Hello Everyone, and welcome to my blog!
Over the next five months, I’ll be studying abroad in the Himalayan country of Bhutan and posting about my experiences with the country, culture, and other travel adventures I’ll be embarking on. In this first post, I’ll answer the most common questions I get when telling people about my program.
What is Bhutan?
Don’t worry, if you’ve never heard of this country, you are not alone. Bhutan (pronounced BOO-tahn) is a tiny nation in the Himalayan mountain range between India and the Tibet autonomous region in China. Bhutan often escapes notice with a total population of well under 800,000 and an area smaller than Switzerland. Like Switzerland, Bhutan is an incredibly neutral country on the international political stage and has very few formally defined relationships with other countries. In fact, Bhutan, Iran, Syria, and North Korea are the only countries in the world that do not have formal diplomatic relations with the US. However, the US does maintain warm and informal ties with Bhutan through tourism and the occasional study-abroad student!
Bhutan calls itself “Druk Yul”, which translates to “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. This important piece of the Bhutanese national identity can be seen clearly in the country’s flag, where a white dragon is proudly displayed in the center, clutching pearls in its claws that represent the country’s wealth and prosperity. The flag’s background is split diagonally between yellow, which represents secular rule, and orange, the color worn by Buddhist monks within the country. This balance represents the equality of secular and spiritual forces in Bhutan, as Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the world. The current Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, led the country in a transition to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. In Bhutan, the royal family is incredibly well-liked and respected, with basketball even becoming commonplace after the royal family adopted it as their favorite sport!
Bhutan’s culture is very unique, being one of only a handful of countries that has never been colonized. The values of the country are based on the Buddhist beliefs of those who live there, and so the well-being of the population and the environment are given priority there. You may have heard of Bhutan’s policy of “Gross National Happiness” over Gross Domestic Product. In a nutshell, the growth of quality of life for the populace must take priority over GDP, which has resulted in an otherwise poor country with a high population of subsistence farmers that have access to clean water, free healthcare, and free public education. Bhutan also takes environmental protection seriously, being the world’s only carbon-negative country and having vowed to forever keep at least 60% of the land under forest cover. Bhutan’s tourism policy reflects these attitudes– the country is quite difficult to visit, a daily fee supporting citizen well-being is required, and a guide is a constant presence alongside the few tourists visiting. I am very fortunate to have a student visa, which means that I am exempted from the daily fee and do not require a guide on my day-to-day adventures!
This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around mainland Greece with my Ancient Greek professor and other students interested in the field of Classics. That experience expanded my mind dramatically and catalyzed my desire to travel to lesser-known places where I would be pushed to learn and grow like never before. When I returned home, I spent three full days reading through every program that The University of Alabama had or partnered with and saving the ones that caught my eye. I had no particular destination or experience in mind, I only knew that I wanted something off of the beaten path that still taught classes in English! The more that I read about Bhutan, the more interesting this program became, and the more this opportunity just felt right for me. Over time, as the other programs I’d considered dropped to the status of backups, I knew that I was committed.
How Do Your Parents Feel About This?
While my parents have always been supportive of each and every one of my crazy endeavors, I will admit that this one came with a few concerns. Luckily, Bhutan is one of the safest countries in the world, with even petty crime being quite rare. When friends and family inquire as to my safety abroad, I have two favorite anecdotes that tend to put them at ease. The first is that, according to the international ambassador who interviewed me, it is not uncommon for people to leave their credit cards on or near ATMs “for next time”. Bhutan is often described as having the feel of a small town, but for a whole country, so people tend to be very trusting of one another. The second anecdote comes from a local newspaper article. While trying to learn about the local culture through the news, I ran across an article detailing a recently caught criminal. Fortunately for me, a repeat dine-and-dasher has finally been apprehended and sentenced by the appropriate authorities. Yes, this story made national news.
Other than some (very valid) concerns about my safety abroad, my parents are incredibly excited for me! My dad has recently been sharing stories of his own time abroad in Scotland and his advice on adapting to a foreign culture, and my mom has taken it upon herself to start Googling the best restaurants and attractions in the area I’ll be staying!
Are You Excited?
YES!!! Right now, everything still feels a bit surreal, and it’s difficult to fully comprehend the magnitude of the journey that I am about to undertake. However, while the logistics of all of this feel overwhelming at times, I am confident that I will learn and grow from every challenge that comes my way. I cannot wait to go out, travel the world, and experience everything Bhutan has to offer! On my way there, I’ll be stopping in Spain, The UAE, and Nepal for some pre-travel, and then afterward I’ll spend a week bouncing between Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan! I can’t wait to update on my favorite adventures from Bhutan and beyond!