"Saloons" about Town

I regularly go and get my hair straightened in Bhutan (the curly hair tends to draw a lot of attention here because of its unusualness.) I’ve bounced around to multiple salons while here in Bhutan, and each time I’ve had an amusing experience. The first time I went to a salon in the main Thimphu town. When I walked in and asked if they did hair straightening, they informed that the restaurant was upstairs. I managed to communicate that I wanted to be in the salon and after confirming that I only wanted a temporary straighten, one of the women in the salon heated up the straightener and began the process. While I sat there a little kid kept coming up to me and climbing into my lap, eating my purse straps, and eating a plastic ziplock bag, which I kept pulling out of her mouth. Next to me an older woman sat getting what I call the “Bhutan 40 and up special”: the modified bowl cut older traditional women wear. It’s the default village haircut and seems practically part of the national dress for women of a certain age. They were also putting mystery goo in her hair under tin foil, which didn’t seem to give much effect to her jet-black hair except to give the impression that something very salon-like indeed was occurring. For all I know it could have been mayonnaise. I left with somewhat straightened hair slightly scented like the doma (betel-nut) my hairdresser was chewing and a smile.

The next salon experience worth mentioning was a couple of days ago in another Thimphu salon. When I came to the door the hairdresser was resting on one of the benches. She woke up when I came and when she sat up I noticed she was very pregnant. I asked her if they were open, hoping that she would say no and I could save her the bother and me the chagrin of having a heavily pregnant woman straightening my hair for an hour. She heaved to her feet and had me sit down. As she was straightening my hair I asked her how many months pregnant she was. She casually answered “nine.” Unsure if I had misheard her I asked her again, this time asking when her due date was. July 4th. The date that day was the 1st. For the rest of the time I sat wondering whether women several days from their due date were supposed to even be on their feet—what do I know about pregnancy? I had images flash through my mind of her water breaking, straightener in hand, and what my plan of action would be. I only really let out my breath after I walked out the door, relieved that her friend had come to visit her and that she was off her feet. Something tells me that I’d find her back at work again before the end of the month.

After my hair straightening experience, I’m thinking that salon-nurseries could become the next big business venture in Bhutan!

Rainbow in Thimphu

Return to Druk Yul

Nearly two years ago I came to Bhutan for the first time to spend a semester as a student at Royal Thimphu College (RTC.) Since I left in December 2011, I’ve been trying to sort out my plans to come back into the country. Many obstacles have gotten in the way of my return, but finally I’m back in this place that has never left my mind or heart. 

I finished up my junior year semester at school in the US eagerly, finishing my final papers on the airplane to Bangkok and in my hotel room on Silom road. After traveling back and forth from South/Southeast Asia every few months for the past four years, the flight to Bangkok has begun to feel more like a bizarrely long commute to a nearby home than a trip more than halfway around the world.

Bangkok is as I left it a few months ago: just as smoggy, crowded and postmodern (incidentally my hotel was across from a restaurant called the postmodern café), though this time with a few changes in the shops and buildings on my regular circuit. I’ve always seen it as a kind of purgatory, a visa stop location where I always end up spending too long caught in a bureaucratic tangle trying to get into various countries. When it came time for my flight to Bhutan, I was more than eager to leave.

Druk Air (Bhutan’s only airline) had sent an email the previous day informing us that the flight had been delayed. To my amusement I saw that the airline had forgotten to BCC the recipients and instead only CCed them. We had even more of an opportunity to get to know our fellow passengers as we were delayed 5 hours in Dhaka due to heavy rain in Paro. I sat by a government minister on the plane and talked for several hours before we disembarked in Dhaka for the remainder of the wait. We all lunched together in an airport restaurant and I practiced my Dzongkha with a Bhutanese student who was returning from his time studying in the US. Our time spent trying to determine how to distinguish possessive particles from one another in Dzongkha took up a large part of the wait. After a while we decided to return to the aircraft to sit in the more comfortable plane chairs The crew was sitting in first class, chatting, and they invited us to join them. By the time we arrived in Paro, it felt like I had already made friendly acquaintances with a portion of Bhutan’s population.

 My time here has been busy, and so it is in part for the sake of saving time that I show rather than explain Bhutan through photographs. In saying this I do not wish to disparage the too-often used phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words” because in my experience living in Bhutan, I have come to believe that a picture taken in Bhutan speaks volumes. The beauty of this country and its people is tremendous.  

Tashi Delek for now…

 

From top to bottom:

Chelela Pass in the early morning—going to smell wildflowers. 

Paro Valley

Paro River from the Dzong bridge

Shaba in Paro Town

View from Buddha Point of Thimphu

Spinning Tales of Dancing Deities: Thimphu Tsechu and the Royal Wedding

It’s almost three months since we arrived in Bhutan, and Thimphu has been abuzz with the yearly Tshechu festival and the most exciting event in town since the coronation of the fifth king—the royal wedding. The Tsechu, which happened in late September in Thimphu, is an annual festival that each Dzongkhag (district) holds at their respective dzongs (fortresses.) During the festival the lamas (monks) perform masked dances that are meant to purify the people watching them of their defilements. The dances retell the stories of Guru Rimpoche, Drukpa Kinley (the divine madman), and other important Bhutanese Buddhist figures. The lamas dress as saints and deities and dance to Kadrukpa music (the music perfomed by only monastics.) We were fortunate to be able to see a Tshechu performance in Bumthang (about 12 hours’ drive from Thimphu) the previous weekend. When we returned I went with my friends to the final day of Tsechu in Thimphu. The town was incredibly busy and there was so little traffic coming to RTC that we walked two miles down the hill (I was in fancy dress and a pair of not-hiking friendly high heels…ouch!) to catch a taxi.

The Dzong’s large courtyard was completely packed with the most colorful audience I have ever seen. Bright silk tops and woven kira that take can take years to make and brilliantly colored fancy gho covered by the white sashes—kabne—worn by men on formal occasions and brightly embroidered ratchu (scarves worn by women for formal events) made the auditorium look beautifully decorated by the people themselves. On the upper balcony sat the Je Khempo—head of the monastic body—wearing sunglasses and a bright yellow kabne. The lamas came out dressed in elaborate costumes, some wearing the terrifying masks of the demons. They spun in circles at the center of the courtyard, each twirl revealing another layer of bright fabric underneath their skirts. My friend offered to take me to receive a blessing from the lamas, so I went with her to venture in to the rainbow crowd. It took us one hour to get to the line to be blessed, the entire time being relentlessly pushed by the crowds eager to be blessed. Finally we reached a lama sitting on a chair with an umbrella over him wearing a golden Guru Rinpoche mask and holding a golden rod with a tassel on the end. We were quickly pushed through the line of lamas and bending down and covering our mouths with our ratchus to keep from breathing on the lamas, we were tapped on the head with the tassel and pushed through the line of lamas to receive blessed cords to tie on our necks and a tiny little seed that I was supposed to eat. I couldn’t find an explanation of what it was from anyone except that it was blessed. After standing outside for a number of hours we made our way back in to town where the colorful audience had begun to disperse and paint the streets of Thimphu.

A couple of weeks later was the royal wedding of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck to Ashi Jetsun Pema. Thimphu eagerly prepared for the wedding—covering every building in the main town with long strands of bright lights, every main road entry with painted archways with illustrations of mystical creatures and dieties, and huge posters of the King and Queen wishing them tashi delek—good luck! Everyone donned pins with pictures of the royal couple and stores offered discounts to celebrate the wedding. In the main clock tower square a stage and stalls were set up selling food and handicrafts. Children and teenagers ran to the game stalls to play carnival games and families, lamas, and tourists flocked to the steps in front of the stage to watch the groups of dancers perform to well-loved Dzongkha songs. The lyrics varied from romantic: “in my garden your heart is the only flower”, “beautiful girl, beautiful girl, who is that girl?” to nationalistic: “protect the beautiful environment of Bhutan, the land blessed by mountains and the glorious Wangchuck dynasty.”

The royal couple was married in a relatively intimate and elaborate ceremony in Punakha (the gates of the city were closed to any who did not have tickets for the wedding) and the next day the King and newly crowned Queen began the journey to Thimphu and stopped all along the way to walk and greet their subjects. Driving into town that day crammed in to the back of one of the last taxis in the city, I was in awe to see the entire express highway leading all the way to the town lined with people wanting to see the newlyweds and offer their best wishes. Some had been waiting for five hours outside and when we came by in the taxi many stood up eagerly waving their flags the sat down again once they saw we were not the royal caravan approaching. Most shops were closed down and everyone was outside in the streets waiting for the king to arrive. Since there was little ability to move in the city, I sat down and waited for two hours. By the time I had to leave to meet my friend at her uncle’s weaving shop, the royal couple had not yet arrived. I had to pay triple for a taxi to take me to the weaving center, the driver even walking me part of the way because most roads were completely shut down in anticipation of the King and Queen’s arrival. Celebrations continued on to the next day and by the end of the weekend a slight sloth and torpor seemed to settle over the city as everyone settled back and began to practice the stories they would tell about the royal wedding through the upcoming winter and for years to come.

Tashi Delek,

Nurit

More Bhutan photo posts on nurit.tumblr.com.

(Top photo: with two deaf students from Drak Tsho. Thimphu Tsechu)

Thimphu Tsechu masked dances.

Tshechu dance of the wild boar diety. Bumthang.

Tshechu dance of the wild boar deity. Bumthang.

Talking Statues and Biting Chillies: Month Two in Bhutan

Kuzuzangpola!

As I’m sitting here in my room at Royal Thimphu College listening to Dzongkha music and trying to catch as many words as possible, I remember the blog I started on my last day before leaving for Bhutan. Wait…only one post? Did Nurit get eaten by the infamous yeti while in the Himalayas? Although I haven’t been eaten by a yeti, I have been so absorbed in the experience here in Bhutan that I haven’t taken the time to write another blog post.So in an attempt to catch up on the events I missed I will write about a few highlights of the past two months.

First, 10 of the discoveries I have made since arriving in Bhutan:

1. I introduced myself as “breast-milk” to the Prime Minister. Apparently my nickname, Nunu, has a different meaning here in Bhutan than it does in the country where it originates (Burma) where it means “gentle.”

2. It’s a very bad idea to put an entire dried chili pepper in one’s mouth…especially in front of distinguished hosts. I learned in practice a few important Buddhist lessons from the experience: that of restraint (although my tears slipped out of my control, I thankfully kept myself from screaming out loud), generosity (the other two expensive chilies ended up underneath a leaf of lettuce for the deities to consume—I’m sure that they are more capable of handling such delicacies), suffering (I didn’t know that food could cause physical pain!),and impermanence (the pain of the chilies faded after the longest twenty minutes of my life.)

3. Bad karma can follow you even in to your Buddhism and Social Theory class: the seat of the chairs at RTC do not attach to the frame. The entire class laughed for a solid minute after I fell off my chair in heels and full traditional dress. Closely followed by…

4. Being inconspicuous as a pchilip or foreigner in Bhutan is absolutely impossible. Although the other day I was mistaken for a Bhutanese and someone asked me “sister, what happened to your hair?” (I have very curly hair.) Of course it’s become much funnier now that I can understand a little of what people say when they talk to each other about me!

5.Finding parallels between the two Tibeto-Burman languages of Burmese and Dzongkha isn’t something you should attempt. After accidentally throwing out a dirty swear to my new friends while saying the word “chicken” in Burmese, I save my linguistic endeavors as comic relief instead.

6.It’s time to drop the habit of cutting my nails at the end of the day. Apparently it shortens the life of your parents (sorry mom and dad!)

7.Practice language only on close friends: in my attempt to practice Dzongkha pronunciation I ran through most of my Dzongkha Commission phrase book with my roommate. Unfortunately my interpretation of the phonetic spelling was unintelligible until I came across the phrase Choe gi awa na le bup thoen me ga? “Do you have worms in your stools?” which apparently came out crystal clear.

8. The 50 Ngultrum note looks a lot like the 500 note in a dark taxi (or in a well-lit café for that matter.)

9. When riding a city bus, prepare to use your full lung capacity to combat the compression from your neighbors on either side of you.

10.Chewing a piece of dried yak cheese is a serious commitment. It took me two and a half hours to finish the eraser sized lump. When I asked if most people take so long to eat the cheese, my friend responded “My (toothless) grandmother takes a little longer.”

While studying here at Royal Thimphu College (RTC) I have had the opportunity to take several classes, both through the college itself and Wheaton College. I take Buddhism and Social Theory, Dzongkha language class, Contemporary Bhutanese Society, Political History of Bhutan, as well as participating in an internship for 6-8 hours per week. I intern for the office of the Prime Minister (Lonchen Jigme Thinley) for a project involving a Gross National Happiness center called “Bayul Dewaling” in Bumthang. I have been involved in conducting brainstorming sessions with various stakeholder groups and have had the unique opportunity to sit in on a meeting with the PM. I am looking forward to another session with him in a couple of months.

The other place where I spent time as an intern is at the Drak Tsho vocational school for disabled children and youth. The Drak Tsho school is an incredible NGO that started 10 years ago with the aim of empowering disabled (deaf, mute, autistic etc.) children and youth. The students at the school make traditional arts and crafts and sell them to earn money for themselves and the center. Spending a number of days per week at the center has been an extremely rewarding experience. I am learning Dzongkha sign language and making friends I hope to visit again upon returning to Bhutan. A few weeks ago I visited the Jigme Losel Primary School, a government pilot school for GNH and had the opportunity to sit in on a social studies class (they were studying origination myths) as well as teaching two classes on Buddhism. I was amazed to see the fifth-grade students sit still for a full five minutes in meditation before participating in class discussion about the noble eight fold path. I was very impressed by the students…although I felt old for the first time (at the ripe age of 19) being called “madam.”

While we spend most of our time here at RTC, we also go out on adventures every few weeks. We traveled around Paro after first arriving and climbed to Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest) and visited monasteries and temples in the area. When I first arrived I was surprised by a loud shouting sound that echoed across the valley—how relieved I was to find that it was nothing more than a victorious archery team! When a player hits the target, the members of that team cry out and sing in Choeyki (Tibetan traditional language) while step dancing.

The next trip we took was to Pajoding to trek. The mountains are considered sacred. The hike was beautiful albeit strenuous…and my breath was so taken away (although not just by the view!) that I developed rather severe altitude sickness. When I started to become hypothermic and fall in and out of consciousness, I was half-carried down the mountain for three hours to the hospital. Thankfully the descent was enough to revive me, but I was in bed for a while and was instructed to stay away from trekking for the next few trips, unfortunately. Although rather uncomfortable, it was quite an exciting adventure making our way down the mountain with only little flashlights and our fists to defend ourselves against the slippery mud slides and the bears!

Last weekend we took a trip to a village in rural Haa to stay with our tour guide’s in-laws. While the rest of the group went hiking, I stayed behind in the house and spent time with the family. As it was my birthday on Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to celebrate my birthday in the Bhutanese tradition. Bhutanese will usually go to the hla-gang or temple, to light a butter lamp. I went with one of the family members up to the nearby hla-gang and lit a lamp and listened to the stories that the lama told about that monastery. One of the stories I found most intriguing was one about the local diety of Haa (Eup Chundu): A short time ago some robbers came to steal some sacred relics from the shrine room of the temple. The caretaker, who was away that night, found them the next day tied by invisible ropes by the prayer flags. The robbers could only be unbound when they returned the relics and were given permission from the caretaker to leave. The lama also said that the Buddha statue in that shrine was predicted to speak in the future. Another statue had already spoken.

In Haa there are many stories of their powerful protective deity. It is understood that the reason the last horse in a group will always be tired because the deity has chosen to travel on it. When arriving in Haa (or any new place where one has arrived) it is expected that offerings be made to the local deity. Although this custom has become less commonly practiced, I never fail to see at least one person at the dining table throwing a bit of their food or drink on the ground or table for the deities. Perhaps if I had thrown a bit more rice for the deities when I was in Pajoding I might not have needed to descend!

I spent the rest of my time in Haa learning Dzongkha from the family—the son in law of the family translated for me as the Agay and Angay (grandfather and grandmother) didn’t speak any English. I found the most useful phrase of the weekend to be Nga dong mahp ya si! “My face has become red!” used in response to Agay whose flattery made me blush! (It’s been so long since I’ve seen such a beautiful girl I forgot to say my Om Mane Padme Hum!) (Compassion mantra repeated many times over prayer beads.)

The day of my birthday the cook spent all day baking a cornbread and writing “Happy Birthday Nunu” on it. He even placed a butter lamp on top! This year I didn’t blow out my candles, instead I put the lamp on the family alter and made my wishes to the Buddha image and protective deities that this year bring happiness and good health for myself and all beings. This birthday I learned that there is more than one kind of family with whom to share special moments.

Despite my having been here for nearly two months, I still feel enchanted by the magic of Bhutan. Although I’ve learned that thunder dragons and talking statues aren’t the only kind of magic found here—the greatest magic I’ve experienced is the relationships I have made—from the deaf students teaching me sign language at Drak Tsho to my sister-roommates here at RTC.

I will try to update this blog more often. The link to my photo blog, which I update with pictures more often, is http://nurit.tumblr.com/.

Until next post…

Nurit

(Top photo-Taksang or Tiger’s Nest, Paro.)

With my host grandparents and their son in Haa.

Near our base camp, Pajoding.

Bhutan: An Introduction

This blog will document my semester abroad in Bhutan through the Wheaton College (MA) study abroad program to Royal Thimphu College (RTC.) Wheaton is the only college with a study abroad program that goes to Bhutan—but the relationship is not mere coincidence. The current king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, attended Wheaton before getting his M.Phil from Oxford University.

Bhutan is a Himalayan country of less than 700,000 people located between India and China and east of Nepal. It is often referred to as “the last Shangri-La” and had remained virtually untouched until it began modernizing in 1961. Cell phones have only recently found their way to Bhutan, and billboards and cigarettes are strictly banned.  Buddhism is practiced by nearly 70% of the population. Bhutanese believe that a Tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava (popularly referred to as Guru Rimpoche among Bhutanese) flew from India on the back of a tiger to found Buddhism in Bhutan.

In the West, Bhutan is known best for its policy of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH.) Bhutan has only cautiously opened its economic borders to development, and the state has discouraged the type of economic development that places emphasis on the maximization of profits and efficiencies.  In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined a phrase for an alternative index that correlated the well-being of a nation in terms of GNP. Challenging the globally held assumption that economic production was the source of happiness, the King coined the phrase, “Gross National Happiness” or GNH. Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho, the chairman of the Special Commission for Cultural Affairs and the Home Minister said in regards to Gross National Happiness: “Development in Bhutan is characterized by a process that seeks to maintain a healthy balance between socio-economic progress, environmental sustainability and preservation of traditional, cultural and spiritual values.”

As a result of Bhutan’s prolonged isolation, its traditional cultural values play a bigger part in shaping Bhutanese people’s assumptions about success and national wellbeing.  To the Bhutanese, happiness is not dependent upon consumer satisfaction.  The assumption that all happiness might be based on accumulation of material wealth and modern conveniences is capitalist in origin.  Bhutan has not had long time exposure to capitalist values, and therefore does not resonate with them.  This presents a challenging situation for Bhutan, as it is now participating in a market-dominated world economy. The country must learn how to engage in the environment it is now a part of, while still maintaining the integrity of its cultural values. 

The concept of Gross National Happiness is based in Buddhist principals. A person living a very simple life can achieve the greatest wealth, which is happiness.  The Buddha’s teachings underline the practice of non-attachment as one of the crucial dimensions of living a fulfilling life.  It seems fitting that the standard for happiness would not be based on material factors in Bhutan, where Buddhist values prevail.

In 2006, fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Namgyal Wangchuck, renounced his power to the prime minister and gave the throne over to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. Bhutan is now both the home of the world’s youngest king, and the world’s youngest democracy.

Access to Bhutan is limited. Most would-be travelers are deterred by the $200 per day fee to visit the country. As Wheaton students studying at RTC, the fee has been waived. We are extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to live for a semester in “the land of the thunder dragon.”

                                  The adventure begins tomorrow!

Flag of Bhutan

The current “Druk Gyalpo” or “Dragon King” of Bhutan: Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.

(Images from google)