Improvised Animal Hospital

In a country where medical supplies are scarce for humans, let alone animals, two self-trained veterinarians are using whatever they can find to build the materials they need to treat the animals they take care of.

In the master bathroom stands Tsem, a four-month-old foal with long, knobby legs, a fuzzy brown body and an afro of a mane. A matching puppy lies between her tiny hoofs. The scene would be charming, if somewhat unusual, if it weren’t for the hideous wounds covered by the gauze bandages that swathe the foal’s entire hind quarters and abdomen.

This is the ICU.

Little Tsem was attacked by a pack of wild dogs after being separated from her mother in the forest. ‘But you’re a strong girl, aren’t you?’ says Jamie Vaughan as she scratches the small tuft of hair between the foal’s ears. For an injury as extensive as this, the best Vaughan can do is to keep the wounds clean and dressed and give the foal plenty of food, fluids and love. For an hour every day she flushes the wounds with sterile water using a garden sprayer, an improvised solution that, if all goes well, will help the foal fight off infection until she is able to leave Vaughan’s bathroom ICU.

Improvisation and compassion are integral parts of Vaughan’s life. She moved from the US to Bhutan in 2006 to open a resort in the agricultural valley of Paro, but the first stray dog she rescued there was soon joined by another, and a year later she had converted her resort into a make-do animal rescue centre. Today the Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue & Sanctuary houses 4 horses, 9 mules, 15 cows, 19 pigs, 42 goats, 16 cats and kittens, 240 dogs, 1 pigeon and 2 field mice, all living together happily on the 2.5 acre (1 hectare) property, which is fenced off into different compounds and dotted with makeshift shelters.

Bhutan animal hospital prosthetics
Various iterations of equine prosthetics using recycled material collected over the years. At Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue & Sanctuary everything finds a purpose: rubber bands can replace ten­dons; plastic coat hangers can immo­bilise legs or stabilise hips; popsicle sticks, coffee stirrers and assorted screws and scraps of metal can help set broken wings and bones; old oven mitts can keep paralysed legs from dragging on the ground, wheels of all kinds can become part of doggie wheelchairs, etc. (Photo: Jessica Vernon)

Every day villagers show up with more injured or abandoned animals. Due to limited financial resources and restrictive government regulations, local veterinary services often lack the medicine and facilities needed to treat serious illnesses and injuries, especially in the areas of diagnostics and long-term care. Currently Bhutan has no veterinary specialisation courses, so government vets are all general practitioners in the broadest sense of the word. With these compounded limitations it becomes increasingly difficult to stay abreast of techniques and technologies. In a country where even the best human hospital doesn’t have facilities and medicines that the West takes for granted, veterinarians persevere with medicine’s most basic equipment. For a three-legged ox or a deformed mule, the Barnyard is their only hope.

Vaughan had no formal veterinary training when all of this started, so she reached out to another foreigner, who had a reputation as ‘the Mother Teresa of Dogs’. ‘Marianne was a mentor for me,’ Vaughan says, speaking of Marianne Guillet, another self-taught veterinarian based in Thimphu. In many ways, she reflects, Guillet inspired her to take the situation into her own hands and to find creative ways to work with the limited resources available.

Bhutan animal hospital Marianne guillet hendrik visser
Marianne Guillet and Hendrik Visser with Pigu and a monkey, two of some 250 permanent residents spanning a wide variety of species, sizes, breeds and disabilities at Bhutan Animal Rescue and Care (BARC). (Photo: Jessica Vernon)

Guillet sits on her sofa for a rare moment of downtime, shaving tiny slices off a bar of soap. ‘This is my therapy,’ she says in heavily French-accented English. The soap is donated by the Taj Tashi hotel, which gives all of its once-used shampoo bottles and bar soaps to be made into detergent for mopping the clinic floors and sterilising towels. Leftover body lotions are mixed with antibiotic ointment to make burn cream.

A young Bhutanese woman, one of Guillet’s staff, sits beside her, slicing open disposable hotel slippers and removing the foam padding from the soles. The pads will be stapled to the inside walls of a makeshift dog house and covered with scrap plywood. This free insulation is a necessity throughout the Bhutanese autumn and winter, when evening temperatures drop well below freezing.

‘We recycle everything,’ Guillet says, ‘even expired condoms!’ (Expired, she stresses, not used.)

One of those donated condoms is filled with cat’s milk and sitting in a mug of warm water. Guillet pokes a small hole in the tip and nurses a seven-day-old orphan kitten while his brothers and sisters crawl blindly over each other, their eyes not yet open. Guillet laughs, ‘See, condoms do save lives!’

Guillet, from France, and her husband Hendrik Visser, from the Netherlands, came to Bhutan nearly 20 years ago. In 1999 the couple founded Pilou Animal Rescue and Care, an NGO registered in the Netherlands, and in 2013 they established Bhutan Animal Rescue and Care (BARC). With severe importation restrictions and a tight budget, Hendrik’s engineering experience and Guillet’s improvisational talents (together of course with their passion and tenacity) are all that keep these organisations afloat.

Their entire facility, located just outside of Thimphu, was built by Hendrik using donated and recycled materials whenever possible. It has evolved over time to meet the needs of their patients: additional monkey cages were built with donated fencing materials to accommodate newly introduced dominant males, a guarded outdoor area for paraplegics was made from metal casting moulds for concrete columns, and a bathroom ICU was stocked with emergency equipment built from whatever was at hand.

Bhutan animal hospital dog wheelchairs
Visser built these dog wheelchairs, one that serves as a model, and another improvised version made from scrap metal, electrical tape and toy truck wheels for the paraplegic patients at BARC. (Photo: Jessica Vernon)

‘One learns very quickly to adapt,’ Guillet says. Even the most basic instruments available in the West remain out of reach for her, as for all of Bhutan’s vets. A simple item like a skin stapler is easily replaced by an ordinary office stapler, but vital instruments such as heart monitors or respirators are only dreamed-of luxuries for Guillet. Without them, she and Hendrik take shifts throughout the night to monitor critical patients, manually inflating their lungs with a rubber squeeze pump when necessary. ‘I do whatever it takes to make it work,’ she says simply, ‘I try everything.’

Guillet opens a plastic storage drawer in what she calls her ‘improv room’. The entire room is filled with rescued things that just might be useful one day: rubber bands for replacing tendons, plastic coat hangers for immobilising legs or stabilising hips, popsicle sticks and coffee stirrers for setting bird wings, an assortment of screws and scraps of metal for setting broken bones, children’s swim floats and inflated shipping packaging for cushioning bed sores, old oven mitts for keeping paralysed legs from dragging on the ground, suspenders for immobilising joints, wheels of all kinds for building doggie wheelchairs, a jock strap for… ‘Well, I don’t know for what, but I’m sure I can use it for something!’

In Paro, Vaughan loads up her truck, off to buy de-wormer for the puppies and antibiotics for a new cow patient. When she drives back into the Barnyard for evening feeding, Besa the mule stubbornly refuses to move out of the driveway, nimbly evading all attempts to shoo her off, her new-found agility thanks to a prosthetic leg built by an American company, Animal Ortho Care LLC, and donated by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. This is Besa’s second ‘real’ prosthesis after running through nearly 50 homemade versions that Vaughan built using PVC pipe, metal, foam, duct tape and an automobile shock absorber.

Bhutan animal hospital dogs
Visser taking a break with some para­plegic dogs. People at BARC believe that it’s crucial for people to have someone to turn to when they find a sick, injured, or needy animal. (Photo: Jessica Vernon)

This has become something of a specialty for Vaughan, and she has fashioned hundreds of peg legs for large quadrupeds over the years. Twelve amputee mules, horses, cows and bulls currently wander in the Barnyard corrals, sporting all kinds of prosthetics. Besa saunters by, a thriving example of adaptability, and a living testament to what compassion, dedication and ingenuity can achieve.

Sitting in her living room, still shaving soap, Guillet reflects on what she calls an ‘illusion of independence’ that pervades modern societies. In rural cultures, she says, it is easy to see the direct link between humans, animals and nature, but urban life breaks down that connection. ‘We have to work with nature,’ she stresses. ‘Nature is very well made. Everything we need already exists.’ This philosophy guides Guillet in the work she does every day, embodied in even the smallest act of recycling and repurposing.

Looking out over the dirt compound at the Barnyard, hundreds of happy, well-adjusted dogs, mules and cows eagerly await the promised ‘Biiiiiiiiiiscuits!’ Their mounting excitement is palpable. At the end of the day, all of the hard work, epic failures and humble triumphs come together in these simple moments.

In an age when man’s connection to the earth is fraying, this adaptable little pocket of courage and creativity thrives.

Jessica Verno 
 Jessica is an intentional wanderer of the world with an insatiable appetite for adventure and a strong affection for words. Her words paint the faces of people she meets, the mountains she climbs and the experiences that have marked her personal evolution. She is currently based in Thimphu, Bhutan, working on freelance projects and revelling in the beautiful conundrums of the capital city. To read more of her work, visit: www.jessicajvernon.com.

Article originally published in Works that Work. Link to original article here.

Paro in May

A stunning photo of Paro, Bhutan in the month of May.

Bhutan in May

‪#‎bhutan‬ ‪#‎bhutandiaries‬ #bhutandiaries ‪#‎bhutantravel‬ ‪#‎travelbhutan‬‪#‎travelasia‬ ‪#‎paro‬ ‪#‎offthebeatenpath‬

Bhutan freelance photographer and tour guide, Ugyen Tshewang

 Ugyen Tshewang is a Bhutanese freelance tour guide and photographer with a keen eye for capturing the natural beauties of Bhutan. Ugyen guided groups through one of the most difficult, spectacular and remote treks in Bhutan – the Snowman Trek. The trek crosses over 11 passes over the altitude of 4500 metres, including five over 5000 metres.  

Bhutan Festivals Diary 2017

If you are thinking about travelling to Bhutan next year, consider planning it around one of the unique cultural festivals.

Bhutan Festivals Diary 2017

Festival dates are based on the moon and the stars, so be sure to confirm the dates before you book!

Thimphu Festival

Festival Location Dates
Punakha Drubchen Punakha 2 – 6 March 2017
Punakha Tshechu Punakha 7 – 9 March 2017
Bhutan International Marathon Punakha 4 March 2017
Chorten Kora Festival Trashi Yangtse 11 – 26 April 2017
Gomphukora Festival Trashigang 4 – 6 April 2017
Paro Tshechu Paro 7 – 11 April 2017
Rhododendron Festival Thimphu 18 – 20 April 2017
Ura Yakchoe Bumthang 7 – 10 May 2017
Nimalung Tshechu Bumthang 1 – 3 July 2017
Kurjey Tshechu Bumthang 3 July 2017
Tour of the Dragon (Bicycle Race) Bumthang 2 September 2017
Thimphu Drubchen Thimphu 25 – 29 September 2017
Wangdue Tshechu Wangdue Phodrang 28 – 30 September 2017
Thimphu Tshechu Thimphu 30 September – 2 October 2017
Gangtey Tshechu Gangtey 26 – 28 September 26 2017
Jakar Tshechu Bumthang 21 – 23 October 2017
Black-Necked Crane Festival Wangdue Phodrang 11 November 2017
Jambay Lhakhang Drup Bumthang 3 – 6 November 2017
Mongar Tshechu Mongar 18 – 21 November 2017
Trashigang Tshechu Trashigang 19 – 22 November 2017
Nalakhar Tshechu Bumthang 25 – 27 November 2017
Druk Wangyel Tshechu Thimphu 13 December 2017
Trongsa Tshechu Trongsa 20 – 22 December 2017

Stepping Back in Time

Bhutan is so much more than just a destination, it’s a collage of beautiful interviewing stories and experiences of life in the remote Himalayas.

Near the main traffic roundabout in Thimphu, there is an old barber shop. The barbers from Patna, India have now been running this shop for 44 years. The shop first opened in 1985, not long after Bhutan opened up to the rest of the world. All the barbers are brothers with the oldest being born in Bhutan. He turns 40 this year. There aren’t many people who live in Thimphu who haven’t trusted the barbers there with their hair, heads, and neck. Barbers are like the custodians of time.

This little story is from Namgay Zam, a well loved Bhutanese journalist and Hubert Humphrey Fellow. We will be featuring more of Namgay’s insightful works in the weeks to come!

Oldest barber in Thimphu

Tiger’s Nest worthy of the fame

Taktsang Monastery is the holiest, most well-known and most widely photographed landmark in Bhutan. A visit to the infamous monastery is included in every tourist itinerary and it lives up to the hype.

A  cluster of white structures cling to the face of a cliff with all its strength. This was the first image I saw when I googled Bhutan for the first time twelve months ago. I catch my first real life glimpse of the nest through the cab window. The high noon sun cast such a glare that I had to roll down the glass and squint my eyes to be sure of what I was seeing. From so far away it looks like a white patch painted onto the cliff—there is no dimension to it, nothing 3-D. As we near, the structure begins to take shape, growing out of the rock. Impossible is all I can think as I stand at the base of the mountain looking straight up. You know that its muscles must be trembling from exertion; a battle to the death being waged inside its walls. Yet on the outside it remains poised and collected as if the fight with gravity isn’t happening at all. I’m surprised by the unassuming nature of its splendor—had I unconsciously attributed the qualities of vanity and superiority that so often come with fame to a building?

Tiger's Nest - Butter Lamp PrayersWe walk slowly up the hill feeling sorry for those tourists that, due to strict time constraints, have to climb this mountain within hours of arriving on the plane. Jingle bells floating on the wind bring warning of the approaching herd of pack ponies at fast trot, sending up plumes of dust. They pass us in fast moving single file, compact little train cars barreling down the mountain, barely clinging to the track. Decorated with big tassels hanging from their bridals and little bells under their chins, the oranges, golds and reds of their goh striped pack pads compliment their furry brown bodies.

Thick forests provide welcome shade from the afternoon heat and a fresh gust of wind now carries the sing-song voice of a man running down the trail chasing the indecipherable words of his mantra. Long delicate strands of sage colored lichen blow elegantly in the musical breeze, suspended from the spindly branches of sliver fir trees. Emerging from the forest we reach the postcard viewpoint at the top of the ridge directly in front of an 800 meter cliff and stand breathless. Impossible.

Tiny figures can be seen crawling around inside the monastery like little ants dressed in goh and kira.

Long strings of prayer flags drape across the wide gap between the two ridges; one end is tied to a rock and thrown across to the opposite point, but even knowing this I still cannot imagine how they came to bridge such a vast expanse.

We take sweet time admiring the structures at a distance, taking hundreds of photographs of both the monastery and the crowds of people leaving the monastery, hiking back up the gully we are now descending. By the time we reach the entrance we are told that the lhakhang is closed from 1-2pm for lunch. A flash of frustration washes over me, evaporated moments later by a small kitten I find basking in the sun. I pick him up and he reluctantly lets me cradle him in my arms. This attracts several little kids and we are soon surrounded by the entire family all wanting to touch my little pet. We hand our camera to one of the fathers for him to take a photo. After lots of laughs and “1, 2, 3’s,” the family departs. When we look back to see the pictures there is nothing. He managed to not take a single photo of our brief friendship.

We eat a snack and seek shelter from the wind. An hour later we are allowed to enter. It is so quiet inside. With the morning crowds gone, the afternoon is reserved for those who like to take their time. Perhaps these five months in Bhutan have slowed my pace, calming the constant sense of urgency to get there. A freshly whitewashed stone staircase curves gently toward an archway drowned in light. Potbellied clay pots are planted with fake red flowers. Never has a plastic flower looked more elegant. There are some real flowers too, rebelling against the winter. We enter the first two temples alone. The wide planked floors are soft and smooth from centuries of shuffling feet. Indentations are worn into the boards in front of the central deities, carved by hundreds of thousands of bodies bowing in prostration. The cold wood, shiny drapes and colorful wall paintings are bathed in gold dust, our movements sending spirals of glitter in the air.

Monk at Tiger Nest MonasteryBack outside and up another level I spot a cloaked door with a little sign beside it saying, “Tiger’s Lair.” Inside is a dark crevice with three ladders going down to a bottom that can’t be seen. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be here or not. It seems a little sketchy to be open to the public, but there was no one around to tell me no so I started climbing down. I hate ladders so my heart, already accelerated from the adrenalin of possibly getting caught, is in my throat. I almost turn back several times but my curiosity wins the internal battle and at the bottom I am certain I have reached a place that most people don’t get to see.

A small alter glows in the light of a single candle at the deepest corner of the cave. I make a tiny prostration in the cramped temple. At the other end, sunlight breaks through the darkness and my curiosity takes charge again. Squeezing through two big rocks I lean out. I’m looking straight down the sheer face of the cliff. Nothing below me but the black and tan streaked rock and a thick forest of trees a long, long way down. I get that roller coaster feeling in my stomach. I manage one quick glimpse up and see a corner of the monastery hanging even farther out from the wall than I was. Yep, definitely not supposed to be here.

Climbing back up the ladders is far less scary than sticking your head out of a crack in a cliff wall. Two Bhutanese families have gathered in the small courtyard. Sheltered from the wind, the space feels warm and comforting, making you forget that you’re inside a structure anchored to the face of a cliff…

Until you look up and see another 300 meters of mountain towering above you.

Everyone climbs the final staircase together, bare feet making soft pitter-patter noises on the cold stones. There are at least twelve people crowded into the little temple; all moving in a ripple of prostrations, up and down, each to the rhythm of their own incantations. Small painted Buddhas line the walls; hundreds of them, all the same but not one identical. The family leaves and I linger by the window. Looking down all I can see is a tangle of trees and I realize that this is the corner I saw jutting out above the cave. I step slowly back towards the doorway and join the families in the last temple. It is an intimate moment to share, bowing in front of a shrine in one of most sacred sites in a country revered for its sacredness.

I feel honoured to be in the presence of these people from generations both younger and older than mine, from lives so different from mine, in a place so far from my home. But in that small room the differences don’t seem so big. Everything that has happened in our individual lives so distant from one another has brought us all to the same place at the very same moment. Everything we have been through has led us to this exact point and this exact time.

The chances of it seem impossible.

Jessica Verno 

 Jessica is an intentional wanderer of the world with an insatiable appetite for adventure and a strong affection for words. Her words paint the faces of people she meets, the mountains she climbs and the experiences that have marked her personal evolution. She is currently based in Thimphu, Bhutan, working on freelance projects and revelling in the beautiful conundrums of the capital city. To read more of her work, visit: www.jessicajvernon.com

Battle Cries of Punakha (11-22 February 2016)

The Punakha Drubchen and Tsechu (Festival) hosts the dramatic recreation of the 17th century battle scenes with between the ‘pazaps’ or local militia, and the invading Tibetan army. At that time Bhutan did not have a standing army, so to expel the invading Tibetan forces local men from the eight Tshogchens, or great village blocks, took up arms to protect their land. The Tsechu is a celebration of winning this battle, and a reminder of Buddhist teachings and the noble deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche. This journey will also take you to the key culture and natural sights of Western and Central valleys of Bhutan.

It’s 17th January 2016 and we’ve officially launched!

It’s official, we are in business! It’s been quite a journey getting here after many tales of adventure and intrigue (a story for another time!) and spending the past year or so travelling in and out of Bhutan. We are very excited, and nervous to be sharing a piece of our heart and soul with you. We really hope you will enjoy the independently crafted and curated journeys we’ve got in store for you! As you start reading about each trip, you’ll probably be picking up little bits of bread crumbs we’ve left for you that leads you into the myths and legends that make up the magic of Bhutan. As with all matters of the spirit and heart, some simply can not be adequately put into words.  
 

Happy Bhutanese Children

So we hope this inspires you to venture there and find your own little piece of personal legend. Speak soon!