The Shangri-La That Isn’t by Jennifer Tuman

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plane over buthan with village belowmost memorable ribbon june 2012Heat and flies. Flies landing on my head, my arm, my plate, my food. Flies I have to constantly flick away while I eat. Flies forming a living, seething black tablecloth in a village restaurant that I can’t bring myself to walk into. Flies – my introduction to Bhutan—the Shangri-La that isn’t Shangri-La at all.

I’m in Bhutan because I was offered a university teaching position here. For many years I’d been interested in Bhutan’s unique Gross National Happiness policy and I’m intrigued to find out what this means practically speaking. I expected Bhutan would be a wonderful place to live because I’ve only heard this Himalayan kingdom described as spiritual (Bhutan is a Buddhist country), pristine, unspoiled and beautiful.

Pristine, unspoiled and beautiful has not been my experience.

When I arrived in my village, one of my new Bhutanese colleagues took me to my house. I walked in and saw one bench and one chair with dirty, ripped cushions; curtains completely covered in black mold; streamers of dark gray spider webs strewn across the walls; years of grease built up on the cabinets in the kitchen; concrete floors that will never look clean again no matter how much they might be scrubbed; one bed with a lumpy, horrible mattress I could not possibly sleep on. While I was fully aware of how absolutely culturally inappropriate it was, I could not keep the shock from showing on my face.

“I’m sorry but I can’t live here,” I said.

I was prepared for simple living conditions but I was shocked by how filthy the houses were. I never did move into that first house. I was offered a cleaner one, but it still took a week of scrubbing for me to be able to walk in the door without crying.

I have mice in my house and deep, dark, black spiders as big as my hand that I have to check my bed for every day. And leeches—I’d never heard of a leech before except in the context of medieval bloodletting. I could have happily gone my whole life without knowing what one looks like, that it really does suck your blood and that you kill it by putting salt on it.

Bhutan from a distance is beautiful. Deep-green forested mountains are vibrant and alive. Clouds and fog create dramatic scenes. But up close the picture is different.

Every day I’m confronted by ugliness. On my walk to school, I pass pile after pile of cow dung and horse manure. Our school has leaking ceilings, broken windows, dirty floors, stained walls. Sad, stray dogs with matted hair lie on the roads.

This is the hardest place I’ve ever lived. And yet—

As hard as it is for me, it is harder for the villagers. They live in shacks—pieces of wood of different sizes held together somehow but leaving cracks for the wind, rain, cold to get in. Roofs are pieces of tin held in place by rocks. While I have an indoor toilet and hot water, they do not. And yet—

As hard as it is for the villagers, it is even harder for the Indian laborers who do road construction here. They live in plastic tarp tents with no running water, no toilets, no stoves, nothing. They work all day in the dust, heat, rain. They squat by the side of the road, sweating, filthy, breaking rocks with a hammer for two dollars a day. I cannot imagine what their lives must be like in India if they consider Bhutan to be better. And yet—their children play in waterfalls and laugh.

After two months here, I go with a colleague to check out a house he’s considering moving into and I tell him “this doesn’t look too bad.” I’m surprised at my reaction because this house isn’t so different from the first one I saw. Something must have shifted but I wasn’t aware of it before. I start to see with different eyes. The ugliness is becoming less ugly but I can’t say exactly why. Maybe because I see the ugliness in myself—the spoiled American who needs life to be clean, comfortable and convenient—and I start to change my focus. The resilience, adaptability and strength of the Bhutanese people. My students who are kind and helpful and sweet. My new Japanese friend who brings me soup when I’m sick. My Indian colleague who cures my pulled neck muscle with ayurvedic medicine. My Canadian friend who brings me chocolate when he travels to the capital. The sunshine that finally comes after months of rain and fog.

Dirt, discomfort and hardship are facts of life here. In Buddhist thought, happiness comes from being fundamentally at peace with life as it is, not judging what is or wanting it to be different. My challenge is to walk around a pile of freshly splattered cow dung for the thousandth time and not think “disgusting” but rather “it’s like this.”

So I stay. I stay because it is hard. I stay because it isn’t Shangri-La.


Jennifer Tuman is new to writing and is excited to have this opportunity to be part of Hippocampus Magazine. She values learning, challenge and adventure and has spent seven years living and working overseas in Japan, Poland, Korea, Austria, Macedonia and Bhutan. Jennifer’s goal in writing is to shift and broaden perspectives, to make people think. She writes to discover what is most true in her experience and the experience of others.

  18 comments for “The Shangri-La That Isn’t by Jennifer Tuman

  1. Love the wealth of detail, the specificity. Helping me see this land, this house through your eyes. through the eyes of the people, the immigrant workers, their children. The way change steals upon us unawares. The benefits it brings, the understanding. Thank you.

  2. Also worth noting that it is hard to sleep at night, due to dogs barking on the street all night, car sickness is a big problem on all the winding mountain roads (even the locals are afraid to get on a bus) and the wind, rain, mud or dust that are a daily challenge. 

  3. It was a pleasure to bring you chocolates, and ease the hardships of life in our little village. Life continues here as always, and we are all changed as a result of living here. 

  4. I like how you manage to incorporate so many tight details and a real transformation within the space of a short essay. As another commenter mentions, we really are there with you, step by step.  

    • Thank you! It was a challenging experience but it did change me. I’m glad people can relate to the transformation and feel it.

    • Thank you! I was really touched by your essay in this issue. And I can learn from how you were able to address more than one theme in such a short space.

  5. This is a really tight, well written, colorfully informative piece. We’re with you from the start – wanting to cry at the sight of those hand-sized spiders – feeling the heat and the grime of those workers breaking rocks – all of it. Great details. Appreciate the ending very much of course – thank you.  Laurie

    • Thanks Laurie! And thank you for all I learned in your course (Creative Nonfiction and the Personal Essay at This essay wouldn’t even be here if I hadn’t worked with you and Gretchen.

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