When I first arrived in Bhutan, I was invited to help the government's Department of Information demonstrate the power of technology in an effort to get more government funding. Today, I see that Ericsson have begun work with Bhutan's education department to install videoconferencing into five remote schools so their students can take lessons from a central group of specialists.
Zinacantan men specialise in growing flowers and the women specialise in weaving. We visited a weaving workshop with a number of rooms covered wall-to-wall in bright coloured shawls and table runners and the women delighted in dressing us up in their traditional garments. Fiona wore a skirt, belt and a vibrant blouse that was soon covered beneath a bridal shawl. I was given a simple woollen shirt and a hat, beneath which my western clothes were clearly visible so that I felt half dressed. One of the older women demonstrated how they weave using a hammock-like loom attached to the wall and looped behind her back. To my eye, it was exactly the same method that Bhutanese women use, though the patterns were different. The walls of one room, in the middle of the workshop, were bare of displays. This room alone showed that the building was a real living space in the traditional style. Here, a younger worker was making tortillas over a fire pit, set up so the smoke could escape through holes in the roof. Rather than being made with government endorsed genetically modified corn, these tortillas were made with freshly grown high-quality local corn and we could taste the difference. We were offered a piece each, hot off the fire, and the bread was tasty enough that we didn't need a filling to enjoy them.
The first royalty cheque for Dragon Bones was for 502 copies sold over 6 months. That's about 10% of my big goal of 5000 sales. My main driver for selling so many copies (it is a lot for an unknown writer) was to ensure substantial support for Bhutanese organisations. To put this in perspective, my full target of 150,000 Nu was equivalent to 18 months base salary for a government employee. The recent strength of the Australian dollar makes the royalties worth far more in Ngultrum so I've decided to donate the entire first royalty cheque instead of just half. This first cheque is going to RENEW. I mentioned RENEW a number of times in Dragon Bones for its work in addressing issues relating to the treatment of women. The organisation is currently partnering with two Australians to provide assistance to girls in rural Bhutan. The money will be used to fund school books, uniforms, meals and boarding facilities as required. I would encourage others to donate to this cause. The Australian Himalayan Foundation will take donations online and, as a registered charity, can provide a tax receipt to Australian residents. Your money will help educate children who live up to two days walk from the nearest road. A$100 will support one girl for a full year. Please help out.
I didn't see what befell the old man, but he's being helped off the highway crossing by two others as I walk around the corner. He doesn't appear to know his helpers and doesn't acknowledge either. As soon as he reaches the curb, he grabs hold of a railing and tries to support himself. I try to work out what has happened before I offer help. Is the man hurt or in shock or just slow? Was one of the men who helped him off the road a friend? Did the two of them have the situation under control and would they resent interference. Two men and a woman in business suit approach from behind me and offer their help. There's a hospital just across the road - I wonder if that's where he came from - would he like them to take him there? It seems to me that the old man really wants to be left alone with a chance to redeem his pride, and he has enough assistance so I go on my way, but with a smile. Too often I write about how life in Australia frustrates me. We're usually too focused on ourselves and I miss the culture of Bhutan, where people always have time for one another. I might prefer the passersby to be more aware of the situation before stepping in, but I'm glad to see my countrymen looking out for others. And perhaps I should do something myself. Am I wrong not to step in and offer help? Am I wrong not to ask the others to give the old man some space? After word: While looking for images for this post, I found an article from
One person's belief is another person's superstition. This became clear during one of my classes for my anthropology degree. I've never been one to avoid black cats or walking under ladders. I do have a tendency to avoid cracks in the pavement, but that's more a mild OCD than superstition. It's been very difficult to find something that I believe that others would call superstition, but that's why my opening sentence is so true. Yesterday, my father and his wife had a combined 70th/60th birthday party with a hippy theme. Fiona and I decided to fly up so that she wouldn't lose valuable assignment-writing time on the road. We'd taken time out of our schedules to scrounge bits and pieces for our costumes and were looking forward to catching up with all my relatives. As we were waiting in line to be checked by Security, Fiona swore. We were coming back the following day so we only had carry on luggage and she'd forgotten to remove her nail scissors. Sure enough, they were taken away before we were allowed into the airport. We rushed through to our gate lounge and found that our flight wasn't listed. It had been cancelled due to fog at our destination. The airline instead gave us lunch vouchers and booked us on a flight that didn't arrive until after the party had started. "That's two," Fiona told me. "I'm not looking forward to the third problem." "There won't be a third one," I said, ever optimistic. "There will. Good things and bad things always come in threes." Even after two years in Bhutan, where I discovered the power of superstition, I scoffed at the idea. "Only if you want them
Recently, I've been reading a lot about Bhutanese/Nepali refugees settling into new homes. It's news I've waited years to hear, but that's short compared to the time these people have waited to feel welcome somewhere. While I'm always sympathetic to the plight of refugees, I generally don't think that them fleeing, or repatriating them, is the best option. I said this in a recent post and I'll say it again until someone shows me why I'm wrong. The Southern Bhutanese case is different. These people didn't flee. They were pushed out by a government that saw them as a threat to its independence. As with most events in life, everyone tells a different story. The facts, as far as I can piece them together, are that in the latter half of last century India annexed Sikkhim and Assam and China annexed Tibet. Bhutan was worried that it would be next so they began enforcing the Code of Conduct that dictated citizens adhere to traditional ways - speaking Dzongkha, wearing ghos and kiras etc - in order to reinforce its cultural distinction. Nepali immigrants who lived mostly in the south, where it's too hot for the traditional dress, wanted to maintain their own traditional religion, festivals and to (at least occasionally) dress in traditional Nepali costumes. In 1990, the Bhutanese king decided to remove any non-Bhutanese people and pushed them into India to find their own way. I've heard many reasons for this including fear of a planned Southern-Bhutanese revolution to create democracy; fear that India would use the Southern Bhutanese as an excuse to claim Bhutan was culturally part of India; the need to get rid of illegal immigrants; and that they chose to leave
Only months before I moved to Bhutan I was introduced to the country by an article that gushed about Gross National Happiness, a concept created by the Bhutanese king in 1972 to guide development. Rather than measuring economic growth, Bhutan aimed for happiness through the four pillars — natural environment, good governance, cultural values and sustainable development. The idea made a lot of sense to me and while it wasn't pivotal to my decision to move there, it gave me something else to investigate. Gross Domestic Product, the dominant measure of progress in the West counts industry and the cost of cleaning up pollution as a positive. In this time of concern about our impact on the environment, it makes more sense to consider this cost of cleaning up (or not cleaning up) our mess as a negative against progress. The same goes for any waste of non-renewable resources as an asset squandered loses its value as an asset. Just look at Brunei which has almost run out of oil and has to create a new economy. During my time in Bhutan GNH guided policy in decisions such as banning plastic shopping bags and limiting the cutting down of trees for firewood to one per family per year. It had previously guided the introduction of television and the internet into Bhutan while blocking MTV and other channels that might distract people from the pursuit of true happiness. The government told us that 70% of the country was covered by forest, which was above the target of 60%, but that still didn't feel like a real measure of happiness. This morning I stumbled on an article by an American sent to advise the government on, and
Could the Bhutanese belief in their Shangri-La status be naive? Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche asked this question in the Bhutan Observer on Friday. It's very similar to one of the central themes of Dragon Bones and he raises many of the points that I describe anecdotally. There's a snake in this garden of Eden. The simplest view of this analogy would be to say that the snake is the influence of the West and 'modernity'. Non-Bhutanese values including materialism and addictions to drugs and porn have arrived in recent decades as Bhutan has opened itself to the world. People buy Toyota Prados, send their children abroad to private schools and go on shopping sprees to Bangkok, notes Rinpoche, but this is just the obvious face of the real problem. The real snake is internal. It's the Bhutanese belief in their right to these luxuries that is so contrary to Bhutanese values. Rinpoche notes, as I did, that Bhutanese now think that they're above manual labour and import Indians to do such work for them. Once they've bought their Prados, they believe they have more right to the road than others and use their car's size to take right of way. I saw the government trying to fight this change of values by limiting exposure to materialism and consumer culture through, for instance, choice of television channels. Yet it was that same government, before democracy came to Bhutan, that told foreigners that if they didn't appreciate the privilege they had in sharing their personal time and money to help Bhutan they should just go home - that others would come in their place. Undoubtedly true, but the belief was counter to their efforts to
I'm very excited to say that the first copies of Dragon Bones have been shipped. This is a good time to announce that 50% of the royalties for all editions of Dragon Bones will go to Bhutanese organisations. Two years living in Bhutan convinced me that local people are best placed to identify and address the issues that the country faces. International organisations may like to think that they know what's best for a developing nation, but they're really just pushing Western values onto another culture. Following are some of the organisations I believe can help. VAST was created to provide vocational skills to Bhutanese youth. This seemed important at a time when the number of graduates was surpassing the government's capacity for employment. I wanted to help directly, but I didn't feel confident enough to try teaching a writing class at the time. I only discovered the Tarayana Foundation towards the end of my stay. Candles on sale at a market had been produced by a Tarayana community. The foundation tries to bring remote communities into the new economy by promoting artisan skills. RENEW's mission is to better the lives of victims of domestic violence, but I found it worked to resolve any kind of victimisation of minority groups. I intend to divide the donations among these and any other worthy organisations I discover. To make my donations worthwhile, I aim to sell 5000 copies of Dragon Bones. This isn't easy for a new author, so I need all your help to get the word out. Please do any of the following in your power: Share my blog using the addthis buttons below each post Like my author profile and book page on facebook
A small ceremony in Armidale gave me new perspective on ANZAC Day. I've always understood it as a day to remember the fallen soldiers and the sacrifice they made for our countries. When in Bhutan, I began to see it as a day to look towards a peaceful future. The service began at 9am, well after the traditional dawn start, but we still arrived late, hot on the heels of our hosts. Near us were the other holiday-makers staying at the same B&B - a Frenchman, an Indonesian and a German family wanting to immerse themselves in Australian culture. I was heartened to stand shoulder to shoulder at a service for a war our grandfathers fought against each other, all now forgiven. Perhaps because we now have a female Prime Minister, this year's service had a focus on women. The first speaker was a female minister and most who followed were women. And they spoke of ex-servicewomen where in past years they would have spoken of ex-servicemen. Even the tough old farmers seemed comfortable with this change of focus from the usual masculinity. The minister gave me the new perspective. She saw ANZAC Day as a time to celebrate shared struggle. She likened the shared struggle of the people of the world in the recent earthquakes and bushfires to the spirit of the Anzacs. On this day, we remember the efforts of all soldiers, whether they fell or not, and - I like to think - no matter which side they fought on. In a new twist, one of the speakers, a woman of course, gave the story of one of the local soldiers. Each year, apparently, this historian picks one of the soldiers whose