Bhutan was meant to be a vacation, a gift from my generous Board Member Alex who asked if we could add on Bhutan to the end of our work trip in Asia because she always wanted to go there. I had heard that Bhutan did not really have any poverty, so I assumed there would be no children to help. That helping children in Bhutan would be like raising money to help the children of Malibu. Clearly I have not learned the Buddhist principle of not having any expectations.
Bhutan only opened up to the West in the 1970s and they have fought to keep out Western influence. Over 15 years ago they were having heated debates about the younger generation’s desire to wear Levis and Nike instead of traditional dress, and the debate still continues today. (The dress code has been relaxed, but is still mandatory on government property, in temples, and on certain holidays.) Things move slowly in Bhutan, and deliberately so. They are a unique experiment and they know it – The last remaining Buddhist Kingdom, one foot in the past, and one foot flung reluctantly into the present. Their young handsome king (dubbed K5… sort of like J-Lo….because he is their 5th King) is a benevolent leader, as was his father, who is more interested in the well-being of his people than in the monarchy. (In fact, his father gave up considerable power and convinced the people to adopt a democracy several years ago because he knew it was in their best interests, even though they didn’t want it themselves). The land is beautiful, the temples and farmhouses all stunning, and the pace of life is serene. Chaotic and polluted Nepal could learn a lot from this place.
Not to say Bhutan is not without a dark side. There is a history of ugly skirmishes and uprisings along the Nepali border, and even now there is trouble with immigrants who wish to live in Bhutan, but Bhutan prefers to keep its free schools and free medical care for those they consider “true Bhutanese”.
The food is spicy and they fry their cheese in butter. The river water is crystal clean and the skies are bluer than anywhere in Asia. Road signs say“ Thanks” and “Inconvenience Regretted”, and no one honks their horn unless for safety reasons to announce you are passing from behind. No animals may be killed in the country. All meat and fish and poultry for consumption is imported from India. It’s a capital offense to kill a Raven, the national bird. The country measures its Gross National Happiness, to monitor the happiness of its people.
We had the good fortune to witness an unexpected and heavy snow storm on our first morning in Bhutan and it could not have been more beautiful. Even though the massive amounts of snow melted later that same day, the government declared the following Monday a national holiday to mark the first snow of 2013. There are few tourists at this time of year – Alex and I may indeed be the only Americans visiting right now. We met a few friendly Indians who work for Nike on our arduous hike to the fabled ‘Tigers’ Nest’ temple built into the side of a mountain. (Surely one of the most beautiful hikes in the world.)
Polygamy is allowed (K4 had 4 wives, all sisters), though not very common anymore. And – unlike the polygamy of Mormons or Muslim sects – it is equally available to women if they wish, to marry, say, a set of brothers.
There’s a fear that if someone offers you tea, they may be trying to poison you, so a cup carved from the knot of a special wood is carried by some because it is believed to bubble whenever poison exists in the tea. The days of the feuding Asian warlords may have ended centuries ago, but clearly they still have a haunting presence. And then there’s the ever-present penis…. painted on walls in pretty pastel colors in great realistic detail and carved out of wood with nothing left to the imagination. It’s a good luck symbol, often used to ward off slander and promote fertility. Side by side painting of a penis and a Buddha are not uncommon.
I happened to notice a small tent and a campfire on the road outside our hotel. I wondered who had to sleep in such cold and our guide told me it was a migrant worker who guards the tractor at night for the Indian company that is building the country’s roads. I felt so bad for whoever was in such cold weather that I brought him my extra mittens and hat and some socks the morning after the snow. He didn’t speak English but seemed to appreciate the gesture and I saw him wearing the hat the next day.
We later noticed a larger group of migrant workers along a roadside, and this time they had children around. We learned that these migrants come from India or Nepal and live in labor camps, which are akin to slums, run by the Indian conglomerate building the roads. Thankfully, the children of the workers do attend school, but their living conditions are bad, and during winter school breaks, the kids accompany their parents to work digging up along the roadside.
In lieu of another day of sightseeing, Alex and I asked our guide to redesign our day. We opted to drop in on a labor camp. At first our guide wasn’t sure it would be possible but he made some calls and we went on our way. The kids were adorable and friendly and eager to be photographed. The parents spoke about the need for better conditions for their kids. We met one woman who was a labor camp kid herself, but has now lived in a labor camp for 40 years and has kids of her own. She goes back to India once a year to visit family. Bhutan does not consider her a citizen resident, but after 40 years, how can she ever go back to India? When the roads are done, this will be a sticky situation for Bhutan. There are over 20 labor camps in Bhutan. After the labor camp visit, we asked to meet with someone at the Youth Development Fund, a government sanctioned nonprofit to benefit Bhutanese youth. (But only Bhutanese youth.) The executive welcomed us and she was smart and insightful and has a clear understanding of what aid works and what aid doesn’t work, and she is a blessing to the youth of Bhutan. But she also is capable of turning a cold hard hand to the children of the migrant workers. When I questioned whether a small library or a playground in the camp sites would be welcomed, she said it would be a great idea, but then said the Indian company should not be employing women with children in the first place, and that the labor camps cannot be made too attractive or then all kinds of immigrants will start coming to take advantage of the free schools and health care, and so better to help Bhutanese children. While I admired her intelligence and was sympathetic to her country’s situation, I was still nagged by a desire to do something for the migrant children.
I found an online news article about a local organization teaching art to delinquent youth and the children of prisoners. I dropped in on them (thankfully the Bhutanese don’t seem to mind when strangers drop in on them, unlike many other countries I have visited) and though it turns out their art programs are primarily directed at Bhutanese middle class youth, the founder and artistic director welcomed my idea to take his weekend art camp to the labor camps… provided the Indian company would welcome them. While a weekend art camp won’t greatly, or even minimally, affect the living conditions of these children, it could create a spark in the community. It could introduce the idea that there are things locals can do to make life better for these children along the sides of their roads. Even our guide admitted that we inspired him, as he had never considered such an idea before, but now he wonders “Why can’t I do something to help, since I am living here?”
Next stop, offices of the Indian conglomerate. Our guide called and asked if we could get an appointment. I was highly doubtful they would see us. Even after they said yes, when we arrived we had to first present ourselves to a stern Indian guard who asked for my business card and the nature of my business. After hearing my intention, he said he had to call a superior. He made a phone call and we were allowed to pass to the next level.
We were warmly welcomed by a senior executive who insisted we join him for tea. He talked about the benefits of democracy vs. monarchy and the complex relationships between India and Nepal and Bhutan – stuff that might be boring in a textbook or newspaper but which was fascinating when you realized it was happening now and that these are real issues affecting real people’s lives. Much to my surprise, this warm company exec welcomed my idea to have the local NGO come and talk to him about art programs at the labor camps. He said the company would happily contribute transportation or loan A/V equipment if needed. (In reality this company is probably a billion dollar company that should be doing this and more, and their offer to loan A/V equipment to help the migrant children would be laughable under any other context, but I took it as a small victory.)
I had to leave Bhutan for home the next morning, but our guide promised to follow through and introduce the art group to the Indian company and if everyone agrees, GO Campaign could make a grant to the art group for the purposes of carrying out their program at the labor camps, and who knows what could grow out of that.
I emptied my suitcases of my own clothes and left them behind for men in the labor camps. Today somewhere in Bhutan there is a migrant worker decked out in an Arcteryx winter jacket and a pair of Levis. Two more items of Western influence have found their way into the country. And possibly a third, if you count compassion for migrant workers.
Bhutanese Buddhism is founded upon the core principle of acting in the interests of all sentient beings… compassion for all others over yourself… And since nowhere is Buddhism more prevalent than in Bhutan, I have hope for this little spark.