Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club 2009
The 2009 proceedings of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia, beginning with the farewell address of the outgoing president, John W. Nixon, and sadly concluding with memorials to two departed members, Fred Etherington and Harry Bishop.

Touring Bhutan


Neale Bringhurst, 2008 President of the Right Angle Club, just returned from a two-week revisit of a remote place he hasn't seen in 17 years, and told the club all about it, with slides. Neale warns prospective tourists that twelve time zones separate Bhutan from Philadelphia; if you fly over for two weeks and then fly back, you get 24 days of jet lag, since jet lag recovery takes about one day per one hour time difference. Seventeen years ago, the tourists were all backpackers, but now there are a noticeable number of senior citizens. Going up and down 14,000-foot mountains more or less continuously tends to give younger climbers bad headaches, older ones breathing difficulties if they don't take pills. And perhaps sometimes if they do. The highest mountain (Mount Chomolhari) is 24,000 feet tall, offering a daunting experience for adventurers.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

While the life expectancy of Bhutanese is 66, the median age is 19.4, thus implying a lot of children and lots of accidents. The country now seems considerably more modern than one would expect for a remote mountainous region, compared with Nepal for example, and compared with seventeen years ago. There are plenty of colorful temples and monuments, street markets, and native costumes, but things change fast so you better hurry if you value local color. Buddhism is a very friendly religion, and the children delight in posing for pictures. The king is 28 years old, an Oxford graduate, fourth of his family dynasty established in 1907. The government is tripartite: divided between the monk body (Je Kempo), the National Assembly (which can remove the king), and the Wangchuck monarchy. The population at 65,000 is only twice as large as Philadelphia's own mountain region of Radnor Township, and mostly agricultural, but English is almost as common as the Mongol heritage. They don't look or act like either Chinese or Indians. A foreigner uneasily wonders what it means that a sizable proportion are named Wangchuck.

A third of the national income is provided by tourism, and another large part comes from the sale of hydroelectric power to India, so this largely agricultural country is not as cash poor as is often the case. The national diet largely consists of rice and potatoes, and prospective tourists must be warned that rancid butter tea is quite popular. In Mongolia, the corresponding beverage is fermented mare's milk, so perhaps there's something ethnic going on.


Visitors are unlikely to see snow leopards, but magpies, eagles and vultures are abundant, as are yaks and a strange-looking National animal called a Takin. Takin looks like a fat short-legged moose without antlers. The native language can prove difficult; the word "LA" means at least three different things: mountain pass, kind of soul, and a polite term for ending a sentence. In case wise-apple tourists have any doubt, the monks are in charge, and will call the cops if you sit on their favorite rock.

In many ways, the most interesting and illuminating topic about the whole nation is a concept called Gross National Happiness (GNP), about which more will be said in another place.

Originally published: Friday, January 09, 2009; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019