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Crestone Eagle, January 2009:
Obama in Bhutan
Politics & prayers in the world’s newest democracy
by Jim Davidson
We had not traveled to Bhutan to serve as good
news ambassadors for Barack Obama. We’d even wondered
how, in the Himalayan foothills, we would finally get election
results. And, without saying it aloud, we feared the worst.
Bhutan was crowning a new king and seating its first real
parliament. That was politics enough for us. Or so it seemed.
Then, out of the fog atop Dochu La, a pass separating the
Thimphu/Paro region from the Punakha, came the word via telephone:
John McCain was delivering his concession speech. So there
it was—relief, and the sense that history was being
written in bold strokes, even as we stood on foreign ground
some 10,000 miles away! And despite the early hour, about
9am Central Asia Time, we uncorked a bottle of good red wonderful
“Aren’t your elections just over? Have you heard?
Did Obama win?”
Yes, yes, yes. People from Austria, New Zealand, Great Britain,
perhaps even a few Scandinavians, were more than happy to
share our wine, share the moment, and mill around with us
in the cold, damp fog. Hands were shook, laughs were laughed,
and much of the world, it seemed, had suddenly stopped holding
Several hours later, as we stopped for lunch in a small village
east of the pass, we were still babbling amongst ourselves
about the dawn of a new day in politics, about a just-in-time
rescue of the American psyche, about any number of public
executions we would willingly attend. Thus caught up in our
excitement, we either failed to notice, or paid scant attention
to, a table of perhaps a dozen people sitting behind us. Failed
to notice, that is, until they burst out in a chant of “O-bam-a,
O-bam-a, O-bam-a,” holding their glasses in the air.
They were mostly Italians, with a couple of Dutch thrown
in, and they had just heard the news—from us. Even the
Bhutanese kitchen staff joined in. We were moved. And we began
to understand as we never could have before how that election
had been a truly global affair. And how the globe was ready
That night, on CNN Asia, we saw Kenyan school children spilling
into the streets, laughing, and we saw entire African towns
intent upon dancing the week away. They were rightfully proud.
For the remainder of our stay in Bhutan, hardly a day went
by without political dialogue with people from other parts
of the world. In a hotel dining hall, on the street corner
of a small village, inside the confines of a monastery—the
talk was of possibilities and promises. Bank failures or warlords
or melting ice, it all seemed fixable somehow.
The enthusiasm wasn’t limited to foreign citizens.
One night, around a fire, we asked a career American diplomat
stationed in Baghdad if the outcome of the election mattered
“On a personal level,” he said, “very much.
Now we will have people in charge who know how to listen.”
His job, he said, was a desperate one—convincing Iraqis
who had left the country in fear, particularly the professional
class, to return—and he needed all the help he could
A considerable amount of humbling good will and best wishes
had flowed our way over those inspired days, but this question
remained: how could we play it forward, pass it on, in any
way worthy of the moment? Tshering Dorji provided the solution.
As a child growing up in the Bumthang Valley, Tshering was
intimately familiar with Jampay Lakhang, one of the oldest
and most venerated temples in all of Bhutan, and the source
of some of the country’s richest spiritual lore. And
it was there, under his guidance, that we lit 2,000 butter
lamps, silently offering our awkward prayers for the health,
success and perhaps, most of all, safety of Barack Obama.
As we moved quietly around the 1350-year-old temple, other
people from other countries, hearing of our intentions, softly
asked if they could be allowed to help us with the lighting
of the lamps. And, of course, yes they could.
And so it went, even to the end. As a couple of us watched
a young and handsome British woman building a Korean crafts
box to kill time in the Seoul airport, she looked up and asked
us if we were happy with the outcome of the election.
“Very much so,” we said.
“I believe we all are,” she answered, and she
Editor’s note: The “we” of this story
consisted of trip organizer Bill Ellzey; fellow Crestonians
Whitney Strong, Martin Macaulay, Tshering Dorji and Jim Davidson;
Pat Bahn of Portland, Oregon and Dr. Allan Liebgott of Denver.
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