I just got back from a trip to Bhutan, a small Himalayan country located between Nepal, India and Tibet. Bhutan is ruled by a beloved 5th generation monarchy, that aims to preserve their unique culture while still cultivating happiness. In fact the country builds their foundation on Gross National Happiness, not Product.
And despite the evolutions of the modern world, all new architecture in Bhutan must be built in traditional Bhutanese style. There is a 100% tax on any car importation to help keep traffic congestion at a minimum, and there is a cap on import of cigarettes for personal use. If you travel to Bhutan as an outsider, you are not permitted to roam free. Every westerner must be accompanied by a government sanctioned guide.
This is not how my husband and I usually like to travel. As a New Yorker, my husband likes to be in command of his destiny. He's also really into food and researches any restaurant well in advance. A bad meal is just poor planning, and dinner is almost always a destination or event. We are very active, making the most out of every minute, and we are prepared to turn on a dime if things aren't what we want them to be. Like many Americans, we are pretty good at shaping our desires into reality.
But then we got to Bhutan, and had to throw all of our typical travel expectations out the window.
In Bhutan, the meals were all pre-set meaning, you didn't order from a menu. Every lunch and dinner was the same: plain white rice, sautéed veggies in oyster sauce, and mystery chicken stew. The few nights we finished dinner in fifteen minutes, from start to finish. We weren't drinking alcohol, so there was no reason to hang out in the hotel restaurant. We usually arrived at dinner hungry and looking forward to eating, but the seemingly rushed experience sent us back to our room, feeling disappointed.
We usually ran out of things to do and see by around 4pm every day. We hiked and saw temples and evidently, seem to walk around faster than the average tourist. In one small town, we found ourselves with the choice between sitting in our room, or wandering a riverbank amongst a herd of cows, with trucks roaring nearby. So we ended up back in our room.
We are not great site-seers. We like to experience a place like the locals do — eating the food, meeting people and experiencing the customs. We also prefer to be in nature more than cities to escape the hustle and bustle of life in NYC.
But this is not what Bhutanese tour guides have in store for you. They show you every temple, dzong (fort) and official site, including the capital's zoo, complete with every official national animal — like the legendary cross between a cow and goat.
So what happened?
We initially met the above realities head on with straight up western resistance. At one point we insisted that we spend two of our days trekking and hiking instead of temple hopping, with hopes this would expend our energy. But otherwise we were locked into the itinerary that was set for us.
And then, something incredible happened. We adjusted. Without fifty plus choices about everything we ate and did, and without a packed schedule filling every minute, the space to just be took over, and started to feel strangely natural.
We watched movies on the computer in bed every night, something we never have time — or make time — to do at home. We traded the iPad back and forth and read, or found books left behind in the hotels and read those. We came to appreciate reading things we never would have chosen in the store.
We went to bed early and got up early, falling into the natural rhythm of the place. We started appreciating the nuances of the food, the variations in the flavor of the sauce or the way the vegetables were cooked, or the unexpected presence of greens. Gluten- and dairy-free were mostly out the window for the week, and we stopped caring that our small meals weren't always enough to satisfy our hunger.
We took a traditional Bhutanese hot stone medicinal bath, and stayed sitting in the water filled with camphor leaves for the full 45 minutes, completely content with no rush to get out.
Our communication with each other even got better. We both have a tendency to become fixated on work, and logistics of day-to-day life like the dog and the house can become rocks that weigh down the energy of our conversation. We got more expansive and present, and made each other laugh over small things. The social media moratorium helped too.
By the time our last day came, we were sad to leave. At first we had actually wondered if the trip was going to be too long! We felt so clear, calm and grateful.
Bhutan is unlike anywhere else in the world. What appears uniform is, I think, a lack of choice that fuels the national happiness quotient they often talk about. Everyone we met, from old women working in the fields to barefoot monks and tour guides, greeted us and each other with huge smiles. They may not have everything, but they mostly have what they need, and we by extension got to experience what we needed too.
I realized that I don't need some of the things I thought I did to be happy. I don't need to go to yoga class, or have my meals always be delicious and balanced, or to always make the most of every minute of the day.
I don't need endless choices, or the pressure to always make the best choice.
What I do need is to go to bed early and wake up early. I need to laugh with my husband about nothing. I need simple, clean and satiating food. I need time away from computer screens and to spend a good part of my day moving my body. I need to be out in nature.
Thank you Bhutan for helping me see these things. I wouldn't have asked for them otherwise, but sometimes in life you get what you need, not what you want. This is the secret to perfect happiness.