Similar attitudes at higher altitudes

Mountain climbing might be too strong a word to use, but my wife and I recently revisited the tops of several of our favorite mountains. We climbed Mt. Kearsarge and Mt. Cardigan in New Hampshire, and Mt. Ascutney just across the Connecticut River in Vermont. All are about 3,000 feet, but the approaches are different. The south side of Kearsarge is just a half-mile walk that rises 300 feet from the state park parking lot.

On Cardigan, by contrast, we used the western route, which rises 1,200 feet in a mile and a half, with a fair amount of clambering over rocks. We were a few years older than anyone we encountered on these walks, and our presence cheered up some people. But the park ranger in the fire tower atop Kearsarge said that a woman in her 90s had been up there the previous weekend.

A year earlier, we'd been in some higher mountains. Two years ago, my wife pointed out that if we were going to visit the Himalayas, perhaps it was time to get moving. As it happened, her college's alumni office was organizing a group traveling to Bhutan, a small country clinging to the southern slopes of the Himalayas just south of Tibet. We joined them.

The group was led by a wonderful photographer who has worked at the college for many years - and is several years older than us. My wife and he had overlapped for a year as students at the college in the 1940s. We visited historic sites and interesting buildings in Bhutan. We attended festivals, many of them at elevations from 8,000 to 12,000 feet. Bhutan is far enough south that the September climate and foliage there is not unlike what you'd find at 1,000 to 3,000 feet in New Hampshire.

But Bhutan was so very different from anyplace we'd been before that it forced us into whole new categories of thought. The Bhutanese are trying hard to preserve their independence and culture, limiting the number of tourists and preserving old ways to the point of enforcing some of them by law. At the festivals we went to, the Bhutanese in attendance were required to wear traditional, locally produced clothing, thus supporting the traditional weaving industry. Some of these rules are controversial, even among Bhutan's own cultural minorities. For example, men are not allowed to wear their skirts below the knee.

On the other hand, with so many streams pouring down the high Himalayas, some surprisingly modern features have arrived in Bhutan, notably numerous small hydroelectric plants. The nation's largest export is electricity, which it sells to India.

Here is a story the Bhutanese tell on themselves: When they got in touch with the outside world some 40 years ago, the United Nations asked about their gross national product. Bhutan's king said he wasn't sure whether they had one of those; what was it? Once the UN explained what a gross national product was, the king said he thought that Bhutan would rather not have one. They would rather have a "gross national happiness" instead.

It is a land largely of subsistence farmers. Even at lower altitudes, where rice can be grown, the land is so steep that the rice terraces often extend farther vertically than they do horizontally. But in nine days of travel, we saw no evidence of poverty. I asked a man in a farmer's market about this. He spoke good English, but I didn't think to ask his occupation or background. His report was not definitive, but is interesting nevertheless.

"Does anyone worry about going hungry," I asked, "or not having enough to feed the children?"

He looked bewildered. "No, why should they?"

"Well," I said, "they have small farms. What if there is a flood, or a crop fails?"

"Oh, we work together in our fields," he said. "Lots of people work in my field today, in someone else's field tomorrow. So everyone knows if someone has a bad crop. When we divide up at the harvest time, the village headman sees that everyone gets enough."

"But," I asked, "what if the entire village has a problem, a very bad crop?"

"Oh," he replied, "then the village headman would just go and talk to the king."

With a population of under 1 million, and relatively low economic expectations, such a simple system seems to work. It is hard not to compare it with the complexity of our arrangements in the United States, which certainly does produce a higher gross national product but perhaps a less evenly distributed (and certainly harder to measure) gross national happiness.

Still, America's high-tech systems do sometimes allow a degree of cooperation, of looking out for one another, that is pleasantly surprising. The day after climbing Mt. Ascutney with the grandchildren, my wife couldn't find her credit-card case. We supposed it was mislaid somewhere in the house, a common enough event with several grandchildren about.

The next day we went to a restaurant, and, when I paid the bill, the cashier asked me to call the credit-card company. Apparently the credit-card case had slipped out of my wife's pocket when she climbed over a rock pile on Mt. Ascutney. Another climber had found it and turned it in to the park ranger. He had called the credit-card company. So the next time I used my card, a message came up on the credit card terminal asking me to call the park ranger's phone number.

Two days later we had the card case back, with all its contents intact. Americans can look out for each other, too, and sometimes use quite a bit of technology in the process.

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