Passion Points: Giving Back
When the kids of Neyphug, a monastery and orphanage in Bhutan, lose their ball playing soccer, it doesn’t roll into the street or out of bounds; it falls off the mountainside. The kingdom of Bhutan, bordered by the Himalayas and India, is unique in its breathtaking, vertiginous landscapes and its deeply authentic culture that has remained largely untouched by globalization. “Visiting Bhutan feels like time travel,” says Jorge Monje, the general manager of Uma Paro, one of the country’s most luxurious resorts. Since inception, the property, which is part of the COMO Hotels and Resorts portfolio, has been committed to not only being a comfortable base from which guests explore the stunning countryside but also to give back to the place itself.
In particular, Uma Paro works with three organizations unique to Bhutan (the country is about the size of Maryland): Kela Gompa Nunnery, located in one of the highest mountain passes and reachable only by a hike; Drukgyel, Bhutan’s sole school for deaf children; and Neyphug, housed in a 16th-century monastery home to some sixty orphans. Interested guests staying at the Uma Paro have an opportunity to visit these remote and uniquely Bhutanese organizations and to make a difference in the lives of the local people dependent on them. “Bhutan is a very proud country and the community mostly takes care of each other,” says Monje. “Because of this attitude, when it comes to assistance projects, we need to be very sensitive and respectful and follow the proper channels and institutions.”
Monje spoke to Indagare about life in Bhutan, the philanthropic efforts of Uma Paro and what visitors should know before planning a trip to this incredible, untouched place.
Can you tell us about the organizations Uma Paro works with in its surrounding valley?
Paro is an amazing valley filled with some of the sweetest people I’ve met in my life and truly magical places.
Built into the face of a cliff, Kela Gompa Nunnery is home to 50 nuns and one would be hard-pressed to find a place that feels closer to heaven. Personally, I feel a stronger spirituality every time I visit. With the amazing views over the valley and the smiles of the generous nuns, this is one of my favorite places in Bhutan.
Drukgyel Deaf Children’s School teaches 64 students and they are growing every year. The school is doing a great job providing education in English and Dzongka, mathematics, social studies, art and have recently added some vocational programs including embroidery, tailoring, woodcarving and baking in the hopes that these skills will allow the kids to integrate in their communities.
The relatively unknown and rarely visited Neyphug Monastery is found 7 kilometers deep into the mountains over Paro Valley. The monastery is a beautiful, peaceful place but is in very poor conditions and in need of refurbishment. The children’s accommodation is very basic but they do enjoy the most amazing view and are very passionate about their small football pitch.
When did the resort start working with these organizations and what kind of programs/involvement do you have with them?
Uma Paro and all COMO Hotels and Resorts are very community-oriented and all properties try to be as active and close to their communities as possible.
When I first arrived in Bhutan and visited Kela Gompa, I fell in love with the place and the nuns, and at that time we were looking at aligning our efforts with COMO’s philosophy of helping the community help themselves. The nuns of Kela Gompa play a crucial role in Paro’s community and by providing assistance and training to them we have the ability to foster the nun’s assistance of the community. We organize instruction in such areas as women’s health and first aid, communication and presentation skills, and discuss with the nuns several issues the Bhutan society faces including domestic violence and alcoholism. The nunnery is one of the most visited places by our Uma guests and we feel a responsibility to give something back to show our gratitude for the kindness, hospitality and smiles they consistently provide to us.
While Kela Gompa still receives some government support, Neyphug is privately funded by donations and sponsorship. In fact some previous Uma Paro guests have become the orphanage’s biggest donors. Progress is slow and conditions remain quite basic and the orphanage is always grateful for donations, especially soccer balls—they tend to lose many when kicked off the mountainside!
Since the establishment of Drukgyel Deaf Education Unit, Uma Paro and our guests support the school with funds and by selling their products in our boutique. Over the last few years, we have also organized regular outings with the children and have invited them to the resort to enjoy our facilities. In return we receive the most beautiful smiles and genuine gratitude.
How can interested guests get involved? Is it an issue getting permission for non-Buddhists to visit these holy sites?
While all of us at Uma Paro are very passionate about our community and the projects we run, we believe in sharing these experiences with our guests in a very subtle way. When guests visit such places as Kela Gompa they realize the assistance Uma provides the organizations and often ask how they themselves can be of help. My staff and I are only too happy to share information on the work we do with these organizations and arrange for additional visits.
Non-Buddhists have no problem visiting any of these sites. I have found that all of our guests are extremely respectful and very interested in the culture and spirituality and all are welcome in the monasteries and nunneries. In the past we needed permits for every visit, but around a year ago the procedure was changed and most sites can be visited if guests are escorted by a Bhutanese guide.
What do you most enjoy about working with these organizations?
The generosity and hospitality of the Bhutanese people and our friends in Kela, Neyphug and Drukgyel is just unbelievable. They will always share and offer the little they have. The gratitude, the love, the affection, the looks, the smiles, the hugs, the signs (even when you don’t understand them), the joy we get back is just addictive. The happiness, the contentment and the acceptance of the Bhutanese people is a great life lesson and makes me realize that it takes very little to be happy and very little is required to make a difference in another’s life.
One of the most touching experiences I have had was visiting Drukgyel Deaf Children’s School shortly after the kids came to Uma Paro and had the chance to use a swimming pool for the first time. In their school art class they were asked to paint their experiences at Uma Paro and most of them chose to paint their swimming time. Something as simple as a swimming pool (so often taken for granted by us) made such a huge impact on these children.
What makes Bhutan unique and how does Uma Paro embrace the natural surroundings?
The spirit of the people, the environment, the countryside, the culture, the spirituality, the preservation, the isolation, and the very limited number of visitors all come together to make Bhutan a unique and special country. It is an amazingly beautiful place, with genuinely welcoming and hospitable people who are proud of their country, culture and traditions. Traveling to Bhutan feels like traveling in time. Visitors get the chance to experience rituals and customs that haven’t changed for hundreds of years and have been largely unaffected by globalization. Bhutan is also one of the cleanest, purest environments on earth with forest taking up over 70% of its national territory.
What brought you to this property?
I’m a traveler and a dreamer and have always been very keen on photography. A few years back I came across a book on Bhutan and when I opened it and saw the pictures, all these fantasies and dreams started to pop up in my head. As they say, be careful what you wish for!
I’m originally from Spain but have been away for 18 years, always living in beautiful and very special places. Without a doubt, however, Bhutan is the most unique. Living here is an amazing experience and one that myself, my wife Intan and our 3 ½ year old daughter Luna will always cherish. Many of our most amazing moments have been with our friends from Kela and Neyphug.
What are some misconceptions people might have about Bhutan?
There is definitely a lack of knowledge about Bhutan. I have heard people say that Bhutan can only be visited in the spring or fall, while the summer and winter are probably my favorite seasons. In fact our winter is warmer here than in Europe and North America. Our summers don’t have flooding either as the monsoon season doesn’t affect much of Bhutan.
Another misconception might be that traveling to Bhutan is limited or restricted. While the government and National Tourism Office supports a high-quality-low-volume kind of tourism, there isn’t a limit on the number of visitors that may come in any single year.
Do you think Bhutan lives up to its reputation for being one of the happiest in the world?
I definitely can say that Bhutan makes me happier! The Bhutanese are aware of the many issues they face however seem to be genuinely happy and content, and feel lucky and privileged to have been born in Bhutan. They are always aware of the special living conditions they enjoy, especially compared to neighboring countries. The Bhutanese people embrace sustainable development, cultural preservation, environment protection and good governance at the forefront of all their policies and programs.
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