Get­ting un­der the skin of a coun­try that mea­sures suc­cess in ‘Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness’

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Emma Thomson

Tiered rice ter­races re­flected the vast cerulean sky like shards of a shat­tered mir­ror. Kin­ley Cho­den, my host, sat next to me on the grassy lip of the val­ley as we watched women plant clumps of seedlings into the flooded fields. The sun winked be­hind the far hills. “Let’s go home, Mum is mak­ing ara,” she said.

It was a far cry from the pre­vi­ous night I’d spent at a ho­tel in Thim­phu – Bhutan’s cap­i­tal – eating alone in the dimly lit restau­rant. At­tempts to talk to the wait­ress had re­sulted in her gig­gling shyly and back­ing to­wards the kitchen, leav­ing me alone with a loop­ing sound­track of wail­ing Hindi love songs.

I adore ho­tels and the de­light­ful bub­ble of break­fast buf­fets, minia­ture toi­letries and mini­bars they of­fer, but some­times I hunger for a lit­tle more con­tact. I’m con­scious that ho­tels can oc­ca­sion­ally be­come safety blan­kets that al­low us to ex­plore coun­tries with­out get­ting too close, too in­volved. An air- con­di­tioned nook we can re­treat to for a cup of tea. The only snag is, once in­side, you could be any­where. Homes­tays of­fer an im­mer­sive al­ter­na­tive and I’d come to try two in Bhutan’s Pu­nakha and Haa val­leys.

“Four or five years ago tourists didn’t min­gle with lo­cal peo­ple. They just vis­ited our tem­ples and fortresses,” said Sonam Pelden, my guide and trans­la­tor, as he pinned his mop of black hair be­neath a base­ball cap. We were near­ing the vil­lage of Men­drel­gang – two and a half hours east of Paro, the in­ter­na­tional gate­way to Bhutan – to stay at Kin­ley’s home for two nights. She opened to guests this Jan­uary.

“For the first three months no one came,” she ad­mit­ted. “Word needed to spread, but now I’ve had peo­ple from In­dia, Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong – you’re my fourth vis­i­tor.” Just 27, Kin­ley sported three ear­rings in each ear and a re­bel­lious tat­too on her shoul­der ( they’re il­le­gal in Bhutan). Her new hus­band, Yon­ten, smiled by her side as we passed be­neath the pas­sion- fruit vine fram­ing the stairs of the tra­di­tional three­storey farm­house.

En­ter­ing the kitchen, I met her mother, Tsh­er­ing, and fa­ther, Dorji, who shuf­fled me into the liv­ing room and prof­fered a mug of milky chai ( tea) into my hands. Wicker bas­kets of puffed rice and maekhu ( round puffed crack­ers) were laid out on the low ta­ble.

“At first it was weird hav­ing strangers in my house, I was shy – my fa­ther was more ex­cited than me – but now I’m get­ting used to it,” con­tin­ued Kin­ley. I nod­ded, sip­ping my tea, and tak­ing in the gag­gle of framed fam­ily pho­tos, painted wooden beams and minia­ture cacti that curled like lo­tus flowers on the ta­ble.

“The thing is, I don’t like Thim­phu ( where she stud­ied). Do­ing a home­s­tay al­lows me to live where I grew up – YHD gave me the idea.” The Bhutan Youth De­vel­op­ment Fund, to­gether with French NGO Aide et Ac­tion and UNDP, have set up My Gakidh Vil­lage which aims to curb ru­ral- ur­ban youth mi­gra­tion – over 56 per cent of the coun­try is un­der the age of 30 – by pro­vid­ing sus­tain­able liveli­hood skills, such as tea- mak­ing, tai­lor­ing and homes­tays, to youths within their own com­mu­nity.

Three stu­dents from In­dia, who are as­sist­ing Gadikh, were also stay­ing and the youngest, Avika, chipped in: “If you stay in a ho­tel you don’t learn much about real Bhutanese life.”

“Yes! See­ing the town’s isn’t re­ally nec­es­sary; the coun­try­side is real Bhutan,” fin­ished Kin­ley.

And so we wan­dered out­side. Past orange trees and fields of yel­low­ing corn that Kin­ley’s piebald dog chok tu – “it means ‘ poop’,” she laughed – wove in and out of, to­wards the rows of rice pad­dies that glinted like mir­rors. I hunched down and joined the women pick­ing rice seedlings.

To be con­tin­ued next week

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