16 June 2012

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?



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