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First steps in Thimphu

Posted on 20 August 2007

Finally, after a sleepless night in Bangkok Airport, I am sitting in the plane again, waiting for the aircraft to take off to Bhutan, the country, where my thoughts have already been travelling to many times in the past few months.
The Journey

Finally, after a sleepless night in Bangkok Airport, I am sitting in the plane again, waiting for the aircraft to take off to Bhutan, the country, where my thoughts have already been travelling to many times in the past few months. There are three kinds of passengers: Wealthy tourists with expensive cameras, calm and friendly looking Bhutanese people and – as we are flying to Kolkata first – many lively and cheerful chatting Indians, trying to smuggle in additional hand luggage and nestling on other passengers seats, which leads to grumpy complaints by the tourists and drives the stewardesses crazy.

Oh yes, and there is myself, almost twenty-four years old, half way through my psychology studies, leaving behind all my family and friends in Switzerland, overtired from the long journey, but in the same time extremely excited about this wonderful chance WWF International and WWF Bhutan have given to me, not only to explore this small Buddhist kingdom, but also to learn about structures and methods of the WWF-Network to protect the wonderful gifts of mother earth. So here I am, flying over wild, rugged Mountains, covered with dense forests, which are home to tigers, elephants, red pandas, snow leopards, takins, black-necked cranes and – who knows – maybe even Yetis… In between rivers and waterfalls are glittering in the sunlight and from time to time I spot golden ornament-like rice fields and small villages without even a road. And I feel that if I will be able to help even only a little to protect this Himalaya-hidden Shangri-La, Land of the Thunder Dragon, it will be the finishing touch of this fabulous three-month adventure that I am off to.

First steps in Thimphu

Every morning one of the WWF drivers picks me up at the hotel and brings me to the WWF offices. My office (actually it’s their conference room) is huge, with a lovely view out of the window, a personal heater, computer, internet…It makes me all feel very, very important. Everybody is quite busy so I also try to look a bit busy. Every few minutes somebody is dropping into my office to say hello, to explain, what he or she is working on, to ask if I am warm enough or to feed me with some cookies. I work myself through a big pile of written material and try to get an overall picture of the WWF activities in Bhutan. Having roughly the same shape and size as Switzerland, incredible 35% of Bhutan are under protection. In total there are 9 protected areas, which are all connected by biological corridors. These are a sort of “wildlife highways”, which link and enhance the effectiveness of the protected areas network. I try to imagine how Switzerland would look like, if 35% of its land were turned into National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries…I guess after 5 minutes of walk from the Paradeplatz in Zuerich, I would bump into the first Park-Visitor-Center, and the lake of Geneva would be a subalpine freshwater paradise with no boats allowed on it, except of the Waterpark-Rangers rowing boat, on which they’d excitedly announce to the world the discovery of an unknown endemic trout…
Well, in Bhutan these things really happen, and every year the extensive list of species found in Bhutan grows a little longer.

And suddenly it’s already five pm again. Sonam, the driver, is knocking onto my door: “Shall we go?” He brings me back to my hotel, where I have a cosy room with a huge bed. My shower has no less than 7 knobs to turn (4 for warm water and 3 for cold water) and 4 taps. It challenges me every evening again to figure out the right combination and I feel like trying to click a safe to receive my precious warm shower, well knowing that in future I will have to stick to the bucket.

I go for dinner in the hotel restaurant. I am the only guest and seven waiters try to please me: Yes Mam, no Mam, please Mam, hungry Mam? (My Swiss ears have never before heard anybody calling me “Mam”, and I decide to consult my mirror later on to find out wether I’m really looking that old already.) A young and handsome waitress serves my kewa datse, boiled potatoes with cheese, and asks me with a shy but friendly smile: “No friends here, Mam?” I smile in return, but suddenly I do feel quite lonely, looking at the 9 empty chairs at my table.

But there is definitely not much time to feel sorry for myself. From the next day on I keep on receiving invitations for dinner and lunch, sometimes twice a day. Bhutanese meals usually include an impressive choice of different dishes, including rice, potatoe, egg, meat and vegetables. Leader of the charts is ema datse, chilies with cheese. The Bhutanese are crazy about this dish and will eat it every day. Depending on the way of preparation it can be extremely hot and the ability to eat it without setting your stomach on fire seems to indicate how far you have already climbed the path of Bhutanese virtue. Apart from all those tasty dishes I am being introduced to sud-ja, salty buttertea, which tastes very odd, when you expect a tea, but actually is quite nice, when you prepare yourself for a soup. And not to forget arra, a spirit destilled from rice, often served hot with butter and pieces of egg in it. I haven’t yet figured out if I am really supposed to eat those egg-pieces or if they are more a kind of decoration, because up to now I never managed to reach the bottom of the glass, where they usually gather. As soon as I take one sip, my host will refill my glass for sure.

All my WWF staff colleagues are extremely kind and caring. They manage to make me feel at home after only a few days. They introduce me to their families, they ask me how I feel and they offer me their help whenever I will need it. I wonder how a Bhutanese would feel, coming to Switzerland as a complete stranger, just the way I did in Bhutan. I guess he would have to face many more lonely hotel-nights than I did.

I regret that I have no home in Bhutan into which I can invite them in return, but my birthday on October 27th gives me a good opportunity to at least invite my staff fellows into “my office” (their conference room). I had ordered a blackforrest cake and a Linzertorte at the Swiss Bakery in Thimpu (opened by one of the first Swiss expatriates in Bhutan in 1970), although by the time I arrived there my preordered Linzertorte had already gone with another lucky customer, but the blackforrest cake looked great.

The Bhutanese usually don’t celebrate their birthdays, most people don’t even know, on which date they were born exactly. Nevertheless they all gather in the conference room, singing “Happy Birthday” and they even have a CD with Traditional Bhutanese Music for me as a birthday present. I am quite touched. How could I ever feel lonely in such a country…