Watering the Seed – Part 2 of ‘So, What am I Doing Here?’
[Written en route back to the US]
Due to travel schedules or sessions of Parliament, I did not have an opportunity to reunite and chat (separately) with two of Bhutan’s forward thinking visionaries until my last week in Bhutan— His Royal Highness, Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the President of the BOC and, the Opposition Leader, Tshering Tobgay. Yet these many hours of discussion on the eve of my departure with each of these intelligent men, not only put the big bold exclamation mark on my work here, but cemented long term and intimate ties with a nation. When I shared with His Royal Highness that I saw Bhutan’s sporting programs as a freshly sprouting seed, he mirrored back to me that I was one of the pioneers in watering that seed for growth. This comment from such a wise young man left me feeling astonished, humbled and even more passionate than I’d felt the past 8 weeks—if that were possible.
I met first with His Royal Highness (HRH) to recap what I’ve been up to these past weeks and exchange ideas moving forward. At his request, we gathered at the private and secluded restaurant of an exclusive resort built right on the river and owned by his mother. Meeting him in this covert manner allowed us to avoid the pomp that follows a person of his stature. Yet even in our private meeting there is a significant amount of protocol that follows Royalty—where and how you stand, when and how you bow, who sips or eats first, how to exchange initial conversation respectfully, etc. HRH asked that his entourage of body guards and staff leave us so that we could share freely, and our conversation sparked with instant connection and mutual respect. I was sporting a Kira for the special occasion and he did comment that I was starting to look like a Bhutanese. But in my excitement in finally getting to exchange information with him, conversational formalities typical of Bhutanese to Royalty escaped our exchange fairly quickly.
HRH is a young, hip yet traditional, fit, highly educated and articulate man. He looks younger than his 28 years in a fresh vibrant manner, yet has the views of an intellectually and intuitively honed, wise man. Despite his stature in the Royal Family and his very close relationship with his father, the highly revered and elusive 4th King, he exudes no trace of airs or attitude. He rather resembles an easy humble graciousness, combined with the agile energy of a cheetah. Even when I was here in the Fall, this combo was palpable and easy to warm up to and caused an instant connection. Juxtaposed to my open and passionate conversation style, we took off chatting as if two artists were vigorously painting together on the same white canvas.
I recapped that I had worked to spread the word on the internet of Bhutan’s Tour of the Dragon cycling event—arguably the most difficult one day cycling event on the planet—while tying in discussion on event marketing, sponsorship, chip timing, how to use the press and social networking outlets to their favor and why its important to use every opportunity to gather personal information from participants for an email data base. Now to us American sport enthusiasts with a bit of awareness, having discussions in these areas relative to a sporting event is status quo. The Bhutanese are new to virtually all of this so much of my work here has been in informing them of the possibilities of what can be done with new or existing events while offering base information on how to use the internet to their favor.
I also shared detailed observations of several sporting events I helped with during my stay, with suggestions as to how each could raise the bar in not only what they offer participants, but in getting more people to show up. Bhutan has had a messaging conflict within their current sporting events. They support sport for all for wellness and happiness, but they also have offered prize money in events as an enticement to draw competitors. And competitors have come to expect this. They’ve worked off of this old paradigm even though their event budgets are bare bones, and entry fees are almost nothing. I shared how most endurance events in the US and elsewhere do not have prize money, but rather participation is generated via the immense value it adds to ones life. And that as a nation with budding sports programs, putting this message in place now, particularly for the kids, was critical. I shared with HRH the proud and excited looks on the young Bhutanese kids faces when I offered them a paper certificate stating their placing in our impromptu 5K race of 200 participants a couple weeks prior. No prize money, no matter. Happiness was had by all.
I told him how I had used that event to hand out flyers to promote the four running workouts I coached on the track, enticing the kids to show up by offering them a 6-Week Training Program for a 5K race, that they could use on their own. And that over 50 people showed up to each of those training sessions. The Bhutanese are eager and excited potential runners. They just need qualified coaches to motivate and guide them in their growth—which is lacking. So we discussed the idea of starting a Thimphu Running Club, with the possibility that this type of organization could spread to all other regions of the country.
You see, the Bhutan Olympic Committee has an impossible mandate on an anemic budget, to not only develop an Olympic Program, but to also support the growth of sports in schools. When viewing their lack of sporting options for all, its impossible not to reflect on the privilege of our nation-o-plenty. Though Bhutanese kids have something that American kids don’t have—freedom to roam, The Bhutanese don’t have what even the poorest of kids in the US have—an opportunity to join a club, local group or school sports team, if they so desire. Between club teams, after school teams, recreation activities, privately organized events, or even just physical education classes in public schools, American kids (or adults) can keep themselves physically busy indefinitely. The Bhutanese have (almost) NONE of these options. They meet once per week in school for a PE class. And the BOC has been told its their job to put all of this in place.
This aspect of their reality has been the toughest one for me to get my head wrapped around. But when asking BOC staff or leadership how they feel about this monumental task, the answers usually are—hopeful and excited. Impressive.
I explored with the BOC and with HRH many ways to brand and market their organization and events while putting them in touch with key people who work in these areas—all with the intent of generating sustainable income to further support their programs. My objectives moving forward will be in creation and support in this area.
Bhutan can be a sportsman’s paradise—the next New Zealand—but with a calm, Buddhist air. I am not the first to recognize this, as I have been told that a few other people like myself have come to the country to do tough physical endeavors, while offering ideas as to how Bhutan can expand as a sporting mecca. But what I did not know coming in, was that I was the first to actually do anything about it. The Opposition Leader (OL) shared with me that when Expedition Bhutan was being put in place he had warned the BOC that we would just be another group to come in, use the country, generate ideas and leave. Given their history, his observation was well grounded. But he was more than delighted to find that he was wrong.
OL is a fit athlete, who says he’s not an athlete but who most likely will be a professional athlete in his next life. He’s tough as nails, logical, bright, forward thinking and succinctly articulate. If I were a Bhutanese I would join his political party. While talking he infuses palpable passion into every sentence. As a politician and in order for him to connect regularly with his constituency, he is required to hike for days into remote parts of western Bhutan to talk to people. OL is THE endurance original of this country, creating “events” that he has executed on his own accord, just for the sheer love of pushing himself to his limits. With a perpetual half smile he shared a story of riding most of the 260K Tour of the Dragon one year with a broken jaw from an early bike crash. I loved this guy even more as we connected as kindred spirits throughout our sharing.
[Intermission: I left tranquil Paro. Had a 14 hour lay over in Bangkok (slept in a kids jungle gym in the airport wedged between Starbucks and a sushi restaurant) and am now in Tokyo waiting for my last flight and watching Sumo wrestling on TV. Gotta love international travel.]
I told both HRH and OL that it was easy to come to Bhutan and come up with big ideas for sporting events. The place is a natural. And despite my background in loving to ‘go big’ in endurance sports, it made sense to start the creating process with an event that will allow more numbers of international competitors to have the special cultural exchange that one will have in this country. And so the event can offer the primary goal of creating sustainable revenue for the BOC. So I suggested a marathon. Bhutan will join the ranks of signature marathons around the world, but I guarantee you, your experience traveling to this race, will be like no other.
So Karma and I have been scouting course locations that are not too high or difficult and will offer the authentic beauty of rural Bhutan. We created a website (that will go live soon) with the help of Greg Thomas, one of my Expedition Bhutan teammates, and organized all logistics and potential marketing efforts surrounding this event. To sponsor the event I will be offering a never-been-done and unique travel and training package just for this race, with a chunk of each participants package cost going directly back to developing Youth and Olympic Sports in Bhutan.
I will also be creating a fundraiser for this effort, through a travel package I’m putting together for the elusive Snowman Trek in Bhutan—touted as 25 days of the toughest trekking in the world.
And this is just the beginning.
At a farewell dinner at my favorite ZaSa restaurant in Thimphu on the eve of my departure, conversation with HRH continued with shared ideas, then turned to teasing and laughter. He ultimately offered after a warm hug, that despite our distance apart Bhutan will always be my close neighbor and that I was forever welcome as a member of his family. Wow.
But what I shared with him earlier that evening is that all I had offered his country thus far, was really a gift to me. What the country and the people had offered me, in just being themselves, far exceeded any efforts I had exude. HRH finds it fascinating that I would come to spend time living in and helping his country when I already live in such a beautiful and opportunistic place in America. In all his humbleness he doesn’t clearly see the immense value when looking in the mirror. Which is what makes that view even more enticing.
I have arrived home and have a couple more posts I’ll be sharing—interviews with two special Bhutanese. I’d like to invite you to some upcoming slide shows where I’ll be sharing more on the Expedition and my recent time in Bhutan:
Tuesday, September 4th at REI in Saratoga, 7:00 PM
Tuesday, September 11th at REI in Berkeley, 7:00 PM
Wednesday, September 12th at REI in Marina, 7:00 PM
If you are interested in any of the packages to Bhutan I’m creating, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll put you on my email list.
Thank you for following the front end of this special and ongoing journey. It was wonderful for me to know you were tuning in. Back at you soon…