Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Bhutan

BUILDING BRIDGES WITH PHOTOGRAPHY: EXPLORING AND PROMOTING CULTURAL DIVERSITY IN BHUTAN

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are no failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” These words were written by one of my favorite cultural anthropologists, Wade Davis, whom I often quote in my presentations.

As I saw on my visit to Bhutan, it’s a small country, but comprises a mosaic of distinct communities as well as 19 active languages. I’ve been fortunate to converse over the last few days with one of the guests here in Shechen, Markus Wild (www.markuswild.ch), who is a Swiss photographer and teacher of visual arts, and, since 2005 has planned and conducted Participatory Photo Documentation under the Leveraging Cultural Diversity (LCD) Project, in Bhutan, implemented by Hevetas Swiss intercooperation and a grant from the European Union.

This amazing program has been documented in a splendid book about the life and culture in four remote communities of Bhutan: The Kengpas of Nganglatrong; The Sharchops of Kengkhar; The Rais of Lumbay; and The Lhops of Lotokuchu. Marcus has introduced digital photography to his students, ranging in age from those in elementary school, ages 9-12, to adults who take advantage of his teaching by going to school early in the morning before they head for the fields, or after work in the evening. This is made possible by a program called NFE, non-formal education. All of this work is done in conjunction with the Bhutanese government’s Department of Culture and Local Governance.

One of the techniques that thrilled me was an assignment for each youngster to go home and photograph items and activities that have been going on in their family for years…then to photograph the changes and what is being done differently today. There are pictures of grandmothers weaving, beautiful handmade baskets, and men farming or plowing the fields with wooden tools and oxen. There are men cutting bamboo and preparing large banana leaves for repairing or making new roofs on their simple, but very serviceable homes. There are young people playing traditional games with darts (kuru), butter being churned in ancient urns, handcrafts explored, native plants examined, and wild creatures photographed in their native habitat. And there are changes in the dress and activities of young people, their music, their love of singing, and their art. Traditions are respected and lauded, even as changes are coming to the country, and family rituals become works of art to be accepted and treasured .

Markus said that the students, once quiet and shy, blossomed as they experimented with this new technology and saw the artistic fruits of their labors. This and much more were the results of an imaginative and  innovative program. I urge you to go online and read more about it.

Another point that Markus makes is that because modern media is now reaching remote places in Bhutan through mobile phones, the internet, computers, DVD’s, and TV, it is important to help the young generation learn how to deal with these media in a constructive way. Being trained to work with digital photography actively, the students not only learn how to see and observe in a more careful and sensible way, but also how to express their own views and ideas. They become active, creative participants, instead of being only naive consumers.

Most of the photographs in the beautiful book I referred to, BHUTAN’S CULTURAL DIVERSITY by Kunzang Dorji and Markus Wild, were done by students and have been on display not only in their home villages, but also in the capital, Thimpu, and at venues in Sweden and Switzerland.

I received a call from Cary, today, high in the mountains by the Melamchi River, next to a deep river gorge. Isn’t modern technology wonderful? The telephone, I mean. She climbed up the eastern side after spending two days meditating near Neyding, and is now going up the western side to upper Melamchi. She’s cold, but happy!

THE BEST LAID PLANS….

In telling of my exciting trip to Bhutan, I decided not to spoil the trip by relating an unfortunate episode at the Punakha Dzong two days before I left. All the challenging obstacles of the week had been surmounted and I was gleefully walking down a dark corridor with a groups of monks familiar with the lay of the land. Suddenly, they moved over to avoid a tall stone threshold, but I was not quick enough and took a dive head first onto the stones, injuring my right knee–that same poor knee that had suffered from the train accident near Udipi, India, two years ago. I did a dramatic flip, but this time my Guardian Angel was napping and I suffered a soft tissue injury, which made it impossible to go trekking. Yes, it could have been much worse…I could have knocked myself out or torn a meniscus or broken my patella. So maybe my Angel was just giving me a severe warning. I’m thankful for small blessings.

Needless to say, we tried to find a hospital, but nothing was available, except for a small clinic in the country, with no orthopedic doctor and a broken X-ray machine. But I did get a freezer pack to help me out until we returned to  Thimpu the next day and went to the emergency room.

Nothing was broken, but I did consult an orthopedic surgeon at the well-known CIWEC clinic in Kathmandu when I returned, and was told to wear a leg brace, do a minimum of walking, and for God’s sake, don’t go trekking. You can imagine my disappointment!

Daughter Cary arrived last Thursday and we mulled over alternatives. The upshot is that she left alone, yesterday (with a guide and porters, of course), for a two-week trek  in the Yolmo region of the Helambu-Gosinkunde area of Langtang, starting at Melamchi and climbing to Dhukpa, the site of Guru Rinpoche’s cave. She can decide as she goes along just how many places to visit and how long to stay in each one. She will have a ball, for this is a very sacred area for Buddhists, with meditation caves used by such revered monks as the legendary Milarepa. She will also do some reconnoitering around the area for a possible return for the two of us next year. We never give up!

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the varied clientele here at the Shechen Guest House in Boudha…a melange of world travelers, trekkers, and NGO workers. It is NOT dull and I’ll keep you posted. Oh, yes, tomorrow is Thanksgiving back home. A happy day to you all. I shall think of you devouring your turkey as I sit and eat my vegetarian meal laced with a warm ginger lemon honey tea here at the Rabsel Garden Cafe.

SUNSHINE, BLESSED SUNSHINE…WHO COULD ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE?

Three weeks of gorgeous, sunny weather, warm during the day and crisp at night, is heaven to a recent Whidbey Island transplant, used to fog and mist until midday. So all the exigencies of the past weeks can be forgiven as I view the imposing Himalayan mountains, the white clouds, and the endless sun.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a tour person, but that is the only way to see exotic Bhutan, which I reveled in for seven days. Just flying into the tiny airport was an unexpected thrill, with passengers squealing as the wings of the plane seemed to graze the mountaintops and valleys in their circuitous path toward the runway. I was lucky to sit on the left side of the plane, which afforded clear views of such majestic peaks as Makalu, Everest, and Lhotse…sights that never cease to excite me.

I have vivid memories of six very full days in this peaceful country, visiting major temples and dzongs (fortresses), walking the strenuous trail to the Cheri Gompa, as well as the Tiger’s Nest at 10,000 ft., which hangs onto a 900 ft. precipice, with 750 stairs on the final approach. And it was awesome to stand on the Dochula Pass viewing the northern mountains of the Tibetan Himalaya, called the Jigme Singye Wangchuck, from the 108 chortens built in memory of fallen soldiers during a war  between Bhutan and Tibet. We climbed up through these colorful monuments and got an amazing panoramic view from the Druk Wangyal Temple on top. This was reached by an elegant stone staircase. The last time I climbed as many stone stairs as I did in Bhutan was on the Inca Trail in 2003!

The small Kingdom of Bhutan (650-700,000 population) has  never been invaded or occupied by another country and they take pride in their independence and cultural purity. They need to do a lot of work building their infrastructure, and are getting help from the United Nations and several western countries,  who are interested in helping to preserve the Bhutanese culture.  Things are changing radically, however, as the West introduces new forms of building and more sophisticated business models, and the highly educated young people are seeking to go beyond farming and traditional art into new careers and enterprises. This, of course, is happening throughout Asia.

Like all tourists, I have hundreds of pictures, but no way to put them on my blog until I return home in January. So please be patient with me and I’ll make a slideshow at that time. Words really can’t begin to describe the beauty of the ancient buildings, the farms, or the countryside. So I won’t try. I did enjoy several pujas, which were quite different from the ones I attended in Tibet, Sikkim, Dharamsala, and Ladakh. The chanting seemed more rapid-fire and there were more instruments accompanying the traditional drums and long, deep horns. I enjoyed an oboe-like horn, a recorder, and a type of lyrical wooden flute. People were milling about, doing prostrations with their young children, which was lovely to watch. The antiphonal singing reverberated magically through the stone buildings. I so wished I had brought my tape recorder!

Election day has come and gone in Nepal to the relief of most of the people with whom I’ve talked. The Maoists are on the way out and it looks as if the country is bouncing back from a very dreary, unproductive time, tantamount to civil war. Jimmy Carter and his team were here to monitor the election and felt satisfied with the outcome. Was quite a day! Everything was closed and no cars or motorbikes were allowed. I loved it. I could walk around without endangering my life. I will say that as I strolled around both Bhutan and Kathmandu I found my biggest challenge, aside from broken pavement and potholes, was not to forget that cars and bicycles and motorcycles were coming toward me in the “wrong” direction. The Brits set the driving pattern and vulnerable Westerners have to be on their toes. Even so, I never get used to walking around the narrow streets and alleys, wondering if I should just continue or jump out of the way. It’s like a game of chicken, and most of the time I’m the “chicken!”

The electricity is about to turn go off for the next three hours, so I’ll close. This is a common occurrence in Asia. Will try to get back on this afternoon.

© 2017 Meg Noble Peterson & Site by Matt McDowell