Below is an article I wrote which is to be published by Kuensel this Saturday. How exciting! I'll be trying to post again shortly.
October 18, 2011
The other day, I had failed in a hitchhiking endeavor and was thereby taking a taxi home. The taxi I had reigned in was a dinosaur. The entire ride I had a perfect view of my expressions, content or terrified, in the side mirror that was hanging on to the taxi by a few strings – a feeling I also felt for most of the ride. Each jarring bump sent something falling from the dashboard to the floor and I became the unofficial search and rescue party for these fallen items. At one point, Tshewang, my driver who resembled Wario without the mustache, reached over and opened my door as we were speeding on the narrow Himalayan road. The side mirror reported a state of shock and my mind thought of a particular scene from “Throw Momma From the Train”, but he quickly shut the door and told me, “shaking”. Now, he could have been describing my reaction, but I think he meant the door. Tshewang then reached over a second time and locked the door with a big smile on his face that showed off his doma-stained pearly reds. Perhaps he could sense my unease. But as the road stretched long and the sun began to hang low, we fell into our routines; Tshewang attacking the road like a man on a mission, and I picking up dislodged items and keeping Tshewang entertained. It was during one of our short, punctuated conversations that I realized something: in Bhutan, it’s the roads that change the quickest.
Since my arrival at the tail end of January, the roads that I consistently find myself on have undergone remarkable transformations. In winter, the rough road to Samtengang was decently flat and relatively safe. The road to Phobjikha was under widening work and road blocks were frequent. The road to Thimphu was scarred from last year’s landslides. By summer, the rough road to Samtengang had become a wet slide which was quickly washing away with each rainfall. Cars couldn’t get up the slick slope; pushing vehicles through mud and fears of slipping off the road became commonplace. The road to Phobjikha was no longer being blocked by machinery but instead by earth. Landslides were coming every evening and at times you would have to drive quickly to beat a slide that was slowly enveloping the road. The road to Thimphu saw similar challenges. And now, after battling the monsoon rain and an earthquake, the road to Samtengang is once again safe but left in a twisted heap with boulders scattered throughout. The road to Phobjikha is no longer blocked but quarry trucks have left Alto-sized potholes to navigate. The road to Thimphu has been paved and cleaned in many parts and newly constructed gates (gaelgo) line the road to Punakha. All of these changes have happened within 9 months of my arrival. And I see these roads changing parallel to Bhutan. Everything I have learned about Druk Yul in my short stay here points to a country in a similar state of upheaval and drastic change.
I watched Tshewang caress the steering wheel with his whole body and squint his eyes menacingly as if the road was his foe. Despite the rickety state of this taxi, it was one of the most comfortable rides I have had in Bhutan; I chalk this up to Tshewang’s skills. The taxi was an extension of him; it even looked as if the steering wheel was centered in his chest. His squint was focused on every bump, jagged rock, and hole to which his body naturally reacted and adjusted the position of the vehicle. It was amazing. “20 and 1 years drive” he told me. Twenty-one years, I couldn’t imagine the amount of changes he had seen. Of course there are the highlights: 1974, beginnings of tourism; 1999, Television and Internet are made available; 2003, cellphones make their appearance; 2008, Monarchy changes to a Parliamentary Democracy; 2011, a royal wedding brings Bhutan a new Queen, Her Majesty the Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck. It’s the impacts of these major changes that are altering the landscapes of Bhutan. And much like the weather that changes the roads, these are unbridled forces.
As a teacher, my experience has mostly been with students and those in the education sector. I consistently see students getting Korean-style haircuts and wearing DC Shoes knockoffs. Homes are filled with the drama of Hindi soap-operas and movies. Children are tattooing themselves and learning to break dance. And students seem less interested in the cultural traditions than my teachers say they were at that age. In essence, the impacts are visible and real. But they do take time; these trends didn’t happen overnight. For instance, curricula change has been continuous for 5-10 years shifting from a mimetic and memory-based system to a student-centered, critical thinking based one. In addition, teacher training has changed to produce teachers equipped to instruct in this new system. However, the impacts are only beginning to take place. Most of my students continue to struggle when asked to give their opinions, to challenge their understandings, and to connect lessons with their own experiences. I can see students memorizing pages of notes that will most definitely be on their upcoming tests. That being said, change takes time – policy is one thing, minds are another. Development needs to progress slowly in order to adapt to the culture and context in which it is implemented. And if anything is apparent, it’s that Bhutan takes cautious and calculated steps toward development – a wise action when considering some of the failures of other nations.
Having a foreign perspective of Bhutan, I can’t properly comment on the benefits or drawbacks of the changes taking place here. But I can recognize that Bhutan is truly undergoing a drastic transformation that will alter the nation for future generations. Cultures change, nations adapt, development of any kind has consequences. I’m just glad that I’m able to catch a ride, while the change is underway.