Say you’re a farmer, and only have a small patch of land that you and your family work on. You have five kids, and need all of them to work on the farm to get any significant amount of money from it. Then, one day someone comes to your family and says that it’s much better if your kids are educated, and it even works out financially in the long term. All you have to do is just pay the tuition fee.
Do you believe them? You are not educated yourself, and don’t really see the point of it, though sometimes when you’re in a bigger town, you wish you could read. While you do feel that there is a world full of wonder not far away that you’re not a part of, your life isn’t so bad. You have a roof, beds, animals, and your farm. You breathe clean air, and things are not so difficult. For each kid that you send off to get educated, the yield on your farm and your income go down. You might end up with harder work and less food on the table.
What do you do?
After two weeks in Bhutan, Hakim (my friend, co-traveler and trip-planner) and I stopped over at Thimphu at the Nivvana guest house run by the lovely Karma and her family. At a barbecue at her house, we met Biaka and Jack, who offered to take us to a village on the border between India and Bhutan. “It’s a village rarely visited by tourists, and it’s a great ride for your motorcycles!”, Biaka told us.
The final stretch of the ride to Pokhri was quite thrilling; I rode over what to me looked like little more than a footpath. I took my legs off the footrests instinctively as I crossed a particularly slippery stretch of the path, hardly wider than my motorcycle itself. “I didn’t want to tell you before, but just last week, a Yamaha fell down the side of this trail,” Bika told me, laughing at my nervousness.
It was thus that we found ourselves in Pokhri, a village on the border of India and Bhutan. These were people who were Bhutanese by tradition and ancestry, but had just happened to find themselves on the Indian side of the border. They lived in a fertile land, and grew most of the vegetables they needed. There were rivers close by to fish from, and they had livestock for milk, meat, and friendship.
As I observed the animals, the farm, and the people, I couldn’t help romanticising village life. There were hens clucking about with chicks following them around. There was a calf that a kid told me was only one-and-a-half days old. There were no compound walls or fences, and we walked in and out of other peoples’ farms as if they were our own. The kids were universally friendly and confident. They played soccer and Khuru, a local game where you thrown a stone spear at a one-foot tall target in the ground, almost 50 m away. Everyone seemed relaxed, yet hardworking.
We visited multiple houses, the first being Jack’s birth family. We were given a meal of pork belly, rice, and potatoes. Everything on the plate except the rice was locally grown (i.e. on their own farm) and organic. There was a mind-blowing salad with fresh cheese (from the farm cows) and chillies. It was the perfect blend of the salty freshness of the cheese and the spice of the chillies. I can still recall the taste of that salad on my tongue as I write this.
The four of us talked as the sun set and the stars came out. We knew each other for less than two days, but the conversation was intimate. Jack told us about his girlfriends in the village. A girl we would meet tomorrow had briefly been his girlfriend, but her parents didn’t like him, so the affair couldn’t progress.
Jack was born Buddhist (as most Bhutanese people are), and trained to be a monk, but now he’s Christian. He doesn’t see a conflict between the two religions. His birth-parents are still Buddhist and they see no issue with his newfound religion. “The bible predicted the coming of the Buddha,” he said confidently.
The next morning, we walked to Adma, a bigger village situated at a slightly higher altitude than Pokhri. On the way, we stopped at many houses. The people in most of these houses knew Biaka, because they had at least one kid in the care of Biaka’s family.
Biaka’s family, who leave on the border city of Phuentsholing, have worked with these villages for a few years now, slowly getting them to come around to sending their kids to the school in the city. The kids get free food and lodging in a hostel built by Biaka’s father and mother, but the parents have to pay the fees for the school. “It is important that they pay the fees,” Biaka’s father told us later, “they have to be involved in the education of their kid.”
Convincing the villagers that educating their kids is a good idea was an uphill task. “But once they see that someone from their village is succeeding with an education, then they gladly send their kids,” Biaka tells us. That someone, for Pokhri, was Jack. He was adopted by Biaka’s family, and his success in making money through various jobs has been invaluable in inspiring the other families in the village.
We spent the day walking through a few more villages, being fed copious and increasingly pleasurable quantities of rice liquor.There was an archery practice session in progress in the afternoon. Archery is an extremely strong part of Bhutanese culture, and the villages here had kept the tradition going. While in Bhutan, the archers were using modern bows and arrows, every bow here was built by the archer himself.
The next day, as we left, two young girls — Mira and Magdalena, both attending school in the city and staying with Biaka’s family — sang a song for us: “Ningi Chaaro, Debeyamasho”. My Friend, Don’t leave me. We danced a bit, drank a little rice liquor, and were off towards the next ephemeral travel experience.
The work that Biaka’s family was doing with these villages is inspiring. I know there are such people across the country, working selflessly for the improvement of their community, and it makes me pause and reflect on where my own life is leading, and what legacy I’m going to leave behind.