By: Sigrid Heise-Pavlov, PhD

Posted: September 18, 2015
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Faculty Post

First Impressions of SFS Bhutan


Why did you choose to study abroad with SFS?
I knew that I wanted to study abroad, but in my search I realized that what I was truly looking for was total cultural immersion, where not only was the area and region different, but the history, culture, people, religion, values, and beliefs were so vastly different than what I grew up in. SFS offered exactly this in the majority of its programs, but Bhutan in particular offered the chance to be able to work alongside the community and really learn about environmental issues and the values and livelihood of the people. Bhutan not only stuck out to me by allowing me to integrate both of my majors within my studies here, but also allowing me to gain a deeper understanding and connection with mindfulness that Buddhism has to offer.

Trongsa, 6 AM: From hotel porch, with the Dzong and valley in view

What are your first impressions of the country?
As we landed in Paro (western Bhutan) I immediately noticed the immense forest cover that spread over the landscape as we flew in and around Bhutan’s lush mountains.

Traveling from Paro to the capital of Thimphu allowed for a glimpse at how Bhutan has and is continuing to develop in these more urban areas, in which I noticed many shops as well as Northface book bags and jackets on the school kids going to class in their kiras and ghos. Here in Thimphu and throughout Bhutan, there are many stray dogs wandering around, and seeing a dog on a leash with its owner is a rarity. Also since there are no stop lights in Bhutan, with roads being constructed in the 1960s and expansion beginning in 2013, Bhutanese tend to beep to communicate in intersections, roundabouts, and narrow winding roads. These beeps, however, are friendly with several flashes of the headlights telling the other driver to stop, a directional to indicate the continuation of the other car, and short beeps as the drivers pass by one another as if to say, “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”

Food of course needs to be mentioned as it greatly coincides with traveling. Here in Bhutan the most popular dish is ema datsi (ema=chilie and datsi=cheese) which is quite a goal to gain a tolerance to as a chillip (foreigner), while the Bhutanese take spoonfuls and eat chilies raw. Although there are many other first impressions that have come up in my first few days here, one to leave off with is how friendly everyone is, saying Kuzuzampola (Hello in Dzongkha) to each other as you pass by with a warm smile.

Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan

What are your first impressions of the field station?

Being at the UWICE/SFS campus for only a few days now, this area is truly incredible. All the main buildings including the dining facility, the academic building, the dzong, our dorm building, and the lovely laundry facility are spread out with roundabout ways of getting to each. Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) is located above the valley of Chamkha and creates a mountainous view from campus where the morning clouds hover down low upon the mountains, rising and spreading throughout the day. Being a runner I am very excited about the trail access that we have right outside of our dorm. Last but not least, the teachers are exceptional, each sharing their passion through teaching and field lectures. Even though the classes differ they all interconnect which is so helpful in getting a wide scope of the topic within different subjects. And of course so all of you parents and friends are not worried, we are eating wonderful meals and building up our spiciness tolerance prepared by the generous kitchen staff!

Prayer wheels and the intricate architecture that is represented on and throughout many of the buildings here in Bhutan

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you this semester both academically and culturally?
Since there is so much to learn about and so many places to visit and explore it is going to be a bit of a challenge to get accustomed to the busy schedule each day has to offer and still have that time to reflect on yourself and the day. However, being able to explore and deepen our knowledge in such a unique setting makes it all worth it. I think the biggest challenge I will face culturally is learning about all the paradoxes that Bhutanese culture and livelihood has. Much like any other culture, not everything is as it seems and there is much that underlays the day to day life in which people live. I look forward to learning more about the many layers and dimensions that underlie this culture and beautiful landscape.

What are you looking forward to most about this semester?
Right now this seems like a bit daunting, but I am most excited to really grasp and implement all that we are learning in our Land Management and Natural Resource, Mountain Ecology, Political Ecology, and Culture and Language classes. Many of these classes and the dimensions that we will be looking at are relatively new to me so I am looking forward to seeing how far I come with this. I also look forward to gaining a deeper connection with this wonderful group and learning from them as we all come from different places and backgrounds!

Give three words to best describe how you are feeling right now.

Prayer Flags are strung up all over Bhutan, especially on high cliffs and mountain sides, bridges and across narrow valleys. These spots allow for the greatest amount of wind to pass through, taking the prayers and blowing them across DrukYul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon!

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