Sunday, October 30, 2011

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.

PS This is a shout out to my awesome chillip friends in Thimphu... you know who you are!

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).

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bumthang, Tsechu and The Royal Wedding... oh my! (part 1)

Ok, so I understand that I clearly suck at writing blogs.  I get distracted, I get busy, I have a million excuses!  However, the last 2 weeks have just been too fantastic for me to let slip.  (A quick warning... this will be a loooong blog, but at least I'm finally writing!)

It all started when only a couple days before our mid-term break we find out that we have been invited to Bumthang, Bhutan by Dasho Colonel Khado who's daughter actually went to Wheaton as well.


If you're not aware of the geography of Bhutan, most of the country is made up of himalayan mountains and valleys.  This means that the one "highway" that connects the country is essentially all switchbacks, tight curves, and almost entirely one lane.  One of the key things I've learned about Bhutan is that you should enjoy the view from cars, but a) never look down and b) never pay attention to the driver, especially of a city bus.  On our trip the driver would be on the phone and/or texting while navigating the insane road and honking each time he would go around a corner to try to avoid hitting the unseen car wrapping around the cliff on the other side. (This was only somewhat successful, we never hit anything but boy did we get close!)

Now, all of this is to explain that although Bhutan is approximately the same size as Switzerland, the road conditions do not allow for a typical road trip speed.  Bumthang is about 250km but takes about 12 hours to drive by bus.  Part of this drive was spent listening to sub-standard hindi music at full volume, then later (still at full volume) we listened to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry... I love Gaga, but there was just something wrong with listening to her while amidst the mountains of Bhutan.

Bumthang is called "Mini-switzerland" by many of the Bhutanese for several obvious reasons.  The beautiful mountains.  The cheese.  And the beer all small local production.  In fact, a swiss man settled there years ago and started a cheese factory still in existence today (we actually met him).  Bumthang was a whirlwind trip but was absolutely fantastic.  We met a family of Americans the first night at dinner.  They are from Vermont and would toured with us.

Before we left we were told we would not be hiking on this trip, it would be a nice relaxing vacation after mid terms.  Part of this was true as we got to stay the first 2 nights in a beautiful hotel.  However, our first day we went for quite the "not hike," just an hour walk we were told... an hour walk straight uphill through the forest with almost no path that actually took us about two hours.  But, once we got to the monastery at the top, the view was incredible.  When I am able to download pictures I have plenty because I can't describe it in words.  In the afternoon we stopped at a nunnery and the women of the group got to sit in on one of the classes which was really cool.

On our way back to the town, several of us decided to sit/stand in the back of the pick up truck.  Aaron Bos-Lun and I stood holding on to the frame with the wind in our faces and had an awesome talk about life and our futures.  It was one of my favorite moments in Bhutan: thanks Aaron!

That night we had dinner at the Swiss guest house.  It was delicious.  Some of the best food I've had in a while and was just a generally great time.  This included Dasho (Bhutanese title like the British Sir) Khado's favorite beverage.  Ara is essentially Bhutanese moonshine and is served in a variety of ways.  The Dasho's method of choice is literally fried with a scrambled egg, butter, and honey.   Like many foreign delicacies, I think it is an acquired taste.  (Did I mention that it is so potent that he actually lights it on fire, not once but at least 3 times before serving it?)  One of the funniest parts was when Dasho (who is a large man whom we have nicknamed the Bhutanese Santa Claus) saw that I took my Ara shot without the egg, grabbed my glass with my hand still attached and tipped it back so I would have to eat the egg?

The next day we visited a families home for lunch and went to a nice handicrafts shop which was really nice.  Then we drove for about an hour to a small village where we would spend the night in a farm house with a family.  It was a beautiful quiet village and a nice end to our time in Bumthang before our 12 hour bus ride back.

Bumthang, Tsechu and The Royal Wedding... oh my! (part 2)

Thimphu Tsechu

We got back to Thimphu sort of late Friday night (due to our bus breaking down half way back and the drivers and men on the bus having to replace a tire in pouring down rain.)  The next morning we would be able to go into town for Thimphu Tsechu which is the most famous festival in Bhutan.

Aaron, Nurit and I had a great plan of having lunch first at my Bhutanese friend Sippy's house and then going with her to Tsechu.  We got there and the best way to describe the festival is an explosion of color.  Everyone is in their nicest Kira and Gho (the national dress) and there are more people than you can imagine.  I would recommend googling Thimphu Tsechu for some professional pictures of it because it is incredible.

I especially loved the masked dances by the monks which tell important stories from the history of Bhutan and Buddhism.  Also, as any good festival should have, there are the Bhutanese versions of "clowns."  These are people dressed up as either the person of or representations of Drukpa Kunley aka the Divine Madman who is most famous for having fought off spirits with his enormous... phallus.  One of them actually had earrings shaped for the part.

After the Tsechu I met up with my friend Hilary who is working here in Thimphu and we went to a talk by Matheu Ricard, a famous scientist/buddhist monk, an influential neuroscientist studying the effects of meditation on the brain, and the environmental scientist who co-won the nobel peace prize with Al Gore. Overall, it was interesting but I was quite disappointed with the lack of knowledge the speakers (mostly the two scientists other than Ricard) had on Bhutan. I mean, really, if you're a nobel prize winner I would expect you to know that the country you are speaking in is not pronounced “Boo-Tan”

Hilary and I then got to jam with my guitar and make some food before going out in Thimphu with some friends. It was a great end to our mid-term break... or so we thought. After our weekly Dzongkha classs Monday morning we discovered that our Eastern Political Thought professor had decided that the 3 days we would have classes that week (given that we were off Thursday and Friday for the wedding) would be better spent on vacation in India so he did not show up to class all week giving those of us in his class extra vacation.

Bumthang, Tsechu and The Royal Wedding... oh my! (part 3)

The Royal Wedding
The Royal Wedding of His Majesty the Fifth King and Her Majesty Ashi Jetsun Pema has been talked about and anticipated for months. In fact, it has been a major topic of discussion since we got here and it did not disappoint. The festivities began on Thursday morning at about 4am with special rituals peformed by the monastic body. I woke up around 8:30 in order to watch the wedding ceremony itself with about 15 Bhutanese girls in the common room of our dorm. It was being shown live through BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Service).

The ceremony itself was long but beautiful. All of the outfits were gorgeous, although I felt that we were just missing the silly hats of the British Royal wedding. When the couple finally were officially wed, His Majesty the King put on the traditional Raven Crown and then put a beautiful crown/tiara combo kind of thing on the head of the new Queen. He looked terrified that he might not get it on well enough and it would fall off and when he seemed happy with it he touched the Queen's face to the “awwws” of everyone in the room. I can only assume that was also the case in Punakha Dzong where the ceremony was taking place as well.

The next day I met Aaron, Miranda, and Marijose in town and we decided to join the masses on the streets of Thimphu. The other three arrived a couple hours before me and when I got there I was impressed by the sheer number of people. The school children had been waiting since 10am and here it was, 3:30ish and the royal couple had still not arrived. They would be walking through the streets to greet people as they transitioned from Punakha to Thimphu.
Every half hour or so, the excitement would rise, the children would all stand, and the police would straighten the line, only to realize that it was yet another false alarm and everyone would sit back down. Finally, at about 7pm when we were seriously considering leaving to get dinner, we were told that they were really coming this time. We looked down the street and there they were, looking as regal as you would expect of the newlywed royalities.

We had each bought a ceremonial white scarf which we would present to them if they were to come over to us. It is a sign of respect in Bhutan to do so. Also, I had strategically decided to wear my Wheaton College sweatshirt, banking on the hope that the King would be enticed by mention of his alma mater to come greet us. As it turns out, it was not the King who would notice us but the Queen.

Brief side note: early in our time here in Bhutan, I had the great honor of playing basketball with Zimbi, a Bhutanese friend who goes to Wheaton. She invited me to play on the Royal Team against Royal Thimphu College (where I am studying). This meant that I got to play with all women from the royal family. One of those women was the future (and now current) Queen. It was a great experience and I had gotten to talk to her and the other members of the team throughout the game.

Back to the streets of Thimphu: So the Queen sees me, brings the King, who's hand she is holding, over to the four of us and says “Heather!” I was quite shocked that she not only remembered me but also my name. I shook her hand and congratulated her heartily on her wedding. His Majesty then took a few moments to shake each of our hands and ask us where we were from (we said Wheaton) and he said, “Oh, you must be studying at RTC.” He asked us how long we had been in Bhutan and then continued on his way. It was one of those epic moments that we will remember forever.

We all went to bed pretty early because we would be waking up before 4:30am the next day. The final day of the celebration in Thimphu would be centered around a huge celebration ceremony with performances from school children, teachers, monks, professional performers and more in the Olympic Stadium. I thought that there were a lot of people at Tsechu but this made the festival look like a small event. We got in the security line around 5:15am and were in the stadium in our seats before 6 for the event which would not begin until the couple arrived around 9:30 or 10am. Even so, about three quarters of the stadium was full when we got there so we were lucky to find decent seats on the far end of the stadium.

After waiting for hours upon hours the royal procession arrived and lifted one of the largest sacred tapestries depicting Guru Rinpoche (the man credited with founding Buddhism in Bhutan). It is only shown once a year and is quite the sight as it is several stories tall and makes all the people around it look tiny. Unfortunately, cameras were not permitted in the stadium for the event so I don't have a picture of it to share. The King then addressed the people in Dzongkha and presumably made several jokes as the crowd laughed with him at multiple points... one of which was apparently after he said something to the effect of “now I will kiss my wife” and did.

The rest of the day was spent watching the variety of performances from cute small children dancing and creating flower shaped formations, to the RTC girls dance that we had seen them practicing for the last 3 months, to the Tae Kwon Do children of Bhutan in an epic collective show culminating with the black-belts breaking boards in all sorts of creative ways and then fighting each other in pairs out on the field. I loved that the two women were paired with guys and both of the girls won. There were also a couple performances involving some excellent floats like the one with a rainbow over mountains with four women dressed as angels in colors to match the rainbow flags.

We left mid to late afternoon after another exciting moment when we were greeted by the King and Queen again. They walk around the stadium to greet the people and we enjoyed getting to see them again within 24 hours. The rest of the day was spent resting around Thimphu and then we returned to campus for some well needed sleep.

Like I said, the past two weeks were absolutely and inexplicably awesome. They are experiences that we will never forget. So with that, I say Tashi Delek to Their Majesties and best wishes for a happy marriage.

The Tiger's Nest

Probably the most famous pictures of Bhutan are of Taktsang in Paro, also known as the Tiger's Nest. It is an incredibly sacred place of the Buddhist tradition in Bhutan. According to tradition Guru Rimpoche, who spread Buddhism in Bhutan, rode a flying Tigress and landed at this particular place on a cliff above Paro. Now, on that very spot, stands an amazing monastery. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the temple itself but below are some of the best pictures from the hike up to it and the outside.

If you look really close (you can click on the picture to blow it up) you can see Taktsang sort of behind the clouds. I took this picture from a restaurant in the valley. We drove about 5-10 km and then began the hike up. Our guide, Tsewang, claimed that young healthy people can make the hike in about 2 hours... We decided that a great use of our energy would be to all guess how long it would take. Unfortunately, those who had more faith in us, guessing between 2 and 2 1/2 hours were the farthest off as it took us over 4 to get there. (Granted, we did stop at this beautiful tea break place on the way up... but we were there for less than an hour)

The day that we made the hike was actually a Buddhist holiday celebrating the first sermon by the Buddha. This meant that there were a lot more people on the path than a typical day. In order to avoid the crowds our guide took us on a "short cut." In contrast to the well traveled path, our way was steep and barely distinguishable from the forest... which I must admit made the hike even more epic.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Shout out to my YACs!

Dear East Point YAC,

    Although you may not be directly related to Bhutan, I need to make a brief shout out to all of you!  This past summer had the potential to be really rough.  My family had just moved to Maine and I’d be home for 2+ months in a state where I know almost no one.

    Then along came YAC... I want you to know that you truly made my summer and I am so thankful for you.  I can’t fully describe how much I appreciate the fellowship you provided, fantastic discussions, and lots of laughs.

    On top of all that, I finally got to read the wonderful notes that many of you wrote in my book (plus Janaye’s picture... which was epic!).  Thank you so much for all the encouraging words.  When I feel homesick or stressed, I like to open up that book and feel all the great vibes coming from you.  And, thank you to those who are praying for me and my group as we continue this adventure.  It means a lot to me.

    So, to finish up, I hope you are having a great end to your summer.  Sometime in the fall I am hoping to wake up early enough to skype into a YAC but I’m not sure about the logistics!  Also, keep an eye on my facebook photos... I am determined to get a picture with a real live yak while I am here.  So far I have bought a yak hair bag and eaten at “Yak Herders Camp,” but haven’t come across a yak itself!

    I love you all! God Bless,