‘This is Just the Way Things Happen in Bhutan’
My first day at the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) was preempted with a pre dawn trot around town and more unpacking. Karma unnecessarily picked me up (everything in town is within walking distance) and we headed to the BOC office. The old cement building adorned, of course, with a traditional Bhutanese paint job, is perched at one end of a stadium the length of a couple of football fields plus an archery arena and the entire property sits prominently in the center of Thimphu. Bhutan just got a grant from FIFA to build their first artificial turf soccer field so that construction is happening right next to the BOC office.
Our office building is several stories high and houses an old style gym with lots of free weights (my favorite kind), outside cement stairs and a couple floors of offices with open work spaces, cubicles and a few closed doored working rooms. I was reminded on my first visit that in older or traditional buildings here, one always carries her own toilet paper, and toilets are usually flushed with a bucket of water. His Royal Highness the Prince has a separate office building next door. His space is larger than all of the BOC staff offices combined and is traditionally and regally decorated.
Despite their formal and respectful way of interacting with outsiders, its natural to feel at ease around these authentic people. They have specific social protocol but it is not presented with airs. And they are humble and honest and will point out my social mess ups with grace and without drawing attention. The Bhutanese are gifted at impactful yet subtly nuanced interactions. You don’t often know what they are up to until its done. And that said from someone who tends to be hyper attentive to all happening around me.
I immediately found a space sharing a desk with Karma and ‘KP’, a young, energetically good looking basketball player who speaks English with an Australian accent. And then we got to work. I’ve spent most of the past 25 years working solo and its quite natural for me to jump into which ever task I decide to take on with total focus where ever I am. It will take me a few days to realize I’m working in an office that has an agenda and I need to check in with that. And if I slip up, Karma will keep me in check.
In my first-day meeting with Karma and Sonam Tshering, the Secretary General of the BOC (second in line behind The Prince) we chatted about all I’d be doing during my time in Bhutan, the current and many challenges of the BOC, as well as the differences in ‘customer service’ in various countries (among other random topics). I had told Karma earlier that he was Mr. Customer Service, so he now has a new nick name.
All of the people I’ve met who work at the Olympic Committee are highly intelligent and educated. But Sonam admits, when I make a few suggestions as to how they could negotiate a pending sponsorship deal for their signature bike race, that they are naive in knowing how to develop, market and grow their Olympic agenda. They are meticulously working to advance, not only an Olympic program, but the strikingly absent sports and fitness programs needed in schools and for adults. As a culture who naturally accepts hard physical work as a part of their day to day lives, that view has not carried much into organized recreation and fitness programs.
One of the ways the BOC would like to brand sports in their country is by putting on events that will draw international athletes. Their country is a prime location for destination races and they are organized and service oriented and their country and culture are stunning to experience. But they are not entirely sure how to go about making this happen. This and the aforementioned issues are those I’ll be helping with during my stay (much more on that later).
One event that is already in place is Tour of the Dragon (ToD). For 283 km the participants climb four mountain passes and cross a significant portion of Bhutan (the same route we did backwards on Expedition Bhutan). Each pass can top out at almost 15,000 feet while climbing steadily for several hours at a time. This is the kind of event that any adventurous cyclist would drool to take on. But right now the event is a sleeper.
For a $300 entry fee, you get the Bhutanese red carpet rolled out for you within a gorgeous backdrop, and a chance to brag about having done one of the toughest one day events on the planet. You ride along side prominent officials including The Prince himself, on a course that would allow you to make a huge check mark on your athletic bucket list. The event is a complete unknown internationally but unique enough to get a mention recently in the New York Times.
The website is effective and the event is impeccably organized, but they have not done any additional marketing or promotions due to limited funding and lack of knowing how. My first order of business today was to start plugging the event in on internet event calendars, while explaining to Karma and Sonam why and how this needs to happen. These guys are mega educated folks. They just aren’t worldly when it comes to things like the internet or marketing internationally. This is easy to understand when you remember that internet and TV didn’t come to this country until 1999.
After sorting out how I can best serve the BOC for the next 6 weeks, Karma and I ran some errands
and got lunch at one of the ‘best restaurants in town’. The place was the size of a large walk in closet and they only served 3 dishes. I found out that we are currently in Dau Zhipa—where most of the restaurants in town don’t serve meat. We wandered over to check out the weigh in proceedings for Mr Bhutan Body Building Contest taking place this weekend. While hanging out once again as the one conspicuous, athletic white chick, I got invited to be a judge. I’m not entirely comfortable with this task as I’ve never judged such a contest and don’t want to do the participants a disservice, but Karma gave me one of those looks that kindly says, “You do NOT say no to this request”.
It is required (as it is for the Bhutanese with most official public gatherings) that I wear traditional dress for this event, so we then went prominently to the tailor who is generously giving me a kira for the festivities.
In general the Bhutanese logically think through their decisions. This can often take time. But when a choice is made the wheels go into motion so fast you are not quite sure how things happened. A couple phone calls made, so-and-so has a relative at such-and-such shop, and its done. This was the case with my kira.
I remember when our van broke down during Expedition Bhutan quite far from any village or town. We were done riding for the day and were taking a detour to view the black necked crane in Phobjikha valley before heading to our hotel an hour drive away. All of a sudden the vehicle made a really bad noise and then listed to one side. Busted ball socket joint (or something like that). Within minutes and sporting an entirely calm demeanor, our driver got a fire going on the side of the road (it was cold), and made a couple of phone calls. Within a few hours and while showing no signs of frustration, the vehicle was repaired. We have no idea who was called or where the parts came from. It was just taken care of. Period. These types of experiences happen commonly here. I inquire about them regularly, but Karma just tilts his head to one side and says, “This is just the way things happen in Bhutan”.
So within 30 hours of my arriving in Bhutan I have a new apartment and cell phone, am invited to judge a body building contest, have climbed 2000 feet on my first hike, had a date, have a new kira, and am told how much the BOC trusts the work I am doing with their organization—and how rare this is. This is just the way things happen in Bhutan…