2 August: Trongsa to Mongar

The Trongsa dzong was the seat of the royal family before they were still penlops, or regional rulers, before they became the royal family. The meandering building started as a hermitage (!) in 1541, with a small meditation hut built by Ngagi Wangchuk, the grandfather of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the man credited with unifying Bhutan. Ngagi Wangchuck built a meditation hut because he found the hoofprint of the horse of a protector deity. Then people gathered around him, creating a “new village” or “trongsa.” Then Zhabdrung came to power and sent an official to bring eastern Bhutan under central control, and that man (Choegyel Mingyur Tenpa) built the dzong in its current form in 1644. There are 23 separate lhakhangs or temples built into the dzong in its ramble down the hillside.

And the whole thing can vanish into the mist in a matter of minutes.

Visible from the other edge of the hotel is a more mundane source of power: the hydroelectric plant nearby.

Shortly after leaving Trongsa came the most hair-raising part of our cross-country trek.

We were in a particularly muddy patch of road when we lost traction completely and started sliding towards the edge of the cliff. Ugyen swung the wheel to the left, but the slide continued until we finally stopped (or perhaps paused) very close to the edge. Zoë, on the cliff side of the car, couldn’t see any road out her window: she was just peering down into the abyss. She and I glanced at each other in silence, eyes wide, over Jeremy’s head: he was luckily engrossed in his book. Ugyen put the truck into 4-wheel drive and tried nudging it forward. Once again, we slipped to the right—was there any ground left under our wheels? Zoë was mentally rehearsing ways for us to fling ourselves out of the truck before it plummeted over the edge. Then at last the wheels bit into more solid ground and we started clawing our way back to safety.  The underlying problem was a five-foot tall, two-level mud waterfall immediately ahead of us: we had been sliding around in the pool below.  Now the challenge was to get up over it.  James was thinking we’d all have to get out (into the mud pool) and push, but thankfully Ugyen revved the engine and with much slipping and bumping we finally made it to the top of that particular water feature.

The cliffs kept vanishing into the mist, and the mountains played peek-a-boo  most of the way to Mongar.

But when a view opens up, it’s remarkable:

We had been so long on the road that when we came to the Bumthang bypass, we opted for the shorter route, and then found, to our delight, that it was mostly paved! And then we were back on the main (unpaved, muddy) road again.

Most of the way, it seemed as if we were driving through cloudforest:

James particularly liked the prayer wheels turned by the force of falling water:

We also liked the bees…

The next pass was Thrumsingh La, with more rhododendron forests abounding (and prayer flags erected in honor of the fourth king).

The most striking feature of the day was the Namling waterfall, which we drank in (pun intended; sorry) from both sides.

Just a little further down the road was another waterfall. We took a photo to mark our 20th wedding anniversary

but Zoë’s selfie was perhaps more successful.

Or there was Jeremy’s approach…

Then, like the water, we kept descending, down, down, down the side of the mountain.

I think this is a small goemba, built into the side of the mountain.Kuri Zampa is the village marking the bottom of the valley—a descent of 3200 feet from the pass. The air is thick and moist here—as it is even in Mongar, though Mongar is significantly higher up the side of the mountains.

When we passed an archery match, we stopped to watch, mostly because Ugyen loves archery. When James took a photo, the archers did not look happy. In fact, I thought they looked as if they might use him for target practice.

We reached Mongar around 6 p.m. Ugyen wanted to push on and reach Kanglung the same night. His time estimates were more hopeful than accurate. Kanglung was another hour and a half, maybe two hours. We could eat supper and continue. As we discussed the possibility of supper, his time estimate lengthened. Maybe three hours. We would be there by 9, 9:30 p.m. James wanted to arrive in the daylight, for psychological reasons. We held firm. Lonely Planet mentioned a bakery that served pizza. We wandered, weary, through the town looking for pizza. This turned out to be bread with some onions and tomatoes on top. We returned to the hotel for supper, where the chef was willing to improvise some pasta for our young travelers. He also sent out a complimentary plate of ema datse. Hot, but not unbearable. It was a kind gesture.

1 August: Road trip (Thimphu to Trongsa)

The road to Bumthang winds above the Thimphu dzong and the surrounding rice fields, past Bhutanese on cell phones and Indian workers laboring on infrastructure projects.

After about an hour of winding road, we arrive at the misty height of Dochu La.

Its 108 chortens were built in 2005 to atone for the loss of life in a military campaign to flush Assamese militants out of southern Bhutan (or in thanks that the fourth and fifth kings both survived the campaign, depending on the source of the explanation).

Zoë loved the trees through the fog.

Jeremy lost himself in the mists around the chortens.

James was fascinated by those with whom we shared the space.

After Dochu La, the road dips through rhododendrons, passing the Royal Botanical Park. Across the gorge, we saw goembas, some of which Ugyen couldn’t identify.

At the bottom of the gorge lies the mostly modern, self-contained city of Wangdrup Phodrang, once the country’s second capital.

The dzong was found by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1638, but it caught fire in 2012 and is still being rebuilt.

We crossed the river close under the dzong, and drove into Wangdi (as it is informally known). Ugyen pulled off onto a little dirt road within the city to refuel: James was struck by the fire extinguishers the station was relying on in case of fire or explosion.

Then, as we climbed the mountains toward Pele La (the gateway to central Bhutan), the roadworks began.

Bhutan is engaged in widening its one-lane national highway, but in the short term, and in the monsoon season, this makes transportation challenging in the extreme.

I spent far too much time taking photos of the “are we going to survive this?” variety, also known as “landslide porn.”

We were also struck by the living conditions for the people working on the roads, as well as the ingenious recycling of the cans of road tar.

As James put it: “I never imagined the main road linking two of the major cities would be a single-track dirt road cut into the mountains. Add to that basic framework a host of challenging ingredients: mud, landslides, road-works (very brave guys on caterpillar diggers 80 feet up the cliff-face busy cutting away the very toehold on which their machine is resting), more mud, mist/rain, and a road surface that resembles a choppy sea.

“The trip was slow and endlessly jolting, but also remarkably beautiful with the mist smoking up through the trees, tall waterfalls, stream-driven prayer wheels, and bright prayer flags and temples in the villages we passed through.”

James enjoyed the drive more than Ugyen did. At one point, Ugyen asked what James thought of the drive and James was characteristically upbeat. James asked Ugyen what he thought, and Ugyen paused for quite a while. “Ugyen is wishing we had taken the India road,” I said, and he nodded, a little grimly. A few hours later, he was more direct. “Sir, when sir returns to Thimphu, I hope he will take the India road.”

Coming down from Pele La, we passed the Chendebji Chorten, modeled on a similar chorten in Kathmandu. Evidently, it’s the westernmost chorten of a trail of chortens built by early Buddhist missionaries.

Close to Trongsa, we joined a collection of vehicles waiting for a caterpillar digger to clear the road. We waited for over an hour as night fell. I was impressed with the way the digger simply shoved the boulders over the edge, into the rest of the landslide. (If the video will play, you can see this in action.)

[waiting on video]

We arrived in Trongsa after dark, having abandoned all hope of reaching Bumthang that night. While waiting for the road to clear, we had scouted hotel possibilities in Lonely Planet. Then, after an odd and oddly alienating passage through a checkpoint at  a bridge over the roaring river, we found ourselves searching through the dark empty streets of Trongsa for something resembling a hotel. On our way out of town, we saw a sign for one of the named hotels. Inside the reception area was a lone man with a small light who said he might have a room for us. As we agreed to take a look, the lights went out. He picked up a lantern, unperturbed either by the blackout or Jeremy’s gasp, and we followed him out the door, down the rainy street to the next door and up some stairs, muddied by our footsteps. After we agreed to take the room, effectively sight unseen, the lights came back on. We ordered supper (noodles and veg, rice and veg), which they brought to the room. Zoë and I took the dishes back later, and after one sniff of heavy mold, we decided that instead of eating breakfast in the dining room as agreed, we would like our breakfast up in the room again.

Then James discovered the views of the Trongsa dzong out of our back window.

31 July: Visas, round two.

We have the medical clearances; we have the forms from RUB. Except we’re missing a form: a request from the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. Young Ugyen Wangchuk has only been in the job a few weeks. First, he can’t find the forms. (“People take things and don’t bring them back,” he mutters, leafing through a folder that seems to be organized by date of receipt, which would defeat any effort of mine to find anything.) An older woman passing on the stairs asks whether he’s made a call. “Not yet,” he says. “I was busy all weekend with His Majesty’s visit.” Then he starts going through email on the computer. Thank goodness for a digital record.

Here are some of the forms signed and countersigned in pursuit of a work visa (I didn’t manage to take photos of all the forms):

I’m intrigued by the residual history marked by the required vow not to speak against the Immigration Act (there’s a personal version of this same form that I had to sign, so both the sponsoring organization and the visa grantee have to make this commitment).

Once I’m through, we move onto the question of dependents. James needs a dependent card, and of course, we get to go around the question of Zoë’s visa a second time. We go from the Immigration office to RUB for what seems like the umpteenth time. It turns out that what we need is a handwritten note from the Home Minister in reply to a letter from the Vice Chancellor.

“As discussed please issue given the importance of Professor Bolton joining the Yonphula College. We have to make an exception as she will not come in case her daughter is unable to act [sic] visa.”

We carry that handwritten note down to the Immigration Office. James has to come in and have his photo taken. Then we have to pay for the visas and for entry permits.

“The visa applications specify multiple entry visas,” the head officer explains. “But that’s quite expensive: 24,000 ngultrum per person.” Given that we can only take out 10,000 ngultrum at a time (and that’s $150, we decide to stick with a single entry permit for the moment. Off we go to a cash machine, then to a different desk to make the payment and get a receipt, then back to the head officer, then out to a different counter for the actual visa stamps.

If we decide to add entry permits (which we will have to do), then we have to find out how to do this through the central office so that there is an up-to-date record. In the meantime, the single-entry permit determines our path for the trip to Kanglung: we will take the Bumthang road and hope for decent road conditions. Going through India would burn through our one entry permit.

By the time we have our work permit, dependent card, and visas in hand, it is too late to reach Bumthang before nightfall. “Hurray!” says Jeremy. Time for lunch at Ambient. Jigme is there: after some conversation, he and Jeremy start watching Wonder Woman. Both Jigme and his dad are wearing the Bhutanese version of “Meatless Monday” tshirts. James and I end up chatting over lunch with Hendrik Visser, a Dutch man who has started the first residential care facility for dogs in Bhutan. He and his partner have treated dogs associated with the royal family and other high-level personages, which is how they have remained in Bhutan for 16 years, despite the fact that they draw attention to problems others might wish to ignore. He gives us his card in case we see a dog in need in Kanglung. “There are always people traveling west: you could have them bring such a dog to us.”

We try to visit the painting school, but it is closed for the afternoon. We do succeed in visiting the heritage museum, where photos are permitted outside but not inside. (With a work permit, we are locals for the purposes of museum entry, which means we pay 10 ngultrum instead of 200.)

The construction of walls is broken down into bamboo and earthen plaster construction;

external walls made of pounded earth are also represented here.

I think this is a space designed to burn incense.

The building itself was fascinating: the ground floor would have served as a stable for cattle and other animals. Dried leaves would be used as bedding: combined with manure, those leaves would become compost for the fields. The first floor served as a kind of storeroom, with enormous pots to hold rice or other goods. Weaving materials were kept in a side room of this first floor. With shutters closed, the space was very dark. The second floor (third floor in American terms) was divided into 1) a kitchen with a massive hearth (most of the family would sleep here, near the fire; 2) a spacious but largely empty room; and 3) an altar room, with thangkas and a large, ornate piece of furniture holding offering bowls and other religious objects. Here is a version of that kind of furniture, this version made by Ugyen Wangdi’s father and installed in the Director’s office at Yonphula.

Off this altar room was a smaller “throne room” in the modern slang sense: a toilet room, with a wooden cabinet that special visitors might use (it would then have to be carried out of the house and emptied—a very labor-intensive way of marking the importance of special guests).

We have one more night in Thimphu and set off the next morning. Once again, tiny Bhutanese women are carrying our heavy bags and fending off our attempts to take care of them ourselves. “It is our duty!” they tell us. “We have to train our children!” we reply. They win. Jigme gives James his phone number and tells him to call in six days: Jigme has loaned his phone to a friend in need and won’t have it back for another six days. He and his wife live in Trashigang and may be east sometime in August. We will hope to reconnect with them there.

30 July: Prayers for safe travel

On Sunday, Ugyen insisted that we visit the temple Dechenphu Lakhang, to make prayers and offerings for a safe voyage.

On the drive up, Ugyen showed us the school where he had once studied and lived. When we arrived, he vanished briefly, in the direction of what looked like a group of people selling refreshments down on the left side of the road, before the entry to the parking lot. He returned with a plastic bag containing a bottle labeled “whisky” and some foodstuffs. I asked if we should have something for offerings, and he shook his head. “This is better,” he said.

The temple is guarded by sleepy dogs (of course).

Dechenphu Lakhang now has a sign saying that foreigners are not to enter, but Ugyen went and spoke with someone inside and got permission for us to come into the courtyard and also an upper, side temple.

We drank some of the holy water from the spring.

Then we waited in the courtyard while Ugyen vanished into the main building.

After a while Ugyen came and found us and led us to the side temple.

A priest was inside, watching while Ugyen tried to explain to us some of the many golden figures inside. Jeremy and I did some prostrations, following Ugyen’s model, and I left a small offering (about which I later felt embarrassed, for not having given more). Jeremy and I spun the prayer wheel.

We went back to Ambient for dinner, which gave Jeremy an opportunity to connect with young Jigme, who introduced him to Minecraft. That’s why we came half-way around the world, right? So that Jeremy could learn about Minecraft….

Back at the resort, James cut Jeremy’s hair.

29 July: Law school inauguration, traditional paper-making, Buddha point

Our third full day in the country began with the inauguration of the new law school, right at the side of the resort. There were reports of the Queen mother attending, as well as the Princess (the current King’s sister). We dressed up, just to partake in the sense of ceremony.

The resort staff were delighted that we would have the opportunity to see their royalty—they were also delighted to help us get dressed in traditional clothing. It was a task requiring many hands!

The law students milled around nervously, and then lined up in their finery.

Mark was excited to be participating, too: he pointed out the sand mandalas lining the path to the inauguration venue.

Once the road was clear, we went out with Ugyen for a day of sightseeing. First we went to an expat café, Ambient, where there was something to please every palate in the family.

 

Across the street, below, was a prayer wheel that Jeremy loved to spin.

I liked watching the trash truck go by: instead of people on the truck gathering trash, people in the buildings bring their trash out as the truck goes by. (But what if you’re not present at the right moment, I wonder?)

James prefers looking at storefronts, including displays of darts (another national pastime).

After brunch, we went to a traditional paper-making shop, where the paper steaming on the drying racks seemed to replicate the steaminess of the climate outside, oscillating between clouds and misty rain.

First, the bark of the daphne bush is soaked and stripped; then it is boiled into pulp.

The pulp is put into tanks of water and then a frame is dipped into the tank, raised with pulp, and the excess water is shaken out (and left to drip off, briefly).

Then the sheet of damp pulp is removed from its bamboo frame and put onto a pile in the middle of the room.

Another man picks up the top sheets and sets them to dry on a series of drying easels.

Once they steam dry, they are set onto another pile and replaced by other drying sheets.

Weights help the sheets remain flat.

In another room, women (and one male supervisor) make paper goods, such as bags, envelopes, boxes.

The shop (not pictured here) is full of lovely things that don’t seem wise to buy as we head off into two more months of heavy monsoon rains.

Then, despite my fatigue and reluctance, Ugyen took us off to Buddha Point, which was quite amazing (and despite what I thought I had read on various travel blogs, involved no hiking).

The figure of the Buddha sits on top of an ornate temple; the body contains thousands of smaller Buddhas (with room for many more).

From the base of the statue, one looks down across the surrounding valleys.

The statue  is surrounded by dozens of gold statues of dakinis (Sanskrit) or energetic beings in female form, evocative of the movement of energy in space. In the Dzogchen practice of the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Buddhism, dakinis have three meanings: “As the Base, the ḍākinīs are the energies of life; as the Path, they are the activities of advanced practitioners; as the Fruit, they are the actionless activities of realized Masters.”

We came back early, to find the staff all excited about a visit by the fourth king. He has been in retreat for many years, so a sighting is very rare. We invited them into our room to peer down at the king from the balcony, but only Ugyen would come. The fourth king spoke to the student in a mix of English and Dzongkha. In English, he was urging them on to work hard for the sake of the nation. “The handsomest man in Bhutan,” the proprietor of the resort told us later. “After 30 years, I was able to meet him.” Clearly a red-letter day.

Afterwars, as Zoë and I were resting again, James called Pema and Wangda, our local contacts from former Fulbrighter Julia Karets. Only then did we realize that they live in Paro and we should have called them upon landing. Somehow from Shelly Daly’s blog, we developed the impression that they now lived in Thimphu. Pema was lovely and warm over the phone: James asked advice about getting Zoë connected with volunteer work in schools, and how he might go about renting a car in Kanglung. Pema gave him the number of her brother, who lives in Kanglung, and talked with her parents about possible rental cars.

28 July: medical certificates

We began the day at the RUB office, filling out paperwork to take to the immigration office a little way away. Official forms in Bhutan require “legal stamps” which you affix to the paper; you then write your signature across the stamp. Somehow, this feels like a high-pressure signing event! Ugyen and I went in to do the paperwork, leaving James, Zoë and Jeremy in the truck. (At least they had a nice sunflower to look at.)

Then we went off to the immigration office, to find out whether we could get our “medical certificates” completed at the Indian hospital, which might be faster than waiting for the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital. No joy. The system enforces patience: the immigration office closes at 4 p.m., which is when the medical certificate office opens. But first, we drive back to RUB for other missing forms.

Ugyen was sure there must be a way to circumvent this systemic delay, so we spent most of the day at the hospital, just above the memorial chorten.

Parking was a challenge, which made leaving for lunch a little complicated, and Jeremy’s response to momos was contemplative at best,

but at least we had a good view of the end of a five-day teaching by the memorial chorten.

Umbrellas give some protection from the sun as the crowd gathers.

 

Blessings dispensed through the crowd at the end of the teaching.

Ugyen found someone who knew someone who knew a nurse who might sign a medical certificate on the side, but she thought we were tourists—when she discovered we were staying for a year, she decided the risks of going outside the system were too high (both for her and for us). “You have to do ‘intake,”’ she said. “Foreigners get altitude sickness very often. It is better for you to have a proper intake.” That seemed reasonable to me. In the end, though, “intake” was less than perfunctory.

There’s a big queue when the office opens at 4 (we queued starting about 3:10), mostly because people also need health certificates for driving licenses and domestic work permits. Luckily Zoë and Jeremy had cat’s cradle to amuse them.

First you go to a window to pay the fee, then you go queue again at a door behind which a doctor waits. You trade a white form for a pink form.

“Do you have blood pressure, ma’am?” the doctor asks.

“No,” I reply, while thinking “I hope I have some…”

“OK.” His assistant stamps my form. The doctor did take James’s blood pressure which was fine (115/75), though I had thought it would be high. Then the doctor ruffled Jeremy’s hair, stamped his form and Zoë’s, and we were done. Everyone loves Jeremy.

On the way back to the resort, we stopped at the weekend fruit and vegetable market, where you can buy banana blossoms and other specialty items. Ripe tomatoes and apples were a little harder to find, much to our bemusement.

On the road up to the resort, we spotted two American chilips (foreigners) walking down the road. “Wait, wait!” I said to Ugyen and slipped out of the car. “Hello?” I said, running down the road toward the foreigners. They turned and looked at me, a little puzzled. “Are you Fulbrighters?” I asked. “Yes,” they answered. “So am I!” I said, perhaps to no one’s interest but my own.

Mark and David are here as Fulbright specialists, just for three weeks (though they’re staying longer, and coming back in the spring). The rest of the family came to meet them. David said, “I think I saw you the other day, having lunch.  I would have said ‘Hi,’ but I saw you were eating and your guide was not, and I thought, “Oh, they’re that kind of people.” Ouch.

27 July: Anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching

Thursday turned out to be a holiday—the day marking the Buddha’s first teaching, on the Four Noble Truths—an auspicious day to begin our time in Bhutan, but not a day on which one could acquire a visa.

The Four Noble Truths are

1) the truth of suffering (from birth, aging, illness death; union with the displeasing, separation from what pleases; not getting what one wants)

2) the origin of suffering is craving

3) the cessation of suffering comes from freedom from craving

4) the way leading to the cessation of suffering is the eight-fold path:

right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

Grappling with that should last us a year and more. Maybe if I put the Truths up on the wall, it will help Jeremy deal with his many sufferings.

We began and ended the day at the private temple near the resort. Jigme (the young night manager) took us over to the temple, partly to see the view down the valley over Thimphu.

Thimphu dzong with the city beyond
The law courts with their red roofs

We spun the prayer wheels and then, because it was a private temple, we were invited inside and even encouraged to take photographs (not usually permitted inside of Bhutanese shrines).

The figures in the temple included the Buddha (of course):

plus a local protector deity:

the Zhabdrung, often credited with unifying Bhutan (attribution a little uncertain):

and a kind of patron saint for the temple (again, a little uncertain: I should have written this up at the time).

 

By the time we got back from the temple, Ugyen was waiting for us with the truck. He drove us first to the archery field, where we watched teams competing across such a long field I could barely see the target, much less the landing of the arrows.

Then we drove into central Thimphu, to meet with Jigme and his mom, who helped us get ourselves some proper Bhutanese clothing.

Putting a gho on involves smoothing miles of fabric over a man or boy’s butt: this had Jeremy giggling and squirming all over the floor of the shop.

  

Looking at me trying on a kira had Jigme’s mom muttering something. Jigme translated: “She says you look like you’re crossing a river.” (The highwaters of my adolescence return…)

Zoë looked beautiful. Jigme’s mom said she should wear her hair in a bun. Bhutanese hair styles are far more contained than our normal effect.

Jeremy’s hair must be quivering in anticipation.

We met up with the rest of Jigme’s family for lunch at the Zone. Ugyen stayed with us the whole day, but the dynamic was a little awkward. He didn’t eat lunch, though Jigme’s dad asked what he would eat—and he didn’t sit at the table with us. This made James in particular very uncomfortable. It’s hard to know how to negotiate class relations when you’re a foreigner and you don’t know all the presumptions operating under the surface. Myself, I was fully caught up in the conversation. Everyone in Jigme’s family was incredibly engaging and charming.

After lunch, we did a little more shopping. Thinley, Jigme’s dad, went off and got me a SIM card so that we had basic communication capabilities. (Shelly had said we would need a letter from RUB requesting Bhutan Telecom to give us non-tourist SIM cards, but Thinley did an end run around that particular branch of bureaucracy.)

We stopped in another shop (a Tibetan-run store, where Jigme’s Tibetan mom negotiated another discount for us) to get brooches to hold our tegus closed (Tegus are the jackets women wear above the half-kiras). Jigme pointed out the book of phallus images, so for Jeremy, this was the “penis store” for the rest of our time in Thimphu. Jigme also took us to a bookstore where we managed to score some Hardy Boys books for Jeremy (which unfortunately he inhaled while we were still in Thimphu) and some Murakami for Zoë (who saved them, understanding better what a year without books might be like).

By mid-afternoon, despite the architecture and the charm of the human traffic light in Thimphu, we were ready to head back to the resort. Zoë and I rested while James took Jeremy back over to the celebration at the temple.

The community there shared fruit and photos. I came over just in time to talk with the head priest, after James had done the harder work of connecting with the community. Then Jeremy wanted to go rest so I took him back to the hotel, past the scary dogs; James stayed to watch the community dancing.

  

The community supporting this temple is mostly composed of people who have come from a town in the east to find work in Thimphu—but they remain a tight-knit group defined by their place of origin.

26 July: Paro, Thimphu, Taba

We drove out to the airport in the relative comfort of two large taxis, arriving some 30 minutes before the ticket counter opened. The airport staff were a bit bemused by all our bags and packages—and they said that the iPads could not go in checked bags, which blew our hand luggage allowance. In the end, despite all of James’s repacking, this worried them not at all.

Jeremy was still keeping himself occupied with knot-tying, luckily, since there was a long wait for the flight itself. We all sat on the left side, hoping for a glimpse of the Himalayas. Zoë managed to catch a few shots of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

Then we were coming down, hugging the hills, angling down for an approach through the middle of the mountains. It felt as if you could reach out and touch the cattle on the hillsides. (No photos because of a strict ban on electronic devices.)

I was startled by how few buildings we saw coming in, and how ubiquitous the mountains were. A moment of truth: I really have no idea about this country where I have brought my family to live for a year.

Could this be the most stately airport building in the world?

As we were picking up our luggage, we met a man who introduced himself (we thought) as the previous Minister of the Environment—though James and I may have misunderstood. “Everyone knows everyone here,” he told us. “As soon as you get to Kanglung, everyone will know you too.” As we wheeled our trolleys through the customs office, I felt obliged to say that I had a pack of iPads as part of my research grant. “Next time, you should get the College to write a letter about such things. There are duties to be paid,” the official grumbled, while waving me through nonetheless. Our new acquaintance kept up a running monologue in Dzongkha, clearly about our family and the new program at Yonphula, which I think eased our path through.

But then we were out of the airport, meeting Ugyen, the driver sent from Sherubtse to meet us, and he was asking whether we had gotten out money. Oops. I talked my way back into the airport apologetically, and found a cash machine that let me take out 10,000 ngultrum (about $150). Someone had left a Visa cash card sitting on the machine, and I asked two men talking nearby what I should do with it. “Just leave it there,” they said, “so whoever left it can come back and find it.” Bhutanese culture in action, perhaps: it’s hard to imagine another airport where that would be the right thing to do.

The road from Paro to Thimphu runs beside the river—in fact, we are finding many roads following the path cut by rivers through the mountains here. Ugyen stopped the truck briefly and James took the opportunity to dig something out of one of our bags. The bags had all been closed with plastic ties by DrukAir, so James asked a passerby if he had a penknife James could borrow:

OK, whatever works.

Here is our first, rather blurry, Bhutanese monkey:

The entry to Thimphu:

Shelly Daly had said that we didn’t need to book a hotel in advance—the College driver would know of a good place to stay and might even have booked a place for us. This turned out not to be true. Ugyen got on the phone to friends. I asked for a quiet place (since some hotel reviews I had seen had complained about noise in the center of town). Ugyen said he had found a quiet place—it turned out to be a resort about 20-30 minutes outside of Thimphu, up the hillside in Taba. I was intrigued to see a sign for the new law school just below the resort. The first few nights we seemed to be the only ones in the hotel: quiet indeed. But we didn’t arrive until around 6 p.m., and dinner was late and a little unadorned. We were happy to fall into bed at the end of it: Jeremy sleeping in a king-sized bed with James and me, and Zoë on a small single mattress squeezed in at the side.

25 July: Delhi, day 2

The next morning, James and I went to meet with JP and First Consul Officer Matthew Asada. I forgot to bring my passport. Don’t forget your passport when going to US buildings abroad! (We left Jeremy and Zoë sleeping in a darkened room, which, combined with my ongoing sluggishness, didn’t help my organizational abilities.) When I asked about expectations from their end, they both emphasized the importance of self-reliance. “There aren’t many places left where you can go as a Fulbrighter or a Peace Corps volunteer and really vanish off the grid,” said Matthew. “Bhutan is off the grid.” JP stressed the importance of adaptability but also urged us to make sure we could meet our basic needs. “Let us know early rather than late of any difficulties so that we can help,” he said. When I asked for specifics, he mentioned housing: “You have to have a housing arrangement that works for you,” he said, “bearing in mind that they will probably have gone to some effort and will be offering you the best they can.” Medical needs were another issue to stay on top of. JP mentioned that there were another two Fulbrighters associated with the new law school (one is German by birth, a first-generation American, with some complicated backstory) as well as Bill Long, the regional Fulbright research scholar. JP and Matthew asked for responsiveness—quick replies to emails—but otherwise seemed mostly concerned that we should have a good experience. I think public diplomacy works on the basis of mutual happiness and local concern for each other’s well-being.

The view from the hotel
James struggles with carry-on weights

In the afternoon, I left the others resting (and James repacking to try to meet DrukAir’s carry on weight limitations) and walked through the rain to meet with Neeraj Goswami, who organizes the regional travel grant (“most people want to go to Sri Lanka,” he said, anticipating my own desire) and the regional Fulbright conference (in February or May of each year—last year in Kolkata, this year probably back in Delhi). “I have learned so much about my own country from Fulbrighters,” he said. “They are interested in so many things I never knew about my own land.”

Rush hour commuters

At dinner, we were flagged down by the hotel’s food and beverage manager and whisked up to a restaurant on the hotel’s third floor. “Not expensive!” he promised us. “The best pasta anywhere!” We were almost the only people in the restaurant, and (despite my suspicions of gnocchi), the food was indeed delicious. At the manager’s request, the waiter played an instrumental cover of a song that was hauntingly familiar—we eventually placed it as my mom’s theme song, “Can you feel the love tonight?” It felt like a blessing from her on our expedition.

24 July: Delhi

Arrival in Delhi was predictably a little fraught. Delhi itself has changed dramatically since James was there in the 1980s and I was there in the 1990s: I kept telling Jeremy and Zoë about looking out through a glass door at an unending sea of faces and being too scared to walk through the door at 2 a.m.—until I decided to trust the man signaling to me that he was there (on Lobsang’s behalf) to pick me up. This time, the airport was much more like any major airport, with traffic swarming by. James tried to organize a taxi, but the plan faltered when the minivan was (almost) too small to hold us and all our stuff, and five men glommed on to helping move the loaded trolleys to the van, and then all wanted tips. James objected, but to little effect; in the end, we took Zoë’s small stash of $20 to pay them. I wish we had a photo of that overloaded van, with Jeremy on my lap and James and Zoë sharing the front passenger seat.

That night, I emailed JP to see about meeting up the next day. He rang at 9 a.m. the next morning, waking me from a deep sleep, and then said he would call back. We all kept sleeping until he called again around noon, and suggested that we go and visit citizen services at the US Embassy between 2 and 4 p.m. This meant a taxi ride, a long wait outside the embassy for an escort through the security system (plus dropping off cell phones at a stand across the road), more of a wait inside, and then a conversation through a glass barrier with a U.S. embassy staff member who didn’t seem to understand what we were doing there. “We mostly just try to disabuse people of their fantasies about support for U.S. citizens abroad,” she said. “We aren’t going to send the in Marines. Don’t do anything illegal. Really don’t do anything illegal.” Uh, we weren’t planning on it… Another taxi ride back to the hotel. Traffic in Delhi really moves on the basis of vehicles operating as an extension of the driver’s body: there is a constant jostling with little more than an inch to spare—but remarkably few accidents in our (limited) experience.

In the early evening, Jeremy, Zoë and I checked out the pool—or rather, the seating by the pool—while James napped. Does life get any more luxurious than this?

Then we had dinner in the hotel restaurant: the most luscious saag paneer any of us had ever had. The hotel was quite lovely in many ways, but the airconditioning vent was growing black mold, and even when I asked them to come and clean it, we could smell mold circulating through the room. Ah! Humidity. This was perhaps an omen of things to come.

23 July: Schiphol

The Schipol airport almost made up for the sleepless night. We were entranced by the clock that looks as if it has a cleaner inside, and Jeremy made great use of the science play area.

There was a massive stuffed dog for sleepy times, and a piano that Jeremy also enjoyed.

Then it was time to get onto the next flight…

22 July: Departure

We left the house at about 1 p.m. taking a limo up to Newark Airport for a 6 p.m. flight to Amsterdam, with a three-hour layover in Schiphol before continuing on to Delhi.

Exhibit A: the start of the flight.

Exhibit B: the next morning.

Preparations

Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown, even as a seed;
Who that shall point as with a wand and say,
This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain?
–Wordsworth, Two-Part Prelude

This trip to Bhutan could be said to start at so many different points: my older brother’s first interest in Tibetan Buddhism, which led to Lobsang Ngudup becoming part of our family; my daughter’s seventh grade teacher firing her imagination with the idea of “gross national happiness;” and so on. Certainly, the voyage began long before we got on the plane. But let’s imagine the story starts with the pre-departure orientation in Washington DC.

“Fulbright?” says Jeremy. “Sign me up!”

At the orientation, we had a chance to meet Bill Long, a research Fulbrighter splitting his time between India and Bhutan. We also had the pleasure of meeting some of the unsung heroes of the Fulbright program: Catherine Matto and Richard Harris of IIE and Theresa Mastrangelo of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

After the orientation, there were some less pleasing preparations to complete:

 
Notice the virulent color of the rabies shots (3 each). We also had vaccines for Japanese encephalitis (2 each) and typhoid and James had to have Hepatitis B (the rest of us were already covered). We called the bandaid “the pink badge of courage.”

I’m going to be teaching at a new master’s program in English literature at Yonphula in eastern Bhutan, and the Dean had had trouble acquiring all of the relevant books. So Zoë went to work scanning relevant books from the Swarthmore College library and what I’d been able to find on Amazon.

Once the iPads came, she was also the queen of set up and some installation.

Then there was the packing. I was proud of fitting a year’s wardrobe into the space of a carry-on–and then I remembered footwear… 

How on earth did we fail to take a photo of our 8 checked bags (including large digital piano) and 4 carry-ons?

It takes a village…

It takes a village to launch a Fulbright. I wanted to start this blog by thanking my village.

This is our second family Fulbright. Our year in Morocco began with a bit of a bang because of an email glitch that meant I didn’t learn that the award had been finalized until two weeks before we were due to leave the country. (We had decided to go with or without a Fulbright, with James connecting to Al Akhawayn University.) That meant that the last two weeks were consumed with last minute, high stress equipment purchases, medical clearance, and more logistics. This time, we promised ourselves, we would be organized and prepare well in advance.

News of the award arrived in early April, making us think we could keep that promise, but we failed to realize a key difference between research Fulbrights and teaching-and-research Fulbrights: in the former, you work to accomplish the plan you laid out in your proposal; in the latter, your placement may differ radically from what you thought you were signing up for. Instead of working on digital storytelling and a faculty pedagogy workshop across multiple campuses, I was being asked to help launch the first Bhutanese master’s program in English literature in the far east of the country. And there were certain logical inconsistencies in the award—such as the fact that the grant was specified as ten months, running from the beginning of August 2017 to the end of May 2018, but the spring term didn’t end until mid-June. I suggested quite strongly that the grant dates be revised, but this small change turned out to be far more complicated than I had anticipated (a taste of things to come, perhaps). So we found ourselves attending the pre-departure orientation in mid-June without being totally committed to going.

Would Jeremy be able to cope with the local school? How would he make friends? Could James make connections? Would Zoë be ok in such a remote location? Did I have the energy to pour into this new program after having burned myself out on Environmental Studies for three years? Somehow, we decided to go ahead without ever quite arriving at answers to these questions.

As a result, we found ourselves again having to rush toward a deadline—this time the deadline of an August 1st start date for the MA program, plus 7-10 days of traveling. Here are some of the people who helped us make that impossible deadline:

Marcia Brown, assistant to the provost, who wrote a letter confirming my employment and requesting an expedited passport for Jeremy, and who helped find me some additional research funding;

Tom Stephenson, provost, who came to campus from a day of working away, specifically to attest to the accuracy of my translation of my Yale PhD diploma so that it could be notarized and sent to Bhutan in support of a visa application;

David Harrison, linguist and associate provost, who tried to coach me on pronunciation and grammatical structures of Tshangla, language of the gods, as spoken in eastern Bhutan;

Ben Berger of the Lang Center for Social and Civic Responsibility who expedited procedures to get me some additional funding rapidly so that I could acquire additional digital storytelling equipment at speed;

Ashley Turner, who helped me brainstorm digital possibilities for teaching and connecting Swarthmore and Sherubtse/Yonphula and who loaned me an iPad pro so that I could practice teaching with it;

Andrew Ruether, who helped Ashley point me toward Moodle Cloud as a free version of a teaching platform (in the end, Sherubtse/Yonphula uses Moodle, so I was able to migrate my materials to their more standard platform);

Elizabeth Gonzales, who scanned over 50 books for the Yonphula program, both library books and books I had purchased for the program; and

Peggy Seiden, who not only underwrote Elizabeth’s labor, but also looked at other digital tools (such as e-granary) that might help the Yonphula program;

 

Pam Harris and Nat Anderson, who helped get my books back to my office;

Peter Schmidt and Connie Baxter, who cleared up some of the chaos of my departure;

My neighbor, Gretchen Makai, who helped me get a gyn exam at short notice so that I could get medical clearance;

Olivia Ortiz, who came to clear the garden the day before we left (and Zoë, who scanned endless books and chapters and helped prepare iPads for departure);

Hedgerow theatre and friends like the Costa-Bakers who kept Jeremy engaged and happy while the rest of us scurried around;

Kirsten and Jonathan Myers, who are fostering our dog Shula while we’re away;

Kim Schmucki, an ever-supportive friend, who helped with some of the last-minute craziness of leaving the country;

the Armon-Campobasso family and Sara and Elliot Hiebert-Burch, who stood ready (as ever) to help, despite being spread out across the continent, and who have helped welcome our tenants to the neighborhood;

Jigme and his parents, who talked with us about Bhutan, lending support and encouragement;

and the many people I am unintentionally omitting from this account. There are too many to thank—but we are nonetheless grateful for your support and assistance.