I suppose it is finally that time…

The semester has come to a close. Just as my friends and fellow students abroad have expressed in countless ways, this time abroad has surely been an amazing experience filled with excitement, anxiety, and inexplicable adventures. I was fortunate enough to spend an extra week here in Nepal, traveling around with my wonderful cousin who took off work to come visit. We saw more of the Kathmandu Valley in the last 7 days than I saw in my entire 3 months in Nepal. We explored the Durbar Squares (palace squares) of Basantapur, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, took in amazing views over the valley from Kopan and Namobuddha, and meandered through the lush botanical gardens of Godawari. Never have I truly felt like a tourist than in these last 7 days, especially in my own “home.” However it was refreshing to explore in a more relaxed, leisurely manner. We had a fantastic time, and so did my new friend, daruma san, brought to me by my cousin from Japan. He went everywhere with us and, as it turns out, he is more photogenic than I.

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Wood carving in Bhaktapur; just one of the many amazing pieces of art for which the Newari are known.

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Also, the zoo.

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The forest adjacent to the Royal Botanical Gardens.

 

 

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Namobuddha

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I have had my ups and downs, my hopes and my fears, moments of joy and moments of worry, but each and every experience taught me something, and for that I am indebted to Nepal. As foolish as that may sound, simply living here and experiencing the world from a slightly different perspective than one I was accustomed to allowed me to grow, as I’m sure my classmates can attest to as well. This beautiful stupa in Boudha has been a source of comfort since we first arrived, and it will be sad to leave it behind. A few rounds of bittersweet kora will conclude my time in Nepal, and before I know it I’ll be back in the states with my family.

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Before bringing this final blog post to a close, I wanted to share one last quote. This passage is from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s book What Makes You Not a Buddhist, and it was one of our reading assignments before coming to Nepal. The passage spoke to me because it addressed my worries, particularly with flying. I tried to hold on to these ideas for the duration of my trip, and I will surely be thinking about them during my travels home.

Fearlessness is generated when you can appreciate uncertainty, when you have faith in the impossibility of these interconnected components remaining static and permanent. You will find yourself, in a very true sense, preparing for the worst while allowing for the best. You become dignified and majestic. These qualities enhance your ability to work, wage war, make peace, create a family, and enjoy love and personal relationships. By knowing that something is lying in wait for you just around the bend, by accepting that countless potentialities exist from this moment forward, you acquire the skill of pervasive awareness and foresight like that of a gifted general, not paranoid but prepared.”

Thank you to all of those who have taken the time read about my travels. For those of you who know me, you know this is only a small fraction of what I could talk about, and I will be happy to relive these memories with anyone who cares to learn more. Only 6 hours until I head to the airport and make my way to Scotland for one last leg of gallivanting before returning home. It has been an incredible journey, and I’m happy I had amazing people to share it with. To my directors here in Nepal, my friends here and abroad, my home stay family, and of course my loving family at home, I say thank you for everything. Take care, and I will talk to you all soon.

Joshua

More inspiration and the avalanche

Hello again. I thought I would tackle two topics in this, hopefully brief, post. The first is another selection from Light from many Lamps. This selection comes from Richard E. Byrd, who in 1934 spent 5 months alone in Antarctica gathering data on polar meteorology. One night, as he sat in the bitter cold, he came to a realization of man’s place in the universe. If you have read quotes from Neil deGrasse Tyson, you may have heard similar thoughts. Personally, I think Byrd is much more lyrical in his delivery:

“I paused to listen to the silence. My breath, crystallized as it passed my cheeks, drifted on a breeze gentler than a whisper. The wind vane pointed toward the South Pole. Presently the wind cups ceased their gentle turning as the cold killed the breeze. My frozen breath hung like a cloud overheard. 

The day was dying, the night was being born – but with great peace. Here were the imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence – a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps.

It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe. The conviction came that that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance – that, therefore, there must be purpose in the whole and that man was part of that whole and not an accidental offshoot. It was a feeling that transcended reason, that went to the heart of a man’s despair and found it groundless. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day and night.”

Now, this does not have much to do with my current mental state, nor with my research. I simply stumbled across it and found the words beautiful and the thought empowering. I, too, have experienced something very similar, but in a very different location. It really is quite amazing what one can conceive when one takes time alone with the elements. I hope that others feel this way. If you have not experienced this transcendent silence, I strongly urge you to spend more time in solitude. I do not believe it is something you can find through deliberate searching, but there is no doubt you will recognize it upon discovery. The moment will penetrate the very fiber of your being and leave you wondering why you had never felt this way before. I think the moment, time of day, and location are different for each individual, and quite particular to the individual, in fact. It is something I promise you will never forget, and something you will often experience again.

 

On a different note, the avalanche on the slopes leading to Chomolungma (Mt. Everest) last week was undoubtedly a horrible day for the Sherpa community. The most recent numbers say that 16 were killed, most of which were Sherpas, the others coming from other ethnic groups in Nepal. Many of those who know my research interests have been asking whether this will affect it at all. I am here to say that, for the most part, it has not and likely will not in the coming weeks. The hard truth about this occurrence is simply that these things happen. Yes, it was the most devastating accident in the history of climbing Chomolungma, and yes it took more lives of close family and friends than I think any of us could comprehend losing in a lifetime, let alone one fell swoop. You can read the copious amounts of articles online discussing possible Sherpa strikes, the end of this mountaineering season, and the apparent lack of respect the Nepali government has for what the Sherpas and other climbers do. But what you might also find, as I have found in speaking to a number of Sherpas, many of whom have lost at least 2 friends (one has lost 8), Sherpas simply say, “yes it was horrible, and it may scare some Sherpas and others may stop working/never pursue mountaineering, but overall it is simply part of the job.” What they do is hazardous, and it has been since the first attempts in the early 20th century. This will not change, and it is unlikely the Sherpas’ work in the mountains will cease altogether. The world of mountaineering mourns the loss of 16 well respected and deeply loved young men, and there is no doubt people will reconsider their adventurous endeavors as a result. If you want to learn more, it is best to read as many articles as possible to get a variety of angles on the story. Many of them also discuss ways to donate to organizations that will provide the families of the dead men with proper compensation. This is one of the biggest issues on the table now; whether the lives of the climbers, particularly the Sherpas, are being valued by their government as evidenced by the compensation given to the families. Often time this only amounts to about Rs.40,000 (about $400). Simply not enough for those who lost their main source of income.

I don’t want to say any more at risk of spreading rumors. I would simply say keep the families in your thoughts. Thank you, and I’ll talk to you again soon.

 

Some thoughts…

I have not moved from our home base here in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal to conduct my research. I am the only one of the 14 students on this program who decided to remain, but for good reason. I am interested in Sherpa youth and it just so happens that Boudha, and more generally the Kathmandu Valley, has quite a large number of Sherpa families. Thus, it only seemed proper I remain here. In short, my project is focusing on the lives of Sherpa youth, exploring their current interests and pursuits, be they academic, artistic, or occupational. While I take time to sit down and talk with these young Sherpas, I am also asking them what their thoughts are on mountaineering/trekking/tourism as it relates to their lives, Sherpa culture, and the overall concept of Sherpa identity. This interest raises a number of other questions and possible pitfalls, through which I am trying to navigate safely without getting too bogged down by the details and anxieties that so often serve as distractions. We are currently in week 2 of our 4 weeks of research, and things are continuing to go well despite hiccups here and there. 

About a week ago, as I was sitting in a cafe with a friend who is now in the remote region of Lower Dolpo in north-west Nepal, I discovered a book entitled Light from many Lamps. If you are familiar with this book, you can imagine my genuine excitement upon finding such a literary gem. It is not a novel. It is a compilation of some of the greatest quotes – and stories behind the quotes – that cover topics such as courage,achievement, happiness, perseverance, and many others. The authors of these quotes come from not only literature, but also from politics and religion, as well as a few who just happened to pen inspiration into the pages of their personal journals. Last night I was frustrated with the state of my research and the direction I appeared to be heading with the little amount of time I perceived I had left. So, to ease my frustration and anxieties, I felt it was time to pull out the book and get some inspiration. What I read put my mind at ease, and I think the two quotes are ones that everyone should be aware of in times of frustration. They go like this:

“You wake up one morning and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours – the most precious of possessions.” – Arnold Bennett.

I think it is pretty self-explanatory why this quote made me feel better, but it was nice to read it and its accompanying story anyway. Essentially is just tells all of us to keep in mind that time is the one thing that we all receive the same amount of. None of us will ever haver more or less than our neighbors, our friends, our enemies. It is what we do with the time we have that makes the difference. We can never go into debt with time, and we will never have it taken from us. Bennett simply wanted to express, from his own personal experience, that all we hope to do is entirely possible given we budget our time well. This is not to say that no time can be allotted for leisure or sleep. In fact he stressed the opposite. Instead, we should plan our days accordingly if we wish to accomplish things. I, for one, like to leave time open for spontaneous moments, but even that can be planned to an extent. In my final weeks of research, I will employ this method of time management so that I can not only work diligently and effectively, but also relax and thrive in my last few weeks in this wonderful country. We would all do well to consider his ideas. At the very least, keep this quote in the back of our minds for those moments when we feel that “we simply do not have the time.”

The other quotes goes like this:

“We must do the best we can with what we have.” – Edward Rowland Sill

Although this quote comes from a man who was physically disabled, it can easily be applied to anyone in any situation. Personally, I look at this quote as a way of saying to myself, “Don’t worry about getting the best of everything. Instead, do your best to get the information available to you. In the end, you will work with what you have, and you will make the best of what is there.” This is not to say that one should simply settle for what they have, or that one should not work hard in things that they do and in the end say, “well, I guess I’ll just do what I can with what I have and that will be fine.” No. This is stressing the importance of being content with what you have and making the most of it. Sill did not whine about his condition or think of all the ways he was disabled. Instead, he looked at all the ways he could make good with what he was given. We can only play the cards we are dealt, so we must make the most of them. We can never be the best at everything, nor can we be better than others at all things, but we can all be great at something. As for my research, I am taking this quote to heart when I worry that I may not have asked enough questions or the right questions. I think of it when I see people walking around with better camera gear than I have. What I see as important is that I have adequate devotion and time to do my research and filming. Thankfully, I have an abundance of both.

I hope that these were helpful and interesting for those who took the time to read about my troubles and subsequent insights. I will try to post more like this over the next three weeks as I encounter more road blocks that send me to Light from many Lamps once again in my humble abode that is the Lotus Guest House.

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Thanks for reading, and check back soon. Oh, and just as a selfish plug, I’ll put a link here where you can find a better description of my research project, and those of two other amazing students at Gettysburg College who are also currently abroad. Enjoy!

http://www.gettysburg.edu (then look under “News” and select the “International Bridge Course…” topic.)

Final days together

This need not sound as sad or conclusive as it does; it is simply the best way to describe our last days together as a cohesive program before heading in different directions to conduct our research. At this very moment I am certain that all 14 of us are deep within the throes of our research, slaving away over interview transcriptions, photographs, and related literature trying to make some sense of anything…Then again, I am drinking coffee in a cafe with blazing-fast internet and updating my blog. I suppose others might be trying to retain their sanity as well. Nevertheless, these pictures are from our trip to Swayambhu on the north-western side of the Kathmandu Valley. Swayambhu (or Swayambhunath – with the ending very common to many names here) is known to many who travel to Nepal as the infamous “Monkey Temple.” Although this is a misnomer, there are plenty of monkeys to be found. And rest assured, whether you can see them or not, if you have food, they can see you very, very well. On more than one occasion did we witness a little furry primate relieve a larger, less furry primate of their foodstuffs. Really makes you wonder who is the more evolved…

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But the stupa itself and the surrounding monuments and temples are quite beautiful. The name “Swayambhu” can be translated or understood in a few different ways. Literally, for the Newari Buddhists, it means “self-arisen.” This hearkens back a story that is told about a lotus sitting peacefully on the surface of the lake that is now the Kathmandu Valley. Supposedly this lotus, and the hill that formed under its own power beneath it, now sit within the large stupa built on top of hill. This is a horrible butchering of the story, but self-arisen forms are quite common in Nepal, and they are particularly special for Buddhists. Another way to understand it, from a Tibetan translation and context, is as “sublime trees,” or essentially the hill where an abundance of trees thrive. This story is related to a god that established the area, and he sacrificed his hair to protect the site. So when he cut his hair off, it is said that each one of his strands of hair was planted and grew into a different tree. Now, I know nothing of trees or how to actually name them, but I can claim that there are many different looking trees in this area. So who knows? Oh, and there are also lots of prayer flags, as per usual. 

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This is a surprisingly clear view of the valley from the top of the hill. 

Our visit to Swayambhu was one of many things we had to accomplish in our last week together. Among the other things were finalizing paperwork for our research, making contacts, finding housing, and packing up in our home stays. The latter of these was by far the most difficult for most of us. Although we were ready to go out on our own and have new and exciting experiences, it was hard leaving a family that had so generously taken us in for the semester and treated us like part of their family. I really do miss having a good, home cooked meal every night. Fortunately we will see them once more at a picnic in our last week. I will do my best to update more throughout my research, but as it is not particularly exciting for most, it might not be worth your time. Once again, thanks for reading. See you again soon!  

 

Paper Factory

Paper Factory

Here is the video of the paper factory in Thimphu. It is hardly cinematography par excellence, but I think it gives a good idea of the time that goes into even a few sheets of paper made the traditional way. Select the title just above in order to see the video. Enjoy!

Our Final Days in Bhutan

Greetings!

After my last post we spent 5 more days in Bhutan. Although they were altogether less eventful than the preceding 20, we were able to see a number of fascinating sites and make some wonderful Bhutanese friends in our dorm stay. Before leaving Thimphu, (my apologies for the typo in the last post, spelling it without the second “h”) we went on a quick afternoon excursion to visit a paper factory, the takin reserve, and a giant, giant Buddha on a mountainside overlooking Thimphu. I will put together a quick video showing how paper is made, but for now, still images will have to do.

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After the paper factory we made our way to the takin reserve. The takin is what the people of Bhutan call their national animal. It is considered a goat-antelope, and looks like a strange mix between a mountain goat, a bear, and a moose, depending on how you look at it. Some people thought it was cute; others thought it was strange. I’d probably say it was strangely cute, but who am I to judge? You can do that for yourself.

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From the takin reserve we made our way to the giant Buddha that overlooks the city. This, I have to say, was even more spectacular than I had imagined it would be. As a sign at its base claims, it is the biggest Buddha in the world. We can’t be too sure of that, but hey, it is pretty damn big. The base is still under construction, but the temple inside is open for business. We simply admired its grandeur from the ground, taking copious amounts of pictures from all angles, trying to get the sun just right behind this beautiful figure.

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Overlooking Thimphu from the base of the Buddha.

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After this day we had a “rest-day” to do what we pleased. For most of us, this meant sleeping in, reading, bingeing on internet, and buying gifts for ourselves and our families and friends. We left Thimphu on Sunday, March 23 for Paro, the small city in the west of Bhutan from where we would eventually depart three days later. Before reaching Paro we made two stops: the first was to visit a bridge and a monastery built in the 16th century by an Asian renaissance man. Indeed, it was one of the more precarious bridges I have ever crossed, but it was a pretty neat experience.

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The second stop was at a dakini. Yeah, we didn’t know what it was either. Turns out a dakini is a person who has died and then come back to life. Thus, they have “been to the other side” and, with that experience, has special powers like telling the future. Each of us had our futures predicted, but none of us will hold our breath on that. Once we reached Paro we made our way to the Paro College of Education where we would stay the next three days. This time, instead of kicking-it in the guesthouse, we each were put with one, or two or three Bhutanese students. My roommate was so incredibly generous and ensured that I was comfortable and warm at all times. Our second day in Paro we left for a hike to Taksang, the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery poised on the sheer face of a cliff. At around 9,000 feet in elevation, Taksang is undisputedly one of the most sacred places in all of the Himalayas. It was built around the 16th century. Thankfully, we did not have to walk the whole way up – like the lazy Americans that we are – but instead had help from some wonderful, albeit temperamental, four-legged friends.

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I’m on a horse! (those are my feet…)

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On the way up.

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There it is, but it is still so far away…

 

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Trying to be artsy, but also drawing out the final reveal of what when I focus on the big picture.

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Here it is!

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And that, more or less, concludes our trip to Bhutan. It was an amazing three weeks, but alas! (sorry, I have been reading a lot of Dumas lately) we have returned to Nepal, the land of dust, honking horns, and our loving Tibetan home stay families. Although I shall not return to Bhutan anytime in the near future – and quite possibly ever – it was nice to come back “home.” I have made friends and seen amazing things while in Bhutan, and these memories are ones I will certainly not forget. At present, I am headed out the door of our program house to see my Tibetan family once again, and thus I close this chapter of my blog. I hope the pictures and words I have put on this page have captivated your interest long enough for you to read this far. As always, thank you for reading, and I will be speaking to you again soon.

 

 

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is a place where the landscape never ceases to amaze, where you receive a beautifully red smile from all, and the food burns with the intense sensation of flaming Bhutanese chilies. Our journey to Bhutan began with a flight from Kathmandu to Paro on March 5. We had the proper connections for securing our seats on the plane, thus the whole group was blessed with a view of the Himalayas that undoubtedly rivals any image you can find on the internet. Some of us might return to Bhutan simply to take the flight one more time. This imposing peak is the rooftop of the world. It is hard to believe we were flying at the same altitude as these mountains, staring into the snow-covered abyss of unpredictable weather and treacherous crevasses that draws the kind of thrill-seeker that some would say flirt with fine line between masochist and pure adrenaline junkie.

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After landing in Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan, we received our visas, put our baggage through security, then walked back out onto the tarmac to board the same plane. Druk Air is the only airline that flies in and out of Bhutan and their pilots are specifically trained to traverse this mountainous terrain and skillfully land on runways tucked deep inside the valleys. Feel free to look up “Landing in Paro” on YouTube for the full experience. Needless to say it was exciting as the plane wobbled back and forth. Thankfully the scenery was enough to distract most of us. The next flight was to a district in central Bhutan called Bumthang (boom-tāng), from which our journey would begin.

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This is us in Paro, experiencing the clean air and warm sun of Bhutan for the first time.

 

For the sake of clarity, I thought I would include a map of our journey. I have already mentioned Paro(1) and the district of Bumthang. We

were specifically in Jakar(2) for just a day or two. 

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Our brief stay near Jakar gave us a taste of Bhutanese food and hospitality. The guesthouse was more incredible than any of us could have guessed, complete with personal wood stoves, hot showers, and one complimentary hot stone, herbal bath. As I’m sure one can understand, we were reluctant to leave. 

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While in this part of Bhutan we visited a small Swiss brewery and were treated with a sample of their delicious Weiss Bier called Red Panda, as well as some of their very sweet apple juice. We really couldn’t have asked for a better way to start our stay in Bhutan. 

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The next day we headed to Öyen Choling palace and then the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies (ILCS) in a town called Taktse in Trongsa(3) district. Before getting to the institute we went on a hike that took us up to about 12,000 feet altitude. Some of us felt minor effects of altitude sickness (namely just bad headaches) and we were all quite out of breath. The views were breathtaking (no pun intended) and far worth the struggle. 

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This shows a few dorms at ILCS and the valley that it overlooks. 

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While at ILCS we had a few lectures and spent time eating meals and hanging out with the Bhutanese students. It is impossible to describe their genuine interest in our studies and our lives. Their generosity is incredible. Often times we were treated like royalty. But no matter how hard they tried to do our dishes or let us cut in line for dinner, we insisted on acting like regular students. By the end we made close friends over games of darts (pictured below), soccer, and light-hearted conversation. The soccer field was pretty rough, but the view was hard to beat. 

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We were also able to try on ghos and kiras, the traditional dress for men and women respectively. This brought even more attention our way, especially when we went to prayer with the students. We left ILCS with bittersweet feelings after a rousing cultural show, put on by us and the Bhutanese students. Next stop was the College of Natural Resources (CNR). Like ILCS, CNR is a part of the Royal University of Bhutan, headquartered in Thimpu, the capital. CNR is located in Punakha at a lower elevation than ILCS and surrounded by more infrastructure (ILCS was on top of a hill with more or less nothing around it). Before getting to CNR we made a stop at the most beautiful dzong in all of Bhutan (and the world). A dzong is a fortress, and this is the second one we visited up to this point in our journey west. This particular dzong is significant not only because of its grandeur, but in more recent history it is the place of the 5th (and current) king of Bhutan’s wedding. He and his wife are some of the most beautiful people on the planet – picture a Bhutanese Elvis and Mulan, and you’ve got them. Another fun fact about this dzong is that it was built without a single nail. Like other traditional Bhutanese architecture, this dzong is built out of timber from the surrounding forests, stone, and mud. Houses and dzongs are well built and, according to multiple people, will stand for 80-120 years if treated well. 

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Walking down the main walkway of CNR (it is very small). 

 

During our 5 days at CNR we had more lectures ranging from the importance of chillies in the Bhutanese diet (very important, by the way), to the significance of chicken in Bhutanese culture. On one day we ventured to a monastery that provided us with a great view of the gorgeous, emerald terraced fields and the river at their feet. 

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I even managed to make it into a picture…

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That same day we had a little excursion to a local village where we were able, with the help of CNR students, to ask questions for mini research projects we are undertaking while in Bhutan. I am most interested in Bhutanese architecture and the social and environmental implications of such building, so I made sure to take pictures of a house under construction. This is the traditional method with locals helping to build in exchange for food and a local carpenter who was trained through observation and a master-apprenticeship style. (If you are interested, ask me more about this. I have too much to write here.)

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This is an example of a finished house, supposedly 50 years young. 

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Finally, before leaving CNR, we made a point to explore the phallic culture in Bhutan. To clarify, the obsession with phalluses in Bhutan is derived from the popular saint of Bhutan named Drukpa Kunley, who, as the story goes, subdued many demons (and women) with his “thunderbolt.” Thus, the “thunderbolt” is painted on buildings and placed strategically on houses and other buildings as a sign of protection and fertility. We were lucky enough to visit his temple and be blessed by a bow and arrow and a large wooded phallus. As the joke goes, Bhutan is the land of dzongs and dongs. These pictures are for real, but may not be suitable for all audiences…

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But despite the phallus art, we did see more beautiful fields and had an enjoyable, yet very humble, stay at CNR. The next day we left for Thimpu, the capital. This is stop number 5 on our map. We will be here, in rooms pictured below, until Sunday, March 23. From here we go to Paro(6) again to visit the Paro College of Education and explore a little more. The city is amazing and we are having a blast. We have met some very intelligent people who have helped all of us explore our interests more than we could have imagined. From Paro we will return to Kathmandu for out last official week of class before we all part ways to conduct our Independent Research Projects in various locations. There will be much more to come on that. 

 

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I know this was quite long-winded, but I hope the pictures served as an aloe to the burn of my logorrhea (lots of word or word-vomit, if you will). Thank you once again for reading and please let me know what you think. All the best and I will update with more soon!