Sunday, November 25, 2012


Thanksgiving was merely days ago, and I had a lot to be thankful for this year. For one, my family is great, and they put up with all my cooking. Secondly, we had the opportunity to eat insanely delicious Bolivian food today, a welcome change from turkey and dressing. (Even though my sister made Indian peas and Middle Eastern cookies, and I made the Salade Liégeoise that I did when I cooked from Belgium.)

I usually do the bread first, but this time I switched up. The main course I made is called silpancho, and the recipe I had actually broke it down into prep work that could be done the day before and the actual cooking. Here are the basic parts of silpancho:

The beef I used was an angus steak that I cut into thin strips, covered it with adobo seasoning (I made my own out of sea salt, onion powder, garlic power, black pepper, chili powder, smoked paprika, and cumin. After that, I coated it in bread crumbs and put it in the refrigerator. Later on, I took it out and fried it in a skillet. (I cheated on the salsa that tops the meat. I already had a jar of black bean and corn salsa.)

Fried beef strips. Mmmm... 
I took four golden potatoes, peeled them and boiled them whole for 20 minutes. Then I took them out and put them in the refrigerator to cool. After a couple of hours, I sliced them and fried them until they were just turning golden in color.

I might just eat these leftovers for breakfast. Too bad I don't have any sausage gravy.
Then I steamed some white rice as directed and put it in the refrigerator to cool. Later on, I fried the rice using the leftover oil from frying the potatoes and added some diced red bell pepper and green bell pepper and a little bit of cilantro in with the rice.

Fried rice. Way better with peppers in it. Of course, that's true for everything. 
It also called for fried eggs. Now, I am more of less proficient – almost professional, if you will – at scrambled eggs, but other methods somewhat elude me. Not because I can’t do it, it’s just that I’m more of a scrambled egg person and never saw a need to make them any other way. If it’s not broke, you need to break it and scramble it hard (with garlic powder, cumin, and chopped green onions). But it turns out I did a good job, according to my husband, my local expert on how to fry an egg.

Between the prep work for the silpancho and actually frying everything, I made the bread. The bread I made was tawa-tawas. It actually seems more of a pastry to me. After making the dough and letting it rest for about 10 minutes, you roll out the dough to being about a quart of an inch thick. I took a pizza cutter and rolled it across the dough at angles to make diamond shapes (or as the recipe calls it: rhombus-shaped. I was actually surprised my seven-year-old knew what a rhombus was!) Then you take the dough and fry it.  When it starts to puff up, you turn it once and remove when it turns golden. I topped the pieces with powdered sugar and my sassafras-infused honey.  It was really, really good. Definitely a win with the whole family!

If you want to know what heaven tastes like, it's pretty close. 
And as a side dish to add variety to this fried food extravaganza that would make any Texan approve, I went with a hominy-honey mustard salad.  Now, hominy is one of those foods that gagged me as a child. But then again, my dad would just open the can, heat it up in a pot and serve it. That being said, it’s understandable why I didn’t like it. For this salad, I took the hominy and put it in a bowl with water and some sugar and heated it in the microwave for three minutes. Then I chopped up a quarter cup of red bell pepper and a quarter cup of green bell pepper and added it to a bowl. I threw in the hominy plus a tablespoon of mayonnaise (I hate mayonnaise; I use the fake stuff, Miracle Whip), a tablespoon of yellow mustard and a little bit of honey and stirred everything together. It reminded me of potato salad, and I was surprised that hominy can actually go down my throat without setting off a gag reflex.  What a difference that 20 years and a good recipe can make.

One of the best meals I've made so far. This one is going in the top ten.  The picture makes me drool. 
I’m sure that my heart will thank me when I wake up from my heart attack caused by all the fried foods. But it was so good. Really it was. And it’s not like I eat like this every day. I once had someone tell me that I must spend a lot of money on all of these meals, but in actuality, I spend no more than other meals. Of course, it depends on if I had to find a hard-to-find or more expensive ingredient or not. But for something like this, the ingredients were simple. In many countries, people don’t have the means to buy expensive ingredients for their meals; they have to use what they have available. And this meal is another perfect example of that. There was enough variety in color, flavors, and in texture that kept the meal interesting and filling. It is these moments spent with family over good food that I cherish and am continually thankful for.

Up next: Bosnia and Herzegovina 

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Music in Bolivia has strong ties to its traditional native music. Bolivia, like many other countries in South America, was colonized by the Spanish, and there's no doubt their music had its influences in Bolivian culture. However, after the 1952 Revolution, Bolivia eschewed much of the European influence on its culture, and there was a revival of its native cultures as a means of national identity. Traditional music, arts, and dress became very popular among many Bolivians.

One of the first groups to break onto the scene in 1965 was a quartet called Los Jairas. Other musicians emerged as well, including one of my favorites, Ernesto Cavour, with a style that more or less took traditional music and modified it in such a way so it appealed to urban-dwellers and Europeans. Later, other groups like Wara, Los Kjarkas, and Kalamarka came onto the scene and soon Bolivian music started making a name for itself internationally. This video is of Ernesto Cavour performing on the charango (see below). He is an amazing musician. 

In addition to European instruments that were introduced to them, namely the violin and guitar, they also utilize their own assortment of instruments that are commonly found throughout the Andean region and South America. Some of the instruments you’ll hear in Bolivian music is the charango (type of lute plucked with the fingers, traditionally made from the shell of an armadillo, but now made with different types of wood), zampoña (type of pan pipes, named after the Greek god Pan, traditionally made from bamboo or cane, but also made from wood, plastic, metal, or ivory. The longer the pipe is the lower the note, and it’s played by blowing across the top of the pipes.), quena (a type of 6-holed flute with a thumb hole; it’s played in front), bombo (a type of bass drum), and güiro (an open gourd with parallel notches carved into the side so that you can rub a stick across it making a ratchet sound, may also be made of wood or plastic). There are many varieties of these instruments, some larger and some smaller to give different tones and allow for different texture and range of sounds.

This video of the group Wara shows how they use traditional instruments (here you can see and hear the quena, the pan pipes, and the charango) in a modern musical style. 

Different types of dances are found across Bolivia and surrounding areas. One dance is called the Huayño. One of the most identifiable aspects of the huayño is the rhythm: the first beat is stressed followed by two short beats. Certain variations use a lot of panpipe music (along with a variety of other instruments that may include guitars, violins, quena, accordion, or charango) to accompany the dance, which always starts out with the man inviting the woman to dance. He lays his handkerchief on her shoulder as they turn in an enclosure before the actually start dancing. The dance itself has vigorous steps and stamping of feet. A cheerful dance called the Carnavalito is related to the Huayño.

Another dance that is popular around the Lake Titicaca area is the Kullawada. It’s a dance for and by the alpaca and sheep wool weavers. The dancers wear bright colors and use a spinning wheel as the symbols of the dance. I'm really digging on the hats that look like lampshades, and especially the hat that looks like it has a pagoda on top of it that one of the men wears. I'm sure I just need to have that. 

The Tinku is a type of dance that originated from the north of Bolivia in the Potosí region. It has its roots from the time when the natives were made the slaves of the Spanish who had claimed their land. The people would dress in colorful clothing and start to dance. The women would form a circle while the men on the inside would perform moves like staged fights. (I wonder if this is a similar conception to capoeira in Brazil, where the natives practiced fighting moves masqueraded as dance so that the Spanish wouldn’t suspect a rebellion.) However, this looks more like choreographed fighting than acrobatics. (And if you look at the hats the fighters are wearing at about a minute and a half in, I could use that too.)

The Saya is a type of dance that is almost always performed by Afro-Bolivians. The music that accompanies the dance, which consists of polyrhythmic drums and other instruments, has African origins. The musicians in this piece are the band mentioned earlier: Los Kjarkas. 

While it’s more popular in and originated from Chile, the cueca dance is also found throughout other Andean countries including Boliva. It’s a courting dance, mimicking the mating habits of a rooster and hen. While there are many variations, the males tend to dance with aggression while the female’s moves are more elusive, and the male ends the dance by bending down on one knee with the female placing her foot on his raised knee. Both the male and female spin a handkerchief above their heads as a way of luring the other. 

Up next: the food. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Bolivia, like most other countries colonized by the Europeans, had a great cultural fusion between the two peoples. Many genres of art, such as painting and sculpture may be European in style and technique, but native in style and substance. Materials and mediums have been modified and adapted to be able to utilize what is available. Traditional arts are still ever popular and are continued in order to preserve the ancient cultures they were created from.

Jewelry making is really popular in Bolivia. Most jewelry uses silver or gold, and many use ancient and traditional symbols and styles. Wood and other gem stones are also found in pieces of Bolivian jewelry.

Wood carving is also a popular traditional art in Bolivia. Many of these carvings are made with different kinds of wood to add variations of color. Bolivia had a problem with deforestation and the effects of it, but it was one of the first countries to enact forest conservation efforts.

Archaeologists have discovered ancient rock carvings in several areas in Bolivia. These intricate ancient rock carvings are found alongside rivers, in mountains, and in the caves in the Andes and eastern lowlands regions.

Almost half of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia speak either Aymara, Guarani, or Quechua. Similar to many other cultures, there is a strong tradition of storytelling, including myths and legends. These stories have been passed down from generation to generation by mouth, and unfortunately many of these stories have not been written down. 

Because of Bolivia’s political upheaval through the years, many writers found it difficult to publish their works, and it was especially true if the work was anything contrary to the ruling government at that time. Newer writers have emerged on the scene, but the older writers still dominate Bolivia literature.

Adela Zamudio has long been considered one of Bolivia’s most famous poets. Her other claim to fame is helping to found the country’s feminist movement. Born in Cochabamba, she started out as a teacher and then moved up to being the director of an all-girls high school. Her work was often highly intellectual and non-religious, often writing under the pseudonym Soledad. Towards the end, she even stopped teaching religion at the school where she was director, receiving criticism from the League of Catholic Women. Her birthday, October 11, is celebrated as the Day of Bolivian Women.

Franz Tamayo is a renowned writer and politician, as well as poet, philosopher and intellectual, being the namesake of Franz Tamayo Province. Tamayo had both Aymara and Spanish ancestry, and his ideologies and concepts on race were quite influential to the new Bolivian identity after the 1952 Revolution. His basic idea was that those who were of mixed race were actually superior in comparison to those who were primarily of one race because mixed-race people took what was good in each race and made them stronger (more or less).  He was originally part of the Liberal Party but later switched to the Republican Party. President Salamanca had appointed him the Minister of Foreign Relations and had actually won presidential elections in 1934. However, a military coup right afterward nulled the win.

Oscar Alfaro is another Bolivian writer who is famous for writing children’s literature. He had studied law, but he had never finished his degree. He did go on to teach Castilian language and literature at a school in his hometown of San Lorenzo. Alfaro also produced a radio program called “The Republic of Children” and had wrote several columns in different newspapers published in the area. Several of his poems were put to music by various composers, and many others had been translated into several different languages.

Up next: music and dance

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Bolivia seems like it has fewer national public holidays in comparison to other countries, but there are many local and regional festivals that are throughout the year to make up for it.

New Year’s Day.  January 1.  At the stroke of midnight, many people – especially in the larger cities – gather in the streets to wish people “Happy New Year!” People will celebrate with baking special meals and sharing it with family and friends. Hotels and restaurants are often booked well in advance.

Fiesta de la Virgen de Candelaria.  February 2. A festival in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus; it’s an important holiday for Catholics. The core of this festival is the dancing and musical performances that go on during the festival period. The festival itself is actually held for a couple of weeks. There are special masses held in honor of the festival, while costume-clad parades and festivities are held throughout the Andean communities.

Good Friday.  Varies. All businesses and schools are closed, though you may find a few businesses such as grocery stores open. No alcohol sales are allowed on this day. There are special masses held on this day as well. Many people participate in the tradition of eating fish (as their only meat) on Good Friday. Many people also attend special masses held on Holy Saturday as well; one tradition is to push five grains of wheat into some melted wax to symbolize the five wounds of Jesus after being crucified on the cross.

Easter.  Varies. Bolivians often start their Easter morning with a sunrise mass. The Paschal candle, a candle made of metal spikes similar to the spikes used in the crucifixion, is carried in through the main doors of the church and is used to light all the other candles. While it’s not a native tradition, the tradition of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies are starting to be found in areas of Bolivia in recent years.

Labor Day.  May 1. Bolivians started celebrating Labor Day in 1906, and it was really important when the railroad industry became popular and the railroad unions and miners unions were being formed. The interesting thing is that most countries celebrate Labor Day on May 1 based on a labor dispute that went bad in Chicago, Illinois, USA (look up the Haymarket Riots) on that day. However, the US celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday in September, which is based on events that took place on that day in Canada.

Corpus Christi. Varies. Primarily celebrated by Catholic church. It’s basically a holiday surrounding the practice and belief that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is present at the Eucharist (or Holy Communion). At the end of the Mass that is held this day, there is a procession through the streets of the Blessed Sacrament.

Andean-Amazonic New Year.  June 21. Coordinating with their winter solstice, it’s also called Aymara New Year. The native societies here were based on agriculture, and their agricultural rituals were highly important to thank the gods, especially that of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Inti (Father Sun). If you remember, the sun on the Argentinian flag is based on Inti. Every single business must close for this day. And if a business does work, it will be fined and must pay its workers double for their work. Wow.

Agrarian Reform Day.  August 2. In commemoration of the Agrarian Reform of 1953. This is basically the reform act that redistributed land so that the indigenous peoples of Bolivia could also have the opportunity to own land. This basically broke up the pre-colonial land organization that had been established for decades and centuries.

Independence Day.  August 6. This day celebrates Bolivia’s independence from Spain in 1825. Celebrations usually last two days, and there are parades, street festivals and dances, music, food, and cultural events. The flag is hung and the national colors decorate homes and businesses throughout the country.

All Saints Day.  November 1. This is the day in the Catholic religion that celebrates all the saints. Many saints have their own day, but this day celebrates all of the saints – like a catch-all for the ones not lucky enough to get their own day. It’s also a day in preparation to heading to the cemetery for the next day, called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). People will use this day as a day to do maintenance on their family member’s graves and leave fresh flowers. There will also be vendors selling a special type of sweetbread called tantawawas. There will also be special masses held.

Christmas Day.  December 25. Christmas Eve is celebrated with family and is usually spent going to church services. These services start at midnight and usually go to the wee hours of the morning.  People will return home to open presents and share elaborate meals together.  Many families have the tradition of putting out nativity scenes. There is also a tradition that children put out shoes and stockings to receive gives from El Niño Jesus.

Up next: Art and Literature

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The snow-topped mountain peaks of the Andes arch its way across the land-locked country of Bolivia. Farms carve their way throughout the land, interrupted by pristine lakes, and rivers that flow off of the mountains. Bolivia shares control of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, with neighboring Peru. It’s also bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile.

Originally ruled by the Spanish, Simon Bolivar helped to lead the people in the fight for their independence in 1825. For this, they named their newly formed country after him. Bolivia has had a long history of coups, regime changes, the war on illegal drugs, and problems with racial and economic tensions. However, the country has been making changes towards remedying these problems for the better. The current president, Evo Morales, is in his second term as president of Bolivia and is striving to address some of the issues that has plagued Bolivia in the past.

Bolivia is one of those few countries (like Benin that we did earlier) that has two capitals. The administrative capital is La Paz, the second largest city in Bolivia (after Santa Cruz de la Sierra). There are actually more government offices and departments in La Paz than in the official capital of Sucre. So, you’ll find that some sources call La Paz a “de facto capital city,” and among de facto capital cities, La Paz is the highest in the world. (FYI: Quito, Ecuador is the highest official capital city.)  The odd thing is that water boils at 190F instead of 212F in La Paz because of the altitude. The city of Sucre is named after an important marshal in the Battle of Ayacucho of 1824, Don Antonio José de Sucre. One of the things about Sucre that makes it desirable is that it is situated in a subtropical highland climate. The temperatures throughout the year are fairly constant: average highs are in the upper 60s, average lows in the upper 40s. There are definitely months where it rains more than others, but otherwise it sounds perfect.

The official language is Spanish, although indigenous languages Quechua and Aymara are also listed as official languages as well. Bolivia takes pride in its many ethnic groups that comprises its population, even though it has been the cause of problems and unrest in the past. The dominant religion by far is Roman Catholic – some sources show as many as 95% claim to be followers – followed by a small percentage of Protestants. Outside of the urban areas, clean water and sanitation services are diminished, leading to a high risk of diseases such as bacterial diarrhea, typhoid fever, malaria, and yellow fever. Like most other Andean cultures, the most common identifier with the culture is the brightly colored clothes, blankets, hats, etc. 

Despite the economic and social problems that Bolivia has struggled to get out from under, there are a lot of redeeming qualities Bolivia holds.  I’m already hungry reviewing the recipes that I have lined up, spending my time listening to panflute music, and looking at pictures of the incredible views of the Andean landscape.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Sunday, November 11, 2012


This was the first country I got to in this blog where I had trouble finding a recipe for the bread. I did all kinds of research, but to no avail. I could find mentions that people in Bhutan did eat bread, and that it was fairly popular as a staple to a meal. I found that Food For Life and LiveStrong both mentioned a Bhutanese red rice bread and that it was available to buy online, but no one was giving up their recipe for it. And I stumbled across documents listing certain types of bread found in Bhutan; one that is called khule interested me (a type of buckwheat pancake). But there were no recipes to make it as the Bhutanese make it. However, I did compromise and find a recipe on a gluten-free website for buckwheat pancakes. So, now I’m set with a recipe for buckwheat pancakes. Ready to go. But then again, I was assuming buckwheat flour was easy to find. I found myself standing in the middle of the store with two whiny kids, doing a Google search on my iPhone for substitutions for buckwheat flour, and came up with quinoa flour – which I CAN find. So, even though quinoa is grown on the other side of the world (in the Andes, as opposed to the Himalayas), it still made for some tasty pancakes that seemed more like a crepe hybrid. Although, I do have to state that this is my first experience with quinoa flour, and to me, I couldn’t shake that it smelled like unfired ceramics or greenware. (Just for the record, there are no leftovers.)

My buckwheat pancakes made of quinoa flour and thin as crepes. It didn't matter when covered with maple syrup.  
The main dish I made was called kewa phagsha, or spicy pork with potatoes. After boiling cubes of pork in salted water, I added chillies (I used Hungarian yellow peppers instead), potatoes, and onion. I used a lot of chili powder, some minced garlic and a little bit of ginger and black pepper.  This was a really good dish. I tried to keep the heat down by using the yellow peppers, but you can add as much spice as you prefer by using different types of chillies and peppers.

Just the right amount of spice. Too bad my kids and husband are wimps, I would've made it spicier. 
One of the most iconic foods from Bhutan is red rice. I found some at my local international grocery store, even though I had to buy a 5-lb bag of it. I sautéed green onions in butter, then added carrots and shitake mushrooms and rice to the onions. After that I added some vegetable stock, thyme and bay leaves and transferred it all to a baking dish to bake in the oven for 20 minutes. I did have to add a little more stock and put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes. This dish actually surprised me. It was really full of flavor and was very hearty. Although, if I make this again, I may use chicken broth instead of vegetable stock. It seems that it would make a very nice pilaf of sorts.

Red rice with all sorts of things in it. You can't go wrong with red foods. 
Finally, I had to make some kind of vegetable dish. I felt kind of bad that the past couple of countries that I’ve cooked for didn’t include much of a vegetable dish. So, this time I went with asparagus with farmer’s cheese. I love asparagus, much to my husband’s chagrin. However, my daughter was on my side on this one. Thanks to everything that’s sacred that she didn’t quite develop his taste bud defect. (To be fair, he did try it. He gagged and almost choked up trying to swallow it, but he tried it.) I sautéed the asparagus with some onions and added a little water. Then I crumbled some farmer’s cheese on top of the asparagus and let it simmer for a few minutes. This was actually my first time with farmer’s cheese, and I really liked it. The taste was similar to that of Swiss cheese, yet it was creamier like mozzarella.

Crumbling cheese for the asparagus. Sampling cheese, more like it. 
This meal brought along its own problems as well as surprises. The country as a whole came as a surprise to me, actually. There were so many things I didn’t know about this country before I started, except where it was. There’s a certain mystique about it that makes it attractive. The city-dweller in me who is constantly connected to Facebook, Twitter, my iPhone is general, my computer, and my car can’t fathom living in such an isolated rural area (even though my hometown has roughly 950 people). However, there is a part of me that wouldn’t mind so much to get away from it all. (But maybe for only a weekend or a week. Or two. Or a month.) But what I really, REALLY wish, is that if someone wants to do a service to the global community, please post some recipes for Bhutanese bread. Don’t keep this a secret. You’ve opened up your country, and we’re interested.
The final product. A masterpiece. 

Up next: Bolivia

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Music is a very important part of Bhutanese culture. There is a very strong traditional style of music, and a popular form of music called rigsar.

Traditional folk music in Bhutan uses three main instruments: the lingm, the dramyen, and the chiwang. The lingm is a type of six-holed flute that actually has two varieties: dong lingm (which is played in front like a clarinet and about as long as one too) and the zur lingm (which is played to the side). The lingm is native to Bhutan.

The dramyen is a type of seven-stringed lute with a long fretless neck. It’s used a lot in religious music and ceremonial music, as well as in folk music. It’s played by plucking and strumming the strings. Although it may be strummed, it’s mostly played one note at a time as a melody line.

The chiwang is a type of two-stringed fiddle that more than likely was brought over from neighboring Tibet. In folk music, the chiwang is often associated with the horse.

There are several types of folk music, but the two main types are zhungdra and boedra. Zhungdra is often considered secular, but often the subject matter has Buddhist overtones to it. Boedra often includes the chiwang, and developed from Tibetan court music. A lot of religious music is chanted and not heard much by the general public. The lyrics tend to be stories about the lives of religious figures in Buddhism.

In the late 1960s, the genre known as rigsar became very popular. It has a more upbeat tempo, more local and vernacular language styles, and utilizes electronic instruments and synthesizers. And actually, they created what became the 15-string rigsar dranyen which has two bridges.  The first rigsar songs grew out of the Bollywood songs of neighboring India, and the first actual rigsar star was Shera Lhindup with the top song “Jyalam Jyalam Gi Ashi” in 1981. However, popularity began to wane in the late 1980s. After some ups and downs, rigsar music had a transformation and expanded itself to use its influences of English-language pop, Indian pop, and Nepalese music.

Music and dance go hand in hand. A set of dances called zhey and zhem are often danced at tsuchus (festivals). It’s actually considered a choreographed vocal performance, utilizing both styles of folk music mentioned earlier (zhungdra and boedra). The zhey dance is performed by men and is a little quicker of a dance, while the women dance the zhem with more flowing and fluid moves. Originally, dancers would dance barefoot without any particular costume, but only in the past 40 years or so did the dancers start wearing long gowns, headgear and the traditional boots. During the royal wedding last year, several dance troops danced traditional zheys, representing various regions of the country.

[And congrats to myself: this is my 100th post! Thanks for reading; it only gets better.]

Up next: the food!

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Most of Bhutan’s art reflects its Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. In many of its works there are various schools of art, but Buddhist themes unite them all.  In Buddhism, there are several divine beings that are revered, and each of them is attributed different colors, shapes, and objects that are associated with them.

Traditional arts have been passed from generation to generation. And certain regions specialize in certain types of arts. When the kingdom was first established, among the first items on the to-do list were the Thirteen Traditional Arts (known as zorig chusum). These are paper making, stonework, blacksmithing, clay arts, painting, bronze casting, wood/slate/stone carving, woodturning, woodworking, weaving, silver/goldsmithing, cane/bamboo work, needlework.

There are also other types of art that you’ll also find in Bhutan. Large-scale sculpture is popular, especially clay sculptures of religious images and figures. Another art form is sword making. Ceremonial swords are commonly given to those who are being commemorated for their outstanding achievements. Boot making is also especially important. It’s not only for ceremonial purposes, but the color signifies different social standings: orange is for ministers, senior governmental officials wear red, and regular people wear white boots. And since archery is the national sport, it’s no surprise that they also specialize in creating specialty bows and arrows. Depending on the season, and the type of sport and target used, different materials and designs may be utilized.  Jewelry making is also a popular art form, especially for women. Gold and silver is used in many pieces, as well as turquoise, coral, agate, and other gem stones.

Literature in Bhutan is almost all related to Buddhist ideologies. Even a lot of its written history is entwined with Buddhist history and its main players. There are actually several genres of literature in Bhutan, even though some seem somewhat similar to each other. Among these are dharma history (teachings of Buddha), religious biographies, historical chronicles, epics (like the ever popular Ling Gesar Gyalpo), folk songs, poetry (both religious and ornate), catalogues (lists of how to build dzongs [traditional style buildings], relics, etc.), and dictionaries.

Up next: Music and Art

Monday, November 5, 2012


Public holidays in Bhutan follow the Tibetan calendar which is based on lunar months, each beginning and ending with a new moon. Every two or three years, there is the addition of a 13th month, kind of like a leap year so to speak. There are also numerous local festivals called tsuchus that occur throughout the year at various times in an many different places.

Winter Solstice. 7th day of the 11th month of Tibetan calendar. It’s usually celebrated around December 21 or 22. Treated as if it were New Year’s, this holiday celebrates the shortest day of the year and that the coming days will start to get longer. The day is often celebrated with great feasts and the national sport of archery.

Traditional Day of Offering. 1st day of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar. This day usually falls in January or February. It’s a day in honor of the founder of Bhutan, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It’s celebrated with different sports such as archery, digor (a kind of game that is like a cross between shotput and horseshoes), and khuru (darts). Acts of charity and community projects are also popular activities to do in honor of the holiday.

Losar (Tibetan New Year). 1st day of the 1st month of the Tibetan calendar. It’s usually celebrated between February and March. This is a holiday that generally lasts 15 days and can be celebrated at slightly different times across the country. Like many cultures, this is a time to do a lot of cleaning in the home, getting rid of the items that aren’t used any longer and fixing broken items. It’s also a time to celebrate with a lot of food and alcohol.

Birthday of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The holiday lasts from February 21-23. This celebrates the birthday of the current King of Bhutan. In Bhutan, the king is referred to as the Druk Gyalpo, which basically means “Dragon King.”

Shabdrung Kurchoe. 10th day of the 4th month of the Tibetan calendar. It generally falls in April or May. This is a national day of mourning for the passing of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan, back in 1651.

Birthday of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.  This is celebrated on May 2. He is the 3rd King of Bhutan and was instrumental in leading the country into modernization. 

Coronation of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.  Celebrated on June 2, it marks the coronation of the 4th King of Bhutan. He is also credited with many reforms, but probably most notably for allowing access to television and Internet to its citizens. This day also coordinates with Social Forestry Day, where children all over the country are encouraged to plant trees on this day. There is actually a decree in the country where 60% of the land must remain forest-covered.

Parinirvana of Buddha. Held June 15, this is a day in honor of the nirvana of Gautama Buddha. Nirvana is the highest form of peace you can attain in Buddhism. It is also a concept – in slight variations – found in Hinduism and in Jainism.

Birthday of Guru Rinpoche. July 10. Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, is often attributed the honor of bringing Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet from India. He’s also called the Second Buddha or an emanation of Buddha Amitabha.

First sermon of Buddha: August 3. This is s holiday that celebrates the first dharma lesson that Gautama Buddha taught in the city of Sarnath, India.

Blessed Rainy Day. In September. At first thought, it seems an odd thing to celebrate, but anyone's who's been through a drought knows the importance of rain. The holiday is held during the monsoon season, and can be celebrated with as much rigor as New Year's with food, drink, sports, music, and a ritual purification through washing.

Dashain. October 6. This is one of the key holidays celebrated by the Nepalese people (as well as a Hindu holiday). During this time many people clean their homes and do any kind of home repairs with the anticipation of friends and family gathering for food and drinks and the exchanging of gifts.

Coronation of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. November 1. I saw last week that many of the tourism sites online had special promotional events for this occasion. This holiday marks the coronation of the current King of Bhutan.

Birthday of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. November 11. Initially marking the birthday of the 4th King of Bhutan, it also doubles as Constitution Day. The country’s first constitution was enacted under his reign.

Lhabab Duchen. 22nd day of the 9th month of the Tibetan calendar. Generally in November. This holiday celebrates Gautama Buddha's return to earth after his ascension to attain nirvana. On this day, some people will give special blessings to Buddha in various forms in different areas of Bhutan.

National Day. December 17. This marks the day of the coronation of the first King of Bhutan, King Ugyen Wangchuck. Many buildings and homes are decorated in flags, dragons, and the national colors or red and gold. There is a procession through the streets with a statue of King Ugyar Wangchuck, there is a large public speech by the current king at the local stadium.

Up next: Art and Literature

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Tucked away in the Himalayas Mountains, there lies a small country, isolated from the rest of the world until recently. Uninfluenced by outside effects, its ancient traditions are still very much a part of mainstream life in Bhutan. While it’s been “opened” to the world in recent years – only getting television and Internet in the past 15 years or so – the Bhutanese have been somewhat reluctant to shed its old traditions. By their own accord, they calculate their wealth by a Gross National Happiness factor instead of the Gross National Product. It’s considered by many to be one of the happiest places on earth. (Sorry, Disneyland.)

The origin of the name Bhutan is somewhat vague, and there are many theories as to its origin. The traditional etymology is stemmed from the Sanskrit word “Bhota-anta” which means “end of Tibet.” Many of the European explorers had their own names for the area as well.

Profoundly guided by Buddhist traditions and ideologies, Bhutan boasts strong sentiments towards preserving ecology and environmental issues. In fact, it has even limited the number of tourists that come into the country by imposing a fee equal to US $250 per day. For that reason alone, I’m not sure if it’s a place I’d be able to afford to go. Bhutan has many protected areas that are known for its forest cover and its rare and exotic animals. It’s actually established a decree that demands at least 60% of the country remain forest-covered. An animal called the takin – something new to me – is Bhutan’s national animal. It’s considered a goat-antelope, a type of animal that comparative to the muskox and is part of the same family that includes sheep and goats.

Bhutan, landlocked right between China and India, became the location where many Tibetans fled from religious persecution. Bhutan came in contact with the British Empire after the controlled India, and after a few skirmishes that led to a war and a treaty, it pretty much ended all ill-feelings between the two. Even after India’s independence from the British Empire, Bhutan and India have remained on “friendly country” status with each other. In fact, Indian rupees are considered legal tender in Bhutan as well as their own currency.  Indians (as well as Bangladeshis) can enter the country freely.

Their government is a constitutional monarchy, which basically means that while it is ruled officially by a king (King Wangchuck), there is also a council of ministers put in place to make other policy and administrational 
decisions. They’ve even put in place the ability to impeach the king, but no one feels it necessary to do so. 

The official language of Bhutan is called Dzongkha, part of the Tibetan language family. The writing script is the same as classical Tibetan. (I actually found a place here in Indianapolis at a Buddhist center where I could take Tibetan language classes on Saturdays.) However, English is the language that is used in education while Dzongkha is listed as the official/national language. There are many other minor languages spoken in Bhutan that include Nepali, Tshangla, Kheng, and Dzala.

The capital city is Thimphu, the country’s largest city with a population (metro area) of around 98,000. The entire country has about as many people as in the city of Detroit, Michigan. While in the past 50 years, Thimphu and Bhutan has been making efforts in expansion, but it has come somewhat slowly. They tried installing traffic lights, but the people requested that it be taken down, saying that it seemed unsightly and marred the landscape. They opted for the traffic cop instead. (It’s only one of two capital cities in the world without a traffic light: Pyongyang, North Korea being the other one.) It’s hard to believe that in a national capital, the drivers also share the road with people moving their cattle without much sign of roadrage at all. Perhaps there may be something to that Buddhist patience and happiness factors. Archery is the national sport and the city of Thimphu is the headquarters of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, headed by the king himself. Bhutan has sent several archers to the Olympics, but no medals have been won. Yet.

Even though Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure happiness, there’s a sad part there as well. Homosexuality is punishable by prison. Those who leave the country without express written permission of the government hold their citizenship at stake, and many who do become stateless refugees. The Lhotshampas (meaning “southerners” in Dzongkha) are those of Nepali ethnicity and suffer governmental discrimination when it comes to education, employment, and the ability to own land. It’s even been said that the government has forced all the people to wear the traditional dress of the majority while out in public. They’ve also imposed that Buddhist-only buildings are allowed to be erected. Only 47% of the total population is literate. Clean water and sanitation aren’t available in many areas, especially in the rural areas. There aren’t enough doctors, and there is a surprisingly high number of maternal deaths. The life expectancy at birth is only about 67 years old. And yet, despite all of this, they’re still happy.

Much of Bhutan remains untouched and unseen by outsiders. Called the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is subject to many storms that pop up out of the mountains. It’s the only country in the world that has banned tobacco. (However, marijuana grows freely. The thing is, is that no one smokes it. Rather, it’s fed to the pigs. But before you start planning your trip to “trip,” not all weed is smokable.) The purity, isolation, and mystique of this practically unknown country keeps many people vaguely even aware of its existence. Bhutan itself may be shrouded with mist from the mountains, but hopefully we can unveil its culture and cuisine this week.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations