Gerard Brooker in Mensa Magazine about Bhutan

Historical novelist Gerard Brooker is reading RSL and just wrote with a story he composed after a visit there. Published in Mensa Magazine. Thanks for sending, Gerard!

“A Visit to Shangri-La”

As a pre-trip to a recent visit to Tibet and Nepal, I went to the Royal Kingdom of

Bhutan for a week. It is not without cause that this tiny country is referred to as the

mythic Shangri-La, a remote and inaccessible place, where happiness is more important

than materialism. Though it is not a country without problems, especially among the

Nepalese minority, I was drawn to Bhutan when I read about the “Happiness

Index” that informs its law-making process and way of living.

The only airport in the country is situated in Paro, a small city nestled in the

Himalayas. I had heard that some of the pilots flying into the airport encourage their

passengers with comforting words along the lines of, “You probably have never flown

this close to a mountain before. We do it every day. It is our skill. Do not be afraid.”

I was glad I knew this beforehand, as the wings of our jet came very close, I guess

about twenty yards, to the mountain. I could see the landing strip as we wiggled

through the valleys. Just as I thought the worst was over, two smaller humps appeared in

front of us. We simply went up, down, up, and then finally down. Wheeee! It was like a

roller coaster ride.

And, Yes, there is a Happiness Index. My guide, Tenzing, explained that when a

new law is being discussed that their young king, the “Dragon King,” the 5th in a

hereditary monarchy that began in 1907, goes about the country talking with

people in its remote parts about the law and how they think it might affect them. The

country is relatively small – about one and a half million people – in a space the size of

West Virginia. Most of the mountain roads are still unpaved and treacherous, one lane

for both directions. Sometimes, it seemed to me, the drivers were rolling the dice.


Only 17,000 tourists visited the kingdom last year. It is difficult to get to, and the

government charges each tourist $300 U.S./day to visit. The fee includes room, board

and a guide, so it is not relatively bad. But it is a set and flat fee, no exceptions for the

less fixed. There is a running feud between the government and its tourist industry about

the regulated price. At the moment, the government is threatening to raise it by another


Maybe keeping strangers out is a way to allow the evident happiness to prevail. It

is common to see children in the younger grades holding hands and singing songs

while walking to school in the morning. Every student, from kindergarten to the end of

secondary school, wears a uniform, always clean and neat looking. The children smile a

lot in school. It is clear that they are respected and nurtured, and they did not lack

confidence while asking me many questions about America. When I was in one of the

elementary schools, a child of about six apparently hurt himself on the playground at

a time when I was talking with the principal. Several of the child’s playmates came

running to the principal and showed such concern that I thought surely a tragedy had

occurred. It took only the reassuring hand of the principal on an invisible bump to

heal the boy and bring back smiles from his little pals.

I am aware that a few examples of care do not necessarily make a universe

of concern. Yet, when the examples are a part of the fabric, they are to be noted.

Each evening in the capital city of Thimphu, e.g., the news ends with a “Lost and Found”

announcement. I watched for it on the night when the news was about a lost wallet. “A

wallet belonging to Mr. (name announced) has been found. You can pick it up at



Another example: I spent a night in the tiny village of Phobjikha, celebrated in

Bhutan (which, by the way, has cable T.V.) because it turns on the electricity for a

few hours only each morning and evening. The reason? Its marshlands are a

migratory stop for the black-necked cranes, and the townspeople are afraid that the

electric current might harm the birds!

I was also taken by the graciousness of the many monks I met along the way.

They live in what are called dzongs, once full monasteries, now half shared with the

government for administrative functions. I had a fun experience in one where I was

allowed to enter a room filled with about forty teen-agers reading aloud together, a

common part of their schooling. When I went in, they stopped reading and many of them

began to run their fingers, first one hand, then the other, across their faces, while having a

good collective laugh. When I asked Tenzing what that was all about, he said, “They

think you look like a wrestler they watch on T.V.”

In Gangtey I was allowed into one of their great old monasteries to see a

significant ritual honoring an iconic monk who had recently died. I was told that he was

the manifestation of the monk who had discovered the Buddhist “Relics” in the 7th

century. About four hundred monks of every age were kneeling and chanting, others

banging drums and cymbals, still more blowing horned instruments, while a few walked

about wafting incense. As I stood in the back watching the drama, an old monk took me

by the arm and led me through the chanting men to the front to view the bier. He then

took me behind the altar where a young monk gave me a red cord and a photo of the


deceased. I was then led out. I learned that it would be a sign of respect to wear

the cord around my neck for three weeks.

One of the last places I saw in Bhutan before flying to Kathmandu was Tenzing’s

home-town. I had a few hours to myself as he was visiting friends. I remember the

outdoor tailor asking me to look at his infected big toe, the woman who gave me a

piece of gum, the man who wanted his little daughter to say hi to the American, and the

old lady who asked me to try the chili peppers.

The little town is called Haa. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I

remembered that I was in the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan.

By Gerard Brooker


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: