by Hob Osterlund
Shortly after her 45th birthday, the Queen of Bhutan realized what she had to do.
"I knew it was time to travel my country.' Not by vehicle on snaking, precarious Himalayan roads, not by horse through a wooded maze of unmapped pathways, not differently from her subjects, but, like most of them, on foot. From one tiny village to the next. To learn about their secrets, their sorrows and their celebrations.
Hers was no small feat. Bhutan is more than mountainous. It's virtually all mountain, the result of a long, spectacular slow-motion crushing collision between the Indian and Eurasian subcontinents. The peaks arch above Calcutta's plains like the ribs of a massive, recumbent beast, from an altitude of about 1,000 feet to nearly 24,000 feet at the Tibetan border, all in a span of 100 miles from south to north, in a country the size of Switzerland. Even today the mountains continue their climb toward the heavens, at twice the clip that fingernails grow. Only 8% of the land is flat enough to farm.
Bhutan is also known as Druk Yul, The Land of the Thunder Dragon. It takes four days to drive its entirety from east to west, some 300 miles as the raven flies, much farther on narrow winding byways carved from stony cliffs.
Life in Bhutan
Life in Bhutan is hard work. Seventy-nine percent of its nearly 700,000 people are subsistence farmers, with an average annual income of $597. Most die by the age of 66, a big improvement from the 37-year life expectancy in1955 when Her Majesty was born. Infant mortality is roughly ten times that of America. The government reports that 54% of its citizens are literate.
As the only surviving Buddhist monarchy in the Himalayas, Druk Yul's biological diversity and native habitat preservation are an ecological phenomenon. Seventy percent of the land is forested. More than 770 bird and 165 mammal species are found there, including an artist's palette of creatures such as the black-necked crane, snow leopard, golden langur, blue sheep, red panda and the bizarre brown takin. More than one-quarter of the country is protected as national parkland.
"Before 1974, we lived in total isolation,' the queen remembers, until Bhutan's royal government decided to gradually end its seclusion from the rest of the world. Even the villages themselves were insulated from each other. Most of the country was accessible only by footpath.
In 1979 she married the respected and beloved King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who would later become internationally honored for his splendid developmental philosophy, "Gross National Happiness.' More precisely, she and her three lovely sisters married him. Collectively referred to as "Their Majesties the Queens,' none had time for leisure. There was much to be done. To remain sovereign, Bhutan needed to quickly and cautiously unlock its border to global relations and modernization.
The Royal Trek Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck is the eldest queen. She knew one day she would visit the remote areas. "In the past I really did want to do it, but there were my children, and so many things to do. In the year 2000, I told myself, ŒIf you don't do it now, you'll never do it.' I knew if I didn't do the trek I wouldn't be able to live with myself.'
It wasn't easy. On the second day of the excursion she was so sore she could barely drag herself out of her tent. "There was no way I could call for a helicopter, but I did want to be carried by a stretcher or a horse.'
Despite the impulse, she continued to walk. "Fortunately, the mind takes over the body,' she observes, remembering her 80-year-old father's determination. "He keeps going and going. He's a role model for us all.' Just the year before her first trek, Her Majesty published Of Rainbows and Clouds, The Life of Yab Ugyen Dorji as told to his Daughter, written as a tribute to his life. She is not one to draw attention to herself. Her presence in the book is evident only in the preface, dedicated to her parents. The rest of the tale is told in first person by her father.
Nor does the queen feel especially skilled as a writer. "I took creative writing in England, but I'm not an author. Good, bad or mediocre, I had to take the plunge.'
The same kind of commitment dominated her trek. "I went to many, many villages.' Despite physical discomfort, she crawled out of her tent day after day. She lost toenails to steep rugged descents. She sat on her subjects' floors eating ema-datsee, the blinding, tongue-torching national dish made of chilies and homemade cheese. She prostrated herself in reverence before their altars. She now appreciates the journey as "a great eye opener. I saw that their lives are an exercise in survival.'
Their stories moved her deeply. "People would touch my heart, and I felt I had to do something [for them].' The queen personally promised a lifetime of support to one person after the next. To people like Wangmo of Laya in remote northern Bhutan, 30 years old, outcast and pregnant. To Wangchuck of Trongsa, a father of five blind children. To individual Lhops of southern Bhutan who live in an inescapable cycle of indebtedness to money lenders across the border.
With so many people having similar needs, how did she choose whom to sponsor? "If you're sitting talking and you touch someone's hand and you don't want to let go, you know you share a karmic connection from a past life.'
Her Majesty's patronage to each recipient is the equivalent of $10 per month. By the time she'd offered 25 sponsorships, she realized she had to create an organization to provide formal advocacy. "It was then the Tarayana Foundation came to my mind.' "Tara' and "yana' are translated to mean "vehicle of the Goddess Tara's compassion and wisdom.'
The Tarayana Foundation
Nearly three years later, the enterprise was inaugurated under her aegis, in donated office space and without paid staff. "We didn't know how we would find the necessary cash, but we opened a bank account and looked for an auspicious day. The crown prince [her nephew Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck], was gracious enough to offer to launch the foundation.' Before she knew it, they had enough volunteers and sponsors to begin.
The Tarayana Foundation's primary focus is to improve lives in disadvantaged village communities. As in many countries, rural-urban migration is straining to capacity the infrastructure of more highly-populated towns. Housing, water, electricity, employment and solid waste disposal are all growing challenges in Bhutan's few urban areas, where only 15% of the populace reside.
Thimphu is Druk Yul's largest city and the only world capital without a traffic signal. It had one for a short time, but it was unceremoniously removed when people complained about it being too impersonal. The city's population doubled from 40,000 to 80,000 between 2001 and 2004.
"We want to provide solar energy in the villages, to make the quality of life a little better. We hope the people will want to stay.' The foundation is also promoting self-sufficiency by supporting artisan skills and encouraging academic achievement by offering grants to students from less privileged families.
Bhutan's Giant Step
In a few short years, Bhutan has taken the first inconceivably giant strides from medieval to modern times. The task looks impossible. With one foot standing in the 17th century and one foot in the 21st, straddling a four-hundred-year-wide chasm, it seems more like a hip-ripping, excruciating stretch of doing the splits. In some ways they want to be contemporary, but Bhutanese citizens are known to dread the extinction of their culture more than they fear death.
Can their society continue its straddle without falling into the abyss? The queen hopes voluntary service will help stabilize the precarious pose by strengthening a sense of community. Tarayana wants to inspire compassion, which is consistent with Buddhist ideals.
"We want to create awareness that volunteer work is necessary and important. What we do is model it. In this way we can be an asset to the people and to the government,' the queen observes.
Where it can, the foundation opens small-scale cottage industries. "If some schemes can be successful, that will make a big difference.'
Tarayana is also creating craft centers to sell pottery, weaving and handmade paper. Land in Thimphu and the eastern town of Mongar have been acquired for just this purpose. "We would like to help the craftspeople market their goods, get fair pricing, and pursue international sales.'
For all these plans, the foundation needs funds. "We don't have a problem of too much money. It's most obvious that we can only do these things one little step at a time.' Her Majesty envisions the Tarayana Foundation partnering with international organizations to promote mutual goals. Save the Children has offered $20,000 to assist young people to complete primary education. Her foundation is also committed to economic efficiency. "We spend nothing on infrastructure from our contributions. Literally 100% goes directly to the villagers.'
A Queen's Invitation
Although she's royalty, she doesn't see herself as an expert in domestic relations, much less a celestial being from supernatural realms. "I'm not important,' she reflects. "If I can be used in a way that benefits the people, I'm happy. I have many lessons to learn myself. I'm just a student of social service.'
What she's gleaned from her forays apply globally. When asked about how best to promote international friendships, she reflects briefly and smiles. "Listen to each other. One person at a time. A connection can be made, a chord can be touched.'
Her Majesty, Queen of Bhutan has the imperturbable look of one who hears harmony beneath cacophony, who sees Bhutan's challenges with a sense of hope, who knows something about the truth. "We are all very, very alike,' she says with a tranquility that will likely give her the stamina to trek many more trails in her lifetime.
Hob Osterlund is a nurse, a freelance writer and a comedian. She lives on Kaua'i, and is writing a book about her travels in Bhutan. This article reflects the first interview Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck has granted a Western journalist. She has had the good fortune to make many trips to Bhutan. A big believer in Gross National Happiness, she wants millions of people to have the word "Bhutan" on their smiling lips.
Please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org about Bhutan LhaYul Tours & Travels, or contact Ms. Hob's travel planner Mrs. Tshering Pem at email@example.com
Source: Issue 10 Inspiration Journal, November - December 2004