Posts filed under ‘Alumni Association’
We’re just back from two days in the Phobijkha (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 Phobijkha.
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
The Penn State Coaches Caravan wraps up Thursday with stops in DuBois and Pittsburgh, but I’m back in State College today—both to get caught up on my magazine duties, and because my daughter’s fifth birthday is something I’m not about to miss. So Wednesday was my last day, and a great one, starting out in New York City and wrapping up in Scranton. In between, we made time for a brief stop in East Rutherford, N.J.
East Rutherford, of course, is home to MetLife Stadium, home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets since 2010. On Aug. 31, MetLife will host Penn State’s season opener against Syracuse, and on Wednesday, those of us on the bus got a quick tour. It’s an impressive place, and it looked especially cool with those Nittany Lion logos on the massive HD screens in each corner of the field (click the photo to enlarge and get a sense of the scale). It’s gonna look even better filled with blue and white in a few months—and yes, game tickets are on sale now.
Penn State fans with relatively long memories should be especially excited about the game, which harkens back to some successful season openers in the old Kickoff Classic games held at Giants Stadium, which stood right next to where MetLife stands now. I have great memories of tailgating in the parking lot before the ’96 win over Southern Cal, and of course, there was that famous demolition of defending national champion Georgia Tech back in 1991.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
I’m writing this from Dickson City, where we’ve arrived for the Wednesday night stop on the Penn State Coaches Caravan. It’s a huge turnout—close to 1,000 people, I’m told—coinciding with the annual scholarship dinner held by the Alumni Association’s Greater Scranton Chapter. Watching folks file in, I can tell you the volunteers manning the door tonight will have their hands full. I can also tell you that’s been the case at every stop along the way.
In addition to the Alumni Association and Nittany Lion Club staff—whose efficiency at setting up and breaking down every one of these events I’m in awe of—the volunteer members from local chapters have played a huge role in the success of the Coaches Caravan. At the Allentown stop on Tuesday, Charles Adomshick ’59, Tom Newell ’85, and Richard Garber ’59 (above) were among the Lehigh Valley chapter members who handed out name tags, directed guests, and answered questions. Mostly, though, they just seemed to be having fun connecting with other Penn Staters.
From Reading to Baltimore, Williamsport to NYC, fun in familiar company seems to be the theme. Last week, I met Naomi Williams ’06, who serves on the executive committee for the African American Alumni Organization of Philadelphia, and who was in her second year volunteering at the local Caravan stop. For Williams, it was a chance to network, trade stories, and catch up on Penn State news—but mostly, she said, “just a great time.”
Ryan Jones, senior 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
So I’m sitting on the back of this bus, rolling through suburban Maryland, listening to a couple of guys talk sports.
In general, I don’t really enjoy listening to other people talk about sports—I abhor the shouting and cliches of sports talk radio, and unless the subject is a team I really care about, I’m probably not interested anyway —but this is a little different. These guys have great stories. These guys know what they’re talking about.
Cael Sanderson and Bill O’Brien spent Thursday morning trading stories as the Penn State Coaches Caravan rolled from Washington, D.C. to Lancaster, and I was lucky enough to be sitting a few feet away. We’ve had a different coaching combination on each leg of the trip—Tuesday it was O’Brien and Pat Chambers, who are famously close, swapping tales about recruiting and rival coaches. Wednesday brought Sanderson to the mix, and with Chambers back home in State College on Thursday, Penn State’s football and wrestling coaches were talking shop.
As a lifelong sports fan, and as a sportswriter for most of my career, I find this all to be very, very cool.
The details are all very much off the record, of course, but what I can tell you is how much fun it’s been to watch these guys interact. There’s such an obvious mutual respect between them, and it comes across most clearly in how they listen to each other. With Sanderson and O’Brien in particular—despite having very different personalities and working in arguably polar opposite sports—you could sense a genuine interest in learning from each other. Since arriving at Penn State, O’Brien has spoken repeatedly of how much he enjoys interacting with his fellow coaches. He pretty clearly means it.
I was bummed to learn that Coquese Washington (who joined the Caravan on Wednesday) and Russ Rose (who arrived in time for the Lancaster stop Thursday morning) wouldn’t actually be on the bus; in both their senses of humor and their coaching acumen, both would have added much to the conversation. As it is, I consider myself lucky to be able to listen in; Penn State fans should consider themselves lucky to have such capable men and women in charge.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
One of the unexpected highlights of tagging along on the Penn State Coaches Caravan has been the chance to run into old friends. Last year in Baltimore, it was Katy Whalen ’09, who was a student a few years ago when I taught a section of Comm 462, and who was nice enough to tell me that, honestly, she had no idea it was my first teaching experience. (She might well have been trying not to hurt my feelings, but I’ll take it.) Tuesday night in Philadelphia, it was Stephen Bogush ’91, ’94g, my old Penn State football teammate.
Well, sort of.
Back in 2006, Bogush—a Philly-area anesthesiologist—and I were fellow campers at the very first Penn State Fantasy Football Camp, which I covered for The Penn Stater. I got to meet his wife, Mary Tillman ’94g, and Bogush and I reminisced about the terrific experience at the inaugural Fantasy Camp—the laughs, the array of “old-man” injuries, the rush of getting to play on the Beaver Stadium turf on a glorious summer day. John Lagana ’62, who if memory serves was the senior member of that first fantasy camp, was there as well.
I ran into a few other old friends and acquaintances Tuesday night—always great to see my fellow soccer fanatic and occasional tailgating partner Brad Youtz ’96—and made a few new ones as well. While the coaches understandably remain the draw—as well they should: Bill O’Brien and Patrick Chambers were at turns impassioned, thoughtful, and hilarious on Tuesday’s stops at Penn State Berks and in downtown Philly—it’s a blast to see so many Penn Staters come together on the road. I’ve already heard from a few folks on Twitter who I’m looking forward to meeting or catching up with on upcoming stops. Hope to see you there.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
I didn’t expect to be re-joining the Penn State Coaches Caravan this spring. That’s mostly because I didn’t expect there to be another Penn State Coaches Caravan.
Last spring, I rode the bus on the first week of the inaugural caravan, the multi-state bus trek designed primarily to introduce Bill O’Brien to Penn State fans. It was fun but tiring, much more so for O’Brien, who made the three-day trip over three consecutive weeks, speaking to 18 rooms full of eager Nittany Lion fans and shaking more hands than he could ever hope to count. When it was over, I got the impression that O’Brien viewed the trip as well worth the effort—but not something he was in a hurry to do again.
I’m glad I was wrong. Next Tuesday morning, we’ll board the customized Fullington Trailways bus for the first of two caravan legs. O’Brien will once again be the main attraction, and he’ll be joined at various stops by fellow coaches Cael Sanderson, Russ Rose, Coquese Washington, Patrick Chambers, Mark Pavlik, Char Morrett, and Guy Gadowsky, a group with a slew of Big Ten and national championship rings between them. Why is O’Brien once again hitting the road? I think he remembered the energy in those rooms, the loyalty and passion of all those Penn State fans, and signing up for the sequel was a no brainer.
If you’re within driving distance of one of these stops and haven’t signed up—what are you waiting for? You can find all the registration details here. The Penn State Alumni Association and Nittany Lion Club are once again sponsoring the caravan, and I can vouch for how seamlessly my colleagues from the Alumni Association events staff kept things moving last year.
Me? I’ll once again be blogging and tweeting from the road, bringing you exclusive insights from O’Brien and the other coaches on the bus, and sharing highlights from each stop. Hope to see you there.
Ryan Jones, senior editor