Heaven can wait

Lamga village, Athang, Wangdue – The roosters sound for the second time, one after another, and jostle me up from my sleep. I then hear my host starting the fire in the kitchen. I doze back to my dreams. Another wake up call comes around 6 am, which makes me sleepishly reach for my phone to check the time and see if any WhatsApp messages have pinged in. But there is no Internet service in this valley and so I just put away the Samsung and say my little prayer – and grab a book. After reading for an hour or so, I doze off again. 

I am in remote Lawa Lamga in Athang gewog in Wangdue to document the traditional Bhutanese life – for a “participatory observational method” field-work, as we say in the academia – for, Lawa Lamga is probably the last frontier of modernisation in Bhutan. The first school was established in 2010, mobile phone service came in 2015, a Basic Health Unit was built in 2016, a farm road carved in 2017, and finally, electricity in 2018. The first generation of students are completing the high school only next year. Until 2009, not a single child attended school from this village. And except for one young woman who is in Thimphu, the entire population is living in the village, unlike in other parts of rural Bhutan that are half empty.  

Lawa Lamga is probably the last frontier of modernisation

This village, therefore, provides the last chance to document the traditional Bhutanese life and society – life before TV, technology, and electricity – and life before the great rural-urban drift. There is one TV, few people with phones and houses with electricity, though. But still, it is a universe that I had known when I was growing up. Life hasn’t really changed much. It will, sooner or later. And this is what has attracted me back to the valley to do some ethnographic research – and to write in peace. Of course, it is not my first time here. I have been associated with the communities here for over 12 years – starting out as a volunteer for Tarayana for few years and then visiting like a part of the community, thereafter.

Lawa Lamga is in Harachu valley in lower Wangdue. It is hidden among the Black Mountains. Once you are are here, you feel you have reached the end of Earth. Beyond, is just wilderness. It is an unexplored territory – but nothing less than any place in the country – both in terms of history or natural beauty. To the north is the famous Tsenden Gang (from where Bhutan got its ancient descriptive name, Lho Tsendenjong  – literally meaning The Southern Land of Cypress), and to the east is the Jawo Dungshing (the powerful tsan deity) range bordering with Trongsa. The three surrounding mountains are believed to be Rigsum Goenpo. Lamga, therefore, sits on what they call Saa Droesum Naam Droesum (Where Three Lands and Three Skies Meet) In fact, Chana Dorje, one of the three trinity of deities of Rigsum Goenpois their favourite deity. Every third person you meet in, and from, Athang gewog is called Chador. It is also believed that Guru Padmasambhava passed by this place and crossed over to Riti and Nabji Korphu on his first visit to Bumthang in the Eighth century. The Guru Uzha, which is one of the main relics of Gantey Gonpa, was discovered in the area by a cow-herder.

The valley is also mini-Bhutan for, it hosts three ethno-linguistic groups dispersed on either bank of Harachu river. The Oleps – one of the original inhabitants of Bhutan – and who have their own Olekha language, and distinct culture and traditions; the Lawa Lamgaps – who are resettled from Phobjikha and speak Adhakha – a different language altogether; and then finally the people of Samthang, who are a mix of several ethnic groups who speak Dzongkha, the national language, as the native tongue.

Sacred time? – Of family, farm and forest

Life in rural Bhutan is simple – revolving around family, farm and forest. Time is dictated by nature and not by the clock. As American sociologist Robert Levine would put it, it is “event time” out here and not clock time. You often hear someone reminding others, “Sun is almost down. Time to collect the cattle”. Or “Let’s meet after I have offered water on the altar”. Yes, time here is measured by the position of the Sun or by the daily spiritual routine such as offering and removing water from the altar bowls. It is never based on the watch. And of course, my favourite is, “I will come after I release the cows”, which could anywhere between 6 am and 10 am. Everything is flexible, everything is in slow motion and no one is in a hurry.

People work hard too. Men wake up at the first or second call of the roosters (~4am) and slip out to the jungle to collect firewood, cane or bamboo. Women make their way into the kitchen on the second or third call and start making breakfast and animal feeds. Older grandparents chant sacred mantras and fill the air with their reassuring presense. The researcher (me) is the last to be up. Around 8am. I am forgiven because I am an urban guy. “Town people don’t have to wake up that early,” I am told. I feel less guilty. Gradually, though, I also find myself adjusting to their circadian rhythm. 

They have all the time in the world. They have time for everyone.

For the day entire, life seems to roll out with a secret rhythm – saying a prayer, feeding the pigs, tiling the land, weaving baskets, building sheds, repairing a fence, collecting firewood – or simply chatting around a fire and having some tea or bangchang (a local fermented drink). People here seem to have all the time in the world. And they also seem to have time for everyone. Anyone can stray into your house unannounced and no one is turned away. A tea invite is a minimum, ara if you drink, or a meal if you crash during mealtime. No one is offended. Instead, going “empty mouth” is considered inauspicious for the host family. I had more tea in this valley in one week than I have in my entire year elsewhere.

People here live simply and sustainably. They do nothing to exploit the Mother Earth. They only take what they need. And their needs are simple. On the other hand, they are very generous. They give more than what they have. Every day there is someone who drops by with a gift of egg, a bunch of green vegetable, or a stick of tender cane – for me. As an rural-urban transformed, I am simply overwhelmed and feel reconnected to my own roots – the village.

Community before self

Rural Bhutan is about community, sharing and co-existing. Everyone puts on their social self forward and not their individual needs or greeds. Decisions of the community are taken through consensus – not through show of power, position or privileges. Disputes are settled mutually. It is like how a German sociologist, Ferdinand Tonnies, referred to as a Gesellschaft world. Helping each other, and looking out for one another are a norm – and not an exception. My host, for example, is building a house and the whole village gathers every morning to work pro-bono. Some even go beyond. They sponsor all the meals for the day. 

Heaven can wait

If time is their biggest asset, time will also be their biggest threat to the traditional and idyllic lifestyle. For, time will bring the inevitable change. In fact, change can already be seen around – in the form of a rice cooker, a power tiller, or a water boiler – or candy wrappers lying around.

Still, to lift from the title of one of my favourite Hollywood movies, Heaven Can (still) Wait.

~~~~~~

References:

– Robert Levine in A Geography of Time

– Ferdinand Tonnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Society and Community), 1887

– Heaven Can Wait (1978) with Warren Beatty

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Off-roading from Taksha to Lamga
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Aum Chador walked 5km to gift me this beautiful basket
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My host lady is milking a cow
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The altar. Barely nothing but is everything
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My private hut 😍😍😍
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My favorite time: fireplace chat
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Nimchu fought with a bear. My hero 😻😻😻
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The researcher with a selfie in front of the hut-home-office
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What a beautiful gaur!
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And they came with more gifts

It takes a village to raise a child

Phuntsholing, Bhutan. 15 January 2020

In Africa there is a saying, that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Among traditional communities in Bhutan, it is more or less the same.

As a child growing up in the 1970s, the villagers of Drung Gonpa, who are my relatives, helped raise me and my siblings. Our aunts carried us on their backs as they went about with their daily chores. Our uncles taught us how to collect firewoods – and tend to the animals. My grandpa taught me how to say the boddhicita prayers, which became my life’s purpose.

Drung Gonpa in Radhi, the place I was born, is a small community of some 20 households – all related to each other. I have vivid memories of playing in the creek, of walking barefoot, or accompanying my grandpa on rimdro trips to Radhi and Phongmey. I also remember sitting on the edge of the fields as my mother harvested the wheat or maize for others. My family was extremely poor. At times we had to take food loan – known as kuendru from the wealthier relatives. But we kept going and we survived. In many ways, I am not ashamed to say, that these people kept us alive.

I left my native village at 5 – with my father who had a job in Phuntsholing. And I rarely went back – preferring to spend the school holidays in Tashigang Pam – my father’s village. I did make few short visits though, and the last one was in 1983.

Fast forward by 30 years, between 2013 and 2014, during my short stint in Sherubtse as a professor, I visited the village several times and was overwhelmed that the genuine and unconditional affection had not eroded with time or age.  For them I was still that nice little poor kid. They still brought rice, eggs, butter, cheese, etc. – and this time as gifts and still called me by my pet name, kota (meaning younger brother) – because of my elder sister. More than that they poured out their heart, and their love to me. They cried when they saw me after 30 years, saying how I resembled so much with my grandfather and my mother. They held my hands and hugged me and spoke to me like I was a child – like someone who came back from the death.

Ever since I made it there more often. Last year I visited the village with my sister to appease our very-demanding tsan (mountain deity) and we were received with the same warmth and affection. Our visit became a local holiday. The village stopped working and hovered in the house we were staying – eating and drinking and singing the songs our late mother used to sing to them. She was a fun, I was told, and they missed her every day of their lives. They asked me to initiate the reconstruction of our house and offered free labour. This gesture made me really ponder on what I could do to match that – and also pay my gratitude for everything. So I proposed to send them all on a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya (dorjedhen) in India – where Buddha attained enlightenment – a must-visit for all Buddhists. My siblings and I would do that for the support and love they showered on us. We would do that in the memory of our late mother, who had the biggest influence in our lives. 

So, here we are. 48 of them showed up. Basically the whole village. Many have locked their houses and dropped the cows and chicken with people in another village – for, this was the trip of their lifetime. Most of them are travelling for the first time out of the village. They have have never been beyond Tashigang. When I saw them off in Phuntsholing, there was nothing but tears of joy and gratitude and excitements. They said they felt as if they have already reached the Dorjedhen (Bodhgaya). They promised that they would pray for me and my family too – for my sisters, my brother – and that they will wish to be reborn as my relatives in our next lives. This is the best compliment I ever received.

They paid homage to my late mother and to my father, who was present, for raising such wonderful kids.

Wonderful? Maybe. In any case, I think it took a village to raise these kids.

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Each pilgrim has a tag in case they get separated from the group. The pilgrimage is a gewa to our late mother, who not only brought us into the world but also made us human

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15 Dec 2003 – Lest we forget

Dec 15, 2003. We all remember that Day. At least my generation does. It was the day when the Operation All Clear was launched. After living for almost a decade in a peril, this was it.

No one had a hint that it was going to happen – not even us in the media. And so, like on any normal day I had just walked into my office around 10 am (I was the GM in BBS then) in Thimphu when I was informed that it has started. I froze and it took few minutes for me to react. I immediately called up the MD and told him that as per our standard practice, we don’t do the normal programming on the radio. I then rushed to the radio studio and stopped the day’s programming. I think it was Sangay Tenzin, the host on duty and together we pulled out the tape and played the moelam. Back in those days, we always kept a tape with moelam prayers and played it when there were national disasters, emergencies or demise of a VVIP. 

For the next three days, I didn’t work. No one around me did. All I, or we, really did was to hope and pray that nothing happened to His Majesty the King – above all. He was everything to us. Rest was secondary. There was nothing much I could do other than to walk around like a zombie with a deep sense of guilt for not signing up for the militia.

The whole town of Thimphu was quiet like a graveyard. Silence had gripped everything I could see. Even the trees didn’t move. Back in office, we cuddled around rod-heaters in different rooms and shared the bits of information that trickled in from the battle front. The question on everyone’s lips was, ‘Where is zhab now?’

The question on everyone’s lips was, ‘Where is zhab now?’ 

I spent lot of time in the small garage office of my late cousin, Lam Rinzin, checking on our boys who were in the military. We had seven close family members (two from my own household) there fighting. And most of them were officers leading their troops. I never prayed or sought the divine interventions in my life more than I did in those few days. I also challenged every deity in the land that came to my mind to show up – otherwise, I told them, I would never believe they exist. They say people would do anything in desperation. I felt desperate. We all were desperate. We saw the world slipping away in front of us. The beautiful country looked so gloomy. For a moment, I thought we were never going to see our King again. I sobbed alone.

From the next day, NDTV started reporting from the Indian side of the border and it looked like we were doing well. Actually, great. Then came December 17, where HRH the Crown Prince (and now His Majesty the King) announced the great news in Changlingmithang. I cried – together with men and women who were near me – out of a sense of relief to know that our King was fine.

I became religious overnight. Something changed in me dramatically.

As we celebrate the 112th National Day, there is no need to really talk about what happened some two or three hundred years back. Those are legends at best. Let’s remember this Operation – and pledge ourselves to the greater good. For, this happened right before our own eyes – in our lifetime and with our King leading the troops – risking His own life to protect ours. Literally, our King rescued us from the jaws of a very uncertain future. We all lived through it. And it was just 16 years ago. Those who can read this were all born by then.

We, Bhutanese, have short memory. But this event is one in history that we should never forget. There have been quite a number of occasions in recent decades when Bhutanese came together as one nation – as one people.

For me, that moment was the moment I will never forget 

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His Majesty the King leading in frontline – as depicted and immortalized in Druk Wangyel Temple in Dochula (built to commemorate that victory)

 

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On December 14, Martshala temple was consecrated by Thuksey Rimpoche and graced by His Majesty the King. Next day the Operation All Clear was launched.

 

 

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Photos of the fallen soldiers are maintained in Tenxholing Military Academy. They died because we could live. May you live forever in the minds of the Bhutanese

 

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HM the King at the frontline. His name means Fearless Lion in Dzongkha. And fearless he is. No armored jacket and no helmet. Just a modest free gho (national dress). The soldiers nicknamed the platoon with the green gho as “Green Gho Company”

 

Gold, it was

I must say having watched the football finals of the South Asian Games in Kathmandu, where Bhutan took on the defending champions, Nepal, I am extremely PROUD of the performance by our boys. I am also very HAPPY to see a nation united and rallying behind the team from all over the world. I now rest HOPEFUL for the future of football in Bhutan. Gone are the days when we were not even considered worth playing against by our opponents. Now we are a team to reckon with – at least in the region.

For all these, firstly, my respects and gratitude go to HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, HM’s Representative in Sports, for revamping and steering the new sporting movement in the country. And my recognition to our international star, Chencho Gyeltshen, for leading and inspiring his team mates to believe that it is possible to excel internationally. He has done it alone winning the Indian Hero League in 2018. It is so nice to see him lead the others. 

Of late, sadly, politics, technology and greed are tearing our society, and the world, apart. It is important that equally we create occasions, reasons and opportunities to be and to dream together and to cherish as Bhutanese – as one nation. Sport in general, and football in particular, is emerging to be a binding force of national cohesion and unity.

This moment is GOLD in itself.

Well done, Dragon boys

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Real cost of cooking gas

This is the cost of LPG non-subsidised gas in Bhutan:

– 35 minutes wait in the cold and dusty outlet – because ‘closed for lunch’
– 10 minutes more wait for just one lady in front of me to be served. She had all the required documents.
– Nu. 773 the actual cost of the cylinder
– 5 minutes more wait for the cashier to look for 1 Nu. notes he didn’t have (I kept quiet to observe the drama)
– Nu. 2 forfeited ultimately since no one, he asked around, had the change 😆😆😆
– 3 minutes wait again since the the guys were unloading a truck and were completely ignoring the lady ahead of me – and me.

Total cost = Nu. 775 + 53 minutes in cold and dust + one disorganised cashier + two stressed-out and public-hating dispensers

My condolence and prayers to all Bhutanese consumers. May you find strength to face this every month. And may this country be forever rich that it can throw away one hour every month from every citizen.

 

(NB. Let’s monetize the 1 hour and multiply that to the whole country. Assuming that average hourly wage is Nu. 200. If we multiply that for the 150,000 families in the country, we are losing Nu. 30 million every month just because the inefficiency of this one service, which is also paid and not coming free. I say nothing further)

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10 Years of Blogging & Brokshi

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Semtokha Dzong – This year this day marks ten years of blogging. Yes, it is just ten years. It seems ages, right?

I write on my life and my works to simply share and inspire – and occasionally I opine on society and governance. On the latter, I am often asked why I do I write what I write? Why do I stick my neck out? Is it for publicity? Or is it for vengence? Why am I not “happy” all the time? Or am I just a sour grape?

Well, here is the answer. I write for none of the reasons above. I write because, first of all, I care for the community around me, and for my country. And now, for the world entire. By the grace of my Kings, friends and family, I am OK. But I cannot close my eyes to things, both good and bad, happening in front of me. I believe in the power of words and communication to change for better.

I know in doing so, at times, I am burning bridges, I am burning friendships and I am burning down favours. And in a small country like ours these can be very costly – and I have also paid some heavy prices too. Still, there is one price that I cannot imagine trading away. And that has to do with my conscience – my principle. So, the first reason I write is to clear my own conscience. And put it at rest.

Do my words count? Or do we, the proletariat, matter? I don’t know. And I don’t care. I don’t expect the world to change to my whims and wishes. I don’t expect praises and accolades. And I don’t expect bureaucrats and politicians to listen to me. But they are not my target audience either. My concern is my people – my community. I want them to think, care and act – in every small ways, no matter how small or insignificant. For, people and power will come and go. Whereas the system, nation, state and country will remain.

Simply put, I don’t want to, one day, die (in case you forgot, we’ll all die one day) thinking I didn’t do what I believed in, or didn’t stand my ground or didn’t do what was needed to be done as a citizen – as human being.

So, will keep going for now 🚶🚶🚶

My blog is http://www.dorji-wangchuk.com and http://dorjiwangchuk.blogspot.com

(On the occasion of ten years of successful blogging, I made a donation for the Gyampo Tangrap ceremony in honor of deity Yeshe Gyampo – Mahakala)

Drug tests can be weaponized

This pertains to Kuensel news article, TCB Officials Undergo Drug Test. While I commend the move by the Tourism Council to create a drug-free sector, and have absolutely no doubt on its noble intent (after all, who would like to be guided around the country or be driven by a drug addict), I would invite some caution in jumping into this practice as mandatory requirements at workplace and professions.

Although, I am a no expert on this issue, I was associated with Chithuen Phenday during its inception period and have engaged in deep conversations with hundreds of clients to get some insights into the use and abuse of illicit substances. During that same period, I was also involved in cases where I had to help fight certain stereotyping, legal abuses and common misconceptions. To put it simply, drug addiction, testing or recovery are not a straight-forward or black and white matter. It is very complicated, multidimensional and intricate. I would like to share a few examples here.

First of all, drug tests carried out at workplace or on-site such as sporting facilities and events, are not conclusive. It is only indicative. In simple words, drug tests can never be 100% correct in first instance. In general, the results can be interpreted in two ways:

  1. False positive. False positive means that you have not taken any illicit substance but you are tested positive (as having taken drugs) nevertheless. Even with the best and latest drug-test kits, getting a false positive is a real possibility.  False positive may appear in cases as simple as after consumption of natural substances and common over-the-counter medications – such as food with yeast (bread or yogurt), cold medications, antibiotics and antihistamine (allergy medicines) and even common painkiller such as ibuprofen or taking prescribed antiretroviral drugs. Passive inhaling like being around with friends who smoke marijuana can also produce false positive. False positive, however, means you have failed the drug test. And in a small and gossip-prone society like ours, such a result for anyone, although just indicative, would have a devastating effect on the career, morale, and dignity of a person and would leave an indelible stigma to his or her family and relatives. Worse still, it can be weaponized by someone who may or may not like that person for some reason. For example, bosses and heads at workplace may use them to suppress or eliminate young, upcoming and brighter colleagues. Rival companies and tour guides may use against each other. The possibilities of misuse of false positive results are simply endless.
  2. False negative – False negative is when one actually consumes illicit substances but is smart enough, or accidentally, comes out as ‘clean’. This could occur when the person who is being tested goes on to manipulate the sample (urine) through easily available adulterants and techniques (there are many available online); or when the labs pre-establishes a high drug cut-off levels – and so while the sample contain illicit substances or their metabolites, the concentration levels do not cross the very high cut-off set by the lab or the agency. False negative can also happen when the labs and test kits are not current with the latest drugs in the market. Mind you, drug dealers and serious users are three steps ahead of the Law. Needless to add, that the way our body absorbs, or responds, to alcohol and drugs vary from person to person. Two people consuming the same thing and same amount will produce two different results. Ask any medical doctor.

While the mandatory drug-testing policy, which was also toyed by the Royal Civil Service Commission for all civil servants, may look good on the outside, such a move could open a myriad of unwanted and unintended consequences from the inside. It is an explosive issue – to be dealt with with a great caution. I will mention just two additional unintended outcomes and consequences:

  1. Displacement effect – whereby users will shift from use of easily (and often less harmful drugs) to other drugs that are more difficult to detect – and which are more harmful. Drug and alcohol abuses are not just behavioral issues. It is physiological. The body demands it. It is a disease to be treated like any other diseases. 
  2. Defensive mechanism and creativity – whereby users will explore creative ways to avoid detection – instead of reducing the use. This can be achieved by medications that are legal and which will produce false positive – or use some masking agents, which the drug dealers will discover sooner or later. For example, from my personal experience, lots of my friends, who drank some whisky before going home from work would chew tea leaves that masked the smell of alcohol. That way their wives thought they were always clean.

In conclusion, I am neither here to condone drug abuse nor to criticise the noble initiatives to control drug abuse in the country. What I am saying is, I hope, among others, the above issues and potential ramifications are discussed thoroughly, and experts advices are sought.

For, such as policy could sway either way. Just sharing my experience

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Technical education and not vocational training

It was nice of Kuensel (11 Nov 2019) to highlight my school, Don Bosco Technical School (although it was erroneously mentioned as Don Bosco Technical Institute) as the epitome of technical skills and knowledge.

I am an alumni of DBTS. Few years after I graduated, it did become an institute and that was the beginning of the end of technical education in Bhutan. If there is one thing that led to the slow death was when arts, humanities and science subjects were removed and a bare vocational trade subjects were retained. The so-called reform was a disaster.

The DBTS curriculum I went through had all the subjects of a normal school. So I studied Shakespeare and also physics and maths and our exams were conducted by Meghalaya Board of Examinations. Plus we had to complete the Indian Technical Institution (ITI) curriculum. In other words, we were subjected to two full curriculums. And hence our day started at 5am in the morning and ended at 9 in the evening – before we were sent to bed. In other words, we got a well-rounded education, which allowed the graduates to pursue either an academic career (I am currently doing PhD in communication and social media) – instead of being relegated to the blue collar jobs only. 

Unless technical education is mainstreamed back into the school education system, no amount of money or autonomous status or wage improvements or legislations will restore the skills mentioned in this editorial. It should be technical education as it is done in countries like Finland, Norway, Germany and Italy and not sidelined as vocational training, which is demarcated for less “intelligent” students.

Ask any of the alumni from that curriculum and their suggestion will be the same. Current Opposition Leader Lyonpo Pema Gyantsho, MoWHS secretary Dasho Chencho, former Home Minister Dawa Gyeltshen, Supreme Court Justice Rinzin Gyeltshen were all from that curriculum and my seniors. Maybe they can provide some valuable suggestions too.

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Hydropower: A second thought?

This pertains to a front-page article and an editorial on Kuensel of 10 November 2019 (I reproduce them below)

Well, I haven’t changed my mind. But does my opinion count? Of course, not. In a country where official position and power are everything, a view of a private citizen is often ignored at best – and considered a nuisance at worst. Nonetheless, as with many things, I do or say even when I know that it is not going to matter anything. That’s called sticking to one’s belief. It is called principle. It is called integrity.

For me, it is still a big NO to any hydropower projects larger than 120MW. NO to any projects that we cannot finance or that we have no control over. And NO to anything that will put our future generation at risk. And a big YES to intergenerational equity as provisioned in the Constitution – and leave some rivers and resources alone for future generations. Twenty years back I believed in this dream. I documented the entire project construction phase of Tala Project. We were promised of untold wealth. We were made to dream. Today we are in a huge debt. We can’t even cough without asking permission. We can’t even sneeze. What a tragedy!

Maybe I missed something but what REALLY has changed in this sector in the last few months? What have we REALLY learnt to merit a “second thought”? Why this sudden turnaround? Nothing that is happening in this sector begs any reason to be optimistic. Can someone send me the big picture, if there is one? Until then, from my little pond, I really don’t understand this new narrative that Kuensel, or the government, is trying to sell.

Lastly, to say that we have only the hydropower eggs basket is like smashing the eggs on the face of educators like me who see and work on deriving the tremendous human potential our Bhutanese youth have to offer.

What a downer! 

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Taking tourism to the top? A perspective from Taipei

I have often wondered why Bhutan appeals a lot to foreign visitors. Why is that most tourists leave our country totally enamoured and with lasting impressions of our land and people – despite not staying in the best of hotels, and driving around in pothole-ridden roads and eating chilis whole day? Why does Bhutan regularly show up as one of the top destinations in the world? The latest is by the global travel publishing company, the Lonely Planet.

Here is a perspective from an avid traveller – me.

In Bhutan, we often talk about our unique culture and unspoilt nature as the selling points. Yes, we have some colorful traditions. So do other countries – and each culture is unique in its own way. We have high Himalayan mountains, for sure. However, the peaks in Nepal are taller, while many in Switzerland are even more gorgeous. As for the unspoilt nature, tropical rainforests in our own neighbourhood are bigger and as pristine.

Then, what is really magnetic about Bhutan? If there is one thing that I have to pinpoint to, it is the spontaneity of our people – the human element – our genuineness. So I disagree with some eminent writers who have, in the past, pointed out that we are being hypocrites. We are not. We are, as Lonely Planet best describes, “kind-hearted people” who are inherently nice to strangers. 

Lessons from Bali and Taiwan

Two places that I have been visiting in recent times are Bali and Taiwan. Both these destinations boast of a very robust tourism industry. Taiwan has some mind-dazzling achievements to show off too. Their high-tech industry has also translated into fast and convenient public services making everything from applying for visas to booking air tickets to paying even street shops traveller-friendly. The high-speed rail and the roads are world-class. The temples and landscapes, and especially the paddy fields and tea plantations, are simply poetic. And, of course, the cuisine is one of the best that I have come across.

Bali, of course, is Bali.

Nonetheless, more than the stunning natural or man-made beauty, it is the ordinary people that will ultimately draw or drive away the visitors. From my experiences in these two places, I realized how important it is for the locals to be welcoming, friendly and helpful to outsiders. It is something missing from many countries I have visited. From the moment you step out of your flight you don’t feel unwelcome. On my first visit to Taiwan, I travelled extensively and all I can say is that I simply basked in the warmth of hospitality and smiles wherever I went. Nobody was even close to being rough on me. I interacted with indigenous people as well as street vendors, with young students, with professors and with people in upscale tourist markets, malls and Michelin-stared restaurants. Wherever I went, I felt accepted and at peace.

More than the stunning natural or man-made beauty, it is the ordinary people that will ultimately draw or drive away the visitors

On the second visit, this time to Fu Jen University, one evening I was scanning down the countless eateries and cafes when a young professor who was at one of my lectures cycled towards me. “Hey Dorji! Are you looking for something?” “Yes, a place to eat”, I said. “Okay, follow me”, he suggested and diverted from where he was going to where I was heading for. When we finally found a place he also insisted that he pay for my meal – although he already had his dinner. He added that he learnt many things from me and that it is an honour for him to do that. He left shortly after my food arrived. I was so moved by his gesture.

And coming to Bali, one of the most exquisite destinations on Earth, last summer, on our return hike from the sunrise trek to Mt. Batur, my daughter who had twisted her ankle was struggling to walk the last couple of kilometers of the dirt road – when a construction worker stopped his work and came zooming on his motorcycle. “You are fit. She is not. I pity her. I take her to the van”, he offered. I later caught up with him and thank him and reciprocated his kind gesture. Another time I had forgotten my purse after I had eaten in a road-side stall. The woman just laughed her life out seeing me embarrassed and told me that it was okay. I could return anytime with the money I owed her. I have many stories of local generosity in these two places that I can write a book.

All in all, Taiwan may be advanced and awesome, and Bali may be blissful and beautiful, but it is thanks to such personal accounts and tales of random acts of kindness that an outsider ultimately feels at home – and talks nice about a place. Even in this age of TripAdvisor and Google Maps, word-of-mouth will continue to be the most influential form of advertising and marketing. There is still power in human speech.

Taking Tourism to the Top?

There is so much talk about taking tourism to the top in Bhutan, which, of course, is welcome. There are also the government flagship programs in several pre-selected districts to increase the tourist inflow. Like any other government plans, I am sure there are constructions and hardware involved. My view is that, tourism in Bhutan will eventually succeed or fail depending on how ordinary Bhutanese people treat the visitors. For, nothing can substitute the experiences with the locals, and their genuine smiles and spontaneity, which are still very vibrant in Bhutan – just as in Bali and in Taiwan.

So, what can we do? The government will do what it has to do. As a society, we have a greater responsibility. As academics, the socio-cultural and educational fundaments from where such altruistic behaviours emerge should be researched and mainstreamed. This is a long shot, I know. As parents and educators, the traditional socialisation process of respect, altruism and selfless service towards others – and the urge to help someone in need or a complete stranger, should be sustained and strengthened among our younger generation. Lastly, as journalists and social media influencers, the feel-good narratives and stories of human spirit should be brought out in the public domain and celebrated.

Never mind that just across the border our fellow travellers and truckers are not accorded the same kind of treatment. Let the law deal with that. As for us, we are who we are and we should remain that way – and persist.

Only then I see tourism not only going to the “top” but staying there as well.

(The original article appeared in Kuensel, the national newspaper of Bhutan on Nov 2, 2019. Click here for the online version)

dav
I was drawn by the spelling – as usual. I think I have OCD with spellings 🙂
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I didn’t see the Garuda Air staff when I took this selfie. I wanted the plane
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Our country is beautiful. No doubt. But we, the people, need to continue to be beautiful inside, if we want people to visit us.
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After Day 2, I was like a member of the family. The day I left Bali, Mrs. Danu woke up at 3 in the morning and made coffee for me. “I know you need this,” she said.
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Bali – This guy offered to help my daughter reach the van. She had twisted her ankle

 

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On my maiden visit last year, the locals thought I was the tour guide and my prof (American) was a tourist. They spoke to me in local languages – ignoring him who instead speaks and writes fluent Mandarin, We had so much fun

dav

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Taiwan’s dizzy economic growth has not made them lose the sense of humanity

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