Pre-Prom, Prom, Post-Prom

The semester is nearing its end, meaning PROM NIGHT!!! After class on Friday Annie, Rigzin and I went to town because she had a container from room food that she had to return to her home. (Room food definition: Room food is always better than mess food.) So we walked to her home in Motithang. Of course we were immediately served tea and Oreos; milk’s favorite cookie just became the world’s number one biscuit. Rigzin showed us the kiras her aunt had woven and the royal objects in her house, like the queen’s crown. Turns out Baby Rigzin is royalty. And a celebrity. She also showed us a picture of her uncle with Drew Barrymore. We also got to play with her little nephew. Language isn’t a barrier when you’re pulling your eyelids back and spraying people with water.

On our way back down to town we visited the paper factory. Paper is made from the bark of the Daphne tree. The whole tree has to be cut down and the rest of the wood is generally used for burning. The bark is soaked in water to make it soft and then boiled using the wood as fuel. Then it is shredded and turned into a pulp. Then a screen is lowered into the pulp. When it’s brought back out the layer of pulp is put in a pile and pressed with a metal clamp to expel the excess water. The sheets are then hung individually on a heated metal surface to dry. The paper store is amazing. There are papers dyed with natural dyes, papers with plant leaves and flowers in them, papers splashed with water droplets making holes, paper lamps, notebooks, paper with paintings, paper on paper.

When we were finally ready to move on we went down to town. Rigzin’s class was having their class dinner that night and we were invited to join. Since we missed our own class dinner we were super excited to go to this one. Lots of fooding, drinking and karaoke. Even Sir was into it. Annie and I even got a Taylor Swift song dedicated to us. Oh the perks of being American! After the dinner we all relocated to Mojo Park. This was where I met my prom date, Pema Tshering!

Then Saturday evening rolled around and it was time for prom preparations in Dorji’s room, where we always gather. The girls were doing each other’s hair and makeup. They all knew exactly what they wanted as we have had multiple fashion shows in preparation for this night. Meanwhile I just stood there in my basketball shorts eating Maggi and drinking Sprite. I finally put on Dorji’s dress, Rigzin’s earrings, Lolo’s shoes and let some girl I didn’t know put makeup on me.

Once you arrived at the executive center, you were given a candy. There was music and lowered lights in a room but at this point people were feeling too shy for dancing. We found our friend Lhamo and went to another room of the building where they were serving rice, ezzay, pakora and tea. We went outside on a porch to eat it and I found nyigi Pema Tshering as I call him.

Then we danced to all our favorites- Hookah Bar, Hello Hunny Bunny. I can’t explain the pure excitement of having all my friends and classmates around me to the songs that best remind me of the amazing experiences I’ve had in the country.

No prom is complete without after prom. A bunch of charos piled into Pema’s and other’s cars and we drove up to Buddha Point. This was the place to go; there were tons of people just hanging out and having fun, cars were playing music, plenty of ara was passed around. It was like Dazed and Confused, jaggy styleee. Honestly, one of the most fun weekends, way more fun than my first prom. The Bhutanese know how to do it.

– Sara Wangmo and Namgay Wangchuk

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Roomate Party

On June 25th, we had a dinner party to celebrate our semester and thank our room mates for their extraordinary hospitality and putting up with us for over four months. These pictures speak for themselves (until somebody else writes something more)!


Sara Wangmo Reclining



Jigme Wangmo and Catherine

High Stakes Skittles

Ana in Wrathful Form

Ladies Playing Mind Games: Deki, Jimba, Rigzin, Tianna                                       Dorji, Nick, and JigmeAnnie and Rigzin
Annie, Rigzin, and Prof. Owens
Ana, Lolo, Tiger, and Carrie







Ana, Lolo, Tiger, and Carrie

Annie, Carrie, Catherine, Ana, and Lola

Phinal Photo Opportunity

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Happiness Day

This year we celebrated our very first International Happiness Day on March 20th! To celebrate we decided we should eat a whole cake, because that’s what makes us happy – couple of langma jigpola’s over here. The night before we ordered a chocolate caramel cake from the Ambient Café and invited our Bhutanese gal pals for a picnic.

The next morning we woke up and started to walk down the hill from RTC into Thimphu. Part way down the city bus drove by to pick us up, so we rode back up to RTC and back down the hill again. When we got into town there was a lot of hustle and bustle with celebration. We had time to kill before the cake was ready, so the girls took us to the Bhutan Thailand Friendship Park. Near the park was a Thai Temple and a gazebo built using Thai architecture, but we spent our time at the playground. We played on the swings, went on the seesaw, played volleyball with a soccer ball, and joined the little boys playing soccer.

We left the park to find some snacks. The streets were closed to cars because of the celebrations and when we reached Norzin Lam we stopped to watch some Bhutanese dancers who were performing. It was our first time seeing traditional dancing, which features singing, flowing hand movements, and small steps. After the dancing, the next act was a Bhutanese singer but we didn’t stay to watch her and continued in our search for food. The girls led us to a small stand were we got puchikas. These are hollow rice crackers filled with a potato-vinegar mixture. We offered to help pay but, as usual, were not allowed.

By that time our cake was ready, so we all went to the Ambient to pick it up! Then a confusing time ensued, because the girls lead us to get more food. We went to a small “fast food” restaurant where we ate momos while waiting for alu paratha. Alu paratha is an Indian dish, kind of like potato pancakes with chopped scallions eaten with ezay.

Feeling full, we picked up ices (Bhutanese creamy, icy popsicles) and headed to the Walking Buddha Park for our picnic. Because it was National Happiness Day there were tents set up promoting healthy living. At one such tent you could stand on a scale and read your weight. You could also have your height measured. Of course we had to know what our measurements were; good thing we didn’t eat the cake yet. Annie and I were already well aware of our size difference in comparison to the Bhutanese, but now we had an actual number to quantify it: we’re giants.

It was a really hot day so we scoped out a place in the shade. We ended up on the outer perimeter of the park in the grassy area between a sidewalk and a fence. On the other side of the fence was the road. Good spot girls, but at least there’s no ants (the reason why we couldn’t sit at a more aesthetically pleasing location). We broke out 7 spoons and dug into our cake. When the Bhuties (our Bhutanese friends, Bhutanese version of Wheaties) decided it was too sweet, we brought out the alu paratha, that’s a lot of potato. Yeah, potato. The girls decided we couldn’t bring both the leftovers of the cake and alu paratha home. So Annie and I had to step up our game and finish the cake. It was a great success and we will continue to celebrate Happiness Day for years to come.
-Annie Bennett and Sara Wangmo

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Gone to the Dogs

One weekend, my friend Pema and I took a walk down the valley from RTC into Ngabiphu, the village below the college. She was taking me to the dog shelter to spend some time with the animals and just see what was what. Pema is doing her capstone project on the treatment of stray dogs in Thimphu and on RTC campus. The dogs are a big “problem” in the eyes of the administration and the staff of the mess (dining hall). There are a dozen or so dogs that live pretty full-time on campus, in various states of health, but who are generally regarded as pests. The dogs of RTC are consistently well behaved and friendly compared to the packs of dogs that roam Thimphu-town, many of whom are very fierce looking. I actively avoid the dogs in town, but have befriended many of the campus dogs. My favorites are Roger, a mange-y tawny-colored old boy in sore need of attention, and a tiny black and white half-blind yet eager and affectionate girl named Henry.

We are instructed not to feed the dogs on campus, partly because they have the status of rats, but partly out of the more compassionate view that, like bears at campsites, they become dependent on the humans and have nothing to eat when school is not in session. This compassion aside however, I’ve been pretty surprised by people’s behavior toward these animals. The most common reactions are annoyance or disgust, but aggression is pretty common too. My friend Ana actually saw one of the mess workers kick a dog in the head, completely unprovoked.

These kinds of incidents are a big part of Pema’s research. She is an animal rights activist, and tells me she is motivated by her views that animals experience feelings and pain just like humans do. This stems from Buddhism, and the respect and empathy extended to animals because of their position in the wheel of life as sentient beings. She explained to me that even the tiniest fly tries to get away from you if you swat at it because it is afraid that you will hurt or kill it. Animals, she says, may not express pain the same we do, but they do experience it, and we should do our best to help them, or at least not harm them. It is the Hippocratic Oath of kindness.

One positive part of RTC’s relationship with the strays is that much of the leftover food from the mess is sent down the road to the shelter that Pema and I visited. This shelter is right above the road I walk on my way to my internship at the National Biodiversity Center. It is divided into two sections, one of which is owned by the city, and the other which is owned privately by a Lama, who is currently abroad in India. In the meantime, the caretaker whom Pema and I called “Uncle,” is in charge of the facilities. Over 100 dogs live at this shelter, and most were very friendly. Like the dogs on campus, many were partially blind, or had injured legs, or patchy fur. Many of the injuries come from car collisions, especially among the dogs rescued from the city. The shelter is mostly composed of small shanty-like buildings where the dogs stay, as well as a few larger buildings and a small clinic. Many of the dogs have been spayed or neutered, and they are marked by either a clipped right ear, or a number tattooed inside an ear.

The shelter also has a pen to the side of the complex which houses four pigs. These muddy, fly-covered, big-eared pigs had incredibly expressive faces. In Bhutan, raising pigs can be pretty controversial, because they are not raised for any other purpose than their meat. This is a big conflict among many Buddhist Bhutanese, even though eating meat is largely acceptable, it seems better in their eyes to raise livestock who have a purpose in life (cows and sheep for milk, cheese, etc; chickens for eggs) aside from becoming dinner. Additionally, while it is typically seen as ok to consume meat, it isn’t seen as ok to do the killing of the animal oneself. The traditional method of slaughtering pigs is really brutal too–the pigs are essentially beaten to death. I was happy to see these pigs alive and snorting pleasantly. The biggest of the four, named Nado, was particularly lively. I oinked and snorted with him, which made Pema laugh. “You can’t speak Dzongkha, but you can speak Pig!”

Although I had had a scary encounter with dogs earlier in the semester, when two farm dogs had chased me and one bit me (it mostly just caught my pant-leg, and didn’t break my skin), playing with these dogs at the shelter dogs reminded me of how much kindness and joy exists in people and beasts, if those two things are separate categories.
– Carrie Decker

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Wangduetse Dzong: An Introduction to Bhutan

One of my first weekends in Bhutan was a very special one. My roommate, Dorji, took me to Wangduesta Dzong and showed me around the Thimphu area. It was quite an amazing experience and it not only taught me a lot about Bhutanese people but it showed me that I was such a lucky person to be placed with such great roommates.

One night while I was busy writing a paper for Professor Owens, Dojri asked me what I was doing for the weekend. I replied that I didn’t have anything special to do, so he asked if I would like to accompany with to a monastery. Being anxious to get know him I replied with an emphatic yes! So it was set and he told me that we would pick me up on Saturday morning and we would go to the monastery.

Friday night rolled around and I was still unsure what time I was to be picked up on Saturday morning until I receive a text later that night that he’ll be at RTC at 9 am. At this point I had already gone out with some friends and was not going to get back till campus till later. It would prove to me an interesting morning. My roommate rolled around bright and early with me only getting a few hours of sleep. It might as well have been at the crack of dawn given the condition I was in. However, I was still excited to be doing something with my roommate. So I quickly got my life together and set off for an adventure with my him.

We got into his Mom’s golden sedan and drove off into Thimphu. First, we stopped at My Mart- the premiere chillup (foreigner) shopping center in the city. We gather up some snacks and waters for the mini-hike up to the dzong and started driving up towards our destination. Before we reached the final destination I got a tour of the city. He showed me where the king’s palace is, the central monastic building, and Thimphu’s grand golf course. Once the tour was complete we stopped at a general store to get the offerings of butter and cheese. Then, it was off to the Jigme Dorji National Park, the place where the National Takin Preserve is held. The takin is the National animal of Bhutan and had recently been on the verge of extinction. It has a brown hide, hooves, and horns; in my opinion it looks like a cross between a deer, goat, and cow (deergoatcow).

Jigme Dorji National Park is a green piece of real estate at the edge of the Thimphu district in an area known as Motithang. The park has a stunning entrance with a small bridge adorned with rhododendron flowers upon a grass backdrop. The newly paved black-top road (a luxury in Bhutan) winds up a fairly large hill that makes it way past a zoo, the Takin preserve, and finally ends at top near the BBS radio tower. The hill nearest the tower is engulfed with prayer flags of every color and shape. They drape the hillside in color and good karma. Once at the end of the road it was time to hike up the hillside and begin our trek through the woods to the monastery.

After we ascended the small hill, the trail began to level out which made for an easy walk. With this opportunity to breath normally I asked my roommate a few questions. We talked about our families and much more. He shared a story with me about his experiences cycling upon this trail and around the national park, where he goes all the time. One time while training on the dirt path during a rainy day his bike slid out from under him, he went off the trail into the bushes, and down the steep drop off. The dirt path follows a steep, thorny, tree filled cliff as many of the trail and roads in Bhutan do. Hearing this story I couldn’t help look over the side of the ledge and wonder how he was still alive. He said that he just pulled himself up and bought a new bike, given that his former bike was completely mangled beyond repair. Hearing this I understood that my roommate was not affected by the pain of sport injuries, something that I could relate to.

After about a fifteen minute walk we made it to the dzong. The path cleared and the small temple emerged through the thick of the woods. There was a small chorten about 20 feet before the temple and we went to the left side of the chorten, being that it’s auspicious that way. First we went around the backside of the temple, making our circumambulation then we curved our way to the entrance. The temple is mostly white with a strip of red running along the top. There is a set of stair with duel entrances that lead up the set of steps before the door, creating a sort of tiered effect. There were roosters and various dogs placed at different corners outside the temple. The door to the entrance was locked, however my roommate spoke with one of the monks and got him to open the temple and shrine room, for our viewing.

Lam Tenzin Dendup built Wangduetse Dzong in 1567 which was later renovated into a one-story temple by Thimphub Kunzang Thinley. Once inside the main image was a large statue of the Buddha accompanied by smaller statues of Jampelyang (Manjushri- Bodhisattva who represents wisdom) and Chenrizi (Avalokitesvara- the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas). The golden Buddha was adorned with a red and gold scarf that was draped on his shoulders. There was a table small table consumed with butter lamps that served as the place to give your offerings. So we placed the butter and cheese on the table. My roommate showed me the proper way to prostrate, the full body bowing through which you offer your respect and faith. Normally I wouldn’t prostrate however since my roommate was offering, I thought it was the proper time to learn. The cold, gray cement floor was not the easiest surface to learn on but I was grateful for the help and proper technique. Once the offerings and prostrations were done we took time to appreciate the Buddha and we were on our way. I was told that the temple also contains eight huge chortens that are made of red cypress that celebrate the events in the life of the Buddha, however it was off limits to foreigners so I didn’t get to see it.

Outside the temple we walked over to a large pole that held many prayer flags. It stood at the edge of the land before a cliff that acted as a landmark for the temple. The view from the flags was amazing. It was situated of the edge of a ridge above Trashichodzong- overlooking the Thimphu valley. It was the best view I have seen in Bhutan, one for which words will not do justice. I wanted to throw myself off the ridge for not bringing my camera but I should have had my life together earlier that morning.

On the way back to the trail we first heard and then saw a group of guys playing Khuru. Khuru is a Bhutanese dart game with targets approximately twenty meters away. It was played with huge wooden darts that are at least five times larger than an average dart. It has a wooden body about the size of a small pine cone with a ten centimeter long nail at the end of the tip. The large dart is hurled through the air aimed at a small wooden target. The closer you get to the bulls eye carved on the target the more points you get. It is very reminiscent of the American game of horseshoes in terms of objective and scoring. The game is not only about skill and accuracy but it has a psychological aspect of degrading your opponent, which is what all the yelling was about. We stood a little bit back as not to get hit by the giant darts whizzing through the air.

When we had our fill we made the easy walk back to the BBS tower. When we got to the tower it was snack time and we decided to sit underneath the prayer-flag encompassed hillside. Dodging and weaving through the lines of prayer flags required limber movements but we finally found a clear spot to sit. We sat and took in the valley below. Dorji pointed out the queen’s palace, the gulf course that we had just seen from ground level, and many other interesting landmarks. It was a beautiful setting with the sun warming up the ground and the prayer flags blowing in the wind sending good karma off into the valley below.

Once done taking in the sites we headed off to lunch at The Seasons for some much deserved pizza. This was not done before taking a look at the Takin Preserve. We stopped at the outside of the preserve to see if we could spot any takin. We did not have any luck in getting to see one but it was not without much searching. The day was great and seeing the takin would have just been a bonus. Overall, it was a great way to get to know my roommate and seeing areas of Bhutan at the same time. I could not have asked for more and appreciated the experience immensely.
– Nick Emard

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Lessons at the Riverside

Once or twice a week throughout the semester, I have been collecting water samples from the Wang Chu (chu means river) in Thimphu for Professor Matt Evans of the Chemistry department back at Wheaton. He armed me with bottles, syringes, and filters before the end of the fall semester, with the hope that I could take these samples and cart them back across the world to give to him when the school year starts up again at the end of August. Angus did this in fall 2012, and Annie and I have been keeping up the collections for spring 2013. The idea behind Prof. Evans’ experiment as I understand it is to investigate the connection between the tectonic plate movements and erosion forces happening at rapid rates in these lower Himalaya. By looking into the dissolved minerals in the water samples from the river, we hope to learn about what is being eroded and carried by the river, and how this impacts the geography here. The relationship between these rising mountains and the rivers that cut them down may also be the reason for the many hot springs in Bhutan, even though there is next to no volcanic activity.

So, on one sunny Tuesday, I made my usual walk down from the bus station to the Centennial Vegetable Market, crossed the prayer-flag covered cantilever foot bridge to the Crafts Market on the opposite bank, and walked down to the rocky riverside, past the Artemisia and Marijuana bushes that grow along the river. I had to avoid stepping on the hundreds of army worms that had emerged that week and which covered the path with their inching squishy bodies. I’m sure I must have stepped on at least a few, and I hope that doesn’t send me into the lower realms of the Karmic Wheel of Life if I am reincarnated.

Ana had joined me for this trip into town, and we set down our backpacks on the dry tops of the rounded boulders and stones that make up the river bed. I got out my water collection tools and rolled up my pants to enter the cold water so that I could get a sample where the water was running, rather than where it formed eddies on the river’s edge. Ana set to work collecting small tumbled-smooth rocks which she hoped to turn into jewelry. We reminded each other not to pick up any of the lumpy striped naga stones, as doing so could make the river deity angry.

As we were walking down to this spot, we had noticed three young boys, probably brothers ages five, eight, and eleven, playing on the rocks closer to the foot bridge. They must have just gotten out of school, as two were still in their matching school uniform ghos. While Ana and I were getting settled, the boys walked over to us to see what we were up to. The oldest of them, whose name I learned was Ugyen, spoke very good English, and was especially curious about what I was doing with the water. I asked him, “Do you study science in school?” He nodded vigorously and I explained that I was taking some water to do a science experiment, and like him, I was a student too. I then asked if we wanted to help me take the sample. He beamed, nodding again; I think I was equally excited. It’s always fun to see people eager for science, and I know that at least for me, doing work hands-on in the field, is the best and most memorable part.

While he and I collected the water, his brothers continued to play and help Ana pick out her rocks. When the task was all finished, I thanked Ugyen for his help and said it was time for us to go. This little gentleman offered to carry my backpack, and I smiled and was really impressed by his curiosity and kindness. As Ana and I walked back up toward the empty Crafts Market (vendors are there only Thursday through Sunday), the boys followed us, and the littlest of the boys jogged around us saying, “Give me some money? Give me some money?” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ugyen smiling and shaking his head, a little embarrassed at his brother. I didn’t mind though, as usually when one passes groups of kids walking together in Thimphu, at least one kid will grin broadly, put up a flash of a waving hand and shout, “Hi!” and then as soon as you reply, “Bye!” before turning back to their friends and giggling. If they are feeling particularly brave, they’ll ask for some money, or try to sell you a ticket. They won’t tell you what the ticket is for, so I assume it’s for nothing except scrap paper.

All in all, though it felt really special to be able to share some science and fun with these boys, and I hope it planted the idea with Ugyen that what you learn in school (and outside of school) really can matter, and can even provide you with near-unbelievable opportunities, like being able to stand in the middle of a roaring river on the opposite side of the world from your home, look up at the mountains where that river begins, and share a moment with someone who unintentionally reminds you just how incredible and ripe with potential the world can be, even if that means you get army-worm guts on your shoes.
– Carrie Decker

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The Story of the Walking Stick

This journey happened about a month into my semester program at Royal Thimphu College (RTC), around March 20th if I can recall correctly. A few good friends who live down the hall from me in Sershom residence hostel, talked my friend Alec and myself into hiking up to Talakha Goenpa (monastery) for the night. Eight of us gathered what camping supplies we would need, including a massive tarp to sleep underneath, survival gear that I always bring on overnight trips, sleeping bags, cooking supplies, food (including two chickens), and drinks. The birds, pots and pans, rice and other cooking implements went into a big burlap bag that must have weighed 25 lbs on the first day. We set off a little after three pm and hiked down and around the mountain that forms the northern point of a horse shoe shaped series of peaks that extends south east, and envelopes the college campus on three sides.

We stopped at a small convenience store that services people who live on the mountain side with essential packaged products like soap, gum and beer. We bought the beer and the gum and were off. The next leg of the journey went up a long paved road that switchbacks up the side of the mountain, leading past one of the many royal palaces, and ending in a parking lot at the edge of the trail used to access the goenpa. We stopped about five minutes up the trail to catch a breather before starting the last two hours of the hike up to the monastery. My friends found a bamboo pipe system that skirts along sections of the trail, uncorked a stick that plugged a hole in the side of the pipe so that we could drink from the natural, pressure powered water fountain. After fooling around for a few minutes, throwing sticks and carving a new piece to plug the hole in the pipes, we set off again. We hiked on a narrow dirt path up through tall old growth, passing what looked like pines that reached nearly a hundred feet up into the canopy overhead. We passed the burlap cooking bag from person to person throughout the hike to give everyone a turn hauling the supplies. This system of slowly developed into two people carrying the load as we reached the end of the trail. We reached the monasteries’ lower gardens around six pm, an hour before sunset. The Tale Goenpa monastery is spread out over the bald top of a mountain, providing 360 degree views of the adjacent mountains that form the landscape in this part of the Himalayas, of Thimphu off to the north, and of the colossal Jomolhari mountain off in the distance behind Thimphu. We moved through the monastery to find our campsite after talking to a monk, who did not pretend to speak English, but helped as a liaison to the monastery, making our stay truly wonderful by providing ample blankets and showing us around the beautiful, simple campus.

We found our campsite to be situated in the middle of a yak pasture. I found this to be the case not by stepping on one of the many frisbee sized yak patties that littered the field, but by seeing the yaks themselves, who rolled into the pasture around the same time we did, and were also there to stay the night. With much involved labor we managed to erect a fairly legitimate tarp shelter around four corner posts, closing in two walls against the easterly wind. We built a fire and immediately put on a two gallon pot of ginger tea. The mood of the group was festive and friendly, being comprised of a group of accomplished men that just climbed a mountain and erected camp. We joked and passed around cups of tea, and home brewed ara (rice wine). A group of three men went off with the burlap cooking bag. As I later learned, the monks took them to their kitchen, gave them spices, and helped my friends cook us a feast of different curries and a traditional Bhutanese dish, ema datsi (chilies and cheese), that took us more than two hours to eat. We stayed up late talking about girls, drinking beer and singing old reggae songs that I grew up listening too. At some point throughout the night I went off to find a bathroom in the forest. I grabbed a long stick to help guide me over the unfamiliar terrain. The stick kept me on the path, and helped me to avoid bumping into one of the many yaks that were grazing lazily all around our camp. I brought the stick back to the fire and immediately recognized it as a keeper. I took out my carving knife and set to work relieving a handle from the thick knobby top.

We woke up the next morning around ten, had some hot tea, and broke camp. I found the stick that I had been working on the night before, and noticed that it had a road worn end opposite to the handle that I had carved. The walking stick had obviously been recognized for it’s quality by someone before myself. I passed on my old walking stick to a friend, and grabbed the new, perfectly balanced, beautiful piece of dried soft wood. We entered the grounds of the monastery and a new group of three guys set to work cooking us breakfast. Behind the cooking building was a wide arena on which my friends and about fifteen monks were playing khuru, a game that involves 2/3 American football sized darts thrown at small targets roughly twenty meters away. I tried my hand at the game, and found that success required a unique throw to make the darts spin properly and hit the target point first. Even though most of my throws unintentionally put peoples’ lives in danger, the monks were very good-natured and were happy to have a chillup (foreigner) play with them. Despite the insurmountable language barrier, we were able to communicate through body language and common hand gestures. Many enthusiastic ‘thumbs ups’ were passed around to congratulate good throws.

We ate a lunch of ema datsi and steamed vegetables in an old part of the monastery, where two fully deteriorated mud and stone walls provided panoramic views to the south and east of the surrounding mountains. After lunch we cleaned the dishes that we had accumulated over the trip and took a walk down to collect holy water from a spring to drink. Once satiated, we walked around to the north end of the monastery, where it was possible to see the sprawling cityscape of Thimphu stretched out a thousand feet below us. We took pictures, taking advantage of the the dramatic background, which I have attached to this memo.

The lhakang (temple building) is located on the north end of the mountaintop monastery. We circumambulated the building three times, an auspicious number, and entered. The antechamber of the temple featured many skeleton paintings. We went inside and basked in the many religious carvings. The monk who was showing us around offered me dice to roll as a tool predict my merit based fate. I rolled eight, the number of the local deity, and my friends congratulated me for the good fortune. I noticed that my friends were not as ‘respectful’ of the temple as our Wheaton group had been taught to be. They snapped pictures frequently, and wandered around touching the various masks and artifacts that furnished the room. As far as I was able to tell, about half of my friend group prostrated to the beautiful representations of deities that occupied one wall of the temple room. We left the temple refreshed and at peace.

Wanting to take advantage of the beautiful day, we thanked the monks that had helped us, grabbed our bags, and reluctantly left the monastery. We traveled due south, through our camp and down a trail that I had not noticed existed at the south end of the yak pasture. My new walking stick measured my stride all along a ridge that connected the three mountains that separated me from my new home in RTC.
– Ben Kragen

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Playing Truth or Dare with Buddhist Nuns

My practicum placement is at the Shechen Ugyen Chodzong nunnery in Wangsisina, and every week I go to teach the nuns how to use a computer. When I arrived for my class on May 28th, however, I was informed that the English teacher — a woman from Scotland — was leaving. I was invited to the going-away party, which was happening that afternoon.
They escorted me to a room where all the English students, a mix of older nuns whom I’d been teaching and younger nuns I’d never met before, sat on floor cushions drinking tea and eating cake. I was given a position of honor at the front of the room, where the lopen, English teacher, and other monk teachers were sitting. They gave their teacher a few presents which were wrapped in newspaper and tied with a kada for a bow. One of the monks presented a kada to the teacher, and her students gave her a Bhutanese bowl, a shirt, and a scarf.

Soon the monks exited, leaving the rest of us to our merry-making. In my past visits to the nunnery I hadn’t taken any pictures because the nuns were very shy, but now they were bold in front of the camera. They kept asking to have their picture taken, and enjoyed striking very silly poses. Some of the nuns wanted to dance, but many were too shy to get in the middle of the circle and dance with others watching, so the teacher suggested we play truth or dare.

The nuns immediately seized this idea, though there was no “truth” component to their playing; the victim was chosen at random by spinning a knife in the middle of the circle and picking the person it pointed to, and everyone else decided what to make them do. The dares were a little tame, but probably wilder than you’d expect from nuns: they danced, sang, mimed fist fights, gave each other piggyback rides or rode each other like horses, and even kissed one another on the cheek. It’s probably a good thing the monks didn’t stick around.

We played for at least an hour, and then we cleared the floor cushions away and did some traditional Bhutanese dancing, similar to what we learned when we were in the farmhouse in Bumthang. The party was a wild success, and everyone enjoyed themselves. I was thrilled to have the experience; how many people can say they’ve played truth or dare with a bunch of Bhutanese Buddhist nuns?
– Catherine Perkins

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Haa: Days 2 and 3

The next morning, the clouds had parted and we could all see the spectacular view of mountains and trees as we brushed our teeth and dressed for breakfast. For breakfast, we had cereal with warm milk and eggs with toast, our usual breakfast while camping.

The Morning After

Once we finished breakfast, we all headed back to our tents to pack and put on our hiking boots. The sky became cloud-covered once again and it began misting, so Tsewang distributed a few extra raincoats to those who requested them and we headed up the trail.

Beginning Our Ascent into the Clouds

The hike was slow going because of the steep and slippery trail and the altitude.

Bachim in the Clouds

After a few hours passed, we reached the summit of Lhaptsa Teng Khang and took a group photo before descending to the pass to sit and eat lunch in the rain.

Luncheon between Summits

The lunch was delicious and a wonderful break from the hike. We then ate a few pieces of chocolate for dessert and ascended the second peak of our hike, Chep do Ghang, the summit of which was 4,200 meters (13,780 feet).

On to Chep do Ghong

By this point, most of us were cold and wet from all of the mist and rain, but we trudged onward; the landscape around us was beautiful and covered in blossoming flowers. The trail was very slippery on the way down the second peak so Tsewang was helping those who needed assistance while some of the other hikers made a quick descent.

Reunited at the Roadside

Verso, revealing alternative descent techniques

About half of the group continued to hike the trail, while the others took a shortcut and followed the dirt road. All of us met up and took another group photo after which we split up again on our journey back to Tsewang’s house; some rode in the pickup trucks back to the house while others continued hiking.

When we all finally reached Tsewang’s house, we cleaned up and warmed ourselves by the fire, waiting for dinner. Before dinner though, we walked up to Tsewang’s Auntie’s bachim (cow shed and shelter for cattle tenders), about fifteen minutes away from the house where we tried our hand (literally) at milking cows.

Further lessons…

Milking in Evening Wear

We got to pet the calves and milk the cows on the farm; we also got to try fresh cheese! Visiting the bachim was very enjoyable for us all. We ate dinner while sitting on the floor by the fire and it was served buffet-style. The menu consisted of red rice, daal, fish, and potatoes and we were all so glad to be eating in the warmth of the house. Once we finished dinner, some of us tried to play with the cats who were roaming the front porch of the house and others were chatting. Then it was time for bed and the girls were set to sleep in the shrine room in our sleeping bags; the boys slept in the main room where we ate dinner. Everyone was exhausted and fell asleep quickly.

The next morning, we woke up, got dressed, and walked to the main room where we would eat breakfast, only to be greeted by Tsewang’s father. He did not talk much, but sat with us to eat breakfast. We ate cereal with eggs and toast again for breakfast and enjoyed the company of a brave cat who sat with us by the fire. Then it was time to load our bags into the bus and drive back to Thimphu. On the way, we stopped for a photo opportunity at the three hills of Haa, each representing the Lord of Power, the Lord of Wisdom, and the Lord of Compassion, respectively. We then drove to Chele La to take a short walk up a hill to see the beautiful view of the mountain we climbed the day before and all of Paro.

Haa Valley from the road to Chele La

After the walk, we got back on the bus and drove for a few minutes to our picnic lunch location. When we finished lunch, we boarded the bus and drove through Paro and back to RTC. Leki dropped us off up the hill near our dorm buildings, we said our good-byes to our loyal bus driver, and hugged Tsewang; he assured us we would see him one last time before we leave Bhutan.
– Benjamin Gagnon and Ariel Eaton

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Haa: Day 1

On Friday, June 7th all twelve of us, including Professor Owens, awoke at RTC and then ventured down to the “lower” parking lot to meet Tsewang, Leki, and the bus at 9am. All of us waited with both eager anticipation and subtle sadness to begin the last long trip of our time here in Bhutan. It was also not lost on us that this would be our last guided experience with our dear friend Tsewang whom we have known since our plane touched down in Paro on day one. Our final destination on this day was the Dzongkag of Haa which is in the Northwestern-most corner of Bhutan and is Tsewang’s birthplace. The ride on the bus did not seem too long—certainly not as long as our trip to Bumthang—and we had our trusted driver, Leki.

Tea chez Tsewang

We arrived at a remote farmhouse that we soon learned was Tsewang’s childhood home. We were all welcomed with tea and lunch as we waited for our next mode of transportation to arrive. While we waited, we all walked up to a lhakhang which was only a ten minute walk up a side road, but unfortunately it was locked and we could not go inside; however, we still managed to have a photo opportunity in front of the lhakhang.

Voguing in front of locked Lakhang

When we walked back down to Tsewang’s house, two pickup trucks were parked along the road in front of the house and Tsewang told us to grab our gear from the bus and load it all into the trucks. All of us, who are pretty proficient in math, saw the two trucks and then looked around at the fifteen bodies plus the two newly arrived drivers who would be driving us up the mountain to our campsite. Excitement filled most of us upon realization that about half of our group would be riding in the back of the trucks. There were many more-than-willing volunteers to take on this task, and soon seven Wheaton students could be seen both standing and sitting in the back of two trucks riding along the very uneven and bumpy road until we reached the campsite at about 3,700 meters (12,139 feet).

Truckin’ to the Campsite Blues

It was, for the most part, completely cloudy but occasional breaks in the clouds made it possible to see some spectacular views of the mountains around us. Our tents had already been pitched by the crew who arrived before us, including a curious looking tall and narrow tent which we learned was the tent covering a hole that was dug for all of our bathroom needs. After selecting which tents would belong to whom, tea and biscuits were served. It had started to rain but some of us went to explore along the road while others relaxed in the tents until dinner time. Upon hearing that it was time to eat, we walked the little trek down to the mess tent, a familiar place from our weekend camping in Gasa.

Tea and Landscaping

The dinner menu consisted of many familiar dishes such as red rice, mixed vegetables, and kewa datsi, one of our favorite dishes. There was also a new addition to the menu, goat (mutton), which was served in a thick sauce and was tried by all of the meat-eaters. We also wished Tsewang a very happy birthday even though there was no cake or candles to blow out. After sitting around the dinner table, we returned to our tents and chatted before getting a good night’s sleep in anticipation for our long hike the following morning.

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