Archive for the ‘Richard Kurin’ Category

Deeply Moving Senegal: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

***

We crossed much of the African continent flying into Senegal, seeing both the richness of the landscape and the horizon-filling flat plain of the Sahara Desert.

Dakar is the capital of Senegal, the former capital of French West Africa and still the thriving cosmopolitan city of the region. It has grown huge since I last visited some two decades ago, the charming old French colonial quarter overwhelmed by the urban expanse. But development under this long-lived democratic government seems to have taken hold—as we saw new, modern, well-built roads, good housing, schools, public buildings and markets and a wide variety of amenities. We settled in at our hotel on Dakar’s peninsula which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Our big visit was to Gorée Island, a short ferry-ride from Dakar’s port.

Travelers dancing to a Senegalese beat

Travelers dancing to a Senegalese beat

We were welcomed to the island by a percussion band whose rhythms and beats were infectious. Social dancing in Senegal is commonplace. Though the country is some 95% Muslim, the orientation of the multi-ethnic population is quite ecumenical and tolerant. Music and dance are ingrained into cultural traditions and even used by various spiritual brotherhoods. Men and women, Senegalese and American joined in, and soon our whole group was moving with the beat. The music helped create a strong communal feeling among us, and between us and our Senegalese hosts, and I couldn’t help but think about our initial drum circle with Mickey Hart back in Seattle at the start of the trip. There are simply things, like music and movement, that bring people of diverse backgrounds together as human beings.

Gorée  is a tiny island, settled by the Portuguese and then used by the French; its colonial buildings, church and layout are all very charming, until you realize that for some three centuries this island was used as a way-station in the slave trade.

A choir performance at the House of Slaves

A choir performance at the House of Slaves

We visited the incredibly evocative House of Slaves. Here was the building in which 150 or so slaves at a time where kept in cells, chained and auctioned, and then shipped out through a “door of no return” onto slave ships sailing for the Caribbean and the Americas. A choir of teenage girls and boys sang hymns, familiar to many, and set the mood—both somber and uplifting. It was here in this building that man’s inhumanity to his fellow man reached its crescendo. At Gorée, and similar way-stations like it, scholars estimate that some 20 million enslaved Africans were separated from their families and their homes, walked through similar doors of no return and shipped across the seas. Again, as in Rwanda, though we were much affected by the history of the place, we celebrated with the Senegalese the resilience of those who survived—both in the Americas and in Africa. As Gorée now reminds us, the shackles of slavery were eventually broken.

Peering through the Door of No Return

Peering through the Door of No Return

We visited the various museums and artisanal workshops on the island, bargained at its market, enjoyed a meal and the ballads of a local griot—or singing storyteller.

Playing the Griot on Goree

Playing the Griot on Goree

As the group headed back to the hotel, Johnnetta and I broke away for meetings with the Senegalese Ministers of Culture and Tourism. We reviewed with Minister Mbaye the history of Smithsonian programs with Senegal, including a landmark 1989 program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as the current efforts of our National Museum of African American History and Culture to cooperate with Senegal’s Musée de l’Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) on the archaeological heritage of slavery on Gorée. We are also involved in initiatives to help train professionals in museological work.  Our meeting with the Minister of Tourism is a special treat, for the incumbent is Youssou N’Dour, the famed world music star. He is very interested in encouraging educational, cultural tourism to Senegal and working with the National Museum of African Art and the Smithsonian in doing so.

Dr. Kurin with Cole and Youssou N’Dour

Dr. Kurin and Johnnetta Cole with Youssou N’Dour

The evening program included a wonderful briefing by Kristin Stewart, the public affairs officer from the U.S. Embassy and a film and discussion with Senegal’s most prominent sculptor Ousmane Sow. The National Museum of African Art has one of his most important sculptures as a signature piece in its collection—Sow’s rendition of Haitian independence leader Toussaint Loverture comforting a freed slave. It is a remarkable sculpture, and Sow captures the emotion of the moment in his larger-than-life mud-sculpted figures. He’s a charming and delightful creative soul, and he joined the group for a fabulous dinner and engaging conversation demonstrating by word and art how he uses African history, tradition, and its very soil to mold aspirations of future and universal value.

Ousmane Sow with our Smithsonian travelers

Ousmane Sow with our Smithsonian travelers

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Rwanda: Renewal in Rwanda: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Renewal in Rwanda: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

***

Flying from the arid and flat Rajasthani desert to the vegetative and volcanic Rwanda provides a strong contrast. Fertility in Rwanda is apparent up and down the hills surrounding Kigali, its capital, through the river valleys, and up along the slopes of its mountainous terrain. The rich black and deep red soils host deeply planted life.

The life-embracing environment of this land-locked country makes it all the harder to imagine the horrors inflicted here starting in April 1994, when, in a crazed 100 days, more than one million were slaughtered in a devastating, politically–induced, genocide.

The people we meet are all so nice, so humane, and so determined not to forget the genocide—when Hutu were set against Tutsi and other Hutu—but to draw lessons from it in what appears to be a national resolve to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. We visit the Genocide Memorial Center on a hillside in Kigali. Tens of thousands are buried under huge mass graves here. It is a beautiful, peaceful site that belies the terror with which so many men, women and children faced their deaths. The museum is masterfully done, exploring the roots of the conflicts in Rwanda and the region, the politics of colonialism and nationalism, the racism fostered within the population, and the evolution of the genocide itself. Exhibits compare what happened here to the Holocaust in Europe, Armenian, Cambodian and Balkan genocides as well. Our local guide points herself out in an exhibit photograph. She was only a few years old when it was taken. She and her family had sought shelter in a church when it was attacked, bombed and set afire. Luckily, she survived, and she reveals her scars—memories burned into her skin to show it.

The mass grave at the Genocide Center

The mass grave at the Genocide Center

What impresses all of us is not the scale of man’s inhumanity to one’s fellow man, but the ability of our guide and everyone else we meet to move forward with determination and grace, even forgiveness, and build a better future.  The resilience of the human spirit is amazing to behold, especially among people who have gone through so much.

A couple of young Silverback gorillas playing together

A couple of young Silverback gorillas playing together

Almost all the group journeys up to the northwest of the country, up into the Virunga Mountains and Volcanoes National Park on the boarder of Uganda and the Congo to see the mountain gorillas. Once reduced to under 500, they too have made a comeback and their number is on the increase. This is the area and the species made famous by the work of Dian Fossey. Fossey started out a primatologist, minutely observing the gorillas and seeking to understand their physical adaptations and forms of social organization and learning—which could provide insight into the roots of human action. Fossey did that, but she also became a conservationist, concerned about the survival of this magnificent species threatened by poaching, the encroachment of farm land, diseases spread by human contact and environmental degradation. Her work has inspired scores of others to study and preserve the gorillas and their environment, and now, because so many local folk benefit from the revenue tourism brings in—from trekking and performances, they have a strong stake in the gorilla’s survival.

A dance performance at the Mountain Lodge

A dance performance at the Mountain Lodge

Our group splits up into different lodges and in the morning sets out in groups of eight with guides, porters and trackers, to find “families” of mountain gorillas. Each family has an alpha male—a silverback gorilla, who leads the group, several attached mature females and child apes as well as other males—some of which split off to try to form their own groups or challenge the leader.

Silverback Gorilla

Silverback gorilla

After receiving our briefings about how to act in the presence of gorillas, we drive a Land Rover on a nearly un-passable rocky path to a fence that divides the tri-country gorilla reserve from adjacent farmland. We are led by men who cut a trail through the bamboo and jungle growth with their machetes, and accompanied by others with rifles. We move in single file up the slope of Mount Gahinga—whose peak at over 12,000 feet we cannot see given the foliage. Our pace setter is a vigorous 83-year old fellow traveler. Our trackers have been following the family of gorillas we seek and lead us to them. Luckily, our trek takes us less than an hour. Others have to walk three and four hours. But, all of a sudden, in a clearing we see first an adult male, then two females with their young, and then lumbering into a clearing comes a silverback weighing some 450 pounds.  Eventually, ten gorillas are a hands-reach from us, eating, playing, sleeping. We whisper; we do not eat nor make fast moves. Instead, we are all reverential, feeling privileged in the church of nature that we can share time with these beautiful and alluring creatures. Watching them is simply awesome. And the experience affirms again that we perhaps best realize our humanity when we see life is a treasured gift.

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from India: “Culturally Rich India: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Lisbon and Home: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

***

The flight up the west coast of Africa was instructive. Inland, to the east, lay the vast Sahara. The coast hosts even now, evidence of numerous forays by 15th century Portuguese navigators to sail around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and onto India. Those same voyages led to the settlement of islands on the Atlantic horizon—Cape Verde, the Azores, and Madeiras—and beyond, the “novo mundo,” or new world, of the Americas.

Lisbon, Portugal’s capital reflects the heyday of what became a world-stretching empire that included Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa, Macao, and Timor. It was seafaring that gave Portugal its wealth and ecumenical traditions in its cuisine, decorative arts, and music. Much of this is reflected in the Museo Medeiros e Almeida which we visited for our last group dinner. The astounding collection in a former private home, now a museum, includes an altar room, cabinets of watches and time pieces, King Louis furnishings, Dutch and Flemish masters, blue and white tile and Chinese porcelain, Persian carpets, and other treasures from around the world.

Cocktails at the Museo Medeiros e Almeida

Cocktails at the Museo Medeiros e Almeida

The ecumenical bent is also reflected in Portugal’s music—notably Fado. While the genre has roots in medieval Iberian tradition, it largely took form in the early 19th century around Lisbon’s port neighborhoods. It is a seafarer’s music, short poetic ballads filled with soulful longing. Fado means “fate” or “destiny,” and it is easy to understand how the uncertainties of sailing, of being away from home and family, and facing the unknown influenced the style. Typically performed by either a man or woman accompanied by a guitar and classical Portuguese lute, this musical balladry developed in bars, taverns, houses of prostitution, and other such establishments. It was also influenced by Portugal’s encounter with colonies such as Brazil and Cape Verde, where the musical and lyrical sensibilities of their sailors and workers melded with those of the Portuguese. By the late 19th century and certainly in the 20th, Fado gained increasing respectability and was professionalized—performed in restaurants, recorded, heard on radio, then television, and subject to study, elaboration and increasing theatricalization.

A Fadista performance

Our youthful fadista, during our Fado performance

Now Fado is Portugal’s “national music,” and we witness a fine performance interlaced with our dinner. The tunes are both melancholy and heartfelt—kind of like combining the blues with country and western music. But our youthful fadista, or songstress, entranced the group, and we enjoyed the spirit of our dinner together.

Our flight home to Washington, D.C. includes a final exam that Johnnetta and I have composed for our travelers—based upon more than a dozen in-flight formal lectures, all of our visits, informal presentations and so on. This is a group of high achievers, and everyone “passes.” The spirit is good—TCS & Starquest have done a wonderful job with the logistics and coordination; our Thompson Air flight crew has kept us steady, safe, and comfortable in the skies as we logged more than 29,000 miles on their jet.

As we headed home, I and others reflected on the trip. Just maybe it was Mickey Hart’s drum circle that got us off on the right note, but our group became more than just an agglomeration of 70 individuals—we became a community of sorts who traversed the planet and together shared a wonderful experience of the world. We got to know and appreciate each other. People looked out for one another. We each, staff and travelers, not only carried out our roles, but went beyond them in forming endearing friendships. It was a joy to be part of this.

We also learned a few things on the journey. The world does indeed host an extraordinary range of cultures which provide insight into the ways of how to be human. Everyone can gain insight and draw inspiration from each other. At the same time, there are ways of being humane—some of which may be deeply ingrained, others which have to be learned through difficult, sometimes horrific experience, that people everywhere can aspire to. In our journey, we were received and treated extraordinary well by Japanese, Balinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Indians, Rwandans, Senegalese, and Portuguese; our group returned that welcome with a great deal of cultural appreciation for those we met and encountered. That kind of mutual respect is a pretty good recipe for succeeding on our shared planet.

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Senegal: Deeply Moving Senegal: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Culturally Rich India: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Monday, April 8th, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

***

I first visited India in 1970 as an aspiring anthropologist, and have spent much time there in subsequent visits over the decades. Yet every time there is a fascination and allure of a immensely rich culture and complex society—no less so this time as we arrive in Jodhpur, an oasis in the midst of arid Rajasthan.

We stay at the Bhawan Umaid Palace, the home of the Maharajah of Jodhpur, a great supporter and collaborator of the Smithsonian—having recently loaned us several dozen historic paintings for a groundbreaking exhibition, Garden and Cosmos, that opened at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, and subsequently traveled to the Seattle Art Museum, the British Museum, Sydney, Australia, and the National Museum of India. We are greeted by my Smithsonian colleague Johnnetta Cole, the Director of the National Museum of African Art, who will join us for the African final leg of the Around the World trip.

A peacock keeps watch at the Palace

A peacock keeps watch at the Bhawan Umaid Palace

The palace, now a Taj hotel, is a marvelous structure, built in the 1920s and 1930s as a public works project to employ Jodhpur’s citizens and artisans. It is designed in an art deco style combining traditional elements of Rajastani architecture. Covered walkways, rectangular and symmetrical features with a central dome and towers, a beautiful garden and outdoor pavilion, and signs indicating “mardana” and “zenana”—men’s and women’s areas, recall the region’s traditional heritage.  The palace is decorated with historical photographs of the Rathore family’s ancestors who ruled Mewar-Jodhpur—stretching back to the early 13th century, but also including those of the British Raj, and polo players outfitted in what came to be called “jodhpurs.” A favorite for us on the grounds are the numerous peacocks—gracefully strutting about, but also flying up to the palace parapets.

Our group breaks off in varied directions—touring the palace grounds and museum, visiting handicrafts, gem and carpet merchants in town, and exploring the historical Mehrangarh Fort that once housed the maharajahs and served as the city’s defense.

Our second night in Jodhpur takes us to Bal Samand, another of the Maharajah’s palaces exquisitely located adjacent to a desert lake. There the Maharajah and his family, the Maharani and his daughter join us for an explosive performance of Rajasthani and Indian culture orchestrated and choreographed by Rajeev Sethi and his team from the Asian Heritage Foundation. I worked with Rajeev in organizing the Festival of India at the Smithsonian in 1985, and subsequently with a program on the Silk Road with Yo-Yo Ma and others for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002. Rajeev is India’s foremost sceneographer—a designer of hotels, airports, world’s fair pavilions, museum exhibitions, fairs, festivals and cityscapes. His life’s work has been to utilize the resources and talents of India’s artisans and performers in contemporary ways so they can evoke the best of their heritage while also finding new, beneficial uses for it—educational, aesthetic, and financial. He is aided by Navina Jafa, a former Smithsonian and Fulbright Fellow who studied with me and is also a classical dancer.

Smithsonian travelers with the Maharaja, Rajeev Sethi and Richard Kurin

Smithsonian travelers with the Maharaja, Rajeev Sethi and Richard Kurin

At Bal Samand Palace, all of the men in our group are festooned with turbans; the women receive henna designs on their hands. Rajasthani Langa and Manganiyar musicians serenade the group, with love songs emanating from deep in their soul, accompanied by drums and castanet’s as the Kalbeliya women then take up their spinning and twisting gyrations in the most sensual of ways.

It is to be an evening celebrating the renewal of Spring, creativity and fertility. As we make our way along the palace’s grounds we are entertained by a kathak dance performance. Then, one after another, Lavani dancers from Maharashtra burst forth in an exuberant display of erotic energy, followed by akhara stick fight dancers demonstrating male prowess, and then masked drama chhau dancers enact the mythic victory of gods Shiva and Parvati over demonic forces. Then, hardly turning our heads, we are in the midst of a crèche-like tableaux of Radha and Krishna, along with Peacock dancers and then folk dancers of Madhya Pradesh, with the tolubomlatta shadow puppets, magicians, turban tiers, lac makers and potters and berupiyas—imitators of monkeys demonstrating their amazing artistry. As we are led in a wedding procession, I recognize a few performers with whom I’ve worked over the years.

Just when we think this living, rotating, moving display is over more bursts forth—a Bollywood extravaganza arises on the roof of a palace pavilion; on the ground we are treated to the trick romantic imagery of mela, or Indian fair photographers who have set up booths for us. The sensory overload does not stop with performance and demonstrations, for we are greeted with the aromas and then the tastes of a startling feast of Indian foods for an outdoor dinner. And just as we bite into morsels of tandori chicken and shrimp, acrobatic dances of from India’s far northeastern province entertain us, as does the turbaned Rajasthani Manganiyar Swarup Khan the winner of the popular television singing show, “India’s Idol.”

Acrobatic dancers entertain our world travelers.

Acrobatic dancers entertain our world travelers

We conclude the evening with an exhibit of Jiyo—a project celebrating its third anniversary and dedicated to bringing handmade, hand woven, beautiful creations—from fashion and quilt textiles to baskets and ceramics, from tiles and wall paper to jewelry to market for the financial benefit of artisans and the cultural benefit of long-lived Indian civilization. A final acrobatic whirlwind of performance closes out the night—as we return—sensorily exhausted and aesthetically overwhelmed from the experience. We left the next day, with admiration for India’s modern progress, but also for the tremendous reservoir of talent, artistry and culture it possesses in charting the future.

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Bhutan: Happiness in Bhutan: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”

Happiness in Bhutan: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin

Monday, April 1st, 2013

richard-kurinDr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S. Read More»

Dr. Kurin is currently leading a group on an around-the-world tour of some of the world’s extraordinary cultures and will be sending regular updates from abroad. Come back regularly to follow along!

***

Dispatch #6: Happiness in Bhutan

Though a fogged-in airport in Katmandu delayed our departure to Bhutan, we arrived safely in the beautiful Himalayan Royal Kingdom.

Our group split into two, staying at hotels in the Paro Valley, each enjoying a good meal and a stimulating lecture. My group stayed at the Ziwa Ling, built in the style of Bhutan’s wooden decorated buildings, and participated in a session on Gross National Happiness by Kempo Tashi, a Buddhist scholar and the head of Bhutan’s National Museum. Gross National Happiness is the government’s national policy, initiated by the former king, to remove barriers to enlightenment among its people by encouraging cultural and environmental preservation, improvement in the quality of life—through education, economic progress and so on, and accountable, efficient government. It is an intriguing way of thinking about policy goals rather than just in terms of per capita income or strictly utilitarian measures. We had many questions and a lively discussion.

The group was greeted at their hotel by a local dance

Local dancers greet the group at the hotel

Again, splitting into smaller groups, an adventuresome lot took on the challenge of climbing up to Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest, a Buddhist monastery perched at 10,000 feet along a mountainside. Aside from its religious significance, the monastery is an impossibly beautiful logistic and architectural marvel, now on the list for a proposed World Heritage Site. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava, who first brought Buddhism into the region meditated in a cave at the site in the 8th century. An elaborate monastery was built in the late 17th century, and after a terrible fire in 1998, it was renovated in 2005. Though the climb is tough and challenging, a good number of our colleagues successfully make the arduous climb and take in the astounding site of the Paro Valley laid out before them.

A Solitary Monastery in Bhutan

A solitary monastery in Bhutan

Others head for Thimphu, the kingdom’s capital city and the largest town—now about 100,000 in residence. The drive takes us along the Paro River and then northward up the Thimphu Valley. Gorgeous countryside, with mountains, terraced rice fields, and native-style homesteads and Buddhist sites greet us.

Stupa in Thimphu

A stupa in Thimphu

In Thimphu, we visit sites—a stupa and shrine, the Post Office—which produces the most amazing stamps in the world, and the bazaar. I take a small sub-group to government offices where we have a private meeting with Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. I have known Thinley since we worked together on the Bhutan program for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival years ago. He’s been in office for five years—having been the first democratically elected head of government since the kingdom transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. He’s now running for re-election and reflected on Bhutan’s progress, its issues and challenges. The discussion was excellent, and members of our group came away impressed with his knowledge, wisdom and perspective and what it said about the quality of Bhutan’s leadership.

Smithsonian travelers with the Prime Minister of Bhutan.

Smithsonian travelers with the Prime Minister of Bhutan.

We followed this up with a visit to RENEW, a project to help women suffering domestic violence. The project provides counseling, temporary residence, and job training. Again we were impressed with the straightforward, compassionate and thoughtful problem-solving approach explained by the director and her staff. With TCS Starquest, we donated to the center a new refrigerator, which had been at the top of the project’s request list.

At lunch, some of the group discussed elections, social issues and other matters with Dorje Tsherling, Bhutan’s director of culture. We found interesting comparisons between the U.S. and Bhutan.

Smithsonian travelers with the Prince of Bhutan

Smithsonian travelers with the Prince of Bhutan

In the evening, the whole group came to the Ziva Ling for a special dinner, where we hosted His Royal Highness, Prince Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck. The young prince had led the Bhutanese delegation to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008. We had a spirited dinner conversation. He is now heading Bhutan’s Olympic Committee and seeking to have his country compete in a number of both winter and summer sports. As a 28-year old, he is attuned to the thinking of Bhutanese youth and their aspirations for the country. The Prince graciously greeted and spoke with every person at dinner, hearing their impressions of their quick visit, and urging them to return. Everyone heartily agreed.

A Glimpse of Mount Everest from the Sky

A glimpse of Mount Everest from the sky

Early the next morning we head out for Katmandu and India. On the way, we get a special treat. The sky is relatively clear at 30,000 feet, and we are able to see the high peaks of the Himalayas, including Mt. Everest. After a truly wonderful, enlightening visit to Bhutan, we are on top of the world!

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Find more information about our Around the World Private Jet trips here.

Read Dr. Kurin’s previous dispatch from Katmandu: Quickly Exploring Katmandu: Around the World with Dr. Richard Kurin”