A Bhutan Retrospective—17 days

A couple of weeks of highs—literally and figuratively—from river valley bottoms to 14,000 foot peaks drenched in snow.  Every day, both up and down and certainly back and forth as we wound our way through one watershed after another of crystal clear, icy cold, untrammeled stream and roaring rivers.  At the head of most of the streams where the raggedy road crossed them a small temple had been built with a pipe and pelton wheel inside that turned the prayer wheel housed inside—such that the bells on the prayer wheel greeted us and wished us safe journey many times each day.

Such is the subtlety of this place.  Little touches in unlikely places.  Human grace-notes on such overwhelming grandeur.  Alaska is grand, towering, too huge for the intimacy afforded by small places, small valleys, clear rivers.  Bhutan could easily attain the same overwhelming character except, for example, as you round one of thousands of large and small bends, over the road and winding up the (seemingly) trackless valley reaching overhead, as long, long, strands of prayer flags that someone has voluntarily stretched over us for our benefit.  At the outward turns of each valley, as you pass into the next valley, where the winds are strong, preceding humans have placed tall (40-60 feet) bamboo poles covered in white flags—white flags to provide speedy passage for the decedent who is making the transition into his/her next incarnation.

Subtle easy touches to remind us every few minutes.  We’re here but it is all impermanent.  Even the very Himalayas—the youngest mountain range on earth—are but children in the family of mountains.  Yet, the impermanent nature of their existence is evident everywhere—erosion, landslides, precarious enormous boulders teetering over the road.

The architecture is absorbing.  Proportions and colors are as harmonious with the cliffs and valleys they occupy as they are different.  The industry and artistry of the people is evident in the centuries old and brand new structures built in the most unlikely inaccessible places where we Westerners would not even consider building.

These people who dedicate so much of their time, capital, and spirit in volunteering to build the structures, temples, stoopas, roads/paths (constant), hanging flags, standing poles, are very poor by any standards…. Except in their commitment to their community and belief systems.  I doubt that anyone has, or could have, done a reckoning of what they could have had by Western measures if they had “simply” focused on taking from the world around them.

They have something else.  Whether it is the kids hanging around the school grounds after school to play marbles (I remember those days), the adults sitting on the steps of the temple or in adjoining stalls in the market, the taxi drivers plying their trade quietly (no blaring horns) and with patience, or the food stalls feeding their scraps to the thousands upon thousands of feral dogs whose barking will keep them up at night,  they smile, laugh, and have a ready greeting when met in passing.  By all appearances in the street and in their homes, reading their (English language anyway) newspapers, they appear to be happy—comfortable with what is.

It would be inappropriate and dismissive to label them as simple or their lives as simple.  It would be a disservice to them and to us. The pantheon of gods, Buddhas, other deities, orderings of religious and social life, I think, are more complicated and impenetrable to our simple black-and-white Western ways.  I have been a student of Buddhism for years and still struggle to understand it even on a superficial level.  But the philosophy of it is clear—compassion, mindfulness, recognition.  Their priorities are different.

Now, back to those dogs.  My only complaint, my only grievance, with the state of things in Bhutan, is with the choices the people make to let these feral dogs run in packs, loiter everywhere—on the sidewalks, in the streets blocking traffic—everywhere to sleep all day long (right in the middle of the road!) to rest so that they can run as packs all night howling, yapping, in general maximizing their annoyance—day and night.

Sure, they sentient living beings.  Sure, they are part of the living and spiritual fabric of life and belief systems.  Sure, the humans do argue that it would be a sin to do anything to them.  Sure, they have erratic neuter projects to slow the rate of procreation….. too little, too late.

So, I have suggested to our fabulous guide and driver, who are always in search for gainful employment during the 5-6 months of the year when business is very slow that they approach the Tourism Ministry and seek support to create a “Dog Reserve” (actually several of them) through which the Ministry could provide limited funds and several chunks of land where trapped and neutered dogs could live their lives doing their thing.  Then, our dynamic duo could approach the hotels and other tourist hot spots and collect modest sums for a live trapping project to rid their guests of this noisome situation.  

Feed the dogs by saving the hotels and the garbage collection agencies the cost of managing the tons of food waste the same hotels produce.  Win for everyone?  We’ll see.

The dogs also feed on other things—birds, monkeys, and endangered cranes.  The 4-foot tall Black Necked Crane is endangered.  Only a few hundred of these amazing birds remain.  Not only the dogs feed on their eggs, we saw a video of a couple of leopards coming around inside the Crane Reserve…..  The Black Necked Crane is revered as having profound significance of their arrivals and departures…. For their beauty, their habits…. They migrate to-from the Tibetan Plateau at an astounding 33,000-35,000 feet.  How do they get enough air?  Or avoid freezing?

We saw only one, having arrived after their migration.  The one is in permanent rehab because something (dog, fox, leopard???) attacked and permanently rendered it unable to fly because of the damage to its wing.

The wildlife shares its habitat with all of the free roaming domestic animals—yaks, dairy and beef cattle, mules, donkeys, horses, chickens, some pigs.  The habitat is spartan…. Dry seasons followed by monsoons.  So, as some 70% of the terrain is native and planted forest, the wild animals, like everywhere else on the planet, are being pushed deeper and higher into the uninhabitable regions.  So viewing them is becoming ever harder.

Some 3,000 species of birds reside here.  Some looking like they date back to the dinosaurs.  Loss of habitat is also pushing them deeper and higher.

I have never seen wild trout as large and as numerous as here.  Schools of trout of 24-36” flashing through the crystal rivers (reportedly up to 42”).  Fishing them is illegal (sentient beings they are, after all).  But, once again, the pressure for hard currency ($$) has opened the trout fishery only to high-priced fishing tours under expensive government permits.  Big fines for resident fishing.  Is this progress?

The push may be becoming easier….. and harder.  Like every country I have visited or worked (46 or so), climate change has already occurred.  The doubters should see for themselves…. This isn’t a “change in the weather”.  Glaciers are melting, producing more floods, drier dry seasons, riskier fire seasons (with literally no infrastructure to prevent or to fight them), erratic growing seasons making it harder to feed the family—making it harder to pay for those loans taken to buy “modern” farming equipment… and on it goes.

Bhutan is betting on a tourism future.  They have launched policies and programs to keep the countryside clean, to improve the roads, to lend money for hotel construction, and to train a larger and larger cadre of guides and drivers (the only place that I have seen where a single woman or small number of women can request and receive women-only guides).  This last point is already causing concern among the existing guides and drivers who fear the competition.  Already competition is intense for this short-season business.  If actual visitation doesn’t outpace the growth in competition, they’ll have a larger pie to share among many more open mouths..

So, again, what is progress?  A nation borrowing hard currency (e.g., US$) to build roads, powerplants, and develop hotels must generate enough hard currency to pay those loans plus interest.  How?  What’s the long term?  How many tourists will come if the glaciers and all that they produce throughout the country are gone?  How many tourists will come if the culture changes (becoming more like the Disneylandesque countries) or hotels that are everywhere and guides are no longer needed because travel becomes so easy?  I dunno.  Do you?

We have enjoyed every minute of our time here.  We will have fond memories (including the white knuckle, seat scrunching, tummy grinding passages across these many many cliffs).  But TANSTAFL still applies.  I cannot help but see both sides.  I hope that the enlightened leaders of Bhutan continue to pursue their best paths even as world events are so far outside of their influence.


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