When Linda Leaming went on holiday to Bhutan in 1994, she fell in love with more than just the remote mountain kingdom.
One of the few westerners to have lived in Bhutan, Linda’s experiences inspired her recently published memoir Married to Bhutan, which details her unlikely romance with a Buddhist painter and pathway to personal happiness.
After her initial visit in 1994 Linda returned to Bhutan several times, staying longer and longer each time and in 1997 the government granted her permission to work there.
They began teaching each other English and Dzongkha and romance soon blossomed.
Tiny landlocked Bhutan lies at the eastern end of the Himalayas, wedged between China and India.
Something of an enigma to the outside world, Bhutan was totally isolated until it opened to foreign visitors in the 1970s, followed by television and the Internet in 1999.
Rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, Bhutan remains fiercely protective of its ancient traditions and Buddhist culture.
Tourism is restricted and backpacker and independent-style travel is almost unheard of. Visitors to the kingdom are required to travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour and are hit with a minimum $US250 per day tourist fee.
However, Bhutan’s isolation means it has also escaped the rampant consumerism that has enveloped the West, with its government famously adopting a Gross National Happiness index rather than Gross National Product as a measure of success.
Linda’s engaging memoir gives a rare insight into the mysterious kingdom as she uncovers the language, customs and religion of her new home.
She now shares a home with her husband in the mountains behind the capital Thimphu, where there are no traffic lights and fewer than 100,000 people.
“If enlightenment is possible anywhere,” she writes, “I think it is particularly possible here.”
The couple divides their time between the U.S and Bhutan, but Linda says she still struggles to re-adjust to life in her home country when she returns.
“The differences between life in the U.S. and life in Bhutan boil down to ‘stuff’. The U.S. has more stuff, so in one way it’s way more convenient,” she said.
“You can get anything you want or need 24/7. And there’s more unpleasant stuff to deal with like phone contracts and commutes and there are way more rules and obligations there.”
She says the slow pace and obscurity of life in Bhutan gives it a certain intoxicating charm.
There, the couple’s life is based around the simple things: cooking, writing and painting.
Water must be boiled before use and even food staples, including soups, salads, rice and curries must be prepared from scratch.
In their spare time they host dinner parties, meet friends, picnic and trek together.
Prior to moving to Bhutan, Linda says she had no discernible skills as a writer and she worked mainly as a ghost writer and for corporate clients.
But Linda says Bhutan has given her a voice and she feels compelled to use it.
“I think the world needs to know a place like Bhutan exists. Bhutan has a lot to teach the rest of the world.”
Linda also draws inspiration from the remarkable Bhutanese people themselves, which she describes alternatively as funny, stubborn, promiscuous, wise and self-deprecating.
“Bhutanese are great subjects for a book. So of course I’m writing another one,” says Linda, who holds a Masters degree in fiction from the University of Arizona.
“But I will never write fiction again. Why would I? The fiction I wrote pales in comparison to writing about real life in Bhutan.”
the Experience Network