Bhutan

Prologue

We are a bit embarrassed to admit that up until a few years ago, we had never even heard of the small country of Bhutan. We first became aware of it through Michael Palin's Himalaya travel television series and its companion book. The more we learned about it, the more enthralled we became with this tiny Buddhist kingdom which measured wealth by Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. Soon afterwards, we saw an episode of the MTV travel series "Trippin'", where Cameron Diaz and friends visited Bhutan. They explored the environmentalism of the country. We learned 26% of the country is protected either as wildlife sanctuary, national park, or nature preserve. Plastic bags are banned, and rsidents must get governmental permission before cutting down trees. For every tree that is cut, two must be planted. As a result of these policies, forested land is actually on the increase in Bhutan.

We devoured these facts and did our own research to learn more. Bhutanese are mandated by law to wear their traditional national dress (a floor length woven dress and silk jacket for women, called a kira, and a knee length wrap-around robe called a gho worn with knee socks for men) during business hours when visiting offices or attending school. The architecture is also government-regulated, to preserve the traditional building styles. The national language is Dzongkha, but English is also mandatory in all schools.

We learned that the Bhutanese love their 4th king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, but that he would soon be turning the country over to democracy. Many citizens were resistant, because they always trusted their beloved king to take care of them and they feared democracy. The country only got television and internet access in 1999 (and it had only opened its borders to the rest of the world in 1974), so it was isolated for quite a while and seemed to exist almost frozen in time. We wanted to see it before the modern world changed it too much, so we started to think that this should probably be a trip that we should do sooner rather than later. Craig got in touch with Wildland Adventures, who had organized our 2006 trip to Africa. However, they didn't offer trips to Bhutan. They referred us to Myths and Mountains, founded by Dr. Toni Neubauer, a trusted colleague of theirs. Craig contacted her and explained what kind of experience we were looking for. We wanted to get to spend time with locals, and do a homestay if at all possible. Toni coordinated with Etho Metho Tours and Treks (the local Bhutanese operator) to create a custom itinerary that fit our needs perfectly.

Tourism in Bhutan is strictly regulated. Independent travel is not possible; you must go on a set itinerary with an established and sanctioned guiding company. there is an approximately $200 USD all-inclusive fee per traveler per day. This covers accommodation, food, and land-based travel, and is the same whether you are camping or staying in a hotel. We would be visiting the village of Shelmakha for their annual festival. this village does not usually recieve many western visitors, and when it does, they usually camp. One of the managers of Etho Metho is from Shelmakha, and she was able to pull some strings to arrange a homestay in a farmhouse during the festival. We were quite excited about this.

As proof that things in Bhutan were on the cusp of change, before we even got there, the 4th King handed down the throne to Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and the country was conducting mock elections in preparation for Democracy. The country started to get more media coverage, and we saw a "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" segment on NBC's Today Show. We were very excited for our trip. I read books about Bhutan, including "Beyond the Sky and the Earth" (a memoir by Canadian Jamie Zeppa who taught in Bhutan for two years) and "Treasures of the Thunder Dragon" by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (one of the four Queens of Bhutan). There aren't a lot of guide books for Bhutan (I guess it's because you can't travel independently there), but we found a good one by Lonely Planet.

We toyed with the idea of going to Tibet at the same time, but we just didn't have enough vacation days to do it justice. However, we would be flying into and out of Delhi (only one airline flies to Bhutan, and there are only a handful of cities where you can get flights: Delhi, Kolkata, Kathmandu, and Bangkok). With Toni's help, we decided on a quick trip to see the Taj Mahal before returning home. We decided to splurge on our last night and get a room at the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, where every room has a view of the Taj Mahal. Toni set things up through Peirce and Leslie, a tour operator in India.

As usual, we visited the Lahey Travel Clinic prior to our trip. we were up-to-date on immunizations, but Dr. Ooi decided we should get rabies shots because Bhutan is notorious for the number of stray dogs it harbors. Being a Buddhist country, dogs are never euthanized, and their numbers continue to grow. It turned out that this was a three-part shot, and the three visits to the specialist doctor (which our new insurance didn't cover) ended up costing us a fortune out-of-pocket. If we had known that we wouldn't have gotten the rabies shots, because in the end they weren't really necessary.

Wednesday 10/03/07 - Departure from Boston

We worked today and left at 2:40 pm. We made a quick stop at home and left at around 4 pm for the airport. Craig's mother graciously drove us in. We waited for around an hour to check in, but by the time we got to security there was no line and it was a very quick process. We bought dinner at Burger King and $3 bottles of water and then headed to the standard American Airlines gates. We bought donuts at Dunkin Donuts and ate them as a snack. We boarded our flight to London at around 6:30. The plane was a 2-5-2 configuration, and we were seated in two seats on the left hand side of the plane. There were seatback TV's but no good programming, so we watched the flight progress, temperature, elevation statistics, etc.

There was an annoying young man five seats away carrying a white suitcoat and a pillow with him. He was flirting with a woman two seats away from him and I could hear his voice more clearly than Craig's, who was sitting right next to me. This guy talked for hours. When they came around with drink service, I had a craving for ginger ale (which I haven't had for about 5 years). They almost ran out on the first pass with drinks. I got one of the last cans, though. Craig got his standard Cranapple. They served a beef burgundy meal with mashed potatoes, veggies, salad, a roll, and Musselman applesauce cookies. After the meal we tried to sleep. I had to put on headphones and listen to big band music and crooners on the in-flight audio program to drown out the loud guy's incessant yapping. Eventually he swapped seats with his wingman and shared his pillow with the object of his flirtation. We watched the current time on the seatback TV statistics. It was funny to watch us pass through the various time zones. We were an hour ahead of Eastern Daylight Time, an hour and a half ahead, equal to Eastern Daylight Time, then an hour ahead again...it's amusing how time zones work.




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