musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Friday, May 18, 2012

From Bhutan: Gross National Amazingness

Apologies in advance for the long post... but if you've ever been interested in going to or learning more about Bhutan I encourage you to read on. Also, there just might be a twist that'll also be worth your time, especially if you know Lauren and me. Nevertheless I realize that it's still highly likely that my mother will be the only one to get all the way through... Pictures to come soon!

Only 8 pilots are qualified to fly into Bhutan's Paro International Airport largely because the approach involves winding through the Himalayas. The interwebs tell me that only 28,000 tourists visited Bhutan last year (compared with 500,000 in neighboring Nepal). Almost the entire country sits about 7,000 feet.

In other words, Bhutan is out there. Odds are you've never even heard of it... right? I definitely hadn't before seeing a glimpse of the royal wedding on tv last year. So much color, so much tradition, so much... wait, where is this again?

It's a shame really. Bhutan is, hands down, one of the (if not the) most beautiful places I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. Hands. Down. And now it represents a folded page corner in the storybook of my life.

Stepping off the plane in Paro last Monday, I couldn't help but think (or maybe I even thought it out loud...) "what is this, the most beautiful place on earth?" The landing strip is surrounded on both sides by tall, tree-covered hills. The air is crisp and clean (a welcome respite from Delhi). Fellow tourists immediately start taking pictures. I immediately started planning the surprise.

To back up, even getting to Bhutan is not easy. Basically, if you're not Indian, you have to book through a local travel agent to the tune of at least $250/night all-inclusive and fly on the obnoxiously expensive Drukair, Bhutan's national airline. The $250 is a non-negotiable government-imposed minimum; not exactly backpacker territory. More on the government in a bit.

We booked through an eenie, meenie, minee, moe online process and landed with Bhutan Footprints. All in all we were extremely satisfied with our trip and would definitely recommend BF. More than just a selection on the feedback form, our time in Bhutan with BF exceeded all of our expectations. Particularly Tin Lei, our amazing (and eternally patient) guide and our non-stop-smiling driver whose name Lauren and I can't, for the life of us, remember...

Most tourists come to Bhutan to trek the glorious mountains. According to Tin Lei, the most challenging of these treks is lovingly referred to as the 'Snowman'. 23 days hiking 6 to 7 hours a day and camping in tents, often on top of snow. Intense. There are apparently other shorter/easier ones but that one was definitely the one that stood out.

Although we'd love to come back to do a trek, this time we were confined to only four nights i.e. just a taste. First two in Thimpu, the capital city of this mountain kingdom for so long isolated from all but the most intrepid of travelers. Second two in Paro which, in addition to hosting the only international airport because it has a valley (barely) long enough for a runway, is the staging point for day hikes up to the Tiger's Nest. More on that too in a bit.

Almost as if it were a government requirement (turns out it's one of the few things that isn't), the buildings in Thimpu are all adorned with traditional ornge, blue, red and black dominated window trim, painted symbols of luck, prosperity and fertility, and other fun stuff that essentially turns the capital city into one large piece of art.

Everywhere you go in this world you can find handicrafts. Everywhere you go they claim to have the best 'this' and the most impressive 'that'. Only in Bhutan, the one place where no such claims were issued by its modest people, might this actually be true. To preserve the national arts (there are 13 of them to be exact, including painting, sculpture, wood work and embroidery), the government selects the most talented prodigies from all over the country to study at a school in Thimpu that we were lucky enough to visit. And, naturally, we ended up testing the global boundaries of Mastercard and Visa after wandering from classroom to classroom watching talent manifest itself.

After (electronically) emptying our pockets, Tin Lei took us to some sort of zoo-like place to see the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. Bhutan is a Buddhist country. Very Buddhist. So much so that the Abbot - the head of all monks in the country - is on equal footing with the King. The palaces (ornate yet functional) are equal part government offices, equal part monastery; a dual system of political and monastic rule. For your child to become a monk is a source of immense pride. The history and tales of monks and deities permeate all aspects of society. Therefore, it's no surprise that the Takin, one of the most awkward (and dare I say ugly) animals I've ever seen, was 'created' by a monk centuries ago. Known as the 'Mad Man', this particular monk was revered across the land for his degree of knowledge and enlightenment despite the fact that he was, in almost every way, non-traditional. Asked to perform a miracle by some doubters, he told them to bring him a goat and a cow. After slaughtering and eating them he placed the bones of the goat skull on top of the bones of the cow body and voila!!! the Takin was born.

What made Tin Lei's time with us extra memorable was his obvious personal devotion to and never-ending knowledge of Buddhism, constantly on display. Like when we had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Tango monastery high above in the hills surrounding Thimpu. Ironically, the Tango is a monastic dance academy... just kidding. Bad joke. Sorry. However, Tango is an academy for young monks and is also home to the 7th reincarnation of the monk who founded the place. Reincarnation and rebirth are a large part of the culture and is one of the ways that Buddhism continues to be such a strong way of life. In case you were wondering, there is a rather exhaustive process of testing the authenticity of reincarnation... Other than the stunning views and Lauren gazing out over her queendom, Tin Lei's explanation of the six different parts (or perhaps stages is more appropriate?) of the Buddhist universe, depicted (as it was at Tango) in a circular globe held up by the teeth of a demon-like god, was comprehensive and fascinating.

Like Buddhism, the Bhutanese government's presence is felt at every turn. From the ridiculous $250/night to the national dress to the menus at restaurants (not kidding), they're everywhere. Yet, in this mountain kingdom of barely 700,000 people, it seems to work. It's been this way so long and the government is gradually allowing democracy to creep in; poverty is consistent (I don't really want to say low because life in the village is apparently pretty basic) and most services (education, health care, etc.) are free. Not only did Tin Lei and the rest of the locals we met seem content with their lives and government, their happiness is measured! By Gross National Happiness (commonly referred to as GNH) to be exact. Not sure exactly how this is measured (if anyone has any info on this please let me know), but every year school children, during their school holidays so they don't get into other types of trouble, go out to the village and find out just how happy everyone is (or more accurately, claims to be). Odds are you've heard of the concept at least in passing; now there are conferences (next one's in Brazil and I really want to go) and special meetings with heads of state on the topic. "GNH, coming soon to a census interview near you!"

As we were driving from Thimpu to Paro on the morning of day three, Tin Lei began talking to us about the Tiger's Nest. No trip to Bhutan was complete without experiencing up-close-and-personal the monastery in (literally in) the hill. Turns out he was right!

Back in the day, a Tibetan monk turned his 'consort' i.e. lady friend into a tiger and then rode her (through the air I believe) to the site of what is today known as the Tiger's Nest. Bhutan has a long and complicated relationship with Tibet, now further convoluted by China's ongoing rule of Tibet that, among other things, has caused modern-day Bhutan to look to India for a military and political ally over China (which, given cultural and other reasons seems to me like more of a natural partner). India jumped at the opportunity to hedge against it's biggest regional pain in the neck and now provides infrastructure, military and other support to Bhutan.

But back to Tibet. Buddhism came to Bhutan from Tibet. Although the types differ today (yellow hat, represented by the Dalai Lama, being from Tibet and red hat from Bhutan), the history is undeniable. Most of the Buddhist monks who have made lasting impacts on Bhutan came from Tibet. Yet wars were fought (three to be exact) and feelings were hurt. It's complicated. I don't pretend to know all the details but it would definitely make a fascinating thesis topic.

The hike up to the Tiger's Nest took about two hours (roundtrip, including lunch halfway, took us 4 hours and 47 minutes, but who's counting...?) with a short tea/photography break in the middle. Breathtaking in the metaphorical and physical sense, the hike and the fact that we really had to work for our reward made arrival at the monastery all the more special. Sweaty, tired, amazed and still planning my surprise, I trudged up the final few steps (of which there were quite a bit more than a few), all the while telling myself that if the average age of visitors is 50s-60s... certainly I could make it to the top too!

Unfortunately, there was one final glitch in my plan. We had to leave our bags, cameras... everything at the base of the monastery before entering. And there was a pat down. At long last I finally had to bring someone else into the mix. Thus, the security guard at the base of the Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan was the first person to know that I intended to propose to Lauren. After paying our due respects to the several monastic holy rooms literally built into the rock, the time finally came as we stood at the peak of the complex overlooking the vast valley below.

And lo and behold, after over fives years of same city, long distance and cohabitative dating spanning four continents, quite a few adventures and countless smiles... she said yes!

For many, many, many reasons (but mainly the last one), Bhutan will always hold a special place in my heart.