Where to begin?

(Some of you readers have been clamoring for an update, but between very inconsistent internet access, computer troubles, etc, it has been very hard to get on line and stay on line, and the bandwidth is minimal, which has made it difficult to post pictures. For example, at work, the connection is pretty fast, but for some unknown reason, I can’t send out any email. Access is also blocked to many websites, including Flickr, Pandora, Facebook (but not Twitter?) by the government during work hours. Where I live now the wireless cuts in and out, so I am going to try and post a text blog, and post photos separately. Please check the twitter feed for photos, because I can sometimes get single photos posted.)

I’ve been here in Bhutan for two weeks today, and so much distance has been traveled. I haven’t literally gone far (not counting the 9500 miles of air flight to get here)–I’ve only had one short trip out of town—but still I’ve come a long ways. Given how much I could say, it is hard to know where to start. When everything is new, everything has to be figured out, from the practical day to day living, to social etiquette, to language differences, to all that underlies culture. I have barely a clue on the latter. I do know that I need to seriously brush up on my Buddhist symbology, structure, understanding. At this point, I’m a preschooler in a post-doctorate program. My little bit of American, non-religious, vipassana Buddhism isn’t enough in this Tantric Buddhist society. I can’t even tell you what tantric means. (Perhaps my Tibetan Buddhist practitioner teachers will help me out?) I can tell you about practical matters, so I will start there, since that is how I started here.


Much of my first week here when not at work was spent concerned about housing and food. I had a hotel reservation for only the first three days, and anywhere else that my tender self would be willing to stay was sold out (due to high tourist season and the royal wedding), and an apartment that I wanted wasn’t available until the end of the month, so I’ve ended up moving to an expensive apartment for a month. Twice the size of my Napa apartment, lovely view, two beds, two baths. Overkill, but nice. This has eaten up almost all the cash I brought, so I am being conservative about what I buy, and haven’t gotten my local clothing yet. To help address the cash flow problem, and because it seemed nice to have company, I now have roommates for the next week, a radio documentarian and her son. Another expat, Oliver, from Germany, here to work on a microfinance project, is going to take over the apartment before the month is up so I can move to a cheaper one. (Oliver can afford it because he is being paid by Germany, not Bhutan, whereas I am going to be paid by Bhutan. Some of the expats are volunteers, but it appears that most are here as part of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as UNICEF. ) As westerners, we have luxuries that many Bhutanese do not, including indoor plumbing, water, and hot water. I am willing to have these things.

Food Notes

Unlike the US where different businesses have different kinds of signs, most of the signs here are the same. Same size, color, font, and they are not actually descriptive of the business inside. In other words, a grocery store is not signed ‘grocery store’ it says Sharakang Enterprise, or some such. In addition, the businesses tend to be dark, and the windows clogged, so it is very hard to see what a store sells without walking in. A grocery store is really a drygoods store with very little, if anything, that requires refrigeration. That means you have to find veggies, milk, meat, etc at separate stores. I’ve figured the basics of all this out now, though I haven’t gotten up the courage to venture in a meat store. The only place that I’ve found to buy fresh milk is at the milk shed, where you bring a container, hand it in through the window, and the attendant dips the milk out of a big red plastic bin into your bottle. You can also buy Duyul, which is Bhutanese milk in a carton that isn’t refrigerated (like European milk) or Nestle Dairy Whitener, which is too scary to contemplate, but I suspect it is in many of the cups of tea I’ve drunk. (When you meet with someone, they (men, usually) have tea brought in by ‘the girl’ (usually.) Last Monday was a three cups of tea afternoon. First we met with the supreme court justice, then the secretariat for the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, then the Minister of same. More on that later.)

Most of the food in the grocery stores comes from India, although one of the stores has things from Thailand. Bright packages, other alphabets, barely discernable contents. So, things look different. Some things are different. Dish soap is a bar, and you break some off in a dish and add a little water to make the soap. I hear laundry soap might be the same, but thus far I’ve had laundry service. (My clothes have never been so neatly folded, so nicely put away. And speaking of clothes, it seems like I hardly brought any. Partially because I haven’t bought my kira for work yet (and, boy, did I feel underdressed when I met with the supreme court justice), partially because it has been quite warm, which I’m wasn’t prepared for.)

It isn’t that easy to eat local, since most of the food is shipped in. Bhutanese products include Bumthang honey (Bumthang is a district), Bumthang cheese, mango juice, ginger, the milk, apples, peaches, and most of the vegetables. The cheese is precious, the only real cheese here. It is a Swiss gruyere type cheese (thank you to the Swiss, who came and helped develop it several years ago) and it is seasonal and hard to find. Expats let others know when it comes into the very few stores that sell it. Via this word of mouth, I got some yesterday. I bought two blocks. If I had more money, I would have stockpiled more. (For those who don’t know me well, cheese is probably my favorite food stuff, and a major dietary staple. Perhaps my cholesterol will go down now that I can’t have much of it.) The tofu distribution seems to operate on a similar word of mouth. I got the last package yesterday, and turned it into a tasty stirfry.

Some of the fruit at the fruit market is brought in from India, but I don’t know which is which yet. There are apples, pineapples, citrus, persimmon, papayas, sugarcane and pears today. Word is that India uses lots of chemicals (all the ones banned in the US, shipped to India.) I don’t know if this is true.

Bhutanese eat huge quantities of rice, and grow it, but I think much of it is imported as well. I was given some rice. Hand planted, hand harvested, hand dried, hand threshed. Some spilled in my backpack. I carefully re-collected it. I suspect I wouldn’t have if it had been the US machine planted, machine harvested, etc. Small lessons/practices.

I eat lunch at work, where there is a little canteen. There are usually two kinds of rice, a meat dish or two, and several veggie dishes in Indo-Bhutanese style. The canteen itself is dark, dingy and grimy, but the food is tasty and cheap. My rice and three vegie lunch Thursday was about $1.10. Breakfast thus far is oatmeal (no toaster, no oven) and dinner tends to be rice and veggies, and occasionally tuna with crackers.

Then, there is the mysterious Shop 8, somewhere up the hill from me. A grocery store, again, not a signed grocery store, that has things that foreigners like. When I start to get desperate for something, chocolate perhaps, I might trek up there.

Other Physical Notes

Thimphu is not flat. Some of the roads run roughly parallel to the contour, but otherwise you are either walking uphill or downhill. Sidewalks, where they exist, are usually rough stone paving. Stair riser heights can range from about 4” to more than 12”. Open drains run through the middle of the sidewalks and you have to step over them often. Stepping off a curb into the street can be a drop as much as 18”. What this means is that you have to stare at your feet all the time to not fall in or over something. The other day, I fell, not once, not twice, but three times. There were reasons for each, including, perhaps, my inner ear/balance being affected by my cold, but I found it unsettling, and bruising. Some one pointed out to me how slow Bhutanese walk. There could be good reason for this. My New York style striding might not be the best approach.

Driving is freeform here. Aside from driving on the right, which is enough to relearn, there are no stoplights, only very few stop signs, lots of traffic circles, and pedestrians are essentially left to their own devices to make their way across the streets. Honking when you are going to pass, or want to, is standard. I am still working on always looking the correct direction when I cross the road, and remembering to go to the left side of the car when I am a passenger. At this moment, I have no real desire to drive, although I would like to get out in the countryside.

More anon.


5 thoughts on “Where to begin?

  1. Jennifer,
    Wow, what a great blog! All that I’ve been wanting to hear about your experience in this very unusual and vastly different from here culture. Much more 3rd world than my experiences in
    Samoa; except rural traditional Samoan life which does have many similarities. Mimi

  2. I am thankful to know such a courageous person – and thrilled to read your post (how great is it to know someone who writes so well?). Yay, Jennifer. (About falling – bruises hurt but they heal, as you know, and you are right to observe local practices when walking, said Ms. CowPieWatcher).

  3. I am a friend of your friend, Dianna, here in Vancouver. As I am travelling- touristy- to Bhutan in a few weeks for a few weeks, she has put me in touch with your blog.
    I’ve enjoyed reading your accounts and gathering new insights.
    All the best in your job and adventure.

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