By: Fiona Lowry

Posted: May 7, 2018
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Student Post

Final Impressions of Bhutan


At the beginning of the spring semester, we asked student Katie Kelley about her first impressions of Bhutan. Now, as the semester comes to a close, she shared her thoughts with us again.

What did you like most about the SFS experience?
I now know that the slogan “Discover a different kind of classroom,” that I saw on my first visit to the SFS website is quite accurate. I know it is grossly cliché to say but during this semester of study I feel as though I have become fully immersed in the “global classroom.” On a less…schmaltzy note, SFS is a wonderful program which has provided me with the opportunity to travel without feeling like a tourist, something the large majority of visitors to Bhutan do not get to experience. All of the classes and research we have completed this semester has had clear practical applications within country, which has proved to be uniquely engaging and thrilling. My experience with SFS has been nothing short of life-changing, and I would not hesitate to recommend this program to any prospective students.

You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
Bhutan is still just as wonderful as it was when we first arrived. From the cuisine to the tshechus (festivals) to the national dress, the cultural traditions remain vivacious despite this time of intense modernization and transition. While I now realize that many of the government’s efforts towards conservation and environmental protection are very lofty, I also believe that this pushes the Bhutanese people to uphold their roles as environmental stewards. This country is definitely not perfect, nor a “Shangri-La,” but it is still the most special place I could have picked to spend three months of my life.

Also, as a person who loves bad puns, Bhutanese humor and I are a match made in groans.

What is life at the Center really like? What are the best and the most challenging parts?
I awoke this morning to the faint clanking of pack donkey’s bells as they clopped down the road. The sun filtered through the large windows in my room, warming everything it touched. I walked to the dining area, my stomach growling for another one of Yeshey and Monbir’s delicious breakfasts (arguably the best way to start the day). With only fifteen students, we have been able to sit at one big table for every meal. There’s always a new story being told, or impressions being done, and the laughter that ensues probably would make us look like one large, strange family to an outsider looking in. Speaking of which, there have been several times when I laughed so hard I didn’t know if the pain in my stomach was from chilies or the jokes being thrown around the table. With afternoons spent reading, walking to a local café, or playing ping pong and evenings of movies or doing crosswords, life here is unexpectedly peaceful. Now that I write that, it sounds very much like a brochure for a swanky retirement home, but hey, I’ve enjoyed it!

What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
Academically, Directed Research (DR) was by far the biggest challenge of this semester. Our group of 5, headed by the esteemed Dr. Purna B. Chhetri, spent seven days in the field looking at succession after forest fires. Sometimes this entailed pushing through thorny barberry bushes; other times we returned to the Center looking like we had spent the day down in a coal mine. These physically exhausting days gave way to a week of data analysis and write-up. Although this is not the first intensive research project I have done I must say I have never had to sift through this much data. The days of sitting in front of my computer alternating between Word, Excel, and various literary PDFs likely took a few years off of my life, but finishing the semester with a project of this caliber provided me with a satisfying sense of pride and closure.

Culturally…let’s just say the chilies and I stopped being on good terms a few weeks ago!

What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
This program leaves me with so many dear memories and friends that it is honestly difficult to pick a “best” one. But I will try.

Tango Monastery sits atop a large hill on the outskirts of Thimphu. The only way up to it is by a long, winding, cobbled footpath (spoiler: there are no escalators in this country). As you trundle up the path, the dense trees strung with fluttering prayer flags give you the feeling that you are entering into an enchanted dreamscape. When you reach the top, you see the monastery, shrouded in wisps of clouds, and built seamlessly into the hillside. Inside, there is a deck. It is a small deck, which only fits about two people, and you have to climb up a precarious ladder to get to it, but that makes it so much better. You (I) duck through a small doorway and step out to see one of the most striking views we have seen this whole semester. Suddenly, you are above the roof of the monastery, among steep snow-capped peaks. The wind blows softly through your hair, you feel at peace, safe. All is momentarily well.

Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
As I do not think I can appropriately describe my current feelings with only three adjectives, I will sign off with this limerick instead:

Us 15 just finished DR
I was one with the forest char
Only 3 days remain
And it’s hard to explain
But I’ve had a great time so far.




→ Himalayan Studies in Bhutan

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