Bhutan, the kingdom of the dragon, awaits Roger and me again in October. As I begin to prepare for this trip with a new group of Roger’s travelers, I wonder if I’m crazy to be journeying through this tiny country for the fifth time. Not only is it small and remote, but there is only one main road about 15 feet wide, Bhutan’s national highway which I have already traveled seven times (including round trips) at an average speed of 25 mph, up and down and around hairpin turns through the Himalayas.
I think Henry Miller nailed it when he said, “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” Bhutan provides a new way of seeing like no other place on earth right now. Fifty years ago few people had heard of Bhutan because it was still sealed from the rest of the world by mountains, a lack of roads and a feudal way of life. Today its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is being watched and even imitated in other countries. While raising the people’s standard of living is an important goal of GNH, it is only one of nine. Economic development is balanced by the importance of sustaining the pristine natural environment and traditional culture and furthering democracy, education and the welfare of women and children. (See our free lesson plan on GNH vs. GDP at www.global-awareness.com.)
While we creep along the “highway” to many of the same places on each trip, I am seeing and experiencing an ancient way of life attempting to travel side by side with the 21st century. Each time we return, things have leaped forward. In one year, a valley without electricity becomes a valley with wi-fi. Airports appear outside two eastern towns. The king’s wedding creates a traffic jam in the capital city. We also see earthmoving equipment rolling by farmers plowing with oxen, monks whirling to subdue evil demons, and weavers with backstrap looms creating incredibly intricate designs.
I am inspired by the idealism of GNH goals and humbled by the determination of most hardworking Bhutanese to make it a reality. I also have many questions about what we’ll find this time, questions that reflect the challenges to GNH in a world driven by economics and technology. Can business and government leaders keep this kind of idealism alive while dealing with a competitive outside world? Will the Bhutanese find a way to keep villages vital in spite of better education that leads to bigger dreams for young people? Will TV, which only came to Bhutan in 1999, ultimately help create a consumption-driven society? Will the transition from kingdom to democracy continue to be a peaceful one? Are the benefits of GNH really meant for everyone?
Once travelers have experienced the warmth of the Bhutanese people and the beauty of their land, they want to believe that GNH can continue to unfold successfully. But I remind myself that the Bhutanese are human beings like the rest of us, and there are bound to be setbacks and disappointments along the way. Nevertheless, they’re in the midst of trying to create a dream that could have lessons for all of us. Look for more here on Bhutan in October and November as I journey down that highway and meet the many friends we’ve made once again!