Monday, October 17, 2011

"All the great voyagers return homeward..."

" on an arc of thought;
Home like a ruby beacon burns."

--from "The Homecoming" by Barbara Howes

("Buddha Point", an enormous sitting Buddha currently under construction overlooking Thimphu, as seen from the College about five miles away)

One of the challenges of travel is aptly described by a general law of physics: bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, bodies at rest remain at rest. When your body stays in motion for two weeks and covers over 20,000 miles and 13 time zones, it's not an easy thing to come to rest. But this particular challenge actually brings me great comfort: to be a person who loves the adventure and the return equally feels like a perfect balance of being in the world. I am not perfect, or even close, in any other way, but in my appreciation for travel and my pleasure at being home in my own bed, I feel I have some equilibrium.

And I do have, have had from the day I left home and said goodbye to Jim at the airport, an "arc of thought" like Howes describes. I suspect that as I look back at this trip from a perch in my future, it may appear as something of a line of demarcation both personally and professionally. I have no idea at this moment what the path in the years ahead...even the weeks and months ahead...holds for me. But I know I will travel it with an open heart and the support of kind friends and loyal family, many of you among the readers of this blog. I appreciate your taking the journey with me. I'll leave you with two pictures that I hope give you some indication of my state of mind, heart and soul as I head into what I could call the next chapter, but who knows? It may be a whole new book.

The first is a picture Betsy took of me in Paro, spinning a giant prayer wheel. Each rotation rang a bell, sending my prayer for enlightenment heavenward. If it's enlightenment I am seeking at this moment in my life, I could do worse than end up looking for it in this tiny kingdom that is sometimes called the land between heaven and earth, a place that for a thousand years has been a destination for pilgrims hoping to find peace.

The second picture is not from this trip. It was taken by my father when I was three, at a wild west-themed amusement park my family visited during the summer we lived in Arizona (if only I could blog in hindsight...). I'm with my brother Bobby who was 17 at the time. We're sitting in a funhouse car, about to enter a dark tunnel. Bobby is accommodating my father whom I assume wanted a shot of the two of us. I, however, am firmly focused on what is ahead, smiling slightly as I anticipate the car's movement forward. My arm, though, is draped over Bobby's knee, seeking some assurance from my big brother that he was going, too, that I wouldn't be alone.

I think that's me at this moment: focused on the future. Though I have no idea what it will be, I know I can rely on the kindness and encouragement of those who love me--family and friends--to keep moving forward. Off I go.

Kadriche. Namaste. Thanks. Peace.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Big Bash in Thimphu

The Bhutanese start with lots of color and beautiful fabrics, so you know that if it's a big day, the kind that requires they break out their sartorial finery, you're going to see something spectacular. And that was Saturday in Thimphu, the day set aside for a celebration of the King's wedding. Not that the other days weren't celebratory. But this was the day for everyone to hang out and dance with Jigme and Jetsun (actually, folks here call him Khesar to distinguish him from the previous three Kings named Jigme, but my colleagues at Wheaton knew him as Jigme).

(This is a larger-than-life poster of them in their wedding clothes that appeared in town on Saturday morning).

Our driver Sonam wanted us to leave for town at 7 am in order to get into Changlimithang Stadium, but knowing we had to pack and that we had a long journey ahead of us, we talked him into a 10 am departure, accompanied by Hyun. Like a typical Bhutanese, Sonam is unfailingly polite, so even though he might have been thinking, "Silly American madams, we will never get a parking space," he just smiled and said okay.

And we couldn't get a parking space, at least at first. But Sonam is nothing if not resourceful, so we did eventually find a spot, wedged in between a car and the gate to the hospital, and walked ten minutes down the hill toward the stadium. We passed people wearing their very best kiras and ghos.

Even Sonam was dressed in his finest gho, and asked Betsy to take his picture, exacting a promise from her to send it--a hard copy! Via mail! How quaint. We actually have no idea how to do that, but we'll figure it out.

The stadium was filled, of course, so we couldn't get into the side with the seats, but we did manage to get in on the far side where people were standing around on the grass underneath the largest banner I've ever seen. It's one hundred feet tall:

We were joined by thousands of Bhutanese as well as westerners, all trying to catch a glimpse of the dancing going on just a few yards away on the stadium field.

Since we had watched the rehearsal on Tuesday, Betsy and I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. The program basically alternated between a monk dance (accompanied by a low whining horn punctuated with a slow drumming) and a traditional folk dance (more melodic, occasionally with singing). It was...kind of...endless. In fact, I suspect the idea of a dance marathon was invented in Bhutan. Each dance was ten, maybe twelve minutes long. None of them involved any kind of quick movements (perhaps they prefer to preserve their energy at that altitude). To amuse myself, I pictured Justin Timberlake in a monk's costume gyrating to "Sexy Back." And then Justin grabbing Jetsun, who makes a few J-Lo moves before returning to the side of her dazzled King.

I was pulled back to reality by a very stern-looking military officer (he had a lot of colorful things pinned to his chest, and the police officers nearby jumped when he spoke to them, so I assume he was someone with a high rank). He was telling everyone standing there to sit. "Sit!" he said, in very good English. "Sit down or get out!" Betsy and I obediently sat, slightly stunned by the first sharp tone we'd heard in ten days. Hyun, who of course is a faculty member, resisted such an autocratic demand and wandered off to take more pictures of the incredibly beautiful costumes and dress.

These are monks right after their dance (sans crazy animal masks):

Did I mention they had elephants?

We eventually got brave enough to stand up and then headed out of the stadium, having had our fill of low whining horns and spinning monks. The King and Queen were still in their box, not yet doing what everyone had told us they would: get a little bored themselves and start wandering the crowd. Diwash had told us a few days earlier, "The King loves to talk to his people."

Not being one of his people, it seemed an opportune time to get some lunch. We enjoyed one last round of veeeerrrry slow (but polite) Bhutanese table service at The Zone, a popular spot for ex-pats and western tourists (i.e., they know how to back off on the spice for outsiders), where we sat outside, just across the street from the stadium.

Judging from the crowds leaving the stadium, I wasn't the only one who found the program a bit repetitive.

We finished our pizza (yes, pizza) and said our goodbyes to Hyun and Noel, whom we'd found wandering with her camera outside the stadium. I was sad to leave Hyun, who has been a most excellent host, but glad to think I have a new friend at Wheaton. Though I had known her before, we hadn't had much contact, but now I am looking forward to her return in January and more time together. And Noel is absolutely lovely--as polite and sweet as they come.

Getting to spend time with her, along with some of the other students, was one of the best parts of this trip. I am so impressed with how well they have been doing in the two and a half months they've been here (with two more to go). This is not an easy place to study abroad. But they have made Bhutanese friends, adapted to the diet (rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner), worn their traditional dress, learned some Dzongkha (an impossibly hard language), shone in their internship placements and grown into the kind of students Wheaton wants to claim. I can't wait to see them back on campus.

The drive back to Paro was another hour of sheer roadway terror. You'd think that coming back would be a bit less frightening since we'd be driving on the side further away from the cliffs above the river. But Sonam is nothing if not consistent. Lanes here are a casual suggestion. And the one thing being on the left side of the road did afford me was a closer view of the boulders perched precariously above us (and above the "Watch for Rock Slide" signs that again seem like more of a suggestion than a warning). Speaking of signs, there was another in the Burma Shave tradition whose meaning I couldn't quite interpret: "On the curves, keep your nerves." What does that MEAN? For Sonam, I think perhaps it was encouragement to test his nerves (and ours) by swinging out to the right on blind curves, edging close to the hundred-foot drop-off, in order to pass slow-moving vehicles (and to Sonam, every other vehicle is slow-moving). At least that gave him a split second more to avoid the cows, horses, boulders and Indian labor crews that work the road--mostly women, it seemed--breaking up rock with hand tools.

Despite what at times felt like a car-like video game (Cow! 200 points! Boulder! 50!), we arrived at the airport in good shape. We sat at the (one and only) gate watching a big-screen TV that was showing the
BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Service) coverage of the stadium festivities. And lo and behold, there on the screen was the King, followed by his Queen, working the crowd. Picking up children, gently squeezing people's shoulders, smiling broadly the whole time. The guy is a Buddhist Bill Clinton (and I mean that as a compliment). And then he and the Queen got in line with a large group--maybe two hundred others-- and danced a traditional (i.e. slow and repetitive) folk dance called the Zang Whey, which looked similar to the Electric Slide. Images of Justin and J-Lo returned to me, but I quickly banished them and along with my fellow travelers enjoyed the spectacle.

We arrived in Bangkok late Saturday night, slept a few hours at the airport hotel, and were back in line, passports in hand, at 4:30 am. I'm writing this on the flight to Tokyo where the movie "Thor," complete with Japanese subtitles, just finished.

I'll do a post from there or San Francisco with a few more photos that I think you'll enjoy, and then a final one when I'm home in Norton. But right now, I think I'll put my headphones on and listen to the traditional monastic music I purchased in Paro. Kidding!!

Location:Thimphu Town

Seven New Friends

Hi, everyone. Betsy here.

No, these are not the children the monk at Chimi Lakkhang blessed me with. Perish the thought. But they are cute though. Here's the story.

Lee wouldn't let me caddy, but I did walk 12 holes with her and Dasho, cringing every time she landed in the rough and cheering enthusiastically when she made par (once on the front nine ... I'm told she made par once on the back nine as well, but I can't vouch for that). The scenery was amazing, a light breeze kept us cool, and it was wonderful to spend time chatting with Dasho while Lee pondered her game (and yes, it took some pondering). But eventually I was ready to head back to the clubhouse and put my feet up. I had brought along our guidebook and my iPad and figured I'd get a diet Coke and spend a little time reading.

A lovely clubhouse attendant brought me a can of soda and offered me a clean glass (not always a given in Bhutan), and I took a seat on a bench overlooking the first hole. I opened my iPad to the novel I'm reading (A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon -- excellent) and quickly became engrossed. But minutes later I realized I had attracted a crowd. Several small boys and one girl, all caddy-hopefuls, had gathered to watch me interact with my iPad. Feeling friendly I closed my novel and brought up the home screen. They jockeyed for position and excitedly said, "Computer, computer." Well, what to do now?

I decided I'd show them the photos I'd taken in Bhutan -- several dozen in Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha. As soon as I opened the first one they began shouting out words in English: Cow! Dog! Cat! Sky! Mountain! Tiger's Nest! Punakha Dzong! Royal Wedding!! (Like all Bhutanese children, they were obsessed with the royal wedding.) I began asking them questions to probe their command of English: What does the cat say? They laughed (I didn't think it was a funny question ...) and one boy boldly said, "Meow." A few pictures later I asked what the dog says (remember, dogs are ubiquitous in Bhutan), and they burst into a cacophony of howling. Yep -- that's what we'd been hearing at 3AM. Skipping through the photos I came to this:

Uh-oh. Paroxysms of giggles. They were practically on the ground laughing. They covered their mouths and cut their eyes at me. Now c'mon, boys. There are penises painted on most of the homes in Bhutan; they see this every day. Why is it so funny that the American tourist took a photo? But yeah -- it was definitely a moment of cross-cultural awkwardness. I quickly flipped to the next shot. Eventually they identified all the sites we'd visited, they'd demonstrated vocabulary skills that would have made their teachers proud, and then they asked if I had any pictures from America.

I showed them photos I took this summer along the Pacific Coast Highway in California (they really liked the big bridge) and also some from St. John in the Caribbean. For some reason they thought the picture of Lee in her bright red bathing suit wearing flippers and goggles for snorkeling was almost as funny as the penis. I guess they don't snorkel much in Bhutan ...

I realized that I had attracted some adult viewers along the way; several workers were leaning against the railing behind us enjoying the photos and even chiming in with some questions and comments. The conversation picked up steam. One boy told me that another, whose arms and legs I had noticed were smeared with purple paint, had the chicken pox. Gulp! The oldest boy, whose English was the best, mentioned that he wants to go to school in America, perhaps hoping that with my connections I could work some Wheaton or Champlain magic on the spot. Another pointed out a patch of gray in his otherwise jet-black hair and said "since born." Yet another one told me he has a twin, whom I thought I understood was the small boy caddying for Dasho. But when Dasho and Lee came back, the boy looked nothing like the other one (and, in fact, was certainly several years younger), and so I guess I missed something in the translation.

I showed them the one picture of Sebastian I have on my iPad and they had lots of questions about him. "How tall he is!" one said. Yes, by Bhutanese standards, Sebastian would be, like the king, quite tall. They seemed to like me even more once they knew I had a son. I wished I had more pictures of Sebastian to show them.

Finally there were no pictures left to see and I made a move to close the iPad. One particularly sharp little fellow, though (the one in the hat in the photo above), spotted the games icon. "Games, games!" they clamored. A universal truth: kids like computer games. So I opened Cut-the-Rope, but that quickly dissolved into quite a bit of grabbing and swiping, and I feared for my iPad's life. Plus the screen was getting grimy pretty fast; these boys' hands hadn't seen any soap for, oh, quite a while. So I told them my iPad needed a rest and closed up shop. Two of the older boys then picked up my guidebook and thumbed through it, but the younger kids scampered off to the third hole to chase some dogs that had appeared.

Before they left, though, I got one more shot of the larger group using my iPad. They loved that! Another universal: kids love having their picture taken, and they think new technology is really cool too.

And, it turns out, they love an impromptu English/cultural studies lesson on the golf course. What fun pupils they were, and as with the best "teaching," I learned a lot too. This group of kids will stay with me for a long time!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

(About 10,000 Feet) Above Par

I'm not a great golfer. Not even good, really. But I'm enthusiastic, and perhaps that's what convinced Dasho Tenzing to offer to play with me when I asked him about the possibility of playing at the one golf course in Bhutan, the Royal Thimphu Golf Course which sits above the city and overlooks the Tashicho Dzong, the palace where the King and Parliament do their work. Turns out Dasho is a member, and so said he'd round me up some clubs and meet me there on Friday afternoon.

So after our morning in the city signing the King's scrapbook, Betsy and I hopped in Sonam's trusty blue Hyundai and headed for the course.

Dasho had borrowed his brother's clubs for me to use, and apologized because there were no women's clubs to be found. Not surprising given that there are, according to him, only about four women in all of Bhutan who play golf.

We had caddies--my first ever, and I have to admit I quickly became enamored of my young friend who tracked my ball into the rather substantial rough each time I ended up there, and to be honest, I ended up there a lot. It's a tight nine-hole course with water hazards and bunkers aplenty, but I can't blame that for my mediocre play. Maybe I could blame the clubs, but to be honest, I'm not all that good when I play at home with my own clubs.

But the caddies--eager young boys who knew the course. Mine was especially helpful, quickly picking up the fact that my wedge shots are erratic and short. His name was Wangdue (pronounced something like "wahn-dee"), and he smiled slightly when I made a good shot, reacted not at all when I shanked my ball into the rough.

Have I mentioned the rough? It was grass high enough to swallow my ball and then spit it back when I tried to whack it back toward the fairway. It was living, breathing, moving grass.

Dasho was, as I expected, a marvelous golfer. He is an accomplished athlete who seems to do everything well. He was also excellent company on the course--encouraging, fun, patient.

I may play golf for another three decades, and I know I will never play a course as spectacular as this one. Every once in a while, I looked up from my spot in the rough and tried to take in the beauty of the landscape. Mountains reaching to the sky, the Dzong looming nearby. This was the backdrop for my less-than-stellar play.

Betsy was a faithful gallery member (and official photographer) who lasted 12 holes before heading back to the clubhouse to read and relax. She had a much different experience than she expected, however, but I'll let her tell you about that in her own post.

Dasho and I played 18 on the course, one that he tries to play about once a week. He is quite the skilled golfer, and it was a privilege to play with him. We talked golf, higher education, the Bhutanese economy, and why he founded RTC. He told me that when the fourth king ("K4" as he called him) told his kingdom that his dream for them was democracy, it meant that the old civil service system of employment was about to be undone. That left Dasho wondering what he would do with his life and his considerable talents (he's a UC-Berkeley grad with a degree in mechanical engineering). At the same time, he was struggling with the decision to send his children out of the country for secondary school, as were his siblings. He felt that Bhutan needed an educational system that would drive the new economy. His solution? Start a new college that would challenge the old way of education in Bhutan, which is based on the very regimented Indian system. And here he is, a few years later, essentially owning and running the only private college in the country.

And here he also was, on a golf course with an eager yet inept partner, pointing out the architectural features of the Dzong on one hole and tutoring me in hitting out of the rough on the next. Have I mentioned the rough? It was calf-high and haunted.

Dasho and his wife Ashi Khesang ("Ashi" is "princess" in Dzongkha) will be in Norton next May for their daughter Tenzin's graduation from Wheaton. I've promised him a round on one of our local courses, and promised him my game will improve between now and then. I suspect it won't matter all that much to him. He loves to be on the course, enjoying the weather. His attitude toward golf is exactly what we all need to adopt: "Golf is the perfect zen sport," he said. "Every shot is a new beginning."

True that, Dasho. See you in Norton.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Bigger than the Beatles

Among the many declarative statements I will make upon leaving Bhutan, this is one: these people LOVE their king. And maybe it's just that people were swept up in the excitement of the royal wedding (after all, the Today Show crew did fly halfway round the world to cover it; I think perhaps they have a larger audience than I do, and a better camera), but compared to a monarchy like England, which seems split between love and disdain for their royals, the Bhutanese devotion is refreshing.

I know that it can't be easy being a rock star king and queen, but these two royals seem to handle it well. What is it like to be 21 years old, as their new Queen is, a college student herself, and see her image plastered all over the country? What is it like to be the son of another beloved King who abdicated to give you your own shot at the crown, at being a "father, son and brother" to your people? And what was that conversation like? "Son, I've decided to retire. Hope you didn't have any plans to open a restaurant or backpack across Europe."

We started the day in the company of two Wheaton students, Noelle and Nanoko, who were beautifully dressed in their kiras (this was taken at RTC, so you can get a sense of the architecture of this brand-new campus):

The occasion was an event sponsored by the Bhutan Media Foundation to display some of the thousands of "felicitations" sent by schoolchildren to the King and Queen, and to have guests sign a large book with their own messages. Lily Wangchuck is head of the BMF and an aunt of a Wheaton student. She is also the exceedingly kind person who took charge of delivering the wedding gift blanket to the happy couple. Here are a couple of shots of the several hundred works of art they displayed, which should give you a sense of the reverence the children of Bhutan have for their monarchs:

Some of them were especially great, including this one:

The poem is so sweet that I'll enlarge it for those of you who can't find your reading glasses:

Betsy and I each wrote in the greetings book, as did Noelle and Nanoko (who hail from Ghana/New York City and Japan respectively). Betsy got a shot of me hard at work:

I hope the king can read my handwriting.

We returned to RTC where we changed for my afternoon of golf with Dasho, but I'll write about that in a separate post. I want to tell you about seeing the King and Queen up close--maybe five or six feet away, in fact.

After golf, Betsy and I asked Sonam to drop us off in town. Earlier that morning, we had seen thousands of people begin to line the streets from the edge of Thimphu City through the town and to the palace, awaiting the royal couple's procession. As we walked the golf course, which is right above the road to the palace, we heard occasional cheering and wondered if that meant he was coming through. Here's an informative exchange between Betsy and Dasho:

Betsy: Does that cheering mean they're coming?
Dasho: There won't be cheering.
Betsy: They don't cheer for the king??
Dasho: No. That is not the response they will have. They will be quiet.

Oh. Of all the moments we've had where the difference between Americans and the Bhutanese is clear, this may have been the most profound. They don't cheer?? What do they do? And we found out.

We walked down toward the gate to Thimphu town (the downtown area) to join some of the thousands along the route. It was getting dark--around 6 pm, so my shot is a little blurry, but it should give you a sense of what it looked like for several miles. Betsy and I joined them and stood about where that large man in the red robe, who is at the fence facing away from the street, is standing:

The excitement was obvious, even though many of these people had been standing there since 9 or 10 am. We asked a police officer when he thought they would be coming through, and he guessed about 15 minutes. So our timing was quite good. We couldn't understand the chatter in the crowd, but suddenly, everyone began putting on the white muslin scarves that Bhutanese wear at their most sacred events. Traffic on the streets we could see from our spot ceased, and the crowd grew...quiet. Yes. Quiet. We started to see some people who looked to be dignitaries walk by, and then finally, I spotted the King. Bhutanese people in general aren't very tall, which makes it easy to find a good spot if you come late to a processional. But the King is at least a head above many of his subjects. Plus, he was wearing yellow, the royal color only he wears. I'm so sorry I had to put my camera away, but trust me--Bhutanese police officers know how to say "No camera, ma'am" in perfect English.

As the King and Queen walked toward us, the crowd was so quiet we could hear them greeting people in both English and Dzongkha. They zig-zagged from one side to the other, stopping to take flowers from children, saying hello, looking into the eyes of as many awed people as possible. And then there they were, in front of us. His focus was on the Bhutanese mothers with small children right in front of us. Betsy and I, riveted to the scene, stepped back slightly, both of us feeling, I think, like we were intruding on a moment of great intimacy between the King and Queen and their people. And then they walked on.

I can report with confidence that the Queen is as astonishingly beautiful up close as the many images of her around Bhutan show her to be. Please Google her to get a few views (Queen of Bhutan Jetsun Pema ought to get you a few hundred images). And he is striking as well. The sideburns and combed-back hair that have earned him the nickname "The Bhutanese Elvis" are totally cool, and yellow is a good color for him (fortunately).

They had been walking all day on their approach to the city, and still had a mile or so of throngs to greet before they reached the palace (which is not where he lives; Dasho told me the King lives in a small cottage near the palace that he has renovated quite simply, though he said he suspected they will have to move into larger quarters when they have a family). And yet they looked like each greeting was the first they were delivering. What is it about me that makes me awestruck by such a humble reigning monarch? Is it a lifetime of seeing the opulence of the British monarchy? The American tendency to assume that power brings conceit? It certainly is the American in us, Betsy and I decided, that overwhelmed us about the crowd: quiet, respectful, exceedingly polite. No pushing to get a better view, no excited chatter. Absolute silence as they passed (and THEN a whole lot of excited Dzongkha chatter as they shared their impressions with one another).

Betsy and I departed and headed for one of the few restaurants in the area that was open and not full of "reserved" signs on tables as the King and Queen moved through the heart of the bustling downtown area, on their way to what I hope was a place to put their feet up and be quiet themselves for a while.

We leave Bhutan this afternoon for Bangkok and a night in an airport hotel before a 6 am departure to Tokyo, then San Francisco, then JFK, and then for me, Boston, and Betsy, Burlington, on Monday. I will write about my amazing golf experience with maybe the nicest prince in the world, on definitely the most beautiful course in all of golf when I get to Bangkok. Right now, we're packing and then heading into town for a couple of hours to watch some of the festivities we saw being rehearsed on Tuesday. feels like a year ago. See you in Bangkok.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wedding Bells

There may be no stretch of road in all of Bhutan that is straight for more than 100 feet at a time. More than altitude sickness, I suspect that carsickness might fell more visitors to this kingdom, especially if they decide to cross a mountain via semi-paved switchbacks from Thimphu to Punakha in the back seat of a Hyundai.

Luckily, we were not terribly affected by the motion. We were, however, affected by the landscape and how quickly it changes as you ascend from Thimphu up to the peak of this road, Dochula, along a ridge at the very top (from where you can see India to the west and Tibet to the east), and then down to Punakha, where King Jigme and his bride Jetsun finally tied the knot at the Dzong (fort) in Punakha, one of the most important sites in all of Bhutan. The Dzong sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Mo (mother) and Po (father). Our guide told us "the mother is slow, the father is fast," and that "the mother drowns many people." One is a dark blue, the other a glacially-shaded grayish blue, making the confluence swirly and colorful, like many things here.

The most sacred part of the ceremony takes place in the very top of this structure, attended only by a few family members and the Ke Jenpo (the religious head of Bhutan). Several hundred others wait below for the festivities. And riff-raff like us get this close:

Not wanting to do our best Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn impersonations, we took a few photos and headed on. Diwash was beside himself with joy, however, to have been this close to the King and Queen. Here's Diwash on the right, with Sonam, our driver:

Lest you think Diwash's excitement was not shared, trust me--people here were giddy all day, as this typical sign indicates:

We drove from Punakha to a nearby village called Lobesa where we stopped for tea and lunch. Though the teahouse had a lovely upper deck overlooking the monastery, Chimi Lakkhang, that we were going to hike to afterwards, Diwash and Sonam disappeared inside to watch the live coverage of the ceremony on TV. Not happy being left outside, Betsy and I picked up our tea and followed them, where we enjoyed watching the TV, and watching our hosts watch the TV. In this photo, the King and Queen have emerged from the temple. I could hear the sound of hearts bursting all over Bhutan, but most loudly in the room, where Diwash was over the moon with excitement:

Our hike to Chimi Lakkhang took us through two small villages full of rice fields, cows and small children who greeted us with bright hellos. The afternoon was warm, and the view along the river and into the Himalayans was appropriately spectacular, given the importance of this monastery, which you can see in the middle of this picture.

The monastery is said to be built on a site sacred to the memory of Drukpa Kunley, the "Divine Madman," a saint and religious leader of great importance. The villages around the Lakkhang have successful farms because of Drukpa Kunley's emphasis on fertility. He is perhaps the most storied of all Buddhist saints, apparently with great comic timing. He was revered for his teachings, many of which had heavy sexual overtones, and is credited with starting the tradition of the phallus-painting on houses.

Though our destination was not far from where we were standing, I still stopped to ask directions:

She said, "20 minutes more in that direction," and then asked for the Luna Bar that was in my pocket. At first I said no. She then reminded me where I was, and I relented. It was Blueberry Bliss--my favorite, and, it turns out, hers too. I hope she enjoyed it.

Childless couples make pilgrimages to Chimi Lakkhang and will supposedly be blessed with a child soon after. It requires a blessing, however, provided by one of the monks there, most of whom were young boys--9, 10, 11 years old.

While several were busy in the temple blessing visitors, others played badminton and one took advantage of his break to nap on the lawn, oblivious to visitors.

The temple itself is beautiful, full of prayer wheels and flags that constantly move because of the wind that is ubiquitous on this hill above the river.

Betsy and I received blessings from a young monk, which entailed bowing and letting him place two relics, an iron bow and a penis bone from Drukpa Kunley, on our heads. Afterwards, Betsy pondered what her life will be like with another child to be named later (by the monks here--that's part of the deal):

As we hiked down, we had wonderful views of the surrounding valley which does indeed look fertile.

We found ourselves in the middle of a herd of cows on the way down, making their way to tea, and had a pleasant exchange with the cow herder who offered us another blessing. She did not, fortunately, ask for a Luna Bar:

In all, I think we spent six hours in the car, an hour at lunch, half an hour gazing at the Punakha Dzong, and an hour hiking to and visiting Chimi Lakkhang. We returned to Thimphu wobbly from the drive, blessed by a monk that in America would spend much of his time playing with Leg-os, and pondering how much fun Betsy's going to have taking care of a new infant. It was indeed an auspicious day!

Today, Friday, we will go into town to write our felicitations on behalf of Wheaton College in a book being prepared for the King and Queen, and then...GOLF! Dasho Tenzing has kindly offered to host me for a round at the Royal Thimphu Golf Course. I'm trying not to have pre-round jitters, but I suspect Dasho is an excellent golfer. I will do my best, and try to not let my inadequate driving overtake my awe. The course is, after all, at over 8000 feet, overlooking the Tashicho Dzong (the Royal Palace and offices of the King). I will not even care if I drive my tee shot off the mountain.

Stay tuned for a report on this particular adventure. Tee-off is at 1 pm, Bhutan time.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cool Schools on a Hot Day

The amazing weather has continued--bright blue skies, cool air in the shade, blazing warmth in the sun. When the skies are particularly clear and the distant snow-capped mountains are visible (beyond which lay TIbet), it's hard to look away. But the sidewalks here (I'm not sure you can call some stretches that) demand constant attention to where you're stepping, so such dreamy glances are, by necessity, rare lest you trip, fall into a construction ditch, and have to try out their nationalized health care system.

Yesterday's meetings with faculty and staff were intriguing, challenging, fun. It is an impressive thing going on here at RTC, creating a college from scratch, one that runs counter to much of the educational system in Bhutan and, indeed, South Asia. The idea of interactive, engaged classrooms is foreign here, and it is difficult to find faculty who are able to create the kind of classroom environment that we take for granted at Wheaton and Champlain. An ongoing challenge for RTC is recruitment of faculty with that kind of skill set. They recruit from India, where the educational culture is very lecture-based, and from the UK and US, but not in large enough numbers to really influence a shift in the culture. To compound the challenge, Bhutanese students have grown up in schools that are equally rigid, so RTC's mission of developing students who are autonomous agents of their own education, who question authority, who will become active democratic citizens runs counter to what they have been told throughout their lives.

But things are changing. We visited a wonderful school where several of our students are working; Jigme Losal Gross National Happiness School, which enrolls 800 children in grades 1-8. The mission of the school is to teach children the principles of GNH as well as encourage them to question, debate, and look beyond their own homes as a destination. We met Aum Chokhi, the principal, who was thrilled to talk about what they're doing at this school located just off a busy street in Thimphu.

Gross National Happiness is not a clever marketing phrase. It is a way of measuring quality of life in Bhutan. GNH has four "pillars": promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, protection of the environment, and establishment of good governance. The Jigme Singye School embeds all of these values in its curriculum. Aum Chokhi ("Aum" is something close to "Madame") is particularly proud of the way her students learn to make eye contact and ask questions, rather than looking away, ostensibly out of respect, when communicating with others, which is the more common Bhutanese approach.

Throughout the school there are colorful posters with reminders about taking care of the environment, of respecting one another. She says Wheaton students have been a great addition to the staff because they naturally do what she is trying to teach. In fact, she has become quite attached to one of them, Adam, and says "My eyes light up when I see him. So deep is my feeling that I think that in a previous life, we must have had a connection--maybe he was my son."

I watched as a film crew tried to get a group of children to shout a wedding greeting to the King and Royal Bride, and am happy to report that despite the lofty goals of this school, the children look and sound like kids around the world, and are just as difficult to corral.

Back on campus, we ran into the aforementioned Adam, who took some time to explain his gho to Betsy. It's not an easy outfit to put on, but it comes with some nice features, like a pouch that seems large enough to carry books, food and a toddler.

We also ran into another Wheaton student, Nanoko, who was in her kira and posed for us with two of her Bhutanese friends. That's her in the middle:

Today we are off to Punakha with Hyun to get as close to the wedding activities as non-kira'd tourists can get. The sacred ceremony begins at 7 am, so I imagine that the bride and groom are both up, being dressed by countless attendants, and feeling the butterflies one typically feels on one's wedding day.

To be visiting a college that is trying to create something so far from the norm, to be in a country that is trying to figure out how to be a democracy, how to balance integration with the world with preservation of its identity--it's all overwhelming. Betsy and I have often joked about starting a college from scratch. I'm here to tell you: it is not easy. There are so many things to work on that I think the faculty, staff and students suffer from "start-up fatigue." I tried to say encouraging things to all of them, but probably the thing they zeroed in on was this: there are no shortcuts to do what they want to do. Policies can be created in a few meetings, but creating a culture that runs deep enough to be implicit in everyday activities--that will take years and several generations of students. But they will get there. Reliance on Buddhist principles will hopefully provide them with perspective and patience.

One last shot of a local dog, asleep in the middle of the courtyard at Jigme Losal GNH School. He seems to have found his own H:

Off to the wedding! Whoo-hoo! Got my Macarena on already!



Hello everyone. It's Betsy again. I know that those of you who know me have been wondering about my adventures with Bhutanese cuisine, and so I thought I'd fill you in. Some say that I'm a notoriously picky eater; I prefer to think of myself as discriminating. I know what I like and what I don't like. For instance, I've never been a fan of Indian food, especially after a traumatic incident in Amsterdam many years ago. And so you can imagine what a challenge two weeks in India was a couple of summers ago. I survived, however, and developed quite a fondness for Mojo peanut butter and pretzel bars. And so I came well equipped to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, in full knowledge that the thunder dragon breathes chilis.

The pre-trip reading we did was very clear -- to overcome the blandness of the local diet, the Bhutanese have cultivated many varieties of chilis, which they use absolutely unsparingly. They put chilis in everything. If they made chocolate cake (which, disappointingly, they don't seem to), they would add chilis. Even the white rice, which I thought I could use to temper the heat, has chilis! The other point emphasized in our pre-trip reading is the fact that the Bhutanese are aware that most westerners can't handle their fondness for chilis, and so they are kind enough to scale way back when they know they'll be having western guests for a meal. Well, I'm here to report that even when scaled back, the local dishes set my lips a-tingling. Wow -- I've never had anything so spicy!

But I've been adventurous and have tried many things ... and I'm here to tell you that aside from one night when I had pretzels and a York peppermint patty for dinner, I'm doing just fine. I've sampled several local dishes, although I've stayed away from the national favorite, ema datse, which is some sort of potato-cheese-chili combination that I just don't think my Irish ancestors would approve of. We had lunch one day while observing a puja (annual ritual) in a traditional Bhutanese home. I took a swig of arra -- local moonshine -- last night ... and yes, it curled my hair. The red rice is substantial and filling, and the veggies are actually quite good. The meat dishes are sketchier, and sadly, the Bhutanese just don't seem to believe in dessert (although I scored a Snickers bar for pennies in downtown Thimphu yesterday afternoon).

This afternoon, after several workshops at the college, Lee and I and the Wheaton faculty member in residence headed into town for our first taste of western food in a week. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and Lee and Hyun shared a pizza, and we drank diet cokes and milkshakes while watching schoolchildren in kiras and ghos walking home from school. I chewed thoughtfully and listened to them laugh as they passed, and I found myself thinking about these children who eat a steady diet of chili-infused food soon after they're weaned from their mother's milk. I realized just what a lightweight I am when it comes to fire-inspired food.