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.



Directed Research

DR. It’s started. It’s a staple of every SFS program, and one of the selling points of the whole organization. Even more than our classes, during which we often had field exercises and lectures, DR is when we actually do field studies.

DR is not independent research, it’s directed. That means there are six groups of students, all of whom have a faculty advisor for the whole project (each professor has two groups). The groups are studying the concept of One-Health in Bumthang, avian diversity on the UWICE campus, the current social and ecological status of community forests, biodiversity on the UWICE campus compared to nearby community forests, medicinal plants and cordyceps and rural livelihoods, and a new index (created by the group) to measure wellbeing. Within each group, the students can pick their own topic of interest and design a project complete with their own objectives, hypotheses, methods, and analysis.

About a month ago we were all sorted into DR groups based on our preferences. I am really interested in the history of property rights in Bhutan, and especially the fact that all forests and natural resources were managed through common resource management systems until 1969, when the government passed the Forest Act, nationalizing all forests. Luckily I will be able to conduct research related to that topic. I’m in the community forests group and I’ll be investigating what type of property system community forests are, and how that property system is impacting the livelihoods of local people.

And we start today! After lunch my group is driving to Tang Valley, which is 2.5 hours away. We’re staying there for three days, conducting interviews and collecting data from the three community forests that are in that area. Wish us luck!

A Bumthang Farm

On Friday we went on a FEX (field exercise) to a farm in nearby Tang valley. It was, as you can see from the pictures below, absolutely picturesque.

We have been learning about food security and self-sufficiency in Bhutan recently, and this visit put a face to what we have been learning about the complex dynamics between native land use and agriculture, international development money and agricultural schemes, and the tension between locally-grown organic food and imported, processed food.

We spoke with the farmer, with the help of our professor as interpreter, and heard about his own experience being a “progressive farmer” in the area – meaning he has accepted Swiss brown cows (which produce more milk than the indigenous breed of cow) from the Swiss Development Agency and he has joined a honeybee cooperative through which he sells his honey.


The vegetable garden




A butter churn – the first one I’ve ever seen in real life


Our professor (right) speaking with the Bumthap farmer


The family also makes ara, which is a traditional alcoholic beverage consumed in Bhutan. This is one of our SFS/UWICE staff, Rinchen, demonstrating how they make ara.

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Check Out My Post on the SFS Blog!

Bhutan is one of the world’s top ten biodiversity hotspots. In Bhutan, scientists have cataloged 699 bird species, and expect that a total of approximately 770 species will be found in the country. In the United States, which is 210 times as large as Bhutan, there are a total of 800 bird species – almost the same number! In addition, Bhutan is home to the tiger, the one-horned rhino, the clouded leopard, the red panda, the snow leopard, and the Tibetan wolf, among countless other species…

Throwback Friday…

… to when the first advertisement I saw in Asia (Bangkok, Thailand) was an anti-elephant poaching ad by Yao Ming. After four months of research on the intersections of elephant poaching, the illicit ivory trade, and terrorist groups last fall, this was super exciting! And there were more ads like this one, but with more educational information about the origins of ivory, throughout Suvarnabhumi Airport.


Takins and a Goat

When we were still in Thimphu last week, we went to the Bhutan Takin Reserve! The takin is Bhutan’s national animal, and is a fairly strange looking bovid (pictures below). When we saw on the schedule for that day that we were going to a “takin zoo” we were all very excited. Most takin live in the wild in Bhutan, and one of the Bhutanese kings did not like the idea of having a takin zoo near Thimphu, so he let them go free. But then they became as common as stray dogs in Bhutan and cows in India, and overran Thimphu very quickly. So they decided that they needed to bring the takin back to the preserve, but they made it much larger and feel like a forest. The takin now have plenty of space.


But before we even saw the takin, we had an unexpected addition to our group – a very pregnant mama goat! We met her at the entrance to the preserve, and she decided she wanted to show us around, so she followed us up the steep path! Her ears bounced when she walked and her belly was enormous, so we all thought she was just the cutest.



Then, with our goat friend still in tow, we saw the takin!



One of the large male takin decided that he really did not like this cheeky mama goat, so he rushed at her behind the fence several times. The goat was very calm, though. She didn’t mind.




We then went on a beautiful hike around the takin enclosure, identifying plants and laughing at the mama goat bouncing along the hilly path.


Takins and goats and SFS, oh my!

It feels like the top of the world here

I have arrived in Bumthang at the UWICE/SFS campus! Bumthang has a different ecosystem than the western parts of the country. There are larger valleys and primarily coniferous forests. I wake up every day to a view of the trees, close, outside my window. The windows on our dorm are intricately designed and we also have a view of the laundry facilities – the prettiest laundry building I’ve ever seen. I’ll try to post a picture soon, but the Internet here does not seem to want to upload photos.

At campus we live 500 feet above the town, Chamkar, at a grand total of 10,000 feet. I have to say, I haven’t felt the altitude as much as I thought I would (although I haven’t gone for a run yet – I’ll probably feel it then).

Tonight will be our first opportunity to wear ghos and kiras. We have a welcome dinner with all of the SFS staff, many of the UWICE scholars, and local people as well, who live on campus and in town. I’m sure people will take pictures, and as soon as I can I will show you what a kira looks like.

We officially started classes today, although we had many guest lectures in Thimphu. This morning we had Land Use, Natural Resources, and Conservation, and then Mountain Ecology. The professor for the first class is from Nepal and has a great sense of humor. He is also studying tiger and leopard interactions in a park in Nepal for his PhD, and used to be a forest guard who caught poachers. I am very excited to talk about conservation with him! The Mountain Ecology professor is from India, and also has a great sense of humor, and has studied an amazing amount of megafauna – Asian elephants, crocodiles, whales…

I think I’ve found the perfect program.

It feels like the top of the world here. I feel like I can touch the clouds when it rains, and in the morning cloud wisps are all around. We are surrounded by mountains, with a view of some of the Jakar valley, and birdsong and caterpillars and butterflies all around. There are tales of the yeti in Bumthang, and it feels like this entire country is forested. I keep pinching myself, and reminding myself that I am here. But where is here? What is this magical place?

The Parks of Bhutan

Bhutan Protected Area Map

Bhutan Protected Area Map

Did you know that Bhutan had no cities until the 1960s? That was also the same decade that Bhutan established its national park system.

In the 1960s, the protected areas system covered almost the entire southern and northern regions of the country.  In 1993, the parks system was revised “for better ecological representation and realistic management.” Today, Bhutan has 10 formally protected areas covering more than a quarter of the country.

You can read more about the individual parks here.

Next Stop, Bhutan!

Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong in Punakha, Bhutan.

Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong in Punakha, Bhutan

Although I started this blog as an assignment for my World Politics class, and I haven’t written anything for several months, I would like to start writing again, but with a more personal flavor. 

In about two months I will be on my way to the Kingdom of Bhutan, where I’ll be doing environmental field work and studying wildlife conservation, climate change, Buddhism, and the sociopolitical status of the tiny Himalayan country for one semester. I decided to study abroad in Bhutan for several reasons, not least of which being that I want to take the path less traveled, and Bhutan seems to embody that, quite literally. 

Another reason is that many years ago I travelled to India to spend time with family friends and explore the world of Indian wildlife conservation. Recently I have had the opportunity to take Hindi through the Five College World Languages program. I feel a pull to return to South Asia and explore more corners of it, and a semester abroad seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

In late August I will fly to Amsterdam, where I’ll spend five days exploring the canals, parks, and coffee shops before heading to South Asia. Although I’ve been to England many times, to visit family, I have never been to “the continent,” so I’m really looking forward to this trip. Then, on September 5th, I’ll fly to Bangkok, where I’ll meet up with the rest of the students who will be on the School for Field Studies program. On the morning of September 7th we will fly to Paro, Bhutan! From there we will drive to the capital, Thimphu, where we’ll stay for about one week. Then we’ll make the trip to the central region of Bumthang, and more specifically to the town of Jakar, where we’ll be living for most of the program. The program ends on December 16th, when I’ll be flying to India to visit friends. And then finally, probably in early January 2016, I will fly home to New York City. 

In the following months I will be using this blog as a space to write about my experiences preparing for such a large journey and the adventure itself. So although I am transitioning to a much more personal narrative than I used previously on this blog, it will touch on the same themes of climate change, conservation, animal advocacy, and social justice. 

I’ll be posting thoughts, worries, revelations, and photos during the next two months in NYC and during the fall when I’m in South Asia. Feel free to write to me if you have questions about anything or if you’d like to hear about a particular topic or experience. I hope you enjoy!

India and Climate Change

India needs to become a climate leader, and the Editorial Board of the New York Times agrees with me. India will suffer incredibly from climate change, with increased floods from the melting Himalayas and increased droughts that will destroy crucial crops.

And yet, as the number three greenhouse gas emitter behind the United States and China, India continues to guzzle more carbon, particularly through coal. India has long stated that it will not sacrifice growth to limit greenhouse gas emissions. According to the New York Times, in the last five years, “India increased its coal power capacity by 73 percent,” and it plans to double domestic coal production to one billion tons by 2019. Increased coal use by India will not only ensure catastrophic climate change for all of us, it will also kill its own citizens. India’s coal plants already kill up to 115,000 people a year and cost the country’s economy $4.6 billion. India cannot afford coal.

To its credit, India has the largest solar plant in Asia, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has pledged to create a 50,000-strong ‘solar army’ to help rapidly expand India’s solar capacity — and train job-hungry young Indians in the technologies of the future.” But in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, Prime Minister Modi must show the world that he is not a climate change skeptic and come to the next round of UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, on December 1st ready to make a commitment.