Monday, May 10, 2010

Blog #20: A Royal Rendez-Vous

His Majesty did not show up on the Thursday morning as we had hoped he would. I hadn’t really prepared my lessons so thoroughly because I was counting on class being canceled but I guess I should have known better than to expect schedules to be followed. Thursday was just like any other day, but perhaps slightly less organized on my part. But we were assured that the king was just delayed and that he would likely arrive in Khaling the next morning. So on Friday morning we all gathered during assembly, students and Bhutanese teachers wearing their rachus and kabneys, and waited in eager anticipation for the principal to update us on the king’s status.

We were disappointed by his news. The king was once again delayed and it was looking unlikely that he would stop in Khaling because he was so behind schedule. We were told that classes would resume as usual and that we would be updated if anything changed. Nothing changed all day.

I was disappointed, but at the same time I thought back to my experience with the Rimpoche and figured that I had already had one unbelievable encounter that week, and that I was just being greedy. Besides, I knew that even if the king had visited Khaling, it would have been very different from the Rimpoche’s visit in that it would be far less personal.

That night one of the vice-principals invited my friend Wangchuk and I over to his house for dinner. We arrived at about seven o’clock carrying a big bottle of Sprite and two big bottles of beer as a token of our appreciation. We were invited inside, seated in front of the television, and served tea and biscuits by the vice-principal’s wife.

We had already been chatting for quite a while when the VP’s phone rang. I couldn’t understand the conversation he was having, but I could see that something was going on. When he finally hung up he explained to me that the principal had asked him to come down to town to wait along the side of the road with the students because the king was going to be driving by. The VP told me not to worry about coming because there was little chance that the king would actually stop, but the students were being asked to stand in town to show their respect for the king, so he was being asked to join them as well. He slipped out of his casual clothes and into his gho in less than two minutes (refer to blog #3 to appreciate how impressive this actually is) and was out the door.

No more than ten minutes later I received a call from Namgay saying that the principal thought it would be a good idea if I came to town as well, and that I should hurry because they had received news that his Majesy was only a few minutes away from Khaling. I was slightly frustrated. I had been wearing my gho for the past two days and had only taken it off right before leaving for dinner. Now, with so little time and everyone already waiting in town, there was no way I would be able to put it on back on.

I ran home, quickly changed from my jeans and sweatshirt into some smarter pants, a dress shirt, and a sports coat, and weaved my way through a short cut to town.

The entire community was waiting in town. There was electricity in the air. People were chatting excitedly, fixing their clothes and hair, arranging themselves in an orderly fashion. A few people were standing at the beginning of the crowd, piling branches of Cyprus onto an open flame. Thick white smoke spewed into the air, filling my nostrils with the tree’s sweet aroma. A haze settled over the town and the anticipation was leaving everyone a bit on edge.

I have to admit that I was extremely nervous. I knew that there was certain etiquette that one must follow when meeting the king, and I honestly did not know what exactly I was supposed to do (if I was even going to be lucky enough to meet him). My friends tried to help me, but the anxiety was sickening nonetheless. Several of the Indian teachers told me not to worry about it, that I was not expected to follow the etiquette, which did make me feel slightly more comfortable, but I was still nervous.

Less than five minutes after I arrived in town the flashing lights of the police escort pierced through the thick Cyprus smoke and warned us that His Majesty was arriving. People scurried into position, neatly lining the street in front of the shops.
When the first car rolled up to the pile of burning Cyprus it stopped, as did all the cars behind it. A door swung open and then several more doors followed. Through the smoke I could make out a tall man, wearing a black gho, who seemed to be the focus of the rest of the men around him. His Majesty had arrived.

I was lucky enough to be standing close to the burning Cyprus, so I was one of the first people he would have to pass when walking through the town. He greeted a few of the community leaders first and then began moving through the parted sea of people. With each step he took he created a wave as each person bent their back and bowed at a ninety degree angle. It was a ripple effect like none other I have ever seen before. It was, at least, until he reached me, not because I didn’t bow - I did - but he stopped in front of me and immediate said, “Hello, you must be one of the Canadian teachers,” and he shook my hand. My reputation had apparently preceded me.

“Yes, your Majesty, I am,” I replied nervously.

“I met one of your friends in Wamrong,” he told me, referring to Natalie. “How are you finding Bhutan? Are you comfortable?” he asked.

“I’m very happy here, your Majesty. Thank you. It’s beautiful here and everyone has been very kind.”

“That’s great.” And then he paused. “Can I ask how old you are?”

“Twenty-six,” I responded, still in disbelief that the conversation was still taking place.

“Oh, you’re so young to be so far away from home, teaching in Bhutan.”

At this I had to bite my tongue. His Majesty is only twenty-nine years old. All I wanted to say was You, your Majesty, are so young to be ruling Bhutan! but I figured that this kind of comment was probably not appropriate for the situation.

“Well I hope you enjoy your time here,” he added.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” I replied respectfully. And with that he continued on.

He actually ended up staying in Khaling for almost an hour. He had brought with him three of Bhutan’s most famous actor-comedians who put on a show for the students and townspeople. It was a huge hit, and though I couldn’t understand a word of it (it was in Dzongkha), I even found myself chuckling at some slapstick moments.

After the show, His Majesty made a brief speech, mostly directed at the students (since his coronation he has placed particular emphasis on the development of the country’s youth), apologized for the brevity of his words and explained that he was suffering from a cough and cold. With that, he said some closing remarks and began walking back through the crowds towards the parked convoy.

I thought that was it, I honestly did, but it was nowhere close to it. Call me delusional, call me conceited, but I swear the king was searching for me in the crowd. As he walked in the direction of where I was standing I could see his head scanning the masses looking for me. When he finally caught sight of me he walked directly to where I was standing. As he approached me, the people all around me folded into right angles. I stood there fully exposed like a flower’s pistil when it has fully blossomed.

“Did you enjoy the show?” the king asked me.

“Yes, sir. It was great.”

“I just wanted to come over and say goodbye,” he told me. “I also wanted to thank you for what you are doing here? I am so appreciative of you coming here to teach. Our country and our students are so lucky to have you here.”

“Well I’m very happy to be here, your Majesty,” I replied. “And I think that I speak on behalf of all the other Canadian teachers when I say that it is us who need to thank you for the opportunity to be here doing what we are doing. We all feel very lucky to be a part of this. I know that this is an exciting time in the Bhutanese education system.”

I think my response impressed him and to some extent caught him off guard because it launched us into what became a long and fairly casual conversation about what was going on with Bhutan’s education system, about Canada, about Oxford, and about a series of other unrelated topics. I felt somewhat guilty about the duration of the conversation, not because I was uncomfortable talking to His Majesty – he was an extremely nice and easygoing man – but because the poor people around me remained bent at ninety degree angles the entire time we were talking.

Finally he said, “Well, it was very nice meeting you. I’m going to send you a package, nothing big, just some food and things that might remind you of home. I would give it to you now but it’s all packed away in my car.”
I was so shocked that I stuttered, “Thank you so much, your Majesty.” I didn’t know whether I should say something along the lines of you don’t have to do that, or thank you but really I’m fine, but I decided that when the king offers you treats you accept them graciously. “It was very nice meeting you.” We shook hands once again, and he walked away.

One of his assistants came up to me once he had left and asked me my name and phone number. I gave him my information and he told me that the king would send me a package when he arrived back in Thimphu. I honestly didn’t care about the contents of the package at all. I was doing fine without the luxuries of home. But the fact that the king now had my name and phone number left me with a sweeter taste in my mouth than any of the goodies he was going to send me ever could. After days and days of waiting, after all the anticipation, then disappointment, and then more anticipation, and after less than two months in Bhutan, I had met the most powerful man in the country, His Majesty, the 5th Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.


  1. Hi Nick

    Have just read all your blogs from start to finish. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you. I'm also thinking of signing up to teach in Bhutan for 2011 and found your writing wonderfully illuminating. One thing you haven't really spoken about is your job and your students. I'd love to understand the relationship you have with the work, how you find it and your students impressions of you.

    Best wishes

    Martin G

  2. Thanks for reading, Martin. I'm happy you are enjoying the blog. I've just posted a LONG summary of my teaching experience here. I realize it is long overdue, but there is so much happening here that it's hard to stay on top of it all. Hope it answers some of your questions.