I knew going into the Bhutan trip that there would be a few drives of three hours or more—from Thimphu to Punakha, from Punakha to Gangtey, and so on. I pictured at least a two-lane highway, if not four, and I certainly assumed it would be paved. I figured I’d use those bus rides to knit, maybe edit photos on my laptop, or sleep.
Surprise! The “highway” is bumpy, winding, and narrow—practically a one-lane road by U.S. standards. Some sections are paved; others, not so much. The road is also not for the faint of heart: a few feet from our van window lies a precipitous drop-off to the valley below. The guardrails, when they were there, didn’t offer much reassurance=—especially not the brief stretch of guardrails we saw that were made of bamboo. We passed signs announcing an “accident prone zone” and warning of “shooting rocks.”
If you could ignore the sheer cliffs below you, the views out the window were spectacular. Here’s just one example of the scenery through which we were driving:
According to the Altimeter app on my iPhone, we were at about 10,916 feet before we started our descent into the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kuh”) Valley. We saw lush green mountains and terraced hillsides, sometimes a white-water river way down below, and occasionally some snow-capped peaks in the distance. At one point on the way back from Phobjikha, we asked the driver to stop so we could get out and shoot photos of a herd of yaks.
I cranked up the ISO on my camera to about 1600 or 2000, so that I could get really fast shutter speeds—like 1/4000th of a second—which, I hoped, would negate the effect of the bouncing bus. I had just a small amount of open window to shoot out of, but eventually I figured out that I could just poke the camera out the window, point in the general direction of the vista, and fire off a few shots. I got a lot of junk, but also a few half-decent ones.
I checked the speedometer several times and it was rarely higher than 20, which I assume is kilometers per hour, which translates to 12 miles an hour. And every time a vehicle approached from the other direction, we’d slow down or even stop, so the two vehicles could safely squeeze by each other. At that rate I can understand why it supposedly takes two days to get from one end of the country to the other—a distance of only a few hundred miles as the crow flies.
Incidentally, we’ve all been impressed with the politeness of the drivers. The etiquette seems to be that when you come up on a slower vehicle from behind, you honk your horn gently, then the other driver turns on his left turn signal, as if to say, “Go for it” (keep in mind that they drive on the left-hand side of the road over here and pass on the right). Once you pass them, you honk again to say, “Thank you.” (Or, as they say in Bhutan, kardenchae la.) Almost never do you hear drivers honk their horns out of frustration or anger—honking here is a nice thing to do.
Our driver, whose name I can pronounce (SEN-tcho) but not necessarily spell, was unbelievably adept at navigating the hairpin turns—and dodging the loose rocks, the potholes, and the seemingly oblivious cows that frequently stood directly in our path.
Apparently this road, bad as it is, is an improvement over what was there before 2008. (Carolyn Welden, one of the Penn State passengers, speculates that until then it was a yak path.) The road was widened for the coronation of the Fifth King at the Punakha Dzong in 2008. Nowadays the locals refer to it as a highway, without a trace of irony in their voices.
Tina Hay, editor
We’re just back from two days in the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kah”) Valley of Bhutan, a valley that’s really more of a mountain valley: The altimeter app on my iPhone said we were above 9,600 feet. It was noticeably chillier there than any other place we’ve visited, with nighttime temperatures in the 40s, and it’s also where some of us first started to really feel the effects of the altitude. Most of us got a prescription for Diamox—a drug that accelerates your body’s adjustment to high altitudes—before we left home, and those who hadn’t already started taking it, including me, definitely started once we got to Phobjikha.
The base for our Penn State group for our two days in the “valley” was a lovely place called the Dewachen Hotel, which had the look and feel of a deluxe ski lodge, complete with the gentle smell of wood smoke in the air. Each of our rooms was heated by a small wood stove, and there was a big wood stove in the dining area. The place had electricity, too—off and on. It seemed to be available in our rooms early in the morning and after about 5 p.m. So if you had camera batteries, a laptop, or an iPhone to charge, you had to plan around the electricity schedule.
Incidentally, when you come to Bhutan, you have to bring several different kinds of adaptors. Some outlets require an Indian-style adaptor; others, the European kind.
This has also been the only hotel on the trip to have no wi-fi—though the wi-fi at some of the previous stops has been so pokey as to make me think the Comcast Slowsky turtles were in charge. Of course, one might argue that when in Bhutan, it might be a good opportunity to stay away from the Internet anyway and just enjoy being here. And for the past two days, we did just that.
While in the Phobjikha Valley we visited the Gangteng Monastery—we’ve seen a lot of Bhuddist monasteries and temples on this trip, but this one is associated with a different sect, the Nyingmapa sect. This particular monastery doesn’t receive government funding, and you could tell: Its buildings seemed more run-down, less spiffy, than the others we had seen. But we still loved wandering around its courtyards, photographing the prayer wheels and the murals, asking the monks passing by if we could take their pictures, and visiting the very ornate temple, where the monks happened to be chanting a special prayer service.
(The photo here is of the entrance to the temple, where the monks and visitors must leave their shoes before entering.)
We took a hike of 4 kilometers—about 2.4 miles—through the valley, checking out the tiny wildflowers, noticing how odd it was to encounter cows in a pine forest, photographing the sweeping vistas, and (in my case anyway) gasping for breath at times in the mountain air.
In a few days we’re scheduled to hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a long and steep trek that’s the highlight of any trip to Bhutan, and I sure hope I adjust to the altitude by then. At the very least, I hope to make it halfway up, to the cafeteria area, which I’m told affords some pretty sweet views of the iconic monastery clinging to the side of the mountain. But others in our group are fully intending to hike the whole way to the top.
Tina Hay, editor
The local currency in Bhutan takes a little getting used to. It’s spelled Ngultrum, which I struggle to pronounce, but luckily the locals just abbreviate it to “Nu,” which is pronounced like “new,” or more accurately, something like “nee-YOU.”
The Nu is pegged to the Indian rupee, so if you’re comfortable with the rupees-to-dollars exchange rate, you’re all set. Unfortunately none of us on the trip are conversant with rupees.
The exchange rate is about 54 Nu to the U.S. dollar, or so says the Oanda currency app on my iPhone. In reality it’s a little lower than that—and, interestingly, it depends on what kind of U.S. dollars you’re exchanging. Our tour director from Odysseys Unlimited, whose name is Yeshey, took us to the currency exchange in Thimphu to get some local cash, and we found that 50-dollar bills and larger denominations get something close to the 54-Nu figure, while 20s get more like 48 Nu. I’ve also heard that the crisper and newer the bill, the better the exchange rate. Yeshey had to sign the paperwork for each of us, apparently to verify to the bank that the U.S. money we were trading in was’t counterfeit.
The exchange rate makes things look really expensive over here, when in fact they’re not. At the handmade-paper place, for example, we bought packets of three or four notecards plus envelopes on lovely textured paper for about 250 Nu, or about five bucks. I can get a can of Diet Coke—where available—for about 100 Nu, or two bucks. The iPhone app has come in very handy in the local shops.
If you take a look at the photo above, the topmost bill is 1,000 Nu, or about 20 bucks U.S. Pictured on the bill is the country’s 33-year-old king, referred to as the Fifth King, who is revered around here—as was his father, the Fourth King. The Fourth King is still alive; he abdicated to his son in 2006, in part to accelerate the growth of democracy in the country.
The Penn State travelers, by the way, are all pretty impressed with the efforts of the kings to introduce democracy into their kingdom over the past few decades. Bhutan currently has both a king and a prime minister—and you may be familiar with the prime minister: Jigme Thinley ’76g, a Penn Stater. Actually, he’s referred to around here as “the former prime minister,” as the country is in the middle of elections and those currently in office had to step down from their positions in order to run for reelection.
The second bill in the photo above, worth 500 Nu, shows a photo of the dzong we visited in Punakha. And the bottom bill, worth 5 Nu (about 9 cents in U.S. money), shows the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastery, to which we hope to climb on the last day.
Incidentally, the money over here is all currency—no coins, for some reason.
Tina Hay, editor
Greetings from Punakha, a city of about 30,000 in western Bhutan. It’s the former capital—Thimphu is now the capital—and is still the spiritual capital of the country. I’m a little fuzzy on what qualifies a city to be the spiritual capital, but I suspect I’ll have a better grip on that after we visit the dzong (kind of a combination of fortress and palace) later today.
Here’s just a sampling of what we’ve done in our first few days over here:
—visited a school where Bhutanese teenagers spend six years learning any of 13 handcrafts, such as woodcarving, painting, sculpture, and embroidery;
—visited a small factory where workers make paper by hand from the bark of the daphne plant;
—went to the post office to browse (and buy some of) the fancy stamps that Bhutan is famous for;
—eaten a lot of foods that I can’t pronounce, but that involve things like red rice, river grass soup, mustard oil, and green chiles;
—seen lots of Buddhist prayer flags and smelled so much incense I thought we were back in the ’60s; and
—hung out for an evening with the country’s chief elections commissioner, who happens to be a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80.
I’ll share a few photos with you for now, and hope to update you more in a few days, when we get to a spot that has better wi-fi access. First, to give you a sense of the scenery, here’s what awaited us when we landed at Paro airport (Bhutan’s only international airport) the other day:
That’s an Airbus operated by Druk Air, the national—and only—airline of Bhutan. If you click to enlarge the photo, you can see that on the tail is the national flag, the emblem of a dragon.
Next, some of the students at the painting school. Check out the guy on the left—apparently the occasional bout of boredom in the classroom is a universal phenomenon:
Something we noticed from the moment we landed is how thoroughly Buddhist a country this is. Prayer flags are everywhere, and when we visited the Memorial Chorten (a large Buddhist shrine in Thimphu), you could see people like the guy below, walking around twirling their prayer wheels:
After a couple of days in the capital city of Thimphu, we headed off to the Punakha Valley, a three-hour ride over a bumpy, narrow, mountain road that is essentially the national highway. It’s the only road between Thimphu and parts east. Here’s a glimpse of what it looked like out the front windshield of our maxi-van:
By the way, people drive on the left side of the road over here.
After our stay here in Punakha, we head to a city called Gangtey, where we’re told the electricity will be a little hit-or-miss. I’m guessing that Internet access will be out of the question. Other than an upcoming post about the local currency, it may be a few days before I can post again. Talk to you then.
Tina Hay, editor
Right about now, the Penn Staters who are signed up for the Alumni Association’s “Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom” trip are making their way to airports in order to begin their journey. Some are flying out of Dallas; others out of JFK; and I’m at Dulles. Regardless of the gateway city, we all have the same itinerary, and it’s probably not one that you’d expect.
We’re all flying on Emirates Air, and our first stop is in Dubai. It’s the easternmost green dot on the map above, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Why that’s our hub, I don’t know—I only wish we had a longer layover there. I hear the airport is very cool and upscale, and the downtown is even more fascinating; among other things, it’s the home of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (remember Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol?). But we only change planes there, and then it’s off to Delhi, India. By the time we get to Delhi, it’ll be late afternoon on Tuesday, local time—and from checking the weather forecast, I see that it’ll be 102 degrees. Much better than the highs of 111 I see predicted for next weekend.
Anyway, after spending the night in Delhi, we’ll head back to the airport in the morning, this time to board our flight on Druk Air—the Bhutanese national airline—to the city of Paro, home of Bhutan’s only airport.
Oh, and I’m told the plane makes a stop in Kathmandu en route to Bhutan. So let’s just recap: Dubai, Delhi, Kathmandu, Paro—pretty cosmopolitan, huh?
The thing I find interesting in the map above (click on it to see an enlarged version) is our flight path. It takes us pretty far north before dropping down across Europe and into Dubai. That’s because that’s the shortest distance between the two points. It has to do with the shape of the Earth and with geometry, trigonometry, and something called “Great Circle navigation.” And that’s pretty much everything I know on the subject.
When I fly, I’m always torn about whether to choose a window or aisle seat. The flight from Dulles to Dubai is 13 hours (!!!), so I requested an aisle seat—I like the freedom to get up regularly and stretch my legs, and just the thought of 13 hours pinned against the window makes me claustrophobic. But I hate to think what scenery I might be missing by not being near the window. Often there’s a window in the very back of the big planes that I can go peek out of from time to time.
But on the flight from Delhi to Paro, I’m hoping for a window seat. It’s a fairly short flight, 90 minutes I think, and I can’t begin to imagine how gorgeous those Himalayas will look from the air.
Incidentally, Paro is one of the more difficult landing approaches in the world. The pilot has to make a couple of relatively quick turns and then, after the last left turn, has to straighten out in a hurry to hit the runway. There are lots of videos on YouTube showing how it looks from the pilot’s perspective; the one below was shot by someone standing on a nearby hillside, and it’s fun to watch.
Depending on the Internet access in Bhutan—some of the hotels do have wi-fi, for example—I’m planning to Tweet a lot of updates and photos throughout the trip. Follow me on Twitter (@tinahay) or “like” our Facebook page to hear about our adventures.
Tina Hay, editor
Of the 32 members of the board, the governor appoints six. He nominated Casey to take the slot formerly held by Michael DiBerardinis, whose term expired last June 30. Corbett had nominated Casey back in October, but the senate—which must confirm the appointment—didn’t act on the nomination last fall, so Corbett renominated her this past February. Yesterday, the senate unanimously approved her—although one senator, John Yudichak 93, ’04g, immediately issued a statement saying the nomination should have been shelved until the General Assembly can address “the many issues with board governance at all of our state-related institutions.”
Casey majored in foreign service and international politics as an undergrad. She’s currently senior adviser for Patomak Global Partners, a D.C.-based firm that provides consulting on regulatory affairs, risk management, and compliance. Previously, she served a five-year term as a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission (President Bush appointed her to that role in 2006), and was staff director and counsel to the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate.
I wrote a bit more about the gubernatorial appointees on the Board of Trustees, including who the others are and when their terms expire, here.
Tina Hay, editor
When I tell you that I’ll be leaving in less than a week for Bhutan, I’m guessing you’ll have one of two reactions: either “Where the heck is that?” or “I am sooooo jealous.”
Those have consistently been the responses I’ve gotten when I’ve told people that the Alumni Association has asked me to accompany a group of Penn State travelers on a tour called Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom. Some people, understandably, have barely ever heard of the place—it’s a small, landlocked Asian country, bounded on the north by Tibet and on all other sides by India. Others, though, know that its location in the Himalayas makes it a place of stunning beauty, and that its Buddhist history and culture make it a fascinating place to visit.
Bhutan has added interest to Penn Staters because its prime minister, Jigme Thinley ’76g, earned his master’s in public administration from Penn State. Thinley was featured in a 60 Minutes segment five years ago on Bhutan and its vision of “Gross National Happiness,” a concept puts such qualities as sustainability and cultural values ahead of economic development.
My colleagues in the Alumni Association who put this trip together (it’s one of about 30 or 40 trips they’re offering this year) had hopes that perhaps our group would be able to arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Thinley. But as it turns out, he’ll be in the thick of campaigning for reelection at the time we’re over there, so we’re not holding out a huge amount of hope for a get-together. Interestingly, Bhutan’s chief election commissioner is also a Penn Stater: Kunzang Wangdi ’80g, who also has his MPA from our College of the Liberal Arts. We have possibly a better chance of meeting him, which would be pretty cool.
The trip involves visiting some of the country’s historic sites, including a lot of dzongs, or Buddhist monasteries. There’s also a rafting trip on the Mo Chu River near Punakha (that’s OK—I never heard of it either), a visit to a place where paper is made by hand, a visit to a center honoring the sacred and endangered black-necked crane, and a trip over the Dochula Pass, described this way on our tour itinerary:
Then we embark on the three-hour drive to the former capital of Punakha via the Dochula pass (alt. 10,000 feet), which affords stunning views of the Himalayas. We stop to follow the sacred tradition of raising prayer flags for peace and wisdom at Dochula, where the bracing winds will help spread the prayers’ spiritual power to all sentient beings.
The big finale of the trip is a hike up to Taktsang Monastery, also called the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That’s the building clinging to the side of the mountain in the photo at the top of this page. It’s a two-hour hike with a nearly 2,000-foot elevation gain, from about 7,500 feet to more than 10,200 feet. I’m currently trying to tame a bout of plantar fasciitis (heel pain), so between that and the altitude, this oughta be interesting. But I’m determined to hike to the top.
I may try to blog a bit from over there, as our schedule permits. I’ll be curious to see what kind of Internet access we have. There’s one place, for example, about which the itinerary says: “Phobjikha is slowly being electrified, though service can be highly inconsistent. Please be aware that the availability of both electricity and hot water may be limited during our stay.” Hmmm, what do you think are the chances they’ll have wi-fi?
Tina Hay, editor
Our new art director started today. We think you’ll like him a lot.
His name is Marc Kauffman and he comes to us after 20 years at Rodale Publishing, one of the most successful publishers of consumer magazines in the country. Since 2007 he’s been deputy art director at Runner’s World, which has a circulation of 700,000—a bit more than our 130,000! He also spent time at Backpacker magazine (associate art director) and at Camper magazine (art director). We’re pretty psyched to have snared someone with his experience, his talent, and his cheerful, collegial demeanor.
Below is a gallery of some of the work he showed us from his portfolio when he came up here to interview. He struck us as being especially good at “concept photos” and at infographics, plus he has a great Rolodex—not that anyone has actual Rolodexes anymore, of course—of photographers and illustrators he’s worked with. He’s eager to get started on our next issue, and we can’t wait to see how he makes us better over time.
A word of thanks to Nina Ovryn, a New Jersey-based freelance designer who has been our interim art director for the past three issues, including the May-June issue that just went into the mail today. Nina did a terrific job for us, and we’re really grateful to her.
Tina Hay, editor
Here’s a sampling of Marc’s work at Runner’s World:
I had a blast this past Saturday morning, speaking to about 130 Penn Staters at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
It was the latest in the Alumni Association’s 2013 City Lights series, in which Penn Staters can hear a fun presentation in a cool setting. (Two programs remain in this year’s series: Chip Kidd ’86 on May 9 at the Manhattan Penthouse, and Marc Brownstein ’81 on May 25 in a mural-arts trolley tour around Philadelphia.)
On Saturday I got to be the featured speaker, and I gave attendees an illustrated look at what we do at the magazine. I talked about what goes into our decisions about the cover, explained how we’ve approached our scandal coverage over the past 17 months, showed them a few humorous mistakes and outtakes from past issues, and gave them a preview of the May/June issue. I also put some past Penn Stater covers on the screen and quizzed them about the covers, such as, “Name this football player who was on the cover in 1976,” with prizes for correct answers.
We all had a great time—both the audience and me. I really can’t remember an audience that was as much fun as this one. They laughed at my jokes (thank you!) and they had plenty of questions for me in the Q&A session, questions ranging from “Are you considering an iPad version of the magazine?” to “What kind of pressure have you gotten from the university administration or trustees about your scandal coverage?”
A really interesting moment for me came when someone asked me to explain what I meant when I said that the Alumni Association has one foot in the university and one foot out. I talked about how our executive director, Roger Williams ’73, ’75g, ’88g, reports both to a university VP and to the all-volunteer executive board of the Alumni Association—and that either entity has the power to remove him from his position. The murmurs from the audience told me that people hadn’t realized that before, and I got the sense that they suddenly understood the balancing act we’re constantly performing.
Related to that, someone asked how the Alumni Association is funded, and I explained that the university gives us building space, legal services, physical plant services, and the salaries for some of our positions. Everything else—operating dollars, the rest of the salary funding, the cost to print and mail the magazine, you name it—is funded by the Alumni Association, through things like member dues, our Bank of America credit card, and so on. I said, “I don’t think we’d serve all of you [alumni] as well if we were entirely funded by the university,” and heads nodded like crazy in agreement.
On a lighter note, my colleague Deborah Marron ’78, ’86g, who emceed the event, made a point to tell us all to check out the Newseum restrooms. On the walls are a collection of humorous newspaper headlines and corrections, like this one:
And this one:
And this one, my personal favorite:
After the brunch, and my presentation, the attendees got to go tour the Newseum on their own, which (along with the brunch beforehand) was all part of what you got for your City Lights ticket. If you’ve never been to the Newseum, you should put it on your list for your next visit to D.C.
Meanwhile, I’ll be speaking next on April 25 at the Penn State Connecticut Valley‘s spring banquet in Hartford, and the following night at the Mid Hudson Valley chapter in Poughkeepsie. If you happen to live in the area, it’d be great to see you there.
Tina Hay, editor
To describe him merely as a designer of book jackets is pretty inadequate—something I discovered some years back when I was speaking to a group of Lion Ambassadors and telling them about some famous Penn Staters. I said, “And then there’s Chip Kidd, probably the world’s foremost book-jacket designer,” and they all looked at one another as if I had scraped pretty far down the barrel to come up with that one.
But the reality is that he’s pretty much legendary in the design world, and that in his career at Alfred A. Knopf he’s worked with some big-name authors (including Michael Crichton, John Updike, and Oliver Sacks), and that he’s a terrific speaker—not only inspirational but also funny as hell. If you’ve got 17 minutes to spare, watch his 2012 TED talk and you’ll see.
Anyway, I went out to the Penn Stater conference center last week to hear Chip speak at the Forum Luncheon, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m not going to try to give you a comprehensive overview of his talk, but here are a few nuggets:
—He referred to his more-than-25-year career at Knopf as “technically, still my first job out of school.”
—He summed up his philosophy of design in a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Better.”
—He showed the evolution of some of his book-jacket designs and talked about the many layers of people who have to approve the design. He was surprised that his design for Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye (shown here) wasn’t shot down by the reps who would be out selling the book: ”All it takes is one sales rep to say, ‘It looks like O. Liver Sacks,’ and it’s dead.”
—Someone asked where he got his loud striped jacket. “Four British schoolboys gave their lives so I could have this jacket,” he answered. “Well done, lads.” (Actually, he said, he saw it hanging in the window at a Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.)
—He talked a lot about the education he got at Penn State, and one piece of advice from Lanny Sommese, head of the university’s graphic design program, stood out for me: ”Lanny taught me that the better you understand a problem, the closer you are to the solution.”
—Asked if he ever met Julia Child (one of the authors Knopf published), he straightened his shoulders and said, proudly, “I once got Julia Child a Diet Coke.”
—He talked about two upcoming projects: One is a book about design for kids, the other is a book version of author Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech, a commencement speech last year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. And Kidd quotes a thought from Gaiman’s speech that really jumped out at me. It’s about freelance designers, but it applies to all of us in the working world, I think:
People keep working, in a freelance world … because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
Kidd talked about the challenge of turning a graduation speech into a book, especially when you can already watch the speech on YouTube or read a transcript of it online. But, judging from the images he shared from the book (which is due out in May), I suspect it’ll do just fine.
One of Chip Kidd’s next speaking engagements is an Alumni Association “City Lights” event in New York City on May 9. Information about that is here.
Tina Hay, editor