I wrote this on New Years Eve. It has taken me a while to publish it mainly due to being busy transitioning between this and that and all the other things…
We usually take the end of a year to reflect on what we have done. 2015 was so big that I am finding it easier to put my year of experiences into compartments. There is Bhutan, travel, visiting home, my professional accomplishments, love and lust, living in Sri Lanka and general self development. Many of these things over lap, this forms the whole of the experiences that have developed into my 2015.
I left Bhutan in February just a few days short of being there a year. Bhutan was an experienced that mostly changed me for the better and for a short time for the worst. At the conclusion of this year I find myself at a different place to where I was when the year commenced. I am ready to put my Bhutan experience away, I am ready to only bring it out in certain conversations and situations. It doesn’t take over my mind like it did when I returned home to Australia straight after the experience, a month before I set off on another gig. Then it took over normal conversations with family and friends who were so patient and understanding with me. They knew I needed to discuss things, sometimes over and over to get them out of my head, so my life could return to a somewhat sense of my “normality”.
Leaving Bhutan wasn’t the end of my Bhutan experience, it was just a step. I now feel with the closing of the year I am able to say my journey in Bhutan is over. There could be many more chapters in my Bhutanese files, but for now I am ready to let it rest.
The perception of Bhutan and the country’s image changed over my year there. From a clear haze of mountain top blue to a haze of valley full of fog. While each is very beautiful in it’s own right understanding what really goes on in the country is an obstacle and challenge as well as a privileged journey of awakening.
When seeing the opportunity to volunteer as a special education teacher for a year in a small Bhutan community via Facebook, all my dreams had come true. There was a dream to get to Bhutan, the almost unreachable, exotic and unknown destination on a travellers itinerary. My skills matched perfectly, I was actually over qualified for the job. But I knew this and kept it in my mind that I would have to sit back and hone in on my teaching skills rather than my executive leadership skills to make this job work. This opportunity also meant I had an opportunity to escape the clockwork capitalist and corporate work world that had taken over my life over the five years I was back in Australia. The kind of life style that kills you slowly and drills your health into an irreversible deranged system of mainstream societies norms dictated by consumerism culture and mind controlling media.
Landing into Bhutan was one of the dreamiest moments in my life. Firstly the picture of the king and queen with a background of wisteria (beautiful purple flowering vine) on a giant billboard at the entrance to the airport terminal. The thrilling landing through the mountains that hugged the airstrip added to the excitement for the twelve of us who were embarking on this journey of giving our skills while evoking ourselves in a culture largely unknown. The narrow and harrowing route to touch down amongst the river and traditional houses were what first painted a picture of privilege to be in the country, they are also the last. This is the face of Bhutan that most visitors see as they embark on their experience in the “last Shangrila”.
We were whisked away to the capital for two weeks of Bhutan 101, we probably took in around 40% of it, like school children stuck in a classroom when we knew there was more to the world outside the four walls and wanted to explore. Some things like being extra polite, leaving our Australian forwardness and sarcasm behind and obeying the hierarchy system were things we should have taken more notice of. Physically we had to allow our bodies to get use to the altitude, not push ourselves at 2500 meters above sea level, walking around the block or up a set of stairs was tiring and put stress on our bodies at first.
I was outside the capital unlike my fellow country people. Being single and being one of one two foreigners in the village was hard, but also a blessing. I got to become great friends with actual Bhutanese who will always remain in my heart: Sonam and her family next door who were my surrogate family, Gyme and her three boys like my sister and nephews, and Kunzang Sir La like a wise but fun Uncle who would give me advice in the most grounded and loving way. Most of my friends in the capital weren’t so privileged, their friendships with locals were harder to come by.
The Bhutanese have an image of whom and what foreigners are through the stories and gossip they spread. Like the instructions in the tourist guides manual these are narrow minded and are prone to generalizations that do not lead to people looking for individual characteristics. In and out of my job I felt I had to defend nearly everything I did: Where you go, what you doing, what did you buy, why you do this and the ultimate block “That is not the Bhutanese way!”. Even at work I had issues dealing with peoples egos, when decisions had been made in meetings with executive and donating Ngo’s. There was always someone who would twist and change things to satisfy their intrinsic worth, even when they looked like a fool doing it.
I had to decide between who the genuine people were and who weren’t. Who were the people that wanted to be friends because they thought I had money, a way to get them to Australia or that I may leave all my belongings to them upon my departure, and those who knew the true hand of friendship. Gossip helped me with this, when I was told strange untrue stories about myself or even when I overheard people talking in front of me (with mix of Dzongkha and English) it was possible to understand simple conversations. Most days wouldn’t go without a indecent proposal from a passerby, taxi driver or other. Most men were married but lied or made up a “I am separated” story which was tripe. Thank goodness I only fell into something short with one man, which was heart breaking at one point, only because of my loneliness and need for some love.
My job, like most capacity building roles in the aid world was not what I expected. My counterpart unavailable even though she was keen. I watched other volunteers leave their roles in the country early because of this frustration. Thoughts always ran through my mind about leaving and how much money I could be earning elsewhere, but in the end I was having an experience that money could never buy, even if it was like a rollercoaster ride most days. I was lucky I had some kids I knew I was helping. Through my knowledge of disabilities and education I could see how the programs I was implementing were helping them to develop and grow. Some of these programs I knew wouldn’t be continued when I left, but they were great for the students in the meantime.
There is a huge divide in the perception of what a volunteer can do or will do. As mentioned it is suppose to be capacity building role, but many host organisations either ignore this or the concept is not explained well enough to them. Instead the volunteer is placed in a job filling in for a staff member that isn’t there. This was the case for many of us, each of us took it differently. I was lucky enough to approach the issue with an open and patient frame of mind (most of the time, ok ok well I had no choice!!!) and would find the teachers that wanted to develop their skills and work with them. Some people thought this meant that they could leave me their class while they did other work, aka drinking tea or gossiping, but through time this was squashed and people stopped taking the privilege for a ride. Some of these I worked with even for a few periods were so grateful, as were some parents that I still receive messages of thanks now nearly a year on. The principal at the school was so “generous” to release my actual counterpart for the last six days of my one year assignment and told me to “teach her everything I know”… If only I could pass on a two degrees worth of knowledge and 15 years of experience like that!
I have taken away some lifelong changes that were set in the valley where I lived. I still laugh at my changed natural rhythm of sleep, so different from the burning the candle at both ends rhythm I had in Sydney. Now, I wake up with the sun and usually go to bed about 9pm-ish now. I thank the morning bird that would land on my window will every morning and sing me its song as an alarm. There is also the satisfaction of spending time by myself instead of going out regularly like I did in Australia. This wasn’t a forced change but one that I had no choice of. The bars in the village were dominated by drunk gambling men and even though I tried to infiltrate them, it wasn’t cool to hang out in them.
Long walks seem to be a part of my everyday now. Bhutan had many places to walk to even if it was the just the local pristine river bend. Now I find myself keeping up my fitness by going the extra few kilometres nearly every day.
I quickly transitioned into another volunteer aid role after Bhutan, I now have a greater understanding that the world isn’t going to change unless the people who seem to need the change want to change this themselves and take a lead in this change. So much aid time, energy and money is thrown into development without much monitoring and evaluation, many times I have seen this happen when donating organisations pull out to let things develop for themselves for short period before coming back to check on progress. I have seen documents or success stories forged, to prove things have been working when they haven’t. It all seems to be about telling people what they want to know so they keep donating.
Recently another job, more in my field of advising came up in Bhutan. I looked at it but now I know it is time for me to have a break from development, especially volunteer roles. If I had the opportunity I would go back to visit the people I call friends, the valley where I watched the seasons change and my dogs who gave me unconditional love through the thick and thin.
At times I may seem negative about my experience in Bhutan, but in all honesty it was a life changing experience. One that is a part of the essence of my soul and one that I will carry with me forever.
Of course I couldn’t have done it without many people in the country like my Bhutan friends, fellow volunteers and other expats. They are the ones that helped me get through day to day experiences of cultural misunderstanding and other general briefing. They were there for random and not so random adventures in the cities, country side or even neighbouring countries for trips away. There was an overseas or Australian based support crew that skyed when I needed it, even if they had to listen to banter or watch tears roll down my face. The other expatriates educators in the country were amazing at putting the pieces together, together we established an understanding that it wasn’t us but the Bhutan system that was holding development back, together we were able to see through the hypocrisy, laugh and regain our focus on the kids who we educated. And of course there were the visitors who brought a piece of the real world to Bhutan, who quite literally shook my world up and made me come back to earth.
Oh and last not least, Gross National Happiness (GNH)? Well if you believe that you are gullible. It is a cleaver marketing tool. And if you ever go to Bhutan and have a tour guide be wary of the stories they tell you. Most of the stuff is learnt in guide school from a thoughtless manual and is a manufactured version of real life Bhutan. Most Bhutanese are like everyone else, they are just trying to live in a country of varying economic statues in an ever developing consumerism world. Do you really think the everyday person thinks about GNH and how it fits into their lives? Even the academics who made up that stuff find it all confusing, so yeah… GNH whatever! And don’t even ask me about the government and corruption and puppets and the monarchy….
So with the turning of the calendar year I say goodbye Bhutan Daze. I am sure I may want to write more at another point but for now my experiences are going into the memory bank where they belong. It is time to live in the now and enjoy present and future second as it passes.