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SKYLAR HANSEN-RAJ ’20
(third from left) The highlight of the trip was when we met the queen mother (center) in a shopping mall.
#ChoateMoment of My Life Skylar Hansen-Raj ’20 KUZUZONGPOLA! That’s how you say hello in Bhutan’s national language. It is also the first word we learned when we arrived in Bhutan, after our guides greeted us with tashi kahdar – long white scarves that promise safe returns back home. It was the perfect start to our journey, because this compassionate hospitality followed us to the last day. From the warmth of the queen mother all the way to the generous shopkeepers, everyone was welcoming, open, and kind. This summer was Choate Rosemary Hall’s first program in Bhutan. Located between China and India, and bordering with Tibet across the Himalayas, Bhutan is remote. I had no idea what to expect before we arrived. As soon as I stepped off the plane in Paro, I could immediately sense the air was different – it was so pure and clear, courtesy of the seemingly neverending trees on the mountains surrounding us. I was astounded by how beautiful and green the landscape looked. Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, because all its carbon emissions are absorbed by its abundant forests. The preservation of these forests can be traced back to the fourth king who, besides implementing the Gross National Happiness program, also declared that 60 percent of Bhutan’s forests must be protected. As a Conservation Proctor on campus, I was eager to learn new ways of encouraging sustainability within a community. We met with several environmental conservationists including Dr. Karma Tshering, who recommended first spreading awareness, because “education about environmental issues is vital to creating change.” We also visited Bhutan’s biodiversity center, where we studied the process of preserving and documenting seeds essential to rural villages’ food supply. During our last days in Paro, we were able to contribute our own impact on the country by planting trees outside our hotel: saplings that will one day grow into cypresses and bottlebrushes. One of my favorite memories is from our last day in Punakha, when we hiked to a stupa dedicated to the fifth king. Because the fifth king was born in an unlucky year, the stupa was built to house 108 deities to ward off evil and bad
luck. The hike itself was breathtaking, filled with lush rice paddies and plenty of friendly cows. We climbed to the roof of the stupa and were rewarded with a wonderful view of the city and river. After a picnic lunch, we went rafting, and although the journey was more peaceful than thrilling, it offered a great scenic view of the riverbank. I felt truly at peace. On the last day of our trip, we made the six-hour hike to Tiger’s Nest, a monastery nestled into the side of a sheer mountain cliff. The hike was long and brutal and exhausting. But the view of the beautiful monastery gave me the strength to push through. The best part of Bhutan, however, was the people. We met so many fascinating and passionate people from all walks of life: government officials dedicated to creating change, student leaders taking initiative within their schools and communities, a musician dedicated to preserving Bhutan’s culture, our wonderful soft-spoken bus driver, and countless monks and nuns devoted to education and self-exploration. The highlight of the trip, though, was when we met the queen mother by chance in a shopping mall. We patiently waited until the queen mother herself approached us and asked us where we were from. When we responded Choate, she immediately lit up and exclaimed, “Choaties!” Her son, Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck ’03, graduated from Choate. It was the best #ChoateMoment of my life. I was astounded by the generosity and wisdom of the people we met. Their willingness to share their stories was moving. For me, the biggest takeaway from our experience was being able to connect with people in a place that had originally seemed so different from my own home country. Skylar Hansen-Raj ’20, from San Mateo, Calif., is one of six Choate students who participated in a Global Program to Bhutan this summer. The program used MyBhutan, a travel company run by Matt DeSantis ’03 and Brian Partridge ‘02.
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