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Hmmm.    One sets off to the remote country of Bhutan with a certain amount of excitement:  the thrill of a new place, the limited availability of visas to even visit, researched images dancing in the brain, possible interactions with a relatively isolated culture.    But most of all, my trip was intended as a creative exercise in capturing happiness.

Teenage school group touring the Dochula Pass (16,000 ft) in Bhutan

Bhutan, known for decades as a place that measures Gross National Happiness, has been studied in documentaries and books and scholarly dissertations over and over.   But what does that mean?    

In the hubbub of getting ready for the trip and normal, day-to-day life, I had not properly researched the topic.   I was a sitting duck with dreams of easily capturing laughing and smiling faces everywhere.    Now I already have a propensity for capturing people in everyday activities, especially markets or public gatherings of all sorts.   I’ve always gravitated toward older faces or children – both generally oblivious to observers.   Seemed like an easy task.

We were scheduled for only four days/three nights in the country, so I knew to not miss a magical moment.    Day one was a late afternoon arrival effectively eliminating much photographically.   Day two took us to the national capital and a number of definitively tourist spots on a national holiday (Coronation Day honoring the current King’s coronation eight years ago.)    We visited their Capitol building, a temple/monastery, a nature preserve and the worlds fifth largest Buddha statue holding 24,000 smaller buddha’s inside on three levels of temples.   But, happiness?    Hmmm. 

Had a conversation in the van with our knowledgeable guide about how happiness is measured.  Officially the country measures happiness based on the four pillars:   Good governance, preservation and promotion of culture, conservation of environment, and sustainable development.   In practice, this means every five years they personally survey every home in the country to gauge success.   “The most important is good governance.   No corruption.   There must be good governance to have shared equally the welfare for all.”   Well, nertz.    That wasn’t really going to help me capture happiness in photographs was it?  

One of a bazillion posted images of the King of Bhutan
with helpful messages for the public good..

(Not to get all political but I am an American.   I managed to interrupt and ask if they answer honestly during the government survey visits.   “Of course, the King commands us to be honest at all times.”    Well now.   My Pollyanna approach to life doesn’t exactly extend that far.   Highly unlikely, for instance, that I would sit long for a complete survey of my life to the government nor, for that matter, do it because the King/President tells me too.   BUT, complete monarchical socialism it totally working for them so who am I to say it doesn’t?)

By the third morning, I saw the desk clerks at our hotel hanging out and asked them if I could capture them “being happy”.    “Of course, Madam.”    And I caught exactly the sort of pic you can see anywhere in the world when you ask older teens to pose.   Sigh.    I thanked them and dejectedly turned away but got called back by one of them.   “Madam, perhaps clicking happiness IS happiness.”   Whoa.  How refreshing.

The wise young desk clerk in Thimpu, Bhutan

I spent the next few hours driving through gorgeous countryside and mulling his comment.  And once I turned my head around, I realized happiness is what I have been capturing for decades.  Maybe it’s the Peanuts-slogan version expanded to include contentment, routine, feeling safe, being in one’s own element. 

While there still weren’t many images captured that day for my mission, I was more conscious and intentional and observational.   It wasn’t until the final day in country, when the rest of the group went to traipse up a vertigo-inducing mountain for a visit to the world-famous Tiger’s Nest and I was left to fend on my own with a non-English speaking driver, that I finally found my groove.

At the archery grounds the definition of “happiness” was skill satisfaction and teamwork.   At the Sunday market, it was gossip and community.   At the new temple dedication, it was musicianship and fellowship of the worshippers.   At the bakery it was pride in a job well done and, on the playground, a shared afternoon snack. 

Happiness, in Bhutan, is measured by my camera as enjoying the day.   Doesn’t get more complicated than that.