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.


1 comment:

  1. Just now waiting for the Today show coverage of the wedding to air on Saturday a.m....I didn't know Matt was there until you told me. While we'll get nice close-up views of the beautiful bride and groom, your "coverage" has been much more insightful. Thank you!

    Safe travels ladies. Hope your last views of beautiful Bhutan weren't too blurred by tears on your flight out of Paro.