A Love Letter to Bhutan

Kuzu zangpo-la! Or Hello!

This summer I went on a summer abroad program with UC Davis to the small kingdom of Bhutan. It was absolutely amazing.

When I applied to the program this past spring, I knew that I would have fun, but I did not anticipate that it would be life-changing. I hate to be cliché, but it is true. It is difficult to sum up why it was an amazing trip, but it really came down to wonderful people, doing so much, and first experiences.

First off, there were terrific people. A really great group of UC students came together for this trip. In general, we shared a love of the environment, friendliness, and excitement for the trip. The class that the trip centers around, Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), made it more likely that mostly environmental science majors would apply. However, I think that the lure of a far-off mysterious country also helped with the selection of a great group for the trip. Our professor, Dr. Karen Beardsley, and on-site coordinator, Bob Brewer, were also fantastic to have on board. Karen was ready to share her knowledge of GIS and Bhutan at any time, and Bob helped guide us through the trip, solve computer issues, and snap pictures!  

The people we meet in Bhutan were no less awesome. We had wonderful staff who helped us dress in traditional outfits, kept us supplied with eggs, exchanged our dollars for Ngultrum, and did not mind our endless questions! Thank you to Dr. Sameer, Sherab, Lhamchu, Namgay, Tenzin, and Leki so much for making the trip so wonderful. And to Tashi, a special thank you for getting us safely around Bhutan! Tashi and the magic bus always got us to where we needed to go, made it up hills that no other bus could, and avoided cows and dogs. On our road trip to Phobjikha there was a chunk of road missing; Tashi smoothly maneuvered us past the block and we continued on our way.

Students at the Royal Thimphu College (RTC) came and hung out with us in town and during our breaks; they taught us about life in Bhutan, Dzonghka slang, dance moves, and more. You guys were so fun to hang out with and I really enjoyed getting to know you all.

Additionally, we had three amazing interns: Bhuwan, Pema, and Khedrup. They had already graduated from RTC but were willing to come to campus to show some chilips (foreigners) around the country. You really bore the brunt of our endless questions in the monasteries and during drives and meals about anything from food to history, Buddhism, the King, clothes, environmental problems, and on.

I feel like I learned and changed so much from getting to know all of my new friends and I hope I imparted something in return. I will never forget you.

Now let me go cry for a minute that I am not home with you!

We also met really friendly and helpful people in stores, restaurants, and taxis. They would always ask us if we were students (we didn’t blend in very well), where we were from, where were planning to go, how long we would stay. In Phobjikha, a valley in the countryside, we spent a few days at homestays. Although our families could not speak English, they put so much care into feeding us and making sure we were comfortable, just like we were one of them. Thank you again Ama for the food and tea!

Secondly, we did so much! I am absolutely serious when I say this: Everyday was jammed packed with activities to do. I enjoyed always having so much to see, but it was wearing. We went on hikes to see beautiful monasteries, shopped for traditional clothing, went to museums, had guest lectures, attended student events, went out for birthday parties, went to government buildings, and on. We learned a lot about the country in a short time because we did so much! At first it was hard to keep track of all the new information, but it slowly started to sink into our brains. Some people did even more on top of the itinerary: one of the students played soccer in the National stadium, some went out partying, and others hiked or birdwatched all the time!

Finally, we had lots of first experiences. I am quite the introvert, so this list covers more firsts than my peers experienced. This knowledge just makes me prouder of myself for leaving my comfort zone. A big new experience was the food. I went vegetarian during the trip, so I could try more things. Some of our food included: momos, pakoras, potato balls, curry, ema and kewa datshi, potatoes a ton of ways, red rice, milk tea, and eze. In town I tried laphing, cold Tibetan noodles, chaat, gulab jamun, and crispy fries. At first everything was just spicy, but slowly I got used to it and even enjoyed the spice level.

I also went out partying with friends. Back at UC Davis I mostly hang out with introvert friends, so we never go out. I decided to try going out in Bhutan and had a really fantastic time. I tried different types of alcohol, under my friends’ careful watch, along with food and water. I felt safe with them; they always checked that everyone in the group was feeling okay and enjoying themselves. I learned that dancing at clubs is sweaty but satisfying. The whole underside of my head was dripping one night and I didn’t even care! I also tried karaoke; I understood the concept but had never gone out to do it. On my first try no one could really hear me, but it was fun anyway. What was really amusing was listening to really out of tune songs in Hindi and Dzongkha.

I had my first serious crush in Bhutan as well. I was surprised how much I liked him, I have never felt so much about a guy before. And no, I do not intend to reveal his identity; I can only say he is the most wonderful man I have ever met. I am so happy that I was able to spend so much time talking, laughing, and learning with him. The down side of my having my first crush was that I did not know what to do with my feelings: how intense they were or how my mood would swing. I was so overwhelmed. I am eternally grateful to my awesome roommates for listening to me, helping me clear my head, validate my feelings, and express myself. I even managed to tell him about my feelings thanks to you! Roomies, you have helped me more than you will ever know with your advice and support.

I could write so much more on the topics I have already covered and things I did not mention, too. The main takeaways from my trip, however, were: friendship, understanding life outside of the U.S., and the courage to try new things. I loved the trip and I would go back if I could (hint, hint study abroad ;)) So if you have a chance to do any kind of trip, go for it, you have everything to gain.

Love,

Mia

Photos courtesy of author.