Bhutan Part One
Two weeks ago, I packed my bags, got on a plane and flew to the small kingdom Bhutan in south-east Asia, where I'm gonna stay for the next six months. So mostly for keeping track of my time here myself, I want to write about it every once in a while. Hope you enjoy.
My journey started on a Sunday morning at 34m above see level and -11°C and ended roughly 24 hours later on a Monday afternoon, 2300m higher, 27°C warmer and one swiss pocket knife poorer - because being able to bring it to Dheli by plane doesn't mean I can get it out of Dheli by plane.
And it was only when I saw the Himalaya mountains, including Mount Everest, through the window of a mostly empty DrukAir A320, that I started to believe that I was actually moving to this unique far-away country.
How did this happen?
I remembered skyping with my sister and her husband one day - both of them have been living in Bhutan for the last three years - when my sister suddenly informed me, that they have found a way to get me a working visa for half a year and that they have basically already decided that I must take advantage of that.
Turned out they were very right about that and a couple of months later me and my brother in-law Adrian would board a train that would bring us to Frankfurt, from where we would fly to Dheli and a couple of hours later continue to Bhutan.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're appraoching Paro. Please fasten your seatbelts and make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position."
The descent to Paro is really something to remember. During the final ten minutes or so, the machine makes a series of sharp turns through narrow valleys, just a couple of hundred meters above ground. Seems like a good reason why only a handful of specially trained pilots are landing here.
Setting up Camp
The first couple of days I spent setting-up my working environment. A new country was a good enough reason for me to play around with some Linux distros. Since internet flatrates are not a thing in Bhutan and 4GB cost 6€, I stuck to the smaller ones but in the end stayed with Ubuntu.
My sister and her husband rent the top floor of a cute little house up in the hills above the 100 thousand people strong capital Thimphu. The spare room on the left of the entrance is where I'm staying. Since street names - if existing - don't matter and there are no house numbers, my new address is "Yellow house, Upper Motithang, above the traffic circle, near Peaceful Resort, Thimphu, Bhutan".
What I unterestimated is how could ten degrees can be if you only have mobile radiators and almost no insulation. And it took a couple of cold nights until I realized that it takes a sleeping bag plus four blankets to keep me warm and asleep.
All Action, no Talk
My first weekend coincided with the first Start-Up Weekend in Bhutan. The goal of this format is to develop an idea into a viable product in just two days.
This was very fortunate for me since it gave me the perfect opportunity to get to know the entrpreneur community of Bhutan. And I was deeply impressed by the sharp minds, the drive and dedication of everyone I talked to.
Out of the more or less 30 people that were attending, 14 pitched an idea - ranging from putting haircutters next to schools, over custom cardboard box manufacturing, grocery delivery service, appartment market place, until kira & gho* design app.
*) "Kira" (a long skirt) and "Gho" (kinda like a bathrope) are the names of the traditionals costumes which are still worn by the majority of the people.
After the one-minutes pitches, the participants voted for the three ideas they would like to work on, and then form teams for the five ideas with the most votes. I joined the team of Rinzin who wanted to help people with the yearly renewal of their vehicle fitness certificates. Apparently these are not only very costly when not done in time but also time consuming. His solution was to provide a reminder-service and I new that I could probably develop something simple that fits the bill over the weekend.
Staying true to the motto "all action, no talk", one of the first things we did was to go out on the street and talk to potential customers - aka car owners - to find out if there is even a need for such a service. This way we found out that what these people really want is to somehow make the whole procedure less painful and faster. Especially the paying which has to be done personally and sometimes requires up to 4 hours standing in line.
So in the end our proposal was "Deputy" - a service to help people with their car licencing, or even any bureaucratic nuisance. And it got us second place.
The following week we made a trip to the very south of the country. The 220km on windy, only partly tarred roads took us over 8 hours. But the views made it worth while.
We crossed the 4000m high Dachula pass with a beatiful view on the snow-topped Himalaya at about noon and from then on there was only one direction which was down. Our destination was a small community near Gelephu. At 300m above seelvel we found a rather sub-tropical climate with tons of palm and banana trees.
The reason for our trip was for Adrian and a partner of his to have a look at the potatoe farm where the raw material for Adrian's potatoe chip factory was growing. Having little to no experience with agriculture, this was a very interesting experience for me. I wouldn't call myself an expert in potatoe farming now, but I definitely learned a lot.
We were accomodated in a small rural house that was implementing the wet bathroom concept - as it is common in most parts of Bhutan. That means a bucket instead of a shower and a hole in the floor instead of a toilet. Something to get used to.
Thanks to the fresh supply of vegetables and a skilled cook, the food was extraordinarily good. Like pretty much every meal I had since I arrived, it was mostly rice and cooked vegetables. And chili. Bhutanese dishes all contain at least some chili. Luckily my high Sriracha consumption has prepared me for this.
Next to the house was a decent sized football field and I learned two things this afternoon. First, these kids know how to play. Second, sprinting a hundred meters is not something I can do anymore just like that.
On our way back we stopped to pick up some cookies. These are small disks made from compressed saw dust and can be used to fuel micro-gasifiers - small ovens that burn not only the wood but also the smoke, allowing smoke-less cooking. I've never heard of this technology before and was immediately fascinated by it. The project Dazin has the goal of providing these stoves and the cookies to the rural households in Bhutan using a innovative distribution scheme. I you don't know what I'm talking about, you should give it a read.
Now I'm back in Thimphu, enjoying the food and good talks with friendly people. Today it snowed! And since it was the first time this year, it was promptly declared a region-wide holiday by the government - as it's custom.
In the meantime I created a small CMS for the website of the Happy Green Cooperative using my user interface generator and also wrote a small script to monitor the remaining volume of our internet connection and send emails if it gets too low. So you could say I'm having a really good time here.
That's it for now from my side. More will follow.
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