Homeward Bound

It is safe to say that I have eaten rice every day for the last 120 days, and I am ready to come home.

I miss Bhutan a lot, even though I’m still in South Asia (for the next 14 hours, including sleep time). I don’t know for sure whether that was the beginning and the end of my relationship with this country (although it’s obviously not really the end, as I’ll always have the memories), but I sure hope not. I have plans for the future which I hope to flesh out in the next few years, and I don’t want to give anything away, but there might be more about (and posting from!) Bhutan on this blog at some point. We shall see.

I felt at home in Bhutan, and I now feel at home in India (partly because of my wonderful and hospitable friends), and I hope I’m going to feel at home when I’m home. With four cats to see (including one new rescue kitten!), how can it not feel like home? I can’t tell yet how much culture shock I am going to experience.

I’m going to save the platitudes for another time, or hopefully never. Partly because I’m tired and facing a 20+ hour journey tomorrow, and partly because I hope I can move past cliches and actually find the words to talk about this semester in an honest, reflective way.

Namaste and Tashi Delek, friends.

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Mahabaleshwar

My apologies for the recent lack of posts – hopefully these photos make up for it! I’ve been relaxing, mainly without electronic devices (partly because I don’t have any chargers at the moment).

I am with friends in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra, which is an old colonial hill station in the Western Ghats, which some of the oldest mountains in the world. It’s much cooler here than in Bombay (thank goodness) and there are gorgeous views if it’s not hazy (it used to be clear all the time, but unfortunately there is now smog over most of India, as there is over most of Asia – except for Bhutan!).

There are several spots in particular where you get good views of the mountains and valleys, including several “points” – Kate’s Point, Mumbai Point, Elephant’s Head Point, Sunrise Point…

I took the following photos yesterday morning at Kate’s Point. Enjoy! And believe it or not, I didn’t use any filters. It really is that beautiful!

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Bombay

Hi friends and family!

As you know, I’ve been in Bombay for the last few days spending time with some lovely family friends. They run the magazine Sanctuary Asia, and are basically an incredible, tiger-saving, nature-loving extended family with three adorable grandsons who I get to hang out with.

Over the last few days I’ve gone to the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards (held annually), compared my journeys around the city to what I remember from being here seven years ago, eaten DELICIOUS food (I promise to post pictures soon), watched a Bollywood film, and… met the great great grandson of Charles Darwin and drank red wine, listened to him play classical Indian rajas and Christmas carols on the violin, and talked about radical politics. (WHAT?!?! – that was probably the best evening yet.)

Bombay is a beautiful city. I eat bananas here and don’t feel so guilty because they haven’t been transported halfway around the world, and this evening I am going on a bus tour with some eight-year-old boys. But Bombay also has some of the largest slums in the world, and is so polluted and crowded that The Guardian says that “Mumbai is on the verge of imploding.” Kya? What I see is a city in desperate need of creative, revolutionary urban planning. My friend Bittu has thought of so many ideas to make Bombay greener, more open, and more equitable.

After all, according to The Guardian Bombay used to be India’s urban showpiece. There’s still some green space left, and Chowpatty Beach and the views of the Arabian Sea are breathtaking, when you can see it through the smog. The mix of British colonial and modern Indian architecture is interesting and often beautiful.

But my friends are not always optimistic about the future of their city, or of India. A toxic mix of industrial power, corruption, bureaucracy, and exploding population is hard to deal with all at once.


I’ll post more in the coming days! For now I’ll leave you with a crazy thought (maybe only crazy for me) – I’ll be back in the States in 12 days.

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A view of Bombay. Yes, there really is that much smog.

Everest

I have officially left Bhutan and have been in India for about two days. My apologies for the lack of posts – the last week in Bhutan was mostly in transit, and surprisingly there was less reliable wifi in Thimphu than there had been at UWICE.

I think the only thing that could have distracted me from the pain of leaving Bhutan is… seeing Mount Everest up close on the plane ride from Paro to New Delhi!

Everest is in both pictures below, but more identifiably in the second one.

Enjoy, I promise more posts will come soon!

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Goodbye Dzong Cat, Harrison, blue pines, and Chamkhar

This is our last day in Bumthang.

The realizations come in waves – sometimes I already miss Bhutan so much, and other times I’m in denial. I think it hasn’t completely hit yet, that I won’t see these particular mountains, maybe ever again. I was just talking to my friend Alyssa about that feeling, and she said she feels it too, and that’s because this place is home to us.

Sitting here at the dzong is home, dzong cat helping us all pack is home too. So is walking to town down the mountain road, and riding into town at night, when the lights of Chamkhar suddenly seem bright and spread over a vast distance – what is Delhi going to feel like? Mumbai? NEW YORK?

Harrison, the cutest dog, is home, and so are potato momos and naja and frost in the morning on the grass that is now totally yellow and the gigantic pine trees outside my window and the heat in the middle of the day from being at 10,000 feet.

I’ll (almost definitely) post in Thimphu and/or Paro, but for now enjoy a few photos from the last few weeks!

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Wrapping up in Bumthang

Not much posting because we’re in the middle of DR write-up, and everyone is going crazy! We’ve had three days to analyze our data and prepare for individual presentations and start writing our final papers. Tomorrow morning we will all present our findings, and papers are due on Monday. On Tuesday we are having a large “Bumthang Symposium,” to which we are inviting UWICE researchers, our translators and research assistants, and any friends and acquaintances who are in the area.

It is quite an intense time, also because we’re leaving our field station at UWICE, which has been home for three months, for good next Thursday.

That day we drive to Phobjikha, where we are hoping to see the black-necked cranes that are migrating at this time of year from Tibet. We stay there for two nights in farmhouses and then travel to Thimphu on December 12th – my birthday! Two fantastic birthday presents – hopefully seeing the cranes, and then being in Thimphu again.

I wanted to conclude this post with two photographs I took this morning of the snow-covered peaks we can now see from UWICE, but unfortunately the internet is not cooperating enough to let me upload them. I’ll post them when I can, though! It’s startling beautiful.

But here is a photo, unfortunately not taken by me, of black-necked cranes.

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Dubi Shapiro

Suja and Sinchang

The last week and a half have been some of the most rewarding, stressful, and transformative days in my life. I’ve had more cups of naja (milk tea) than I can count, sat on many bamboo-woven mats on wood floors, climbed the stairs of Bhutanese homes, cuddled cats, watched a farmer chop up yak meat, and conducted a total of 73 semi-structured interviews and two key informant interviews. Yesterday I was served a full lunch by a Bhutanese family who were having a puja in their home (a ritual blessing and cleansing). I sat on the floor with my translator, Kinley, and was immediately served naja, a full plate of red rice, and cow’s cheese that was the consistency of cottage cheese, as well as curd, which is actually delicious. So much dairy! Kinley was also served potatoes and meat, which I obviously did not eat. It was an enjoyable, filling meal, and they kept offering more and more – Have some more rice! More cheese! More curd! It’s hard to turn down when they have invited you into their home and have provided more hospitality, unquestioned and un-asked-for, than almost anyone has offered you in America.

(We actually ended up going back to that house later in the afternoon to interview someone else. As you might have guessed, we were offered more – this time suja (butter tea, quite a drink) and sinchang, which is one of the traditional Bhutanese homemade alcohols (the others are ara and banchang). I probably drank two cups of sinchang and three of suja, which was not much, given how forceful the sweet old lady was who kept offering more, almost refusing to accept my protests of No, no, no, karinchela, I can’t drink any more straight butter or homemade alcohol! Karinche but no!)

I am now an expert on Bhutanese hospitality – it’s better than anything else!

The interviews are conducted by my friend Brad and I. We each have our own set of questions, but we ask them during one interview so we don’t bother people twice. During the last two days we conducted 41 interviews (!!!) because we split up with one translator each. We have conducted so many interviews (we will probably have 80 by the time we’re finished collecting data on Tuesday) that faculty and staff have started telling us that people have written theses for Masters programs based on fewer interviews. Whoa! We are both very excited about these data, and have high hopes for the final papers that are due next week.

These last two days we were in Duhr, which is a rather large, sprawling village (meaning a bit more than 80 houses) about an hour north of UWICE. It’s a fascinating place – a community of nomadic yak herders and cordyceps collectors, many of whom only live there for part of the year. Most people seemed a lot wealthier than many of the villagers I met in Tang. Some had couches, many houses were bigger, newer, cleaner… children seemed to have more time to play, and some families didn’t even do much during the entire year except for the very busy few months in early summer when they make the dangerous journey (three days north) to collect the illusive and incredibly lucrative Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Cordyceps is a fungus that grows parasitically on a certain caterpillar, and takes several years to mature. They are found mainly in Tibet, but also Nepal and Bhutan. The market for cordyceps is large and profitable, and continuing to grow. It’s considered to be an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has other purported health properties as well.

Every year, the Bhutanese government gives a certain number of permits to people (especially those who already live in districts that have cordyceps, like Gasa and Bumthang) so they can legally collect cordyceps during the early summer. It is a fairly regulated industry and market in Bhutan, but not so much in Nepal or Tibet. But the financial benefits are obvious – these cordyceps collectors are doing well, even though life is still hard, especially in such a cold and mountainous place as Duhr. The village is nestled on a mountainside and looks out, farther north, at craggy summits that are covered in snow. Highland meadows stretch above the village, which is where the yak herders keep their yaks while they are living in Duhr.

I asked a villager about wildlife in the area, and learned that tigers live a little farther north, but then again, who knows? – He suddenly contradicted himself and said that villagers have seen tiger pugmarks nearby. And there are bear attacks in the village. They are very much living among these animals.

As I said at the beginning of this post – it has been a wild week. More later, once DR fieldwork is officially over.

I will leave you with this photo of my view right now.

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