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Family Volunteering in Bhutan

Tips for Long-Term Volunteers to Get to Know their Host Culture

Volunteering in Bhutan at Dochela Pass.
The author and her family joined students on a trip to Dochela Pass, where the stupas were whitewashed.
The trip was part of the winter program of the Tarayana Foundation, a charity co-founded by a Queen of Bhutan and run by its trustee board of citizens.

Thinking that 58 was not too old to live an adventure, my husband moved to the cloud kingdom of Bhutan for four months in the spring. This country, famous for its past isolation, beguiles one with its stunning natural beauty. During our stay there we became accustomed to watching the sun rise over snowcapped mountains. On any given day we saw men hand painting traditional patterns and emblems on the exterior of new buildings and monks circling the Memorial Chorten close to our apartment. Children shouted “hi” when we passed and practiced their beginning English phrases with us. Stopping to talk with these young Bhutanese wearing small versions of their national dress, never failed to produce smiles on their faces and ours.

The natural beauty of the country is renowned, and justly so. More than 80 percent of the land is protected forest. Animals, birds and plants that are not found anywhere else on the globe live there. Streams of dragon shaped clouds drift into the valleys when evening comes.

Our visas gave us official status because we were all members of Health Volunteers Overseas. My husband worked at the Jigme Dorgi Wanchuck National Referral Hospital. I volunteered to teach English and read stories at the library. Our young adult children were able to join us and they found interesting ways of meeting people. My daughter worked alongside staff at the youth radio station and my son spent time at a veterinary clinic. We all, of course, were unpaid; however, we did receive free housing in an apartment close to the hospital. We paid our own transportation costs and living expenses. And we used our status to travel throughout the country.

The volunteer designation is most important in this country. Other visitors, with the exception of citizens of the SAARC countries, must register as tourists and are required to spend a minimum of $200 a day per person. Their time in Bhutan must be as part of a tour group so it is very rare to see others like us on the streets of Thimphu, where we lived. There were a number Americans as well as a few Canadians, Scandinavians, and Japanese citizens living there under the volunteer designation at the same time we were. In addition to health care volunteers, a few people worked with environmental organizations. One person was a volunteer consultant at the youth radio station and another was the golf pro at the National Golf Course. The support varied but all of us received housing and the same free medical services that the rest of the country’s citizens receive.

We had experiences that cannot be had anywhere else. The country was long closed to the rest of the world and benefited from very enlightened rulers who carefully controlled the amount of outside influence. For example, television was not available until 1999. Now there is cable television, cell phone, and Internet access. The price of the last two was kept to a minimum so that more people can take advantage of these technologies.

We all chose to get involved as much as possible. We wanted to know the country and the people as much as we could during our short time in Bhutan. Some of the insight we gained through our volunteer experience can be replicated in other countries if you are planning short- or long-term volunteer stays.

How to Volunteer as a Family Abroad

Get involved in many ways. Everyone gets the blues when far away from familiar places and people, so resist the urge to hide. Instead, in addition to your regular volunteer work, look for volunteer teaching positions at places such as a music school or radio station.

Find other people with whom you can go out to dinner or invite people to dinner at your house.

Say “hello” to everyone you pass in the street. You’ll be surprised at the people you may meet.

Walk everywhere you can. You’ll meet more people. Your neighbors on the street will begin to greet you. And you will see more and feel great because of all the exercise.

Eat the local food. There was so much good cheap food in Thimphu that we often ate at small restaurants. We enjoyed the street food, too. We came to know the ladies selling momos (Tibetan dumplings) outside the hospital. We’d have a snack from sidewalk vendors selling juice, soda, gum, and peanuts. If you constantly judge whether you will get sick from something new then you are on the wrong adventure. Take care and take antibiotics with you.

Shop at the ubiquitous small stores. All of these stores sell the basics, so go to your corner store and get what you need. On the weekend visit the outdoor vegetable market.

When traveling outside of town, stay in local hotels and guesthouses to experience a country more authentically and inexpensively than in Western-style hotels. Sometimes it will be necessary to hire a car and driver. If you do, take advantage of this as an opportunity to glean travel advice and learn from the driver about his country.

Find the local library and use it. Also, go to the movies. We didn’t know the language, Dzongkha, but the plot was pretty obvious and we learned more about Bhutan by watching movies.

Accept inconveniences and delays, which are a part of life in developing countries. Remind yourself that you are a volunteer and stop expecting that you will change whatever system you are working with. Enjoy getting to know new people with different ways of doing things.

Keep in mind that you moved to a new country to experience its differences and that you will be returning to the world you are more familiar with soon enough; in the meantime, take a deep breath and relax. It will do you no good to complain and it will probably make people uncomfortable.

Follow the regulations and do not expect special privileges. In Bhutan, travel on the roads is restricted to those persons who have permission to be in that section of the country. The rules were written so that the unspoiled countryside you came to see can remain so.

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