By , January 24, 2014 6:45 am

This has been Mike’s and my mantra for the past year. Anytime one of us is feeling down, wanderlusting, or just plain daydreaming, we turn to each other and scream “Bhutan!” After a long day at work… “Bhutan!”.  In the middle of a 14 hour day of driving across Canada with no radio… “Bhutan!”. Amid the Bangkok protests… “Bhutan!”.

For us, it’s a word filled with meaning… opportunity, excitement, adventure, beauty, spirituality, simplicity, promise. It’s stepping out into the unknown. It represents the next chapter of our lives. A dream realized, the impossible made possible.

And now it’s finally happened. We’re here. It’s not just a magic word anymore… it’s our reality for the next 12 months. We get to live and work in the Land of the Thunder Dragon…. a country that values happiness over money, is set to become the world’s first organic nation, has already banned plastic bags and the sale of tobacco, has a strong national identity, and a spiritual Buddhist value system that permeates everything they do. It’s a place were hot chili peppers are the vegetable, not the condiment. Where gross national happiness values are incorporated into every government policy and school curriculum. And – if all of that isn’t enough for you – it’s in the freaking Himalayan mountains!

View from the plane as we arrive in Paro

View from the plane as we arrive in Paro

I’ve been in the country for less than twelve hours, but it’s completely captivated me. Heck, it had me when I stepped out onto the tarmac of the airplane, took a deep breath, and tried to comprehend the sights around me. All the other BCF teachers I have talked to agree… there is just something special about this place. Something that can’t be pinpointed or put into words. An indescribable aura that’s impossible to ignore. It’s just different. And magical. It’s so much more than we expected. Times a million.

Paro Valley

Early morning view from our Thimpu hotel

Early morning view from our Thimphu hotel

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Thimphu

I have just signed a one-year contract (in triplicate) to teach in one of Bhutan’s government schools through the Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF). While this is considered to be a volunteer position back home, in truth I will be paid on a level similar to the local teachers – a little less than $400 CAD per month. This salary (or stipend, depending how you want to look it) will cover our rent, food, and some travel within the country. We’ll still have to pay all the start-up costs (airfare, the required travel insurance, etc.) out of our own pocket. While I’m teaching, Mike will be doing something… we’re just not quite sure what yet.

How did we get here?

Note: It was a bit of a long journey to get here through the BCF.  If you want to read all the details, great.  If not, don’t miss out on the photos at the end!

It all starts back in 2010 when we first decided to quit our jobs, sell our possessions and explore the world…

March 2010 – We decide to take a one-year leave of absence and travel the world.

November 2010 – I apply for a leave of absence. It is denied within minutes. I put in my resignation the next day. Our one-year timeline has been blown wide open.

December 2010 – While flipping through an “Off The Beaten Path” travel guide, I read about Bhutan for the first time (offered as an alternative to trekking in Nepal). I immediately showed Mike, but when we discover the visa costs ($200-$250 per person per day) we put it on the “we’d love to, but it will never happen” list. I can’t shake the feeling that our frugality is creating a missed opportunity. Somehow, I am already in love with this country.

July 6, 2011 – We leave home for our RTW with no itinerary and no return date. This begins an amazing journey of personal discovery. Over the course of 21 months on the road, we began to turn our thoughts towards home again.

February 2, 2013 – We try to explain to a nomadic friend of ours that we are ready to move home, get jobs, and settle down for a while. He isn’t sold. More telling, however, is that neither are we.

February 3, 2013 – We decide we are ready to settle down and get jobs, but maybe Canada isn’t what we’re looking for right now. We start researching ESL jobs online, with the intention of both of us teaching English for a year. Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Mongolia top our list.

February 5, 2013 – Still searching for that perfect job, I come across a listing for a volunteer teaching position in Bhutan. It requires a Bachelor of Education, three years teaching experience, or a teaching certificate. I have all three. Mike does not. We dismiss it.

February 10, 2013 – Still dreaming of the possibility, I check out the Bhutan teaching opportunity again. Buried on the BCF’s website, I find that non-teaching spouses are able to accompany teachers. It doesn’t take long for this to trump all other options. We decided then and there that we need to make this happen.

March 23, 2013 – We return to Canada. When anyone asks if we’re back for good, we tell them we want to teach in Bhutan for a year. We haven’t even applied yet, but we’re not going to let that stop us. Meanwhile, I start substitute teaching. Subbing allows me to reaffirm that teaching is what I’m meant to do… but I crave connections with students that subbing doesn’t allow for.

May 1, 2013 – Applications for the 2014 BCF school year open. I spend a good chunk of my day updating my resume, filling out the lengthy application and going over it again and again. I submit it that very afternoon.

May 14, 2013 – I am offered a permanent contract with my former school division. These aren’t always quick to come by, so I have to at least consider it. Although the BCF timeline is a little vague, I know the first round of interviews happen sometime in June and applications don’t even close until July. I contact the BCF foundation to see if I’m even a potential candidate. They assure me that my teaching experience + my specialty (a Bachelor’s of Mathematics) make me “a VERY strong candidate.” I turn down the contract. Meanwhile, I accept a temporary contract that will have me teaching accounting (had to learn it over a long weekend!) and math until the end of June.

May 28, 2013 – I receive an email requesting a first interview with BCF.  I am so excited!

June 14, 2013 – My first interview with the BCF takes place via Skype. It is with Jenna and Kristen of the BCF office in Toronto. I have my choice of time slots… but they are all during school hours. Fortunately, one falls on the afternoon of my first final exam, so I don’t have any students. I am told it will last about 45 minutes. It only lasts 20. I think this is a good sign. Most of the interview questions were about my credentials and how I would deal with some of the basic living and working conditions in Bhutan. I share my experiences living in my house in Bulgaria for a month with no power, no running water, and no working toilet. They are convinced I’ll be okay.

June 20, 2013 – I find out I’ve earned a second interview.

June 27, 2013 – My second interview with BCF. This one is over Skype with a BCF representative in Bhutan, three Bhutanese math teachers, and a government official. I am sent the Grade 9 and 11 math curriculums to prepare. I expect to be quizzed on long-range plans, classroom management, project-based and inquiry learning, and questions like “What would you do if half your class fails a test?”. I am right. For the first 10 minutes. Then begins 40 minutes of firing round questions from the math teachers on how I would teach everything from logarithms to continuity to stocks and bonds to digraphs. I don’t even know what digraphs are. I am familiar with their other questions, but having never taught the senior maths (thus far, my experience was with Grade 9, 10, and some 11 math) I have not considered how to teach these concepts. Or even looked at them in the seven years since university. Did I mention that it is a 6 am interview? Good thing they can only see my neck up, because I am sweating profusely. I don’t even know how to answer half the questions, but I spit some feeble words out hoping they will let up. They don’t. I am decimated. And it’s still only 7 am. I feel sick to my stomach and feel the dream slipping away. I refuse to answer anyone’s questions about it, except to say it could have gone better. I find a few minutes that afternoon to meditate, as it is the only way to clear the feeling of dread that consumed me.

June 28, 2013 – Once the tiredness wears off, I look at my situation logically. I didn’t answer the questions to my personal standard, but did I really do that bad? And if I did, perhaps I could beg a second chance and spend some time preparing for it. I decide to just deal with whatever outcome there is and stop losing sleep over it.

July 7, 2013 – Nearly two years after we left for our RTW trip, we leave home for a two-month eastern Canada tour. We carry all our Bhutan documents with us in physical and digital form… just in case.

July 10, 2013 - It turns out all the worry and panic were for naught. The BCF contacts me to tell me that they want to move forward with my application. I start organizing the documentation.

August , 2013 – While getting a strange noise in our car investigated at a dealership in Sault-Sainte Marie, I take advantage of the free wifi to discover that my name is officially being put forward by the BCF for government approval. Mike and I do our happy dance.

September 13, 2013 – I submit all documentation, including a complete medical.  We also return home from our Eastern Canada trip.

October 13, 2013 – I am offered a replacement contract at my old school in Regina until the end of first semester.  I double check the Bhutan timeline.  I would have to be Bhutan the day students would start their semester one finals.  The school accommodates me, and I start a full-time teaching gig that keeps me insanely busy for the next three months.

October 26, 2013 – I FINALLY hear that the Bhutan Ministry of Education has approved my application.  It’s almost official.  Just need the rubber stamp from the Royal Cival Service Commission.

November 14, 2013 – The RCSC has rubber-stamped my application. Five and a half months after submitting my documentation, I AM OFFICIALLY GOING TO BHUTAN.

November 27, 2013 – We find our our placement. Nangkhor, Pemagatshel in southeastern Bhutan.  That’s really all we know and can find out… the name.

November 30, 2013 – We submit our final documents and BCF contract.

December 14, 2013 – We pay the BCF for our Druk Air flights from Bangkok to Bhutan and the required medical insurance.

December 21 to January 5, 2013 – We try to get in as many last hurrahs with friends and family as we can during Christmas break. Unfortunately, this leaves little time or energy to think about packing.

January 9 & 10, 2013 – I give three math classes their final exams in class (and mark them!), plus mark my Computer Science 20/30 final projects. This is a marathon no teacher should ever have to do.

January 11, 2013 – We start packing. And by packing, I mean throwing things we think we want to take in a pile in the middle of Mike’s parents living room. Luckily, they tolerated our pile for 4 days.

January 13, 2013 – I finish my last day of work. Now to fully turn my attention to Bhutan.

January 14, 2013 – At 3:30 pm, the first item gets packed in a backpack. We’re due at my mom’s at 6pm, where we will spend the night and get an early morning ride to the airport.  We also receive a little more information about our placement location, school, and accommodation.

January 15, 2013 – We leave home, flying from Regina to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Bangkok. Luckily we have 4 days to recover from jet lag and general exhaustion in BKK.

January 16, 2013 – Somewhere in Tokyo, we find our DrukAir eTickets in our inboxes.  We were relieved and happy to have them.

January 17, 2013 – After arriving in Bangkok, we finally receive our Bhutan visa clearances.  Whew!

January 21, 2013 – Despite the lack of airport shuttles running, we have no problems flagging a taxi at 3:30 in the morning and arrive at the airport with lots of time to spare. After an amazing descent in Paro valley, we land in Bhutan and are instantly blown away.

View from the plane as we approach Paro valley

View from the plane as we approach Paro valley

First views from the ground

First views from the ground

The BCF had approximately 250 applicants this year.  Eighty were granted a first-round interview, 60 were granted a second-round one, and I am one of the lucky 18 that made it to this point.  As you can see, it was a loooong process from the date of application to the official confirmation that we were accepted. But it was 100% worth the wait.

I’m sure you’re all dying to know the nitty gritty details about my placement and what’s to come, but now you’re going to have to wait. Because right now, we’re on BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time).  And, more importantly, I have an incredible city to explore. Until next time… (whenever that will be – we have no idea what the internet situation is going to look like from this point forward).

Prayer flags overlooking Paro valley

Prayer flags overlooking Paro valley

A taste of the incredible buildings

A taste of the incredible buildings

Paro valley, with Paro Dzong in the background

Paro valley, with Paro Dzong in the background

Early morning view of Thimpu's hills

Early morning view of Thimpu’s hills

Prayer flag

Prayer flag

Former prime minister's residence

Lovely courtyard of former prime minister’s residence

Statue in courtyard

Statue in courtyard

More of Paro valley

More of Paro valley

 

Terraced rice paddies

Terraced rice paddies

 

 

 

15 Responses to “Bhutan!”

  1. Delaine says:

    What a journey! Read it all! Jealous of the happiness factor and I’ve always had a strong interest in Buddhism. Enjoy!

    • Ashley Lenzen says:

      Hey Delaine! Thanks for reading all the way through it. Bhutan has definitely surpassed my expectations already…. and we haven’t even really gotten into it (still going through our orientation). Thimphu is a pretty easy transition for us, but remote eastern Bhutan is going to be a whole different world again. The culture here is fascinating.

  2. Kim says:

    Wow! It looks amazing. Can’t wait to see what the school looks like.

    • Ashley Lenzen says:

      Me too! I’ve seen a few pictures of our school and it looks like a beautiful setting. We report for duty on February 10… so not long to wait now!

  3. Christoph says:

    Hey guys, congratulations for achieving this next step in your life journey! You really put a lot of work in it and you definitely earned it.
    I wish you all the best for everything that happens during your time there!
    I would like to hike the Snowman Trek in Bhutan, so if you have the time to explore that, please let us know all the details!

    Big hugs from Austria,
    Christoph.

    • Ashley Lenzen says:

      Hey Christoph! It’s so great to hear from you! The Snowman Trek is going to be an impossibility for me, as I will be working during the trekking season… but Mike already has his ear to the ground to find out if he will be able to trek it while I’m school. We’ll definitely keep you posted.

  4. Jennie says:

    Amazing. Enjoy!

  5. Andrea says:

    Looks like a fascinating place to explore – I love all your photos!

    • Ashley Lenzen says:

      Thanks Andrea! So far, it’s proving impossible to take a bad photo here… the landscape, colours, people, culture, and textiles are stunning!

  6. So happy to hear that you’re safe in Thimphu and loving it! It was certainly a very long time coming but you’re finally there! The photos are beautiful, we can’t wait to keep following along!

  7. Loved reading this – we love Bhutan too – it is a very special place. We mentioned you on our blog today! http://www.panoramicjourneys.com/wp/index.php/friday-focus-weekly-pj-travel-news-14/

  8. Texan says:

    What a great opportunity. Good luck as you begin this new chapter in your life. i look forward to seeing more pictures…

  9. […] Bhutan Mike and Ashley are living and working in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. […]

  10. Larry Tate says:

    this looks so interesting! I’d love to see this corner of the globe :) Love your blog! Looking forward to more

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