Visiting Bhutan

Visiting Bhutan

Last fall I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Kolkata, India, and Paro, Bhutan as part of the Jingme Singye Wangchuk School of Law (JSWL) Library project team. Construction of the library--slated to be one of Bhutan’s most energy-efficient buildings--is well underway, and so the focus of my trip was to meet with material and equipment suppliers to review products and establish face-to-face contact.

After a 25-hour journey, I arrived in Kolkata and was met by Chief Karma, the project manager for the Law School, and our guide, Sunil. They led me to the Swissotel, a hotel located in a newly developing ‘Action Area’ on the city’s outskirts. I’ve traveled my fair share, but never in style, and was struck by the cocoon that comfort (and air conditioning) can create between traveler and place. Swissotel towers over the surrounding neighborhood and my daily view of a skinny cow grazing in the barren yard below was a stark reminder of my privilege. However, given the demands of a work trip, I appreciated the luxuries supporting productivity - namely sound sleep and a reliable internet connection.

Outside Swissotel, Kolkata is a megacity in a jungle; the green creeps in everywhere, aging new concrete almost immediately. While the city often feels in-process, remnants of a colonized past punctuate the city. Contrasting the ever-present jungle green, the city is painted blue and white as part of a beautification scheme carried out by Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. These colors provide visual relief and levity to Kolkata, especially at night when the city glows with blue lights.

Given the number supplier visits, my view of Kolkata was largely filtered through our guide's windshield. Driving from place to place, I was struck by how--perhaps not unlike the hotel where I was staying--luxury is like a discrete bubble within an informal setting. It’s a blip, not a world, and access is often controlled by uniformed guardsmen. Our visit to a remarkable stoneyard epitomized this sharp juxtaposition, where luxury products are sold in an informal neighborhood on a contested wetland. Just as memorable was a visit to a growing LED factory far outside the city in an industrial office park; I had never seen an assembly line before, underscoring how sheltered my life has been.

At the end of four busy days I felt a loss for not knowing the city more intimately; from a car, I could only take in the large and dramatic. On my last morning in India, I woke early to take a thirty-minute walk through the neighborhood I’d towered over, relishing the textures, smells, and sounds of being on the ground in the city.

After the density and intensity of Kolkata, arriving in Bhutan was extraordinary, starting with an incredible airplane descent into Paro Valley. The wings of our plane almost grazed the hills on either side of the narrow valley, and we flew by the Law School construction site, located on the slopes of the hills.

Environmental care and hospitality are important virtues in Bhutan and are emphasized throughout the construction approach. The winding paved road to the site was recently built, serving both the Law School and an elite boarding school located a few miles away. A lovingly crafted lookout built from local materials perches on the hillside and is the ceremonial gateway to the site for a first-time visitor.

Our small team had a simple and serene reception at the lookout before descending to the site on foot, over red earth flecked with iridescent mica. I was struck by the health of the ground and of the surrounding forest, expressed in shades of green and multiple species of trees and underbrush.

My time in Bhutan was a split between meetings and presentations, design development, and site visits. My hectic schedule was facilitated by staying on site with the rest of the Law School team that, along with the contractor’s team and the construction crew, has formed a temporary village of sorts. As with any village, there are infrastructural challenges of a group of people essentially living off the land, but there are also vibrant celebrations. Some are particular to this community, like the bonfire party thrown for my arrival, and some connect to the larger world, like the Vishwakarma Puja honoring the Hindu god of architecture. My trip happily coincided with Vishwakarma Puja, highlighted by a talent show and an exuberant, late-night dance party with the construction crew.

The Law School team also arranged a material expo, attended by more than a dozen local suppliers, including one who is custom fabricating all the insulated glass units for the library using glass imported from Japan.

Bhutan is a flourishing and lush country, partly due to strict logging regulations. These regulations have also led to a reliance on concrete building materials. Further, Bhutanese building codes require that all new buildings have a traditional appearance, despite evolving building techniques, resulting in unique hybrid approaches. For example, elements that would traditionally be carved by hand can now be cast in concrete, to varying levels of success.

My trip also coincided with Bhutan's Election Day, when most everything comes to a standstill and citizens are required to travel back to their hometowns to cast their votes. This gave me time for one adventure, a hike to a small and ancient temple, Ugyen Guru, three miles uphill from the site. The trail along the way is strewn with prayer flags, placed on the edge of the slopes to catch the breeze.

Despite the number of official events that packed my schedule, the small things stick with me and beckon a hopeful return. It’s exciting to be pushing the envelope of building science in Bhutan, but I also appreciated the simplicity of the makeshift assemblies built out of necessity.

The home cooked meals we shared on site every day, often including ema datshi, a beloved fiery dish of chili and cheese, stay with me, as does the hot stone bathing experience gifted to me one quiet evening on site. The clear mountain light, wind, and stars stay with me, as does the sound of the saws and hammers of the late-shift construction workers echoing through the darkness. Most of all, staying on site in its half-finished state leaves an unforgettable impression. It’s such a gift to experience a place that’s “becoming” -- there’s so much inherent learning and possibility. Once construction is complete, the community of people living and working there will move on and a new community will move in with a different relationship to the place. I anticipate the excitement and sense of accomplishment that this future moment will bring. Meanwhile, I’m grateful to be part of this process.

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