We were hot, sweaty, sore, tired, and hungry when we peeked through the monastery gate. Unsure whether we’d be welcome to look around the grounds, we hesitantly tiptoed in. All we wanted was a piece of grass to sit on to rest our tired feet.
Hours before, the five of us had crossed the Paro Chhu, the river that rushes past the SFS Bhutan Center in the Paro Valley. Our goal was the ridgeline across the valley that we see from our terrace balcony every morning as we sip our milk tea. Since we, as students, are not required to travel with a guide as all tourists to Bhutan are, we had no one to tell us the proper etiquette for a situation like this. The fact that there was obviously some sort of celebration happening at the monastery with people from town only heightened our uncertainty.
To our surprise, not only were we welcomed in to look around, but we were also asked to share their lunch. We were given chairs, water, and more rice, vegetables, cheese, soup, and cake than we could possibly eat. We sat there, looking out over the Paro Valley where we’d been living for only a few weeks, stunned. After we’d eaten and politely refused yet more cake, we were brought into the monastery itself. Here we were taught the history of the monastery, the proper Buddhist prostrations and their significance, and the story of the goddess Tara, to whom this monastery was built. We left by ascending a rock staircase built into the cliffside. Once off the stairs we all stopped and looked at each other, and back down at the monastery, in awe.
Now a month in, I would no longer be surprised by this experience. Over the last month we’ve been invited to meals by complete strangers, given tea in the shop where we buy our kiras and ghos (the national dress of Bhutan), and hugged and waved to by children. Even the form of address locals often use with us – we are called “sister” and “brother” by many of the shopkeepers in town – indicates a culture of welcomeness foreign to me a month ago. These experiences, while becoming less surprising, are no less impactful on me for their frequency.
It took me a long time to realize that living in this beautiful place is not just a dream. For some, the realization of the reality of our experiences here came with amazing sites like Chelela pass, 4000 meters up in the clouds, or from beginning our research. For me it has come from small moments like this. It has come from the open welcome we receive here and the things that are shared with us.