The Last Shangri-LaBy Steve Evans
As the passenger jetliner flew past eight of the ten highest mountains in the world, I knew I was in for an adventure. To my left, looking out the window of the plane, I could see Mt. Everest towering high above the other mountains. It seemed close enough to touch if I could only stretch out my hand and reach through the glass. The plane turned north, into the mighty Himalayas and began its descent. We navigated the granite mountains, going deeper into the valleys. Sometimes the wings of the jet seemed so close to the valley walls I thought we would crash. Obviously others thought this too, by the gasps, oohs and ahs I heard from the passengers around me. Suddenly the plane swooped around a hill and before us lay a beautiful valley with the airport below. I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was dwarfed by the jetliner, the jetliner dwarfed by the brightly colored traditional pagoda airport buildings, and the airport buildings dwarfed by the mountains behind. Airport, immigration and customs officials scurried about, wearing their traditional dress – the women in kiras and the men in ghos. “I have arrived in a magical kingdom,” I thought to myself, a kingdom that even included a handsome prince, who would eventually become king. I was hooked right then and there, and I instinctively knew that I would be back, that somehow Bhutan and I were bound together by some sacred silk cord that I couldn’t see.
The drive from Paro, with its ancient fortress-like dzong dominating the valley, to the capital city of Thimphu left an indelible impression on my mind. The pristine rivers and forests, the high surrounding mountains, the traditional architecture both ancient and new, the rice fields and cultivated red chilli peppers, the temples, monasteries, and chodens or stupas marking Bhutan’s adherence to an ancient form of Buddhism, all contributed to the uniqueness of this tiny Himalayan kingdom that has a population of only 600,000. In the capital lay the seats of the monarchy and the state supported monastic body, both housed in Thimphu’s own impressive and domineering dzong.
A week later, I regretfully boarded a plane to leave a country I had quickly grown to love. Silently I prayed to someday return again. It was on that flight that I discovered the term “Gross National Happiness.” It was in a small ad that ultimately had big implications for my life. Located in Kuensel, Bhutan’s weekly English language newspaper, the ad read: “Call for Papers on Operationalizing Gross National Happiness. Send abstract to Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu.” “What in the world is Gross National Happiness,” I asked myself; but it sounded intriguing. I worked for a small non-profit ethnographic research organization and had a specialty in oral communication and oral cultures. I thought to myself that surely I could speak to the issue, since I have always operated from the premise that stories, as well as life events, shape our perceptions of reality, or worldview. Deep-rooted happiness is a worldview issue, I thought to myself, and surely stories have a role to play in “operationalizing” happiness in Bhutan, whatever that meant. Besides, I loved to research and write, and this sounded like a fascinating challenge.