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.