23 June 2012

Bhutan: The Ultimate Inspired Adventure

Here we sit just minutes from boarding our plane back to the rest of the world and all I can think is, "do we really have to go?" The last ten days have been full of enough first-time experiences to last a lifetime and yet it feels as if there is so much more to discover. "Bhutan gets under your skin," a new friend told us, "and once you've been you just can't seem to stay away."


At the same time, however, it is impossible to pinpoint what, exactly, fuels that feeling. Like so many Inspired Adventures trips there is a certain "thing" that separates the experience from any other trip abroad. Usually, it is everything else that comes with an Inspired Adventure. There is the 12 months of fundraising and getting fit, the charity-focused purpose, and perhaps a much deeper personal goal. Those elements turn the trip from just an adventure into an Inspired one.


Here in Bhutan the same pervasive feeling lingers even without those elements. Maybe it is the warmth and genuineness of the people. Maybe it is the mind-boggling natural beauty. Maybe it is the air of peace and happiness tha seems to permeate the air.


In just ten days we have followed trails crossing the depths of valley floors and climbed to the highest pass in the country at 4000 meters. We have played archery with classic bows and arrows and enjoyed a five-star resort that helps fund universal healthcare. We have milked cows, churned butter, and creamed cheese just as naturally as we have dined with relatives of royalty. The whole time, however, nothing felt like it didn't fit. Nothing felt out of place. The entire nation, no doubt through hard work and a commitment to preserving a unique national identity, is at ease with itself in a way I have never experienced.


So then, what happens when you dare to combine this innate purity of heart with a commitment to a charity you feel deeply about? I believe you just might create the Ultimate Inspired Adventure. I know what you are thinking: Who, what, and when? All I can say is, stay tuned. For now, enjoy a few more spectacular pictures of this incredible place.







22 June 2012

Bhutan: Genuinely Genuine

We've all been there. You are a tourist somewhere and your guide describes something as "authentic" or "traditional." Oh yes, this is "an authentic dancing exhibition" or "traditional dress of the blah blah blah people." You are invited to try it on, take pictures, and "go native" for a few moments to feel as if you have become one with the local people and their culture. The whole experience is entirely contrived and while we can debate the idea of authenticity and whether or not anything is ever truly "authentic," it's often glaringly obvious when an experience is entirely artificial. And then you come to Bhutan.


From five-star resorts to ancient temples to monasteries hanging from the edge of a cliff, every site, sound, and experience feels natural, normal, and as if it would be happening whether or not you were there. Over the past few days we have visited historical sites, eaten slightly less historical food, and at times found ourselves interacting with the Bhutanese in conversations that were entirely bizarre and often quite comical yet entirely unprovoked and unrehearsed.


In most places you visit an "ancient site" and there is some excessive tourist-only entrance price that allows you access to something historic that is now a giant handicraft mass-produced shopping hall. In Bhutan, you visit Punahka Dzong, built in the 16th Century, and discover it is STILL used as the main offices of the municipal government and the center of regional Buddhism where 600 monks converge each year. There is no entry fee and YOU are the odd man out, not the locals.


In most places you stop at designated tourist restaurants that serve mediocre food without a smile (usually a frown). In Bhutan, the restaurant delivers dinner to your room that is specially prepared for a three-year-old then offers to sit in your hotel room for three hours and babysit for free while you go to the restaurant and have some grown-up time. If you do not take them up on their offer they get rather upset, as they have been looking forward to spending time with the "pretty white baby" all day.


In most places, you trek up the side of a mountain to some holy religious site and are chased by people who want you to ride their horse or buy their cheap crappy jewelry for an inflated price, arguing that it is "real jade." In Bhutan, you wind slowly along a cliff edge completely unbothered and reach the holy site - in our case the mesmerizing Tiger's Nest - to discover that it houses full-time monks and has been in continuous operation for over 600 years.


Finally, in most places you stay at a fancy hotel and what you've paid goes directly into the hotel chain coffers and the bribes paid to officials to avoid paying tax. In Bhutan, you know exactly how much of your room cost goes directly to funding universal healthcare and free education for the entire population.


Bhutan is not just some place and as the manager of our hotel so eloquently put it, "the whole world has changed to cater to tourists except Bhutan. In Bhutan, the tourists are fundamentally changed to adapt to this magnificent magical land." To say it is surreal doesn't go far enough. To say it is otherworldly makes it sound too ethereal. It seems that there are no words to accurately describe this beautiful yet understated, charming yet mesmerizing, perfect yet unpretentious land. Perhaps you'll just need to come and adapt yourself. I promise you won't regret it.


20 June 2012

A Very Bhutanese Birthday

On June 19th this weary traveler turned 28 years old. Considering I was already in Bhutan, nothing more really needed to happen to ensure it was a truly brilliant day. Amazingly, lots more magic did take place!

In Bhutan, we learned, birthdays aren't really that big of a deal. In fact, they are rarely if ever celebrated. After learning this I thought back on so many discussions I had had with people we met where no one really seemed to know their age. For example, one man was convinced he was 37 years old but had a nine-year-old child that was born when he was 24. Even after having a serious conversation about math he remained unconvinced that there was anything wrong with his argument. "Besides, who really cares? You are born, you live a happy life for a long time, then you die and are reborn. It is the wheel of life and age is just a number for this present life so it's not even accurate," he explained. I mean, touché. He was completely correct.

That said, I am still of lover of celebration and thankfully, so are Indigo and Justine. We had spent the previous night in a farmhouse sleeping just above the cows. This wasn't your "I'm a tourist getting a farm experience" situation. This type of tourism is extremely new and we were only the fifth guests they had ever hosted. All sleeping in one big room, eating whatever they were currently growing (lots and lots of potatoes), and watching the three year old from Australia learn to find amusement in a hose, a bucket, and a plank of wood from a Bhutanese 5-year-old. It was just one more tick on the "adventure" checklist.

Indigo woke me up with a birthday dance on my belly and a handful of presents and cards. "Open this one," she said as she handed me one of the gifts. "It's a shirt with green stripes and aliens on it," she told me before I even tore into the paper. "Sorry, I am just soooo excited," she said. Adorable.

From there it was time to milk the cows and literally churn butter then make cheese, something this family does every single morning. We then ate the cheese and spread the butter on our toast at breakfast.

At this point our guide had a surprise for me - wearing a traditional Goh (the national dress code) and playing a round of archery! It. Was. Awesome. I managed five in the target and won! That meant I was "man of the match," which felt quite manly.

After lunch, a visit to the local school, and a fond farewell to our hosts we set off on a 5km walk through the pristine forest and valley. It was just superb. I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings. We finished our walk at this adorable little lodge nestled high up the hill. The valley hasn't had electricity in a week so it was bucket showers and candlelight for us! I actually couldn't imagine a more perfect setting.

Pope, our perfect guide offered to spend the evening with Indigo while Justine took me for what can only be described as the most amazing dining experience of my life, which was arranged by and is part of the fabulous 6 star Amankora Gangtey luxury lodge. It started with a cocktail by the roaring fire which was followed by an utterly delicious four course Bhutanese feast served in our very own potato shed. That is, a shed for storing potatoes. The walls were lined with candles, the wine was Italian, and the entire experience was surreal. We finished it off with a Glenfiddich nightcap before trekking back down the hill and transferring back to our lodge. It was the perfect day.

A huge shout-out to Justine for her fantastic planning efforts. If you need party ideas, give her a ring. For a country that doesn't really celebrate birthdays, she managed to create something truly memorable. Now you just need to get to Bhutan and see this potato shed for yourself!

Bhutan: At the edge of the Earth

Perhaps the notion of Gross National Happiness was a bit lost on us at first. Not in a bad way but simply in the sense that we were thinking about the idea of happiness from our own frame of reference. What is happiness in the west? Security? Family? Wealth? On a day-to-day basis maybe it is avoiding rush hour traffic, taking a hot shower, or eating an amazing meal. The further you get from comfort the more you realize just how "happy" those small comforts make you.


The last two days we have been scaling hillsides (with the kid on our backs) to reach stupas and temples and monasteries dangling ever so gently from the peaks above. We have had tea with monks and shared snacks with little old ladies who can't help but feel the foreign and surreal porcelain skin of Indigo, who they endearingly refer to as "baby." Every moment and every encounter has been filled with a sense of joy and calm that now, after several days, feels quite normal.


It got me thinking about how, exactly, this Gross National Happiness is measured and whether or not it is something that can be universal. Bhutan is, in many ways, exactly as we expected. It is remote, on the bottom end of a traditional "development" scale, not terribly westernized, and almost frozen time. 1958 with cell phones, to be exact. It is our western idea of "Shangri-La:" A place we go to fall off the edge of the earth and reconnect with whatever utopian idea we have of what our society once was.


In other ways, we completely forgot about the less-than-perfect aspects that come with being all of those things I just mentioned. You can't drink the tap water. The roads are in dire straights. Not every one has electricity. Life expectancy is just 65. None of these would increase our "gross national happiness" and yet here, whether it is because it's just normal or because these values are not particularly important, The Bhutanese remain incredibly happy. When asked about the road quality our guide told us "no big deal. Just drive a bit slower. Why the hurry?" I mean, yes, good point. On electricity, it was a sort-of "and so you just use candles." Again, yep. As for life expectancy? Well, "the years they have will be very happy with lots of family and then they go on to the next life, which is exciting!" I mean, talk about being positive.


That is not to say Bhutan doesn't have problems that are real regardless of context. Crimes are committed sometimes. People do drink too much on occasion. Access to health care, while improving, isn't brilliant. Having a government that provides also means having less choice in our traditional sense.


It seems that happiness is, as you may already know, entirely relative. The actual "things" that bring joy can and do vary greatly. The difference I have found, however, is in the approach to finding happiness. Here, it is a conscious daily effort that is regularly considered, debated, discussed, and valued. It is the objective. At home, could we all say the same? I'm not entirely sure but it's certainly worth considering. I know it is what I'll be doing tomorrow as we careen up and down the sides of mountains in our rather aged van bopping and weaving with every pothole, sharp bend, and enormous truck zipping past.


16 June 2012

Becoming honorary Dragon Riders for a day

Justine and I are sat at the clubhouse bar sipping juice as the rumble of Toxic Rider's bike pulling in causes the window panes to shake. The door swings open like in an old western movie saloon and the mustached, tattooed, pierced biker walks in. He strolls purposefully toward us and extends his arm to shake hands before reconsidering, his brain ticking over about what to do next. Were this the Hell's angels, the next thought may be starting a brawl. Since it is Bhutan's premier biker gang - the Dragon Riders, whose stated mission is to spread peace and support communities in need - he instead opens his arms wide and says to us, "your charitable work is a beautiful thing for Bhutan and the world."


That's right, even the biker gangs in Bhutan are lovely. We are joined by the managing director of the government tourism bureau, the senior vice president of the Bank of Bhutan, an unassuming man who turns out to be one of Bollywood's most famous actors of all time, and a Swiss guy named Chris who is ONE OF ONLY FOUR FOREIGNERS in Bhutan to have been granted citizenship. Where am I?


Justine is assigned to ride double with the world famous Bollywood star without protest. I am told I'll be riding with Tingle, the "Big Kahuna" of the gang who drives a gorgeous 500cc Royal Enfield. Before long we are zooming through the town centre at top speed (50kph) headed up, up, up to the summit of the main pass that joins this valley with the next valley to the east. It is clear that the community knows the gang. There are waves and honks accompanied by smiles and trucks pull to the side so we can pass.


The higher we go the cooler the air becomes before we disappear completely into the mist. Between snapping photos and looks behind to make sure Justine is still there, I get to chatting with Tingle about anything and everything Bhutan. We have been here just 24 hours but, without question, I can't help but feel as if I don't have a clue as to what is going on. The mindset - the way people seem to approach life - is entirely different and I am curious in a way I haven't been in quite some time.


We talk about financial wealth and culture, Tingle acknowledging that there are "better off" people and those that are a great deal more poor. The key to this being "better off" seemed to be entirely wrapped up in how much education one had received. What strikes me, however, is the difference in how Tingle and his fellow elite in the gang view their elevated status. "It means we are more responsible to do more for our country and we must work harder for our happiness. For example, ever since we started the charity biker gang our lives have been so blessed. We are earning life karma."


The same topic came up over dinner with the Sales Manager - Vishal Pradhan- of the Taj hotel - a luxury five-star tourist property. He mentioned have been educated abroad and the main focus in Bhutan on education and health for all. I couldn't get out of the headspace of valuing education as a financial and professional advancement tool. "You miss my point," he said. "Education is about enlightenment, self-understanding, and happiness. That is the measure of educational success and, in turn, life success."


On our way back from the pass Tingle shut off the engine and guided us down the steep road in neutral. "Listen to the silence," he told me. "This is true bliss. This is real life." For the Bhutanese, it seems, this is real life. Viewing success through the lens of happiness, contentment, and service to others. Seeing education as the pathway to personal enlightenment and not material wealth. Taking a moment to listen to silence and remember how small you are in this giant world. Cheesy in the context of our norms? Yes. Worth attempting to rethink the entire frame? Also yes.


To say this morning was a "life highlight" is a gross understatement. If not for the ongoing lesson in how to shift the entire way one views the world then at least for the awesome photos wearing embroidered leather jackets and looking tough.


Bhutan: Seeing Is Believing

I've traveled quite a bit. By quite a bit, I mean over 80 countries in 7 years and 100 flights in the past 12 months. The more you do it, the less adventurous it seems. Places meld with places. Food melds with food. Even people meld with people. As arrogant as this all sounds, it's devastatingly true. As is the case with anything, as soon as it becomes your job a great deal of the fun gets sucked right out of it and traveling has pretty much been my job for the better part of my professional life. You think that nowhere will get your heart pumping again. Nowhere will excite the same way. Nowhere will bring that adrenaline rush of uncertainty, eagerness, and anxiety all at once. Then you go to Bhutan and it all comes back again.


As our teeny tiny Druk Air flight came barreling into the Thimphu airport runway, we banked left to narrowly avoid a giant mountain and with a nerve-wrecking "thud" we had arrived. The heart was pumping again.


Over the past ten years the world has been swept with a level of sameness that, while in many ways has driven the quality of life up the world over, has also meant an obsession with economic "growth" to the detriment of local culture, customs, history, and norms. Yet here, in the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, the focus has remained on one thing - happiness. So much so that the nation has actually developed a mathematical algorithm to calculate gross national happiness, or GNH. It is all anyone seems to talk about and yo rare swept up by it almost immediately.


No one is in a rush. Immigration happens slowly but surely, always with a smile. The baggage carousel seems to spin a little bit slower and even though most Bhutanese are arriving with big screen televisions from Thailand, they don't seem all that fussed by them. The ATM insists that you "put happiness first" when withdrawing cash. The speed limit on the FREEWAY is 50kph (35mph). There is not a single traffic light in the entire country.


As we weave our way from the airport to the capital city of Thimphu (it is only 60km but the journey takes 90 minutes) our guide tells us about the national dress code that every Bhutanese must abide by from 9am to 5pm. It's like a giant private school. "To keep the peace and happiness," he tells me. Therre is no smoking in Bhutan because they have universal healthcare and if one person gets sick, "the whole nation is not happy." Crimes are severely punished so no one really breaks the law. Prison is a place to "find your happiness again."

As we reach the capital city I assume we are pulling into a farm town to refuel or something. Every building must be built in traditional Bhutanese style to maintain harmony. There are absolutely no chain restaurants because "what is happy about that," I am asked. I feel as if I have stepped into the world's last bastion of pure humanity.


Justine and I are traveling with Indigo, her red-headed three year old. We haven't seen her much because everyone wants to take her on an adventure and it doesn't seem weird. Our local guide gives her cuddles while she rides shotgun in the van. A small spider-man clad two year old got her involved in a "roll the ball" game. Not a lot of televisions or internet access means kids have to find real-life ways to entertain themselves.


Just when you think it couldn't get any more bizarre, we learn we just had dinner with the King's cousin. "Oh, the royal family is very low key. No ego, more happy," they say. I'm feeling overwhelmed in a brilliant way. There is still more world to see. There are places that haven't turned into Mcadonalds KFC shopping malls. There is still something to be learned from other cultures, people, and places. It seems my lesson this next ten days is to tap into that happiness quotient. It should be easy with no distractions.


For now, I just need to get my biker gear ready. Tomorrow we are cruising through the Himalayas with the Dragon Riders, Bhutans answer to The Hell's Angels. There mission statement is to ride away "spreading peace" and delivering food and necessities to those in need. Is this place for real?