Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
I’m sure most people back home will remember October 2008 as the month the financial crisis gripped the U.S. and the rest of the world. Before our departure to Bhutan, it was hard not to be aware of what was going on. The Japanese and international newspaper headlines, along with CNN International and the BBC all seemed to have 24-hour coverage of the global economic turmoil, not to mention the pending presidential election. Our calls and e-mails to friends and family echoed some serious concern, with many of them telling us that we picked a good time to be out of the country.
So it was with this as a backdrop that we arrived in the country that measures its success by Gross National Happiness (GNH). Being on a National Geographic Expedition, we not only had a resident (and required) guide to help the group navigate through Bhutan and handle all the logistics, we also had an expert, Richard Whitecross along to provide us with a deeper understanding of the county’s rich culture, history, religious practices and monarchical rule. Richard is an anthropologist living in Scotland who has been studying and doing research in Bhutan since the 1990s. Having co-authored the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan and consulted for National Geographic Magazine’s recent article on ‘Bhutan’s Great Experiment’, he was certainly well equipped to address everyone’s questions about what this GNH was really all about.
To be clear, GNH is actually more of a philosophy than a regulated policy per se (although a GNH commission has officially been formed). Established by the country’s 4th King, Jigme Singya Wangchuck, it emphasizes the value of its cultural traditions and protection of the environment versus economic wealth. Not that material and technological progress is being discouraged. We all chuckled at the sight of monks chatting away on cell phones and welcomed internet access to find out if the world was indeed coming to an end. But it’s the notion that a country wants to move forward under a different set of guiding principles that makes the concept so intriguing. I for one will be cheering the Bhutanese on as they coronate their 5th King on November 6th (King Wangchuck’s 28-year-old son) and hope they will continue to pursue happiness over monetary gain. As the rest of the world pays closer attention to this small landlocked country, the pressure will certainly grow to resist some of the ‘temptations’ of the West. One advantage they have, however, is the hindsight of learning from some of our mistakes. Maybe our major anxiety over the stock market will serve as such an example.
So what makes the Bhutanese, or Drukpa (people from the Land of the Thunder Dragon), happy anyway? I was told by a researcher from the Centre for Bhutan Studies that the government is actually trying to assess happiness – and not just by measuring employment, education, and overall confidence in the governance of the country. They are also conducting nationwide interviews of the general public to find out where their psychological state of mind is, what their aspirations are, and how they view their country.
Something that probably can’t be calculated, though, is the powerful role that Buddhism plays in people’s everyday lives and how it has shaped the country’s identity. We witnessed this influence everywhere we went, and it seemed to rub off on all of us, particularly Stefan, our 8-year-old (see our last blog post).
While visiting the Phobjikha Valley, we were fortunate enough to be there during the tail end of a festival celebrating the consecration of the restored Gantey monastery. People came from far and wide to take part in the ceremonies or just watch the ritual dances performed with haunting beauty. The most memorable part for the boys was the opportunity to be blessed by the presiding lama, Gantey Tulku, the ninth incarnation of the body of Pema Lingpa, one of Bhutan’s most revered saints and teachers. The highlight for me was the incredible photo ops this festive atmosphere provided.
Finally, our nine-day journey culminated with a pilgrimage to one of the most venerated temples in all of the Himalayas, the Taktsang Lhakhang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’ as it’s best known. For the Jenss family, this proved more than just a five-hour trek to and from a monastery clinging to the side of a vertical granite cliff. It was an opportunity for Carol to take a big step toward defying her fear of heights. The hike involved climbing 1,800 feet to an altitude of almost 11,000 feet. The last stretch, which involves angling down a narrow footpath along the cliff, would normally have turned her right around. But she was determined to visit this most sacred of places, another example of the spell we all seemed to be under while traveling through this awe-inspiring landscape.
So when it comes down to GNH and how it’s evaluated, it will ultimately be defined by the Bhutanese themselves. As is so true with almost any travel experience, it’s usually the people who we most remember. Even though it’s best known for its stunningly beautiful landscapes, flowing rivers and majestic temples and monasteries, it’s the photographs I took of children laughing and parents holding their babies that I’ll most cherish. Did I find Shangri-La? Maybe. Happiness? Absolutely.
Photos: Rainer Jenss