By: Samantha Lasher
Fall of my junior year was the semester that I finally decided to seriously look into studying abroad. I had just switched my major to Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and was ready to go on an adventure and expand my world. One day I got an email from my advisor about the School of Field Studies. After anxiously researching the website, I found a 6 week trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan called Himalayan Watersheds and Livelihoods. My next thought was where in the world was Bhutan? Africa? Asia? Turns out, it is nestled between Nepal, India and China and has a small population of 700,000 people. The birthplace of Gross National Happiness. Surrounded by the magnificent Himalayas. I knew this was the place. I would get real research experience while seeing a completely diverse area of the world.
I got accepted to the program on Christmas Eve and spent 6 anxious months waiting for June. Finally, the day had come and I said good-bye to my family and headed to Los Angeles before connecting to Hong Kong then to Thailand and then to Paro, Bhutan. I arrived in LA and realized my checked bag had not made it. I talked to the travel agent and he had no idea where Bhutan even was. I started panicking and was in tears because I NEEDED my bag. But, I pulled myself together and knew that my bag would get there somehow and got excited to meet all of the other students. Everyone was so friendly and equally nervous and excited as I was to get there. Once we had boarded the plane, all of my stress and anxiety lifted off my shoulders and I was finally ready to dive head first into my new life for the next 6 weeks.
When friends and family ask me about my time spent in Bhutan, it’s hard to think of words, or even one word, to sum up my experience. Words like “amazing,” “unforgettable” or even “life-changing” don’t seem to be accurate. It was more than that.
Bhutan has the friendliest and happiest people you will ever meet. The homes and cities are nothing like American cities. There are no suburban neighborhoods, no stoplights (except for one in the capital city of Paro) and hardly any paved roads. Even the richest of people live in what Americans may consider low quality homes. They have very few possessions and most do not own cars. While talking to locals, usually students my age, everyone was interested in visiting America and other places around the globe, but not one person wanted to live anywhere but Bhutan. They had loving friends and family, a close knit community and everything they needed. Most of my friends, including myself, have extreme wanderlust and want nothing than to leave home for a while.
Not only were the local people of Bhutan fantastic people, but so were the other students in the program and my professors. Each person had their own struggles and insecurities that came with them. Living in tight quarters and seeing them all day, every day allowed everyone to open up and expose their true selves. It was inspiring to see the kindness everyone spread all whilst dealing with daily battles. Specifically, I found a true friend in a girl named Sophia. We became the closest of friends in only 6 weeks and both of us were taken aback because we usually don’t open up to new people so quickly. Maybe it was the Bhutanese air or because we saw each other every day, but either way, I came away with a best friend.
The main focus of this program was to gain real research experience in regards to global environmental issues. We were able to choose a topic that was either a biophysical or social/economic issue. I chose a biophysical issue which was studying biodiversity in a nearby community forest. I was so happy! I would be able to trek through beautiful green rainforests and collect plant samples for four days. It doesn’t get much better than that. We all tirelessly worked writing proposals trekking through forests, interviewing families, writing our papers, creating presentations and presenting to staff and Bhutanese government officials, with the staff advising us through it all. It was a whirlwind two weeks!
It was one of the most satisfying academic experiences I have ever had though. I picked a topic, I collected my own evidence and I knew the ins and outs of what I was talking about. I wasn’t using someone else’s research and I felt confident answering anyone’s questions. I was a real life scientist, for two weeks at least. Our four days of evidence collecting may have not been completely reliable, but it was a start to understanding the vast unknown areas of this region.
I had the amazing privilege of experiencing all of this on top of trekking through forests that are straight from fairy tales, playing soccer with the locals at 11,000 feet, making friends with the stray dogs, eating way too many chiles and cheese, catching the worst stomach flu, viewing life and people in a brand new light, wearing the gorgeous traditional dress called the kira, running around with Bhutanese kids, cherishing Buddhist values and creating the best memories of my life thus far.
Also, if anyone was wondering, my bag did eventually make it, after a week of wearing the same shirt and pants.