A week in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan
It’s shamefully embarrassing to admit this, but upon reflection I think I have reached the point where I’m travelling to countries that just a few years ago I knew little, or nothing about. My move to Bangladesh back in 2011 not only introduced me to this golden land, but given that my job is teaching students from 15 different countries, my eyes and ears have been exposed to each and every one of those countries in some way. I’m undoubtedly a lot richer for that.
A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to visit one of those countries that had most intrigued me, and thanks to the assistance, amazing kindness and visa office doggedness of Dechen (a former student) I was on a plane to Paro and landing in Bhutan.
Bhutan is sandwiched in a somewhat intimidating position between India and China and is unique in its policy of measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP. In effect, focus is placed more firmly upon the preservation of culture with a commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable development. Thus, it’s not the easiest of places to enter as a tourist or to roam freely once you are there. However, don’t let the bureaucracy deter you because quite frankly, it is stunning and so very endearing in many ways.
In this account of my brief stay in Bhutan, I will try to explain just why, based of course on personal experience, this kingdom of just 800,000 people made such an impression.
Here is an album with a selection of photos – Bhutan
Eastern Himalayan mountains, deep and dramatic valleys, winding rivers, dense forests, fertile pastures, and wide open plains all contribute to the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you. As the plane lands in Paro, it weaves between mountainous peaks and according to this article, only eight pilots are currently certified to land aircrafts there!
Preservation of culture
Bhutan is proud of its cultural heritage, and has taken strong measures to ensure not only its survival, but crucially its conservation and continued significance in everyday life. Television and internet is a surprisingly new feature of life in Bhutan having only been introduced (officially) in 1999. Tourism is limited and controlled, and national dress is a must at various locations including most workplaces. There is a gritty commitment to rejecting and actively fighting those external influences that can commonly be accused of eroding traditional culture in certain other countries that have welcomed tourism with open arms.
Road safety signs
On the beautiful winding and meandering main highway between Paro and Thimphu, which I imagine is one of Bhutan’s busiest, there are regular road safety signs that predominantly focus on reducing speed. They get their message across though in a quirky and sometimes cheeky fashion. I wasn’t able to capture any photos, but I did make a note of two in particular that stuck in my head…
“If you are married, divorce speed!”
“Be gentle on my curves”
On a more serious note though, it does appear that road safety is a huge priority in Bhutan with regular police checkpoints and from what I saw a diligent appreciation of the laws in place.
In Bhutan there are dogs….so many dogs. They are everywhere. On every street corner, under every bridge, asleep on every sidewalk and at night they serenade you until the early hours with huge canine choirs. They are also quite often big, furry things that generally add a level of happiness and warmth to an already happy and warm country!
There are bins. People use them.
There seems to be a genuine commitment to, and pride in keeping the country clean. It may seem a little patronizing to point this out, but from travelling and from experiences back home in the UK, I feel that many places (and people) have abandoned their responsibility to this simple and basic condition. The bins are also covered in motivational and encouraging messages, just in case you feel the inclination not to utilize them.
This was not much of a surprise. Whenever I travel I encounter genuinely kind and hospitable people. Bhutan was no different, and I had not expected it to be. Before I’d even begun the visa application process, my Bhutanese students and their families had offered all kinds of help and support, and once I landed in Bhutan that help and support became even more ubiquitous. From the man in the coffee shop who gave me a warm welcome each morning, to the friend of a friend who within thirty minutes of meeting me had paid for my dinner, it was a week full of unrelenting kindness. Special mentions must go to Dechen, Pema, Sonam, Yeshey, Kencho, Namgay, and to Roma and her family. These wonderful people made my stay in Bhutan even more perfect than it could have been.
In Bhutan it seems there are beautiful old buildings everywhere. In Thimphu many of the newer buildings also display the traditional style, which goes a long way to once again preserving the history and cultural heritage.
So, those are just a few aspects of my trip to Bhutan that stood out and made we wish I’d had significantly more time to really explore further. As with many of the places I’ve visited, I plan to return one day. I’m not sure when that will be, but hopefully sooner rather than later.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Tashi Delek is difficult to translate directly, but it is often taken to mean “blessings and good luck” and is used in Bhutan, but also parts of Nepal and northern India.
Here is a gallery of some further photos from my trip…
“Does it bother you that I talk so much?”
Tucked inconspicuously away from the noise and chaos of one of Chittagong’s longest and busiest main roads you’ll find a small tea shop. Not particularly unique in appearance, it is sandwiched on either side by two further tea shops, and all three function identically, serving very similar items to a wide variety of people who happen to sit down that day. It’s easy to miss the turning into the road these shops are situated on, and most people will pass straight by. My chance encounter came about in a characteristically haphazard manner. I was stranded at the back of a huge line of people all waiting to gain entry into the Indian High Commission. As I stood there exchanging frustrated head nods and tuts with fellow embassy hopefuls, I pondered if it were more logical to continue standing in this line, or whether I should try my luck at camouflaging up and attempt a covert border crossing through the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.
All was not lost though and help was at hand in the form of a cup of tea and a citizen from the very country I was trying hard to get a visa for. Sharmistha, my friend, colleague, and fellow tea enthusiast had learned of my queue predicament and very kindly arrived to offer moral support/language translation skills. She also went off in search of tea and came back telling the tale of the shop this blog centres around. However, it is much less to do with the actual shop, but rather the person who serves the tea and runs the establishment. Her name is Asma, and she is just twelve years old (“baro” in Bangla).
After eventually entering the High Commission, both Sharmistha and I returned to Asma’s shop for another cup of tea, but also because we wanted to learn more about this tenacious 12 year old. She informed us the shop is her father’s, but as he works as a security guard in a neighbouring hospital, Asma has been assigned the crucial duty of ensuring the tea business runs smoothly. Thus, she sits from morning until evening each day serving tea, paan, bread, and cigarettes to customers, 99% of whom are most probably men. She is twelve remember.
Sharmistha and I have returned to chat with Asma several times now and also with her father and some of the regular patrons of the shop. It is clear they think very highly of Asma, and why wouldn’t they?! She is outgoing, friendly, efficient, and has one of the warmest and most engaging smiles I’ve ever seen. Asma has inspired me to use this blog in future to highlight some of the characters I regularly meet here in Chittagong. Special thanks must go to Sharmistha, who is responsible for the majority of the translation that was required!
When we first met Asma two months ago, she was not attending school. Her father had promised to send her once he found a suitable arrangement for the tea shop around his work schedule. He had tried employing others to run it in his absence, but claimed he was unable to trust them. It therefore fell upon Asma to keep everything in order.
This was a wise choice. From observing Asma she is highly efficient and able to confidently deal with the pressures of a bustling tea stand. She is also very astute with money. On one occasion we came to pay for our tea and Asma’s father wouldn’t take our money. Typical Bangladesh hospitality once again. We protested and exclaimed that if Asma were here, she would certainly accept our money. He laughed and replied, “Yes, you’re right!”
We returned once again to see Asma yesterday and the great news is she is now attending school. Her classes begin at 6.00am and finish for the day at 11.00am. She returns home, eats lunch, completes her homework, and by 2.00pm she is at the tea stand where she’ll remain until around 8.00pm.
We enquired about school and she told us she enjoys it. Currently in class 4, she finds the lessons interesting, and also playing games, something she has previously had little time to do when whole days were spent at work.
Asma attends school with her friend from next door, and this works well as, “She is a good girl, who doesn’t fight with me and she helps her mother.” The school they attend is divided with classes for girls held in the mornings and the classes for boys held in the afternoon. Asma didn’t seem too concerned by this arrangement and wisely concluded that;
“If boys and girls are put together, there will be trouble!”
Originally from a village in Noakhali district to the north west of Chittagong, Asma’s father decided to move to the city in search of work. She admitted to missing village life and particularly her grandparents and the other children she used to play with. The green, the rice fields and the ponds are also aspects of village life she misses. However, her mother is here with her in Chittagong and this is incredibly important for Asma. She told us;
“I love talking with my mother. If I’m not sleeping when I’m at home, I’m talking to my mother. I love her very much.”
As I mentioned earlier, Asma receives respect and affection from the people who regularly visit the tea stand. Whilst we were there yesterday a local policeman stopped for tea and is clearly fond of her. He referred to Asma as “mamoni” an affectionate term used for younger people. Another younger man was asking Asma about school and encouraged her to go there and “make good friends.”
Some regulars seem to look at me and Sharmistha with puzzled eyes, perhaps wondering why we keep returning to the small tea stand and drinking up to three cups of tea at a time just so that we can learn more about the girl with the infectious smile. Asma asked Sharmistha yesterday, “Does it bother you that I talk so much?!”
No Asma, it really does not.
So that is Asma, a twelve year old girl balancing a life of school and work at such a young age. She does so with a smile and positivity that is truly inspiring. She is also extremely wise. As I left yesterday her advice for me was;
“Stay well, and eat your rice well.”
So I had planned to tackle a serious subject in this blog update, but due to events which transpired in a classroom at AUW this week I’ve decided there are far more pressing issues to be discussed. When I say issues, I do in fact actually mean just one single issue. My beard.
You may have seen it. It’s in photos, and it’s reached a length which now makes it fairly noticeable to all. I’ve been wrestling with this for a while. To shave or not to shave? This is the conundrum that currently keeps John Stanlake awake at night, and it’s a conundrum which reached the classroom this week as a fellow teacher put it to her students in a writing task. Their prompt was ‘Should Mr John keep his beard or not?’
It’s essentially the end of term here, so this is not a usual assignment. Anyway, the students were very forthcoming with their opinions. I’d like to share some (the best) with you….
I’ve separated this into two sections – pro-beard (Fogle lovers) and anti-beard (Fogle haters)….Let’s start with the anti-beard brigade;
(Please note: These are all direct quotes)
‘I think Mr Jhon shouldn’t keep his beard. When he keeps beard, he looks more older than his age. It is also hard for him to wash his face cleanly. Even though he washed his face because of beard some dirt may stay in his beard. Because of beard when he eats anything food may be stick to his beard. As like food, the environment dust also sticks to his beard and may make him unhealthy.’
An obvious beard hater. However, her concern for my health and wellbeing is commendable.
‘As his beard is not black in colour it does not look good to me. Rather it makes him look foolish. His beard is not compatible with his face.’
Honest and to the point – Clearly not a future politician.
‘His beard is yellow, so it is not like so much good than black beard looks’.
Valid point. In fairness though it’s hard to judge me here as you don’t see many blond-haired Bangladeshis.
This next student has several convincing arguments in defence of her anti-beard stance;
- ‘You will forget how to shave which might cause you problems later’. It’s more concerning that she appears to think her teacher will forget how to perform such a simple task as shaving so quickly!
- ‘You might get lice on your beard due to AUW’s water.’ This is highly alarming. Is it possible to have lice-ridden facial hair?? If yes, that may clinch the decision to shave.
- ‘It makes your face filled with two colour which looks funny. Like, your whole face is white but your beard is part brown.’ I’d argue that it would look even funnier/weirder if I had a skin-coloured beard surely??
- ‘It will save you precious time because you don’t have to comb it frequently.’ There is that I guess. However, I’m fond of my beard comb. It would be useless and redundant without a beard to comb.
- ‘It will save water if you don’t have to clean it frequently.’ I’d probably still wash my face though. Beard or no beard.
All points are valid and have been noted.
‘I first met him during history class. He looked good; wearing shirt and jeans (which suits his face without beard). A face with beard looks untidy and it somehow gives a gesture of laziness, since beard is raised by old people.’
Hmmm…In many ways she’s hit the nail on the head. The whole reason for the beard in the first place was due to a lack of motivation to shave over the summer holiday.
‘I think Mr John looks good when he keeps short beard. Neither totally shaved nor long like that a saint does. Since neatly shaved look in men makes him chocolaty, Mr John should try out professional look.’
Has anyone ever seen a Saint with a chocolaty beard?
This was one of my favourite responses. Simply entitled ‘Beard’ this student is fantastically honest….
‘Dear Sir – you looked better at the beginning of the semester. Do you know the reason behind it? Yes, of course, it’s because you hadn’t had bunch of beard then. I don’t mean to say that you look unattractive now, but there is nothing to praise. I agree being a man you would want some beard to look manly or something like that but I don’t understand the reason behind letting them grow more and more. Maybe you are planning to become a ‘Babaji*,’ but I think it’s not a good idea. I don’t even want to imagine you like that…disgusting! I wonder if after the winter break you will come with your long hair as well. OMG*!! You look good the way you used to be with small beard rather than that jungle in your face.’
*Babaji – I believe this is some kind of religious figure who sports long hair and a long beard, but I may be wrong.
* OMG = Oh My God
Another classic, this possibly surpasses the previous verdict. This student begins with some nice comments about me as a teacher, but then follows it directly with;
‘But every good thing has some error attached to it. In Mr John’s case, it’s his beard. I would strongly encourage him to shave it off as soon as possible. I have some valid reasons for it,
- The beard he has is hiding his face and making it look unpolished.
- When I see his face I think he carries a burden on his face. I feel very sorry for him when I see him carrying such a burden.
- Last, but not least, his voice. Because of so much pressure on his face Mr John can’t talk clearly which makes a problem for us – his students. To let out his bold voice without any barricade he should get rid of his beard.
Finally, I really enjoyed taking part in this noble cause. I feel extremely fortunate that my efficiency is considered valuable in this serious global issue.’
Does a beard hinder speech? Is my beard hiding a burden? Should I be polishing my face? All good questions.
‘Your beard is like a forest and is the same as ancient man’
This student offers some useful advice;
First of all he looks more young without beard whereas having beard shows him much older than he is. It is not only about personal appearance but also affects his students. Students like their teacher to look nice. When he comes to class with shaved beard, most probably everyone would tell him ‘You look nice Sir!’ and the positive sentence would have great affect on the class and make it nice. But when he comes to class without shaving students would not even listen to him! Also in today’s world the one with beard would seem more barbaric.’
So I’m a boring barbarian that no one listens to. Good to know.
However – It’s not all doom and gloom. Most of the facial hair naysayers end with a remark of positivity, encouragement and most importantly, advice. For example;
‘Sorry Sir, if I did hurt you. I just gave you my opinion. It’s your beard, it’s your life, you are most welcome to experiment with it, but do be careful of your looks as well.’
So, now for the less vociferous pro-beard brigade;
‘I personally feel that your beard makes your personality more notable. Your face itself suggests to keep a beard.’
And that’s it. It’s hardly conclusive, but it’s a nugget of hope in an otherwise damning verdict of my facial hair policy.
I’d also just like to share one more quote from a student. We clearly have a future diplomat on our hands;
‘I believe that if Mr John keeps his beard or not is not important. The way people evaluate a person isn’t dependent completely on an appearance. Moreover, he doesn’t change his character if he shaves his beard. If shaving makes him change positively, he should do. But if it does not affect anyone and anything, don’t do it. Let him be himself. Finally, shaving is Mr John’s choice. Don’t ask us!’
Amen sister! These words will resonate with me as I walk off into the sunset whistling ‘Born Free’. Now, you may be thinking that in light of all this staunch beard negativity I’m going to head straight to the barbers. Well, you’d be wrong. I value the opinions of my students of course, however, a few weeks back I received all the positive endorsement needed to convince me to keep the beard for a good while yet. Ironically it was in fact at the barbers as I was having my hair cut at ‘Scissors over Comb’.
One of the barbers, who was cutting the hair of the man in the chair next to me, looked at me. He stared for a while and then rubbed his own beard (which was impressive in terms of both its volume and shape), pointed to mine, and then nodded his head in an obvious sign of approval. I’d doubted the beard up to this point, but this one man’s single nod of the head changed all that! For now, the beard stays.