Not your average sunset
Today’s excuse: My camera broke and I needed to wait until a certain procrastinator uploaded her pictures so that I could post them to this blog.
While the rest of the United States indulged in boatloads of candy, over-sized jack-o-lanterns, and skimpy schoolgirl or sexy cat outfits, four of us Wheaton students had the pleasure of experiencing one of the most authentic Halloween experiences in recent history.
For some of us, the trek to Haa was one of the most anticipated events of the semester. It promised to be our most challenging hike with the most spectacular views of the Himalayas. With classes nearing their end and the final paper looming, this trip marked both the beginning of the end and the end of potential procrastination—immense amounts work would have to be done diligently upon our return. For the time being, however, it was the furthest thing from our minds.
Early Friday morning, we groggily made our way down the hill to our bus and said farewell to the other four Wheaton students. We were blessed with good wishes, loaded up with Luna bars, and presented with Halloween “goodie bags” by the wonderful and gorgeous Lina Smith (the goodies quite literally saved our lives). Furthermore, Lina and Elana had “decked out” the bus Halloween style, complete with stickers of witches and pumpkins and a sign to put on the dashboard, which read:
Happy Halloween: Don’t Die in Haa.
After our emotional goodbyes, the four of us piled in the van along with our guide and our cooks and headed off to Haa. Although the drive was scheduled to take three or four hours, a combination of lunch, photo opportunities, and “bush visits” slowed us down a bit.
We took the following photo on the road to Haa, with the primary intention of leaving our friends and family something to remember us by….just in case
As we drove, the temperature dropped
and I mean DROPPED
You see, one of the most fascinating features of Bhutan is the dramatic shift in climate from one area to the next. If you were to ask what percentage of Bhutan is mountainous, the answer would be, “all of it.” Thus, a spatial difference of two or three miles could easily yield a temperature difference of ten degrees Fahrenheit. Elevation, wind speed and direction and exposure to sunlight are highly variable over the most insignificant distances.
This is why we wear layers:
Take off gloves
Take off hat
Take off sweatshirt
Put on girlfriend’s long underwear (convenient that we wear the same size)
Put on gloves
Put on hat
Put on sweatshirt, jacket and additional windbreaker
This process can occur over a period of ten to fifteen minutes.
After the drive, we arrived at the village where our tour guide had grown up. We spent the night drinking tea, pigging out on Bhutanese fare and learning some traditional dances—I’d be happy to teach you one or two.
As the dance session came to a close, we piled into our sleeping bags and spent a frigid night listening to a pack of dogs bark for hours…amazing vocal endurance from these canines.
At sunrise….actually, BEFORE the sunrise, Sarah climbed out of her sleeping bag and walked into the kitchen to learn the art of butter churning from the owner of the house. Although I was sound asleep at this time, Sarah described the process as unbelievably difficult. Next stop, Amish country to give it a shot…
The sun rose, the rooster crowed, the cow mooed, and Raffi decided that it was too damn early to be up. Rising out of bed with a yawn, he tripped over several inanimate objects, including a mattress, a sleeping back and his own feet, and trudged into the kitchen.
After a light breakfast of porridge and toast, the four of us transferred our bags into the truck and were about to head off to the campsite when…
“With seven people and camping supplies, there isn’t enough room for all of us in the truck…”
“Okay well hop in the trunk.”
One of the many advantages of being so darn skinny…
The ride to the campsite, which lasted about an hour, presented remarkable views and sheer drops that seemed to extend to the center of the earth. Riding in the trunk made the ride that much more intimidating.
We arrived at our campsite around noon and almost immediately set off on our first hike along a nearby ridge. The air was crisp and the sky grew cloudy as we made our way to two peaks, each one seemingly higher than the other.
As previously mentioned, the temperature around these parts is quite erratic—we found ourselves constantly stopping to switch layers. This initial hike was quite short (about four or five hours), however, we maintained an altitude of over 10,000 feet! We were all thoroughly exhausted when we returned to camp, and spent the rest of the day read and resting.
Although I forgot my book back at school, I was lucky enough to meet a traveler who handed his book off to me to lighten his load.
The title of this riveting novel: Aliens—Earth Hive.
Devon and I awoke on October 31st giddy and pumped up on the prospect of tricks and treats. The two girls we were with hail from the Netherlands and Japan, where Halloween is little more than a limited time Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks. Some people will just never understand…
As we began our second hike to the larger peak, our guide, Tsewang, told us stories of demons that haunt the Haa area as well as the famous Yeti, which is said to dwell in the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. We hiked through lunch and eventually made it to the peak, where we sat down to enjoy the view:
After lunch, we took a short rest before returning to camp. In some inexplicable turn of events, Yuri and Sarah managed to fall asleep atop the frigid peak
After our hike back to road, I split off from the rest of the group to make a quick phone call (service goes from zero to five bars within a matter of feet). On my walk back, I found myself alone. This was one of the few times during this trip that I have been able to experience the natural beauty of Bhutan on such an individual level. Walking along the dirt road, I closed my eyes (making sure not to plunge off the side of the cliff) and listened to everything around me. Birds harmonized with the wind, which whipped around me. The crunch of rocks and soil under my feet grew in volume and frequency with every step.
As quickly as these noises had come to me, they stopped. I opened my eyes and I was walking in a soundless vacuum. Anything and everything around me was purely visual and it was the first time in my life that I truly came to understand the sound of silence.
That night, we sat in a large communal tent and listened to Tsewang tell us what I now regard as a quintessential Halloween tale. This Bhutanese folktale lasted roughly 15-20 minutes and followed the happenings of a young Bhutanese man who lost track of his member. The phallus roamed the countryside, terrorizing men and women and was eventually placed on an old woman’s mantle for good luck. Talk about misplacing your mojo…
We awoke the next morning to a sight, which none of us had experienced during this time of the year.
The hills, mountains and campsite were sprinkled with a gentle layer of white powder, save one small spot in front of our tent where a wild dog had made camp for the night.
The term “freezing my a$$ off” doesn’t even begin to describe this situation. My layers consisted of the following:
-One wool hat
-Two pairs of gloves
-Long underwear tops and bottoms
-One thermal shirt
-One cashmere sweater
-One thermal jacket
-One thick winter jacket
-One pair of thick jeans
-Two pairs of smart-wool hiking socks
-One pair of hiking boots
Somehow, I was still freezing—I should have hopped around in my sleeping bag for the rest of the day.
We rushed through a breakfast of porridge and french toast and loaded up the truck to move to a warmer climate. My facial expression appropriately describes the temperature—
We returned to the house where we had spent our first night in order to eat a quick lunch and try our hand at archery. We put forth a valiant effort, however, our tour guide put us to shame with his compound bow and general awesomeness:
Driving back to Thimphu, we slowly began to thaw as the temperature rose slowly. As the city came into view, my mind reverted back to the subject that I had, for the past three days, been able to keep at bay: work.
For the next week, I buckled down and finished my assignments: a short piece on the environmental state of the country and my final research paper on the changing nature of traditional and modern alcohol use in Bhutan.
When the bulk of the work was behind me, I began to focus on my father’s visit. He arrived on Nov. 10 and, after a short recovery from a 36-hour trip, climbed up to the most beautiful site in Bhutan: the Tiger’s Nest (the eighth wonder of the world). Being the thoughtful father that he is, he remembered to bring the new camera that I had recently purchased. This afforded me the opportunity to take some fantastic shots of the landmark:
At this point in time, my work at Kuzoo FM has come to a close and my school term is wrapping up as well. I have roughly 12 days left here in Bhutan and the Land of the Thunder Dragon is making its final attempt to keep me here indefinitely. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if I stayed….
But then I remember how much I miss Cherry Garcia.
Expect one more log before I depart and an additional reflection upon my return stateside. My time at home will be dominated by GRE practice for the exam, which I will be taking in January. Additionally, I will began my graduate school applications and pack for Paris, Santa Barbara, and my cross-country road trip.
Your friendly, skinny, neighborhood jet-setter,
Hey, you. It’s been a while…..did you miss me?
Since arriving home from the aforementioned Tarayana trip, I have been waist-deep in work; more specifically, papers, projects and attempts to save the world. Needless to say, time has been “of the essence” and I have further discovered that there simply are not enough hours in the day. The passing of time becomes more rapid by the day and, as one of my advisers, Sue, would explain (in a terrific fake Irish accent), the roll of toilet paper disappears faster and faster as you get closer to the end. At present, I have only 39 days left in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. I wouldn’t say I’m homesick by any means, however, I DID find myself humming the National Anthem several days ago….who does that?
Enough jibber-jabber. Sit back, relax, and allow me to impart some mindful knowledge upon thee:
Our story begins, as most adventure stories tend to begin, on a Friday. Upon waking up at 8:30am, I hopped in the shower (cold water only, of course), scarfed down a delicious bowl of hot oatmeal (thank you water boiler, Quaker Oats and a depleted sense of “pickiness”) and threw on the same clothes I had been wearing the day before (it’s not considered a crime to wear the same shirt two days in a row here). Locking the door behind me, I scrambled down to the academic center to take my social psychology midterm examination and realized that I was already late….thank you, Bhutanese Stretchable Time (BST). Twenty-five minutes later, the exam was on the proctor’s desk and I was sprinting back to my room in order to pack. The great thing about camping is that, considering you have to carry the weight, you tend to be far more conservative in terms of what you stuff into your bag. Needless to say, I packed only what I knew could potentially save my life. Allow me to indulge you:
-Shirts, pants, socks, jacket, gloves, hat, underwear (not really necessary), long-underwear (the sole reason I am here writing this blog today)
-Sleeping Bag (capable of quasi-mummification)
-Kit-Kats (enough to feed a small army)
-Books (to read by candlelight in the tent, burning myself on hot wax each time I turn the page)
-Toilet paper (for those late night nature walks)
-Cell phone (so my girlfriend knows I’m still alive)
-Camping knife (in case I find myself face-to-face with tigers, which reside in the area)
-Camera (to document my trip; broke three days in)
-The willingness to not shave for ten days (has turned into the GOAL to not shave until I return stateside)
With the essentials loaded into my handy Deuter travel bag, I left the room, said my goodbyes and strolled down to meet the rest of the group in the parking lot. Here, we met our tour guide, Tshering, who would act as our guardian for the next week, and piled into the tour bus….okay, it was a van.
(The group pre-departure)
The first few days of our trip were spent driving west towards the site of the national park, in which the village (Jangbi) rests. During this time, we were given the comforts of hotel rooms, including a bathtub that I took full advantage of for one long, peaceful night. During the days, we would sit in the van for long periods of time (anywhere from three to seven hours), as it glided through brilliant green hills, balanced along the edges of steep, rocky cliffs and twisted along with the windy roads. We would take frequent breaks to stretch our legs, visit Dzongs/Temples, and explore the area for bushes in which to relieve ourselves (proved to be quite difficult for the girls). The views from some of these stops were quite brilliant:
(View from the courtyard of the Trongsa Dzong…notice the drama evoked by the bird in the top-left hand corner)
(Wheel of life outside of the Trongsa Dzong. Essentially, kill a fly and wind up reborn as one for your next 500 lives or so)
(Part of the Royal Government of Bhutan’s campaign against the spread of HIV)
(In nature, there are no errors. This is proof of perfection)
(“Where the earth touches the sky”)
On Monday, we arrived at Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park, near the “city” of Trongsa, Bhutan. From here, we unloaded the van and watched as several men and women loaded up an immense amount of luggage on their backs. Several of these persons looked to be over the age of 50 and ALL of them walked barefoot with well over 60 or 70 pounds on their backs…feeling rather “puny” in comparison, I decided to carry my own bag down the trail.
(Wheaton at the trail-head)
(Trek to Jangbi….into the wild)
As a caravan of sorts, we left the road and began to trek town the trail, out of sight of “modern” civilization (it’s all relative). About twenty minutes into the hike, the remoteness of the area hit me as I crossed a bridge into what seemed like an entirely separate world:
Hiking up and over a small mountain, we arrived at Jangbi, our home for the next week. Although we would be camping in a small area roughly 500 ft from the village, we would end up spending our days here constructing a new house, attending social and traditional rituals and gatherings and visiting the local primary school. The entire national park in which the village lies, is considered important for both environmental conservation and tourism and because of this, visitors are usually required to pay the village near which they are camping. The village, however, decided to wave the standard fee, due to the fact that we were there to volunteer.
Monday-Friday was dedicated to humanitarian efforts, including the construction of a new house—not a single villager spoke a word of English, resulting in a great deal of pointing, smiling, and laughing (not sure if they were laughing with us or at us):
(Thanks to a wallet in my back pocket, it appears that I have a very perky butt…it’s an illusion)
We were also invited as guests to numerous social gatherings, in which we received a plethora of fruits, nuts and more homemade wine than I would care to remember.
(Alter at one of the social gatherings)
In fact, my final research paper, entitled “Blurring the Path to Enlightenment: Alcohol Use and Abuse in Bhutan,” takes a great deal of information from my experience in Jangbi. The apparent reasons for excessive alcohol consumption in these areas include:
-Water sources that are great distances from the village (alcohol is easy to produce and immediately available). Thus, many villagers in rural areas drink homemade alcohol as a substitute for water
-This homemade alcohol, which is derived from grain, provides an alternative way to absorb the health benefits of the grain, especially for raw grains that do not store well over time
Enough of that…I don’t want to spoil the paper—I’ll be posting it on this blog in three weeks or so
(Attendees of the social gathering. Adorable)
Our trip to the Jangbi primary school melted the heart of each and every Wheaton student. As a boarding school, this institution provides education for the children of Jangbi and two other villages. After a tour of the school and a performance from grades PP (Pre-primary)-five, we split off into teams for a soccer match (8 Wheaton students vs. 40 little kids). You can imagine how difficult it is to score a goal when the opposing team’s net is FILLED with children. Towards the end of our visit, we made a small monetary donation to the school and handed out candy to all of the students.
Dirty, exhausted and in desperate need of a soft bed, we returned to RTC on Sunday, at which time I fell into my bed and crashed for a solid week. Since our return to the college, it has been work, work and more work. We are approaching the end of our classes (in three weeks!) and will be departing on our final hiking trip to the Haa Valley next Friday (returning on Monday). This has been described to us by our tour guide as the most physically demanding, strenuous, and COLD excursion. Thus, the entire group will make the two hour hike to the campsite, after which only three or four of us will embark on the hike to the peaks. This hike will last roughly 13 hours and maintain an altitude of over 14,000 feet. This WILL be a true test of my physical ability and perhaps my sanity as well.
After the trip to Haa, I will hopefully be graced by the presence of my father, who will be in Bhutan for two weeks, helping Kuzoo FM stream their Dzongkha station on the internet. After his departure, I will only have two weeks left until I arrive back in Boston and one month until I turn 21….I have made some promises to myself for the time between when I arrive home and when I leave for Paris to see Jessie:
-Two-hour bath everyday
-Watch every TV show I have missed (Glee, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm)
-One pint of Ben and Jerry’s per day (to gain the weight back)
-Nothing but home cooked meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner
-Early morning runs in 30 degree weather (or, as a wise man calls it, “40 below”)
-Quality time with my parents, my dog, and friends
So folks, I bid you adieu. I will have to steal pictures from comrades for my Haa blog, however, my dad will be bringing my new camera with him in November. I’d like to end now with some more reading suggestions (as I did last week) and a brilliant drawing done by a brilliant woman.
A Dangerous Fortune—Be careful where you invest your life savings
The Codex—Make your kids work for their inheritance
Roughin’ It (Mark Twain)—Yee Haw!
Finally, I find it quite necessary to add this in, as it has been a constant source of inspiration since I received it. In anticipation of Paris in 55 days, I was given an extremely accurate and phantasmagorical portrait by the most incredible woman on this planet:
As I have discussed in previous entries, the concept of time in Bhutan lacks the rigidity that one finds in more western societies. The people of this country simply do not feel bound to a particular temporal scale and are seemingly unhindered by it. Within this culture, labor and work are practiced for the benefit of the soul and not necessarily for a particular deadline…
How’s that for an excuse as to why I haven’t posted anything recently?
In all seriousness, folks…
The past two weeks have been a rapid succession of essays, research, radio shows and exploration—all culminating in the rapidly approaching departure date for our trip with the Taryana Foundation.
Unfortunately, I do not have too many photos to post this week, simply because a great deal of my time recently has been spent researching for my final research paper. The prompt for this assignment is simple:
Write a 20-page paper on ANY aspect of Bhutanese society/culture that is of interest to you.
Couldn’t possible be more broad, right? After several weeks of searching in the beginning of the semester, I became quite attached to the discussion of alcohol use and abuse in Bhutan. From research in local and national newspapers, scholarly journal articles, and interviews, I have narrowed down my paper topic to answer the following questions:
-How is alcohol embedded in the culture/traditions of Bhutan (with an emphasis on religion)?
-Why do people in Bhutan drink and what are the social and economic implications and health-related issues?
-What are several strategies to decrease alcohol consumption in the country?
Since arriving in the country, numerous experiences have aided me in providing me with insight into these questions and because I love all of you so much, I will post my final paper to this blog as an attachment upon its completion…should be riveting :-)
Two weekends ago, Bhutan celebrated it’s annual “Tsechu” festival in Thimphu. This religious festival, which was held from September 17-19th, focuses on social gathering and the marketing of goods (mostly to rich European tourists). Bright colors and endless decorations painted the streets and buildings with brilliant blues and reds and magnificent oranges and yellows. Even the city buses joined the party…
After boarding the bus (the inside was decorated as well) we set off on the 30-minute drive to downtown Thimphu. Stepping off the bus and onto the street was, in every “sense” of the word, a sensory overload. Every car in sight was decorated with vibrant colors and even the population of Thimphu sported radiant Gho and Kira (the national dress). Not one inch of the city was dull or untouched by dramatic color saturation. T
That day during my show at Kuzoo FM, we had NO call-ins. At first, I was a bit discouraged, however, I was later struck by the sheer magnitude of dedication to this festival; the astounding extent to which each and every member of this culture participated in the solidification and development of a national identity.
With no callers, the weekly topic that Atsu and I chose, “Censorship and Vulgarity in Mass Media,” fell upon deaf ears. Regardless, we decided that, “the show must go on,” and discussed the topic amongst ourselves. Naturally, I had no problem blabbering into the microphone for two straight hours.
To escape from the noise and commotion of the city, I came here, to the botanical gardens. Along with several Bhutanese friends, I explored the vast area, which was established as a dedication to the fourth Druk Gyalpo (King IV):
Snacking on a bag of fried banana chips, we wandered from one breathtaking garden to another, snapping pictures along the way. It seemed that even leaving the city did not separate us from the brilliant colors of the Tsechu Festival:
After walking along the trail for half an hour or so, we came to one of the many lookout points, where we found a large Bhutanese family enjoying a late lunch of rice, steamed dumplings and tea. Suddenly, the once-delicious banana chips lost their appeal…To make up for this, we searched the trees and indulged in some fresh fruit, straight from the branch:
Of course, I realize NOW the lack of sanitation practice exemplified in this photo…especially because it was taken after a half-hour motorcycle ride….delicious nonetheless.
Before exiting the botanical gardens, my friend Yonten insisted on taking this photo of us on the edge of the lookout point. Note the attitude.
So now to explain the title of this blog (many of you may indeed be scratching your heads). At Wheaton, the programming council arranges themed dances two or three times per month. The themes help to boost enthusiasm and creativity and to increase group cohesiveness (not sure where sobriety fits in there….). Thus, after observing two dances at RTC, the Wheaton students decided it was time to inject RTC with a little “Wheat.” After much deliberation and many irrational ideas, we decided on “The Stoplight Dance.” Please allow me to explain:
The dress code consists of the following:
-Red: In a relationship, engaged, married. No means no.
-Yellow: It’s complicated, it’s a secret, I want to get away with making bad decision etc.
-Green: Single and ready to mingle or simply desperate.
It was only after posting signs and advertisements that I brought up the fact that Bhutan has no stoplights…too late.
I will say that green certainly dominated the dance, although yellow was quite prominent as well. As the DJ, I dedicated certain songs to certain color groups:
-Green: Single Ladies by Beyonce
-Yellow: It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy
-Red: I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing by Aerosmith
As strong advocates of commitment and monogamy, Yuri and I represented the color red, which some referred to as, “the bad color.”
The dance was a massive success, running from 10pm-2am. Activities included face painting, dace competitions, dedications and even the “Cha-Cha Slide.” Some of us decided to apply the face paint liberally, while others went overboard and ended up looking like some Christmas edition of Braveheart.
As the night came to an end, I said my final words into the microphone and left the crowd with “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan (currently one of the most popular songs worldwide; I strongly recommend listening to it). Of course everyone screamed the words at the top of their lungs and left with smiles on their faces and face paint all over their clothing. We plan to arrange one more dance before the end of the semester…
We are now two days away from our 10-Day trip with the Taryana Foundation, a non-profit in Thimphu dedicated to providing professional training and support to rural areas all over the country. On Friday, we will board a bus and drive nine hours to the rural village of Jigbu, where we will work in schools and on construction projects. Living day-to-day among the villagers, we will be completely immersed in a non-English speaking community (camping just outside of the village). We will also spend a total of four nights at various hotels and resorts both before and after our time at the village. After four days of not showering (thank god my girlfriend isn’t here with me), I plan to soak in the tub for several hours.
Upon my return from this trip, I will certainly have COUNTLESS pictures and videos, which I will post on facebook. If you would like to see all of my pictures, please feel free to visit the photo section of my FB page at www.facebook.com/raffi.sweet
I will also be cutting and pasting all of my videos together when I return to the US in order to make a video blog accompanied by music :)
Another blog will follow as soon as I retain the feeling in my fingers.
As one final note:
I have recently discovered that I have a son here in Bhutan. I really cannot recall what happened, when it happened, or who it happened with—perhaps he is my “love-child.” Regardless, I must take responsibility for my actions and begin to acknowledge the newly discovered fruit of my loins, Dado (pronounced DAW-DOE):
Book recommendations of the month:
-The Lovely Bones—For everyone who has a really sketchy guy living in their neighborhood.
-The Alchemist—A short novel consisting of more memorable and meaningful quotes than any other piece of literature I have encountered
-Atlas Shrugged—A twisted view on a society where all the brilliant minds in the world throw up their hands and say, “I give up; do it yourself.”
-The Time Traveler’s Wife—You think YOUR long-distance relationship is tough? Think again.
50% done, 100% changed.
(I take myself way too seriously)
And now, a short commercial break…
In honor of my grandmother, I have begun to morph into an avid cook. Regardless of the inevitability of this development, I hardly expected it to begin in Bhutan. Just to clarify, I fully intend to captivate you with stories of adventure and daring atop the highest hills and at the surfaces of the most mystical lakes. Before I do, however, I feel it necessary to share with you a quintessential step in my journey:
This event, or rather, encounter, occurred perhaps an hour ago as I was returning to my room from the academic building. After an extended three-hour shift as a writing tutor, I trudged out of the classroom with my brain in shambles. Given, I have worked as a writing tutor a great deal in the past, however, the challenge of this position rests in the fact that every students who attends tutoring sessions is ESL (English Second Language); obvious as well as more obscure problems arise on a daily basis.
With the writing center behind me and my “second wind” on its final approach, I chose to take the road less traveled by (thank you, Mr. Frost) and began to hike up the long dirt road that runs along the side of campus. “Sandals were a bad choice,” (thank you, Ron Burgundy) I thought, feeling every tiny pebble below me puncture the rubber under-surface of “Old-Navy’s Impenetrable Flip-Flops.” I brought my focus at this point to my stomach, which grumbled louder than my former college roommate on a morning after a night of heavy drinking.
The idea that my time here in Bhutan has eliminated almost all of my daily complaints is solid. The unbearable combination of an empty stomach and deteriorating flip-flops is beyond comprehension. Too much to bear. Utter misery.
In my fragile state, I wished only for some form of sustenance. Suddenly, a beacon of hope appeared in the form of an elderly Indian woman. She stood in the doorway of a nearby shack and beckoned me to come join her in her home. Nearing the door, sweet, almost visible aromas drifted past my nostrils and stimulated my senses. I took a deep breath and crossed the threshold into what seemed like a dream.
For the next hour or so I feasted on warm samosas that crumbled against the force of my teeth and melted slowly in my mouth. We spoke, in broken English of course, and binged on the exotic fare before us:
After we had both had our fill, I thanked her graciously, slipped back into my wounded sandals and left. On my way out, the woman stopped me and handed me a bag of leftovers, which I devoured during the five-minute walk back to my dorm. Before I left the woman’s house, however, she took a step towards me and embraced me in a mother-like hug—this was quite comforting considering I am without a girlfriend or mother at present. The woman wished me well and invited me back next week to learn how to cook a complete Indian supper—Iron Chef, here I come…
I know its not gnocchi or chicken lasagna but I’m sure grandma would be proud.
Now, back to the show…
(Enter five brave travelers; all itching for adventure and a glance into the unknown)
(From left: Sarah, Devon, Moi, Yuri and Atsu)
On a clear and sunny Friday afternoon, the five of us piled into the RTC bus and zoomed off on the winding roads towards the head of the Phajoding trail. It was here that we were greeted by our guide, Tsewang, along with four other Bhutanese men who had been hired to help the trip run more smoothly. Each one of these individuals proved to be a true pleasure to be around and provided services such as cooking, setting up camp, building the “toilet tent” and guiding our baggage carriers over the rough terrain. Being a psychology major, I’ve heard of almost every phobia in the book; it was, however, a surprise to discover Sarah’s crippling phobia of our baggage carriers—view the picture below at your own risk; it may be quite inappropriate for small children:
(Sorry, Sarah; I couldn’t resist)
In all honesty, the horses proved to be key players during our trip. At an altitude of over 10,000 feet, lugging our own bags would have been suicidal.
Note: By the end of the weekend, Sarah was finally able to conquer her fear of horses by approaching one and, for a split second, patting it on the head. Way to go, Sarah :)
The first day of hiking consisted of roughly 4 hours of uphill navigation over rocks and mud. Although it proved to be a challenge for some of us, our all-knowing tour guide set an appropriate pace for the entire group. Being typical Americans, we also stopped every hour or so for chips, candy, or other excuses for gluttony.
Several hundred feet from our camp, we came across a temple, where a young monk stood outside practicing martial arts. All alone in an expansive green field the boy stood, surrounded by rolling green hills and dream-like clouds. It was a very touching site; a boy no older than 7 or 8; completely and utterly focused on the task at hand. As we began snapping pictures of him, his focus shifted directly towards us:
As darkness began to envelop the land, we arrived at our campsite. From here, we would venture to the lake regions the following day. Although fatigued, we were all eager for the adventures that the following days would bring. This made it difficult enough to sleep—six cups of highly-caffeinated tea didn’t help either. We spent most of the night in a large tent, where we exchanged stories, jokes, plans, dreams and everything in between:
The starless night ended as we trudged back to our tents and slipped into deep and vivid dreams (high altitude-induced?)
I awoke quite early the next morning; about 5:30am. The bitter cold hit me like an oncoming train as I exited my cozy sleeping back. Dressed only in long underwear (thank you, Jessie) I exited the tent and went to “find a bush,” as our tour guide put it. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, I noticed my surroundings; or rather, lack thereof. I was standing in a cloud. This would be the first but certainly not the last time that I would find myself in a complete whiteout. After a delectable breakfast of porridge, cereal, eggs, toast and tea, we packed our things and set off on what would prove to be one of the most challenging physical feats of my life.
This hike, or should I say, pilgrimage, took us the better part of the day—about 12 hours. We hiked through fields of plants taller than every member of our group, over countless rocky ridges and past several mystical water deposits such as this one, before reaching the lakes.
Arriving at the massive body of water, we were again lost in a white mist. Slightly disappointed that the lake was not visible, Devon, Sarah and I navigated down the rocky terrain to the edge of the lake. As we approached the outer perimeter, the clouds suddenly parted—only long enough to snap a picture or two:
On our return trip (several hours from the campsite), Devon had the bright idea of climbing “Skeleton Mountain,” an area which our tour guide explained to us was and is still sometimes used for “air burials.” You see, in Bhutan, the dead are frequently cremated—the age of the deceased, however, comes into play when deciding what to do with the body. If the body is of an infant (one or two years), an air burial is sometimes performed, in which the body of the infant is placed in an elevated position so that it may be closer to heaven; also so that it can provide food for the birds (not sure if the tour guide was joking about this). Climbing up this mountain was no easy task—it involved scaling massive rocks and shimmying across ledges of minuscule width. Upon our arrival, the air was filled with an unusual quality; a chill of sorts. The kind of chill that reaches to the bone. Walking around on the mountain, we came across baby bottles, blankets and an alter upon which the body of the infant is usually placed. Our tour guide informed us that air burials had become legal in the recent past—people still continued to do it, he explained.
Without notice we were plunged into yet another whiteout. This made descending the mountain nearly impossible. With steady hands and prayers to whatever God we believed in, we eventually made it down and back to camp safely. The stars that night were brighter and more clear than I had ever seen them…
On our final day, we took the liberty of sleeping in till 9:30 or so. The events of the previous day were enough to put us all out of commission for the rest of the semester. Additionally, we had been at 12,000 feet for most of the previous day and even surpassed 14,000 feet on the top of Skeleton Mountain—this had led to some of the most vivid and lucid dreams I had ever experienced. On the way back down the trail, we stopped at a temple where dozens of monks were meeting for a ritual (this day was an auspicious date). We sat in awe and amazement as the monks chanted on and on. One monk sat texting on his cell phone the whole time—can’t escape modernization. Our last view of the monks was of them eating outside in the courtyard—a beautiful, ancient area filled with the lush green of the trees and the deep red of the monks’ garments.
In the early afternoon, we returned to the head of the trail. Our bus arrived shortly after and, after saying our goodbyes and taking some group pictures, we climbed onto the bus and passed out instantly. This weekend has taken more out of us than we even knew we had to begin with.
The last words from our tour guide: “Great job guys. This was a great warm-up. The trek in Haa Valley in November will be much more difficult than this. I know you can do it.”
A short walk from campus, I was suddenly greeted by one of the most profound sights I have ever been a witness to (see picture above). This majestic scene unfolded before me as I strolled down the winding dirt road to the Dobi. Lugging a bag filled to the brim with dirty clothes behind me, I was eager to reach my final destination; a small hut in which the Dobi makes a living by washing the clothes of students and other persons around the campus. Yes, we do have washing machines, however, just TRY to hang your clothes up on the line without them being stolen (we don’t have dryers here). Besides, it feels pretty fantastic to support the life of the Dobi and his family, while at the same time receiving the cleanest, most well-pressed, and fragrant shirts, pants, socks, and underwear (they call these “hot pants”). Whether assigned to laundry, construction or the custodial arts, countless individuals dedicate their time and effort to the upkeep and enhancement of the school.
Speaking of enhancement, the social life here on campus has made several dramatic strides in the right direction. First and foremost, I have established a tightly-knit group of guy friends, who constantly shower me with gifts, favors, and Bhutanese wine (Ara). Every breakfast, lunch and dinner consists of riveting conversations—these range from cultural idiosyncrasies to Dzongkha lessons (all the dirty words of course) and even to girls…I successfully stay out of this one most of the time—love you Jessie :-P. Additionally, I have become much more accustomed to the city and the life within it. I can successfully navigate my way from the bus stop to the “American Restaurant,” where, for only 150 Nu. (3 American Dollars), I can get myself a good ole’ hamburger. My excitement is suddenly dampened when I see that “hamburger” is not on the menu…instead, my only choice is “ham bugger.” Typo or general misunderstanding?
As I sit staring at the view you see in the above picture, I am told by my good friend Yonten that Bhutan is the only place is the world where the ground touches the sky; the last Shangri-La. He explains the important of patience and the virtue that accompanies living in BST (Bhutan Stretched Time). As each day passes here, I become more comfortable and begin to really establish my element in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Each day is filled with new sights, sounds, perceptions and adventures—including the every-expanding radio show, In the Mix with Raffi and Atsu (every Monday, Tuesday and Saturday). My dad is pretty intent on visiting at this point to help the radio set up online streaming; still working on mom, although I surely have the upper hand at this point.
To close, I’d like to take you through one of the most incredible nights I have had thus far in Bhutan. On Saturday night, I was invited to attend dinner at the house of the school’s director. Also in attendance was the king’s general, the sister of King IV, and the most popular author in Bhutan. We ate an extensive feast and talked for hours about every aspect of Bhutanese society as well as my own goals and aspirations. I even managed to score some gifts for certain people back at home (wink wink). As the evening came to a close, I played a bit of basketball with the general, received a massive bag of fresh fruit, and was taken home. It was both an honor and a unique privileged to be in the honor of both royalty and other highly respected country members—do I smell another trip to Bhutan in my future? Whose in?
Stay out of Bardo
In some phantasmagorical turn of events, I’ve managed to score some decent ‘net. Although uploading pictures at this point may be futile, there’s no harm posting a nice, chunky monologue, performed by yours truly. So, as the great Edd Byrnes (Vince Fontaine) so eloquently exclaimed before Danny Zuko and Cha-Cha won the dance competition, “put your mittens around your kittens and away we go!”
Since my last post, a substantial paradigm shift has taken place—discomfort and fear of the unknown has matured into a continuous sense of adventure and opportunity. With classes in full swing and the college community in a social frenzy, “Mr. R” or “Sweet” has found his way into the hearts and minds of the immediate population. After DJ-ing at the school dance, getting offered a weekend DJ-ing gig at the hottest club in town, and blasting my own music on the national radio station, I have successfully created a “Sweet” market (unintentionally, of course and with no pun intended).
Lately, I have also dedicated myself to the improvement of the community on several levels. I am currently working as a writing tutor and possibly even teaching my own “Introduction to College” class on behalf of the newly-established Learning Resource Center. I must admit, I am a bit skeptical about actually teaching in my own classroom—I have no doubts regarding my potential teaching skills; my worry rests only in my physical stature. How are kids going to learn to respect someone half their size? No matter…hopefully the “rule of thumb” has not been outlawed in this country (only kidding; relax.)
Additionally, I have started my internship at Kuzoo radio. On Monday’s and Tuesday’s, I will be hosting a two-hour contemporary music show (still trying to think of a good name). This will feature the latest in western Rock, Rap, Hip-Hop and R&B music. During this show, I will also be performing self-written and self-produced programs dealing with current issues in Bhutan (I have been reading three different newspapers daily in order to gain a thorough understanding of current events). This will include personal opinions, excerpts from newspapers and speeches and the opportunity for others to call in and contribute their two cents. Although I will only be here for 11 weeks or so, my plan is to establish a nationally respected radio show with substantial potential for longevity. If all goes according to plan, the Sweet family will also make it possible for Kuzoo to stream the radio station online! When this is established, I will be sure to post the link as well as the times of my shows. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even want to call in and contribute your own words!
In tandem with all of my school work, these activities have certainly established themselves as time-consuming projects. In this sense, it is essential to have some leisure time in which I can let loose any frustrations or general stress. For this, I turn to basketball, soccer, and running. Although intense exercise at 9,000 feet is a LITTLE different than exercise anywhere in the US (or most places in the world, for that matter), my lungs and heart have finally started to adjust to the altitude change. Word on the street is that the body takes roughly a month to become acclimated…someone’s making a lot of assumption. In all seriousness, I feel much healthier and physically fit in contrast with my feelings in the first week or two. The school even has a gym, which I plan to visit on a regular basis.
Running has proved to be an unbelievably peaceful experience here at RTC. Resting in a deep, green valley, RTC is surrounded by long, winding trails among lush fauna and infinite forms of life. I find in this a deep sense of peace and connectedness to the natural word; an unmatched “runner’s high.” Losing my way on these runs has been the most rewarding feeling of all. Before this, I did not know that I could truly find myself by getting lost. I’ll take some pictures on my next run.
After next week, I will be a quarter of the way through this trip. The thought is overwhelming. How can time move so slow and yet, so fast at the same time. With all of this work and the prospect of three or four treks out into the country, there is no question that time will continue to accelerate. My hope is to embody the essence of “Bhutan Time.” My wish is to reach the spiritual level in which I may regard time as what it really is; impermanence—not necessarily something that passes you by, but instead, something you yourself choose to control, manipulate, and flourish in.
“If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition; if you want to know your future life, look at your present actions.” -Guru Rinpoche
Hello to all you dedicated readers out in cyberspace. First and foremost, let me apologize for the lateness of this third post; I have learned that the term “high-speed internet” is quite relative here in Bhutan. Thankfully, I have spent the last several days running around campus with my laptop, trying to find a decent signal. Have no fear, the blog is back with a vengeance. Also, for all the photos I’ve taken thus far, visit the photo section of my Facebook page.
After landing at Paro Airport in Bhutan, we were greeted by the most astounding 360 degree panorama I have ever seen; nothing but rolling green hills, hugged by majestic white clouds. Not a bad place to be:
Jet lagged, tired, and quite smelly, we rushed through customs, exchanged some American Dollars for Bhutanese Ngultrum, and caught a ride to our hotel.
Tenziling Hotel in Paro far exceeded our expectations. The second we arrived in the parking lot, staff members ran down and greeted us enthusiastically. Before we knew what had happened, they had loaded our bags off the van and into our rooms—talk about service! The three days we spent at the hotel proved to be more of a Bhutanese vacation than anything else; the days were spent hiking beautiful trails, eating spicy, colon-busting meals, and exploring the land. Below are a handful of photos from our time in Paro, along with explanations:
Not exactly a Motel 6….
We spent the first three days of our trip here among an incredibly helpful and energetic staff. Days were spent on eye-opening excursions, most of which involved a great deal of hiking. Getting used to the altitude proved to be quite a difficult feat and, naturally, returning to the hotel after the days adventures was a blessing. Nights here were spent eating, drinking, laughing, and even occasionally attending a hotel dance party. Apparently, even being on the other side of the planet can’t get me away from Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber…
View from the back balcony of my hotel room….ghastly, isn’t it? I’ll understand completely if you want to look away… ;)
Chances are, you know exactly what these are—for those who don’t, feast your eyes on prayer wheels. Rumor has it spinning just one of these babies (spin it clockwise or you’ll be reincarnated as a fly) is equivalent to saying hundreds of thousands of prayers. These prayers are meant to cleanse the soul and the sins associated with it. I have literally spun every single prayer wheel I’ve seen since my arrival…lord knows I need it.
I’ve died an gone to heaven. After a 3 hour hike, we found ourselves at the most characteristic site of Bhutan; The Tiger’s Nest. This profound Buddhist temple was built thousands of years ago and is home to some of the most beautiful shrines in the world. Resting on the edge of a giant cliff, it is certainly one of the wonders of our world. Unfortunately, I was forced to surrender my camera at the entrance, and so all I have are my memories….they are MORE than enough. Additionally, something profound occurred in one of these shrines while I was in the midst of a deep meditation. I’ll save the story for those who ask me personally—lets just say the most important and passion-filled aspect of my life was reinforced exponentially.
After our Bhutanese vacation, we packed up and headed to RTC (Royal Thimphu College) in Thimphu, Bhutan. We moved in with our Bhutanese roommates and were instantly thrown into the middle of orientation.
Two words: CULTURE SHOCK!!!!
I admit that I was super uncomfortable during the first few days at RTC. The guys were very warm and welcoming, however, the girls didn’t even look at me. I wasn’t sure if it was because they couldn’t pronounce it or because it is their odd way of flirting, but I’ve been given the nicknames “Mr. R” and “Sweet” by the females here at RTC. Not complaining—doesn’t give anyone the chance to call me “Ralphie.” The food here is fantastic, but SPICY. For those of us whose stomachs can’t handle the cuisine (*cough cough, Devon), there are an unlimited supply of Kit Kats available for purchase at the canteen.
After settling in, I have met some astounding people who I am sure will become lifelong friends. Classes have started and I have secured positions as both a writing tutor and a possible psychology tutor as well. Additionally, I have started my internship at Kuzoo FM, Bhutan’s most popular radio station. Here I will be hosting my own show, producing reports on Bhutanese culture, conducting interviews with local musicians and community members and judging weekly singing competitions, similar to American Idol. You can bet that I will become the Simon Cowell of the competition and will probably sneak in a few of my own songs along the way.
I would like to leave you with this final photo of the eight Wheaton students, along with several of our Bhutanese friends. As you can see, the group is predominantly female…not something to complain about. The girls we have met are very in touch with the city of Thimphu (where we spend a great deal of time) and are a great deal quieter than the boys, which is quite necessary at the end of the day.
The king of Bhutan is visiting the school tomorrow and has asked specifically to meet the eight students from Wheaton College. I’ve never met a king before…I hope my hair looks okay.
Om a huum
Beh ma sidi huum
Sitting in Narita International Airport (Tokyo), I’m giving many thanks to whatever higher power has bestowed wireless internet upon me. I was intent on publishing at least one blog entry before actually arriving in Bhutan and, thanks to our five hour layover, now is most certainly an appropriate time. Speaking of time, I have absolutely no idea of the date or time. My watch is still set to EST and I’m certainly stubborn enough to keep it that way. After about 18 hours of travel, I could really use a break—unfortunately, I wont actually find my footing for the next 20 hours or so. For the remainder of this entry, let me give you a quick overview of my trip thus far.
I awoke at 3:30am after two hours of sleep (I couldn’t tear myself away from my girlfriend’s beautiful face on videochat). Rolling out of bed, I threw on a t-shirt and sweats and sped off towards the airport with my mother and father. For any of you living in or near a major city, you know how convenient and slightly eerie it is to be the only car driving downtown at some ungodly hour. We arrived at Logan International Airport at about 4:30am and, after hugs, kisses and best wishes from my parents, I headed inside to International Check-In. This process, as well as security, moved quickly and quietly, due to the fact that every person in the airport at this time was a sleep-deprived zombie. The whining of a young child in the security line was enough to elicit groans and scoffs.
My first flight to San Francisco was dubbed, “essential nap-time.” This was where I could recharge my batteries and prepare myself for the horrors of international travel (maybe I’m being a tad melodramatic). I bunched my sweatshirt into a quasi-pillow and rested my head on the tray table. As I began to enter the wonderful world of peace and relaxation, a rather portly man in front of me reclined his seat enough to make significant contact with the top of my head. Needless to say, sleep was not likely. Instead, I plugged in my headphones and let my I-Pod do the rest…thank you Coldplay. Arriving at SFO, I quickly made my way to the International Terminal and almost immediately boarded my flight to Tokyo. This plane, the 747, proved to be more of a flying hotel than an aircraft:
Let me just say one thing—the Japanese flight crew on this aircraft was second-to-none. During our ten hour flight, we were given two meals, countless snacks and all the free drinks we could consume. Nap time was within my grasp. Two glasses of red wine and two gin and tonics later, I was in a coma. During my waking hours, the flight was unbelievably smooth and pleasant. My one criticism was the showing of the new Miley Cyrus and Greg Kinnear movie. This proved to be so forgettable that I forgot the name less than an hour after the credits rolled…oh well.
18 hours of travel done…about 20 more hours to go. I can only hope that as the old, senile man that I will become, I will look back on these days with great joy and a sense of accomplishment. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to turn my life upside-down and inside-out. I’m ready to be thrown on out my comfort zone. My next entry will be from Paro, Bhutan (provided I can get internet). I promise to post shots of our flight to Bhutan (yes, we will be flying directly over Mt. Everest) as well as shots of the group and the beautiful Paro Valley. Please continue to follow the blog, reply with your own thoughts, comments or questions and spread this blog to anyone else who may be interested.