The 100 year-old magazine article that changed the face of an American university

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

One of the most exciting parts of learning about Bhutan has been an odd, wonderful gem I learned from some people, ironically, here in Los Angeles.

The late architect Kurt Meyer and his intrepid wife Pamela Deuel Meyer kindly clued me in to the fact that the University of Texas El Paso is built entirely in the style of Bhutanese architecture.

It’s all because the wife of the provost of the school at the time, then named the Texas School of Mines, was reading this article in the National Geographic 100 years ago, poetically titled Castles in the Air.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits "next door" in India.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits “next door” in India.

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas--without realizing it

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas–without realizing it

The British explorer John Claude White offered a peak inside the Kingdom that the world, certainly not the west, had ever seen before.  88 pages of photographs made on plate glass, that somehow managed to make it out of Bhutan on horseback.

Tantalized by the architecture and this mysterious Kingdom in the clouds, Kathleen Worrell pushed her husband to model the school he ran after this unique place—long before any tourists could ever imagine visiting it.

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You have to look awfully close, at the center of this photograph, to see the hermit house

Used to be, if you wanted to see that article, you had to plunk down a pretty penny for a back issue, or find it at a library, or in someone’s dusty old collection.  Not as of today.  The good folks at National Geographic have published it online, photographs and all.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

If you are at all interested in Bhutan, its history, or UTEP, or the impact of a magazine article to inspire someone half a world away, you must read it: here.

And here’s my piece about the unique connection in the LA Times.

UTEP calls itself "Bhutan on the Border" (of Mexico, of course.)

UTEP calls itself “Bhutan on the Border” (of Mexico, of course.)

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“A hopeless situation:” writer Prajwal Parajuly visits the other side of Bhutan

Author Prawal Parajuly's new book is The Gurkha's Daughter

Author Prawal Parajuly’s new book is The Gurkha’s Daughter

This is a reprint from a story originally published on the Bhutan News Service.

Prajwal Parajuly’s father is Indian, his mother is Nepalese and he himself is entirely a citizen of the world.  Educated in the US state of Missouri, this not-quite-30-year old attended Oxford, and lives in both England and New York.  He is already considered to be one of the best writers of his generation.

His new book of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, is about the modern Nepali condition from a variety of perspectives, from Bhutanese refugee about to be resettled from the Nepali camps to wealthy widow and her wicked relationship with her young servant girl.

This is an interview I conducted with him via email for the Bhutan News Service, after reviewing his book for the publication, The Aerogram.
Q: You were born several years before the banishment of people of Nepalese descent from Bhutan.  Do you remember how (and when) you became aware of the situation?

PARAJULY: I had some sense of the goings-on, but it was only much later that I realized the enormity of what had happened. I had no clue that there were more than 106,000 people being herded out of Bhutan’s borders like they were cattle; I was under the impression the number was a lot lower.

71Nq8eh5b0LI visited some of my mother’s relatives who lived close to the International Organization for Migration building in Damak, Nepal, and that’s when my curiosity was first piqued. I started reading up on the issue, and it was a revelation. After that, I decided to visit the refugee camps in Nepal. Still unsatisfied, I visited Bhutan.

Q: Where did you go when visiting Bhutan and what were your general impressions?  How did people react to your ethnic heritage there?

PARAJULY: I went to Bhutan in the summer of 2010. It was interesting– on the surface, everything seemed lovely. Get people to drink a little, and the stories come tumbling out. The Nepali-speaking people have been scarred. They live in fear. It’s tragic.

Q: What was your experience in the camps?

PARAJULY: Oh, yes, you don’t want to visit the camps. You just don’t. Besides the poverty, the terrible living conditions (I say this despite being someone familiar with poverty in South Asia), the constant fear of their lives and dignity being threatened, what’s heartbreaking about the camps is the issue of the people there being non-contributing members of society for close to two decades. Imagine that—no job, nothing to look forward to, living the same life for days, months and years. It’s horrible.

Q: What made you want to treat the situation in your story, No Land is Her Land?  Have you met people like Anamika, the main character in your story?

PARAJULY: Anamika came about because I wanted to write a strong woman into the story. But strength has its limits. Anamika has been through a lot—just like many women who lived in the camps for years. I did come across women similar to Anamika. They are everywhere—in Denver, in Vermont, hiding in Assam, and in Aberdeen.

Q: Your story deftly covers the complexities and deep emotion of the situation. While Anamika feels “if her country didn’t want her, she didn’t want it back.” she still allows her children to learn Dzonghka in the hopes they might be repatriated.  And then there is the issue of her estranged, opportunistic Nepalese husband who reappears so he, too, can be resettled in the US.  Do you feel that this is an issue that will ever be resolved?  Sometimes I think that the new generations will bring fresh perspective on it, and other times I feel a bit hopeless.  You?

PARAJULY: I feel it’s a hopeless situation. I don’t think it’s an issue that can be resolved. The best Bhutan can do is – I hope it’s okay for me to invoke the death of a person who’s responsible for so many deaths – to hope for the fourth king, under whose watch the ethnic cleansing happened, to die and for the current king to apologize about what happened. He could also allow those who want to return to go back. I doubt there will be very many people wanting to go back. Hasn’t all their land been reallocated, though? That’s the best the country can do–that’s how sad the situation is. But it doesn’t need to worry about that. It invented Gross National Happiness. Hurray.

Q: Do you think India could have or should have played a role in the Nepalese situation, given how important an ally they are to Bhutan?

PARAJULY: Yes, I think India could have played a role. I think India could have put a stop to it all. Why it decided not to intervene is beyond me. Perhaps because it didn’t want to alienate the one true ally it had in the region?

Q: Why is it important for non-southeast Asians to learn about the region, do you think? It’s hard to explain the situation to people who aren’t familiar with, or don’t care about, that part of the world.

PARAJULY: I think it’s time we realized there’s more to this beautiful kingdom than Gross National Happiness-the last Shangrila-this is a peaceful Buddhist state claptrap, there’s a country that has gotten away with far too much. The Western world is too focused on Syria and Gaza and Sudan to worry about what went on in Bhutan.

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30 years ago today: The massacre at McDonald’s in San Ysidro

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Inside Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, where many of the 21 victims were memorialized

 

You can see Mexico from just outside the hilltop of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in San Ysidro

You can see Mexico from just outside the hilltop of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in San Ysidro

It’s been very challenging, but I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about the massacre thirty years ago at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California.  The anniversary of that awful day is today.

In March, I visited the site to talk with people who were involved with the enormous task of helping the community to heal.

Sadly, mass shootings in public places have become something that’s become all too common, but back in 1984, it was a shocking event that gripped the nation.  At the time, it was the worst such massacre in our nation’s history.

The sculpture erected on the site of the former McDonald's in San Ysidro, now a community college.

The sculpture erected on the site of the former McDonald’s in San Ysidro, now a community college.

The names of those killed by the gunman, James Huberty.

The names of those killed by the gunman, James Huberty.

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The former site of the McDonald’s where the massacre took place is now a community college

There’s a strong Joan Kroc connection here, which is the reason for my interest: Mrs. Kroc helped the families of the victims’ in an important, and compassionate way.  She gave the initial donation to the victim’s fund, to help those who couldn’t pay for burials and other expenses associated with lost income.  Then, she spent time in the border town visiting with the locals to hear their stories.  You wouldn’t necessarily expect an heiress to go mingle with poor, despondent people.  But that’s the kind of person Joan Kroc was.

She was even, controversially, compassionate toward the widow of the gunman, James Huberty, who had (unsuccessfully) sought counseling the day before he went on the rampage and took so many lives.

Sharing photos today of the place in memory of the people who died, and to remind us how the underlying issues of mental health and gun control are ones that have been part of the public dialogue for some time–with very little progress made.

After much public outcry, McDonald's agreed not to re-open on the site of the tragedy, but instead set up shop up the street

After much public outcry, McDonald’s agreed not to re-open on the site of the tragedy, but instead set up shop up the street. The corporation donated the land of the original site to the city.

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Compassion Cards: An innovative way to help the hungry

Artwork by Jim Hodges

Artwork by Jim Hodges

Reader Rebecca Strong of Seattle wrote this week to share a wonderful idea she’s been enacting when she sees people on the street asking for money.  I asked if I might abridge her email for this blog, and she agreed.  This is something we practice here in Los Angeles, too.  Just as it feels great to feed someone you love, so too does it feel great to give a meal to someone you don’t know—who needs it:

“I wanted to be compassionate, but I was uneasy about giving out money because, as a petite, middle-aged woman, I was uncomfortable opening my wallet to hand out money when walking alone in the city. I wanted to help people buy food or other necessities, but I worried that money might be used to buy drugs and alcohol. At the same time, I didn’t want to judge anyone as being more or less likely to buy drugs and alcohol, or more or less worthy of receiving help from me.

I asked my favorite Real Change vendor who sells his papers outside the Walgreen’s in my neighborhood for advice. (Real Change is a newspaper and organization that exists to provide opportunity and a voice for low-income and homeless people in Seattle.) He told me about one very cold morning when he was homeless and hungry. A man he did not know offered to buy him a hot breakfast. Together they went to a supermarket. Standing before a case of hot food in the deli, the hungry man chose what he wanted to eat, and the kind stranger paid for it. The man remembered every detail of that meal, and he said it was the most delicious food he had ever eaten. His suggestion to me was to purchase gift cards for restaurants like McDonalds and give them to the people on the streets who ask for money.

Since I don’t eat in fast food restaurants myself, and since I wanted to give people who might prefer healthier options the ability to choose their own food, I came up with the idea of giving supermarket gift cards instead.

So now I regularly purchase $5.00 gift cards from local supermarkets and food co-ops, and I keep them in my jacket pocket. Whenever I encounter someone out on the street who is asking for money, I offer a card. I explain that it is a gift card worth $5.00 to buy food. Most people are surprised, delighted, and grateful to receive a card for buying food. It seems to me that these gift cards are an ideal way to be compassionate towards people who have no money to buy food.

In my own mind, I call the supermarket gift cards I give out Compassion Cards because they allow me to be compassionate towards the needy people I encounter in the city. When I give a Compassion Card to someone on the street, although it is a brief encounter, it is a meaningful experience. It is an opportunity for me to offer help and for someone to receive my help in a personal way. It is uplifting for both of us.”

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A sacred thangkha, commissioned by the 8th Dalai Lama, on rare display

-1On Friday, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena will open an exhibit called In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas.  The centerpiece of this show is a majestic thangkha, 300 years old, 22 feet tall and 16 feet wide, that was commissioned by the 8th Dalai Lama for his tutor.  You must see it in person to believe it.

Click here to read and hear the story I did for KCRW about the history of this rare piece, which has only been shown twice in the last 40 years (and not much before that.)  The curator, Melody Rod-Ari, does a beautiful job of explaining how the thangkha was made, and why it’s relevant–and powerful for your karma.

There are other Buddhist artifacts on display, too, but they are dwarfed, literally and figuratively by the scroll and its unusual display.

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Land-of-Snow-Full2

 

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Opera in Bhutan

The remote kingdom of Bhutan boasts distinctive traditional music and culture, which the government has long been committed to preserving (lest it be watered down or eliminated by, say, the incursion of contemporary pop music.)  Which is what makes this partnership between opera-lovers and the kingdom particularly interesting.  Led by a team from Rome, these classically trained Western musicians staged an opera (Handel’s Acis and Galatea) in a historic setting in Bhutan this past fall.

ImageClick on this link to see a short video by filmmaker Tao Ruspoli (who happens to a descendent of a patron of Handel’s) about their recent historic efforts.

 

 

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Bhutan: Cheaper to visit than NYC?

My friend (who is a tour operator) Lotay sent me this story this morning declaring the Kingdom of Bhutan cheaper to visit than, say, New York City.  That is….if you don’t use a pricey tour operator (if you’ve ever investigated, you’ve found that some charge a thousand bucks a day for a visit.)

Of course, there’s no other comparison between Bhutan and NYC–two radically different places in every way, especially as far as vacation destinations!  And depending on where you’re coming from, you have to factor in airfare, which can be considerable.  But it’s a good point not to be scared away by the “tourist tariff” Bhutan charges (and a nice plug for Lotay’s services.  He’s a swell guy, by the way.)Image.

The mention was on a list from a blog called Compass and Camera.

 

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American dream becomes nightmare for Bhutanese refugees

My friend TP Mishra wrote this article for the Wall Street Journal about the issue of suicide among resettled refugees.  It’s an important issue.  (Meanwhile, the suicide rate inside Bhutan is up at an alarming rate, as well.)  

http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2014/01/07/american-dream-becomes-nightmare-for-bhutanese-refugees/

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Chain Reaction: St. Joan and the Fast Food Fortune

ImageNew year, new topic: Although not that new, to me.  I’ve been immersed in my research about Joan Kroc for two years now, and am ready to ‘come out’ and talk about it, just as I delve deeply into the writing of my book about her.

ImageOn Saturday, January 18th, please join me at the beautiful Insight LA center in Santa Monica, where I’ll tell the story of this remarkable woman’s connection to an art work just blocks away–which inspired me to dig into her backstory, and how she became one of the greatest (and least-recognized) philanthropists of our time.

Details, click here

 

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Phajoding, Bhutan

…is a very special place in a land filled with special, beautiful places.  The photographer Jesse Montes captures this monastery, perched in a sacred spot, particularly well. (And you can read more about it here.)

I let my mind go back to scenes like these whenever the stress and sensory demands of the city are overwhelming.

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