I’ve been traveling all my life. I can’t remember whether my first trip was to Neverland or to Oz, but I DO know that I returned to both places countless times.
For many, many years all my travel took place solely between my ears. Although school did its best to smother any interest in geography by forcing us to memorize products, capitals, and other bone crushingly boring trivia, I never lost my enthusiasm for the exotic places I discovered through our local library. Books were my magic carpet, whisking me to wondrous places a small town girl like me never dreamed she’d ever be able to actually visit.
Maybe that’s why today, before I set foot in another country, I try to read as much as I can about its culture, religion, politics, history and yes, even geography. I want to experience in it my head first. It sounds crazy, even to me, but a place seems more REAL if I have read about it.
Our next trip will be to the Himalayan countries of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. Here’s a map courtesy of Overseas Adventure Travel, roughly showing where we will be easin’ on down the road. Notice the red line stops at the Seti River? That’s where the rafting starts, because there ain’t no road to get where we are going, yellow brick or otherwise.
So about those books I’ve been reading– lets start with Bhutan.
My interest in that country began several years ago when I stumbled across The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. It introduced me to Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness. Also around that time, we’d had the good fortune to meet and travel with Dr. Peter Steele. In 1967, at a time when it was closed to most of the western world, he and his wife were invited to visit Bhutan by the royal family. After reading his account of the trip, Two and Two Halves in Bhutan, I became even more interested in visiting that fascinating country.
OAT provides a list of “additional resources” for each country on the tour. That list was my starting point, supplemented by what I could find on Overdrive, an online resource available through our library and of course, by random internet searches.
What follows is nothing even close to a book report, mainly I am somewhat lazy, but also because you will get better summaries by clicking on the blue words in this post. The Amazon and Good Reads reviewers will do a much better job filling you in than I would have done.
I had no idea that in addition to Peter Steele, Shirley Maclaine also visited Bhutan in the ’60s. In her 1970 autobiography, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain, she explains that she had gone to India to learn to meditate, and while there met the new Prime Minister, Lhendup Dorji. He had assumed that position after the prior Prime Minister (his brother) was assassinated by a member of the military. She accepted Dorji’s invitation to visit Bhutan, but unfortunately there was still political unrest in the country, so her visit was cut short. Still, she was there long enough to give me a feel for what Bhutan was like during that period. Plus, she DID make it to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro. And so will I.
Jamie Zeppa’s book, Beyond the Sky and Earth is a wonderful description of life in Bhutan during the late ’80s. She spent two years as a teacher, first with elementary students in a remote village, then teaching college students at Sherubtse College near Trashigang. Yeah, I’d never heard of those places either.
Jamie married one of her students,Tshewang Dendup. Why did I feel compelled to tell you his name? Well there is a reason. In 2003, he had a starring role in the lovely Bhutanese movie, Travellers and Magicians. I got the DVD from my library; it’s a great way to sneak a peek at the beautiful Bhutanese scenery (and to check out Jamie’s ex- husband, if you are so inclined.)
Lisa Napoli”s book, Radio Shangri-La is about her volunteer work at Kuzoo FM, Bhutan’s “youth based” radio station. Established in 2006 as one of the king’s projects, Kuzoo broadcasts in both Dzongkha and English. Lisa’s several years with NPR made her a valuable resource for this young radio station.
Those 4 books gave me glimpses of Bhutan’s evolution from a closed Himalayan kingdom of the ’60s up to around 2009. What did I learn from my reading?
Ten Fun Facts About Bhutan (Not in order of importance, or any other kind of order, for that matter)
- Bhutan is also known as Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon
- Marijuana grows wild in Bhutan, and is fed to the pigs because (surprise, surprise) it increases their appetite.
- Ara is the local moonshine; its a clear wine made from rice. ( Now that we’ve gotten the local stimulants out of the way, let’s move on)
- All doctors visits and health care is free
- Drukpa Kinley, a Tibetan monk who lived in the late 1400’s, made his way to Bhutan. He was also known as the Divine Madman who used his “flaming thunderbolt” to bless women and to bestow “enlightenment”. He was so successful in his endeavors, he became the patron saint of fertility.
- Thanks to the Divine Madman, many Bhutanese houses sport paintings and sculptures of phalluses. Who knows, photos of the artwork may be a coming attraction of this blog.
- Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th king of Bhutan, voluntarily gave up absolute power in 1998. (When does THAT ever happen??) He guided the nation from a hereditary monarchy (which had been established in 1907) to its current status as a parliamentary democracy.
- Okay, so now the”People Magazine” type information: The 4th king had 4 wives, all of them sisters.
- His son, the 5th king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was crowned in November of 2008. That king has only ONE wife, who he met at a picnic when he was 17 and she was 7. According to legend, he said ‘When you grow up, if I am not married and if you are not married, I would like you to be my wife, provided we still feel the same.’
- Men wear the Gho, and women wear the Kira; these two articles comprise Bhutan’s national dress. Jamie’s book mentions that all Bhutanese were required to wear the national dress. This dress code was an issue for the Nepalese immigrants living in the southern part of the country. I don’t know whether the requirement still exists today, but it will be pretty apparent once we get there whether it does or not.
I actually learned a whole lot more, but I have to save SOMETHING for when we get there, right?
Next stop on our book tour – Nepal.