this beautiful campus. Compared to my life in Tokyo and at Wheaton, everything here seems so mellow and pleasant that sometimes I find myself not worried about the amount of time I spend for talking with Bhutanese students here, whereas at Wheaton taking a balance between socializing and studying always bothers me.

During the past three months in Bhutan, it has been nice seeing myself absorbing new cultures and perspectives that I have never had before; however, at the same time, it has been somewhat frustrating and disappointing for me to realize how stubborn I am, and how I cling to my own values at times. One thing that I am probably still struggling with is ‘the notion of time’ here.

One day, one of my friends said, “I will call you after some time.” Then I immediately said, “When?” He became silent for a second, and said, “Later.” In my mind, I was shouting, “But like, WHEN exactly?” but I hold those words in my mouth. On the same day, another friend told me she was coming back to the library soon, so I asked her how later it will be. She said, “About five minutes,” but when she came back, it was more than one hour later. At that moment, I felt nothing but confused, rather than getting upset.

As far as I am concerned, not only the RTC students, but also Bhutanese people generally seem to have a very relaxed attitude towards time. A city bus sometimes leaves very early, and sometimes never comes. In a restaurant, if a waiter says the food is coming soon, it can mean thirty minutes later. I guess by now I came to enjoy how Bhutanese people have a different notion of time than mine. When something or someone is not on time, now I just think, “Oh, it happened again,” and look up the sky.

In my country, Japan, being prompt on time is considered very important, and I cannot count how many times my parents or Japanese teachers at home scolded at me for being late for something (even for three minutes). What they always say is “It is a courtesy, manner of this society,” and I have never really questioned how picky I am on time.

To be honest, I had this problem with my Bhutanese friends at Wheaton as well; when I asked them why they cannot be on time, the answer I got was, “Because we have BST (Bhutanese Stretchable Time).” My Bhutanese friend here (who is sitting right next to me right now) explained to me she heard the word BST for the first time when she was in the grade 9, and almost everyone knows this term. Surprisingly, she does not mind waiting for a person for about one hour. (Probably my time limit for waiting someone is about ten minutes.)

I constantly come across this kind of moment in which I feel, “Oh my god, their culture might be great in their contexts, but my country (or myself) can never have this.” However, I have been noticed that if I can adjust to a foreign culture depends on nothing but my sincerity for others and understanding of myself. Once I asked my childhood Japanese friend if she is fine with waiting for a person for unknown length of time. She made a give-me-a-break face expression, and told me, “Nana, if you like that person, and if you are willing to see that person, why do you have to care how long you are waiting? I don't mind waiting if I can eventually see him/her, because I need that person, right?” Now here in Bhutan, what she told me is making a lot of sense.

“Later.” “After some time.” Whenever I hear these words, I think of how I come to know that person, and what kind of conversation we have had so far. In this way, I can remind myself how much I need that person, so I do not get upset later on. I feel embarrassed that I need this mental process to overcome my cultural motto of ‘Everyone should be on time.’ However, after all, I am not 100% Japanese in that sense anymore because I must confess I myself can be late for things sometimes here.

I do not want to call my attitude change as merely getting lazy, but adjusting to the Bhutanese culture very well.

Crazy Chillips -- Expats in Bhutan

Note: This blog is to be read in a dry British accent in the style of old fashioned anthropologists... with your pinky held up!

Chillip: n. a white foreigner in Bhutan. Could describe both those working and those on vacation.

Observe the chillips in their natural environment. See how they congregate at the Zone, Cafe Klein and Ambient Cafe. Like parched animals approaching a watering hole, they find any place with non-instant coffee and free wifi. Most can be seen on their computers or reading books: typically some sort of guide to Buddhism in Bhutan, trekking, or ironically, “The Art of War.” You can spot a tourist as one reading “Beyond the Earth and Sky” or “Radio Shangri La,” two memoirs by chillips who have lived in Bhutan.

The most fascinating chillips to observe are those who work in Thimphu, rather than the tourists. These chillips establish their station through regular interaction with cafe proprietors and other chillips who spend time there. They are so articulated by other chillips as “regulars.” It is then that other pre-established chillips will begin to notice them and, at the critical transforming moment, will sit at their table and start a conversation.

There are some chillips though who seem to be ostracized by this “regular” community. This is especially obvious if you observe the way they wear the national dress of Kira and Gho. It is survival of the fittest and chillips who have learned to wear this dress properly can be seen giggling or openly laughing at the “sloppy” and disheveled appearance when chillips try to put them on without the help of a local.

At the point when the chillip has become a part of the community and he/she will be invited to special gatherings. Those chillips who are working hard to integrate in the community are able to infuse their gatherings with locals as well. Quiet now as we approach one of these groups. You will see the evening start at one of the favorite local watering holes, specifically ones that serve beer.

The chillips seem to be fixated on food throughout their conversation. They discuss the best items on the menu, then which of the Bhutanese dishes they have learned to make, comparing strategies for lessening the spice. And finally, you will notice how they end up talking about the food they cannot find here in Bhutan and how to creatively make it out of what is available.

Quick, watch as they decide who's apartment they will migrate too. Once inside, the group will continue to drink while listening to “western music.” At about 10:00pm, the internal clocks inform chillips that it is once again time to migrate. They will arrive at Om Cafe at about 10:30 to book a room for Kareoke. The chillips choose songs characteristic of their past including those by the Beatles, Queen, and Lincoln Park. 

Watch as the chillips then move to Space 34, the most busiest and most popular night club in Thimphu. Here they will listen to tasteless pop, techno and electronic music while dancing in their group. Sometimes they will mix with locals while dancing but the wild dancing style of the chillip can sometimes deter the unknown local from approaching.

The club closes sometime between 1am and 3am (longer if a member of the royal family is spotted and wishes for the club to remain open later) and the chillips split into groups based on their destination: an after party on the side of a mountain or to return home to sleep.

--- Heather Wilson ---

How to Survive Bhutan's Public Transport System

Whenever you move to a new place one of the key things to learn is how to navigate the transportation system. Here in Bhutan, it is a constant adventure, especially because Royal Thimphu College is about 10km away from Thimphu town (takes 15-30 minutes by car). There are four main modes of travel:

The City Bus
Each of us were given bus passes at the beginning of the semester so we don't have to deal with the bus fair which is incredibly nice. However, navigating the schedule is the main challenge here. For example, the buses have holidays whenever school is out, which of course is when we're most likely to want to get into town. Not only that, but as we discovered last week, they also sometimes have holidays for no apparent reason and we have no way of finding out except for the obvious empirical discovery that the bus has not arrived.
Once on the bus you are at the mercy of the driver for two reasons. First of all, he controls the music that is generally played at very high volumes. And the music you hear will never cease to surprise you. I've heard hindi and dzongkha (Bhutan's national language) music, Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas and my personal favorite, a remake of Justin Bieber's “Baby” edited so that he actually sounds like a cross between a baby and a chipmunk!
To understand the second I need to give you a background on the geography of Bhutan. Nothing is straight here, except for cliffs that are straight up. The country is almost entirely mountains and valleys (especially here in Western Bhutan) which means that the national highway and most roads are full of hairpin turns and switchbacks. The bus drivers don't even seem to notice with the speed that they take the turns, always honking just in time to alert the driver coming around a corner to avoid an accident (because the roads are mostly one lane).

The Taxi
I won't linger long on taxis because they are pretty similar to the types of taxis you'll find anywhere else in the world. We tend to take taxis more than expected, mostly to our internships or back to RTC if we stay in town after 5:30pm. The trick with the taxis is know the standard fare for the trip you are taking. Like anywhere with tourists, taxi drivers tend to assume that because I'm white, I'm a rich tourist who has no idea what a taxi ride should actually cost. So, I haggle and sometimes I even have to let a couple taxis go before finding one that will give me the correct price. The whole thing is actually kind of fun if I'm honest.

I was taught, like most children in the United States, to NEVER ever get in a car with a stranger. In Bhutan though, this is a typical mode of travel for both short trips and even long ones across the country. Living at RTC which is at the top of a hill, it is generally pretty easy to hitch a ride to town. And, for all you worried parents out there, we usually know them or they're our friend's parents or boyfriends etc. In a small country like Bhutan, it's not so nerve racking and the people you meet are usually super friendly and want to know how I am liking Bhutan and RTC.
Speaking of friendly people, as you drive they will inevitably ask you “how are you liking Bhutan?” To which they always expect you to answer in the positive (which I do!) and then the funny part is when they as you leading questions like how you are handling the spicy food etc and still expect that you have totally gotten used to it! (which I haven't)

Yup, when all else fails we have learned the value of a good walk. The Bhutanese often walk huge distances to reach their villages outside of Thimphu and after going to several treks it is just not that big of a deal. The favorite (and by favorite I mean most common but certainly not fun) walk is the hill of RTC's campus. It is insanely steep at the top and toward the bottom is just switchbacks, oh and its 3km if you can't find a ride somewhere along the way. But, without walking you don't experience the place in the same way, or stop to smell the roses (by that I mean gaze at the epic snow-capped mountains surrounding Thimphu).

--- Heather Wilson ---

Celebrating Diwali Bhutanese Style

This last Friday I went to my friend's house in Thimphu to celebrate Diwali with her family. This occasion is also commonly known as the "festival of lights" and it is perhaps one of the more important celebrations for Hindus. My friend told me that on that day sisters had to put tica on the forehead of their brothers, as a way to wish them  long life and blessings. Tica is made out of a drop of flour which is decorated with colored powder.Sisters also had to put  collars of bright orange flowers (called seshometo) on their brothers. The brothers in return will pay their sisters or give them a gift

As I entered my friend's apartment, the front door of her apartment was decorated with letters that read " Happy Diwali ". The ceiling of her living room was adorned with colorful chains of paper which went from one side of the room to the other. The chains were blue, pink, purple and yellow. On the walls there were images of  The Fourth and Fifth  King and also a huge poster which read " Find Peace in Sikkim".  My friend opened the door of one of the rooms and to my surprise about 10 or 15 family members were gathered inside observing how one sister was putting the tica over her brother's forehead. There was a sense of joy and celebration in the atmosphere of the room. Little kids were laughing and all the family members were very attentive to what was happening. They all received me with a big smile. 

Next to the brother´s lap there was a big plate with a candle which was lit, orange flowers, a bowl with rice  with some flower petals, color powder, and walnuts. According to my friend  before the tica is placed, rice is thrown over the head of the brother.Once the tica is put on the forehead, a walnut is crushed. This symbolizes the overcoming of the devil and evil by the blessing of the tica. The uncle of my friend actually told me that a brother could be on the verge of death, but that once the sister gives her blessings through the tica, the life of the brother is extended. Even though I am not a boy, my friend placed some tica over my forehead so that I could be part of the experience. We also ate some " selroti" which is a kind of dessert eaten during this celebration. I was also offered buffalo meat and some delicious chicken with curry. The next morning we sat and watched the cartoon story of Vishnu on T.V. 

Reflecting on this experience, my first impression is that Diwali is an important opportunity for family members to come together and enjoy each other's company and blessings through the different ceremonies they perform. The brother's day is a clear example of it. It definitely provides an opportunity for sisters and brothers to evaluate their relationship and show affection for one another. I believe that it was very significant for me to participate in this ceremony and after participating I feel closer to my friend. I am especially  honored to have been invited as a guest to her house and being able to celebrate this occasion with her family. Her family was very curious of the type of traditions I celebrate back home. I told them about the way I celebrate Christmas and how my family would also come together and celebrate. There was a sense of a shared experience in terms of how important it is to be with your family and celebrate that relationship through different  traditions.


By : Marijose Vila 2013

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Sir, may I enter the room, sir?"

(Aaron writing)

Respect is something that definitely expresses itself differently in Bhutan compared to the US.  I have seen this in quite a few contexts.  For example, I teach 5th graders at a primary school and the regard children have for elders and especially teachers is very much evident.  There are children who will both begin and end a sentence with "Sir." Given that it is just not something I was used to coming in, it was especially amusing to see the different usage of language to express respect, particularly how students use "Sir" as a noun.  I see this at a later stage of education as well, as a student at RTC, where our professor is not called by name, is not called by title, but is rather called, "Sir."  When he is referred to in the third person among students, it will be in contexts such as, "Sir is late today."

It is a very different usage of language from what I am accustomed to, and that extends beyond just classroom interactions.  Having never lived in a country with official royalty before, it has been new to use terms like "His Majesty" to describe the King--or, when I had the good fortune to meet him with Heather, Marijose, and Miranda--to directly refer to him as, "Your Majesty."  When I have used the term "Royal" in my life it has usually been sarcastically or in jest--such as that was a "royal screw up" (or saucier language when not being used on an official blog!)  Here, words like that take a deep, rich, and serious meaning that previously had been outside my regularly employed vocabulary.

But my own reconfiguration of respect as I have been here has been a good experience for me.  There are lines you simply do not cross in Bhutan, including (and especially) in usage of language.  I have grown used to students calling me "Sir" twice in one sentence, and using this language myself to show respect to others.  I firmly believe it is the "little things" that can provide the greatest light on the nature of people and places, and adjusting my usage of language has been one of the ways I have seen the differences between my own value system and that of my temporary host country.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Photography is one of my favorite hobbies and I’m constantly taking photographs. Having the opportunity to come to Bhutan, with its beautiful scenery and people, the number of photos in my album has increased dramatically. It’s okay to take photos of the beautiful scenery, however, when it comes to photographing people I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not.

I always ask people when I want to take a close-up shot of them, but when they are far away, I just take the picture. It wasn’t till the day of the Tsechu festival that I questioned the idea of taking photographs of locals. Is it okay to photograph them with their permission/without their permission or Is it in the way we go up to them and photograph them?

During Tsechu, there were so many tourists, and during the festival performances, I just watched as they poked their huge camera lenses in the faces of locals just trying to get a shot. I sat there feeling very irritated and uncomfortable watching as this went on, and felt it was an invasion of privacy and space for the locals. Coming from countries in the West where privacy of space is such a big deal, why do we invade people’s privacy and spaces when we travel elsewhere? - especially to third world countries. I immediately hid my camera and made sure not to photograph locals, except for my friends I had come to the festival with. Later that day, I had seen a group of cute monk boys and wanted to photograph them badly, but hesitated because of what I had witnessed earlier, so I just walked on.         

Some children have walked up to me and asked me to photograph them, and I believe it is okay in that case since they ask. Apart from that, we should ask before taking pictures of locals and respect their decision of “yes” or “no”.

The following day, I attended Tsechu again, and on my way out of the festival, this tourist put his huge lens in my face and started to take pictures of me without asking. I was quite shocked and uncomfortable, but just stood there and smiled for him as he clicked away. But in that moment, I was wondering why and how he started taking pictures of me. It was out of nowhere and I wondered if this is how locals feel when we photograph them without their permission. 

-Noel Manu
My Photo Blog: 

Monday, October 24, 2011

“We can Teach them, But not Protect them”

On October 11th, 2011, on my way back from my internship at Jigme Losel Primary School, I witnessed a car jump over the side walk into a crowd of students who had just got out of school. I was very worried about how the students were, but at the same time too shocked to go close to see how they were doing, so I just stood there for a while in the distance. A couple of parents and laborers ran over to the scene to check on them and call the police.

The following week, on October 18, 2011, I asked one of the principal’s about the incident and as we spoke, I asked “Are they going to put fences along the sidewalk to protect the students?” Her answer was “No, We can teach them but not protect them. They have to learn from the accident.” At first I was surprised at her answer, because after the accident happened, I thought to myself “After this accident, they are definitely going to put some fences or something along the sidewalk.” And on my way to the school the following week, I was even expecting to see people working on putting fences along the sidewalk.

Living in America, where everything is put in place for the protection of students, I guess this was my natural reaction to the incident; however, it’s a different view in many other societies. In some societies children aren’t “babied”, they have to take on big responsibilities from very young age. And this is what I have observed in Bhutan; very young children between ages 5-8 walking long distances from home to school. So I guess, the principal sees the students as responsible for their own safety once they exit the gates of the school. The school is responsible for teaching the students and cannot keep track of how every single one of them once the leave school, they need to be responsible.

At the same time, in this case, I’d say the students were being responsible since they were walking on the sidewalk as they usually do, but it was the fault of the driver who jumped the sidewalk and hit them.

I believe this is such a complicated case, where the children may be protecting themselves, but the drivers are the ones being irresponsible. At the same time, here in Bhutan, drivers are also expected to protect themselves since there are no traffic lights. They need to discipline themselves without these conveniences and make sure they are protecting themselves, so I think, this is a society where everyone is expected to do the right thing and make sure they are protecting themselves, because the school or transportation authority can’t be responsible for what each person is doing. From this experience I believe people here in Bhutan are expected to protect themselves without conveniences others in developed countries have. 

-Noel Manu

Kinley's Home

Kinley's Beautiful Family
(From Left: Kinley's Mum, Kinley, Kinley's Siblings and Kinley's Dad)
The 6th-8th of September was the Tsechu Festival here in Bhutan. During this time, we had a break from 
school so my roommate Kinley invited me over to her house.

I thought it would be nice to know my roommate outside of the dorm-school context and get to learn about her family dynamics.

Once we got to Kinley’s home, she immediately started doing chores without taking a break. I compared her behavior to how I act when I get back home from Wheaton. I usually use my school work and school activities as an excuse to not do any chores because I’m “tired”. But Kinley didn’t complain about being tired or lay around calling friends to meet up. She rarely sat down and I always joked, “Kinley, Take Rest!” as she had said to me when we got to her house. She just laughed and continued her chores.

Kinley’s family was amazingly caring and hospitable and I felt like I was a part of their family, though it made me miss my family. An interesting thing about staying at her home was observing the family dynamics. There was this strong sense of respect between both the parents and children and they were very close-knit. During meals, we all ate together on the floor in a small round circle with the food at the center which her mother dished out for all of us. If someone (especially her father) wasn’t present we had to wait till they got there before we started to eat. Her family was very keen on making sure I was comfortable at their home, so they would often check on me and ask how I was feeling and doing. Sometimes I felt like I was a bother to them, because they were too kind and kept offering me food, tea, fruits, cookies etc and asking if I needed anything.

I was even more humbled by their kindness on the day of Tsechu when her mother dressed me in one of her new expensive kiras. I have never worn anything so expensive and was shocked by the fact that she lent it to me to wear. If I owned such a piece of clothing, I would personally not lend it to anyone. The only thing she said to me was “Be careful where you sit with the kira”, she didn’t even mention the fact that it was expensive.

Staying with my Bhutanese roommate, I got to observe and learn a lot more about Bhutanese family dynamics and culture such as their genuine kindness, hospitable and caring personality, and non- materialism. Additionally, one person’s guest is the entire family’s guest. 

-Noel Manu 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Spinning Tales of Dancing Deities: Thimphu Tsechu and the Royal Wedding

It’s almost three months since we arrived in Bhutan, and Thimphu has been abuzz with the yearly Tshechu festival and the most exciting event in town since the coronation of the fifth king—the royal wedding. The Tsechu, which happened in late September in Thimphu, is an annual festival that each Dzongkhag (district) holds at their respective dzongs (fortresses.) During the festival the lamas (monks) perform masked dances that are meant to purify the people watching them of their defilements. The dances retell the stories of Guru Rimpoche, Drukpa Kinley (the divine madman), and other important Bhutanese Buddhist figures. The lamas dress as saints and deities and dance to Kadrukpa music (the music perfomed by only monastics.) We were fortunate to be able to see a Tshechu performance in Bumthang (about 12 hours’ drive from Thimphu) the previous weekend. When we returned I went with my friends to the final day of Tsechu in Thimphu. The town was incredibly busy and there was so little traffic coming to RTC that we walked two miles down the hill (I was in fancy dress and a pair of not-hiking friendly high heels…ouch!) to catch a taxi.
The Dzong’s large courtyard was completely packed with the most colorful audience I have ever seen. Bright silk tops and woven kira that take can take years to make and brilliantly colored fancy gho covered by the white sashes—kabne—worn by men on formal occasions and brightly embroidered ratchu (scarves worn by women for formal events) made the auditorium look beautifully decorated by the people themselves. On the upper balcony sat the Je Khempo—head of the monastic body—wearing sunglasses and a bright yellow kabne. The lamas came out dressed in elaborate costumes, some wearing the terrifying masks of the demons. They spun in circles at the center of the courtyard, each twirl revealing another layer of bright fabric underneath their skirts. My friend offered to take me to receive a blessing from the lamas, so I went with her to venture in to the rainbow crowd. It took us one hour to get to the line to be blessed, the entire time being relentlessly pushed by the crowds eager to be blessed. Finally we reached a lama sitting on a chair with an umbrella over him wearing a golden Guru Rinpoche mask and holding a golden rod with a tassel on the end. We were quickly pushed through the line of lamas and bending down and covering our mouths with our ratchus to keep from breathing on the lamas, we were tapped on the head with the tassel and pushed through the line of lamas to receive blessed cords to tie on our necks and a tiny little seed that I was supposed to eat. I couldn’t find an explanation of what it was from anyone except that it was blessed. After standing outside for a number of hours we made our way back in to town where the colorful audience had begun to disperse and paint the streets of Thimphu.

A couple of weeks later was the royal wedding of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck to Ashi Jetsun Pema. Thimphu eagerly prepared for the wedding—covering every building in the main town with long strands of bright lights, every main road entry with painted archways with illustrations of mystical creatures and dieties, and huge posters of the King and Queen wishing them tashi delek—good luck! Everyone donned pins with pictures of the royal couple and stores offered discounts to celebrate the wedding. In the main clock tower square a stage and stalls were set up selling food and handicrafts. Children and teenagers ran to the game stalls to play carnival games and families, lamas, and tourists flocked to the steps in front of the stage to watch the groups of dancers perform to well-loved Dzongkha songs. The lyrics varied from romantic: “in my garden your heart is the only flower”, “beautiful girl, beautiful girl, who is that girl?” to nationalistic: “protect the beautiful environment of Bhutan, the land blessed by mountains and the glorious Wangchuck dynasty.”

The royal couple was married in a relatively intimate and elaborate ceremony in Punakha (the gates of the city were closed to any who did not have tickets for the wedding) and the next day the King and newly crowned Queen began the journey to Thimphu and stopped all along the way to walk and greet their subjects. Driving into town that day crammed in to the back of one of the last taxis in the city, I was in awe to see the entire express highway leading all the way to the town lined with people wanting to see the newlyweds and offer their best wishes. Some had been waiting for five hours outside and when we came by in the taxi many stood up eagerly waving their flags the sat down again once they saw we were not the royal caravan approaching. Most shops were closed down and everyone was outside in the streets waiting for the king to arrive. Since there was little ability to move in the city, I sat down and waited for two hours. By the time I had to leave to meet my friend at her uncle’s weaving shop, the royal couple had not yet arrived. I had to pay triple for a taxi to take me to the weaving center, the driver even walking me part of the way because most roads were completely shut down in anticipation of the King and Queen’s arrival. Celebrations continued on to the next day and by the end of the weekend a slight sloth and torpor seemed to settle over the city as everyone settled back and began to practice the stories they would tell about the royal wedding through the upcoming winter and for years to come.

Majors in Anthropology and Asian Studies
Class of 2014

For more blog posts see and photo posts

Masked dance, Thimphu Tsechu.

At Thimphu Tsechu with two deaf students from Drak Tsho where I do part of my internship work.

Crowds wait to see the royal couple. Thimphu town.