Plotting a return to the Kingdom

The cabin I am occupying for the summer in Jackson Hole is but half a cabin, half of a 2nd floor storage space above a maintenance shed, converted into two tiny apartments. The other half is occupied by my Earthwatch colleague, an ornithologist from Connecticut, and she has a view of the Tetons out her door window.  My half faces mostly a parking lot and a distant ridge,but is a few square feet larger  and has a sofa; I have no complaints at all. This small of a living space has been the norm for me ever since I moved to the college in Bhutan and lived in a single room.  All last winter I was in a tiny studio with no kitchen, and that worked well enough. Who needs more than one room if you’re single? These 215 square feet, with a low, sloping ceiling with a solar light tube are all I need for myself, my 12-piece wardrobe, and my stripped-down natural history library.

All the 30′ pine beams are fully exposed overhead, and all the original exterior chinking is still good. When I moved in a few weeks ago, mice scampered inside the walls and around the room every night, a minor annoyance cured quickly with two snap traps. There will be more to come, no doubt.

The campus itself, once a dude ranch, was the first permanent home of the original Grand Teton Environmental Center in 1974,  re-named Teton Science School around 1986. Even after a decade of expansion and renovations, it’s a far cry from the newer, more commercial-grade campus of the same school near Jackson, which was completed in 2005 to the tune of $32 million, and which has the capacity to lodge three to four times as many students in any given week of the year, up to about 175. Having worked for five years at the other, more crowded and more intensely managed campus, I feel total gratitude every day I wake up to this drop-dead stunning view-shed of the Tetons. That is, when it’s not snowing on them.

I first lived on this campus in 1989, when my then wife Debbie and I bid an emotional farewell to the southern Vermont we loved, and I began a new career in fundraising and marketing for the single entity of Teton Science School. Debbie was hired almost immediately by an engineering firm in Jackson, and took the 25-minute commute in stride. My six-year tenure as development director at TSS forced this former schoolteacher, with a great deal of help & patience from the new ED Jack Shea, to focus his garrulous nature and over-blown eastern vocabulary onto the big screen of donor relations and community “friend-raising”. For the most part, I succeeded, as the school’s budget grew almost threefold in those six years, but my success in that role was largely a reflection of the soaring stock market of the early `90’s. I had been lucky, tasked by a highly skilled ED with raising funds in a bull market for an apolitical non-profit devoted to enriching kids’ lives in one of the most spectacular and wealthy counties in the entire U.S.!

Then in 1995, an exceptional opportunity came knocking, or so I believed at the time, and I allowed myself to be wooed into a bigger development job at a much bigger school: my alma mater, a College of Natural Resources at a State University. What a sad saga that turned out to be for me and my new family, thanks to my fathomless political naiveté.

I digress; all of this has nothing to do with going back to Bhutan, which appears now to be a likely prospect for three or possibly four weeks in October and November.  I’m almost giddy at the thought of it, though there are plenty of logistical hurdles ahead.


The Wizard of Om

One cool dude.

He moved into the room adjoining mine in the campus Guest House back in early March, a few weeks after the semester had started. He was so shy and unassuming that  almost 2 weeks went by before I met him. Very tall for a Bhutanese, with long, tousled black hair, a north Indian complexion, big, dark eyes & a prominent nose reminiscent of Frank Zappa,  complete with the ‘stashe and goatee.  Om Katel stood out among the rest of the Faculty for all of those attributes, plus his youth; he’s at least ten years junior to the other Bhutanese Forestry faculty, and young enough to be my son. His friendly personality, easy laugh and good English all brought me in closer for conversations with him.  He seemed to find it easy to talk with me, so we started hanging out together.

And the more we talked, the more I liked him. He speaks in a deep, almost guttural voice in choppy but clear English. “No, you see, Benj, iz like this…in Bhutanese context, we cannot say it like that, you know?”  He’s got the mind of a scientist (which he is) and few topics seem to pique his interest more than statistics.   I share with him my total ignorance of that subject, and he tries to convince me that it’s easy, I just need to read this one book. He tells me about the book in two or more conversations, as I continue to divulge my allergic attitude toward the subject that is so important to the course I’m teaching, Conservation Science.

That one book, it turns out, is a 600 page tome by the famous Andy Field; his  funny, down-to-earth treatment of this torturous subject makes even me want to read his book. Economics  of natural resources is another one that gets Om excited. He also has the global awareness of a westerner, something truly rare in Bhutan.  We hold long conversations about the history of Bhutan, his research,  his early years. He grew up in  in Dovan Geog,  a two-day walk from the road.  One of his most vivid memories of his youth was the first time he laid eyes on a moving vehicle at the age of 15.  A truck came along and frightened him so badly, he fled, convinced he was about to be run over by this roaring metal monster. A few years later his family moved to another tiny farming community called Noonpani, where his aging parents still raise rice and vegetables to this day.  At 15 he ran away from home, heading south across the border and wound up, utterly broke, at the National Open School in northern India, where he literally begged for admission despite having none of his official documents, and was accepted  by the Headmistress on the basis of his preposterous story: that he had come there to learn, he was an excellent student, and he would prove it to her. Which he eventually did.

Om offers to give me pointers on putting on my gho, and this is a big relief. I’m not comfortable asking Pema to walk here half an hour before she’s supposed to report to the guest house for her normal work day just to dress me. Soon we’re in a routine for nearly a month, when I can hear through the wall that Om’s getting dressed,  I get as far as my arms will reach with the fabric, the sash thrown over my shoulder, and tap on his door.  He invariably welcomes me in with that raucous laugh and finishes the task. At one point, he tells me I’ve got it 80% figured out, but no matter how hard I try, the last step of setting the big pleat in the back and securing it by three wraps of the 9-foot the sash is totally beyond my reach. We walk to the  administration  building together, and every day, someone compliments me on how good I look in my gho. “It’s all thanks to Dr. Katel, my wardrobe specialist”  I tell them, just to drive home the point that it’s an impossible task for me to do alone.

Om was hired to teach Fire Ecology and GIS to the same  Bachelors students in Forestry that I teach, with virtually no background in either subject. Yet in less than three months, thanks to  his inquisitiveness and access to the literature through his university in Thailand, he has mastered both subjects well enough to win the full respect of all of his students.  He’s one of those rare people with a head for math that allows him to pick up a skill like GIS so quickly that he can teach it successfully at a college level in a matter of weeks. Om’s room doubles as a library; there are stacks of studies, theses, dissertations on every flat surface. Most are on forest ecology and and community management of forest resources, a few on conservation, common pool resources, and GIS. He’s got 3,200 science pubs downloaded to his computer, and has read about 900 of them.

He was a chemistry teacher at Jigme Sherubling Higher Secondary School in Khaling, Trashigang, when he was hired by the Academic Dean of CNR.  He’s close finishing his PhD at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, and will be going there in July to get it done. His dissertation, on how forest structure is affected by community extraction patterns in a Bhutanese national park, sounds arcane, almost beyond my comprehension, until he asks me to help edit the Introduction. Once I work my way through the first 18 pages of it, I am amazed.  The depth of his methods,  with arduous transects up steep, heavily forested slopes combined with hundreds of lengthy household interviews, wins my total respect. There were lengthy, complicated  political hurdles to clear before he could get interview anyone.  He  did it entirely self-directed, with three part-time field assistants, with hardly any input from his Committee, and almost all at his own cost. It was a huge undertaking in unimaginably difficult terrain, and he did every aspect of it thoroughly. He’s now on his third Advisor at AIT, which has made the project that much more challenging to finish.

Weeks go by, and we find ourselves having most of our meals together, either in his room or the new kitchen next to the guest house. Om likes to cook for both of us, but it goes faster if we both slice the veghetables, a random mix of green chillies, potatoes, eggplants, sour gourd, onions and tomatoes.  We fall into a routine of walking 2 kilomteres to the market in Metsina or a half kilometer to the little shop and bar near the campus every few evenings, talking and laughing the whole way.  A trickle of Indian construction workers or CNR students passes us every time. We talk about women (he has a Japanese girlfriend in Thailand),  his former girlfriends, my former wives (just 2!), the ten varieties of rice in Bhutan, Barack Obama’s prospects for success, the protests in the Middle East,  the pitiful lack of research in Bhutan, the pathetic politics of our college  department, the flowering trees around us, anything and everything.

And we make each other laugh. This is a soul I am able to connect with somehow, despite our enormous differences of background and age.  He tries to refer to me as a scientist, which I laugh off instantly. It comes right back to the math. “Om”, I say, “I had to be tutored in statistics and genetics to get through grad school, and I barely made it out alive. Don’t you see, that’s not exactly a science credential !”   “OK, but you understand, you appreciate research!” he counters. We laugh. The story and the history of scientific research in Bhutan are both something of a laughing matter to some westerners, but for Om, it’s actually a source of pain and embarrassment.  Yet he is always able to laugh about it.

In mid-May, I break the news that I have to go back to the states at the end of the semester. I’ve got this problem at my cabin, a flood nearly washed out the footers, and it’ll take months to make enough money to fix it. I can’t take 3 months of leave. I’ll have to terminate. “But you’re coming back, right?”  “I think so, I’m not sure. This place kind of drives me nuts. And without you, I would have already gone nuts.”  There’s a long silence.  It’s true.

Without Om’s loyal and engaging friendship, I’d be a wreck by now, too wrapped up in isolation and worry to have kept my sanity here. The month of March was particularly hard for me. He’s the only one on the faculty who’s able and willing to hang around with me on a routine basis, and converse with me as a friend. I’m deeply grateful but baffled by this fact; he gets along with all of his countrymen, and they all respect his  ability to do “real” research. But he, along the other guy I feel some kinship with here, my office-mate D.B., is the odd man out. They’re both at the fringes of the faculty, simply because they’re on a different plane, very focused on their projects …like scientists.

Now, with less than a week to go in Bhutan, I reflect on the things that I’m going to miss, with Om at the top of the list. Our friendship eclipses all the discomforts I’ll be so glad to leave behind: the bees in my bed, the midnight chorus of barking dogs every night of the year, the marginal, monotonous diet with pesticides in every imported vegetable, the dusty atmosphere, the cloudy weather, the cockroaches, the heat, the frequent water & power outages, the glacial internet connection…and plenty of other annoyances that one must simply expect and adapt to in a rural part of Asia.  I look out across the Lobesa valley below the campus and see the perfect mosaic of lush rice paddies as a reflection of my mind’s intricate puzzle of memories: tightly woven, soggy, well worked, and still growing into something highly nutritious that will take months to digest.

Going for the Gho

“Please come in, Pema!” The hostel caretaker swings my door open, takes one glance at me where I stand in  in the middle of the room, and erupts in giggles. I face her in my underwear and knee-length socks, while gripping the outer edges of an over-sized and brightly-colored garment, similar to a bathrobe, held open around my body. A bathrobe with very long sleeves and a liner. I have called Pema to my room at the college’s Guest house to help me put on my new Gho.

“Pema, it’s not funny, it’s serious. There’s no way I can do this on my own!” She giggles some more, and approaches me with both hands outstretched. Deftly grabbing one long edge of the huge garment and aligning it to the right seam under my armpit, she looks down to my feet, and hikes the material upward.

“You cannot do dis, Sarr?” I give her a cold stare, and she laughs, while aligning the other long edge, then hoisting them both up high along my sides. I shake my head and ponder the sheer volume of this impossibly awkward garment. Pema is like any other Bhutanese woman, who has been helping first her father, then her husband, then her son at donning their ghos. Pema is in her early 2o’s with black hair, flashing brown eyes, and a quick smile. She has a four-year old son, and is separated from her husband, a member of the Royal Guard. When her caretaking duties require her to spend an entire day at the Guest house, she becomes gloomy with boredom. On one occasion I saw her reading a book, which is a very rare activity for any adult outside of a school in Bhutan.

The Gho was first introduced to Bhutan by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 1600’s with the aim of giving the Bhutanese a unique identity. It seems to have worked well. It’s now compulsory for all males in any official capacity that doesn’t involve hard labor. I’ve decided that after nearly five months in the country, I should make the effort to respect local custom and dress like every other male at the college, but putting it on by myself is beyond me.

I wouldn’t have a problem wearing a skirt or a bathrobe to work every day, but this costume seems to be an impossible amalgamation of both. One must deftly manipulate this mega-bathrobe to form a knee-length skirt that sports a large front pocket above the waist, and a perfect rear pleat, held in place by a nine-ft. long  sash (the kira) and a short side-knotted tie. It’s worn with an upper-body liner (the tego) 10-inch long white cotton sleeves that precludes the effort of having to wash the entire garment every few weeks. The sleeves are folded over the forearm nearly up to the elbow, giving the gho a distinctly elegant and formal look. I know I’m not alone in the challenge of putting the thing on; everyone I ask tells me that a large majority of all married men need the help of their wives to get theirs fitted properly. That makes me feel just a tad less incompetent, but not at the moment.

Pema stands behind me and tells me to hold one half of a pleat in place while she jams her hand into the other one. I feel foolish and helpless, but there’s no choice, I can’t do this alone. A month later I will learn that overweight guys always have a tougher time with their ghos, because they can’t reach the far lower corner of their backs from behind with the opposite arm. One must be capable of a serious brachial contortion in this exercise, and a wider body forces that arm into a painfully long backward stretch. While the back the of hand is in position, the elbow needs to be compressed against the top of the opposite hip to hold the other pleat in place. Some guys do better with a wall mirror. For me, a mirror wouldn’t be of much help.

Pema finishes the 5-minute task by securing the 4″ wide kira with three tight wraps around my waist. Suddenly, without a word, she’s out the door. I sense that this act of dressing a man carries some pain for her, as she’s less than 25 and already a single mom. She probably went through this exercise almost a thousand times before she and her husband separated.

A moment later, at the College administration building I am  immediately greeted with “Sarr, you are in gho! You look so smaht today, Sarr!”

Five people compliment me on my good looks in the Gho, one claiming that I “look like Dasho !”.  This term is roughly the equivalent in status to that of a British Knight. That’s a bit of stretch, but  there’s no denying that the desired effect of proper fitting in has been achieved. The kira around my waist is so tight that within three hours of being dressed this way, I’m anxious to doff the thing.

Update: For the last month and a half, I’ve been going through the same routine nearly every weekday morning with my next-door neighbor and good friend in the Guest house, Om, rather than calling Pema out of her house every day, hundreds of yards away, at 8:15 AM.   Yesterday, on my umpteenth attempt at putting it on myself and asking Om for the necessary corrections, he tells me I got it 80% right.

This is a huge milestone, but way short of the mark. Om thinks I’ll eventually figure it out, reminding me that all Bhutanese men get to practice this skill every day from the age of about three.  He’s too kind…he knows I’ll probably never master this ordeal because I’m just a bit too wide.

The gho, for me, has become a metaphor for so many of Bhutan’s cultural vagaries; something unique,  beautiful to behold, hard to understand, and harder to adopt.  All I can do is practice, and stick with my diet of red rice and vegetables.


College Life, in the slow lane

An email battle rages among the Faculty at the college. There’s been a long-standing directive for all members to conduct their own research, from both the Director and the Office of the Vice Chancellor, but only one member is engaged in anything substantive, and now it’s coming to a head. A meeting is called, with the sole agenda of “Building a Research Culture at CNR”.

The discussion is led by my officemate, orchidologist, icthyologist, herpetologist, and research cheerleader, named DB. He did his PhD in Switzerland. He’s a born scientist,  an anomaly at the college, and a rare bird in Bhutanese society. Published scientists like DB are few and far between in Bhutan for three reasons: they don’t fit into the normal culture that focuses on family first and do work only during work hours, they spend most of their time alone, and if they succeed in academia , many of them fulfill their 5-year obligation to the government and then move to the U.S. This brain drain has been tough on Bhutan, and has left our small college bereft of teaching faculty, where nine of the most highly qualified are gone for three to six years in pursuit of their PhD’s. With the exception of the beleaguered DB, none of the remaining 17 faculty are doing anything resembling research, and admittedly, some are teaching more than 12 hours a week. Now, challenged by DB and with me in a supporting role, they are making it painfully clear by their complete silence that the topic of research holds about the same appeal as rocks in their rice. It’s a non-starter. The Director and the Dean have been pushing for it for several years, encouraging everyone at every opportunity for years, but no one in this group has been inspired to act. Aside from DB, myself, the Dean, and the Director, three other faculty say a word in the meeting. The reasons are well-known to everyone, and they’ve had the same discussion before. Research is too hard; there’s no money for it, nor enough time. Finding enough relevant literature is impossible, we have no real library.  Excuses abound. The Dean asks people to form teams, so that everyone can share the work load.  The Director asks everyone to try their best and start small. Forget about publishing your project in a peer-reviewed journal, we’ll start our own journal, with or without those pesky references. The room falls silent.   DB returns to his ranting and I to badgering on the email forum. My angle is the availability and utility of online databases, making it so easy to find dozens or hundreds of pertinent references on virtually any topic. For him, doing scholarly research is a favorite hobby, and he just won a grant  to conduct Bhutan’s first-ever baseline inventory of the fish in three major river basins where huge hydropower developments may send some species to extinction before they get named into science. For me, the prospect of having six months and an extra few hundred dollars to pursue any line of inquiry I want (when I’m not helping my students with their projects) is like winning the lottery…what to do with all that time?  Recently I’ve become very intrigued by some articles I’ve read about “Sacred Groves“, completely protected areas where any kind of extraction is prohibited by local religious decree, and often where rare or endemic species can be found. I’ve heard there are many in Bhutan. Have they been mapped yet, or categorized? Does the government have a policy for managing them? With a proposal deadline approaching, I send an outline of five possible areas of inquiry on sacred groves to the Dean and then start asking around. In less than a day, after three conversations with colleagues, I get my first set of reality checks: in Bhutan, they’re not groves, as in special stands of trees in an ancient forest.  They’re every imaginable kind of natural feature that is tied to a myth, a legend,  a religious story, or some unlucky event involving real people who had once been there. They can be large rocks, cliffs, waterfalls, caves, springs, large trees, and dozens of  lakes. There are not just many of them, there are thousands of them, scattered all over the country. Special permission must be granted by a lama or some other official before visiting many of them; some of them require a ceremony with precise guidelines of behavior  that must be followed prior to, during, and after  one’s visit, or else…you get struck by lightning, you get sick, you break a leg. On my trek in October, I sat for a rest by a lake (below) with my friend Tyler and a Bhutanese colleague named Pema.  We listened to icicles falling from a ledge on the other side.  The sun was warm, and we had just completed a strenuous climb to reach this idyllic spot. We decided to have lunch.  Then suddenly Pema stood up and announced, “Let’s go, we need to go!”  He walked off abruptly, and three  minutes later, at another spot by the lake, he stopped and began to unpack his lunch. I was confused, but later, Tyler explained that Pema had been spooked by the spirits in the lake.  Sacred sites tend to feed the often superstitious Bhutanese psyche.  The more important sites have long, complicated histories that can be correctly recounted only by a few locals and religion specialists. Just a simple inventory of the sacred groves would take years.

My cool six month project just turned into a black hole, swirling with Mahayana mojo.

This is Jimilangtsho, where our Bhutanese friend got spooked by the Lake Spirits. Skip a few rocks on this one, & you'll surely pay with dire consequences.

Tiny victories & reptilian fantasies

Spring must be just around the corner…I heard my first bat squeaks on the campus last night, and the faint song of crickets tonight. A few gentle “hoots” after 2 AM have awakened me during breaks in the maniacal bark-fest conducted every night by the twelve or fourteen campus mutts.  By next week, a few flowers will be budding down along the Punatsang Chuu (river), and within a month, I think we should expect some migrating pterodactyls. You never know, this is Bhutan.

Today, Sunday, was a big day…I  fixed two things,  just small ones, but each one gave me a sublime feeling of accomplishment, to the point of near giddiness. Almost everything I brought with me from the US is impossible to find here, and therefore impossible to replace if it breaks. Take a lens cap. ANY lens cap would be out of the question.  So when the lens cap on my spotting scope broke 2 weeks ago, I was discouraged.  It was that kind with two opposing spring-loaded flanges that push out against the edges of a lens or filter, and one of these flanges had broken off.  At first it seemed hopeless, but after mulling it over about ten times, I realized it might work with the broken flange fixed in a locked position, since the opposing one works fine. It took only a few droplets of super-glue to make it right.  Whew…progress!

The next fix was for a major (and unjustifiable) purchase I made last week in Thimphu: a guy brought a sack of beautiful hand-made maple-burl bowls into the RSPN office, knowing there were chillips working there, and I was the only sucker.  Bhutanese  men can stuff it with a full meal and slip it into the pocket of their ghos, where it’s kept warm. The one I bought has a “tiger” design, with some natural striping across all the leopard spots of the wood. It was gorgeous, irresistible, and much too fragile.  The day after I bought it, one half developed a 3″ crack after I washed it in warm water.  A perfect reminder that someone in my position cannot afford a $30 dinner bowl!  The itinerant bowl-maker would be virtually impossible to find for a replacement; he is probably miles from Thimphu by now. I used an acrylic resin epoxy to seal the crack, and duct tape to hold in place. I think it will hold.

I wasn’t so lucky repairing the tiny circuit-board of the USB transmitter that worked with my new cordless mouse. Within a week of buying it, I fell asleep with my laptop on the bed; it slid onto the floor, breaking the unit apart. The circuit-board inside, the size of my pinky fingernail had been torn, and no amount of superglue can fix that. It will probably be two months before a replacement will find its way to the shop in Thimphu where I bought the mouse, if ever. Clumsiness with sophisticated electronics is heavily penalized here.

It was a hazy, cool day. I wasted six hours in my room, writing up a proposal for the creation of a serpentarium,  to be based at the college. I had dreamed this up a few days ago, and decided it was just a grand idea. Lots of free snakes,  low maintenance, new tourist attraction, educational benefits for students, good publicity for the University, and we’ve even go three amateur herpetologists at the College. I threw myself into it, downloading all kinds of great information about building and managing a serpentarium from the web, made up a budget, planned it through three phases of development over four years, yadda yadda.

The more I mapped out the requisite details, like basic snake husbandry, cage cleaning, feeding requirements, security, etc., etc., the more obvious it became that I was just wasting time. Almost nobody in Bhutan likes snakes, captive or wild. As a general rule, by American standards, Bhutanese are rather lax about maintenance (see my last post).  Animal care, as it would apply to reptiles, is almost an oxymoron in Bhutan;  just 2 years ago, a chicken starved to death right here on the campus! So the thought of someone (besides me) going to the trouble of assembling and caring for a whole collection of live snakes in nice, clean, well-lit and well-signed cages, all of it  according to western standards of reptile care,  is ludicrous. It ain’t gonna happen, not for another decade or so, there’s too little understanding of how and why to make something like this happen, and no one has the right training for it.

Update: my officemate, who is a herpetologist, thinks that I should present my proposal to the rest of the Faculty at our annual retreat next week. He thinks they may support the idea. My bet is that culturally, it will be too radical, and they’ll vote against it. I could make up some “potential revenue” figures that might convince them, but I have no idea what to expect. We’re two hours from the capital.

Tomorrow’s another big day. My Russian colleague Andrey down the hall has been terrorized by ghosts. They try to attack him almost every night, and besides, he’s heard that the building is haunted. He says they’re not nightmares, but real demons. So he went to the Director of the College for help; Dorji arranges an exorcism, a special Puja, for tomorrow.  My room, at one corner of the guest house, isn’t so distinctive. All I have is bees. They crawl inside through any number of cracks every morning around 6:30 and head for the ceiling light. They’re quite small, so they run out of gas in about an hour, then drop to the floor and walk around, hoping that I’ll step on them with my bare feet so they can sting me. No luck with my feet so far, but one of them dropped onto my head this morning and stung me on the neck instead. It’s a relatively mild sting, but word on the street says I can expect a lot more bees in another few months.

Who’s Andrey, you ask?  I don’t know where to start. I’ll start next time around. That subject is so big, it will have to weight, I mean wait. It is…he is….simply HUGE.

Why those little things matter

I got an interesting response to my last post from a Bhutanese who accused me of feeling superior to Bhutanese, and of talking down to them, based on the episode about the wall outlet in my last post. He or she complained that the problem with Americans like me is that we have had no cultural  sensitivity training.

I’m all for some sort of  cultural training for Europeans and Americans who plan to be here for a while, and it should be a prerequisite of all long-term volunteers. This is being espoused by at least one high-ranking official  I met in the Immigration Ministry.
It might help sensitize people like me to some of the quirks of Bhutanese society that are difficult to fathom at first, like the hordes of semi-feral dogs that bark all night in every town, the national addiction to chewing betelnut, the rampant littering despite signage everywhere condemning it, the stacking of dozens of miniature clay stupas called Tsa-Tsa’s onto roadside ledges, the painting of huge be-ribboned ejaculating penises on buildings, the lack of central heating in sub-freezing homes, shops, and offices everywhere. These little surprises do require some adjustment on the part of the western visitor.
But this critic has made a wrong assumption about my attitude toward the Bhutanese, assuming that I feel  superior to them. In fact, I chose to come and live here largely because I feel so comfortable with Bhutanese society and because I admire so many of the Bhutanese people I met during my first visit last year. I left the land of Gross National Overconsumption to see if I could somehow contribute to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, which is yet another conundrum of this amazing society.
Admirations aside, one of the most common complaints of my Bhutanese friends here at my College and in Thimphu is the widespread acceptance of  a pervasive lack of basic maintenance for almost everything mechanical.  American visitors are definitely not the only people who find this very frustrating. If I really felt superior to your people, why would I choose to live here for two years, without any remuneration for the first three months and then earning less than half of what I would in the US? Regarding my friends’ guide (who happens to be one of my closest friends here), one of the first comments he made to me the next day was that that it’s “real bullshit” (his own words) that an expensive hotel like the Damchen fails to deal with such simple yet important things like loose wiring in a wall outlet.
I’m very sorry to have alienated my critic with my mechanically disparaging remarks, but the fact remains that the most vociferous critics of Bhutan’s broken outlets and spewing toilets are the Bhutanese themselves, not the Americans. The average Bhutanese citizen  probably agrees with my critic in dismissing comments like mine by saying “we work with what we have”.  This attitude of accepting conditions as they are is obviously rooted in Buddhism, but on a purely intellectual level, it denies the basic technological simplicity of most of these maintenance problems (using a screwdriver to fix one loose wire in an outlet is not some higher-order skill confined to advanced countries like the US. Almost anyone in Bhutan can handle it if they want to see it fixed).
The real issue, the deeper one, as I’ve been told again and again by a growing number of educated Bhutanese, is that confronting a compatriot over a minor technical problem comes at the risk of alienating a relative of a friend or a friend of a relative, so it’s best to leave things as they are and call it good. The issue is rarely a lack of technical skill, but a pervasive abhorrence of confrontation.
So why should anybody else care about a few loose wires or leaky toilets? It all comes back to Happiness, and not just the Gross National variety; Bhutan wants happy tourists, lots of them, and a cold hotel room in January does not make them very happy.
I’m no longer a tourist here, but as long as I’m not suffering from diarrhea, I’m Very Happy. I love nearly everything about this culture, its food, all three kinds of indigenous music,  the narrow roads, the traditional archery matches, the amazing tsechus, the sheer abundance of ritual, the national devotion to the King, everyone wearing gho and kira, the mesmerizing dances, the glorious architectural paintwork, the gorgeous birds, the secretive wildlife, the 51% of the country being in protected areas…my list of favorites is pretty long, and growing every week. Now if I could just get this light to work…

Broken outlets and perfect avocados: blessings of a new home

Bhutan continues to amaze, baffle, enchant, and frustrate me, but never in the same order. I arrived at my new “job site”, the College of Natural Resources, just 2 days ago, and I’m already enjoying the change from Thimphu: milder temperatures, fewer dogs yapping at night (which is a nearly constant cacophony in Thimphu), and a better view out my window. I’m living in the College’s Guest House, essentially a dorm for visitors, most of whom stay for only a few days or weeks here; housing is extremely tight due to the proximity of an enormous hydro-electric project just downriver a few miles that employs thousands of Indian workers. I’ve already made a connection with a local hotel owner and businessman who might be able to find me more spacious digs in the village nearby, but for now, a dorm room with a private bathroom is good enough…even though there’s no toilet, just the standard Asian hole in the floor with foot pads on either side, and a smashed outlet in the wall next to my bed.
Classes don’t start for almost another month, so I’m planning to do as much exploring as possible until the 2nd week of February. This week I’ll be going to the Black-Necked Crane Center, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, the organization that I’ve been volunteering for since October. Another trip I hope to make for a week is to Royal Manas National Park, a tropical paradise with tigers, Asiatic Rhinos, hornbills, Golden Langurs and lots of other critters that can’t be seen anywhere else. I was invited personally by the Park Manager a few weeks ago, so I’m holding him to his word. Only problem is getting there; I may have to hike in for a couple of days because there’s no real road there unless you go through India, and that’s out of the question. I’ve got a bivvy tent, a spotlight, and a machete, so I’ll get there eventually.
Today I stopped in at a hotel about half an hour away (by cab) where some friends from Sheridan are staying as part of a tour I arranged for them with the same guide I used last year. They arrived 2 days ago in the capital with about 15 lbs of dirty laundry after a week of travel through India, and my guide failed to get it cleaned before they headed off with him, so I took it with me to my place and did it myself. I delivered their laundry at their hotel (to their huge relief, as could be expected) and discovered a typical quirk of almost any Bhutanese hotel at the 3 or 4-star level: a loose wire in a wall outlet that would just sporadically pass current to the single space heater in the room. Hold the plug hard against the wall, and the heater is on. Release your grip on the plug, and it’s off.
I raised hell on the spot, and passed the problem on to their guide, who thought I was going over the top, acting out.  Thinley is one of the best guides you can find here, well known for his attentiveness to his guests’ needs, and even HE didn’t get the picture:  if the guests in a four-star hotel don’t have a heated room in the middle of winter, they’re unhappy! If  the problem is as simple as a loose wire in an outlet, JUST FIX  IT!
Thinley was quite put off by my insistence on fixing the errant outlet, but called for a set of screwdrivers from the concierge. I was already out the door to catch my cab back to my place at the College, and when I called him half an hour later to apologize for my electrical intervention on behalf of his customers, he refused to pick up. I’ll see him and my friends again the day after tomorrow when we go to see the cranes together, and that will be my opportunity to explain what he undoubtedly perceived as aggressive interference in his business.
I do love Bhutan, but I am losing patience with the ubiquitous lack of basic maintenance that Bhutanese accept as an inevitability, like some immutable artifact of their unique cultural heritage. Now that I’ve seen so many  forgotten fixes or missing parts every day at every turn for the past three months, especially in electrical, digital and plumbing connections, it has become more than irksome for me; it’s almost an obsession.  When it comes to broken fixtures or leaking fittings, most visitors are willing to fore-go and forgive. “They’re doing their best, it’s all so new to them” seems to be the current apologist view.  Now that I’m a resident for at least a year, these little fragments of technological imperfection, like the missing toilet paper in every bathroom, or the washing machine lacking its inlet hose in my dorm, or the plastic bottle crusher in Thimphu that has been inoperative since it was installed a year ago due to a wiring issue, these are all emblematic of what’s holding Bhutan back from the future it so dearly wants to manifest, when all the roads are smoothly paved and all the tourists can share its mythos of Gross National Happiness. Yet everyone seems willing to accept all the broken appliances, the missing light bulbs, and especially the countless piles of trash as “the Bhutanese Way”.  Sorry, Bhutan, but these things aren’t going to move you forward. These little things are really beginning to hold you back.
I take another cab back from Punakha and meet more friendly, inquisitive Bhutanese.  Upon my return, I stop in at a hotel just below the College where, during my first visit to Bhutan last summer, I had been hosted by the Director, the Deans, and the Forestry faculty for a sumptuous luncheon; little did I know at the time that I was being interviewed for the position of Professor that I can now claim to hold. The garrulous hotel owner remembered my penchant for hot chillies from that day and invited me to stay for dinner, which I gladly accepted, having had only instant soup for lunch in my office.
Not only was the food good, the company was outstanding: a young Sicilian-American psychiatrist named Mariella and an older American couple, Richard and Carlin, all volunteering for a few months at the Thimphu hospital, all three with fascinating stories of their own.  Mariella recently met the unfortunate victim of an archery mishap whom I had happened to see at the ER ten days ago, as he was wheeled him in from an ambulance,  an arrow shaft sunk far into his skull, positioned almost exactly in the center of the forehead (he’s still alive but paralyzed on one side).  She’s also holding weekly consultations with a couple of children who lost their entire families in a horrible bus accident…one I just missed witnessing, thank God, a month ago. The badly overloaded bus rolled off an embankment and plunged hundreds of yards down a ravine….you can just imagine it. Only nine out of 37 people were killed, but the injuries were extensive. The load limit was 23. No one has gone to jail for this, but the transport company owner has paid $500 to each of the families of the deceased, and lost the contract for that particular route. I fault the media for failing to raise hell on the issue of overcrowded buses.
Back to tonight’s dinner. The hotel owner YT, who reminds me of Aaron Neville in demeanor and appearance, regaled us all with his marital history (3 wives, 4 kids) and a synopsis of all his businesses in the area (5), following a career as a forest officer. After dinner he showed me a detailed, official report from the Bhutan Tourism Council (which he couldn’t read in English) that had ranked his hotel at 2 stars, so I walked him through the report to explain his facilities’ so-called deficiencies. All the place really needs is an internet connection on a guest computer, a proper reception area, and laundry bags in the rooms. My suspicion is that the assessment team wanted to force him to invest in an internet connection, which is the only important amenity that he lacks. As I left, YT offered me a rare and precious gift: a fresh avocado from his own garden. It was the biggest & most perfect one I’ve seen in Bhutan. Needless to say, this prize found its way down my gullet with utter bliss the moment I returned to my room, escorted by imported Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar from the capital. In moments like this, I love it here. I’ve forgotten all about the broken outlets.
Thanks to YT’s generosity and the hotel’s proximity to the College, I’ll be working with him on a regular basis to meet and exceed the required upgrades, which are in fact related to one of the college courses I have to teach this year: ecotourism development. Once we’re done with the upgrades he needs for a 3-star rating, plus the ones that I’ll push (such as a hot stone bath, horseback rides, wireless internet, guided nature hikes and guacamole at the bar) he’ll be turning people away in no time.

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