Bhutan is a little like watching a symphony with all of the sections playing in perfect unison -- the people, the landscape, the art, the religion, even the humble and likable royalty all seem to peak and flow at harmoniously choreographed moments like they were given some secret sheet music that the rest of us aren't privy to.
I live in Hawaii, a self-proclaimed "paradise" and when I got back I felt like I had landed in some post-apocalyptic parking lot. So imagine: if Bhutan makes Hawaii seem like that...
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People call Bhutan a Shangri-La, but it's not. It is, in fact, a real place. It is perhaps in many ways the only real place. Having had a life epiphany on a recent trip there that I took on the cusp of my 40th birthday, the truth is that Bhutan was a game-changer for me. There are so many things we can learn from a place that has the self-awareness to continuously iterate and critically analyze how to integrate modern influences without losing its true self.
Isn't this the nature of being in so many ways? Adapting without losing yourself. Progressing without forgetting. Accepting that we are not stagnant -- our feelings and dreams and desires change and build on one another, but in the end we still struggle to maintain being the best version of ourselves without living in the past. This is what Bhutan has figured out how to do as a nation while buried deep at the feet of the Eastern Himalayans, in a tiny little kingdom that has almost been forgotten, but is indeed very, very real.
I know what you're thinking. I start to sound fanatical when I begin to tick off all the great things about Bhutan -- like when you talk to someone who just came back from a few years in the Peace Corps and they are still dressed in the sari, kaftans, or whatever relevant garb to the country they were in, and they continuously reference things like, "When I was in Namibia, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, etc, and then make some inane comment about how quaint it was to not have electricity, pens or chocolate chip cookies for the time they were there. Trust me. I know exactly how annoying that is; I work for an NGO and spend a fair amount of time with the expat community in various parts of the world unwittingly playing the "Why X is so much better than the U.S." game. But this is different, I promise.
Bhutan is a little like watching a symphony with all of the sections playing in perfect unison -- the people, the landscape, the art, the religion, even the humble and likable royalty all seem to peak and flow at harmoniously choreographed moments like they were given some secret sheet music that the rest of us aren't privy to. Don't get me wrong: I have seen compassionate people and been present for things that amaze and marvel and are beautiful and spiritual before. After all, I am a midwife, and the birthing of babies is no insignificant matter. However, seeing the end result of an entire country living in a mindful way all at once is something I wish I could figure out how to replicate. It is quite simply, the most beautiful place on earth.
In fact, to give you a baseline of my personal perspective, I live in Hawaii, a self-proclaimed "paradise" and when I got back I felt like I had landed in some post-apocalyptic parking lot. So imagine: if Bhutan makes Hawaii seem like that... You get the idea of how absolutely different it is than anywhere else in the world and I think it is because in addition to its physical beauty, it is clean and pure down to its core values.
To describe Bhutanese people as kind and charming in every way is too much of an understatement (they are beyond belief though). They are simultaneously mild mannered and thoughtful but also very funny, quick to smile and among the most hard working people I've ever seen. After all, farming the roughest terrain in the world is no easy task -- it's the Himalayas for goodness sake -- but they don't complain, they just quietly do. Above all, Bhutanese are pleasant in a way that has become buried in our culture beneath 'to do' lists, iPhones, and 2-car garages. They are also courteous with small things like waiting in line and while driving. I know it seems trivial but knowing that other drivers are not competing with me actually made traveling on the precariously carved cliffside roads of Bhutan calming compared to the red light, green light, stop sign, you go, I go, turn signal world we live in. I now see that this perspective on 'small things' like driving permeates up into the big things in life and sets the tone for how we behave and feel every day.
I learned that I have been walking around in life feeling unsettled because of the accumulation of all of these small and seemingly insignificant negatives in our world. Bhutanese people seem settled from the ground up. Even when unhappy with specific things, it is a very temporary state for them because they are so solid and resilient in this way.
The land itself in Bhutan is almost laughably gorgeous -- as if someone took every Albert Bierstadt painting in existence, lined them up, and then brightened the colors by ten shades. The air is crisp and clean, and the water is almost seductive as it rambles effortlessly from 10,000 foot high mountain passes and then careens through valleys of terraced rice paddies. There are no pesticides, no GMOs, and no industrial pollution. Things are recycled and reused, and I never once saw a smoker the entire time I was there. This also sets an impossibly positive tone and makes it beautiful in a deep and true way.
Big decisions are made based on mindfulness, not money or convenience or personal gain. I'm not saying we should all be socialists (just ask my Slovene husband) but why should we all be individualists all the time? All. The. Time.
There are things that amazed my Bhutanese friends, which made me examine our values in a whole other perspective. When I explained how things are in the US they seemed truly devastated to hear that there are people without healthcare in such a rich country. They wondered how we pick who gets to have healthcare and who doesn't, education, to own a home, food, clothing... I felt like an idiot as I gave the ridiculous answers our reality dictates -- just a big jumble of buying and selling, and earning and working, and nowhere in that circle is justice or compassion or happiness.
In Bhutan nothing is reserved for an elite class or "special" privileged people. Even elaborate, beautiful artwork is found painted on the sides of old rural farmhouses kilometers off of any main road, and large ornate golden Buddhas are carved into rocks that you accidentally stumble upon in forests, never mind free healthcare and land to live on. These are simple things we don't have in a nation we proclaim as assuring freedom and equality to all. We often don't even really have the freedom to walk to a neighbor's house and sit and have a cup of tea without an internal dialog of 100 other things we "should" be doing instead at that moment. We are chained to our iPads, iPhones, carpools, traffic jams, grocery stores all in the name of individuality. Funny how I feel more imprisoned by the "freedom" we are afforded here when I really think about it.
People in Bhutan enjoy the simple things in life that we overlook every day. They wear incredibly beautiful hand-woven traditional clothing (a gho for men and a kirah for women) and babies are snuggled happily onto parents' backs while people walk. And walk,and walk. They walk to monasteries. They walk to have yak butter tea with friends in neighboring villages. They walk to get water, to sell vegetables, to trade grains, to bring offerings. One morning I saw kids walking to school and decided to join them. At 5:45 in the morning they began the ascent up a steep hillside (it took over an hour for them to scamper with lunchboxes and backpacks up the slick path effortlessly like they do 6 days a week) -- without complaining! I thought of my own kids and wondered how many days of Bhutanese life would it take for me to undo the damage our own culture has done to them. When would they be happy to walk for a cup of tea with a friend or run through a field of rice?
Whenever I return from trips to "developing" countries, people inevitably comment how seeing the conditions must make me so grateful for everything I have. While I am certainly grateful for the things in my life (healthy children, a home, education) I actually feel a deep loss now that I am back from Bhutan and am more inclined to purge my life of things that are the source of negativity and burden. What it comes down to is this: We don't need a lot of stuff, we don't need to always compete and compare, individuality is not always paramount, and we need to intentionally find happiness in simple things and just notice the world around us.
On my last day there, I asked a friend in Bhutan as I gestured across one of hundreds of lush green valleys below us, "Do you still notice how beautiful your country is or because you see it every day is this just normal to you?" and he quietly replied, "Oh, we notice it every moment of every day."