One evening in a seven-bed room of a tourist resort in Punakha, five tour guides and drivers in boxers and vests lay in their beds swapping stories, as they relaxed after, a hard day’s work. One industry veteran had just returned from a visit to the phallic village of Chimi Lhakhang and was recounting a story about how his guests thought the holy replicas of the Divine Madman’s “fire spitting wisdom thunderbolt” were being sold as sex toys.
As the raucous laughter was dying down, a lady in her early 30s entered the room, smiled and headed to the unoccupied bed in the middle. Chimi Dema laid her back pack on the bed, took out some clothes and went to change in the bathroom she will have to share with all the other guys until her tour takes her to another place where she will face the same thing again. She returned a half hour later in a gray full sleeve shirt and long pajamas with her earphones on. She got into bed, checked her messages and soon fell asleep with her earphones still on. The men meanwhile had started conversing in low voices and there was an air of sobriety.
Chimi Dema, 32, from Paro has been a tour guide since 2005 and is used to sharing rooms with male guides. “It is all in the attitude,” she says, ‘’As long as you are strong, there’s nothing you can’t do as well, or even better, as men.” She is one of only 11 female guides with a trekking license and has gone on the 25 days Snowman Trek from Paro to Bumthang, considered one of the hardest in the world. There are 402 registered trekking guides in the country which is a more specialized qualification than the normal tour guides.
As our second largest revenue generating industry after hydropower, the tourism industry adds 26,508 jobs to the economy including guides, drivers, tour operators, hotel personnel, porters and so on. Of these, 3,375 are tour guides and from that merely 146, or four percent, are lady guides.
All guides, of both sexes, and tour operators, that The Bhutanese interviewed stated accommodation as the biggest problem for lady guides. While men can adjust by sharing beds or putting up in dormitory-like rooms provided by hotels, most ladies are either too shy or uncomfortable to do so. It makes the most basic of tasks tough.
Guiding is a travel intensive profession and it can be tiring, both mentally and physically, Namgay Rinchen, a cultural and trekking guide said (his caller ring back tone is the Beatle’s A Hard Day’s Night). “At the end of the day you just want to rest and rejuvenate for the next day. And I have seen firsthand that lady guides have trouble, exhausted as they may be, in even simply resting.”
Whenever possible, hotels voluntarily try to arrange separate rooms for the ladies but during the peak season there are rarely, if any, free rooms as even common rooms are packed.
Senior guides like Chimi Dema have learned to adapt to the scenario. “It would be far better if ladies got separate accommodations and bathrooms but hotels are also businesses so we can’t expect too much from them. The hotels support us to whatever extent they can.”
New guides, who have no prior connections with hoteliers, find it the toughest as do those with guests booked into four star or higher rated hotels. Accommodation is mostly provided by hotels on an understanding basis and the more a guide visits them with guests, the better their chances of getting a room while four and five starred hotels do not provide any accommodations whatsoever. A few do not even allow guides or drivers into the lobby.
“For a single lady to share a room and bathroom with men is obviously a very uncomfortable thing,” said Sangay T Wangchuk, Director of Etho Metho Tours and Travels, who started as a guide from 1991. ”I think that the development of hotels to cater mainly to tour guides and drivers at reasonable rates could be a solution.”
Inevitably, the next stop on the slippery slope of inadequate accommodation is sexual harassment. Tshering Dema, a guide since 2012 has had to go through it twice. One time she had a rude awakening when her driver tried to climb into her bed.
She ran out of the room and locked herself up in the toilet for over an hour. Another time, a fellow guide tried the same bed invasion. Again she had to run to the toilet, but it being chilly out she had to return to the same room as her assailant. Tshering tried staying awake but fell into a “troubled sleep”.
The driver begged her the next day to not report the incident and the guide left before she awoke.
Tshering’s story is just one of the very few that lady guides are willing to come on record about it. Many more would not talk about it or report it in fear of stigmatization.
She did not report them because she felt they would have been without a job otherwise. It is also a frightening reality that female guides will have to deal with one time or another in their career.
Deki Wangmo, who got licensed this year, says she tries to keep some distance between herself and the men for fear that they might misread her friendliness.
Lady guides have to report such incidences to the concerned authorities because silence is a license to other potential assaulters.
The Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB) has received verbal complaints of harassment but without any formal written complaint there is nothing it can do. If they do receive such a complaint, the perpetrator will lose his license and then be handed to the police to be charged with an “attempt to rape” under the Penal Code.
Director of GAB Garab Dorji said there had been talks with concerned stakeholders but it had not achieved any outcome at all.
Executive Director of the Hotels Association of Bhutan (HAB), Sangeeta Rana said there is a pressing need for extensive discussions on these issues but the GAB should bring it up formally. “If the issue is brought up HAB would be more than happy to help,” she said, “it was a possibility that hotels could build extra infrastructure and charge a minimal fee.”
Talking to The Bhutanese, Sales Manager Vinayak Kumar of five-star Hotel Taj Tashi, a global conglomerate of TATA Group, said he fully appreciated the necessity for supporting guides and drivers, especially women. “We operate on a core value of mutual respect and consider them important stakeholders in our business.”
Vinayak said that if such a policy for separate infrastructure for guides and drivers were to be initiated, Taj would render their full support. “It would not only be a socially responsible venture but would be profitable from a purely business perspective too.”
Another ameliorative measure, Vinayak suggested, could be the creation of a GAB wing especially for women guides and a forecast study of the number of men and women guides and drivers expected in a place at any given time so hotels could pool resources and provide better organized facilities.
GAB Executive Director Namkhai Norbu said that since guiding was a floating profession until better job opportunities were found elsewhere, making it difficult for such a wing to come up.
Another five star hotel who asked for anonymity said they had had provisions but then had face problems of theft, misuse of facilities and were forced to shut it down.
With no immediate measures pipelined by any of the concerned associations, our lady guides can only depend on their strength and pray that they do not fall victim to sexual harassment.