March 18, 2017
It’s no secret that the Kingdom of Bhutan was #1 on my “life travel wish list.” I have had the Bhutan Lonely Planet book sitting in a prominent place in my living room for years, as a reminder to work towards my dream. For reasons that I can only imagine are deeply rooted, I have felt a compelling draw to this country for almost 18 years. As I write, I am staring out the window at the late afternoon sunlight grazing the top of snow-capped peaks. To be here literally is a dream that has become a reality. I have had many of those quiet, inner moments of joy, gratitude and awe that I am here and sharing this dream with some incredible young people and inspiring educators.
Part of me wondered if I had nurtured expectations that would be hard to meet. What I quickly realized is that Bhutan is everything I imagined it to be, and then some. There is a palpable, yet calm energy to this small Buddhist country. Monasteries and dzongs (fortresses) spot the forested, mountainous landscape. The local people have a generosity of spirit that feels sincerely genuine. Karma and Galey (our hosts and guides) have treated us as though we are royalty. Their level of client care is unparalleled. No matter what we ask of them, their answer is always “everything is possible.” I know that without question, we all feel immensely cared for.
Summarizing our happenings would be relatively easy to do. It would look something like this:
- Blessing and purifying ceremony in a monastery by a Llama.
- A visit to Dochula (108 chortens) and then to the Buddha Dordenma -the largest sitting Buddha in the world (50 metres tall, filled with 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha).
- Presentation on Gross National Happiness (GNH), where we learned about the pillars of GNH.
- Two days of sharing, learning and growing with the students from Utpal Academy (this time is very difficult to capture into words, but I must say it was quite magical to run some of our ALIVE workshops with the Bhutanese students, and I was so proud of our RSGC & SMLS students on so many levels.)
- A visit to the Paro Dzong, the National Museum and one of Bhutan’s oldest temples… and the list could go on. This trip has been a lovely mixture of learning, laughing and simply soaking in the endless beauty.
Yesterday morning, we set out on our Bumdra Trek. As we climbed, we came to small pockets of prayer flags dancing in the wind. Despite not understanding what each flag says, I love that each colour represents the elements of water, wood, fire, earth and iron. The concept of the wind carrying the prayers for good and safe travel, (amidst other things) has always left me feeling a sense of reverence for the land, the people and my own experiences. I find myself very drawn to not only the aesthetic beauty of the religious markers in this country, but also very intrigued by the spirituality of the people. The sense of devotion and intentionality here is something I find humbling.
As the elevation increased, the forest changed, and so did the weather! It has not snowed in March in Bhutan for years. More than once it was insinuated that it was the Canadians that brought the snow! I wish all of you could have felt the magic of that forest. It was beautiful. As we got closer to the top, long lichen hung from the branches of giant trees acting like magnets for the fluffy snowflakes. If only words could paint a more vivid picture. The students kept suggesting that the forest felt like Narnia.
The day was supposed to end with us camping in wall tents above the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and yet things did not go as I had planned. Sometimes Mother Nature reminds us that she is in charge. Our group took the change of plans very well. They rallied, and made the descent with smiles on their faces. I think I was the one that struggled the most. It’s hard when things do not go as planned. In the end, I was reminded that there are lessons tucked into the folds of every situation—sometimes even more so when things veer away from the intended path. When we descended, we were welcomed into a temple for tea, where there were more than 50 monks eating dinner. Quite the sight to see!
The snow fell all night where we were supposed to sleep. I woke up in a warm bed listening to the rain on the metal roof of our hotel feeling grateful for our collaborative team decision to turn around, rather than push forward. Without question it was the right choice for all of us.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery- Sunday March 19
Many years ago, I saw a photo of Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) on the front of a travel magazine. There was something captivating about the placement of the monastery that blew me away. It seemingly clings to the side of a sheer cliff, towering 900m above the pine forest of the Paro Valley. Legend says that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon. Afterwards, it is said that he meditated here for 3 months. The site has long been recognized as a holy place.
We arrived at the trailhead early to start our climb up through the blue pine forest to Tiger’s Nest. Despite not finishing the Bumdra trek a few days earlier, it was clear that our group’s lungs and legs were feeling stronger from that experience.
We passed 3 water-powered prayer wheels as we climbed the switchbacks up the ridge. The viewpoint was amazing. We pulled out the ALIVE and Canada flag and took a few group shots with Taktshang Goemba in the background. That photo feels special to me. There are not too many moments where I take the time to stop and reflect on the path that I have chosen in my life. I saw our group holding up the ALIVE flag with the stunning backdrop of a place that I have wanted to see for years and in that moment I felt a deep sense of gratitude. I am grateful that I have created a life that allows me to dream and collaborate with other people that also want to expand their own world views and those of young people. I am also grateful that there are students and families that are willing to take a leap of faith to embrace new opportunities such as this trip to Bhutan.
Inside the Monastery it was stunning. There are 12 temples in Tiger’s Nest. Galey (one of our guides) took us through 4 of them. Describing the scale of the statues of Guru Rinpoche and the other manifestations of him would be impossible. We don’t have any photos of inside, as it’s strictly forbidden. You will just have to get there some day to witness it for yourself.
The view from the top was breathtaking. A few of the SMLS students lingered up there with me and talked about how they wanted to throw their passports off the top and stay in Bhutan. In that moment, I felt the same way. It was surprisingly emotional to be there.
The students (and of course my colleagues) on this trip have been spectacular. Sharing this journey with them has only added to the experience. I have been struck by their reverence for the landscape, the people, the spirituality, culture and traditions. They are spectacular young people and it has been a true joy to watch the SMLS and RSGC students become friends, and embrace this rare opportunity with open hearts and minds.
I have learned through my own travels that some lessons come immediately and some come in time. It’s my hope that this journey planted seeds for everyone. I feel like I will be processing things for a while, and I imagine that will be true for our group. What is for certain, is that this was a trip of a lifetime—but I plan to return with more students. More people need to experience the beauty and the lessons that the Kingdom of Bhutan has to offer. Things are already in the works for March 2019!
Thank you everyone for sharing in this journey.
For me, it has felt profound.