“Let’s go back” said many former Bhutan volunteers when they met in Kaikoura, New Zealand, recently.
21 New Zealanders, who worked through Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA), met to catch up and discuss their time working in the Himalayan kingdom. They decided to start planning a return trip.
“We need to go soon – there are a lot of hills to climb in Bhutan,” said former volunteers from Palmerston North. Memories flooded back for the volunteers and the reunion was a talkfest about the country they loved.
“The making-do culture was part of life in Bhutan,” said Robyn Porter, of Christchurch, who spent 2 years as a resource teacher in the small town of Trongsa in 1990. “It was a big exercise just organizing day-to-day life.” Trongsa was 200 km from the capital, but a long and winding road through the mountains, that took 10 to 12 hours on a crowded bus.
As another volunteer said of life in Bhutan: “It was just like camping for two years.”
The first 3 volunteers from VSA to go to Bhutan started their 2-year assignments in 1985. At that time, phones were non existent outside the main town of Thimphu, motor car numbers were low, there was no internet, no television, electricity was limited to towns and, while there were development organizations, there were only a few Westerners, mail to the villages arrived every few weeks, rats and fleas were constant companions and stomach problems were frequent.
Despite the hardships, the volunteers are unanimous that Bhutan had been a life-shaping experience and had been personally extremely valuable.
“We all remembered having a busy social life in Bhutan. If there was a gathering on, the volunteer was always part of it. Many volunteers hardly ate at home; they were always invited over for dinner in the village. Everyone agreed the Bhutanese were very inclusive, kind and a great deal of fun,” said Ms Hughey, a journalist with the Bhutan national newspaper from 1987 to 1989.
Currently, village assignments are less common and more volunteers are based in the capital Thimphu.
The reunion in Kaikoura was the first big reunion for Bhutan volunteers and they came from all over New Zealand, including Invercargill, Wanaka, Napier, Auckland, Rotorua, Taranaki, the Manawatu, Wellington and Nelson. Volunteers have served in Bhutan in various professions, including teaching, engineering, forestry, nursing, agronomy, horticulture and architecture.