Rachel Skinner ’21 (Atlanta, Georgia), an environmental studies major and Spanish minor, is one of four Centre College students currently studying abroad in Bhutan, the first Centre students to do so. Skinner says she chose to study abroad in Bhutan for many reasons, “one of my favorites being that the country only recently opened its doors to the outside world, allowing tourists and students like me the opportunity to experience its rarities.” She adds that her hope is to pave the way for future students, “so that they can immerse themselves into such a beautiful and unique culture.”
On campus, Skinner balances academics with a number of activities, including being a student-athlete on the softball team and participating in choir. Her after-Centre plans include applying to the Peace Corps and attending graduate school.
Bhutan, a place of indescribable beauty. The people you meet and the places you explore only enrich your experience here in The Land of the Thunder Dragon. Three other Centre students and I have spent the last two and a half months here extensively exploring and learning about the culture, history and religion of Bhutan.
For a little background information, Bhutan is a country of only 700,000 people. The charming country is run by a monarchy and is currently on their fifth king. In 1974, in an attempt to raise revenue and expose outsiders to Bhutanese culture and customs, the country opened its doors to tourists and the outside world. The national language is Dzongkha, but English has been implemented in primary and secondary schools all around the country.
These facts can paint a bit of a picture, but they do not even begin to describe the unique lifestyle and norms of Bhutan. One of the distinctive factors of Bhutan is that every day the national dress is worn. For women, the kira is worn and for men, the gho. This apparel is seen as unifying and respectful.
In Bhutan, Buddhism is the predominantly practiced religion. There are beautiful temples throughout the country, as well as thousands of colorful prayer flags that cover the land. These colorful flags contain written Buddhist script and are placed with hopes to pass on prayer through the wind. Each color has a different meaning and purpose to the prayer. In addition to the colorful flags, there are also taller, white flags. These extraordinary flags are placed to guide the deceased in 49 days of limbo. Within this time, one can be reincarnated into one of six different realms: three good and three bad. Eventually, these flags will degrade and become part of the earth again.
We have now been to three of the Dzongkhags (districts or states) of Bhutan, including Thimphu (where Royal Thimphu College is located), Paro and Haa. We already have plans to visit more Dzongkhags as our adventures thus far have been amazing.
Paro, the place where the notorious Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang resides, has a quaint little town that is only a 45-minutes’ drive from Thimphu. Our trip consisted of visiting the National Museum of Bhutan, seeing the Dzong (a fortress; there is one in every Dzongkhag throughout Bhutan) and hiking to Taktsang.
Our hike to Taktsang was certainly the most memorable time in Paro. The path a few friends and I were on was a relatively steep trail, but in the end, the view was incredible. There it was, this monastery, originally built in 1962, on the site which is said to have hosted Guru Rimpoche (a very important figure in Bhutan’s history) while he meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours during the 8th century. In 1998, the monastery burned down completely but has since been rebuilt beautifully.
Our next weekend destination was Haa. To put things into perspective: one street, three hotels, a few convenience stores, a few restaurants and bars, one school, and three taxis comprised the entire town. Despite the size of the town, we began the next day on the most incredible hike on the Sagala trail.
Here is an excerpt from my own writing describing the atmosphere: “As the sun fell behind the surrounding mountains, an orange, blazing fire lit our faces as we ate peanut butter sandwiches and enjoyed each other’s company. At times we would have nothing to say, and you would just hear the branches crackling while gradually inhaling the smoke from their burning. It was peaceful. The clear sky allowed us the chance to glance at the shimmering stars and at times even see shooting stars. The ridgelines of the mountains painted a picture in the sky. They appeared to be touching, or even holding, the stars throughout the night. Something about this view was so humbling. In that moment, I could not help but think that the world is infinite, and I was just existing.”
Since then, we have embarked on a few other journeys and day hikes. We are awaiting the arrival of a few holidays and festivals to allow further enrichment and immersion into the Bhutanese culture and customs. Overall, our time here has been spent learning inside and outside of the classroom, while we embrace every opportunity possible. To describe Bhutan in one word is difficult, but it brings me to the word “serene” and living here has been a dream.
by Rachel Skinner
November 19, 2019