It was my maiden visit to the Land of Thunder Dragon, Bhutan, and the day before heading to live in a remote village. Immersion exposure to rural poverty had by then become an indispensable feature of my official itinerary everywhere.
During obligatory rounds of Thimphu, the nation’s capital, a Minister upon hearing my plan declared there was no poverty in Bhutan. “My country is poor, if measured by such yardsticks as per capita income. But, we are not like other developing nations. Agriculture may be near subsistence. But, farmers are well off, and there are no beggars in towns. There is no poverty in Bhutan!” Half in doubt and half in disbelief, yet I could not ignore his pronouncement.
The village was far from the capital city itself. A full day’s journey eastward by car, to the heart of the nation called Trongsa. Another day’s journey skyward on foot, on a rugged near vertical mountain path.
At last came a village into view, where time drifted more slowly. It was the time of joy – of good harvest and winter readiness. Ripe mountain peppers (zanthoxylum piperitum) bowed their heavy branches and perfumed the air everywhere. Yonder, over wave after wave of mountain range, sparkled the silver-whites of the Great Himalayas. A beautiful place in the country, this village called Bemji was.
No electricity or piped water, but Bemji boasted a primary school, a health clinic, and even a veterinary clinic. Etched into the sunny side of the slope below was a thousand- layer paddy field, home to an ancient variety of red rice. Life of Bemji’s rice-growing farmers was prosperous far beyond my expectation.
Too substantial to be called farmhouses, Bemji’s homes carried the air of lesser manor houses that dot the English countryside. The ground floor reserved for livestock was whitewashed earthen walls of substantial girth and height. The second floor for family quarters, and the third floor for altar and guest, were constructed of finely fitted woodwork. Auspicious symbols in many-colors danced on the walls and window frames. Between traditional roofs of cedar shingles weighed down with rocks against the mountain wind, shone silver corrugated metal ones. Subsidized for forest preservation, apparently.
Ablutions and sundry water duties were performed at an outdoor well. But, an indoor flush toilet amazed me, even though with water carried up in a bucket, climbing two flights of near vertical stairs. A stone bath under the open sky was a luxurious pleasure. Red-hot rocks thrown in at the bathtub’s end gurgled and boiled and steamed the water. “Place a berried juniper branch just so, when the rocks’ minerals finish melting, and it is quite medicinal,” I was told.
Villagers don hand-loomed traditional dress as their daily attire even out in the field. They looked decidedly splendid in their formal dress, indeed.
The most astounding of all, however, was their autumnal cuisine. Mushrooms sautéed with chili peppers, in a pungent sauce of yak cheese. Blanched flower buds of edible orchids, their medicinal flavor faintly bitter and quite pleasing to taste. Pickled tinge, or those mountain peppers whose Japanese cousin we call sansho. A soup of flagrant green riverweed, gingerly scraped off rocks of streams below, and gracefully floating in a delicate clear broth. “His Majesty is fond of it, too,” smiled my kindly apa, the master of this manor house I called my home.
Shape the red rice in the palm of one hand, dip the oblong rice ball into the dish of your choice, catch morsels deftly between the rice and your fingers, and throw it in your mouth, just like how it is done with our sushi, actually. Even to this day, recalling those meals makes my mouth water.
Home brewed ara and chung were delectable. A customary warning of “makes you vigorous, watch out!” left trails of chuckles and giggles and two-eyed winks, as chungkay made its jovial round. Brewed orchid or mistletoe tea, churned purple with heaps of yak butter and a dash of rock salt for the final touch – this seuja poured life back into one’s veins, after a hard day’s work out there on the farm.
But, in the shadows and crevasse of such prosperity, there was poverty. Children busy at work, fetching water, cleaning house, in the middle of what should be a school day. They had lost their guardians to this ailment or that accident… A house of crumbling walls, earth melting and white wash peeling. A long and serious illness meant survival by selling their farmland piece by piece… A quiet house in daytime turning pitch-black at night, not a single candlelight leaking out. The whole family was blind, forced to rely their livelihood on the goodness and philanthropy of the community…
People surviving silently. Their vulnerable lives on a knife’s edge. Falling off the well-endowed life of the land to farm and the healthy body to farm it…
I was furious. I met that Minister again, and vented my steam. “The majority of your people live beyond a day’s walk from the road. What you see from your car is not at all your country. Go see for yourself, on your own two legs!”
A few years later, “retired ministers” came up in Thimphu’s social conversation. It was after a sweeping change of the Cabinet, time of a generational shift in the nation’s top leaders. Joining the discussion about the government that listens to the voice of the common people, I began to tell the tale of my maiden visit without revealing that Minister’s name.
Having overheard the conversation, Her Majesty the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo turned to admonish me, laughing, “There is no need to hide anything, Mieko. You mean there-is-no-poverty-in-Bhutan Minister?” My own angry words of that time came straight out from the Queen. “What we see from our car is not Bhutan. We must see for ourselves, with our own two legs!” I was floored.
When raising her children began to absorb less time, the Queen decided “now was the time” to travel remote parts of the country, and that meant on foot. It was a journey for the physically fit, and the Queen did not wish for a life without an intimate knowledge of her motherland.
Indeed, trekking Bhutan’s mountains is hard beyond imagination. The border with India is tropical jungle at around 200m above sea level. The one with China-Tibet is the Great Himalayas soaring high in the sky at about 7000m. In between, torrential rivers drill through the landmass, of mere 200km or so as the raven flies. This country in two-dimensional map is just about the size of our Kyushu Island, but Bhutan in three dimensions should never be called small.
On top of the harsh terrain is a population density of only 15 persons per square kilometer. Most of the approximately 670,000 people are scattered far and wide, seeking mountainsides and glacier valleys where plentiful sunlight hours can be had. To reach remote hamlets would take a week or more, of very hard trekking from the nearest road.
Shortly into the first journey, the Queen came across the very people she sought – those trapped in the shackles called poverty. Orphans. The elderly without family. The physically handicapped. Parents who cannot afford school uniforms, and their children missing out on otherwise free education. Socially handicapped citizens with harelips and cleft palates, more frequent among the people of isolated communities.
To the Queen, they were “the vulnerable people” who without assistance would be left behind, no matter how rich the country may become. And they, in turn, became the source of the Queen’s passion to keep walking. Gasping for air in the oxygen-poor highlands, meeting blood sucking leeches on rain-soaked paths, and even struck by a serious case of altitude sickness, the Queen did not stop walking. Sleeping out of doors whenever necessary, she kept up her journey, on foot.
Whenever the Queen found the “vulnerable people,” she would arrange for adequate assistance, or make provisions for stipends as needed. But, “the needs began to exceed my means,” laughs the Queen. With a small fund at her personal disposal, she founded the Tarayana Foundation – on an auspicious day, May 2003.
Tarayana is Kan-non Bosatsu (Merciful Bodhisattva) in our own religious tradition. Just as in the core prayer we offer to Bosatsu, the Foundation aims to save the vulnerable people with compassion, and thereby contribute to building a happy nation. Scholarships for needy children. Stipends or pensions for orphans, the elderly, or the disabled. Technical and marketing training for traditional arts and crafts, creating valuable sources of rural cash-income. Restorative surgery by medical volunteers from Bhutan and abroad, on harelips, cleft palates, or abnormal scar tissues from burns and animal attacks.
Impressed by such work, European aid agencies have begun funding specific projects. In addition to Bhutanese citizens’ donations, personal contributions from Europe, Japan and US are on the rise.
The Queen’s passion has inspired Bhutan’s younger generation as well. The elite, many in the Civil Service, volunteer their time on holidays and weekends, to the work of nation building that can go beyond that of the Government.
The Foundation minimizes its operating costs, so that nearly all donations go to the vulnerable people. Having seen numerous NGOs around the world, I see Tarayana as the rare model of financial prudence in spite of its short history and small size.
High-quality work raises demand for its services, however, and the Foundation is in a constant need of more funding. The Queen is thinking strategically, and hopes to stabilize the fiscal condition by seeking endowment contributions to boost the Foundation’s capital base.
That is precisely what true aid should be – the most meaningful method of donation to organizations performing excellently under a strong top leadership. Yet, such seems to be in the realm of impossibility for official donor agencies, as they remain preoccupied with inflexible project-based aid. Regardless, it is the private sector after all, which has the capacity and foresight to make capital endowments – based on the assessment of recipients’ vision- values and performance, and on the condition of sustained wholesome management.
The Queen keeps walking even today. Tarayana is Bodhisattva who transforms her appearance according to the needs of the very people she aids. Devout Bhutanese citizens call their Queen “Walking Tarayana,” and support the Foundation’s good work, offering whatever money they can spare and giving their precious and passionate time.