Bhutan

Visiting the most famous monastery in Bhutan, the Tiger's Nest.
Visiting the most famous monastery in Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel. Well, first, I wanted to become a scuba diver. Then I wanted to travel. When I was much younger, I subscribed to Skin Diver magazine. I used to read those magazines cover to cover, learning about all kinds of exotic islands the world over. I wanted to visit them, and pretty much everywhere else and at the ripe young age of 15, I began traveling, starting with Europe. I can recall specific memories that piqued my interest in certain places. I was obsessed with visiting Yap, for example, a small island in Micronesia in the western pacific. Divers know it well for the large manta rays that are often seen there. Its far, far away, but it was amazing- fulfilling that dream to see mantas, my favorite animal, 80 feet below the surface of the plankton rich pacific waters. And Phuket, Thailand? I learned about that place when studying in Tahiti for a semester. I watched the movie, “The Beach,” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, with my Tahitian host. It took 16 years, but I made it there. Machu Picchu, on the other hand, no idea where or when I learned about that magical place, but it felt like forever that I had wanted to make that trek when I finally did. Of all places, stepping into that sanctuary took my breath away. I loved it. And then there was Bhutan. I remember very specifically learning about this tiny Himalayan Kingdom. In 2010, I went to San Diego for what would be the first of two trips to California that year. My then boyfriend and I visited a farmer’s market that had a variety of vendors, one was a photographer. He had some beautiful prints, adorned in golden frames, I looked in awe and asked where he had taken those photos. “Bhutan,” he said. Where is that?! We chatted a bit, he told me it was a difficult place to visit as taxes for foreigners were high and I think he said something like it costs thousands of dollars to visit.

The last Shangri-La.
The last Shangri-La.

Later that year, I read a book, a travel memoir (pretty much the only kinds of books I read), by Jamie Zeppa. “Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan.” I learned more about this magical Himalayan Kingdom, the last Shangri-La, and filed it away into my memory. “Someday, maybe someday I’ll make it there.”
When I was in China, I was targeted by a Bhutanese tour guide via Facebook. I accepted his request and knowing I wanted to visit Bhutan from Nepal, began devising an affordable way to get there. In an effort to preserve it’s culture and make money for the country, the Bhutanese government charges foreigners a $65/day tax. Additionally, you must have a tour guide and stay in 3 or 4 star hotels. There are some other ways to visit, but nothing panned out and this was the best option for me given my geographic location.

Who doesn't love a bird's eye view of Everest?
Who doesn’t love a bird’s eye view of Everest?

The flight alone from Kathmandu to Paro was amazing. Clear skies afforded perfect views of Mt. Everest and some of the world’s other tallest peaks and when I arrived, I was not disappointed. Bhutan is beautiful. It’s a kingdom, but they have a prime minister as well. I don’t fully understand how things work (government and politics really aren’t my forte), but some of the foundations of how they operate are based on Buddhist principles and are honestly pretty decent ideas. They are concerned about the happiness of the people and even have a rating for their level of Gross National Happiness. They promote well being in areas of spirituality, culture, family, education, and tradition among others and note that these components of life are more important than material things. They also focus on a clean and safe environment and overall, I think people are very friendly.

Monks at a monastery.
Monks at a monastery.

It was an interesting change of pace, especially after the chaos of Kathmandu. While the four days I spent there were not enough, I’m glad I went. It was definitely an enriching experience. Maybe someday I’ll be able to go back but for now, I’m glad I got what I did! Have a look at these pictures, let them pique your interest and file them away in your mind- maybe someday you’ll be compelled to visit as well.

Nepal: Final Thoughts

The Annapurna Range
The Annapurna Range

Visiting a new country is always exciting and rewarding for me and Nepal was no exception. While I enjoyed my time, adventures, and experiences there, I have to say I left with mixed emotions about the place.
In so many ways, it is an amazing country. It has such varied terrain, from the tallest mountains in the world, to subtropical jungles, to flat grasslands. The weather is warmer, and far more humid than expected, yet the Himalayas offer not only freezing temperatures, but a variety of seasons as you gain in elevation. The people, predominantly Hindu, are friendly and curious, and overall, I felt relatively safe there, even as a single white female dressed in western style clothing. Kathmandu, the capital, Kathmandu, is chaotic, and bombards all the senses, but in time, you grow accustomed to the craziness and dare I say, even miss it?! There’s a lot of everything- people, sights, sounds, smells, food, stray dogs, items for sale on the sidewalks from Himalayan black salt to cheap trinkets and goods from China and India, the list goes on. Then there’s the heavy traffic, the incessant beeping of barely moving vehicles, each stuffed to the brim with people trying to get from point A to point B, and the pollution- trash filled streets and dusty air. Not a day goes by your nose doesn’t fill with black particles of Earth, congestion is common, and often times, I simply wish I had an eye wash station to clean out the grime.

Trash
Trash

Nepal ranks 145 out of 188 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, placing it into the low human development category. Infrastructure is lacking, the government likely corrupt (it is corrupt, but I don’t know to what extent), and poverty is widespread. As a tourist, you may be shuttled from one site to the next, not noticing some of these aspects of life, but living in the city, living in a place, you see things on a deeper level, at least I do anyway. As a registered dietitian, the first thing I always look at are foods consumed and the appearance of the people. While there are many healthy components of the Nepali diet, a majority of the people consume a diet high in staples, shutting out healthy nutrients necessary for growth. This is visually apparent as over 40% of the children are stunted (low height for their age) and it is common to see adults who are small, many with light and thinning hair, eye problems, and other issues related to malnutrition. While some may not see nutrition problems as a major issue, they are. They affect productivity and advancement as a nation, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Women and children learning about nutrition!
Women and children learning about nutrition!

Nepal has a caste system, something I don’t fully understand, but caste dictates what type of work a member can do. Whether it’s caste, or the basic need of generating income, people do tough work. Now, I’m not a hard core feminist or anything, but I’m sure the hard working women I witnessed needed the money they were earning. They must suffer through the physical labor because there are not adequate social support networks in place to help them. I often saw older women doing backbreaking work such as carrying rocks or sand in wicker baskets looped around their foreheads. Mixing cement, a corrosive substance in Nepal, from what I understand. And one rainy day, I saw some women in the jewelry district of Kathmandu ankle deep in mud. They were literally panning for gold in the streets of the city’s capital, looking for flecks and dust, or perhaps a dropped gem or other left over materials from jewelry makers. The image of those women, sifting through the mud, and the stench that accompanied it, is forever ingrained in my mind. I recalled an article I read long ago about women in India who do the same thing. I couldn’t find the exact story, but I came across this image and description:

Indians Pan for Gold in Streets Full of Garbage | Chennai, India


If you have a minute (or 5), also have a look at this article, about a man from the United States: http://nypost.com/2011/06/20/got-his-mined-in-the-gutter/  (Ok, guess what? I apparently have no idea how to insert a link- look at the one above, but at least it linked. This one won’t! ? Copy and paste if you’re interested in reading). The take on the same subjects are so polar. Panning for gold in the streets of New York is so glorified, and in India, it’s working amongst the garbage. View it how you will, but personally, my heart went out to those women.

Mixing cement.
Mixing cement.
Working hard.
Working hard.

A beautiful country with lots of potential, filled with high rates of malnutrition, child labor, human trafficking, young women promised a better life, but being sold into sex slavery in India and Thailand; corruption, poverty, pollution… I could lead the reader to feel Nepal is a terrible place, it’s not, but it needs work. I can’t fix it, nor would I even know how, but I do hope that the future will bring progress.
So, I leave you with that, and I leave Nepal with a happy, but heavy heart all at the same time. It’s difficult to not see much of what my mind perceives as social injustices and from that, I sometimes need a break. I have a tendency to carry these burdens on my shoulders and it gets heavy. It’s nice sometimes not to be ignorant of the culture and situations around you, but to turn a blind eye or get away from it for a while and empty your mind. Overall, I loved Nepal. I cried when I left, and if I ever visit agin, I will likely shed some happy tears when I arrive.

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