Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bhutan - 1968

In my blog on Elections in Bhutan yesterday I mentioned I'd been in Bhutan first in 1968 and had written something about that trip and promised to post it. Here it is:

In the spring of 1968 Chet wanted to make a trip to Bhutan and Sikkim. Technically he was the US Ambassador to both of these countries, but he’d never been to either place. In addition to Chet and Steb, our party consisted of Bob and Mary Brooks, Jock Shirley, and me.

Bhutan is really at the end of the world. It is in the eastern Himalayas, surrounded on three sides by India; on the north it borders Tibet. Earlier in the 60’s, Ken Galbraith, when he was Ambassador, went into Bhutan partly on the back of an elephant. The first jeepable road into the country wasn’t built until the mid-60’s. Tourism didn’t exist. Also, it was a militarily sensitive area, since the Indians and Chinese had fought a war up in that area in 1962. So you could only go in as a guest of the King, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck.

We flew into Bagdogra in northern West Bengal (where in the past I would travel en route to Darjeeling,) and boarded two Russian helicopters owned by the King. They were ancient, rickety, stripped down and noisy, but they flew. Bagdogra is on the plains at a low elevation. Bhutan’s capitol, Thimpu, where we were headed, is at 7,710 feet, so I had the impression of going up and up but never being very far off the ground.

As we approached Thimpu it looked to me like I imagined a California gold mining community would have looked in the 1850’s. There seemed no rhyme or reason to the layout – houses dotted all over the hillsides. It was a valley with a river running through it. At the end of the valley was something I would not have seen in old California – a huge building overlooking the whole place. This was the dzong, a grand, multi-storied, decorated wooden structure that was, in fact, the King’s Palace and government headquarters.

We headed for a landing in an open field, a maidan, and it seemed like everyone and everything was running toward the maidan. I have a mental image of boys and girls, men and women, old people, dogs, cows, all running to catch a glimpse of these strangers from the sky. It was wild.

We were loaded into Land Rovers and went to the official guesthouse, where we were offered the first of many cups of yak butter tea. We had been greeted and treated graciously by smiling, beautifully dressed people from before we climbed aboard the helicopters in Bagdogra, and every step of the way after that. I don’t think these people were ‘being nice’ because they had to. It seemed more their nature to want to take care of their guests in the best way they knew how. My impression of mountain people everywhere I saw them in Asia – Indian, Tibetan, Nepali, was positive. Lovely, sweet natured, happy despite very poor circumstances in some cases.

Now, the yak butter tea, that was another story. It was like scum floating atop a steaming, salty concoction that to my taste didn’t have much to do with tea. But I can’t remember turning up my nose or turning aside local food anywhere I’ve gone, so I managed.

In Bhutan, the King and Queen were estranged. It was a Himalayan version of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys. The Wangchuck clan was headed by the King; the Dorje family was headed by the Queen. They even lived in different cities – the King in Thimpu and the Queen in Paro.

King Jigme Dorje Wangchuck died in 1972 at the young age of 46. His 16-year-old son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the present King, succeeded him. Monarchies are not particularly well thought of these days, but I have to say that the path that the elder Wangchuck put his country on – a gradual opening to the world while maintaining a genuine concern for the welfare of his people – which path has been followed by his son, is hard to fault.

Shortly after we finished our tea we headed for the dzong to have an audience with the King. We were greeted when we alit from our Land Rovers. We were greeted at the entrance to the dzong. As we climbed several flights of wooden stairs, at each landing we were greeted again, and then when we got to the top we were greeted and escorted into the throne room. We noticed that different people we saw were wearing different colored scarves, each one a lovely plain color. What we didn’t realize is that the colors indicated the rank or status of the person.

The throne room was in no way ostentatious. Along one wall was a bench, with small tables in front. On each table was a steaming cup of yak butter tea. How nice. Several of us sat down; others wandered around. What appeared to be the main seat, the throne I guess, was also simple in design, and in a different part of the room. Bob Brooks was near the throne, taking pictures, when a Bhutanese gentleman, who came in after we arrived, and who was standing near the bench, said to Bob, “I don’t think there will be enough light for your pictures.”

I was standing near Bob when he said no, he thought it would be OK and continued what he was doing. I then noticed Jock Shirley, in a state of some anxiety (Jock is a very proper man), trying to get Bob’s attention and mouthing the words, “That’s the King. That’s the King.” After a short time we got the message and rejoined the group. The King, who seemed perfectly fine with our informality, sat with us around the little tables, and our audience began.

Our stay in Bhutan was only two days, and it was memorable. We didn’t do any heavy- duty diplomacy. There weren’t any serious matters of state to handle. We were basically honored guests and sightseers. We were taken care of by senior government officials. Anything we wanted they would do their best to provide us.

We wandered through the center of Thimpu, such as it was. There were markets and simple stores. The people were friendly and approachable, and it was clear that we were an oddity to them. We visited magnificent Buddhist temples. We went on a drive through the countryside. We asked about buying some masks, cloth or other items we enjoyed, and were told that everything would have to be made specially, so it would take some time before it could be completed and sent to us. We decided against ordering anything.

On the second day, in the maidan where we’d landed, a lunch and cultural program was organized for us. There were two large tents, one side of which was open to the maidan. In one tent were chairs where we could comfortably enjoy the activities in front of us. In the other tent was a buffet for our lunch, filled with local delicacies I’ve never seen or tasted before or since. The dish that stays in my mind is yak testicles in some kind of zesty sauce. I found them – ummm – let’s say they were OK. I don’t think I went back for seconds.

The cultural show featured music, dancing and archery. The archers were aiming at small targets a long long way away. I would say about 300 yards. Archery has a long tradition in Bhutan, and it shows. When an archer let loose his arrow he would run toward the target as the arrow was in flight. During his run he would yell something like, “Woooo wooooo wooooo woooo,” until the arrow landed. I was given two explanations for the ‘wooooo wooooo.’ One person told me the archer was asking help from the gods in guiding the arrow to its target. Another told me he was giving windage information back to the archer who was to follow him. I like to think both are true.

As we left the next day to catch our Russian helicopters, which would take us to Sikkim, I was conscious of how physically beautiful Bhutan is. The long, beautifully colored flags that lined the driveway of the King’s guesthouse were flapping in the breeze. I didn’t think much at the time about coming back or not coming back to this mountain kingdom. I did return – 35 years later. But that’s a story for another time.

Bhutan Votes

In case you missed it, Bhutan had an election a couple of days ago. It was their first one.

Here’s the story:

1. The people didn’t ask for it. As a matter of fact, most said they didn’t want or need it. They like Bhutan the way it has been for a hundred years, a monarchy.

2. The previous king, who abdicated in favor of his son two years ago, said they should have it. The current king carried out his father’s wishes.

3. Many people had to travel long distances to vote, and 79% of those eligible to vote made it to the polls.

4. They elected 47 members of parliament; one party won 44 seats. That was a surprise since there was no discernible difference between the parties. Was it relevant that the leader of the losing party has four sisters, all of whom are married to the young king? I doubt it.

5. For the Bhutanese, how well their country is doing is a function of a unique measure they have devised, Gross National Happiness. They are in the process of quantifying GNH.

6. You gotta love Bhutan!

I first visited Bhutan in 1968, long before they had even a tiny tourist industry. You had to be invited by the King (the current King’s grandfather.) I accompanied our then-Ambassador to India and Bhutan, Chester Bowles. It was an amazing journey. I wrote about that trip some time ago and will post what I had to say in a separate entry.

I didn’t expect to return to Bhutan, but in 2003 I did. It had changed a lot of course, but hadn’t lost its charm or feeling of being at the end of the world – which it is. So I fell in love with Bhutan all over again.

I told our guide, Prem, about my earlier visit and recounted some stories from that time. He’d never met a foreigner who’d been in his country about the time he was born and was totally fascinated by what I had to say. Afterwards, whenever he introduced me to someone or was talking with someone about us, he would identify me as: “This is Mr. Daniel; he had an audience with the late His Majesty.” It was the highest accolade he could bestow.

Will globalization, modernization and tourism irrevocably change Bhutan as we know it? Probably. Yet I am hopeful Bhutan will be true to itself for a long time to come, even though there are worrisome omens. For example, some people want to install Bhutan’s first traffic light. Will that signal (no pun intended) the beginning of the end? And I wonder how that will affect the Gross National Happiness index. Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Decline

I went looking for this piece today and when I located it I realized I'd written it exactly five years ago. I wondered if I still felt the same way. I do. Does my hope that we'll fly in the face of conventional wisdom and our own history and elect Barack Obama change anything? Not in the long run, but it would certainly make a difference for a while.

March 23, 2003 writing:

I don’t remember when I realized that the rise of the American Age was over and the decline had begun.

It could have been in the late 60’s, when I heard from Indian students that they considered us to be old and passé – not still young and vibrant, which was my lifelong image of us.

It could have been in the 70’s, when our power didn’t prevent us from being kicked out of Vietnam, or when political immorality forced a president to resign.

It could have been in the 80’s and 90’s, when greed and disdain for the world around us seemed particularly in vogue.

I know I didn’t feel that way in November 1963, when I saw thousands of Indians line up to sign condolence books to honor John Kennedy. Why are they doing this, I asked myself? I concluded that he, and by extension his country, stood for hope, a brighter future. And we seemed willing and able to take the lead in making that future real.

Now I see that the seeds of decline have always been there. They didn’t come into existence as a result of an event or because I happened to notice them. They are inevitable. Why? Because unless we are a different species than all who preceded us, which isn’t likely, at a fundamental level we behave like our ancestors.

Our means of expression do change. The dynamics change. The specifics change. But how as a group we behave when we have power hasn’t changed.

There is no question that the 20th was the American Century. We were preeminent. We still are. We’re the only super power. And we’ll remain that way for a while. But at the end of the 21st Century, people will not call it an American Century. By then it will be obvious that the seeds of our decline have borne fruit.

And we won’t even have a place in the top rank of groups that have been preeminent during their time. The Romans did better than we will do. So did the Greeks. And the Assyrians. And the Persians. And the Ottomans. And the Mongols, etc., etc.

The Egyptians lasted much longer than the rest, but they handled it differently. They were strong enough to protect themselves but weren’t preoccupied with conquering others and expanding. Even with that difference, in the end they grew weak and lost their place. But we’re not following the Egyptian way.

We, and the others who used their power like we’re using ours, are like tragic figures in a Shakespearean drama. We’re strong – and we have a fatal flaw(s). Arrogance. Hubris. What difference does it make what others think – we’re right. We have a Divine Right. A Messianic calling to protect ourselves from evil ones – by doing evil. Greed. A voracious appetite for resources, and too bad about others who are too weak to get theirs.
Etc., etc.

To those of you who are cheering in favor of our policies and the use of our power: your cheers won’t help.

To those of you who are upset about what we’re doing: your tears won’t help.

So, then, is it totally hopeless? At the American Empire level, i.e., saving it or changing it – yes, it’s hopeless. The best that will happen will be marginal improvements. The scenario is already written. We won’t see the end during our lifetime, but the end is inevitable.

At the individual level, it’s not hopeless. We can love our family and friends. We can be gentle and kind with our relationships. We can live our lives with personal integrity. We can reach out to others when we are called to do so and perhaps make a difference in their lives.

We can choose not to engage in the meaningless sound and fury that surrounds us. I was going from channel to channel last night to see if I could find any real news. It was like an unending parody. On every station people were yelling at each other. About how to behave as a spouse. About basketball teams. About the Oscars. About war and peace. Finally, I realized what I could do – hit the mute button.

So, everyone, enjoy the silence.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Little Picture

The papers and TV networks and online news sources are filled with stories about the current economic crisis in this great land of ours. They are focused on some variation of what it all means from a big picture point of view:

Are other investment banks about to go in the toilet like Bear Stearns did?
Is the dollar going to continue to fall?
How will the overseas markets react?
Is the Fed doing enough? Too little? The wrong thing?
Will we go into a recession? Are we already in one?

I must say, this last one is like wondering whether to call the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur, or the Congo, or wherever – genocide. Call it whatever you want, but just do something about it.

What’s missing is talk about the little picture. What’s missing is talk about our personal concerns: How does this mess affect me, and what should I do?

Most of us are not investment bankers or hedge fund managers or CEOs of major corporations. We’re small fish in a big financial ocean over which we have no control. And we’re worried about it.

If I’m in the market, should I get out of it?
Is there anything I can or should do about my 401(k)?
Are there any safe havens for my savings?
Should I just do nothing and wait for the storm to blow over?
Who can I go to for advice?

These are important and valid questions for those of us in no immediate peril. But if our home is now worth less than the mortgage, or we can’t pay our bills, or we’ve lost our job, we don’t have the luxury of wondering what we should do sometime – our crisis is now and won’t wait for a big picture answer.

I’m lucky. I’m not facing an immediate financial threat. My thinking during past downturns has been to be philosophical and rely on history to bail me out. History has shown that if you hold tight and don’t panic the market will recover and come back stronger than ever. It may take a while, but it will happen.

Will history repeat itself again this time? Probably, but what if it doesn’t? Then, I guess, my little picture and yours will look very much the same. And in that case we can only hope that eventually the big picture people get it right.

You know what? This conclusion doesn’t console me very much.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not About Spitzer

Eliot Spitzer got caught with his pants down. Good news for those who dislike him. His recklessness and arrogance, they say, came back to bite him in the ass. And so this morning, with the Wall St. Journal leading the way, many people are cheering.

However, my interest is not in Spitzer. While I think he is guilty of stupidity and bad judgment that is beside the point. To pay for sex, whether the service provider comes from next door or a thousand miles away, should not be a criminal act. To spend time and money trying to catch and punish people who buy or sell sexual favors is futile.

What’s the purpose? To legislate morality? Following that logic we should fine and lock up the millions of men and women who screw someone other than their spouse or partner – for free. It’s like wanting gravity to cause water to flow uphill. Ain’t gonna happen.

No matter what the morality police preach, human beings are not going to stop behaving like human beings have always behaved. And there is plenty of evidence to justify saying that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession.

I don’t have a problem with punishing people who harm others, especially children. I do have a problem with calling something a crime when there is no victim. Two consenting adults should be able to decide for themselves what they’d like to do. It is not for the government or a prosecutor to tell them how to behave.

Libertarians of the World – Unite!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Virtual Life

There was another big story in the paper today about “Second Life,” the online virtual world that thousands (millions?) of people seem to love.

I don’t get it.

It must have been about a year ago that a friend told me about “Second Life” and how wonderful it is. I couldn’t see the appeal and didn’t check it out. Since then I’ve heard about it many times and I can’t remember seeing anything negative. My problem with “Second Life,” is simple. I am firmly rooted in my “First Life,” this one, the one I live in every day – and love. Why would I want to submerge myself in a fantasy?

The “Second Life” website says:

· From the moment you enter the World you'll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity. Once you've explored a bit, perhaps you'll find a perfect parcel of land to build your house or business.

OK, fine. But I already live in a world teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity. Why create a fantasy substitute?

Then they say:

· You'll also be surrounded by the Creations of your fellow Residents. Because Residents retain the rights to their digital creations, they can buy, sell and trade with other Residents.

Again, I’m already surrounded by what my fellow residents of this planet have created. I don’t mind looking at new creations, but not because I need to escape.


· The Marketplace currently supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions. This commerce is handled with the in-world unit-of-trade, the Linden dollar, which can be converted to US dollars at several thriving online Linden Dollar exchanges.

Is this the hidden agenda? A new way to make money? Get a life, buddy, a first life, and do what you need to do to succeed in it.

Here’s the deal. I’ve got a full life going. It may not be perfect, but I get enormous satisfaction from it. My honey, my friends, my movies, my books, my writing, my sunrises and sunsets, and much much more. Even though I’m retired, I’m not at a loss for things to do. My days are full. Why would I take time away from all this to have a “Second Life?”

There may be something I’m missing. Maybe there’s something wrong with my picture. If so, will someone please enlighten me? ‘Cause I still don’t get it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


It is a glorious time of year.

The days are longer. The sky is deep blue. Temperatures are rising. The trees and flowers are blooming.

Yesterday we visited the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. It was our second visit within the past two weeks. Why the return visit so soon? The magnolias are at their peak. And so are the rhododendrons and the camellias. And they are only the most visible stars. There are many more.

Trees that were in full bloom a short time ago are still beautiful but past their peak. Those that were more a promise than a reality last time are showing off their splendor. Absolutely glorious.

For San Francisco, yesterday was a relatively warm day – in the upper 60’s. Warm enough to lure some sunbathers to the park. Shirtsleeve weather for the rest of us. The garden was quiet and peaceful. Not too crowded. A few tourists. Mothers and babies. Young couples whose focus was not on the vegetation. And locals like us, just strolling around.

Sandra turned active flower protector when she noticed some people cutting flowers in a lovely grove of camellia trees. Turns out they represent a group that took the lead in creating the grove a few years ago and are getting together for dinner later. They were collecting a few samples to show their partners how well the grove is doing. They seemed credible, so Sandra didn’t insist they look but don’t touch.

We go to Golden Gate Park frequently. It is an extraordinary urban oasis. Beauty in every direction. Nature at its best. A gift that is not sufficiently appreciated.