07 September 2021

An Olympic Swimmer From a Country With One Swimming Pool

It didn't occur to me how significant it was for a swimmer from Bhutan to go to Olympic 2020 until I received an email from a Dutch journalist, Fabian van der Poll. He worked with a Dutch daily newspaper, NRC. He had found my contact through an article I wrote in 2013 about swimming pools in Bhutan.

While researching on a debut swimmer, Sangay Tenzin from Bhutan, Fabian stumbled upon my blog post that read Bhutan had only one swimming pool in the whole of the country until recently. It intrigued him to do a story on the 17-year-old. It's a goldmine sort of discovery for a journalist to learn that a boy who learned to swim in the river has made it to the Olympics.

Sangay Tenzin, 17 (PC: Bhutan Today Page)

We either took it for granted or were ignorant but Sangay Tenzin's journey to Tokyo deserved more attention. From the river in Gelephu to a school swimming pool in Ugyen Academy, Sangay's destiny kept swimming despite all the limitations. It's through the various news sources that we learned how he had to train in Bangkok for the last two years because we don't have the kind of pool for him to train in Bhutan. 

Sangay is 17 and has at least two more Olympics to look forward to. He will swim far in life. But more than his own career, he has paved way for generations of youths to follow him, much like Chencho Gyeltshen did with football. 

Because of him, Olympic size swimming pools will be built in Bhutan. He has drawn the attention of the people in the most magnificent way. He didn't demand anything, he just worked his way to the Olympics 2020. He caused the splash to talk for him. He created the future he wanted. 

31 August 2021

Switched Off - A Book Review

'Switched Off' is the fourth book on crime and investigation from an ex-police officer turned author, Karma Tenzin Yongba. He has built a reputation for himself as a crime writer with his three previous books; The Restless Relic, The Barnyard Murders, and The Darkest June

The new book is about a girl named Sadey, who has two men in her life; Karma Rigzin and Ram Bdr Gurung. From a crime point of view, the book is about Ram Bdr who is found dead on the dancefloor. He was poisoned. Police find Sadey's number on the dead man's call record. And on Sadey's phone, they found a frequent caller, Karma Rigzin. 

Author Karma Tenzin tells the crime stories with the authority of someone who has been there and done that. The dashing cop, Max in the story is unmistakenly the portrayal of the younger version of the author himself, or so it seems. The character of the officer is carefully crafted with the right doses of courage and compassion, discipline and vulnerability,  intellect and rawness. It's a character built to win hearts, one that is a fine image of an admirable policeman. 

Besides the thrilling crime elements in the book, Karma subtly brings out the deep-rooted social prejudices when discussing why Sadey's parents won't allow her to marry Ram. Poor Sadey is stretched between two men both of whom she cannot marry, because the older man she loves, Karma Rigzin, has his family. The honesty with which the author presents these delicate subjects sets him apart. He seemed to have planned to give these strong jabs of social messages across our ribs while still keeping us hooked on the apparent murder case. 

However, the major complaints I have is against the presentation of the book, choice of paper and the cover design. How can we wrap such a thrilling story in something that looks like a high school project work? You don't design your book in MS Word anymore. It takes a professional book designer to layout a book. 

The story could have been seamlessly woven together if they are divided into chapters. An editor would have smoothened the rough edges and brought about consistency in terms of use of names, dates, quotes, paragraphing etc. The author need not take the burden of doing everything himself. A storyteller must go on telling stories and leave the technicals to professionals. 

Note: If you are interested in buying a copy, get it from BOOKNESE. It will be delivered to you. 

27 August 2021

Restoring a 1984 Photograph

This black and white photograph from my Ama (mother's sister) Lhaden and Asha KB Gurung's marriage in 1984 is the oldest known picture of myself and even my mother's. It was taken in Haa Imtart officer mess where the ceremony was hosted. I was only one year old. Since my father was not in the picture, I am assuming he may have passed away already. They say he died in a truck (that was operated as public transport) accident when I was a baby. 

Standing L-R: Angay Tashi Dem, Jojo Dorji, Angay Lamkey, Asha KB Gurung, Ama Lhaden
Front row: Ashim Karma Lhaden, Mother Gaki holding the cute me. 
The Scanned copy of the original photo from 1984

I remember seeing this photograph before, but I didn't realized how important a piece of memory it was for me. It was in better condition then. I could have taken care. By the time I saw it last time in my sister's possession, it was already in bad shape. I am so grateful that she took care of it, becuase this time when I saw it, I felt so nostalgic. It was a completely new feeling. I think that comes with age.

Just when I was wondering what to do with the old picture, something random made a perfect sense. I was invited to give an inspirational talk at ScanCafe in Thimphu Tech Park last month. I made new friends there and discovered what hundreds of young Bhutanese are doing in that massive office. Jagat and Neten showed me samples of their works. As of today they have scanned 193.5 million images by hand. Yes, they are photo scanning, editing, restoring service company with HQ in the US. Their client base is outside Bhutan for now where the value of old pictures and videos are already felt. When we Bhutanese come of age, they are already here. 

Isn't this amazing that two random events happened almost at the same time, one is only making sense becuse the other happened a little ahead of it? I called up Jagat and told my old picture story. I didn't even have to explain what I wanted him to do with it, because this was a part of his job. 

Restored by ScanCafe

This is what he has done with my picture. He said he could only do so much because my photo was tiny, only a little bigger than playing card. Yet he has restored the damages and enhanced the resolutions almost ten times. 

Colourized Picture 

He added live to the 1984 still picture by adding colour to it. I am going to print copies of it and gift to my grandmother, mother, Asha and Ama. But I am wondering if Asha KB really wore a faded gho on his marriage. I think that must have been a glitch. Anyway, that will be a good topic to talk on when I go to them with the printed picture. 

Thank you, Jagat!

23 August 2021

The First Pedestrian Crossover Bridge in Thimphu Olakha

The first pedestrian crossover bridge (overpass or flyover) in Olakha is going to be one of the best things to have happened in Thimphu in the last many years. Despite having a four-lane expressway, south Thimphu experiences traffic jams in the morning and evening rush hours. The jams are rather caused by our overzealous zebra crossing culture than by the number of cars, which is also an issue though. The only way to solve the issue is literally putting people over cars. That's why the construction of the crossover was such a welcome sight. 


But the time it's taking to complete is really teasing people's patience. Even for someone like me who doesn't frequent that road much, I found it tiring to watch the progress. The colouring alone took quite a long while. Despite the luxury of time, the workmanship is not quite up to the mark; you could see the slabs not aligning well yet the colouring is done to hide it unsuccessfully. Anyway, we could make do with that. 

Three things besides the aesthetics that may affect the performance of the crossover are;

1. The height of the railing seems short. It could feel really unsafe. Some people may not be able to crossover due to fear of falling. It's necessary for the railing to be above the waist, which has to do with the centre of gravity of our body, to feel safe. With limited railing, the chances of things falling over are high, which is risky for the cars passing underneath. 

2. Stairs from just one side on both ends could be an inconvenience that could have been resolved by two stairs. It's common sense with a little extra cost. I guess this could have added to the stability of the structure too. 

3. How about a roof over it? It could have added to the beauty of the structure as well as the functional part. of protecting people from the elements. It could also provide safety to the users, as well as the cars plying beneath. 

I know it's too late to say anything, but I thought they knew better. Anyway, we are looking forward to the opening of the bridge.

18 July 2021

Mushroom Hunting Around Thimphu

When I told my wife I was going mushroom hunting over the weekend, she was so terrified. I could see right in her eyes that she saw me being attacked by a bear and poisoned by a mushroom. Since I am writing this blog, you know I have survived both. 

When we talk about mushroom foraging, the first thing that dominates our mind is mushroom poisoning. I understand my wife's apprehension, but then I am guided by a pearl of ancient wisdom that says, if you don't know a mushroom, assume it's poisonous

Two Mushroom Hunters

My friend Tashi Namgay and I had this planned a long time ago. We waited till this weekend to make the trip. My adventurous mother was going to join us, but she left for Haa a few days ago. She guided us to go after the 10th day of the 6th month, which is traditionally believed to be a ripe time for mushrooming. We went two days ahead of the auspicious timing, but since Tashi knew a few hotspots, we gathered quite a load of mushroom. 
Discovering Chimpa (liver) Shamo at one of the 'nests.'

Talking about the mushroom hotspots, it's the jargon of the mushroom pickers, which are marked spots where they found a good number of a certain type of mushroom and come back to the same spot each year. They call it their mushroom 'nest'. They will keep it a secret, just like I do not mention our nest in this post. I am grateful to Tashi Namgay for trusting me enough to reveal his nest to me. 

This trip was enriching in two beautiful ways;

  1. Taking us out of the stressful Thimphu life and soaking us in the rain and dews drops from every plant we touched. Even if we didn't find any mushrooms, I would return home happier knowing I have done a good hike in the woods.
  2. The woods around Thimphu is so rich in mushrooms that it was a field trip in itself. We spent hours photographing and discussing mushrooms. Tashi Namgay got himself enlightened on two mushrooms I knew so well, coming from Haa. In return, coming from Bumthang, he educated me on two mushrooms that I never thought we edible. We learned so much from each other. 

We took a local guide who was an old friend of Tashi's. They have been together on their previous trip, and they helped each other remember their 'nests'. They shared how they kicked the poisonous-looking "Chimpa Shamo" during their last trip, which happens to be my favourite mushroom. It can be prepared as curry or salad. It can also be dried and consumed later. To prove how crazy I was about that mushroom that tastes so much like liver, I prepared a salad at our guide's place right after our trip. The two of them relished the new taste for the first time. Tashi Namgay couldn't stop himself from sharing a social media post on that story:

Tashi's Two Mushrooms

Following are the two mushrooms that Tashi educated me on:

Gongdo Shamo
Later at night, we prepared the only piece we got for his wife, a vegetarian. It can also be barbecued with a tiny bit of butter and a pinch of salt. 

Khempa Shamo
This khempa Shamo looked so poisonous to me, but both my teammates confirmed that it's deceiving tasty and goes so well with ema-datshi. 

My Two Mushrooms

These are the two I educated Tashi and his friend on;

My Beloved Chempa Shamo

Lumbob Shamo (in Haa)

The Chempa Shamo Salad

Dry Mushroom

Following are the two types of mushrooms all of us knew well. They are best served dried. We got plenty of them. Ga-shamo is especially was infested with worms, but then that's how it's known to be dried and consumed in the next season. However, we made sure that we picked the ones that are not yet attacked by the worms. As of now, they are drying at my place. 

Shaw-namcho Shamo


Poison Mushroom

And finally, I must admit that I don't know enough about the following mushrooms, neither do my two friends. Therefore, with the guidance of ancient wisdom, let's assume them as simply inedible or, worse poisonous. 















Bear Attack

I didn't talk much about the bear attacks in this post because I have little knowledge of bears. This is the bear season for sure. We have seen footprints and bear scats in various places. We saw the fruit-bearing plants being ransacked, which can only be done by bears. 

I can only confidently say that you must go in groups and make your presence felt by making sounds from time to time. Elders told us that any wild animal including bears, don't like encounters with humans. They will avoid if they knew we were around. The attacks happen when we run into each other suddenly. Their attacks are mostly in self-defence. Of course, they cannot prove that in a court of law. 

Anyway, the fear of bear attack is serious and so is mushroom poisoning. It's good to be adventurous but it's more important to be alive. 

Be careful out there. 

23 June 2021

Why are Bhutanese Toilets so dirty?

For a country as beautiful as Bhutan, the condition of our toilet is an ugly scar on the face. It begs the question, why are Bhutanese Toilets so dirty? The answer is, we let it be; we tolerate it. We grew up with dirty toilets everywhere, that we built natural tolerance for dirty toilets. So, when we see a dirty toilet, we find it NORMAL. We hardly complain. 


My name is Chablop PaSsu. I am the founder of Bhutan Toilet Organization, and let me tell you that it’s NOT Normal for toilets to be dirty. I beg you to complain when you see a dirty toilet. 


Remember, when we saw a picture of a guy climbing on a chorten, there was a massive outrage in our society (or at least on social media) because it was not normal to climb on a chorten. I wish if people could respond like that when they see a toilet that is left insanely dirty, because even that’s not normal. 


We shape our concept of the toilet based on the kind of toilet we accept as normal.


Concept of Toilet 


Let me redefine the concept of a toilet for you. It is the happiness room that we failed to acknowledge. People go in that room with many forms of discomfort and always come out happy; For example, you badly need to urinate or have an upset tummy. You run looking for a toilet in much pain and fear of humiliation in case you can’t hold it anymore. At that moment, the sight of a toilet brings you a sense of relief. Once you get inside, you experience the ultimate happiness. You are so grateful to the toilet that you are willing to do anything for the toilet. If we could trap on this very emotion and commitment, toilet problems in the country will be solved, but unfortunately, we have a very short memory. 


Every morning, you wake up feeling low; your mouth is stinking, your eyes are sticky, your nose is stuffy, and your hair is messy. You walk into the happiness room, brush your teeth, wash your face, clean your nose, and do your hair, and by the time you come out from there, you are a new person, ready to seize the day. Anyone who goes to the little room comes back a little happier, so isn’t that room magical? Isn’t it the happiness room? 

That is the concept of the toilet that we Bhutanese are unaware of. That’s why it’s not trendy to show off your toilet. We rather invest in a huge sofa, showcase, and TV in the sitting room, while the toilet remains tiny, dingy and stinky with many broken things inside it. Someone once told me that we Bhutanese wear expensive Gho and Keera over torn and faded underwear. We have misplaced our priorities. 


We think a toilet is a dirty little room for us to pee and poop. Even so, of all the rooms in your house, the toilet is the only room that every family member uses at least five times a day. Yet, we invest the least in the toilet. It’s a sad example of a tragedy of the commons.


It's not our fault. It was passed down to us through our genes by our ancestors, who knew little about the toilet. But it will be our fault if we pass down the same stinky legacy to our children despite all the knowledge and exposure. We have come a long way, and much has changed, but we are still stuck with dirty toilets.


Everyone loves a clean toilet, yet collectively, we don't work towards getting it. It’s strange how the whole is less than the sum of its parts.


Attitude & Mindset 


Our attitude toward the toilet is a personal affair as long as we keep it to ourselves, but when we project that in a group or society, it has consequences. It’s worse if you are an important person because it has a significant bearing on your decisions.


Let me share a story of setting up and managing toilets during major national events. You know how important it is to have toilet facilities during big public events. But you don’t know that we get last-minute notice to come and set up toilets, and there is no budget set aside to build toilets. It hurts when the toilet gets the last priority. On the contrary, a five-minute dance program gets two months of preparation, herding and feeding a few dozen heads. Whereas, the toilet that is used by everyone from morning to evening gets the least importance in the whole scheme of things. 


That's just the beginning. The next problem is getting the location for the toilet. Toilets are often given the oddest locations, literally unreachable, perfectly hidden from the view. They would say it’s gross to have a toilet anywhere near. You could see the filthy sight and smell of the toilet right on their face as they explain why we can’t have the toilets in the vicinity. 


I get angry, but I don't blame them. I blame the toilets they have suffered in their schools. They carry such bad memory of toilets that they are worried the toilet we will build will be like the ones in their heads.


If they had a clean toilet in their head, their decision would be different. They would want us to build the toilet next to the gate and the guest tents to be most convenient for everyone.  


I found out that having a profound toilet attitude is critical in leadership. For example, if your school toilet is dirty, it reflects your principal’s ignorance and attitude. If your office toilet is horrible, it has everything to do with your boss’s mentality. He may want his attached toilet to be clean, but you could judge his leadership by the standard of the common office toilet. You do a simple survey and see how it correlates. You will smell it. 


The irony goes much deeper in our society; We are a giving society, yet people will hardly share their toilet. Even a small restaurant toilet will put a “Costumers Only” notice. A rich landlord secretly dumps raw sewer from his property into the stream used for washing and drinking by poorer people downstream. A wealthy household talks proudly about having four toilets inside with no regard for the neighbourhood that has no toilet. 

We forget that the flies from a poor neighbour’s open faeces will not discriminate against the people in the rich household. 


Changing the Concept 


But there is hope. We have seen in short periods we spent around event toilets how people's perceptions change. They visit us at least ten times on the event day (Imagine where would they run to if we didn’t arrange the toilets). The first time they come, they are suspicious. They cover their nose and mouth. When they come out, they look amazed. The next time they come, we see big smiles. And we become friends. The sudden change in their attitude is so satisfying. This is what we work for. This is the sign that we have finally managed to clean the toilet in their head. Next time, we know they will make a decision based on the clean toilet in his head.


The same attitude has influenced the locations of public toilets across the country. How many public toilets are there in Thimphu? There are seven in the core town, but you won't know because most of them are strategically hidden from the public view. It's ironic that the public toilets are hidden from public view, but that's what happens when the engineer or the planner has a horrific toilet in their head. They are only doing a favour to the country by hiding them. AND you know when the toilets are located in the shady corners, all sorts of shady things happen there—fights, drugs, theft, and vandalism. 


You go to any public toilet and see if everything is in order. I bet you will see that most of them are vandalized, and you will be lucky if at least one flush tank works or you find a proper set of Bucket and Jug to use.


For a harmonious and peaceful country, why do our toilets look like we are in a state of war? The answer lies in the same place, the toilet in our heads. If the planners had clean toilets in their heads, we would have public toilets in good locations, and because of the location, we could avoid all sorts of shady activities, from pooping in the washbasin to stealing buckets jugs and TP rolls.


Personal Etiquettes 


A civilized person will always look for a toilet when they get the call of nature, whereas some of us are still ok with going behind the bush. This habit of going behind the bush is not relevant when you are in a town. That's when you realize how backward you are. But somehow, you manage to find a spot behind a building and shamelessly shit there, knowing that no one will know and no one will even remember. 


For that matter, such a person with no regard for toilet etiquettes will do the same even if he finds a toilet. He will use it without appreciating how good it was when he came in and leave with no regard for people who will go after him. The thought process is the same as the person who did it behind the building. No one has seen it; no one will know, and no one will even remember. 


But let me tell you, what comes out of you is a PART of you. Even though no one saw you leaving without flushing, when people, who come after you see it, they will not like it. They will spit on it in disgust; you are going to feel the hate. No one will look at your shit and appreciate the shape and the colour of it; they will be disgusted. And the energy is powerful. When they spit on the part of you with such sincere disgust, you will feel it no matter where you are. That’s negative energy invoked by you. You bring out the worst in people as long as the part of you remain there.


On the other hand, if you have planted a tree somewhere, every time a person sits in its shade to take rest, the person will feel thankful to the tree, and that powerful and sincere energy of gratefulness will follow you wherever you are like a blessing. Same with a flower you planted that pleases people or a water tap you built that's helping people cool themselves and quench their thirst. What goes around definitely comes around. Let it be the good that goes around.  


Next time you are about to leave the toilet unflushed, remember that ugly little part of you will bother many people and that so many curses will follow you. The idea is simple: even a cat knows. A cat digs a hole, poops in it and covers it up. It's nothing attractive to show to the world, so why don't you cover it up with soil if you are in the wild and make an effort to flush it down if you are in a toilet. Don't make your decision based on whether someone is watching or not. “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” 


The job of Toilet Cleaning


Cleaning toilet is not one of the most attractive jobs in the world. On top of that, in many cultures, it is a job done by a class of people who are considered very low, untouchables. Lucky for us, we never had a deep-rooted toilet culture, and therefore the idea of the job belonging to any class of people is unfounded. Any notion of stigma attached to cleaning toilet is a borrowed mentality. Let’s shed that off. 


Who cleans the toilet at home? Is there a category of people who must do that job? No, it's the job that any family member can do; one who loves cleanliness the most or the one who is good at the art of cleaning, or the one with an open mind to do the job. So, it's not about a class but rather an attitude—a progressive choice. 


It’s in primitive and backward societies that such classes are created and discriminated against. In progressive societies like the US and Australia, toilet cleaning is like any other job. Ask hundreds of respected Bhutanese who have taken the job in Australia by choice.


Of course, the toilets down there cannot be compared to what we have here, and the difference in the kind of money they get down there and what we pay our cleaners here are almost impossible to fathom. This gives us a deep insight into why the western perspective on the job is different from ours. This will help us understand the reality of things and put our money in the right place. If we say toilet cleaners are important members of staff, we must back it up with good money to make it believable. 


Until then, the show must go on. We must work toward uplifting the job to the next level through excellence in performing it and perceiving it. There is no humility greater than the act of cleaning a toilet. 


The Liberator 


And in doing so, when you clean an unflushed toilet, which was causing distress to many people, you act to liberate that unfortunate person who has done that. That person may be having a bad day somewhere. Not knowing what the hell he did wrong to deserve it, but you have shown mercy on him by removing the burden and setting him free. You liberate that person. You become a liberator. 


Not just that, the clean and welcoming toilet that you have created will make every visitor happy, like the tree, flower, water tap I shared about, and the intense, positive energy they emit is the merit you accumulate. It will follow you wherever you are. You will receive their blessings. 


Therefore, sometimes I feel the job of cleaning a toilet is a spiritual offering of humility and compassion, the humility of the self and compassion for others. 


The Royal Vision of a First World Country


During the 113th National Day address, His Majesty the King shared his vision of propelling Bhutan to a first world country during our lifetime. In the last few years, His Majesty kept mentioning Big Data, AI, Block-Chain, Machine Learning, cryptocurrency, and Space science. 


Even if there is nothing we could offer in these big subjects, let us make our individual contribution towards one of the most basic foundations of a first world country- a clean toilet. 


Let’s clean the toilets in our heads and around us. 

Let’s stop going behind the bushes. 

Let’s stop tolerating dirty toilet. 

Let’s complain. 

Let’s prepare to become a first-world citizen. 

08 June 2021

Digital Sovereignty of Bhutan

Once upon a time, when the internet was new in Bhutan, and we were trying to create our email account for the first time, we used to select either India or Bangladesh as our country because Bhutan was not on the dropdown list of countries. It was forgivable in the early days.

Over the years, that issue is solved. Finally, Bhutan was added to the list, and it was a moment of pride to choose Bhutan as our country whenever we joined any online platforms. How odd is it that some ignorant tech guys had deprived us of our sovereignty for a long time? Sometimes, I doubt their intentions. How could a big tech company not know that Bhutan is a sovereign country?

Twenty years on, everything has moved on but we still struggle with the same issue of some tech companies refusing to recognize Bhutan or treat us at par with other countries. It's no geographical ignorance anymore. 

For example, 

  • In Playstore you are often told, "This item not available in your country.", which means we can't get that app because we are in Bhutan. If we tweak our location a little bit or use VPN then we get the app. Why can't we get it when we are in Bhutan?
    Playstore notice
  • "You are not eligible for monetization. The YouTube Partner Program is not available in your current location Bhutan." This is really sad because none of our YouTubers can monetize their channel legally. They have to lie about their location to be eligible. It's easy to change the location but why? What have we done to be punished?
YouTube ineligibility notice
  • On Google Maps, some of us are making efforts to add names of important places and monuments in Dzongkha, but somehow they only show the names in English. If it's uniformly applied then there is no issue but on our north places appear in Chinese script and on our south in Hindi script, which raises the question, why not Dzongkha? Worse even, some of our places appear in Chinese text and we can't change them back. 
Chinese and Hindi over Dzongkha

These are a few examples I have encountered but there could be many. They may seem insignificant but if we look carefully, why would they do that if it's so insignificant? 
What can we do to fix it? For an individual, it may be a colossal task but I think it's the job of the Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC) or a more relevant department under it.