The 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 wine.
“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 its breath.
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 to celebrate.
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 to him.
“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 get.
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 smiled.
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.