My time in Bhutan is shrouded in a fog of mystery. Six months after having departed, I am still processing; the richness of the experience may guarantee a lifetime of processing ahead. There is much still to be learned and understood. The fog over these is both figurative and literal.
Acclimating to Bhutanese life required unlearning culturally-irrelevant habits and behaviors and relearning local ways, even in the most mundane tasks. Grocery shopping was initially a challenge because prices for everything must be haggled over and goods are measured in KGs rather than ready parcels. I had no idea how many KGs of rice I could eat! Asking directions was also tricky and surprising at first: Binary questions are always answered with what the respondent believes to be the most polite. From a hearty “Yes, madam!” to “Maybe tomorrow, Madam!” the cultural bent is to please rather than expose your ignorance, even if it needs exposing. Finally teaching university students was a rather large hurdle, though not insurmountable; hierarchy prevails throughout the society and teachers are revered as the fillers of empty vessels.
Quite literally the weather is changeable and all extremes: 1 day could be full to bursting with Carolina blue skies, cotton ball cumulus clouds, the sky glowing like the radiant face of His Eminence Namkhai Nyingpo as he rides rays of sunshine from Tibet to Bumthang with Guru Rinpoche’s teachings fresh in his heart, and all of it framed by emerald and jade mountain peaks, capped with the slightest sliver of winter’s last snows, the lower ranges verdant and burgeoning with the bucolic, buzzing fecundity of spring.
The next day will roll in as “fog on little cat feet, as Carl Sandberg describes it, followed by wind that whips prayer flag offerings to tatters, rends corrugated iron roofing from buildings, and trees from their roots, sending both barreling over each other down the mountainsides wreaking destruction and death as they go. Then the unrelenting monsoon rains come that wear away at you with chills from the inside out, dampening not only the landscape, but also your spirits. Sometimes with the rains come Bhutan’s mythic moniker (find dragon photo) the thunder dragon. He rides through the skies, black as coal, bellowing out to be heard, to be seen, to be feared. He roars into the night rattling foundations, window panes, teeth, and awareness of one’s mortality. As the rain beats down, unabating, as the dragon thunders, the temperature drops, water freezes to hail, and the land and unsturdy structures take a beating as the heavens glaciate the ground. With the extra weight of all that water and ice, the ground slips, grass and shrubs slough off, and it all gains momentum. The mud and boulders gallop away in a cacophony of chaos, stealing chunks of road, walls, and buildings with them as the smothering sludge falls down, down, down. At least in these instances, taking cover is an option. At other times, a beautiful, idyllic day is shattered by the unexpected visitation of the very ground trembling and tilting under your feet as walls creak and crack and crumble around you, and there is no cover to be had.
These are extreme examples, but ones I have lived nonetheless. While reality is gritty, and truth beyond perception often lies somewhere in between, these are my stories of Bhutan, of living Peaks and Valleys.
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for lending this platform to share with you some of my recent experiences in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
I am Cathryn Bennett, nee Cummings. I’m an alumna of Asheboro High School, 2004, and UNC-Chapel Hill 2008.
I was also a Rotary Scholarship recipient. Thank you, Rotary. Your support at that pivotal time in my life helped shape the trajectory I am yet creating. Please know your tremendous commitment to service above self was and is a positive force in my life, which I’m certain has similarly supported many others in becoming productive citizens.
Most recently I earned a master’s of science degree, magna cum laude, in educational sciences from Vrije Universiteit Brussel. My cohort of 40 students represented 32 countries and 4 continents. It was in that kiln-like environment of positive pressure, collaboration, and reflection where I discovered my intense passion and skill for social sciences research and teaching in higher education. So naturally I moved to the Kingdom of Bhutan to pursue these interests and further skills development. There with the Royal University of Bhutan, I began my career as an education scientist, university lecturer, and in my “free” time, I volunteered English as a foreign language curriculum development and teaching.
The University of Bhutan is a slight misnomer. The structure and intended outcomes more closely resemble the community college model in the United States. My campus was Gaeddu College of Business Studies, one of 11 such geographically-distributed campuses, all of which emphasize workforce development closely aligned with regionally-disparate needs.
My teaching responsibilities included 2 courses: 1 in undergraduate research and writing, and 1 in professional skills development. Although gifted linguists, speaking 3-5 languages and a smattering of regional dialects, my students were not readily communicative in class. I’d ask a question or pose a compelling issue, but when asked to talk about them, all of my students suddenly became Ferris Bueller! The joke was lost on them, but I was undeterred. Using methods like cooperative storytelling, non-verbal communication activities, formative assessments, and ample humor, slowly they began to trust and to talk.
After the first semester my and my husbands’ reputations were sealed: we care and we listen. Once established, this student realization was formalized by the college, and we were promoted. Students began to seek us out for academic counselling, study skills support, and the occasional emergency situation, in addition to our regular teaching, research, and supervisory roles. Approaches for assistance ranged from the lither side. Some would come to us and say, “My roommate is too noisy and watching movies all the time. How can I focus?” or “The dogs bark all night close to my dorm, how can I get enough sleep to be successful?” We also encountered significantly more complex situations. One young man shared, “The depression I have battled all semester tanked my grades; I’m failing in 3 courses. My solution is suicide so I am no longer a burden to those I love.” Another said, “My family member has been arrested; I’m going to use the tuition money I saved from farming potatoes last break to bail the person out. This means I must drop out.”
Over and over again the intimated question was, “I can do no more. Can you please help me?” And our answer was yes, always yes. My husband and I helped to the extent of our skills. We scheduled on-campus study hours, organized question and answer groups, bought and distributed ear plugs, and coached students after hours with Moodle and Khan Academy. We escorted depressed, ill, or pregnant students to the hospital and advocated for them with the college’s academic board. We followed-up with them after being in hospital to ensure they were supported for success. We listened and cared.
Beyond our skills, we found those people, organizations, and NGOs which could cover the gaps. In these moments my notion and predisposition for what an educator does and is expanded significantly.
Beyond coaching and counselling, lecturing at the university, designing and conducting my own independent research, and volunteering with the Loden Foundation, Bhutan’s first registered NGO supporting entrepreneurship education and another organization as English curriculum developer, there was certainly no shortage of interesting work and questions to ponder.
Let me walk you through a day in my life there. Every day began in the kitchen. After instant coffee and fried rice with hot chillie for breakfast, it was time for a bucket bath and cleaning the floor… that is, if the squeegee held up! Sometimes a spider as big as my face would want a bath, too.
After the cardio workout that is getting properly attired in the national dress of Bhutan, we’d take a hike to work. Occasionally the sun would shine, dappling the valley view with gold; others we’d be lost in the fog. Regardless of the weather, the path was perennially narrow, muddy, and steep.
There was no heat in the college, so jackets stayed on, even in the warmer months. It was such a happy surprise if the electricity, Internet, and water were all 3 functioning. My workdays were split into thirds: 1 third for my current research work, 1 third for class prep and administrative duties of observing the junior faculty I supervised and reflecting with teaching peers about the practice of teaching, and the final third was reserved for teaching and coaching directly.
Interactive lessons were my go-to like this non-verbal communication activity called the Human Knot. The objective is to unknot into a circle without speaking, but laughter is encouraged. Unconventional solutions are also welcome! Students were supported in transferring and applying the skills developed with interactive activities to the more rigorous aspects of learning.
Lunchtime was inevitably ngaja, a rich cardamom-spiced milky black tea, and momos with ezay, cabbage and chilli-filled steamed dumplings sopped in Bhutan’s signature hot sauce.
Shopping came after work. With an array of 5 general shops, local organic produce was seasonally available and delightfully fresh. Hot chillies (on the left), onions, and potatoes were always on offer. Only sometimes fruit was available, but not all year, unless a ride to India, about 2 hours south, was possible. The town’s baker, 16, dropped out of school when she became pregnant. However, she is a sharp business woman with her eye on a degree when her daughter joins school.
The walk home was often beautiful, but always heavy with the week’s goods.
Upon arrival home, first leach removal from shoes, socks, and occasionally legs and feet was necessary. Our goofy and exceptionally loyal dogs were always waiting for us at the entry to our street in the village and would not be placated until each belly had been rubbed, each ear patted, the occasional stick thrown. Then fresh water would need to be boiled and filtered for the next day, vegetables put away, spices organized, and chillies at the ready for dinner prep!
Bhutan’s national dish is ema datsi, literally chillies and cheese, and it is served over rice. The dish is a grown up cousin to mac and cheese: buttery, rich, decidedly a comfort food, but so spicy your nose runs, eyes water, and mouth tingles with the intensity of its heat. The truly intrepid eat it with a garnish of ezay, which is a hot chillie slaw or sauce. Beer is a highly recommended accompaniment! Some chillies are dried, but I prefer to eat them!
On weekends, hikes were my favorite way to unwind. Sometimes it would be with bamboo bridges across whitewater, others nestled into sheer cliff faces high above the tree line, but regardless of where, I was always in the very best company. Sunday is for laundry washed in buckets and dried on a line and visiting the Lhakang (or temple) to pray for the well-being of all sentient beings.
Occasionally we danced, sometimes picnicked, there were many stories, holidays, dinners, plans and repairs made, reasons to celebrate, to meditate, blessings, and even visits from kings. There was new life, and babies born promising all the hopes and dreams of a life yet to be lived.
But there was also bureaucracy and bribery, waste, poverty, poor infrastructure, injustice and intractable issues of prejudice, death even.
This is not Bhutan alone, though, this is life; humanity, the best and the worst cobbled together day by day.
The good is hunched in right next to the sad, difficult, frustrating, and disappointing parts, too.
This scene is cheerful, for example, with the colorful flowers and shared conviviality. In the background, though, lurks experiences of hunger, poverty, racism, work choices determined by gender, caste, skin color, and religion, malnourishment, and stunted growth. And yet these women, and their beautiful clever children laugh. They are my joyful friends who sweep the college floors, shoo out wayward dogs, and wash the toilets, working until their thin legs and backs are marred by constant bending and laboring.
Although I left Bhutan and my good job at the university this year, I have been fruitlessly applying for work and volunteer positions here in Asheboro, throughout North Carolina, and elsewhere in the U.S. for more than a year.
Earlier this week, though, I made a positive contact that may enable me to work with refugees in Greensboro, many of whom are Nepali and Bhutanese stripped of their homes based on a murky and contentious governmental claim of inadequate proof of citizenship. Will it turn into something fruitful and productive? I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow, Madam.
I often talk with foreign friends still working in Bhutan and some who, like I, have recently returned to their home countries. Our reflections mirror each other’s. We refer to the unimaginable hospitality and warmth of our Bhutanese friends contrasted with the confounding and slow procedures to complete any official work like taxes, identification, permits, etc, unless you pay a bribe that is; about the abundantly positive aspects of socialized healthcare and education for overall wellbeing and also the injustice of those things being unavailable to those without proper paperwork; we talk about culture shock and reverse culture shock; we cherish our rediscovery of modern plumbing, precious new memories with family and friends, and sampling missed local delicacies such as collard greens and corn bread, and yet we yearn for a conversational pace that’s a bit slower with room for pondering before speaking, for steaming chai on a damp monsoon day, for the simple sincerity in the faces of students who love us and whom we cherish, for work that is fulfilling and pays a living wage. We’ve come to acknowledge the parallel between the extremes of living and the landscape itself. Our experience of Bhutan IS Bhutan, the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, laughter and frustrations, Peaks and Valleys.
I was jerked out of this self-indulgent reverie in August of this year, sitting next to my grandfather as he withered and eased into the next life after deciding he was too tired to continue with dialysis treatments. I was fighting back rage at the vagaries of time when he began to tell me stories of his boyhood days in Harlan County, Kentucky, and all the mischief he got into as a “Rounder” as he referred to himself then. He was no stranger to the hardship of a life started from poverty. Even as he talked, his thirst and dry skin couldn’t be parched or soothed, his hip and pelvis were shattered from a fall resulting from poor elder care, his legs and feet were aubergine in color from bad circulation, and his mind wasn’t quite his own anymore. And yet … his own stories cracked him up, and he laughed. He BELLY laughed. Between the smile in my heart and the tears on my cheeks, all I could think of was and is Peaks and Valleys.
Name same kadinchey, la.
With deepest respect and beyond the earth and the sky, thank you.