“But where is your guide?” is a question I have heard many times.
Quest offers many opportunities, one of which is the opportunity to go on exchange abroad. I decided to take advantage of this and spent the last spring semester in a tiny country in the middle of the Himalayas called Bhutan. Bordered by India and China, isolated by the both the Himalayas and unique political decisions, it was the experience of a lifetime.
All tourists are required to have a personal bhutanese guide to travel with them while they are in the country. Students however, are exempt from this requirement, leading to a different experience from what I would imagine the guided one to be.
“But where is your guide?” was the question asked as Katrina and I were standing on a corner contemplating what to do next. We had gotten off a bus in a place called Wangdi, had backpacks with sleeping bags and a tent, and were trying to decide where we should camp.
The person asking was a young woman named Sonam who had been on the bus with us. After hearing about our situation she told us that there was no camping places, but that we could camp on her family’s property. We didn’t want to impose but she insisted, and so off we went.
Sonam’s family home was a ways out of town, set beside rice paddies on the side of a river. Within the one home there was her mother and father, sister, and various cousins and visitors. Consistent with the incredible hospitality Bhutanese people regularly offer we were fed tea and cookies as soon as we arrived.
Sonam had a 5th grade education, and had taught herself English since then from reading newspapers, books, and speaking to tourists. No-one else in the family spoke English, giving Katrina and I a chance to practice our Dzongkha skills, which needed all of the help that they could get. We watched the Bhutanese news, and got help studying for our Dzongkha exam from a very entertained set of onlookers.
Over the course of the evening we were made to feel more at home in the house, ending with Katrina and I abandoning our camping plan, instead sleeping on the floor of their prayer room.
The next day Sonam showed us around town, taking us to various monestaries, Dzongs, and the market, before helping us find a ride back to Thimphu and RTC where we were studying.
The whole experience summed up the attitude of so many of the people that I met while staying there. I was honoured that as a “chilip” or a foreigner, I would be invited into the home of someone who knew nothing about me, and shown so much kindness. Bhutan is an amazing country and if anyone is ever offered the opportunity to go, say “jo gay”, (let’s go) and take it.