The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 26 June 2019

Buttertea at Sunrise

A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya

by Britta Das

Officials in Bhutan like to say that their small Himalayan kingdom is not a rich country, nor is it a poor one. This is true. For example, the population is tightly connected, having leapfrogged over the necessity for widespread phone lines and right on to a well-covered cell phone network. And yet, a significant proportion of the population has no reliable source of clean water or access to adequate sanitation. To their credit, the kingdom has strongly progressive policies (despite some troubling social episodes in its not-too-distant past), with widespread government-provided health care and ambitious environmental goals. This is the much vaunted Gross National Happiness. It is a sincere and aspriational policy. Yet the country endures what, by Western standards, would be considered some rather impoverished conditions. At the same time, those conditions are changing at an astonishingly rapid pace. Thus, the health care conditions described in this moving memoir have improved greatly since its author spent a year in the eastern Bhutanese town of Mongar, starting in 1997.

Britta Das was a young German-born Canadian medical student when she joined an international aid program that sent her to Bhutan, a country she had visited on an earlier journey with her father. There, she was posted to a regional hospital in Mongar, a small town in the remote eastern portion of the small country. Though she had already had the opportunity to become enchanted with Bhutan's beauty, Buddhist symbolism and the gentle good humor of its people, Mongar was yet a jarring experience. The hospital was unsanitary, and in her physiotherapy office, she saw the many health problems that accompany poverty and hard physical labor. Not having more than a rudimentary knowledge of the local language, Sharchokpa, she was understandably overwhelmed by the task of endurance and dedication that was laid out before her. But she was ultimately uplifted by the good humor and stoic instincts for survival among the people she treated and with whom she worked. Conditions that could more successfully be treated in Western hospitals had to be endured with only the most basic support and care. Shortages of medicine, water and electricity were endemic. And yet, she quickly fell in love with the hard work, and even with the muddy, wet and infested landscape of Mongar. And, ultimately, she fell in love with the people, including one man in particular, a young Indian doctor hoping to become a research oncologist back home.

This sort of memoir is familiar. A writer from the affluent West learns about some of the basic needs of a poorer place. The illusions of a life spent grasping for attainment, wealth and comfort are dashed by the realities of living closer to the edge. Inevitably, this leads to the revelations of what is really most meaningful in life. Each story has this theme, though they vary in detail, setting, and outcome. For Britta Das, the story was mixed. She found love, but found her experience in Bhutan colored by sadness and ultimately cut short by a mysterious illness that can easily be seen as another manifestation of the country's problems with health and water and sanitation. And yet, Bhutan retains an idyllic reputation. It is a stunningly beautiful place. Since 1997, the Mongar hospital has been entirely rebuilt and modernized. Development moves at a dizzying rate in Bhutan. That it manages to maintain its identity is remarkable, though it is a constant effort that itself may not endure in the long run. Das eventually returns home with her newfound love. The future she has with Bhutan is not what she expected. In this story, we can travel along with her, learn of the place and its beauty. Most of all, and to the credit of the author, we learn of the people, children and the elderly, who have their own sufferings, their own dreams, and who are living within the limits of their own situation. It is the story of the world and the kind of thing one learns only by going to faraway places, with an open mind and, like Britta Das, an open heart.

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See Also: [Beyond the Sky and the Earth, by Jamie Zeppa]

[Other Books on Buddhism and the Himalayas]

[Other Books by Women Authors]

[Other Travel Books]