There are many critics of Facebook, and social media in general, but Pema & I would not have known of each other’s existence if it weren’t for such a medium.
Pema lives in the remote central province of Bhutan called Bumthang. We met ‘virtually’ through our mutual friend Julie. Artist Julie lives in Somerset near me and has been a dear friend for many years now.
I can’t even remember how exactly Pema & I became connected, but probably through both commenting or ‘liking’ one of Julie’s posts about Buddhism, or her visit to Bhutan.
When I started to plan my trip, I dearly hoped that Pema and I would be able to meet up during my stay.
Bumthang in Bhutan, is a district, rather than a small town, and so it was extremely lucky that I happened to be staying a mere few miles away from her home, and only a few hundred metres from her previous home. Messenger enabled us to communicate and last night I was collected from my hotel and together we ventured into the small town centre.
In a tiny family run restaurant, we were the first guests of the night. In a private room, secured by a curtain, , we caught up with who exactly we both are and why we had felt a desire to be friends. We were watched by The Bhutanese Royal family, photographs of whom were proudly framed around the room and on calendars.
“She is passionate to ’empower and enhance’ women’s
Instinct is a powerful thing, and it turned out that we had an awful lot in common. Both mothers and step mothers, also on our second marriages. Pema is a very busy lady, working as a social worker, looking after her family with six children, also a volunteer of the charity ‘Renew’ helping victims of domestic abuse with a crisis centre, emergency refuge. Set up by Her Majesty, the Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck in 2004 there is also a craft workshop where women create crafts to sell to locals and tourists. Her ladies are currently exhibiting their wears at a festival in Thimpu.
I learned about the problems families experience here, which Pema appreciates are relatively mild compared to the suffering of some other women around the world. She is passionate to ’empower and enhance’ women’s lives, teaching them that an ‘odd slap’ or shove is not acceptable for merely serving lunch or dinner later than expected! Comparing the suffering of women around the world was an interesting discussion, both of us appreciating how lucky we are in our own circumstances.
Drugs and alcohol
There is a drug and alcohol problem here in Bhutan, despite it being officially the happiest place on the planet. Introducing television, and bypassing cabled telephones straight to mobiles in the late 1990s has thrust the previously protected kingdom to be exposed to all that the rest of the world has to offer, good and bad. The young people are questioning the purpose of culture and heritage, and using substances and television as a means of escape. Leaving Bhutan is not an easy option due to transport and educational limitations.
“Buddha was punished for 100 years after taking a tiny
drop of honey.”
In a strongly Buddhist country where attachment and belongings are surplus to requirements, it’s been interesting to observe the large quantity of gift shops in Paro. Catering for the collecting habits of tourists, I found it easy to slip into Western thinking, tempting indeed to take home a solid brass Buddha. The strict weight restrictions on the flights in and out of Bhutan remind the visitor that any heavy items have to be returned using post, costing 2750Nu of the Bhutanese currency for 1 kg in weight. (£29) After flying in, I am happy to observe the rules, in place due to the dangerous flight path, finely balanced by the weight of passengers.An extra kilogram with each traveller could prevent us lifting off above the mountains!
Bumthang is much smaller and visited by fewer tourists due to the 8 hour harrowing drive from Paro, or the equally scary 25 minute flight. Plunging from spectacular views of Bhutan’s highest mountains at over 7000metres, through thick cloud, to land on a short air strip, surrounded by temple clad mountains. This is the shopping centre for the locals and Bhutanese travelling across the country on buses or driving to work, pilgrimages or visiting family.
As if to reinforce what a small world we live in, the beekeeper I met with today, happens to work in the Government office next door to Pema’s husband, who also works for the department of agriculture… it looks like we’ll be meeting again soon!
On my quest to understand more about beekeeping culture in Bhutan and any conflicts with Buddhism, Pema was able to tell me how the Buddha was punished for 100 years after taking a tiny drop of honey. For this reason Buddhists don’t eat honey, and yet they do drink milk, eat cheese and eggs. I’m eager to learn why the Buddha was punished, by whom, especially when many other religions state that honey is medicine for humans.
I was honoured that Pema could find the time to meet up with me, and delighted that we both enjoyed our evening together. We may be able to help each other, me with ideas about good products that tourists would purchase from her craft ladies, and Pema helping me to understand Bhutanese culture, and advice on how I can assist the beekeepers I meet here to support their livelihood whilst also remaining kind to the bees and authentic to the Buddhist way of living.