The necklaces are unassuming; round, earth-colored beads hung on a simple string. They don’t sparkle or attract the eye, but to their wearers they are a source of comfort and connection. To Wheaton students Morgan Wilbur ’16 and Choening Dorji ’18, these prayer beads symbolize a link to a community nestled in the Himalayas, more than 7,000 miles away. They symbolize Bhutan.
Wilbur is a junior at Wheaton College who has just returned from his semester abroad in Bhutan at the Royal Thimphu College. Dorji, who was “born and bred” in Bhutan, has just begun her first year as a student at Wheaton. Though from different worlds, the travelers’ journeys began similarly. As they prepared for their treks across the Atlantic, they were confronted with uncertainties and anxieties about what their adventures would bring.
Before this January, Dorji had visited many of Bhutan’s neighboring countries, but had never left Asia. “I thought that, if I was able to study here, that I would learn more about different people and different cultures,” said Dorji. “Since this was a new chapter in my life, I wasn’t really sure how it would go.”
Wilbur, reflecting back to his initial decision to travel to a country that he had barely heard of, had similar feelings. Though he eagerly anticipated the cultural discoveries and beautiful landscapes, the final outcome of the journey was a mystery. “I didn’t know how it was going to change me, and I wasn’t really looking for a life change,” said Wilbur. “I realized that change isn’t always a bad thing, it’s just different.”
Upon arrival to their destinations, Dorji and Wilbur were immediately presented with their first doses of culture shock. “There is indoor heating here!” said Dorji. “As soon as people enter a building they take off their coats, and there I am with three layers on.”
Wilbur noticed the opposite when he arrived in Bhutan. Certain amenities that are considered normal in the United States were not prevalent in many parts of Bhutan. “We got to campus and lost a lot of luxuries,” Wilbur said. “We didn’t have water or electricity.”
The adjustment to this new way of life was a challenge, which Wilbur hopes other students will embrace as they consider Bhutan as a study abroad destination. “It’s not going to be easy and it’s okay that it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “It’s okay that it may be a challenge for you.”
The rest of his experience was a whirlwind of hiking in the Himalayas, exploring the spiritual aspects of Bhutanese culture and adjusting to “Bhutanese time.”
The day-to-day rhythm of activity in Bhutan may often be a product of spontaneity, but Dorji and Wilbur describe life for the people of Bhutan as being much more relaxed than in the United States.
“Life is a lot more hurried over here,” Wilbur said. “In Bhutan, there is one highway and it has speed bumps.” Though she has only been at Wheaton for a few weeks, Dorji says that she already enjoys the organized and brisk culture of New England. She looks forward to the years ahead, learning and growing at Wheaton College. Dorji recommends this type of experience to all young adults, and encourages the growth of study abroad programs.
“You are not only raising a capable adult, but a person who is able to think, and accept other cultures and ethnicities; a more open and understanding person,” she said. “If more people adopted this idea, there would be a wave of change that would go through the world.”
Though a common sight in Bhutan, the prayer beads that hang around each of the travelers’ necks hold a great deal of personal meaning to both Dorji and Wilbur.
“For me, I wear it so as to always carry my home, family and friends with me,” said Dorji. “To remind me of my roots and where I am from.”
For Wilbur, the beads remind him that for a short while, he was part of a different world, and he regards them now as one of his most prized possessions: “an über-souvenir.”
Though simple in appearance, these beads represent the meeting of worlds and a connection to a shared experience that has been carried from Wheaton to Bhutan and back.