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By: Allison Quattrocchi

A road sign by the side of the narrow, precipitous highway in Bhutan reads, "Thanks. Traveling not only broadens one's mind but also widens human sympathies," a maxim that celebrates the Bhutanese respect for the interconnectedness of all living things. Such compassion springs from the intense presence of the Buddhist religion and the stunning Himalayan peaks and valleys of Bhutan's countryside, both of which inspire reverence for the universe, the bond between earth and sky, life and death, and all creatures great and small. Fittingly, this kingdom is supposedly the source of the myth of Shangri-La. I traveled to Bhutan with a small group of western photographers in early spring.

Bhutan, bordered by Tibet on the north and India on the east, west, and south, is only 46,000 square miles and is made up of mostly forested land, deep valleys, and high mountains. It's only airport is not in the capital but in Paro because it has the least hazardous, but still rather harrowing, approach for airplanes through the labyrinth of giant mountain tops. Thimpu, the capital, is a city of approximately 50,000 people and what seems like 20,000 stray dogs. The dogs, which roam freely, serenade the city nightly with their loud howling. Our tour operator suggested ear plugs. I never did ask how they all got fed, but, just as a stranger is never turned away without food, so it must be with the dogs.

There is not a traffic light or central heating anywhere in the country. A uniformed policeman conducts the traffic flow with flamboyant hand and arm signals wherever necessary, which is not many places. The much beloved king has four wives, all sisters. Each has her own house, which probably contributes to smoother transitions for the king among the sisters. The king is reported to have said, "I am not as much concerned about the Gross National Product as I am about the Gross National Happiness."

The country is clean and almost everyone a home and their own plot of ground to farm. Electricity is somewhat erratic but there are always candles--with the exception of the night I suddenly found myself in pitch-black darkness while sitting in the bathtub washing my hair and doing laundry. Most of the time, there is hot water and a western-style toilet. These are the two things, in my mind, that define "civilization."

One very narrow, treacherously high and sort-of paved main road with switchback after switchback runs the length of the country. Our group traveled this road in a caravan of five cars. Between the going and returning the same and only way, we crossed twelve mountain passes. Now and then, we caught glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas through the clouds that linger on the mountain tops. At the higher elevations, verdant forests were ablaze with red and pink magnolia trees and white rhododendrons. The mountainsides, lying within the protective bosom of the giant peaks, were terraced and planted with crops of wheat, rice, potatoes, and barley. The mountainsides are so that I wondered how farmers keep their balance while planting them. It would seem to require one leg to be shorter than the other.

Fog often rolls about the mountains and adds a sense of magic and mysticism, lending credence to the hundreds of myths of deities and spirits that haunt the land, along with a few yetis and reincarnated lamas.

Taking advantage of the good weather at this time of year, Nepali and Indian road crews were working to repair the road, breaking apart rocks into small pieces with hammer and chisel and laying them in beds over which macadam would be placed, one wheelbarrow full at a time. Hairpin curves, several hundred-foot dropoffs and large trucks bringing commercial products from India contributed to some nerve-racking moments and a number of tight squeezes on the road. Anyone who had a tendency to be carsick was on drugs. I am usually pretty unruffled in these type of circumstances, but my heart was in my mouth a time or two. At one point, I asked the driver if he wouldn't mind honking before charging around the curves. Despite the hazardous road, however, I never saw one accident, not even a fenderbender.

Bhutan is primarily a Buddhist country and the atmosphere of this tiny kingdom and its people reverberates with the gentleness of the Buddhist philosophy and respect for all life, each person for the other and for their deities. Kindness emanates from the place and the people. Many shrines, called "stupas" and "chortens," small and large, are scattered throughout the countryside. You always knew when you had reached the top of a pass because there would be a large stupa and clusters of several 30- to 50-foot poles embedded in the ground, each pole lined with colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind and broadcasting prayers and blessings to the heavens. The flags are a form of spiritual communion with the universe and fly with abandon, not only at the top of the passes, but from rooftops, temple courtyards, meadows, and the front yards of houses. Bhutanese prayer flags are usually very long strips of silk in one of five different colors. Each color has a special meaning. Several messages are printed on the silk from inked wooden blocks into which the message and often a picture have been carved.

The form of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is called Tantric Buddhism. Unlike mainstream Buddhism, which emphasizes perfecting certain qualities in order to attain a perfected future state of consciousness, the premise of Tantric Buddhism is that people already possess the nature of enlightened and perfected beings. "Enlightened" means "at one" with the universe, a view that is synonymous with compassion for oneself and other forms of life. From the Bhutanese Buddhist's perspective, the pursuit of "good" is a manifestation of one's own enlightenment, not a pathway to enlightenment as it is in Buddhism in general. (This does not mean that other forms of Buddhism are not just as successful at fostering respect and compassion. It just manifests differently.)

The small population and dependency on the land also fosters the importance of the individual and the interdependency of man and nature. Although Bhutanese typically are reluctant to kill anything, they eat meat killed and fish caught by others. Sometimes necessity spawns some creative rationalizing such as, "to kill a fish is to save the lives of a thousand worms." A brief fishing expedition brought this lesson to bear when one of our guides arrived back at the hotel having caught 27 trout. We had a delicious dinner and thanked him for saving 27,000 worms.

As in most Buddhist countries, greeting each other is done with a bow of the head and hands in prayer position. It is impolite to sit on the floor with your toes pointed at another person, or to point at anything. When waving to someone, you wave with your hand down. Respect is a high priority and "manners" are one important framework for that respect.

Bhutan is slowly trying to enter the modern world while preserving Bhutanese culture and tradition. We heard rumors of two high-end hotel chains negotiating for sites to build resorts. All of us shuddered. Just think about all of the possible promotions: Golf in the Himalayas makes you high; Lama blessings for a better life; Meditation with monks in the morning, yaks and yoga in the afternoon; Tea, temples and tennis; Make your own prayer flag. I hope the rumors prove false.

Bhutan used to restrict the number of tourists but no such restriction currently applies. You cannot, however, travel independently. You must make travel arrangements through a Bhutanese travel company and be accompanied by a Bhutanese guide. It makes some sense because turning tourists loose could easily disrupt temple ceremonies and general religious decorum.

Bhutan is serious about protecting its identity. The typical dress—a gho for men and a kira for women—must be worn by all Bhutanese during the day. (A gho resembles a kimono and a kira is a long, rather wide piece of fabric wrapped and pinned a certain way around the body over a cotton bodice.") Although enforcement is lax in the countryside, in Paro and Thimpu, a policeman is likely to stop a Bhutanese not dressed in the national dress and take that person to the station. At the station the person may be asked to explain why he or she is not wearing the national dress. If unsatisfied with the answer, that person may be fined. Our guides were always dressed in ghos except in the evening when their duties as guides were finished. Then they dressed in casual western clothes. One guide had a Georgio Armani T-shirt and a few wore Adida warm-ups.

In central Bhutan, the architecture of buildings and houses also must meet a certain profile. The architecture is somewhat reminiscent of a Swiss chalet with packed mud walls painted white and the upper floor built of wood with lots of beams. Religious symbols are painted on everything–inside and outside. The most unusual symbol to western eyes is the penis. They are often painted on the outside walls of houses and carved penises crossed with a sword typically hang from all four corners of the homes. The purpose of the symbol is to ward off evil spirits. (Having an actual male in the house doesn't count.) A prayer flag is erected on the center of the roof of all Buddhist homes.

The inside of the houses is very sparse. Furniture is minimal. Mats are used instead. Beds are similar to futons and folded up during the day. Each house, however, will usually have an area dedicated as a place of worship. Farm animals are often housed on the ground floor. As we sat on the floor of the combination living area and chapel room in a local farmhouse where we had been invited for lunch, I thought how everyone must congregate in the kitchen around the wood stove in the winter, for the house was drafty and chilly even in April.

One of the most exciting adventures of the trip was a hike to Tango monastery. The weather was nice when we started and I foolishly left my jacket in the car at the foot of the mountain. Although the hike was supposed to take about an hour, it was very steep and because we were at 10,000 feet, it felt like forever. The weather changed abruptly for the worse and we found ourselves in heavy rain and hail. My guide was way ahead of me with my camera gear and poncho, so I arrived near the top of the mountain drenched and shivering. Miraculously, the sun broke through the clouds by the time we reached the monastery. Our timing was perfect, for we arrived in time to watch the entire population of monks involved in the raising of a hundred-foot pole with prayer flags. What a spectacle!

After the pole was securely in place, we were invited to a temple ceremony. No photos were allowed. About a hundred monks, all in red robes, were seated in rows on red cushions. At a higher level sat the eight-year-old reincarnated lama and his two mentors. The room was painted elaborately, a giant statue of a Buddha and lesser statues ringed the room on two sides, an altar was laden with "tribute" that oddly enough included a lot of what we would call "junk food" – potato chips, pretzels, cookies, and the like. Incense burned and many yak-butter candles cast their flickering light about the room. But the most glorious aspect of all was the music. Most of the monks were chanting and playing a typical form of upright drum. A few others blew large, elongated horns that sounded much like a dijeridoo. We all received a blessing and were given gold-colored threads to put around our necks. Mine stayed with me for the rest of the trip.

After the temple ceremony, the monks invited us to tea in the VIP room. I was looking forward to a hot cup of tea. I took one sip, made an involuntary face, and looked for a potted plant. No such luck! Then the monks spooned some odd-looking rice into my hand. It tasted like mildew. Fatima, a member of our group who was sitting next to me, was having the same response as I. We started giggling. I did not want to insult the monks and felt embarrassed, but there was no way I could have eaten that rice or drunk that tea. I was on such sensory overload and so tired, it was all I could do to contain the giggling. I came up with the bright idea of putting the rice in my cup of tea. Mistake. All it did was float on the top. More giggling! Oh well, I was sure I would be forgiven. It was time now for the trek back down the mountain. The weather was still capricious and there was more rain and hail, but this time I had an umbrella. What a Great Day! What a great trip!

About the Author

Allison Quattrocchi is an attorney and one of the pioneers in the field of divorce mediation. She founded the Family Mediation Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1981. and has been a champion of mediation both at the state and national levels. For many years she provided advanced mediation training and also practiced family law. She is currently publishing a series of concise and easy-to-read book, each written by an expert, that address various divorce-related topics. Allison has authored four of these books and coauthored one. These books can be ordered at

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