Monday, October 10, 2011

The Road to Thimphu is Paved With Good Intentions (it is a Buddhist Nation, After All)

Greetings from Royal Thimphu ("tim-pu") College, a small (900 students) liberal arts college about 5 miles up a mountainside above the capital city of Thimphu, where about 20 percent of Bhutan's residents reside.

Let me say a few words about roads and driving in Bhutan, keeping in mind that paved roads are a rather new phenomenon, most of them having been built in the past two decades. And when they built them, they took a typical Bhutan approach of tending to the environment and conserving space. Their attitude seems to have been that a two-lane road is wasteful. All you really need is one and a half lanes and a spirit of generosity.

I wrote once, after surviving Egyptian roads, that in America, a beep of the horn generally means "look out!" while in Egypt, it means more like, "If you continue on the path you're on, I will hit you." Here in Bhutan, the translation is roughly, "Friend, I will soon be visible around this blind curve, and it would benefit us both if you stayed on your side of the road."

The highway from Paro to Thimphu is particularly new, shortening the drive from about 4 hours ten or so years ago to one harrowing hour now. The road follows a river, sitting hundreds of feet above it. Once in a while, a guardrail appears, indicating, I think, that this is a particularly likely place to plunge off the side. The Bhutanese have adopted the strategy of reminding people to be safe through a series of Burma Shave-like signs that provide helpful reminders of the nearness of disaster. At least they provided us some distraction: "Safe arriving means no liquor driving" was one. My favorite, though, said "This is a roadway, not a runway." The image of a car sailing off into the chasm was something that kept my attention on the road ahead. Not sure it had the same effect on Tsonam, our driver.

But we made it, and all is well here. We had lunch with the director of RTC, two of their deans, Hyun Kim (the Wheaton faculty member here for the semester) and two American faculty members, a couple named Doug and Janet, who have been here working as all-purpose administrators since RTC was founded three years ago. The director is Dasho Tenzing. I need to explain that "Dasho" is an honorific granted to royalty. Yes, Dasho is the husband of the Princess I met at the airport. I also met him there, but didn't make the connection to RTC. He is a very charming and thoughtful UC-Berkeley graduate who has overseen the development of the vision for RTC, and now manages its growth and reputation. He is very proud of this place (proud in a Bhutanese way, which in America would barely register on the pride scale). More about him in a later post, I'm sure, as we're having dinner with him tonight. I'll be sure and keep you posted on my adventures in Bhutanese royalty cluelessness. Please pray that I don't accidentally stumble into the King at some point and inadvertently give him a big American howdy and high-five or something equally impressive.

We had dinner with ten of the eleven Wheaton students last night (Heather Wilson has become the star of her residence hall basketball team and was playing in the "interhostel" final last night). We went to an Indian restaurant in downtown Thimphu run by a family whose toddler provided the soundtrack to the meal. I had a bottle of local beer, which I can't say will rank among the memorable beers I've ever had.

Here's a blurry photo of me with my students and Hyun along with a '99 Wheaton alum, Ugyen. He saw Billy on a street in Thimphu carrying a Wheaton bag and stopped him to say hello, so Billy invited him along. Small world..small country.

One last tidbit about the city of Thimphu: it is the only national capital in the world without a stoplight. This is not to say they couldn't use one, but they prefer to make do other ways. At the busiest intersection in the city, they use the old-fashioned method: a traffic cop. Here's a shot of him at rush hour, keeping the cars moving smoothy:

Quite a nice booth, isn't it?

Today we are heading to the rehearsal of the cultural activities that will be part of the royal wedding on Thursday. 160 of RTC's female students are doing a folk dance. I watched them practice yesterday on the soccer field, and it promises to be a spectacularly colorful event, so I'll do my best to get some good photos. In the afternoon, I am meeting the members of RTC's student government.

It's great to be here, great to see the students and hear their stories, great to hear from Hyun how we'll they're doing, great to hear from RTC administrators how much they appreciate their partnership with Wheaton. I am equally appreciative, and was especially so last night as a full moon rose above the mountain range, framed in a perfectly-sized notch in the landscape, and lit up the Himalayan sky.


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