We woke up on Wednesday, February 27th, in Paro, the small mountain city that is home to Bhutan’s international airport. We were out the door early enough to make the two hour bus ride into Thimpu, through mountain passes that define the Bhutanese highway system. We were on a tight schedule, and were aiming to reach Royal Thimpu College (RTC) by two in the afternoon in order to get introduced to the campus and our roommates.
The most significant goal of this first visit into Thimpu was to pick out the national dress that we would be required to wear to class and to other important or formal events: gho for the men, and kira for the ladies. The gho is comprised of yards of fabric and features sleeves that extend well beyond the ends of ones arms: think robe, but much more culturally significant and therefore requiring much more attention to detail. To put this ‘robe’ on requires an intimate knowledge of the folds, seams, ties and how they work together to insure that the gho hangs correctly. The Bhutanese men can put on the gho in their sleep, but for those of us who are foreign to the dress it takes at least one extra pair of hands. Both the gho and kira are made out of colorful and often intricately patterned cloth that is held up by tight belts, called kera. It is not every day that we are able to try on another culture’s interpretation of clothing, so I had high expectations. It was not surprising to find that when worn properly, the gho is extremely comfortable! Not only is it warm (despite the lack of pants), but the range of motion is incredible! The folds seem to work together to allow the cloth to flow to accommodate any motion without tugging or pinching. Outfitted in our new clothing, the group went out to a quick lunch and then gathered back at the bus to be transported to our new residences at RTC.
I couldn’t help but feel I a bit apprehensive as our bus pulled into Royal Thimpu College for the first time. This was it: this was where everything was really about to begin. The bus stopped in front some of the dorms, and there were already some Bhutanese waiting to escort us to our rooms. I made my way off the bus and into the bright sunlight. The sun was hot at this altitude, and I started to sweat in my gho, which was probably going to fall apart at any minute. The altitude was making me a little lightheaded and I definitely hadn’t recovered from jet lag yet. On top of this I was trying to think of what to say to my roommates for the first time. The scene outside the bus was rather disorderly as everyone tried to sort through the luggage for their own and the Bhutanese tried to locate their new roommates.
When I finally made it off the bus, I stretched and for the first time saw the scenery that became the backdrop of my new college experience. R.T.C. is situated about a thousand feet higher than Thimpu, up the side of a hill that is part of the extensive system of mountains and valleys that makes up Bhutan. The rise in elevation makes it possible to see the enormity of the ‘hills’ that make up this area. Looking in the direction of Thimpu, roughly northwest of the college, we could see large snow capped mountains that tower over the surrounding hills. If you look in that same direction on a clear day you can see Jimuwanga, the biggest peak that I have ever seen, standing at almost 24,000 ft above sea level. On exceptionally clear days the mountain is the biggest feature of the panoramic view even though it is more than 55 miles away!
The campus of RTC is laid out on a steep hill that serves as the base for a snow-capped ridge that lies behind the college. Walking up to my dorm, I quickly became out of breath! To give you an idea of how steep the campus is, when moving uphill I often find myself leaning into the climb, and it takes twice as long to walk up to the dorms as it does to walk down to the mess! Thank goodness the academic block (where classrooms, the library and offices are located) is at the bottom of the campus and the dorms at the top, for if it were reversed I’m sure I would be late to class most days. Just above the academic block is a row of buildings that house the campus canteen, a small store and a patio where many scholars go to drink tea between classes. Next to the store you will find a flight of stairs that brings you up to the level of the football field. Across the football field are huge stone bleachers that are cut out of the mountain. Above these bleachers is the indoor gym, where basketball, badminton and other sports are played. To the left, on the same level as the gym is the mess hall. All that exists above this point are dorms, staff housing and a centrally located outdoor basketball court. At the top of campus there is a trail that serves as an access point to a network of trails that leads up into the mountains that border R.T.C. on three sides.
It was later that night, after a brief tour with my RAs, that my classmates and I had our first experience in the mess, as the dining hall is called around here. It was an exciting change of pace from the typical dining experience found at Wheaton, since most of us had never encountered many of the dishes being served. The excitement of early on has worn off a bit as we have settled in though, as every meal typically revolves around a few primary foods. Rice is the staple food here in Bhutan, and large helpings of it are to be expected at every meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Aside from a couple large scoops of rice, expect a ladle of dal, which is a lentil soup, and a spoonful of ema datsi. Made up of chilies and cheese, it is what many consider to be Bhutan’s national dish. However, no matter what you eat here in Bhutan, you should expect it to be hotter than anything you are used to back home!
The first few days of classes were a bit stressful, mostly because I was still clueless as to how to put on my gho. That changed, however, after a group of students and professors organized a workshop to teach us how to wear them properly. They were a huge help and thanks to them I know all the steps, but doing it independently is still a challenge. A few of us have been meeting up every morning before class to help each other get it just right. Even with extra eyes and hands we still can’t seem to do it perfectly, as we sometimes find our classmates looking at us with alarm and offering to help straighten it out.
Another one of the perks of R.T.C. is its proximity to Bhutan’s capital Thimpu. Even after being here a month I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of what the city has to offer, with countless more shops and restaurants to explore. One of the highlights of Thimphu for a friend and me has been soccer matches at the national stadium. We were even lucky enough to stumble upon a game in which the King himself was participating. His Majesty was actually one of the better players on the field. At the conclusion of the match he entered the stands and spoke to the crowd. Most of us did not expect to the see the King of Bhutan in person, especially this early on in our trip!
We are still settling in here, adjusting to the climate and culture, easing into our classes. One thing that I’ve learned early on though is that you really don’t know what to expect when you get up each morning. Still, I’m very excited for what this semester has in store.
– Ben Kragen and Alec Jeannotte