On the Move Back to Bhutan
At 4:15 am in Dubai I had been awake for a while when the first call to prayer from the nearby mosque reverberated in my hotel room. Familiar, I recalled this powerful ritual from my travels in Morocco and Egypt, while pondering that the following day the Buddhist chanting and drumming in Kathmandu would be my wake up call.
I’m on the move and the cultural change-ups are an affirmation of the expansive nature of foreign travel. In Dubai, I went to a lecture by a Muslim woman from the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. She shared the foundation of her religion then opened to Q&A. The organization’s intent: to share with ‘others’ the truth of what it’s like to be Muslim and follow the Koran. Their efforts are not just admirable and well-executed—they are doing important work globally.
Traveling abroad while experiencing lectures like the one in Dubai always feeds me, while supporting my appreciation of being a woman in America. I’m headed back to Bhutan, and I hope you’ll come along for the journey on Athleta Chi! But before I share about my time here, I’ll offer a bit about how and why I came to know this obscure country.
In 2000 I did an expedition adventure race that started in the Tibetan plateau at about 14,000 feet. We ascended through the Himalaya range mountain biking and trekking, dropped down to the border into Nepal, then made our way to the finish, on the border of India, on several rivers and via a lot more biking and trekking. This unique and challenging adventure was life-shifting, as they always are, but what really stuck with me was my attraction to that part of the world, the geography and the Buddhist culture. I wanted to go back, but the spot that caught my eye was Bhutan, nestled in the eastern Himalaya. The more I read about Bhutan in all its spiritual and mysterious ways, the deeper I was lured in. I craved experiencing it in total, which is rare to non-existent in Bhutan due to their extensive travel restrictions.
My team of four created Expedition Bhutan, and in the Fall of 2011 we traversed the country trekking and mountain biking while making a documentary of our journey called The Happiest Place. In the process of this creating Expedition Bhutan, we developed a deep and long-standing relationship with the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) and the Bhutanese people. In the summer of 2012, I returned to live in Bhutan for two months volunteering with the BOC (you’ll find posts about this trip on my blog), then later brought two Bhutanese to the U.S. to experience more about our sporting culture.
Bhutan is a peaceful and spiritual country which governs by an expansive document called Gross National Happiness. But more so, they embody a cohesive, civilized, and supportive people—an old and traditional culture whose essence many of us fast-paced, digital-infused Westerners not only respect, but even crave.
One of the reasons I support the BOC’s efforts to infuse youth and Olympic sports into the country is because of why they desire this for their ancient culture. They first view sport, and the wellness and fitness that goes along with it, as a means to personal happiness for all. I also support their efforts because I know first hand the significant confidence that participating in organized sports can offer a young person’s life. Though we always strive for more (and because that is how we are wired), America offers a plethora of ways, means, and information for children (and adults) to learn and engage with an active lifestyle of their choosing. And despite my growing up in a pre-Title IX era, my life is a big result of the virtue of organized sports. If you or your kids aren’t participating, it’s because you are happily choosing not to. We get to choose! While in Bhutan I am hyper clear on the enormous power of being able to make fitness choices—and how much I take this for granted.
In Bhutanese schools, physical education classes for kids are sparse, if mostly absent. They are just starting to develop club sports, but often a parent will have to pay for a child to participate. And if you are a poor farmer in Bhutan, it’s tough to see the virtue in spending what little money you have on sports when their 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, 6-day school week is the first priority, and working on the farm the second. So I feel incredibly lucky to be in a position to go back again and continue to support their efforts.
En route to Bhutan this round, I spent a couple of days in Kathmandu post Dubai stopover, and it was as intensely chaotic and deeply spiritual as I remember. I revisited several temples and monasteries I had been prior, and added two new spots to my agenda. I stayed near a favorite, the Boudhinath Stupa, one of the largest and most holy stupas in Nepal. Starting prior to daybreak and with a continuous flow throughout the day and evening, Buddhist followers (many of them Tibetans in exile) flock to the stupa to do laps around it, prostrate, pay homage, and socialize. One evening at the stupa, there was a particularly large number of people circumambulating. All of a sudden, a couple hundred nuns showed up in their crimson robes and hats, while chanting and singing, and rocked the house with significant spiritual force!
But after a couple of fascinating and frenzied days in Kathmandu, I’m ready to drop into tranquil Bhutan. I’ll be back at you soon from the Land of the Thunder Dragon.