Setting: A Western woman sits with a Macintosh computer open at a simple table, covered in a green-checkered vinyl cloth, at a cafe in Samtse, Bhutan. A television across the room is set to a Hindi soap opera. It is hot. A fan circling above blends the smells coming from the kitchen–frying oil, curry, and chilies. Three young Indian men at a table across the room enjoy dinner and beer, while madam snacks on roasted papad, sips a cold Druk 1100, and edits her recent photos.
Q: Hello Madam, we are all from India. Where are you from?
A: I’m from the USA.
Q: May we ask you a question, Miss?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: What do you think of Obama?
A & Q: I like Obama. I hope he gets re-elected. What do you think of him?
A: Obama. Barack. That is his first name. I have seen him on TV. He looks like a gentleman. We like him very much.
Pause: Miss goes back to her computer and the three young Indian men resume eating their dinner and drinking beer. They are dressed casually in short sleeved cotton shirts and tailored cotton trousers.
Q: Excuse me, Miss. Sorry to interrupt Miss, but may we ask you another question, Miss?
A: Yes, please.
Q: What did you think of Osama bin Laden? How do you feel about his death?
A & Q: I wish he hadn’t been killed. I would have preferred to see him go to trial. . . tried by a group of people, not killed in a military operation. What do you think of Osama bin Laden’s death?
A & Q: My friend, he wants me to tell you that he hated bin Laden. He hates all Muslims. They are terrorists and they do terrible things. We don’t all feel that way, but he does. He wants to know what do you think of Muslims?
A: I think there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. I don’t think all Muslims are terrorists. I think there are good Christians and bad Christians. There are good Hindus and bad Hindus.
A & Q: Yes, yes! 50 percent of Hindus are good and 50 percent of Hindus are bad! My friend wants me to tell you that he is a Hindu, but he fell in love and married a Christian. What do you think of Hindus and Christians marrying?
A: That’s great. Love is always good.
Q: I see you are working on your computer and we don’t want to bother you. Are we disturbing you madam?
A: No, no. Of course not. I’m not really working; I’m doing fun things on the computer. You can ask me anything you want.
Q: We don’t want to bother you, but we’ve never been able to have a conversation with a Westerner before. We’ve seen Westerners, but we’ve never been able to sit down and talk to one. We are very interested in what you think. We live in West Bengal. Two of us are working here, and I’m visiting. Have you ever been to India?
A: Yes, I’ve been to Varanasi.
Q: Oh! What did you think of Varanasi?
A: It was crowded and fascinating.
A: Yes, yes, it’s very crowded and dirty! And,very holy.
A: I’ve also been to Dehradun and Assam.
A & Q: Yes, yes! The Nagaland people in Assam are always causing trouble. We’re sorry to disturb you again, madam. Are you here by yourself?
A: No, I’m here with a friend. She is teaching a workshop just now.
A: Okay Miss. We will take our leave now. Thank you for talking with us.
GNH, or Gross National Happiness, is a phrase on the tips of the tongues of most Bhutanese and nearly every foreigner who visits Bhutan. Far from being a fact of Bhutanese life, however, it is, rather, a set of policy goals and values created by Bhutan’s beloved fourth king to guide his country through what he must have forseen would be difficult of times. GNH values include cultural preservation and environmental sustainability, among other things.
Our trail intersects every now and then with a road so fresh that rocky rubble and tree roots still lie stacked along the sides. The road, Karma suggests, was probably paid for by a wealthy person who either wanted a road to an existing home (so a car could be driven to the front door), or wanted a road made so that a new home could be built upon the hill behind us. “Once we have the road it sets the tone for destruction,” Karma says, adding, wistfully, “People say the road will make our lives easier, but the road can mean many things.”
One of the things the road means is access to the forest for loggers, who either obtain permits to cut wood for homes and fires, or don’t obtain permits and cut illegally. Further up the path, we come upon several enormous newly-cut pines. The path is nearly blocked by branches, piles of fragrant sawdust, and discarded imperfect boards, bark still attached. We pause, accompanied by a gray village cat who has been alternately following and leading us, tangling itself up in our legs. “I have a picture of this tree. It used to make nice shade,” Karma says. “This used to be a place I would come to revitalize myself after a hard day’s work.” His lament has nothing in it of cleverness or nostalgia. He seems to simply be narrating his experience along this well-trod and well-loved path that is quickly changing, a microcosm of the larger changes facing his homeland.
“It’s so unbecoming of a Buddhist,” he remarks, shaking his head. “And it all started with the prayer wheel.”
I ask him what he means. He explains that the first intrusion into this spot that for him has been so beloved and natural was a chorten (a small whitewashed stone monument or shrine in which are placed sacred objects) and prayer wheel that was built across a stream at the bottom of the canyon. The prayer wheel inside the chorten is turned by the stream as the water flows under and through the stone structure. The water, thus diverted, no longer falls into the deep pool that was once there, surrounded by trees and ferns. The pool, like the thorn bushes beside the rice paddies, created a rich and delicate environment for animals, plants and insects. When Karma shows us the structure on our way back down the canyon, we notice that here, at this supposedly sacred place, there are more discarded chip bags, candy wrappers, pieces of used toilet paper, and plastic soda bottles than anywhere else on our hike.
“When there is sanctity…” Karma says softly, searching for the right words, “. . . it (the prayer wheel) is just a symptom of what we desire–our greed.” By building a prayer wheel or a chorten, he says, “We think we have done something pious, an act of earning merit, but have we really earned merit by destroying another form of life?”
Pungent bushes of what I know as wormwood, or Artemisia, line the dusty path. I snatch a bit of the gray-green leaf as I pass, crush it, and hold it to my nose, inhaling the dense, sage-like smell. It is late winter, almost spring; the bare trees, empty rice-paddies, and brown mountain-sides of Paro Valley are just beginning to show signs of the change in season. Karma, the friend who is taking us on this walk and picnic up a scenic valley outside of Paro town, excitedly points out the shocking blue-violet of the primrose, Bhutan’s first spring flower, almost invisible, tucked into the shade of an irrigation ditch alongside the rice paddy, mixed in amongst the wild mint and watercress.
“What do you call this?” I ask Karma, putting my pinch of wormwood to his nose.
“Kempa,” he says, and enthusiastically explains its many uses: People in the villages put it in their hot stone baths because of its fragrance and healing qualities. They also crush it and extract a green juice used as a first aid antibiotic. It’s boiled and made into a strong tea that is added to a bath one can sit in to cure problems in the urinary tract. You can make incense and brooms out of it, and you can even rub its fragrant oil on your wooden floors.
No wonder Bhutan has been known as the Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs–a once-secluded Himalayan Kingdom to the south of Tibet that because of its unusual geography supported a biodiversity of unparalleled riches. Bhutan is still rightly heralded as a paradise for bird, plant, insect, and animal species, but as this tiny mountainous nation has entered the modern world, so have many of the environmental threats that come with development.
We don’t have to walk far to see sign what is happening to Bhutan’s natural environment with our very own eyes. Unmindful modernization, Karma points out numerous times to this party that includes one of his students, a Bhutanese colleague, and three Americans, is apparent at every turn.
Our trail begins along the ridges and irrigation ditches that separate the rice paddies, which create a lovely quilt-like patchwork on the land. Karma points out three-foot deep holes that pock the flat earth in many of the paddy fields. Some of the dark holes are empty and some are filled in with small fruit trees, earth and cow dung fertilizer packed up closely around their tiny trunks. Elsewhere we see newly-charred stumps of big blue pines which have been burned down to make room for more fledgling apple trees. “They are replacing their food crop with a cash crop,” Karma says; most of the apples will be sold to India. The growth of the orchards also has meant that farmers are tidying up their fields, chopping down thorny brush and other growth along stream beds bordering the paddies. “The farmers don’t like this messiness. They think that this bush is too thorny. But who lives in this bush?” Karma asks. “Whose home is being destroyed here, and what are the consequences? Profit is not a GNH value.”