By Dorji Bidha, cultural and trekking guide; Drukgyel Farmers and homestay host in Paro
We can sustain ourselves without tourists because we are still full-fledged farmers and the pandemic has shown us how important it is not to rely only on homestay income. But we pray and hope, that soon the opportunity to receive a few guests will return. It helps us with additional yearly income but more importantly brings us joy because meeting new people is exciting and we Bhutanese love hosting guests.
The autumn season in Bhutan is quite warm during the daytime but pretty chilly during the morning and evening hours. The vegetable and cereal fields look beautiful and plentiful while farmers eagerly wait for the harvest.
Paddy harvest starts by mid-October. During that time, we also dry a variety of crops such as chilies, turnip leaves, slippery gourd, pumpkin, radish, apples, peaches and walnuts.
Last year (2020), even though our yields were good, we were worried about our annual income due to the pandemic. The tourism industry has been hit hard and those of us, who offer homestays to foreign guests, are affected directly.
Becoming a farmer
Yet I am glad that I was born and raised on a farm and am able to work hard in my village. Even after completing my university studies, I always wanted to be a farmer. Initially I had to face the harsh realities that come with it though; my parents for instance were against my wishes, they wanted me to look for a job in town. Forget about the rest of the world where people often look down on manual labor. Furthermore, being a farmer at young age is tough since many government agencies are reluctant to help us with funds and subsides.
I started out pursuing more than one track and initially I was overcome by my responsibilities as a farmer, a struggling entrepreneur and a professional tour guide.
Farming is not only a job, it makes me happy
Nowadays however, I am happily at my village running my small dairy unit and processing natural yogurt. Although sales are not that good, I am extremely content to be back at my farm and in my fields. Whether in the valley or up in the mountains, from milking my cows early morning to readying the horses to pick up the hay in the fields in the afternoon, farm chores are easy for me. The smell of the earth and the trees around me encourage me to work harder and smarter.
Farmers survive and nurture others
It’s winter now and the second corona virus lockdown just started a few days ago due to emerging cases of community spread. People in the towns are a bit panicky about their food supplies.
As a farmer on the other hand, I have plenty of dried red chilies from last summer where I really invested my time in the cultivation of chilies, paddy, and winter vegetables. No matter what, we can sustain ourselves at home as well as sell some surplus to the nearby town area during the lock down.
The joys of being a homestay host
A while ago Bhutan Homestay, a local tour operator, has adopted me as one of their farmstay hosts. This niche in tourism helps with our annual income. Furthermore, for us such encounters offer room for interesting exchange. Our guests share their ideas about modern farming and sometimes, where applicable, we experiment with some new farming methods that seem easier and simpler compared to ours.
Each year, Bhutan Homestay sends guests from all over the world and the tourists have the opportunity to enjoy our authentic farming lifestyle where we milk the cows in the morning and herd the cattle into the forest. Additionally our guests can get an idea of how we process natural yogurt, cheese, butter and cream at home. We take our guests into our fields to pick a variety of fruits and vegetables that we use to create Bhutanese delicacies.
Connecting with people is fun
Due to the pandemic we farmers face tougher times and the income we make from hosting guests has temporarily ceased. We are concerned if our income can meet our expenditures this year.
Hosting tourists is not only about financial gain, we also learn a lot of new things from our guests about their culture and lifestyle. Our guests appreciate us and our natural way of farming, and often suggest balancing it with modern technology.
On top of that Bhutanese people have a great sense of hospitality and love hosting. At our village, local people are extremely thrilled to see foreign guests since they bring hope, excitement and happiness to them.
Apart from simply enjoying some company from far away, each household that works with Bhutan Homestay benefits a little, some sell their home-made products to the guests and offer local guiding services, and others host guests themselves and make some extra income.
Occasionally farmers are even supported by generous guests who help buy tools or equipment that’s needed. We are happy that our guests appreciate us farmers and we enjoy making new connections.